Magnus Bärtås — démarche, bio, archives
Agence TOPO — le site web
Re-enacted biographies — notes sur le travail d'adaptation

Who is who?
Peio Aguirre


Sometimes there are stories that are ripe for storytelling. They go from mouth to ear and they carry the potential of narratives about anonymous people like you and me.

The afterlife of a good story resides in its repetition, like in an endless loop, the voice of the narrator hits a remote side of the memory and it starts back again.

It is at this point that the particular features of a story become part of a broader structure of reception in order to reach a more universal dimension.

Sometimes the news we see everyday in newspapers brings us some of these good stories. Today the storyteller isn't embodied in the character that Walter Benjamin outlined when he wrote that only someone that has come from afar has an experience to narrate, a story to tell.

Let's consider the recent news about the pianist that appeared in a remote and lonely beach in a state of total unconsciousness. Wet and shaky, he could neither speak a word nor remember anything due to his deep amnesic state. When he was given a sheet of paper he drew something like a piano which emerged as a sharp shadow. This was the moment when the hidden talent of this man was revealed. He said not a word, but played the piano like a genius. Despite the investigative methods and pattern recognition skills, based on deriving information from clues, the authorities couldn't make any conclusions about this man's identity. Just that he might be Czech and, perhaps, that he might be involved in a music band from that country. But the tricky and almost conspiracy-like plot comes from the fact that the clothes he was wearing had no brand labels; in a subtle manner someone had removed all the labels from every single piece of clothing. To know this man is like searching for an elusive face in the clouds.

I met Magnus Bärtås in December 2001 somewhere in the suburbs of Stockholm. It was a cold day with snowflakes falling onto to this city that seems to emerge from the shoulders of black basalt-like rocks. Before starting to chat we ate some sandwiches and sipped hot coffee. Then we engaged in conversation.

Almost two years later I got a message on my answering machine. "Hi Peio, It's Magnus Bärtås speaking, we met in Stockholm, remember? I'm now in your hometown, could we meet?"

I remembered some details from that first encounter in Sweden: he collected coloured plastic folders from cities all over the world, he was housing postcards and everything related with a certain type of kiosk from the post-communist era.

Now he was in the Basque Country with a woman called Eva Quintas and they had come in order to re-enact some spoken lines that she told him some years ago, somewhere in the Spanish region of Galicia.

To travel with someone you don't really know, a person that is asked to "play their own role", seems an adventurous way to create a biography. At this point, Magnus seemed like her "follower", that is, someone that follows you all over the world and wherever you go. But this is another kind of travel, a deep attempt to bring forth some of the inner substance of human existence.

For some years now, Magnus Bärtås has developed a kind of mnemonic technique whereby he records details about the private life of the people he meets. He writes what he remembers from those encounters creating scenarios based on both anecdotic details and biographical features of these persons, outlining what could be described as emotional bio-cartographies.

The works uses a straight and simple question: Who is...? Then the names: Zdenko Buzek, Eva Quintas, Johnnie Walker or Dimitris Houliarakis. After some time he asks the persons to "play their own role" according to the texts, which now function as scripts for films. It seems impossible to call the persons "characters", as they are rather "models" in Robert Bresson's sense of the word.

The fact that they are anonymous people in a generic sense (just like you and me) but well-known, popular and loved in their own circles raises the question about the degree to which storytelling allows us to think about the dialectic between the universal and the particular.


Mapping subjectivity is a common practice among therapists and doctors dealing with the so-called new sickness of the heart, which includes depression, melancholy and loss.

The fact is that these psychological therapies employ methods that reveal the inner sources of the disorder. They go from the detail, as a condensed core of information to a larger, open structure, to the whole social, biographical and contextual world of the person. Sometimes they recommend revisiting hidden parts of someone's past. The subjects themselves may at this point gain a greater understanding of who they are.

In Who is...? the subject re-enacts him or herself. By doing so they perform a mirroring stage of continuous becoming. In psychoanalytic theory, this is a moment where subjectivity is in a state of process, which is the same as saying that the subject is an open structure in an eternal re-writing process. As in a double exposure, playing your own role is a technique that can be likened to watching oneself from a prudent distance.

At the same time: the more you describe someone the more s/he vanishes. The only way to catch the substance of someone is through repetition and endless re-writing. It is the same as storytelling.

But the main question remains unanswered. What can I say about this person?

The spirit of portraying is always the experience of a loss, like an evanescent ghost.

The more you name someone, the less you know him/her . This is like recounting the film Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard) and wait calmly for a figure to emerge in front of you.

As the film theoretician Kaja Silverman explains in her book The Acoustic Mirror the power of naming through the materiality and physicality of the voice is essential for the subject's constitution. The voice has the faculty of attaching names to things and brings us the "body" of the speaker.

In docudramas, films and documentaries the distinction comes from whether it is a male or female voice. In cinema voiceover usually represents the disembodied authority (predominantly male) which speaks from on high and superimposes itself over the image narrative.

In the Who is...?-films, on the contrary, the voiceover comes from a 10 year-old-girl which produces an effect of estrangement. She sometimes doubts and softly modulates her voice as she interprets the written lines of the adults' lives. This is an attempt to bypass the conventions of narration as homogenous speech.

Who is...? plays with fictionalised narratives of missed encounters, new pursuits and the unsatisfied feeling of never having enough.

One of the most exciting facts that arises from being an artist is the quantity of people you meet all over the world in situations that risk to be unique or that will never be repeated. The art world, or for that matter the neuroscientific world, seems to be like a little bubble: wherever you go you meet someone playing with the same ball, throwing it against the same wall, waiting for another to join in, throwing it again and again. Each time you tell the same story of your life, where you come from, where you are going... "I grew up somewhere in the outskirts of... or I come from the countryside..." are oft repeated sentences here.

Conversation arises in every corner of artists' social practice for whom the most desirable goal is to discover how much of the other there is in oneself.

At this point, the Who is...? series of works could be described as conversational pieces. Conversational art is produced as a consequence of the impossibility of being isolated, not only in order to be involved in some artistic practice but also as an active and engaged social subject.

Like the temporal experience of a long distance runner the work is a time emptied of the anxiety of production. It is just as relaxing as doing an hour of embroidery every day.

As he had said before somewhere, the work calls for reconciliation, it calls for solidarity and human understanding.


Peio Aguirre
Donostia-San Sebastian, June 2005