Behind the Scenes: Interviewing Valentin Hirsch (Berlin)

I got to know Valentin's work way before I ever met the man himself. Back in 2004, I wanted to get into the Academy of Fine Arts (in Vienna), and started visiting exhibitions - something I never did before, being a programmer and all. At one point back then, at an exhibition, I was standing in front of an etching of elephant skin. I couldn't believe the details - noone works this way!

In addition, these works were symmetrical - not just in a rough, compositional way; but symmetric up to the last dot and line. Crazy. Who develops this kind of passion - and then also follows through with it?

I got to know Valentin Hirsch in 2006, at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna - he studied there already for some time, I was just accepted into the program (around 1500 applicants, maybe 80 get in). We both were in the printmaking class of Gunter Damisch, who was known for letting people roam freely through all media - where Valentin was known as very passionate master printmaker, I never got into printing at all: it was drawing and painting for me.

Next to his studies, Valentin worked at the print shop of Kurt Zein back then - the premiere print shop in our tiny country. Knowing Valentin, he probably was doing all the toughest and most challenging work. Definitely from the outside it seemed that this would be his day job forever.

Well - that's not how it went. After his studies and some exhibitions, Valentin left Vienna for Berlin - and I forgot about him. It was only last year that I stumbled about him online, on Instagram (check out the link!) - and saw that he was making tattoos now, having accumulated close to 100k followers there. I reached out to him for an interview, and we met in March 2018 in his Berlin studio.

I was curious: why did he leave the workshop? What changed when switching media (needle on copper vs. needle on skin)? How does self-employment work for him? Did leaving the fine arts industry set him free, in certain ways?

Key Takeaways

Obviously, it's the video that you want to watch - it aims to answer these questions by portraying Valentin in a somewhat holistic way - his passion, challenges, successes and doubts.

With my editing philosophy being so strict though (you don't hear me talking, so you can't hear the actual questions. you only get to see a fraction of the actual interview - we recorded about 90 minutes, etc), here are further thoughts from my side - key takeaways, if you will.

  • If you're stuck with your own history, consider leaving the geography you're in. This worked for Valentin, but has also been mentioned by Ellen Akimoto (whom I interviewed in September 2017 - the full interview has not been published yet): Ellen left California for Leipzig, and had the reception about her medium change drastically.

  • Surround yourself with supporting people: those who don't doubt you, but encourage you to try and transcend what's established.
    This sounds so obvious, but really it's not. Your best friends might still hold you back. Well-intended, reasonable objections can demand you stay small and sad. Don't stay small and sad - you never are.
  • Trust in your potential, and leave situations where you're not in charge: Valentin was the main assistant at Austria's premiere printshop - but it wasn't HIS printshop. It must have taken a lot of courage to leave a situation that worked - but this is what it took to become his own master.

  • Understand what creativity means for you, and distrust common ideas about how you should fit into an industry.
    Again, this sounds obvious: The fine arts industry still teaches about the 1-2 percent of its alumni who make it into the art history canon, who manage to make a living. According to this school of thought, nearly every alumni will be a loser. That's bullshit: most everyone I studied with manages their live creatively, pursuing their career with passion, verve, and ways that ultimately work financially.
    To get there, you need to understand yourself, so you know what makes you happy. This is a big one - but the better you know answers to these questions, the more likely you'll be to find happiness - and without these questions, there can't be happiness.

  • You are not your medium: Understand what happiness means for you: Valentin talks about not being in the studio 24/7, not to feel bad if you have interests apart from your job. So much yes! Working creatively happens 24/7 in your brain - you can't switch off. Physically working with the tools in your hand, might only be helpful at the beginning of your career - when you're still trying to gain mastery, the 10k hours of practice.
    Once you attained this level of body knowledge, it's time to sit back and enjoy your masterful mind: you can go to the movies, sleep, meet friends, go for a walk: the mind will solve the most complex problems even when you're not actively working on them. To this end, read "Rest" by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

The Amazing Music!

I was struggling a lot with finding the right music for this portrait. Originally, I intended for it to be voice-only: I wanted Valentin's full intensity. At one point though, when the editing seemed nearly done, Valentin and me agreed that the pacing was off - the video didn't have enough breaks, resulting in a cascading waterfall of thoughts that didn't represent the actual flow as it happened - and didn't let you breathe in-between his topics.

So I tried around a dozen tracks and things, until I gave up and wanted to pause the project. Then I remembered the amazing theclosing, an Austrian act consisting of Daniela Auer and Alexander Hengl - who, no kidding, actually also studied in the class of Gunter Damisch. This is age-old history - I didn't think about it until Alex Hengl mentioned it in one of the emails about this collaboration.

Anyway: theclosing are amazing and kind, enrich the world with beauty - and you should book them now.

theclosing (photo by Christian Messner)
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