This review of Strike: Opera at Leipzig’s Schaubühne appeared on frieze.com:
BENJAMIN MEYER–KRAMER, teacher on the Cultures of the Curatorial program, Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig
FRANCISCA ZÓLYOM, director of GfZK Leipzig
ANNA SCHMIKAT, artist based in Leipzig
JENNY BAINES, artist based in London
LENKA KUKUROVA, activist and curator, GfZK Leipzig
FELIX MEYER, Berlin-based artist
AGNIESZKA GRATZA, writer from London
ANJA LÜCKENKEMPER and ANNA DUBROCKI, curators, graduates of Cultures of the Curatorial, based in Leipzig and Berlin
JULIA KURZ, cultural worker based in Leipzig
OMER KRIEGER, artist and activist from Tel Aviv
TEA TUPAIJC, theatre director from Zagreb
THOMAS WESKI, professor on the Cultures of the Curatorial program, living in Leipzig and Berlin
EVA SCHARRER, Berlin-based curator and writer
KOLJA REICHART, Berlin-based writer
RAIMAR STANGE, writer and art critic based in Berlin
Others who shall remain nameless
Chor der Unterbrechung (‘Chorus of Interruption’)
A cellist, a double bass player, a viola player, two violinists, two horn players, two oboe players (members of the Mendelssohn Kammerorchester Leipzig) seated amid the audience
Place: the scene is the black, spotlit interior of the Schaubühne, an art deco theatre and former dance hall in the city of Leipzig
Time: 17 December 2013, 7-9pm
Following two other performance-based, context-specific projects by Alexandra Pirici and Pablo Helguera which took place in October, Strike: Opera #3 by Ulf Aminde was the third and final installment in Joanna Warsza’s ‘Performative Democracy’ event series staged in public spaces around Leipzig as part of the ‘Responsive Subjects’ project curated by Julia Schäfer and Franciska Zólyom of the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig (GfZK).
Drawn from Polish sociologist Elżbieta Matynia’s 2009 study by that title, the concept of ‘performative democracy’ is itself informed by J. L. Austin’s ‘speech acts’ theory: the idea that certain utterances (promises, orders and the like) actually enact what they say. For Matynia, performative democracy is not so much a theoretical model as ‘a locally conditioned process of enacting democracy in politically varied contexts’. She sees the Polish Solidarity protest strikes in the 1980s as ‘in many ways a masterpiece of performative democracy’. One is at liberty to find the concept half-baked (along with many other ‘performative’ this, that, and the other), but it has a certain resonance in the specific context of Leipzig, the city of the Monday Demonstrations – a series of peaceful political protests staged in and around Nikolaikirche on Monday evenings in 1989 and beyond – that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
‘Strike: Opera’ (2011-2013) started life as Strike Orchestra (a pun on streichorchester, German for ‘string orchestra’) at the Heildelberger Kunstverein and was subsequently restaged, in a different guise, for an international audience of artists and activists, at the ‘Truth Is Concrete 24/7’ marathon in Graz, Austria in September 2012. For its third iteration in Leipzig Berlin-based Ulf Aminde had invited fellow artists and ‘cultural producers’ – based mainly in Leipzig and Berlin but also from further afield – to formulate in writing their thoughts regarding a possible strike within the art world and whether it could or should happen.
Together with sundry texts documenting well-known historical precedents, such as Gustave Courbet’s Letter to the Artists of Paris (1971), Lee Lozano’s 1969 General Strike Piece or the 13 Demands addressed to Bates Lowry, the then-director of MoMA, New York by the Artist Workers Coalition in 1969, these statements formed a script, a libretto of sorts, for a future opera, at least in the mind of the artist. ‘It was just a fantasy,’ says Aminde. ‘But I tried to let the evening be structured by this fantasy.’ After a brief introduction by Aminde, designated readers seated amid the audience (and musicians from the Mendelssohn Kammerorchester Leipzig) would walk up to the microphone one by one and deliver their texts to the (occasional) sound of a player rehearsing. The music also acted as a palette cleanser between the successive readings, which felt more like a drawn-out lecture-performance delivered by multiple speakers than an opera.
Cast in the role of participant-observant, I was asked to read two of the 13 Demands as well as Lucy R. Lippard’s spirited reply to Goran Dordevic’s proposal for an International Art Strike in 1979: ‘Sorry to take so long, but rather than strike I spend all my energy on striking back at the art system by working around and outside of it and against it and letting it pay for my attempts to subvert it.’ Aminde’s rationale for including this and two other letters to Dordevic by Hans Haacke and Carl Andre, equally dismissive of the idea of an art strike, wasn’t entirely clear. With no time to discuss any of the individual texts and points they raised, those in attendance were left to draw their own conclusions – and strike back.
Interruption of Action
Writing about Bertold Brecht’s epic theatre, Walter Benjamin suggested that the interruption of the action has an alienating effect that creates a space for reflection. This idea underpins Aminde’s performative work, none more so than Strike: Opera #3, at least on paper. According to the blurb, in the piece ‘Aminde reflects on the identity of art community, the logic of its self-determination, its capacities to create significant disruption or a meaningful act of withdrawal.’ But when faced with just such a disruption or act of withdrawal, the artist (and the curator) appeared taken aback, unable to react quickly enough even when pressed to do so by the audience.
Disclosure: my understanding of the situation that arose was approximate at best since from that point onwards I was reliant on impromptu translations to follow the exchange. That said, the most powerful aspect of art critic and curator Raimar Stange’s intervention was in fact non-verbal. The interruption, roughly two-thirds of the way into the 25 planned readings as if designed to test the patience of a well-disposed audience, took the form of a silent statement. What at first seemed like a rhetorical pause grew into a prolonged silence, which effectively amounted to a strike against the action with a knock-on effect on the rest of the speakers who, whether out of solidarity with Stange or not, refused to break it by reading out their own texts.
Aminde is understandably of the view that Stange hijacked the event and used it as a platform to voice his own grievances as a freelance writer and critic. Instead of receiving a fee for his contribution to Strike: Opera #3, as one of the rare participants from outside of Leipzig his travel expenses had been covered by the GfKZ. And yet Stange’s complaints about the ‘missing fee’ were in line with the demands put forward in the 2011_Haben und Brauchen_ (‘To Have and To Need’) manifesto, which has shaped Aminde’s understanding of ‘artistic labour’. To invoke said manifesto, borne out of the specific context of Berlin’s contemporary art scene: ‘Based on the justification that the exposure to a public should be compensation enough, artistic work – and public relations as well as curatorial work in the art field – are as a general rule, badly paid or not paid at all.’
Whatever his personal motivations for bringing the opera to an abrupt close, Stange’s intervention created an opportunity for a genuine debate to take place at last. But instead on discussing the why and wherefore of an art strike to come, the audience appeared intent on attacking the event’s form, forcing the artist to defend himself and expecting him to find a way out of a situation that was not of his making.
Eventually, music proved to be the way forward, after an exasperated musician from the Mendelssohn Kammerorchester Leipzig added her dissenting voice to the ‘Chorus of Interruption’ (Chor der Unterbrechung) by announcing that, come what may, she would not stay beyond 9pm (ten or so minutes away at that stage) since she has only been paid to play until then. The starting point of Strike: Opera, in all its iterations, has been Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, also known as the ‘Farewell Symphony’, written for Haydn’s patron Nikolaus Esterházy in 1772, during a prolonged stay at the Prince’s summer residence in Eszterháza that kept the court orchestra musicians away from their homes. Aminde takes the piece, which sees the musicians slip away one by one during the final deliberately anticlimactic adagio in protest against the unreasonable working conditions, to be a proto-art strike, all the more effective for being inscribed in musical form.
One of the evening’s many ironies and interesting outcomes, the musician’s throwaway comment spoke volumes about the different attitudes towards work in the art and the music world. Leipzig-based artist Bertram Haude, whose statement written for the occasion was never read out as a result of the strike by the performers, sees Haydn’s musicians as no different to cooks, gardeners, coachmen, and other paid staff, rather than as artists who would want to play their own music – for the love of it rather than for wages, presumably. Meant to be performed once all the texts had been read out, the well-known finale of Haydn’s ‘Farewell Symphony’ that the musicians had been mock-rehearsing all evening brought about a tentative reconciliation if not quite a sense of closure.