Monthly Archives: January 2015

Artist Organisations International

This report from the Artist Organisations International congress appeared on

Left: Curators Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza. (Photo: Agnieszka Gratza) Right: Artist Jonas Staal. (Photo: Lidia Rossner)

“WE CAN LEARN A LOT FROM PIRATES,” artist Jonas Staal assured us. We had just finished the “Violence & Non-Violence” panel that closed day two of Artist Organisations International (AOI), a congress initiated by Staal with the Berlin-based curators Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza and held at the Hebbel am Ufer complex in Kreuzberg. According to Staal, “pirate ships run on a model of direct democracy.” The metaphor wasn’t totally off; we may have been on dry land, inside a theater rather than a boat, but the three-day event at times felt as rudderless as a Ship of Fools.

The AOI gathered representatives of twenty-some socially and politically engaged artist organizations flown in from as far as the Philippines and the unrecognized sub-Saharan state of Azawad in northern Mali. The “forums,” “büros,” “associations,” “laboratories,” and “institutes,” listed alphabetically in the AOI event leaflet—from the Artists of Rojava to the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty)—made up a “bestiary of artist organizations,” as Forensic Architecture’s Lorenzo Pezzani put it. But what sort of beast were we dealing with overall?

Things got off to a rocky start. An anonymous letter voicing “discomfort” with the whole proposition for an “Artist Organization International”—and specifically the “genre-fication of political art” that it entailed—circulated in the foyer on the opening night. Dedicated to “Propaganda & Counter-Propaganda,” the first session was running behind schedule as a group of students who refused to pay the hefty admission fee—thirty-three euros, albeit with a substantial reduction for art workers—unsuccessfully tried to storm the place.

Left: Writer Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oei and HAU artistic director Annemie Vanackere. Right: Writer and comedian Moussa Ag Assarid. (Photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

Our agenda for the coming days was visually expressed in Staal, Remco van Bladel, and Paul Kuiper’s erratic architectural design, inspired by El Lissitzky’s 1929 Model for Sergei Tretyakov’s I Want a Child for Meyerhold’s Unrealized Production. Tuareg spokesman Mazou Ibrahim Touré argued that slogans are a “poetry of manifestations,” and these texts had pride of place during the proceedings. Written out on banners overlooking the theater space and spread over the different lecterns used by the speakers, they at once explored the common ground among artist organizations and gestured toward the umbrella artist organization to come.

The inaugural panel began with presentations by delegates of the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, who chose to foreground a Federal Emergency Program modeled on the British Kindertransport scheme, which helped bring 55,000 Syrian children over to Germany; they were followed by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines. These gave way to a rousing reading by Susanne Sachsse, representing Yael Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, who ended with the injunction: “Join us and Europe will be stunned.”

Trouble began after the break, when the panel’s chair, Matteo Lucchetti, announced that Tania Bruguera, who was going to speak on the panel but was unable to leave Cuba pending a decision regarding her trial, had agreed to talk to us about the Immigrant Movement International and the circumstances surrounding her arrests in late December. The barely audible phone interview, which Lucchetti conducted, was interrupted shortly after it got going by the arrival of a state security agent summoning Bruguera to her daily interrogation. The artist used the occasion to instruct the agent in her ideas about arte útil (useful art); then, just as Bruguera had broached a sensitive topic, the connection went dead.

Left: Susanne Sachsse. Right: Matteo Lucchetti. (Photos: Lida Rossner)

Bruguera explained what had happened, apologizing “for the stupid and unnecessary drama” this created, in an email that Warsza read to us the next morning. But the fact that Lucchetti carried on interviewing Bruguera in the face of her growing agitation, prompted the ZPS to accuse him of insensitivity. ZPS went further, voicing their issues with the AOI and asking themselves why they were there. “I’ve got real issues with your use of aesthetics in the Syrian project,” artist Blake Shaw blurted out at that point, gradually working himself into an oratorical frenzy. The heated debate that ensued threatened to degenerate, with Staal denouncing the ZPS members for attempting to derail the discussion.

Such mutiny did not bode well for the remainder of the summit, but the AOI organizers succeeded in putting things back on track without dismissing the incident. After all, as Malzacher reminded us, theaters are “agonistic spaces” where crises of representation are permanently addressed. Nowhere more so perhaps than at the Hebbel Theatre, where director Erwin Piscator was active in the 1920s and which was used by the American occupational authorities to “re-educate” the German public at the end of World War II. This is also where the messy experiment of “Selbstbestimmungs Theatre” took place in the early 1970s. Not unlike pirate ships, the self-governing theater gave all its employees the right to vote on matters of artistic policy.

Berlin itself has a strong ethos of self-organizing and a penchant for lively debate which can rapidly turn to rhetorical violence—as the AOI event illustrated. The genius loci was reflected in the panel titles that read as so many propositions and counter-propositions, seemingly at strife: (i) “Propaganda & Counter-Propaganda,” (ii.) “Learning & Unlearning,” (iii.) “State & Statelessness,” (iv.) “Violence & Non-Violence,” and (v.) “Solidarity & Unionising.”

Left: Curators David Riff and Ekaterina Degot. Right: Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche. (Photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

Commenting on the energetic design riffing on Russian constructivism, curator Ekaterina Degot said that we seemed to be characters in a play for which no one was ready. The five acts of the AOI drama unfolded against this backdrop until the final debate, for which the lecterns were removed and the banners came down to reveal, beneath all the visual clutter, the curved mahogany lines of the Jugendstil theater. The seating was rearranged to break down the divide between audience and invited speakers in order to, as Staal put it, “collectively explore what remained to be discussed.”

Tasked with chairing the final debate, Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche spoke for many when he voiced his fear that the summit may have been a missed opportunity. Yet he also argued that this was one of the more interesting conferences he had attended precisely because it gave rise to vocal disagreements. Some were quick to dismiss it as a “trendy and fashionable event.” Others scoffed at the pragmatic proposal to use the meeting as a platform for future exchanges, starting with a mailing list, which was deemed an “unglamorous ending” to a congress that set itself up as a proposal for an Artist Organisations International. “I don’t want to be part of that mailing list,” someone added.

It fell to Moussa Ag Assarid, the Tuareg storyteller, to lift our battered spirits with an edifying tale about the founding of his nomadic School of the Sands, named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose Little Prince was the first book that fell between his hands. The story ended with a plea: “What can artists propose to give us hope? Let us have faith in artists. Mazou and I can then go back to the desert.”


Joan Jonas: Light Time Tales

This review of Joan Jonas’ Light Time Tales at HangarBicocca in Milan appeared in Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:

Visiting Joan Jonas’s ‘anthological exhibition’ (as opposed to plain ‘retrospective’) ‘Light Time Tales’ at HangarBicocca is like a stroll through a memory palace. The industrial space is indeed palatial: vast enough to hold Anselm Kiefer’s permanent installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004) with its unwieldy modular towers made of reinforced concrete, rising to a height of 18 meters. And the twenty works that make up the exhibition, mostly single-channel videos and installations built around moving image projections, starting with some of the earliest black-and-white 16mm films Jonas made – Wind (1968) and Paul Revere (1971) – and spanning the length of her career, must have felt like a trip down the memory lane to the artist.

Jonas said words to that effect in the Q & A that followed the press preview, at which a couple of visitors could be seen walking their dogs (on a leash), appropriately enough given how prominently animals, and especially those of the canine variety, feature in the show. Beautiful Dog (2014), Jonas’s most recent work to have been included in this filmic anthology or archive, one of the first that greets the visitor upon entering the main open space of the exhibition, shows her dog Ozu – named after and in tribute to the Japanese filmmaker – running around a beach on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada, where Jonas has been going on summer holidays since the 1970s and where many of her films have been shot. The video was made using three different cameras, including a GoPro fastened to Ozu’s collar, in an attempt to show the world from a dog’s perspective.

Andrea Lissoni, who curated the show, encouraged Jonas to privilege the animal theme that threads through ‘Light Time Tales’. ‘In all fairytales, there’s an animal that’s helping,’ Jonas noted in the Q & A. Another one of her dogs, the white husky Zina, keeps the lone female figure company in the video Melancholia (2005), which is part of The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things (2004/2007) installation. The two seem to hover, their image superimposed using the chroma key technique over that of a snowy field. Zina also appears besides her elfin mistress, sometimes masked and bearing flags, mirrors and other signature props, in a magical wooded landscape filmed on Cape Breton in Waltz (2003), placed at the start of a show that deliberately eschews a chronological and linear presentation.

Instead, the artist and the curator chose to convey through the very layout of the exhibition the recurrent motifs and the cyclical nature of Jonas’s preoccupations. The rotatory parcours that the overall display and the individual installations invite is perhaps most apparent at the outset, as one crosses the curtained threshold and walks into the spectacularly dark L-shaped space to find video works presented on different supports all around the room, as if expanding a circle of elongated cones fashioned out of photographic paper, which were used as musical instruments and to amplify sound in performances such as Mirage (1976), standing in the middle of the room. Double Lunar Rabbits (2010) with its twin concave projection screens made of Japanese paper and wood likewise foregrounds the doubling effects prevalent in Jonas’s work.

‘Someone said that […] these are games of survival, time-fillers, and that development is cyclic, circular, and that you always return to the beginning,’ the artist muses, in voice over, at the end of the 1976 video I Want to Live in the Country (and Other Romances). Circular forms and movements obsessively return in ‘Light Time Tales’, painted with a broom over a street pavement or in the guise of the kimono-clad artist doing a cartwheel, played in slow-motion, in Songdelay (1973); as a metal band or hula hoop propped up against one of the projection screens or as rotating wind turbine blades in The Shape…; taking the form of a double-circle or Celtic knot pattern drawn in white chalk over a black surface in the installation Lines in the Sand (2002).

For Jonas, the circle and the line are the basic elements of drawing, which underpins her work as a multimedia artist in the same way as sculpture does. (Jonas trained in drawing and sculpture, before making her breakthrough as a performance artist.) Though she is always looking for new ways of drawing, from the delicate Zen-like lines in the sand in the work bearing that title to the black ink traces drawn on the snow in Reanimation (2010/2012/2013), one type of drawing to which she frequently reverts is made with white chalk over a blackboard – a potent image of the memory theatre lodged in our head. The elementary support and means are coupled with more complex technology in densely layered performances like Reanimation, which will be restaged at HangarBicocca on 21 October. The blue-tinged Street Scene With Chalk (1976/2008/2010) overlays a scene from Jonas’s Reading Dante performance of 1976 with a close-up of the artist’s ringed hand continually drawing, erasing and redrawing lines or circular patterns; screened simultaneously, the two form a palimpsest of sorts.

As one drifts through the cavernous space, meandering one’s way from one constellation of moving images and objects to another, what impresses is the sheer variety of presentation, the stark contrasts between the simple monitors and screens used to project the early black-and-white videos, which repay every minute one gives them, and the more elaborate, more colourful multimedia installations furnished with sundry props, sculptural objects and remnants of past performances that occasionally crop up in the video works shown alongside them. One unusual, particularly alluring viewing format is illustrated by the two pieces in the My New Theatre series on view. Reminiscent of dioramas, the compact installation consists of a monitor embedded inside a long conical structure resting on wooden trestles, in front of which a small bench has been placed, making for a miniature portable theatre.

Showing the works in a completely open space – leaving aside Reanimation, which has a room to itself at the close of the exhibition – posed an exciting challenge for Jonas, who is used to exhibiting in neatly partitioned white-cube spaces. Simply moving from one work to another, seeing them from afar, brought to the fore certain thematic and formal crossovers that had not been very obvious to her before. But the discrete moving image works dotted around the black box of HangarBicocca’s main exhibition hall overlapped in a physical sense as well, when a projection or the sounds from a neighbouring piece entered their space, for example. The haunting melody of Waltz, on which Jonas collaborated with the late Robert Ashley, could be heard from one end of the room to the other, returning with the insistence of a half-forgotten, half-remembered air, circular and vertigo-inducing like the dance itself.

Maria Nordman

This essay, written in response to Maria Nordman’s ‘Fluiens Circulus’, part of The Event Sculpture series, appeared on the Henry Moore Institute website:

The Henry Moore Institute on Leeds Headrow. Photo: David Cotton

With Maria Nordman’s ‘Fluiens Circulus’ The Event Sculpture could be said to be at its zenith. The fifth of nine events making up the series, Nordman’s highly idiosyncratic contribution marks the midpoint of The Event Sculpture. Unlike the previous four events, Nordman’s is staged inside the Henry Moore Institute. Three of Nordman’s ‘Standing Pictures’ – slender boxes fitted with sliding glass panels that visitors can pull out to examine drawings contained within – were positioned in one of the galleries where the works from previous and future events first presented outside and surrounding the Institute will be displayed from February.

For Nordman, the opposition between the inside and the outside, the interior and the exterior, is hardly a meaningful one. Walls are not permanent. Sunlight penetrates and seeps into buildings. Perhaps this is why the artist is drawn to foyers in museums, preferring to work with them rather than gallery spaces. Foyers, such as the one at the Henry Moore Institute with its tall glass door, are in-between spaces that channel daylight. Today Nordman draws our attention to the soft wintry light that suffuses the low-stepped corridor leading up to the reception area, where a group of us gathers around 3pm, and bids us to commit this experience to memory. Later, after it gets dark in the mostly unlit gallery, she will ask us to summon up the memory of the sun, which she refers to as a ‘primordial presence.’

Memory forms the most basic and immediate record of Nordman’s work – a precursor to Tino Sehgal’s approach in this respect. The artist tells us about a five-minute sculptural event prompted by a chance encounter with a family in front of the Henry Moore Institute that morning. ‘Whisper’ took place then and there, recorded only by those present, the people she happened to meet making the piece with her. It will subsist in their memory and spread by word of mouth. In contrast, sound recordings and photographic stills made according to the artist’s specifications will document the event proper, scheduled to begin at 4pm. A firm believer in the virtues of improvisation, Nordman is not one to be constrained by a fixed schedule: this event began an hour before the scheduled start time. The event’s temporal and spatial boundaries are equally diffuse. Our exchange on the threshold of the gallery spaces is already part of the sculpture we will soon be making and even ‘Whisper’ arguably folds into its sphere.

More discursive and interactive than any of the previous events in the series, ‘Fluiens Circulus’ (1988-present) interacts with its surroundings and not just people. But people, or ‘persons’ as Nordman insists on calling them, are integral to the piece. ‘Persons’ of all ages, young and old – yet again, the distinction is rendered meaningless – are in equal measure her ‘colleagues’ and ‘collaborators’. ‘You are neither too young nor too old,’ Nordman announces, and elaborates by saying that Richard Demarco, travelling for the event from Edinburgh especially, ‘is in his eighties, which is very young.’

Human age pales into insignificance when measured against that of stones or fossils. One of the three ‘Standing Pictures’ holds what could pass for an abstract drawing: a black surface inscribed with delicate razor shell-shaped white motifs, ‘fusing in manifold directions’, as Nordman puts it. Prompted by Nordman, one by one we offer tentative suggestions as to what this object might be: ‘print,’ ‘fossil,’ ‘charcoal,’ ‘time,’ ‘stone.’ Fond of talking in riddles, the artist assures us that these answers are all correct, even if they contradict each other.

Nomenclature is what sets us apart from other beings. It introduces a hierarchical subject-object relation that is linguistic at its core. Nordman proposes to reverse this – though it is not entirely clear how. A perfect embodiment of her concept of ‘geo-aesthetics,’ the picture in our midst is in fact 350 to 500 million years old. Sculpted by nature and time, it has come down to us from the Cambrian Age, before animals had eyes. Nordman leaves us to ponder that.