Tag Archives: Joanna Warsza

Finnish Landscape

This Critics’ Pick appeared on artforum.com:

Kader Attia, Mimesis as Resistance, 2013–16, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 7 seconds. Installation view.

This open-air museum, like all others, is an elaborate fiction. Confined to an island and only accessible by a footbridge, the place—with its traditional wooden buildings, original furnishings, and costumed interpreters—appears to be caught in a time warp. Commissioned by the nonprofit Checkpoint Helsinki and curated by Joanna Warsza, “Finnish Landscape” features ten local and international artists subjecting this bucolic yet artificial landscape to critical scrutiny.An outline of Seurasaari looks like an elongated leaf in Erik Bruun’s arresting graphic design created for the poster of the exhibition, which takes its title from a sonnet penned by Bertolt Brecht during his exile in Finland.

One of the more playful interventions, Ilya Orlov’s A House with the View, 2016, has a mechanized, naked male mannequin shielding itself with a round, rotating landscape painting—one of the artist’s own—as if it were a fig leaf. The negative space made in freshly dug-up ground for Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Jumana Manna, and Haig Aivazian’s piece Accounts of Things and People That Have Been Moved, 2016, acts as a poignant reminder that the wooden structures housed on this island were wrenched out of their natural environment in order to be preserved here.

Presented in archival boxes throughout six guest rooms of different houses on the island, Liisa Roberts’s series of photographs titled “Remnants,” 2011–16, all taken at the Tapiola housing estate, a utopian garden city built in the 1950s, alludes to the practice of storing objects in the houses at Seurasaari for the winter, only to bring them out again in the summer. Such cycles inform Kader Attia’s video installation Mimesis as Resistance, 2013–16, featuring a lyrebird, which has the ability to imitate all natural and unnatural sounds, including that of its own unmaking.

 

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Manifesta 10: Public Program

This report from Manifesta 10’s Public Program appeared in the Art & Performance Notes of PAJ:

Pavel Braila, The Golden Snow of Sochi, 2014. Courtesy Zagidullin Rustam

En route for St Petersburg on July 17, I heard the news about the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, claiming 298 lives. The tragic incident colored my brief stay in the city and lent an added urgency to the Public Program of Manifesta 10 that brought me there in the first place. The host city funds the roaming European biennial of contemporary art, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014. This seriously limited the organizers of the main event – led by veteran curator Kasper König – in their ability to voice criticism over Russia’s role in the 2014 Crimean crisis. As the conflict culminating in the annexation of Crimea in March escalated, the organizers were taken to task for their lack of resolve, amid calls to boycott the event.

IN THE AGE OF GEOPOLITCS: MANIFESTA’S PUBLIC PROGRAM

It fell to the somewhat peripheral yet vital Public Program to “respond to the current social-political circumstances, its conflicts and complexities, and the place of art within them.” [1] Speaking on the very evening of the plane crash on a panel alongside Russian artists and provocateurs Afrika (Sergei Bugaev) and Pavel Pepperstein at the Anna Nova Gallery, the Public Program curator Joanna Warsza bemoaned the lack of discussion surrounding the events in the Ukraine: “It’s business as usual,” she pointed out. No stranger to controversy herself, Warsza was, together with the notorious Russian art group Voina, part of artist Artur Żmijewski’s curatorial team for the unpopular 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, which, to their credit, did provoke debate.

Facilitating discussion and encouraging the exchange of ideas under politically fraught circumstances is what the Berlin-based Polish curator set out to do in the context of Manifesta 10. As Warsza explained that evening, she felt strongly that the political thing was to carry on, even though she shared some of the reservations made public by Chto Delat?. This locally-based artist collective withdrew their participation from Manifesta 10 in March, after the foundation announced its decision not to cancel or postpone the event as had been the case with the second Kiev Biennale earlier that year (postponed until 2015); the public program of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, annulled in the wake of the Gezi Park Protests; or indeed Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus, which was called off three months prior to the planned opening in 2006.

Designed to foster a sense of collectivity in a place where it is viewed with some suspicion, the context-responsive commissions, time-based events, performances, talks and discussions staged in public spaces across the city over the biennial’s four-month duration as part of Manifesta’s Public Program, could be viewed as an exercise in “soft power.” Joseph Nye’s influential concept, which in international affairs designates the power to co-opt rather than coerce through cultural and economic clout, as opposed to military might or sanctions, appears in the title of Bucharest-based artist Alexandra Pirici’s Soft Power: Sculptural Additions to Petersburg Monuments (2014) – one of ten projects specifically commissioned for the Public Program.

A counterpoint to the main exhibition, showcasing the work of international artists from anywhere and nowhere, Warsza’s Public Program had a resolutely Eastern European focus. Unlike König’s largely unchanging exhibition, spread across the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building of the Hermitage, the more dynamic Public Program availed itself of various picturesque venues, historic monuments and public spaces dotted around the city, starting with St Petersburg’s Vitebsk Station. Inaugurated in 1837, making it Russia’s oldest railway station, the romantic building – with its lavishly decorated Art Nouveau interior, grand staircase and ornate piano hall – acted as a hub for the Public Program.

More than that, Vitebsk train station’s destination board, indicating daily departures to cities on Russia’s Western periphery – in Central Europe, the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus – lay behind the seductive curatorial concept Warsza came up with for the Public Program. Barring one or two exceptions, notably Ragnar Kjartansson, Warsza decided to invite artists who hail from cities that can be reached by train from Vitebsk railway station: Lado Darakhvelidze from Tbilisi, Deimantas Narkevicius from Vilnius, Kristina Norman from Tallinn, Alexandra Pirici from Bucharest, Alevtina Kakhidze from Kiev, and Pavel Braila from Chișinău. These cities are, as Warsza put it in a video introducing the public program, at once geopolitically far away and yet close by – close enough, in any case, to be accessible by train.

OF FRIENDSHIP, OR RAILWAY CATERING

Staged inside the beautifully restored Jugendstil piano hall, all mirrors, wooden fittings and painted panels, Pavel Braila’s Railway Catering “Prietenia” (2014) rested on an elaborate fiction. Prietenia, meaning “friendship” in Romanian, is the name of the overnight sleeper train that arrives into Vitebsk Station from Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, every day around noon. For Railway Catering… Braila got his mother and other relatives to prepare traditional Moldovan dishes, the idea being that these (along with some Moldovan wine) would make their way from Chișinău to St. Petersburg on the sleeper train, using the restaurant car’s catering facilities.

 

 

At 11.56am a small group of us, gathered on the platform, watched the sleeper train “Prietenia” pull into the station. Does it matter that the food that was meant to have arrived on the train was actually prepared locally in a St. Petersburg restaurant, rather than by Braila’s relatives in his hometown? Be that as it may, appearances were kept up. The train did arrive on schedule. The artist then made his way with a bag full of provisions across the station and into the piano hall, in which an expectant crowd was gathered.

Inside the lavish interior of the piano hall that used to be a waiting room for first-class passengers, a table had been laid out and women in fetching colorful headscarves that could pass off as Moldovan dress were standing behind it, ready to serve the food. A speech or two later, we were feasting on delicious placinte cakes stuffed with cabbage and carrots, as well as sermale cabbage rolls, served warm and washed down with red Moldovan wine (which may have actually arrived on the “Prietenia” train). As if to dispel any lingering doubts as to the food’s provenance, a video showing the artist’s mother rolling out the placinte dough to the sound of Euro pop and world music was projected on a loop. Intended for all the senses, the performance went down well with the public.

An older work by the Chișinău-based artist, Eurolines Catering or Homesick Cuisine (2006), anticipated the Manifesta 10 commission and explored similar themes, albeit using a different mode of transport. It too involved the preparation of typical dishes from Braila’s hometown, subjected to a nomadic regime on a trans-European bus journey. For Braila, whose parents and relatives studied in Russia, food is a way of keeping the vital connection with one’s homeland. Bringing and sending food parcels to Russia, often on the train, was common during the Soviet era, when Moldova was a major supplier of fruit, vegetables and meat.

Railway Catering “Prietenia” could not have been more timely. Braila’s performance took place on July 19 as a temporary ban on imports of all plant products from the Republic of Moldova – including those transported in luggage and hand-luggage – was about to come into effect on July 21. This “protective measure” was made in response to the country’s perceived drifting into the sphere of European influence. Two days later, Braila’s piece would have been effectively illegal. As it was, the titular “Prietenia” (“Friendship”) took on an ironic ring.

And yet, as far as the artist is concerned, people will maintain the connection to their country through food, ban or no ban. In this respect, Braila’s piece resonated with the Georgian artist Lado Darakhvelidze’s commission, Transformers Petersburg (2014), which quite literally mapped out St. Petersburg’s fruit and vegetable markets, from the wholesale to the small street markets, charting where their produce came from in the former Soviet republics and at the same time celebrating the resourcefulness of the Caucasian and Central Asian immigrants selling them, in spite of precarious work and living conditions.

WINTER’S TALES: CHRISTMAS TREES AND GOLDEN SNOW

No single work commissioned for the Public Program had more incendiary potential than Kristina Norman’s sculptural installation Souvenir and the accompanying video titled Iron Arch (both 2014). In the wake of the fatal shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane flying over eastern Ukraine, which marked a new low in the Russia-Ukraine relations, the gesture of installing in the midst of Palace Square a Christmas tree that openly referenced the one erected in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kiev on the eve of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution took on a new meaning.

This was not lost on the Hermitage’s director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who, two days after Souvenir had been unveiled on July 20, issued a statement warning that “disturbances can be borne out of innocent entertainments”. But the public sculpture, if it stimulated debate on social media, did not result in any disturbances or protests in a square that had witnessed more than its share of political turmoil and bloodshed. Neither is that something to which the artist had aspired. In an interview with Andreas Trossek, Norman voiced her views on the subject: “I do not think the aim of an art event should be organising revolutions. If there is no potential for revolution in the society, no artist or biennale can instigate it.”

The full implications of Souvenir – a term usually referring to a smaller version of the thing itself that one brings back from travels – as a piece of Maidan surreptitiously brought into Palace Square become apparent when watching Norman’s video Iron Arch (2014). On a visit to St. Petersburg, Norman was struck by the visual parallels between the two main squares, both of which are organized around a central column, have a prominent arch in their midst and a national art museum among their notable buildings; the video was her attempt to make their topographies overlap by grafting an imaginary Maidan onto Palace Square. Maidan is channeled through the sensibility of Kiev-based Alevtina Kakhidze, one of the artists commissioned to make new work for Manifesta’s Public Program. Kakhidze, who witnessed the public protests of Maidan first hand, gives a tour of the phantom square of her memories by drawing analogies with her immediate surroundings in the deserted Palace Square, where Norman films her walking at dawn.

On its own, the skeletal green metallic structure, etched out against the green-azure exterior of the baroque Winter Palace housing the Hermitage Museum’s collection, was something of a riddle. To overcome bureaucratic hurdles, Warsza had presented the project as a “winter themed sculpture in front of the Winter Palace.” Appended to the tree, a notice penned by the artist explicitly alluded to the “escalating conflict, growing distrust and aggression between Russia and Ukraine” which turned a tree ordinarily associated with family gatherings, friendship and love into “a symbol that calls for a cease fire and peaceful negotiation”.

The sheer oddity of a Christmas tree erected in front of the Winter Palace, admittedly, but in the height of summer was matched by that of Braila’s The Golden Snow of Sochi (2014). Scheduled to take place shortly after the official unveiling of Souvenir, the performance unfolded against the backdrop of Norman’s Christmas tree. Braila was keen, in fact, to stress the connection between the two “winter-themed” artworks, likening his metaphorical “barricade of snow” to those of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and pointing out that the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi coincided with the events in Kiev.

Billed as a “midsummer action painting outside of the Winter Palace,” the piece was provisionally titled Cold Painting. But the name given to the installation housed in the General Staff Building, the Public Program’s headquarters, stuck. In its static version, The Golden Snow of Sochi consisted of a mini-fridge containing glass pots labeled with the Olympic rings and filled with 20 liters of natural snow brought from Sochi – if we are to believe the artist, that is. The 98 pots stood for the 98 sets of medals that had been won in as many competitions at the Sochi Winter Olympics, in which the host nation topped the medal table.

A large table, supported on wooden trestle legs, had been set up in the middle of Palace Square in preparation for Braila’s performance. Its reflective golden surface kept with the gleaming cupolas and gilded details of the buildings and monuments in and around the city’s main square. After what seemed like a long wait, with nowhere to seek shelter from the blazing sun, a convoy of four black Mercedes sedans drove across the square and pulled to a stop by the table. Four young men sporting suits, sunshades and white gloves in a parody of the slick dress code favored by Russia’s political leaders, stepped out, opened the rear doors of the largest vehicle containing bags of refrigerated snow, and proceeded to discharge their contents onto the golden table. Against the pale gold surface of the table, the “Sochi” snow had momentarily turned to gold. A snowball fight broke out, spontaneously, in which young and old took part, until the last of the snow had melted away.

Private Eyes

This report from the 4th artgeneve appeared on artforum.com:

Left: Dealer Massimo Minini and Andrea Bellini, director of the Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneve. Right: One of the spinners in Ahmet Ogut’s Fair Wage. (All photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

CONVENIENTLY LOCATED FOR THE CITY AIRPORT, if not much else, artgenève is a ten-minute walk from the arrival gate. Though styled as a salon d’art, there is nothing salon-like about the vast complex known as Palexpo—short for Palais des Expositions et des Congrès—that has housed the fair since its inception.

Now in its fourth edition, artgenève prides itself on being more intimate and “human-scale” than most fairs. For one thing, the number of exhibiting galleries is capped at seventy. These share the floor with private groups like The Syz Collection, local institutions, and nonprofit spaces, whose aim it is to show work rather than sell it. According to artgenève director Thomas Hug, this mix of commercial and noncommercial spaces has been there right from the start. “There are more things around which are not for sale this year,” one of the performers in Ahmet Ögüt’s Fair Wage for a Made Up Job told me. She and three other performers worked in shifts to spin portable monitors showing Ögüt’s film Sign Spinners for an hourly wage of fifty Swiss francs, exactly what the director of the fair is paid, not counting expenses and various other perks.

There was also an ambitious but underattended public program curated by Joanna Warsza and produced by the artist duo Lou Cantor. Kolja Gläser, one half of Lou Cantor, used to run a gallery in Berlin with Hug called COMA (Center for Opinions in Music and Art). A pianist by training, Hug is passionate about music and “artgenève-musique”—framed as a conversation between art and music—is his pet project. As the second day of curated talks was winding down, a group of us headed to the nearby Villa Sarasin in time for some bubbly served in the Villa’s lobby, speeches, and performances by Anri Sala as well as the Swiss M/2 collective that could be heard from behind walls and closed doors.

Left: Artist Raphael Hefti. Right: Artist Ernie Gehr.

By then it was high time to head to the opening for Raphael Hefti, veteran filmmaker Ernie Gehr, and artist-in-residence Alfredo Aceto at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, a train ride away from the Geneva airport which I’d barely left. There in the dark, curtained space where Gehr’s mirrored images of misty rivers and strolling shadows were being projected on multiple screens in a retrospective of the artist’s digital works, I stumbled upon Bruce Haines, director of London gallery Ancient & Modern, who introduced me to Hefti.

The last time I visited the Centre, John Armleder gave me a circumstantial account of his brief sojourn in prison as a conscientious objector. Now it was Hefti’s turn to relate how pressing the wrong button on a radar-controlled device landed him with a five-year criminal record. The accident, which caused his car to blow up with all his equipment in it, would have been bad enough in and of itself. But it happened to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos and the firemen felt obliged to call in the terror unit. A long story to explain why the artist, who is about to begin a residency in Soho, has not been allowed to travel to the States these past few years.

Snapshots of NYC’s busy squares and streets, in a complex interplay of digital images, one lodged inside another, were displayed all around the space as if to taunt us. These works demand and reward sustained viewing, but it was getting late and dinner at the Cercle des Bains beckoned. Luckily, I was sat next to Gehr. Over wine—selected for us by “Président” Pierre Keller who presides over the Office des Vins Vaudois as well as the Fondation du Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève—we talked about New York, the city where Gehr has lived since 1965, and Harry Houdini, whose feats he strives to emulate with his own insubstantial acts of magic. “I don’t make things that are commodities,” he confided.

Left: Kolja Gläser of Lou Cantor and composer/conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers. Right: Curator Joanna Warsza, artist Alexandra Pirici, and Jozefina Chetko.

Commodities and valuables, things one can put a price tag on, were the order of the following day. The afternoon kicked off with a visit to Pictet & Cie, one of the oldest Swiss private banks, which houses a fine, if necessarily subdued, collection of modern and contemporary art firmly focused on Swiss artists. More daring stuff by the likes of Pipilotti Rist was to be seen, hung salon-style on every available wall surface, in the home of the mother and son collectors Jocelyne and Fabrice Petignat.

A brisk tour of The Neon Parallax project (drifting snow is hardly an ideal condition for viewing neon signs placed on top of buildings) and several visits to anonymous contemporary art/design collections later, dealer Jose Castafial told me, over a martini, that the fair’s branding itself as a salon fits in perfectly with Geneva’s image as a “private city.” It’s the city of private banks, private dealers, private collectors. “People like to keep things secret,” he said. “Look at the VIP program. They give you an address but never the collector’s name.”

We were at Le Verre à Monique—a self-styled saloon serving cocktails in teapots and cups—where Esther Schipper (whose spare booth won my vote for the best gallery presentation at the fair) hosted its party that evening. Schipper herself was not in Geneva. Armleder, that Genevan institution, may not have been physically present either but he was with us in spirit, via limited-edition watches gracing the wrists of collectors like Manuel Emch and certainly at the Temple de la Fusterie, where everyone headed after for the artgenève bash. His son, Stephan Armleder (aka the Genevan Heathen) of Villa Magica Records, was DJing that night.

Left: Dealers Julia Dziumla and Bruce Haines of Ancient & Modern, London. Right: Watchmaker Manuel Emch and curator Nicolas Trembley.

An eagerly anticipated excursion to CERN the next morning, organized as part of Warsza’s program, turned out to be something of a letdown. After sitting through a particle-physics-for-dummies lecture delivered in scientific English, the artgenève group was whisked off to the Atlas Experiment site only to be told that we would not be able to access the tunnel, which was about to be closed off to the public as scientists gear up for the second three-year run of the Large Hadron Collider. We had to content ourselves with a virtual 3D tour and yet more lecturing.

By the time we left, my head was abuzz with talk of protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks. Back at Palexpo, the founder of arts@CERN, Ariane Koek, talked to us about artists, filmmakers, choreographers, and fashion designers moved by particle theory, who got to hang out at CERN with no expectations thanks to her residencies program. The end results, which ranged from kidnapping scientists to creating a fashion collection inspired by magnetic fields to turning the Collider into a musical instrument, struck me as lacking the simplicity of artist Gianni Motti’s own gambit.

In 2005, long before arts@CERN was set up, Motti walked the length of the seventeen-mile LHC tunnel where protons are accelerated. Documented on film in a single tracking shot, the five-and-a-half-hour long action was continually projected on four monitors dotted round the artgenève salon. The artist’s quest to transform himself into a particle continues with the planned sequel to Higgs: In Search of the Anti-Motti, something only Motti could dream up. But in this matter I have been sworn to secrecy.

Left: Artist Gianni Motti. Right: Inside the Atlas Experiment at CERN.

Artist Organisations International

This report from the Artist Organisations International congress appeared on artforum.com:

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.”

Strike: Opera

This review of Strike: Opera at Leipzig’s Schaubühne appeared on frieze.com:

 

Ulf Aminde, Strike: Opera #3, 2013, performance documentation, Schaubühne, Leipzig. All images courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig (GfZK)
 
Dramatis Personae (in order of appearance):
ULF AMINDE, Berlin-based artistJOANNA WARSZA, curator of ‘Performative Democracy’ at the GfZK Leipzig

BENJAMIN MEYERKRAMER, 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

 

Prologue

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.

 

Action

‘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.

 

Epilogue

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.