ON – off

Jan Winkelmann

»Contemporary art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age we’re living in.« [Jackson Pollock 1950]

It is seldom the case that changes in social reality are unaccompanied by violence in some form or other. At the end of this century, which has witnessed more than its share of wars fought for a variety of reasons, the collapse of the Communist system, of real-existing socialism, in the Soviet Union and its satellite states is without precedence. If one considers the momentous changes in the global political situation which followed that revolution – ignoring for the moment names, individual destinies, places and specific theoretical models of the state – then German reunification simply meant that in the GDR one social system was replaced by another. Yet it was not simply a concept of the political state which was exchanged. The changes also encompassed the system of norms, values and regulations necessary for its organisation and for its ‘smooth’ running. Not only does every authoritative model of order and every hierarchically organised system of regulation and law develop its own systems of symbols in its institutionalised apparatus. It also conditions certain patterns of behaviour and provokes others to create alternative models which are then directed against it. The strategies implicit in these opposing models may be inherently contradictory, but the chances that they resemble each other in their functional structure and general pattern of representation are extremely great. Against this background, the terms power and violence – which are directly related to one another and in their mutual dependence influence each other in various ways and at various levels – defined the two ‘corner-stones’ between which the realm of tension emerges within which the works in the exhibition ”power“ operate. At different levels, areas of reference are represented which, in the broadest sense, address the theme of the relationship between individual and society, or a state system which organises these, with all its inherently interdependent power structures, ordering mechanisms and books of rules, plus the resulting diverse realms of association and action.

Institutional power is in the first place communicated through images and behaviour patterns, which in their turn refer to or represent potential spheres of activity and mechanisms of action. In this sense, Kendell Geers’ fencing off of the gallery by a six-foot-high so-called razor wire also refers to his productive process. One fine Monday morning in April the soldiers of the security unit of the 2nd Staff and Signals Battalion 701 began expertly to lay out the rolls of wire around the gallery. This operation, carried out by the German Federal Armed Forces, was an integral part of Geers’ work. The insuperable barrier [”Title Withheld [Deployed]“] demonstrates by its inherent lack of function in this context not just a calling into question of its normative function. As an urgent and strongly emotionalised image it also evokes a range of associations and spheres of reference. Only a few visitors will know that this special form of barbed wire is a South African invention, or more precisely an invention of the apartheid regime. The security forces used to employ it as a reliable tool for sealing off large areas in a matter of minutes, thus restricting the movements of those fenced in and rendering control of them easier. It thus represents an institutionalised policy of regulating and controlling people’s freedom of movement. Its presentation in another political context implies a shift of meaning from the concrete, representative symbol to an image that has universal validity. Yet, as could be seen in the reactions of many passers-by, the memories of the death strips on the inner-German border, as a part of the history of the former GDR, are still very strong. If one ignores for the moment these political implications and the numerous associations with prisons, concentration camps and military camps, questions directed at the institution itself still remain. The museum as a place of cultural significance, of artistic values authorised and sanctioned by virtue of its function, and in this sense representing a power factor, is through and by the fence not only made into an exhibit itself but has its very function called into question.

Gregory Green’s work in progress, ”The New Free State of Caroline,“ may at first sight be confused with Geers’ work or thought to be a part of the latter. The flag over the main entrance and the brass plate next to it pronounce the building to be the embassy of the New Free State of Caroline. Since an embassy has the status of an extraterritorial area, it is usually appropriately fenced off and secured. Usually, however, this is not done in such a martial manner as Geers’ razor wire suggests, and for this reason the two works are only apparently in close proximity to each other. For more than ten years Gregory Green has been exploring possibilities and strategies for changing existing power relationships. To this end he examines the effect of violence, alternatives to violence, and access to information technology as means of changing social and political realities. His project is divided into seven thematic groups: ’Terror,‘ ’Sabotage,‘ ’Information and Technology,‘ ’Alternative Systems,‘ ’Group Organisation,‘ ’Passive Resistance,‘ and ’Non-participation.‘ In this order they form a kind of inventory of the various strategies of violence with regard to social upheaval, of their role in the past and of their possible, potential function in the future. Whereas ’Terror‘ still deals with violent struggle and with individuals or groups directly confronting the state or society, ’Sabotage‘ and ’Information and Technology‘ are more directed at probing the system’s infrastructure and attacking the functional apparatus. ’Alternative Systems‘ and ’Group Organisation,‘ on the other hand, confront the existing structures with new forms of organisation and social models. For Green, ’Passive Resistance‘ and ’Non-Participation‘ represent the highest and noblest forms of revolution, which will come to fruition in the future, when and because terror and violence have exhausted their methodical possibilities.

Green is now directing his endeavours towards founding the New Free State of Caroline on an uninhabited and hitherto unsettled island between Tahiti and Hawaii. Creating a sovereign state is, however, only of secondary importance. His primary aim is to work step-by-step through the procedure laid down by the United Nations for the founding of a new state and thus to make this procedure comprehensible. As a first step he has designed a flag which is a material symbol of the utopia of this ‘paradisical island state.’ Declaring the gallery to be the embassy of this new state, making it into an information centre for his project, is in contrast to Geers’ project not so much a critical calling into question of the institution itself as an appropriation of an existing public infrastructure in the service of communication. ”Worktable No. 6,“ ”1000 Doses LSD,“ and the two pirate broadcast stations represent two further, different strategies, standing as they do for ’Terror,‘ ’Sabotage‘ and ’Information and Technology‘ respectively. As static and unchangeable sculptures, the first two suggest that the observer is merely a potential u[tili]ser, whereas the radio and the TV broadcast stations can really be used to communicate information. They infiltrate existing channels of communication and leave to the user responsibility for the content that is communicated. The hyper-realism of the potentially functioning bombs not only toys with a strategy of aestheticising violence and terror. It also points out the universal availability both of the materials needed to produce them and of the necessary know-how. By operating with the mechanism of the spectacular, they expose the widespread voyeurism and the fascination with violence which is normally perceived only in medially communicated form. The latter is here given a real opponent, which in the immediacy of the real both experiences a fetishisation of the object as exhibit and also presents the observer with possibilities and options which must only be thought through to the end to achieve their effect.

Kendell Geers’ wall installation ”Title Withheld [Stillife]“ functions on a similar level of emotionalising irritation, although the associative context of projection is less direct and obvious. Eight orange one-way body bags hang in a line on the wall of an otherwise empty room. The zips are open and the bags gape like wounds. References to similar images from the history of art, such as the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana or the early material sculptures of Robert Morris or Eva Hesse come to mind. The cool sobriety of the presentation evokes an almost clinically antiseptic mood, clashing with the garish, almost gay colours of the material, and opening up another frame of context: an almost vulgar abstraction of Gustave Courbet’s ”Origin of the World“ zooms up to meet us. The cycle of birth and death, origin and apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, seems to open up here and at the same time to close in upon itself. The works of the South African always gesture towards his own cultural background and the political context from which he originates, without which the complex and deeply political implications of his work cannot be understood. As a form of resistance, these strategic invasions of the institution of art also develop significance for reality outside the museum, in that they unbalance the natural flow of life and information in our event-oriented society through their immediate and shocking images.

Repression and submission, those polarising ambivalences, are structural components of each and every functional mechanism which defines social order through models of authority. The hierarchical organisation of structures of power, together with their mutual interdependence on both the vertical and horizontal axes, always defines a field of operation for possible action and the inevitable reaction. In her interactive sculpture ”Crowd Sound Piece for Leipzig,“ Angela Bulloch thematises this scope for individual decision-making. When one enters the temporary structure, one is greeted by the deafening sound of a crowd at a soccer match. The recordings, made in London’s Wembley Stadium, are controlled by contacts in the matting on the floor of the tunnel. The binary code used, with its 0 and 1 representing on and off, suggests that the observer has a real possibility of influencing the function of the installation. But the performative element of interactivity is nothing more than an illusion of freedom. The limited scope for action provided for by the artist is fixed in the structure of the installation and does not allow the individual to exercise any influence on it outside of this scope. Thus what appears to be open, individual freedom of manoeuvre is revealed as a limiting construct of the system which defines it. As such, individual scope for making decisions is a meaningless concept, because it can only react according to predetermined parameters within a predefined space. The allusion to the popular sport of soccer opens up a frame of reference which does not simply present the game as a ’micro-system‘ organised according to a set of rules. Rather the installation also thematises one widespread form of everyday collective violence. The individual who disappears in the crowd becomes a part of the non-hierarchical mob, which by means of clearly structured images of the hated Other sets in motion its own mechanism of ostracism and creates excesses of violence which are only partly controllable.

Bulloch’s ”Rules Series“ thematises principles of order and systems of rules which determine both the running and function of our social life in general and the specific content of the individual ‘rules.’ The artist conducts a kind of strategic appropriation of existing canons of rules, which like ’social ready-mades‘ she prises loose from the actual contexts which gives them sense and meaning and in a new, unfamiliar context divests them of their function. The rule which has now lost its function causes its individual content, lacking its frame of reference, to appear grotesque. Both its specific message and its regulative structure are subjected to critical analysis.

In a similar way the insults in Kendell Geers’ screen saver ”T.W. [H.S.]“ yield to a structural analysis which lays bare the mechanisms of ostracism associated with their use. But at the same time the different images of the hated Other of which they make use become clear. Be it the emphasising of ethnic or sexual otherness, the verbal smearing with scatological vulgarities, or simply just sweeping denigrations, they all function according to a familiar strategy of assumed superiority to the Other. Flashing in rapid succession across the screen, they dissolve into confusion; individual words are scarcely distinguishable as autonomous units. It is a fully automated contemporary form of offending the audience.

Beside the power of symbols and images as an inherent component of an apparatus of representation, there exists a wide range of metaphors for authority which manifest themselves less clearly and graphically, projecting themselves primarily via the associative relationship of form, material and potential use. Fabrice Gygi’s ”Tribunal“ hints at monumental effect through its minimalistically theatrical technoid aesthetic. The perfection of its material execution causes the work to exude the cool authority of a fetish. As a potentially useable locale, its function partakes of ambivalence, although the spatial disposition of the objects in the installation themselves create clearly defined relationships expressible in terms of above-below, right-left, and front-back. In addition the hammer as an attribute of power, suggests a definite function for the setting as a kind of mobile court of law. Gygi has fashioned an infrastructure whose form anticipates mechanisms that create hierarchies, while at the same time making no statement about the content and structure of the jurisdiction to be exercised here. The tent defines an autonomous locale of provisional character. As an open space it implies active behaviour, but without this performative dimension it also remains a compelling image of confrontation with authoritarian instances. The interplay of emptiness and material effect reveals a potential for melancholy which metaphorically characterises the authority of the social apparatus and its institutions vis à vis the individual. Temporariness as a locale which is both definable in space and at the same time defined by the possibility of a concrete function calls into question the absolutist nature of normative systems. With his ”Tribunal“ Fabrice Gygi has created a powerful image which – like all the works presented here in this exhibition – independent of concrete real-political and contemporary historical events – reflects the present in a critical and sensitive manner. They all pose questions, and although they provide no answers, they help us understand reality a little more.

on – OFF

(Translation:  Stephen Richards)

published in: power, cat. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig 1999

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German Version