The criteria have shifted in contemporary art in the 1990s. The artwork is no longer autonomous or open (in the sense of being open for interpretation), but rather, a quite general component of a more broadly conceived cultural practice. However, the concept of practice, or praxis, does not in this context merely mean the production of objects or discourses. Production is understood more as the identification of social processes. Perceiving what is going on could be an artistic dispositiv at the close of the 1990s.
Therefore, mediation plays a decisive role. The artwork, previously tied in with the self-referentiality of its own operating system, now not only mirrors an attitude towards cultural processes, but also first occurs in the experience gained from this position. Active participation is not only something for guests. When Rirkrit Tiravanija cooks in his exhibitions, an experience arises for the artist himself which ties him into a context with global issues – identity, migration, but also art as a service. Otherwise, cooking in the artworld would be a side effect or a pure side job (for which Tiravanija nonetheless would be far better paid than comparable Thai chefs).
Oliver Ressler and Martin Krenn’s working method begins at this point: to what extent is an artistic practice coupled with conditions in society as a whole? In the 1990s, art service carried over primarily quotidian experiences into the aesthetic realm and there, solidified into gestures, attempted to portray the newly acquired social competence. For Ressler/Krenn, political interests collide with artistic ones.
Whether genetic technology, free schools, the practice of deportation in Austria and Germany or the way that major companies deal with neoliberalism and globalization – it is about artistic critique narrowing down the power formations of the late modern era and transferring this to the public realm. What changes when talks about reforming the school system are carried out on the radio, or when pupils are invited into the artistic space? And what happens when the critique of deportation prisons are taken away from the usual media and put into the urban space – in the middle of the tourist mile in front of the Viennese state opera at Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz?
Apparently there are problems. “Whereas the weekly news magazine Profil still poses the question openly: ‘Who is racist here?’ the editor in chief of the new right weekly, Zur Zeit in an article entitled “Staatlicher Rassismus”/”State Racism,” portrayed a project by a widely known human rights organization in Austria as “SOS-Mitmensch-Populismus” and purported that “as a result the state would be discredited,” as can be found in the 1998 catalogue reader, “Institutional Racism“.
Conversely, in Berlin’s daily paper, the tageszeitung (taz) – Jochen Becker found fault with a lack of cross-references to anti-racist projects, which were presented by Ressler and Krenn in the artistic context only as documents of proof – for example, at the information stand in the Kunsthalle Exnergasse. (taz, 15 November 1997). In addition, the framework design was much too close to traditional Minimal Art, which is why the concept threatened to be turned around into a distance. A third point with which Becker finds fault can be found in the accompanying interviews with Austrian and German deportation officials who are able to voice their position on the “fortress building of Schengenland” without being challenged whereas conversations with the affected immigrants are not present.
Actually, the works from Ressler and Krenn can be moored between two ideological poles. However, that has nothing in common with an undecided attitude of either or, or neither nor; the projects take a position in that they make information available and make research accessible and visible in the artworld.
The conflict occurs publicly – not because of the locations chosen for the project (state opera, poster walls, radio programs), but rather because of the way that information is dealt with. Instead of the media’s standard established reporting form, the themes are transformed back into material, which the audience is able to address without media pretenses. The cube covered with posters on deportation for example, intensifies the media environment through the unambiguous form of artistic design. The theme does not turn into a bold statement in the style of agitprop posters but, much more so through the minimalist design, takes an approach which could never even be perceived in the rigid formats of newspapers and television.
At the same time, the piece defends itself from being considered an “open artwork.” The form does not abstract the content, but rather transfers it to a concrete situation. The cube is not an image for the practice of deportation; it is the visual body onto which the problematic is inscribed. By shifting over the facts, the object becomes publicly communicable.
Martin Krenn used the passageway gallery of the Künstlerhaus, the radio and the Internet for “Power and Obedience – school instructs”/”Macht und Gehorsam – Schule unterrichtet”. It is still possible to get information about the main theme from the homepage http://schuelerInnenforum.t0.or.at, even months after the exhibition. The project continues “in process” so to say. The matters of concern are complex: the rigid Austrian school system, and the proximity of the church in terms of its ideology and instructional practice, are criticized against a backdrop of alternative schools from the 1970s that show more self-determination. At the same time, it is about the inclusion of young people in social decision making in general, for example, in the way that the Berlin group K.R.Ä.T.Z.Ä, derives their demand for voting rights for all.
Part of the project is a poster action, whose layout was based on the poster campaign against “Institutional Racism.” There, based on pupils’ statements, arguments were not based merely on individual experiences, but also on the resistance to a system which imposes social demands for more achievement, which the emerging generation obviously feels in manifold ways.
The transformation of the gallery space into a discussion forum for pupils and a documentation center was important. Unlike the Internet, which addresses a limited user-class and unlike posters which compete with the advertisement aesthetic, in the gallery space it was possible to demonstrate the crossings of the diverse activities. To this extent, this type of infopool has effected various different branches of the project.
“The global 500” from Oliver Ressler works in a similar way. For an analysis of the strategies of the 500 largest corporations worldwide, from which the state of economies gradually crystallized at the end of the millennium, interviews with six economics experts from universities and action groups (Mexican and US American unions) were carried out.
The video is thereby subdivided into short statements that follow an introduction into the concept of globalization. Set squarely into a white background as “talking heads,”, the six participants arrange the theme into sequences. The dramaturgy serves for enlightenment. The conversation moves from general concepts into concrete company activities, the significance of the myth of world trade, the exclusion of the so-called third world countries from profit. It then moves to the problem of “corporate behavior,” with which companies build political lobby groups and stay in command of a transformed use of language – the harmony-addicted neoliberal word creations. Finally, it presents the necessity of resistance against the total economizing of global capital. Cut into the succession of talks are quotations which Ressler has taken from the homepages of the industrial concerns. Here, General Electric announced in its yearly report from 1997, among other things, that competitive ability must be pushed through without fail – through controls on, or the replacement of uncooperative governments if need be.
Once again, Ressler’s formal intervention serves to prominently display information and material. In contrast to television features, the reduced sizes of the speakers’ heads, emphasizes that the statements in the interview are meant to be the foundation for discussion and to build up irrefutable speaking positions against the multinational concerns for the alternative sector. Specific theses are highlighted through the additional text, which is moved in at the speakers’ side. It is possible to either follow the interview or concentrate on the texts.
At the end, the Canadian culture and media specialist Charles R. Acland recapitulates. He also speaks about the value of cultural activities: “forms of cultural resistance are far more effective in being able to demystify the process of transnationalization in order to provide sites and positions of resistance and response and tactical maneuvers.” The works from Ressler and Krenn are a step in this direction because they are conscious of their own role both as mediator and as media observer. What remains to be questioned is whether the necessary support – even from within the cultural industry – can arise from such a practice. Those who merely educate themselves from the material, still remain trapped in the aesthetic of the images.
Harald Fricke, 1963; †2012, Literature and Philosophy studies in Berlin. art and architecture journalist at the taz and Berlin correspondent for artforum.
Translated from: Harald Fricke, Betriebssystem Öffentlichkeit – Über die Arbeiten von Martin Krenn und Oliver Ressler
from Kulturrisse, Vienna, August 1999