Relation between the site and the artwork

When I started to look for places I wanted to do installations in I witnessed a weird connection between the places I found and the objects I installed inside them. And I think it is a general question which requires second thought as soon as one is leaving the safe harbour of an art institution.

The places I was interested in the most had almost something like a special aura themselves. There were some small details which attracted me. These were mostly abandoned architecture from the 70’s and 80’s – thus an architecture I connect with the German era of the Bonn republic. On top of this I chose buildings which had something uncommon maybe even unfunctional to it, like the gym of a primary school where I organized an exhibition to take place. Although I was never sure why this particular place was in any way interesting to me I knew from the first moment that I wanted to do something in there.

Later on while I was working with the architecture, its atmosphere or some other characteristic, I became aware that I am trying to install something I would consider to be art within an object. The building, the place always had something auratic about it that made it also difficult to work with. It somehow had the atmosphere of an object itself.

The site as an object

In 2003 I was asked whether I would like to take part in an exhibition in the a propane bottling plant. It was the first time that this space was about to become a

place for art. At that time the bottling plant had not been in use for about twenty years. It was sealed. In order to explore the place the artists had to break open the doors. We became archeologists – a fact that became visible in the exhibition in which some of the found objects were presented as artifacts.

The building became a space for artistic experiments for the upcoming three years. Within these three years the building wasn’t changed a lot. Although one reason for the preservation of the building was propably the lack of money, in retrospect there also seemed to be a will to keep it like it was rather than to change it. As the electricity was still working the functionality of each machine was tested. The artistic experiment field became an archeological excavation site and thus a worth keeping object itself.

When I was accompanying the exploration of the place and helped putting up the exhibition, I noticed the careful manner in which everyone was collecting remnants of the past. I myself felt remembered by abandoned factories in general to be archeological sites which after some time were conquered by nature and thus were regarded by myself as being landscapes. To underline this I installed in one room a normal sized ant hill. Hidden inside the room I placed two speakers which were playing the original sounds of an ant hill in a higher sound intensity. I wanted to deliver the idea of nature which was present as well as abscent. The controversy of presence and absence was also expressed by the several hints which referred to the actual lack of ants.

Beginning with this exhibition but also at others which followed I myself was confronted quite often with the question what we had done there. From time to time it was considered to be quite ordinary. When I thought about it, I got the notion, (an idea I got also in several different exhibition in an akward location), that there seems to be an unsolved relationship between two objects. In my example the bottling plant became an object itself which later on was filled with art objects.

To stress my thoughts I want to go into two other exhibitions I have done which had to face the same problem of scale.

In 2007 I started to look myself for places to do an exhibition. For the first one I found an emptied commercial real estate in which a bank had been located before. The second one was the gym of the primary school I was talking about before. Both buildings interested me because they communicated on the one hand a past which has not gone by so long ago. On the other hand they both had something odd stuck to their architecture, some small detail which created a feeling of some sort of unsolved mistery.

On both projects I asked several friends to work on an exhibition together. Like I explained before there was no curatorial plan except the need to find the best possible solution through discussing with each other. While in the case of the former bank where we did the exhibition „Das schöne Geld“ (The pretty money) the atmosphere of the bank was not dominant enough to force a direct answer by the works, the second exhibition „Ausstellung“ (exhibition) turned out to be an object itself.

The gym of the primary school St. Nicolai in Hamburg Eppendorf was built in 1955 by Gerhart Laage. The school which the gym belonged to was one of the first schools for disabled children in post war Germany. The architect wanted to find a way to get out of the tradition of a sports concept started in the 19th century which regarded sport as a way to prepare children for later military use. He tried to avoid drill training by not using rectangular shapes. His gym had five corners and three fully paned walls. Although the concept is from the 50’s, the architecture of the gym was strong enough to depose itself from ordinary school gyms.

In contrast to the gym the art pieces had to relate to the object character of the building. While we were planning what to do to have our art bearing up against the massive character of the architecture we constantly struggled against loosing such a comparison.

A similar discussion was held, to pick up a better-known debate, when the Jewish Museum Berlin installed the permanent collection within the recently completed building of Daniel Libeskind in 2001. He had presented a building which worked as a memorial site itself. A lot of people commented the opening of the museum by saying that it would have been better not to have installed anything. Others acknowledged the difficulties to exhibit 2000 years of Jewish history in contrast to a building which expressed the gap in Jewish history caused by the holocaust in a very strong manner.

Another example are the ongoing exhibitions in Hamburgs „Gänge Viertel“ an area which was squatted in 2009 by local artists as a political act. The architecture of the mostly 19th century buildings as well as the immense political discussions which accompanied its occupation is generally speaking too impressive to have works of art withstanding it. The exhibiting artists install their peaces in a room like they would do it in a gallery. As far as I can see there is no dispute neither with the architecture nor with the political idea of squatting and thus of revolutionising.

An interesting solution to the problem was presented by the two installation works done by Daniel Buren and Michael Asher in 1982. The two of them were asked to do an exhibition in two similar buildings belonging to the Museum Haus Lange and Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld. Although they didn’t speak about their ideas until their realizations to not copy from the other person it turned out to be quite similar in the way it revealed itself to the spectator. Both of them found a way not to work against the architecture but to install something to comment on the strong symbol of a modernist house build by Mies van der Rohe.

The change in context of architecture, as soon as it is chosen by an artist to contain a piece as well as the relationship of the big object ‚architecture“ to the small object ‚piece‘, are both interesting processes I try to reflect in my work.

Still the relationship as well as the way the picture of such a dialogue is being conjured, need further practical experiments. So far I would state that every architecture is able to enter a dialogue with other works which are shown within itself. To find a good dialogue partner – or to put it differently – to find an a matching response to a given architecture is a special task an artist needs to be aware of.

 

The comment – or how to talk about site specific art after it is gone

Throughout the art pieces I have done within the last years I constantly was confronted with the problem of how to talk about my work. Most of my pieces are site specific at least in the sense that they were installed in a certain place and could not be moved. Additionally, they were often situational as there was different media involved. Some of them even integrated a part of the architecture as its auditive hall characteristics, for example. Thus not even recordings, neither video nor audio, didn’t work well to deliver an image of the piece to people who were not able to see the original piece.

In general, to represent the picture of former works belongs to the field of documenting. One could call it plainly „documentation“ but I think that there is a difference between to document and to reconstruct an art piece for presenting it. Documentation refers to a method of constructing an object, the document, which under certain circumstances, tries to deliver or plays with the image of objectivity. Documentation, regardless on how much its characteristics are discussed and its possibility to act as a witness are questioned, will always be considered to represent truth. Asking for documentation of art thus tries to represent the true form of an art piece. That consequently leads to the question what kind of truth an art piece reflects and if the art piece itself does not try to reveal and conceal a truth at the same moment.

To give an example: Do the diary videos6 by Dieter Roth as well as the collection of of flat rubbish7 seem to give an exact representation of the daily actions of his life? Do we know through these documents who Dieter Roth was or what exactly his daily procedures were?

Documentation of art mediates something which it is not able to do. Thus one should be accurate on how to use the term „documentation“.

To relate my thoughts on documentation to my work I think of two consecutive pieces I have done. Both were collaborative works which brought up another issue of documentation: Who is the one doing it?

In 2007 I was asked to participate in an exhibition at a former propane bottling plant in Wilhelmsburg8 – a place which used to be some sort of field for art experiments for a couple of years and where I had exhibited before9. The property on which the building was located was going to be sold and thus the artists had to abandon it. However, as the bottling plant was supposed to be torn down we were free to do whatever we wanted. As most of the other artists decided to physically deconstruct part of the building in one way or the other, I tried to focus on an auditive representation of such a process. Together with a friend who was doing music and with whom I was excited to collaborate with already for some time, we installed different sounds which dealt with deconstruction. We hid the speakers and the needed technic devices as good as possible. As a part of the piece the only object that was really visible was an instrument, an electric bass which used the roof of the building as a resonating body. Furthermore we used the entire building to install our sounds. A spectator had to physically move throughout the entire building to experience the whole piece. At last there were also microphones installed which picked up the sounds made during the exhibition to play them somewhere different within the building.

All the remnants we do have of the exhibition are either photographs as the ones shown below, or sound samples. As some of the sounds were in some ways generated by the audience by either moving through the building or by playing the bass not all the sounds were recorded. None of the documents by themselves are able to deliver an idea of the work. As the responses by the spectators differed on which sounds they recognized as being artificial or in one way or the other installed, we also do not have a complete picture of the work. A collection of all the material would probably still produce different ideas of the same piece.

That way we ended up always having to be present to represent our work. Or to put it in more abstract terms: we needed someone to deliver further information on our work. We needed a salesman.

All the pictures shown above are nothing more but effigies, representations of the places in which sounds were being played. Of course they do nothing more than show the space. But even the space is not represented in a good fashion as they are easily transferable to any abandoned factory building.

I was faced with a similar problem in a different project I did in 2008. Together with seven friends I was doing an exhibition in a gym of a primary school. The gym was build in the late 1950s and had an odd architecture: It had five corners and three windowed walls.

All together we did one art piece, an installation for which we emptied the entire gym and mantled the windows with tinfoil so no light could enter. In its rear we installed an object made out of material we found in the gym (which was merely sensed as a massive form). The only light came from a flash light, a stroboskop which made a short lightning bolt at irregular intervals.

The spectator was confronted with different emotional and sensitive impressions as there was a huge emptied space which had to be discovered in complete darkness. The only image the spectator was able to work with was a copy of the room on his iris. An important part of the piece operated similar to the photographing process. Just an instance, a fraction of a moment, was tangible by the spectator. At the same time the work indicated that there is no way of keeping an impression.

The photographs I have taken show either the dark room in which nothing is visible but the absence of light, or show the room photographed with long time light exposure.

Again we had serious problems providing a visual representation in which the work functioned. Like before we needed someone to talk – to bridge the gap between the piece and its representation. But this time it needed to be one of us. As eight people were working together on this project it became also a social affair – a fact I myself consider to be an important and interesting feature of an artwork. Thus interviews were held after the exhibition between me and every participant to experiment with the idea of representation. These interviews, on which I will talk about later on, became pieces themselves as they were expressing different relationships beyond the mere matters which were discussed.

As far as my investigations on collaborative art production as well as on documenting them have evolved, authorship is often a key element but also hard to define. In order to examine the authorship I need to set a situation in which the author can speak. I want to focus on the author of collaborative art talking towards the author of the documentation. I want to give both of them a voice.

 

Who is talking? – Interviews in Documentation

In general the witness seems to be the medium which symbolizes truth in documentation. But as Hito Steyerl (2008) points out there is a lack of confidence in the belief of its impartiality. For example in law there is at least the need of several voices to confirm a statement.

A witness doesn’t necessarily need to be a human being. Since news media came into being there is an ongoing development of media that seemingly delivers evidence. As the medium of the historical painter delivers obvious hints on the gap between the event and its documentation – he is not able to work on the site of a battleground nor is he able to capture one complex situation like a photography can, many different media (since the founding of photography) try to bridge that gap of documenting incidences. The important difference of photography to former media was the question of the author. Not the photographer was considered to be the witness but the camera. Photography is a witness which is showing everything – also the unimportant or the unintentional things12. In this line of thought the movie ‚Blow up‘ by Michelangelo Antonioni is an often quoted example. But on the other hand photography itself is not able to function as an objective source of documentation. The camera itself is limited to its operator as well as to its dependency on light as its media of information. Not to mention the many ways of manipulating photographies.

Documentation is an often needed medium when art works which are limited to a certain time, space and/or audience need to be transfered to a broader audience. Since all kinds of performance arts came into being, at first photography and later on video became such an important factor of the performance that one might doubt the importance of the audience on the spot itself. But is the obvious connection between video and performing arts correct in terms of delivering a congruent picture of the situation?

 

However there is a way in which photography as well as video do work very well. The photography says through its medium that there is a space outside the taken image. It also quotes that the one photo shown is being selected from a broader source of taken photographs. By showing photography, the viewer might suppose that there is something hidden from his view as the photographer picks one extract of the visual world. He also knows that someone has selected this image and subsequently excluded others. Video also refers to the outside space of its image. But it also suggests that there is a process which needed time based recordings. While photography tries to capture a moment video is constantly distracting the viewer from the single moment as there is constantly a new one approaching.

I am bringing up these examples to underline on the one hand my suspicion of the form of documentation regarding art as well as my interest in confronting the reality created by documentation with the moment of the art piece which is supposed to be documented. I will now try to go into more detail on my former art pieces to extend my thoughts.

As I have tried to point out photography as well as video always seemed to lack the ability to serve as a medium to document my site specific art pieces. In the case of the exhibition „Ausstellung“ (exhibition) I already explained why neither of the two media were able to capture the piece as it was on the one hand focusing on a certain moment – which would have been the sphere of photography – and on the other hand working with the constant change between light and darkness – a process- oriented topic.

To document means to search for witnesses – objective entities who are in the position to speak about an event or a situation. The video camera at art performances is trying to do what surveillance cameras are mediating as well. They are there to serve as a witness. They get the whole picture. But again a camera is focused on one specific cutout. To work with a camera from the beginning one is focusing on one thing only. The author, in this case the operator of the camera from the beginning works with the space outside of the picture by abandoning it. Thus it seems that there are also different temporal levels of witnessing. By choosing to place cameras one is considering to document. Still there might be the need to capture something outside the picture either by using photographs or by involving spectators. Another temporal level comes into play if ones try to recapture (by talking to witnesses) a happening after it occured.

In the case of the exhibition mentioned above I chose to interview the participanting artists. They took on the role of the witness but of one who also was part of the action. I decided to talk to the artists instead of uninvolved spectators because I wanted to include the process which led to the shown installation. In the case of many different artists deciding to work together on one piece there are social mechanisms at work which do tell a lot about authorship and workflow of art production. I did want to capture these as well.

Within the interviews different opinions on how many artists were involved, how good the collaboration was or on who was acting in what way within the group were articulated. I tried to give everyone who was involved a voice. But by doing this I enforced a language which doesn’t necessarily need to be the usual one for a visual artists. As Hito13 would probably underline the interviewees could only react to the given circumstances by speaking or by keeping silent.

Additionally I decided to edit the interviews. I picked certain comments which I thought to be interesting. I became a sampling DJ for the voices of my colleagues. Although it started out to be interviews between me and the other participating witnesses it became difficult to exemplify the author – to really understand who is talking.

 

The Interview

To argue with Hito the person who is being interviewed is not necessarily the one who is talking. In whatever media an interview is presented it automatically argues with a notion of the fictional. The viewer knows that there is someone asking the questions as well as a person who might be aware of the situation he is in. Where as it is impossible to represent the thoughts of subaltern persons as is shown in Jean- Luc Godard’s and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s (1972)„Tout va bien“ the artists in general cannot be trusted in speaking the truth as seen in interviews with Andy Warhol or Christian Boltanski14. Or to argue more cautiously interviews seem to require interpretation. Whether it is the spectator as a witness or the artist as a creator, one cannot be too sure on how far their word can be trusted.

The idea of interpretation led to the belief that the interview actually is not a subcategory of documentation but rather a category of literature itself. In that way interviews with artists who play with the role of their profession needs to be looked at. By answering mostly with ‚Yes‘ or ‚No‘ or by handing the question over to another person the interview with Andy itself becomes some sort of literature as there is constantly a story, a certain idea of conversation being evolved. In a similar way do the interviews with Christian work out when he is repeating the same answers he has been giving before.

To return to the form of the interview the social sciences have developed concrete parameters to guarantee the objectivity of the interview. But still in the end the rules are just defined to tell the reader of a scientific paper with which method interviews were being held. Television on the other hand seems even less to need the voice of the interviewee as his face. While interviews in the ‚Tagesschau‘, Germanys news coverage of the first public broadcast, in the 80’s still were several minutes long nowadays extracts of interviews are only shown to underline the headline of an event.

There are many ways to argue that interviews are more about working with the idea of objectivity than with its actual form itself. By sampling interview extracts objectivity is obviously being lost – although it probably never was there. On the other hand the form of the interview as being a way to construct a discourse within a specific social situation, as the interviewees are always selected by the interviewer, is consequently being worked on. I would suggest that sampling of interviews is one way to contribute to the artistic element of the interview itself.

By choosing different samples of the interviews, – something I have done, as mentioned before I was able to go into the description of the installation, the process of its genesis or the social network within the group. I was directing the focus or comparing samples to underline a gap in the reflection about the piece.

As I was creating a clear picture of authorship by using the DJ techniques of sampling and arranging, the interview itself somehow hides the nature of its author. But is the DJ actually the one who is speaking as he himself is not able to tell anything beyond his samples? If I had interviewed only women I would not be able to present a male voice. Isn’t the listener as well as the viewer of an art piece not also creating the piece as he is the one to put the samples into a relationship to his ideologies?

The author

When interviews become a work of art themselves, as I have pointed out, there is the question of who its author is. As an interview is a special form of dialogue there are at least two people involved who are working on its creation. Neither would Andy be able to constantly avoid answering the questions by the interviewer if there would be none. Nor could anyone sincerely argue that it is the journalist who is creating a certain oral form in which the answers of the interviewee are nothing more but well- placed elements.

If the form of the interview becomes a category of literature in which content is created which goes beyond the actual situation of the dialogue, it is not only a question where the author of the interview is located. If we follow the semiotic path of ‚artist – art piece – recipient‘, we also ask for the recipient. In contrast to a dialogue, an interview seems to have a recipient part outside its direct receivers. Thus, as the recipient is none of the ones creating the interview its author needs to fill a space in between, a place untaken by any of the ones mentioned before.

So far there were many parts discussed which I am unable to locate. In my experience there is a gap in between a work of art and its documentation as well as within the mode of the interview concerning its authorship. So far I considered it to be my task to follow the traces of those gaps in order to also follow the traces of the author. I needed to concentrate on securing the evidences of the author.

 

Spurensicherung – Documenting a past situation

„Whether they hide mystery or whether they tell it: these traces, which defy any systemization, have only one honest and obvious nature – namely to be present.“

In the early ’70s there were several artists, most of them seated in France, who started to do explorations of personal histories. In an exhibition in the Kunstverein Hamburg Günther Metken and Uwe Schneede tried to present these evolving methods. The German term „Spurensicherung“ 16later on was used to refer to this group of people although they never worked in form of an ideological movement. They were considered to be connected to the field of concept art.

The catalogue goes into the work of Christian Boltanski, Jochen Gerz, Nikolaus Lang, Paul-Armand Gette, Jean-Marie Bertholin, Charles Simonds, Roger Welch, Didier Bay, Nancy Kitchel, Jean Le Gac, Anne and Patrick Poirier, Nancy Graves and Claudio Costa. Those artists did in one way or the other work with methods that were close to scientific research as used by archeology, for example.

In relationship to my own field of interest I was quite fascinated by the work of Jean Le Gac who created the myth of a painter whom he himself tried to get close to by using methods of investigation. He invented his individual mythology which for him developed such an intense reality that he was able to work with this reality from the point of view of a witness or an uninvolved spectator. He followed the tracks he himself had placed. This project was first presented in the Documenta V in 1972 by Harald Szeemann in the section „Individual Mythologies“.

By inventing a character Le Gac was able to follow the traces of a personality – in his case it was a painter. I am trying to follow the author as I create situations where he is able to speak although he seems to be merely fictional.

In the catalogue of the ‚Spurensicherung‘ exhibition Günther Metken tries to give an objective insight into the work of those artists mentioned above. The catalogue mainly consists of an introducing essay as well as short descriptions of every single working method. In contrast to Günthers expectations the catalogue as well as the exhibition were confronted by a huge demand. Thus the catalogue was soon sold out and is nowadays difficult to get. Günther himself decided to follow the tracks of the participating artists almost twenty years after the exhibition had taken place. He published the book „Spurensicherung – eine Revision“ in 1996 in which he wrote again about every artist and the development of their work.

Within this line of action there is an interesting time scheme. The artists who are working with a fictional past are presented by a catalogue in an objective way and thus consequently being the object of investigation by a revision done twenty years later. By revising his own work Günther somehow deals with the fact of the difficulties to document the work of artists.

There is something included in the idea of investigation. To investigate in the way a scientist does, one needs to have belief. Flusser17 quotes that in our tradition we do have two ways of discovery which go back to two basic myths:

The one is an ancient greek myth and is covered by Plato. It basically says that there is truth which we have to discover by revealing it. The more we reveal the more we do know about truth.

The other one is the jewish myth of Mount Sinai where God shows the Jewish people the way of how he created the world. But he realizes that all the truth is too shiny to endure. Thus he covers it again. For the jewish people it is a passion to see but at the same time they feel relieved for being shielded from it by God. It’s a method of switching angles to see truth.

Both methods discover while believing in the existence of an overall truth. Flusser argues, that the time of discovering is at its end as we start to computerize. We create worlds completely by ourselves and thus can only find within these structures our own plans.

In part an artist is doing the same. He is constructing a world by his own plan. But on the other side he is dealing with the certainty that he can’t control everything and is even seeking for this part of uncertainty. In Flusser’s terms an artist seems to play the role of a keeper of tradition while society constantly focuses on covering the once revealed truth.

In the case of a fictional author like the one I try to catch, the artist is working between covering and discovering. The more investigation he does and the more traces he reveals and presents the more he looses the author who is presenting the traces. As Jean Le Gac later on was not talking about himself anymore, using „it“ but „I“, he blurs his personality but reveals the idea of investigation itself.

During the time of retrospection it is the only moment as an artist to use the term “I“ as while I am doing and produce I have no consciousness about my actions.

 

(cc by Torsten Rackoll, 2010)

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