Dear artists, burn your manifestos! Dear curators, stop asking new questions that nobody can answer! And dear visitors and viewers, let us avoid utopias and new promises in favour of concrete action! The film programme Streetism! shows artists who roll up their shirtsleeves and get going, onto the street, where life is pulsing, to change the world on a small scale. There will be 17 documentations from all over Europe showing performances, interventions and sculptures in public space; 17 individual strategies, which embody artistic forms of resistance with a sense of fun and play. The reason being that culture is generated by play, by its enjoyment, and the resulting tension.
“Man is only wholly human where he plays“, as Friedrich Schiller wrote. And the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga coined the term Homo Ludens, the playing human, that is so appropriate to the street artists. The city itself becomes a work of art, freely formed and serving as a laboratory for the ludic revolution of the quotidian.
“For why else connect so feverishly if things did not appear so frightfully disconnected in the first place?” – Hal Foster, An Archival Impulse
Many exhibition titles inspire yearning for an “untitled”. The American curator Rebecca Uchill has exploited this grievance to make an entertaining title generator for lazy curators. Arbitrary Extravaganza: Post-Painterly Art of Sameness and After the Imagination: The Dysfunction of Gender are only two of the examples emitted by the random generator. Utopien vermeiden (Avoiding Utopias) was the title of the Werkleitz Anniversary Festival, based on the neon piece of the same name by Martin Conrath – a nice title, provocative, somewhat was the title of the Werkleitz Anniversary Festival, based on the neon piece of the same name by Martin Conrath – a nice title, provocative, somewhat alienating, yet poetic and contemporary. However, it is merely a bracket, a classification. Where does the drive to classify things come from, to namethem, sort themm, put them in boxes?
Theories of evolution tell us that categories ensure survival. The ability to categorise endows order on the otherwise chaotic flux of sense perceptions. Humans can use it to rapidly distinguish edible from inedible substances and dangerous from harmless situations. This faculty is known as pattern recognition. It identifies repetition, similarity and regularity in information and then classifies it. As the psychologist Claudia Friedrich from the University of Hamburg says, “it naturally conditions our cultural practice insofar as we constitute our culture by means of it, we all work together with this cognitive apparatus and the making of categories is probably one of the qualities we contribute to the cultural world.” When utopian and dystopian visions pale, pattern recognition is all we have left.
I had the privilege of presenting two film programmes and inviting four artists (Mathieu Tremblin, Vladimir Turner, Barbara Visser, Alain Della Negra) to the festival. The longer I work in the domain of new media the more I enjoy personal exchange, real contact instead of sending impulses, face to face instead of email. This is what makes the festival so attractive and sometimes this exchange is more important than the actual exhibition and the film programme: the get-togethers, the conversations, the disputes. After such a festival my batteries are recharged and I come back full of drive and new ideas. In short, it was a whole lotta fun. Writing catalogue texts is less enjoyable. The festival is over, the experiences are to be documented and consigned to the shelves in printed form. The artistic director tells me my text is supposed to have 6,000 to 12,000 characters including spaces. “We thought it might be interesting when you connected your thoughts on street art with your project in Dresden, since the latter is a form of the playful-pragmatic utopianism you describe. You get invited to a festival and end up doing something new.”
Pragmatic utopianism? Another classification I was previously unaware of. I naturally googled right away to see if the concept had already been patented. The German philosopher Peter Seyferth wrote an article for the book Anarchismusreflexionen with the title Pragmatischer Utopismus, and the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels describes his designs as pragmatic-utopian architecture, situating it between two dominant extremes: the avant garde full of wild ideas but so unrealistic as to remain marginal, and on the other side the real, predictable, boring and pragmatic block-type buildings.
The American artist Mark Jenkins once said to me at an exhibition, “my sculptures don’t work the same way in the museum. It’s as though someone put a firework in water and said: explode! In the museum we’re like lions at the zoo.” That’s the problem. I invited two artists for the programme (Tremblin, Turner) who work in and with public space. The films are not the work, they just document it. Their art needs the fertile soil of the street, it lives from the surprise of the passersby, from the use of everyday objects and urban furnishing. On the way to Halle I had the opportunity of realising an exhibition in an off space in Dresden, the C. Rockefeller Center for the contemporary Arts. Does that count as pragmatic Utopianism? Making a virtue of necessity? As a freelance curator, I am glad of every opportunity, and every young artist hopes every exhibition will make him a little more famous.
For the exhibition, Tremblin and Turner made a couple of works in urban space in Dresden. But what really wore us out was finding out what to show in the art space. The big question was how to meaningfully transpose art from public space into inner space without presenting dead artefacts. Apart from that, we had heated debates about the term “street art”, another classification. Artists and critics have themselves always conditioned the terminology of art history. The historian Richard Wollheim coined the term “minimalism”, the artist Theo van Doesberg “concrete art”, and the critic Louis Vauxcelles “fauvism”. I have not yet met an artist who did not despise the term “street art”. Nevertheless, they are all content to ride the current wave of popularity of this new, rebellious movement, the next big thing in the post-skateboard generation.
The solution was pragmatic. In the exhibition there were simply quotes pertaining to the artistic work over which we projected a few video documentations. The main part of the exhibition was a performance, which we named Art Therapy Group. As curator, I assumed the role of the psychiatrist. The artists were put on the couch, where they were supposed to talk about their problems with art and about the term street art. The audience was involved in and also subjected to therapy. Finally, there was a small publication with the finest utterances of the evening. In this way the wonderful neologism “Street”-“Art” came about. Everything is there: the stupid hyphen (indicating a determinative compound), the quotation marks indicating irony, word play and distance. Putting “Art” in such quotation marks stands for the scepticism that new art forms often encounter. It is also reminiscent of the Bild-Zeitung, which consistently put the abbreviation GDR in quotation marks, indicating repudiation. In the meantime, quotation marks have come to be an honorary title. Putting the word “Street” in quotation marks also puts the street itself at a distance. Art often ends up in the gallery and on the art market where it is more likely to be sold under the label “urban art”, thus remaining rebellious enough to prevent anyone wondering why art no longer happens on the street.
Practice has been postponed indefinitely, as Theodor W. Adorno wrote, meaning practice aiming at the production of a societal state in which free activity is possible, meaning in turn the fictional non-place, utopia. Handlung. On Producing Possibilities was the theme of the Bukarest Biennale in 2010. Back then I thought: what an absurd title. Yet it is clear as daylight: Utopias are the opium of the people. The point is to actively change the world on a small scale and to favour concrete action. Adorno wrote, “artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity.” Mathieu Tremblin aptly titled his interventions “Propositions”. Such propositions do not impose themselves, they simply make suggestions, supply individual answers, can be ignored or celebrated. Yet they exist. They are themselves actions and create a new reality.
And what is the final link in this frighteningly disconnected chain of thoughts? Content with the creepily beautiful neologism “Street”-“Art”, Tremblin immediately proceeded to anchor the term all over the place in the real world, e. g. with spray can and felt pen on the Werkleitz exhibition hall. He was promptly caught in the act by a security officer and thrown out.