Sonntag, April 22, 2007

Notes about the end of exhibition art

"The only tactic of resisting the institutional market for the freelance artist is to become the mediating machine him/herself, producing productivity and a self-governed networking. His/her work shifts to a multiplication of activities, contacts, formats of work, collaboration and presentation, allowing for the work-in-progress character to take on almost his/her entire opus, a working without work." - by Bojana Cvejic, at ARTmargins

Stefan Beck

Notes about the end of exhibition art

I am writing here about what has been the context of my work for some years now, taking the viewpoint of an artist rather than that of an art historian. This may bring out more clearly what this work is about, and what it relates to.

The context is the possible end of exhibition art.

And the basic question is:

What would art be like if there were no more exhibitions?

Emptiness would abound. The museums would be empty, the galleries would be empty, the art fairs would be empty. Any venue offering art for contemplation in whatever form would be affected.

This would also include academia, i.e., art academies insofar as they provide exhibitions in the form of circuits, annual shows or degree shows.

The example of a Mexican gallery at the Art Frankfurt 20011 demonstrates that this is by no means an utopian state. Surrounded by the typical mess of imagery, there was an empty space, and at its centre, a travel suitcase with some utensils of travel: underwear, tickets, etc. Two people were sitting at the edge. Asked about the significance of the setting, they handed me a small piece of paper that simply described what was visible anyway. Just imagine all galleries would proceed like that.

Instead of helplessly scanning individual works and comparing them against my rote catalogue of known art — "just wall decoration!", I would suddenly be forced to approach the galerists in their empty stalls and enquire about state and status of their art.

However, emptiness may be a necessary condition for the end of exhibition art but not a sufficient one, as Brian O'Doherty2 has shown with many examples:
Robert Barry 1969: "during the exhibition the gallery will be closed". This is not the abolition of the exhibition but its potentiation, virtualisation and transfer into the imaginary of all participants. From now on, exhibition happens always and everywhere.

Why is the question about the state of exhibition art relevant at all?

Two answers may be offered:

- if the small thought experiment described above seems to indicate such radical consequences, you wonder what kind of art it is — an art that implodes as soon as just one of its parameters is taken away. It looks as if this one parameter (suitability for exhibition) is of decisive importance for art.

- and there is another kind of answer, one that acknowledges that for the vast majority of artists, sooner or later exibition art will come to an end. Those who cannot find a foothold in the exhibition circuit at the end their academic training have little chance of presenting their work.

And the lucky few will equally be confronted at some point with the end of their personal art history. In front of me I have the exhibition catalogue of the Frankfurt Kunstverein from the year 1969, which presented about twenty then established artists from Frankfurt. After 36 years, I know of just one who is still active, Thomas Bayrle.

For a parliament, the idea is that people from all walks of life should be represented. This is certainly not the case for the museum. Usually, this is justified by appealing to rather dubious quality standards.

But we are ahead of schedule here, since we have not yet reached the end of exhibition art.

So far, we are dealing with my own end of exhibition art.

I would like to touch upon a few biographic steps to trace the development that led me to stop exhibiting, to stop considering exhibitions as an instrument for the communication of my artwork.

Freie Kunstschule Hamburg 1985: Social sculpture (soziale Plastik)

I began my academic training in 1985 at the Freie Kunstschule Hamburg (free art school Hamburg) after having been rejected by severeal academies. The FKH had been founded by former students of Beuys, in line with his FIU, as an explicit counter model to the then prevailing art academy system. While training at this school involved quite traditional forms such as nude drawing and painting, the school had been conceived as a social sculpture to be shaped democratically by all participants. (Anthroposophical notions of higher beings may have contributed to the concept).

HfBK Hamburg 1986: Alsleben „I don't know how to continue on my own“ – response distress

A year later I moved on to the academy of fine arts (Hochschule für bildende Künste) in Hamburg since I wanted to gain insight into the conventional academic process. By coincidence I learned of an action by Kurd Alsleben. He had positioned himself at the entrance of the academy, holding a placard which carried the text „I don't know how to continue on my own“ . This had upset me somehow, since as a Professor for Communication Theory at the Department of Visual Communication, you would think he was by definition trusted to know "how to continue". The idea behind this unusual action was to point out that knowledge is produced and imparted as a result of communication: dialogical, poly-logical, network-like. This stood in contrast to the then prevailing view in the eighties that conceived of the artist as a lone seer, a figure pointing to things yet invisible, a schaman of the extraordinary of art.

Exemplary of Alsleben's approach is the key term, 'response distress' (Antwortnot): "Response distress is created through shifts of power, through changes of intentions and manners of speaking. It clearly surfaces within artistic and intellectual currents that enable just a certain range of questions/answers. Different questions/answers remain unintelligible or are silenced in the general competition for participation in the current."

HfBK Hamburg 1987: Lingner

From art theorist Michael Lingner, equally teaching at HfBK Hamburg, I learned that the quality of modern art is generated through the quality of communication about modern art. This contradicted a belief that I had held up to then, namely, that the quality of an artwork is due to certain properties anchored in the work itself. If in contrast to this view, the quality of communication proved decisive, what status would then remain for the artwork proper?

Vienna 1988, media course: Absence of demonstrable artwork

In 1988 I moved from Hamburg to Vienna to join Peter Weibel at the Academy of Applied Art (Hochschule für angewandte Kunst). From then onwards, media art would lead my way. Everyone who has worked in a painting class is familiar with one important factor: the physical presence of the artwork being produced.

In Peter Weibel's media class, however, no artwork was ever to be seen anywhere, which was directly attributable to the mode of production. In the case of video art, work was produced in a U-matic studio and existed only as long a the tape was inside the video recorder. The situation was simular for work produced on a computer. The student would bring data to be worked upon on a floppy disk, and save the results on floppy disk. There were no hard drives in use at the time.
Unless someone explicitly invited others to a presentation - a relatively infrequent event during the semester -, there was little chance of actually seeing a work during its gestation or in its final state.

The result was excessive speculation in the medium of language about the nature of the work with which fellow students were busying themselves. Lacking demonstrable results, work had to be described or at least pinned down by reference to its mode of production: "He has a Mac II and a laser printer..."

Frankfurt, beginning of the nineties, off-spaces: Gartners, Fruchtig 3, emphasis on the event character. Singularity. Clear separation from the exhibition space.

After having arrived in Frankfurt at the beginning of the nineties, I came in touch with the off-art scene, a loose group people with an art academy degree who were looking for unusual spaces for the presentation of their art. Abandoned high street shops, factory floors, vaulted basements, petrol stations. What they all had in common was uniqueness: the singularity of what happened, its event charater. Following Benjamin, one could diagnose a return to the cult value of the artwork. The framing was more important than the artwork itself4: the environment, the articulation of the space, the course of the event.

multi.trudi 2000: David Goldenberg, end of exhibition art

My "education" found its provisional end with an exhibition realised by London artist David Goldenberg in my art space "multi.trudi" in March 2000. First I was sceptical because of the explicit title "end of exhibition art", that seemed to be a bad joke in view of the tiny porter lodge miles from anywhere - a place that in my view had lost any connection to the gallery or museum space.
Seen as emblem, however, this intervention by Goldenberg proved to be entirely necessary and apt since it demonstrated the turn away from any positive notion of art, both in his and my own work. Henceforth art was defined by its absence. However, the visitors on a round trip of alternative art spaces that took place around the same time did not appreciate this stance: "Hi there, what is being exhibited here?" - "Nothing, we are discussing the end of exhibition art." - "Oh well then, bye bye.."

Regarding the history of exhibition art

An explicit history of exhibition art is not the subject of this talk. Instead, I refer to the insightful book by Oskar Bätschmann, „Ausstellungskünstler“5 (exhibition artists).

In this book, Bätschmann shows how the concept of exhibition found slow acceptance in the 18th century, to unfold fully with the transformation of the artist into an independent entrepreneur in the 19th century. The openly accessible exhibition is used as a means to create publicity for the artist, while art itself becomes more difficult, withdrawn, esoteric, driving a wedge into the public that would separate true connoisseurs from amateurs receding into ignorance.

This paradox movement enabled artists to assume the role of a seer of a different, heightened reality and in turn, to increase their market value; thereby (with reference to Benjamin's terms) redirecting onto themselves the cult value that had been absorbed by the exhibition value.6

In this context, 'exhibition' appears as a operation that marks a space for contemplation, adding a usually passive beholder. The marked space is considered complete and closed, not so the beholder. The beholder is not supposed to make any changes to the marked space. Any change is supposed to affect solely the beholder in terms of a gain of awareness, pleasure, or free play of imagination - needless to say, in sublimated form.


Michael Lingner has interpreted the history of modern art under the aspect of its progressive move towards autonomy. 7 First art saw its emancipation from exterior conditions such as the court, the church, the guilds, and patrons; then, it freed itself from intrinsic limitations, decoupling itself from the object in the move towards abstraction. At the end, the move towards autonomy peaked around the end of the Sixties in a way that nothing was left to emancipate from.

The continuation of the move towards autonomy could then only be achieved by art declaring itself to be autonomous of its own autonomy.

This means art now enters a stage that Lingner describes as heautonomy. From within her autonomy, art selects objects and topics that were so far beyond the realm of her autonomy, opening up towards society.

As a consequence, new fields of artistic practice emerge that continue to exist until today. Cooking as art, social work as art, research as art, engagement as art - just to name a few examples.

This implies that the separation of art and society is no longer tenable. Like O'Doherty, Lingner observes the cessation of the function of the white cube, the exhibition space that served to isolate pieces of art from extraneous influences as much as from other pieces ("distinct positions").

If art's autonomy from society must be considered illusionary, then art can develop its character only within society.

The formation of art therefore shifts towards social communication.

Now, art is not only lacking space, but an object. The entire public sphere has become the space of art. What remains, according to Ligner, is the choice between different public spheres (not sub-cultures) which all have their characteristic modes of communication.

Consequently, art has lost its deictic quality. Nothing is left that could be pointed out as art. Art therefore must not only be understood, but actively communicated.

The status of the artwork is becoming doubtful since artworks, according to Luhmann, exist only insofar as communication about them can be counted upon. This means that only communication is required for the functioning of art while everything else is degraded to not more than a necessary condition of its existence. (Lingner)

This is essential. Doherty maintains that modern art has dissolved the frame and melted down the pedestal. In truth, however, the primary role of art has disappeared together with frame and pedestal; in a sense, only frame and pedestal have remained.

This transformation process has not been limited to artworks; it has seized the entire personnel of the art system. Artists have disappeared. Instead, we see graphic designers and product engineers. The museum dircetors are no longer art historians but managers and PR experts. At least this is what is expected from them now.

Even the curator, this ubiquitous emblem, was once a subordinate from the depths of the museum apparatus. To capture it in one image: the state of contemporary art is that of a silent, unnoticed revolution in which the old masters have vanished and the former subordinates have taken control.

The more art pretends to be without external social function (or sense), the more functional it becomes internally. For many artists, to function inside the art system becomes both a key function and substitute for a function.

This would not matter too much if art itself had changed as well. Instead, we see a restauration of all categories. A huge communication engine is applied to something that has long become a thing of the past. 8

Lingner therefore declares: "If the artist's materialisations cease to have an 'artwork' function and instead must be seen, from a system-theoretical viewpoint, as a programming of communication, then art or whatever takes its place can only result from a mediating process."

According to Lingner, the crisis of contemporary exhibition art is related to the fact that it is still dependent on the existence and material properties of pre-fabricated artworks. Artists usually produce their artworks in view of the future presentation. The exhibition therefore assumes a character of reproduction and representation9.

Instead, art should now be understood as a mediating context. At any place of such mediation, one would have to reckon with a production facility - not just in the museum, the gallery, the studio, or the academy. Next to the artist, all participants of the mediating context should be recognised as equally valid, equally being 'productive forces' of art.

As already mentioned before, Lingner derives from these conditions his claim that artistic quality is solely dependent on the quailty of communication, and is therefore accounted for by all (its participants).

While this reminds of Beuys' "everyone is an artist", the fuzziness of the definition should be noted; not every occurence of communication implies the existence of art. Lingner does not specify how communcation should be specified to deserve the title of art.

Clementine Deliss (2001)

The terms 'productive forces' and 'production facility' have brought us close to one of the fundamental problems of exhibition practice.

Let's turn to the London-based curator Clementine Deliss10:

"I have to make an admission: I am confused about exhibitions. I am no longer able to believe in them [...] I don't believe in their level of productive uncertainty; it seems way too modest, far too safe. More specifically, I don't believe in their dynamics of transfer. For even those that play down their pedagogical remit still draw the process of interpretation into educational areas that cannot be avoided and no longer negotiated. The understanding of flows of information, channels with access, entries into problematics, the 'about' syndrome, all affect our use of exhibitions as environments that should be fundamentally unstable but, harnessed by these recourses, provide no hazard and offer no gamble.
Every time I go to a large show, I sense my own failure at not being able to respond to their language any longer. This sensation goes beyond the occasional moment when a particular art work affects me. [...] (--> Alsleben “Antwortnot”)
I still refuse to do exhibitions because, in my field of experience, they cannot produce adequate bridging mechanisms between discourses, a prerequisite for translation, for the inter-scenic, for the right to move around in this world and convey ideas through a process of ideomatic exchange. [...] In not doing exhibitions I just want to be more precise about who I am talking to. Which public is my public? Why has exhibitionmaking become so generic?"


The question of productive forces raised by Lingner is lucidly articulated in Benjamins' text "The author as producer".

While this work is primarily concerned with literature it is fully generalisable to art as such.

Faced with the threat of fascism, Benjamin explores whether literature should confront fascism through political tendentiousness or some literary quality.

In his view, the best solution would be a 'literary technique' that he tries to exemplify by pointing to Brecht, who would confront intellectuals with the far-reaching demand not to supply the production system without (simultaneously) changing it.

Because to supply without changing (it) "would be a highly questionable practice even if the subject matter with which the system is supplied would appear to be of a revolutionary nature."

He calls such authors old hands (routiniers) who underestimate the capability for assimilation of the bourgeous production system.

As a counter example, the soviet press is mentioned, with reference to the author Tretjakov: "There, the reader is at any time ready to become a scribe, i.e. someone who describes or even prescribes. As appraiser, he gains access to authorship. Labour itself turns into expression."

He resumes: "I hope to have demonstrated that the rendering of the author as producer needs to go back to the press. Because by looking at the press it becomes clear that the monumental process of transformation...does not spare conventional distinctions between genres, between novelist and poet, between researcher and populariser, but rather, that it revises the separation between author and reader."

This would have been the place to refer to Brecht's radio theory since here, Brecht had made very similar demands. Perhaps Benjamin did not know this work.

Finally, he comes to talk about photography: "Now continue to trace the development of gets more and more nuanced, more modern, with the result that it cannot capture a housing estate or a pile of rubbish without mystifying it. Let alone be able to tell anything other about a barrage or a cable factory than: The world is beautiful." (p.239)

"I refer to the practice of a certain fashionable photography to turn its object into a subject for consumption. As I address the new realism as a literary movement, I have to go a step further and state that it turns the fight against misery into subject for consumption. [...] The transformation of the political struggle from the grip of decision into a matter of contemplative ease, from means of production into consumption item, is telling for this kind of literature." (p.241)

Following Benamin's exposition, the following summary can be drawn in line with Lingner:

Exhibition art lacks a productive character. The producer (artist/curator) and the consumer (recipient/critic) are juxtaposed with hardly any mediation. Still a novelty on the 19th century, this must be considered an anachronism today.

Exhibition art plays the supply act in the sense of Brecht, insofar as art is supposed to be already "present", ready to be fetched to gratify. It then only needs the appropriate marketing to pursuade the consumers to visit the exhibition.

In line with Lingner I start from the hypothesis that art is no longer present as such, but instead needs to be produced through societal communication. In a dialogical manner (dialoghaft), as Kurd Alsleben might formulate.

The emergence of modern art is based neither on perception (Erleben) nor on reception (Erfahrung), but on participation.

The ideal place for such communicative-productive art is the internet.


In the context of the internet, the conditions for a productive art11 can be subsumed under the following terms:

Openness, lack of closure

Immediacy 12 means that no separation remains between the artwork and its presentation. In the internet, an explicit exhibition of an artwork is unneccessary since as an Internet page, it is always already present. A distinction between artwork and exhibition is meaningless in an online context13. While exhibition art starts with the assumption that the artwork exists prior to and independent of the exhibition, the Internet page maintains that the artwork is created at the very moment of online access.

Lack of closure means that the artwork assumes the character of openness from the very beginning. This character is not just acidental but its principal nature. The artwork on the internet is intended to be ever evolving, making connectons and branching off, linking back onto itself as well as into other matter 14.

The means of production of such a lack of closure is communication, of which we can say that it is fundamental and definitive for the internet. Even the simplest website seems to convey the message: "Respond, talk back"15. In the internet, everyone is entitled to provide feedback.

The consequence of communicaton is participation. The work is no longer created by an individual but rather by a multitude of persons, which often makes it impossilbe to determine individual contributions to its genesis. The potential postulated by Benjamin that "the reader can at any time become an author" is one of the outstanding traits of the internet. While Brecht still assumed that radio listeners had to be explicitly organised, it now happens largely on its own, in the context of autopoesis. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia may serve as an example.

The 19th century still placed the artwork between producer and consumer. In the context of the internet we assume that the artwork has ceased to exist as an autonomous entity, letting producer and consumer coincide. This, however, not in the sense of Bourriaud.16.

In sum, the means of production of the internet — which, taken together, can be thought of as lacking reference — charge a generic and all-encompassing signification. This signification has a viral17 character throughout.

Since the internet constists to the largest part of text — ASCII texts hopelessly entangled through hyperlinks —, the indices, archives, data bases, finally the search engines take on a huge importance in the terminological system. To appear at the top of a search engine listing is of existential importance. What does not appear in Google does not exist anymore. What exactly is listed is less important than the very fact of being listed.

I would like to demonstrate this point by giving you an example. For some time now there has been an institute for art criticism ("Kunstkritik Frankfurt") at the Städelschule18. However, if you put "Kunstkritik Frankfurt" into Google [at the present time, 2005], the first hit points to a page of The Thing Frankfurt which deals with this institute in a critical way19. The Städelschule appears only on page 2 of the search engine results. It doesn't get better if you put in „Institut Kunstkritik Frankfurt“. Even „Städelschule Institut Kunstkritik“ only provides an indirect reference to the institute at the Städelschule. Besides, the search for „Kunststudium Frankfurt“ (study of art in Frankfurt) does not list the Städelschule either.

This small experiment is meant to emphasise that in the context of the internet, terms may escape those who originally owned them.

To give another example, let's look at a person who uses the The Thing mailing list (and also other platforms) to distribute manipulated exhibition announcements under a variety of pseudonyms. While I was preparing this lecture at the Städelschule, the organiser in charge asked me about an "International Automobile exhibition" that I was going to curate in the following year at the Städelschule. I had never heard of it, but it soon transpired that said person had circulated this rumour via a Berlin-based list. In a similar manner this anonymous let it be known that I would be talking about the "end of Yoko Ono" instead of the "end of exhibition art".

It is easy to discount such manipulations as the work of a deranged person; in truth, however, they reveal a general struggle for the dominance of terms on the internet. Signs can only be interpreted appropriately in their respective contexts. If these are lacking or cleverly displaced, confusion ensues. The fact that said person — we may well talk of a hacker — has a penchant for exhibition announcements shows in all clarity how dependent they are on representation in the media.

This is the end of this text, but certainly not yet that of exhibition art.

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