Anachronisms of Social Testimony

by Johannes Birringer

Created after World War II to reconnect the destroyed German culture to modern­ist traditions and the international avant-garde, the documenta in Kassel celebrated its tenth edition of a 100-day festival of the visual arts in 1997. Most visitors trav­eling to this small town in the center of reunited Germany arrived with high expectations because past documentasgained an outstanding reputation for their curatorial visions and incisive the­matic perspectives of contemporary art.However, the last documenta of the 20th century will be remembered less for the artworks it displayed than for the fervorof its intellectual conception. Curiously, photography played a major, if thank -less, role in the implementation of a thoroughly historicist and polemical curatorial provocation to the viewer's imagination. I will try to address this provocation by first describing the orchestration of the event as a whole.

Since documenta 5 (1972), photog­raphy, film and multimedia installations had found an increased presence among painting and sculpture. Each time a cura­torial theme and selection of artworks were announced in the past, documenta focused critical attention on how painting survived its reformulations in the modern and postmodern movements, its position in a competitive art market and its incor­poration in ever more spectacular scenar­ios of display. The ninth documenta (1992) in particular proved immensely popular with the public and attracted more than 600,000 visitors enjoying the festival-like atmosphere and an abundance of works by well-known artists and promising young image makers.

But last summer Catherine David, the first woman curator appointed to direct documenta, clearly set out to un­dercut the festive mood. She shifted atten­tion away from art objects and aesthetic categories, literally excluding painting and forestalling the experience of visual pleasure. She also antagonized the critics who questioned her choices and her ambitious program of 100 Days -100 Guests which were daily lectures and debates by invited philosophers, archi­tects, sociologists, filmmakers and cultural theorists. The controversy sur­rounding the French curator's stubborn, ascetic anti-aestheticism and her com­pletely uncompromising emphasis on a contextual and political archeology of art production at the end of the centu­ry set the tone for documenta X's (dX) remembering of art engage and the de­termining political crises of past decades.
The art exhibition as such, there­fore, could be considered the pretext for a drama of ideological reflection, analysis and the recuperation of a radical left pol­itics that linked the speakers' forum and the voluminous book. This book, Poli­tics-Poetics,is the extraordinary 830-page theory-guide. This guide consists of a montage of essays, interviews and literary texts interspersed with docu­mentary and artistic materials to criti­cal art practices focused on the critique of institutions and on social content and political discourse. Not surprisingly, the documentary function of art and the conceptual interventions of perfor­mance and process-oriented art prac­tice were emphasized; black-and-white photography, video, film and graphicswere the preferred media. The historical role of the archive received significant attention in light of the preponderance of electronic technologies in today's expansive global context of capitalism. The archives of photographic realism assembled at dX, however, created a peculiarly ambivalent commentary on the fading of revolutionary politics or activist art itself because most of the work chosen for its recording of social content looked decisively dated, nostal­gic and academic in the present context.

What, however, was the present con­text? According to David's emphases in Politics-Poetics, one of the leitmotifs for dXwas the construction of Retro-perspectives. This was mostly work of the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s devoted to delineate avant-garde art's critical rela­tion to established aesthetics and to institutionalized perceptions of repre­sentation and the nature of art as well as of the political order. Politics-Poetics develops the retroperspectives along the historical axis 1945-1967-1978-1989 and with various references to crucial political events, significant theoretical texts, films, artworks and debates centered most com­prehensively around themes of architec­ture, urbanism, postcolonial culture and globalization.
Yet David's parcours of exhibition sites intended to guide the viewer from the Kulturbahnhof (the old train station) along the pedestrian precincts to the Frid-ericianum, Ottoneum, documenta-Halle. Continuing down to the Orangerie and the beautiful baroque gardens made little coherent sense as an itinerary that could integrate historical relations between urban space, economic and social infra­structures, and artistic works here assem­bled to address political or cultural topog­raphies. Some of the photo and installa­tion works encountered in the under­ground passageways or shops (Suzanne Lafont's posters; Jeff Wall's Milk andChris-tine Hill's Volksboutique) could easily be mistaken for commercial advertising and were perhaps intended to be indis­tinguishable from the landscape of urban sounds and sights.

Intervention into the "society of the spectacle," postulated by Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 1960s, appeared to have lost its edge by the end of the 1970s when countercultural movements fizzled out and pop art became as canonizedas conceptual art's subversion of the museum. David used the term ambig­uity to refer to works that knew their limits self-consciously, struggling to sub­vert the structures of production, display and distribution of art objects while rec­ognizing their inability to destroy these structures. What's puzzling was David's concern with today's transcultural accu­mulation of global capitalism, vehement­ly addressed in many of the lectures, films, videos and Internet projects. At the same time her exhibition looked backward as if the avant-garde of the 1960s held any (ambiguous) truth or political promise to our cynical view of the world.

It does not, of course. The curator­ial emphasis on distancing effects and critical intervention was felt in many of the works more traditionally exhibit­ed in the transformed station and the other museums. This included, for exam­ple, Hans Haacke's notorious excavation of Manhanttan Real Estate Holdings cen­sored by the Guggenheim, and Gordon Matta-Clark's photographs of the South Bronx. But the transformed station it­self defeated David's emphasis on ana­lytical concept-art as it was given over to the decidedly playful and humor­ous construction of Matthew Ngui's food/communication system: "You can order and eat delicious poh-piah amongst other things." This pretentiously displayed the huge wallpapers of Rem Koolhaas's New Urbanism: Pearl River Delta pro­ject conducted in China.

Most of the works in the station that interrogated global ecologies, urbaniza­tion and social realities used the medium of photography and photocollage. Exam­ples include Jean-Marc Bustamante's bleak photographs of vacant city lots and streets and Marc Pataut's unframed snapshots of a homeless community in Paris dis­placed by redevelopment. Lois Weinber­ger, more modestly and ironically, planted a few thistles and neophytes on an aban­doned train track outside. His immigrantflowers from far-away places were easily overlooked, whereas on one of the plat­forms we were treated to a performance action by Brazilian artist Tunga in which the symbolism of emigration and arrival was rendered as gothic cartoon. A largestraw hat dangled in the air and under it lay human arms and legs made of rub­ber; the Brazilian performers had carriedthem in their suitcases like contraband. If the critical ambivalence of concept­ual art and performance in its ques­tioning of aesthetic modernism served as a leitmotif, its political relevance for the late 1990s was barely rediscovered and brought to bear on our changed geopo­litical conditions.

Inside the station, for example, the large object installations from the 1960s by Michelangelo Pistoletto and Helio Oiticica, together with Ngui's computer-aided cooking of "delicious poh-piah" and Koolhaas's photomontages set the tone for an uneasy confluence of retrospective and prospective visions: from arte povera to a new global art of urbanization and foodconsumption. As with the exhibitions in the other museums, the disparate com­position of itineraries created many jar­ring moments of frustration while arous­ing a sense of intellectual curiosity. This was especially true in the Fridericianum where Gerhard Richter and Marcel Brood-thaers were paired off against an immense dis-play of small photos and Utopian-socialist designs by architect Aldo van Eyck. Stimulated by the rich suggestive-ness of Oticica's performance parangoles (costumes) and relics of environmental actions which were so important for the 1960s and 1970s radical movement of modern art in Brazil, one wanted to know more about the history of his and Lygia Clark's work with concrete ob­jects and living social organisms. Deprived of their concrete context of activism, they look like ghosts, while Pistoletto's Oggetti in meno, clinging to a discredited aura of hand-crafted materials, provided an almost melancholy reminder of arte povera's lost battle against American pop art's cynical embrace of industrial mass production. Both work cycles raised serious issues about the disappearance of authenticity and the construction of sub­jectivity, but the cultural vantage points differed radically.
If the retroperspective on conceptual art of the 1960s was brought to bear on our conflicted experience of globaliza­tion, dislocation, postcolonial identities, and technomedia, then the choice of con­temporary artworks at dX did not serve its premise well. This documenta did not want us to look at new and exciting art­works but to force us to think through the critical limits of representation, the presumed exhaustion of all formal aesthe­tic languages, and the challenge of locat­ing critical, resistant processes or objects not already compromised by the corpo­rate logic of museums and entertainmentindustries. Critical resistance to incorpo­ration in art markets or aesthetic fashions of the West, however, implies a break with exhibition as such or at least a confronta­tion with non-objects and other spaces, with the "elsewhere" of other cultural and conceptual formations.

dX extended invitations to archi­tects, filmmakers and young artists work­ing in time-based media and digital art, and it presented many speakers from the Arab, Muslim and African worlds at its forum of 100 Guests. However, the dia­log about current conceptual reformula­tions of artistic strategies seemed disap­pointingly largely generated by French/ German /Italian critical and neo-Marxist philosophies with Gramsci and Foucault on centerstage. The transcultural political contexts of art in the Americas, Eastern Europe and the Far East were neglected, feminist and queer art disowned. The U.S. most likely was considered a lost cause although Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler were given a corner to put up a riotous installation of their experiments in a punk band, The Poetics Project. Also, New York veteran Nancy Spero and Chi­cago-based Kerry James Marshall were the only two painters allowed to interrupt the retroperspectives of social documentary(Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Robert Adams, Ed van der Elsken, David Reeb, Garry Winogrand). Jeff Wall's new black-and-white hyperrealism, trite and uno­riginal, dominated a whole room full of failed allegories. Outstanding, on the other hand, were William Kentridge's somber political film animation about South Africa, The History of the Man Complaint, and Johan Grimonprez's riveting newsreel collage, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, ironically recapturing the history of air­plane hijackings.

Among the social testimonies we found countless photographs of Harlem sidewalks, children and graffiti (Levitt),anonymous subway riders and ruined tombstones (Evans) and depressing vistas of suburban blight (Adams). The selection of black-and-white photography, then, especially with historical figures like Evans, Levitt and Adams rather than, say, Lorna Simpson, Nan Goldin, Zofia Kulik, Lyle Ashton Harris or Shirin Neshat, evoked a sense of melan-• choly recollection of transparent social testimony almost wholly inappropriate to our contemporary sensibilities. I can­not imagine why David's approach to documentary photography was so entirely mis­guided, especial­ly because she alludes to Bertolt Brecht in her book.

In the 1960s I learned while in grade school that Brecht had warned against a naive trust in photography's distancedobjectivity: "A photograph of the Krupp factory tells us nothing about the Krupp factory." The viewer is asked to recon­sider the critical potential of documen­tary realism and neorealist film (Rossel-lini, Pasolini, Godard, Alvarez, Sembene) and the anti-institutional transgressions of conceptual and performance art (e.g. The Living Theatre) as they crystallized around the times of war, social and revolutionary upheaval, and anticolonial struggle since the 1940s.

But historical analogies between the chosen artworks from around 1967, 1978 and the late 1990s are not convincing ifperformance and live art today are not examined or today's popular music and sampling techniques in the context of global mass distribution are disregarded and if the formal composition, for exam­ple of the featured Jeff Wall photos or Reeb'sLet's Have Another War looks de­rivative and anachronistic in the context of the World Wide Web. If we examined photocollages and staged tableaux side by side with contemporary electronic media and Internet projects (e.g. HybridWorkspace, a collective new media studio installed at the Orangerie) or even more complex technoscientific projects such as Marko Peljhan's MAKROLAB, we would more directly experience the gap between the place of realism and the implications of virtual-reality simu­lations and underground radio/internet-communications projects. Disturbingly, the crucial question of how artists today, in a world of electronic globalization, participate in global networks from different, and unequal, access points was barely addressed. Peljhan's MAKRO­LAB, a surveillance lab designed by in­dependent artists to monitor the electro­magnetic spectrum and intercept transna­tional data flows, garnered hardly any attention because it was deliberately sta­tioned outside the documenta display sites and thus elusive to the stream of vis­itors following the parcours. The else­where, it seems, lies somewhere outside of the categories of aes­thetic form and familiar ideologi­cal critique. dX invited Internet artists but didn't provide on-line access to the visitors in the documenta-Halle. Marcel Broodthaers's brilliant, fictive Musee d'Art Moderne, Depart-ement desAigles (1972) with its taxono-mic display of images of eagles, culledfrom the archives of art and advertising, is a poetic installation that mocks the logic and power of the museum but remains as inconsequential to our reali­ties as a Dadaist joke or a Fluxus prank. Curiously, dX showed Broodthaers side-by-side with the life-long archival collec­tion of photos, snapshots, polaroids and sketches in Gerhard Richter's Atlas — the sources for his paintings which were not shown here. Richter called Atlas a work in progress (since 1962), and we can see them as documents of a painter's process of transforming sources of images, images of reality or memories. The impact of showing Richter's archive as if it con­stituted a separate, autonomous con­text is vexing, especially because the panels looked like a diary of personal and political events and conveyed little of the process of production or the quali­ties of abstraction in his paintings. They were irrelevant in regard to the paintings-not-shown, and yet they were in-be­tween. Their immense accumulation moved them, propelled them away from the immanent document and the historical moment of the film still.Richter himself paradoxically argues that he uses painting as a means to photog­raphy. Perhaps they will be seen as a geneal­ogy of the tensions between the fictions (photography, painting) of representa­tion, each incapable of portraying trau­matic events, realities or memories. In Richter's case, the atlas implies the Ger­man postwar trauma and other trau­matic geographies at dX included Nor­thern Ireland, Vietnam, Algeria, Israel, Russia and South Africa. In this sense they provoked a considerable tension in our reaction to media or media images and their psychic and emotional relations to memory and perception. Richter's Atlas anchors our suspicion of the documenta's trust of photography's social subject mat­ter. We entered the foyer of the ridericia-num to glimpse the shaky video of Ola-dele Ajiboye Bamgboye's HomewardBound and ended in the last darkroom with Hans-Jiirgen Syberberg's profoundly pathos-ridden Cave of Memory — an in­stallation of 31 films/videos. We came away with a keener sense of David's accomplishment. Despite its massive contradictions, dX opened a necessary reinvestigation of how we will remember the differences and permanences betweencontemporary media and the spaces they travel in the histories we construct. The museum, like an outmoded train stationof arrivals and departures, is no longer a stable place or model for the constitution of aesthetic objects. The ubiquity and interactivity of images today dissolves all traditional concepts of object, place, value, context and the real. Exhibitions of contemporary objects therefore, first of all, require the reorganization of concepts of the invisible, immaterial, mutable, pro­visional, contested and the barely remem­bered. Photography, conjoined with the ubiquitous photojournalism, our last ditch hope of testimony, will evaporate from the networks of the future as surely as Gramsci's and Foucault's theories will fade. •

Johannes Birringer is a choreographer/filmmaker based in Houston. His new book is entitled Media and Performance: Along the Border.