BY Dominikus Müller in Reviews | 17 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 22

curated by_vienna


BY Dominikus Müller in Reviews | 17 NOV 15

Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Seroquel, 2014, video still, Galerie Andreas Huber

Contextualization and framing were everything at this year’s curated by_vienna, the business-meets-curator-meets-gallery festival that has been taking place every autumn since 2009. As ever, a ‘main curator’ was invited to propose a theme to which the 20 participating galleries and their artists should respond. This year’s curator was Armen Avanessian, a philosopher, literary theorist and principal importer of Speculative Realism and Accelerationism to the German-speaking world. Under the motto ‘Tomorrow Today’ he aimed to focus attention on the relationship between art and capital.

Fittingly, the short catalogue foreword by Gerhard Hrczi, director of the Vienna Business Agency whose ‘creative centre’, Departure, is responsible for curated by_vienna, is full of city marketing and competition rhetoric: ‘Topicality, quality and international input serve as amplifiers for the international positioning of the city of Vienna, where uniqueness is a strong asset.’ Such forewords are nothing out of the ordinary, and in most cases can safely be ignored. But it becomes more relevant when the explicit focus of the event in question is the relationship between art and capital, and thus the conditions under which curated by_vienna took place. And so the compli­­cated nature of the situation was made clear from the outset: to promote the city’s cultural life, Vienna’s Business Agency invites a philosopher described by Wired magazine as an ‘innovator and pioneer’ who in turn invites us, in the catalogue, ‘to look at our political, economic and artistic present from the perspective of an already present future.’ The logic of amplifiers and multipliers. Thinking in terms of feedback. A match made in heaven.

Fittingly enough, the supposedly anti-capitalist critique on which contemporary art has focused (or was meant to focus) for so many years went out the window. Contemporary art, treated here as a specific historical genre, distinct from avant-garde and modern art, is ‘the sign of the derivative or speculative financial system that has left us bereft of both future and present’. In its place, Avanessian asks ‘whether and to what extent artistic imagination and poetic practices can help us accelerate the entry into a post-capitalist society’.

Post Brothers, Memories Found in a Bathtub, or What Entropy Means to Me, 2006-15, installation view, Kerstin Engholm Galerie

In terms of of artistic practices, this means ‘explicitly readdressing economic interrelations to realign them into the future.’ For galleries, it is a matter of developing ‘new and innovative business models’ rather than ‘continuously equipping art fairs with the newest in zombie formalism, the youngest emerging artists and evermore exhibits of alleged criticality’. As an analysis of the current state of affairs, this is reasonably accurate. And a departure from ossified categories is always welcome. But one problem remains. For all this talk of the future and innovation (a classically modernist teleological approach) one paradox is not addressed: the ultimately irresolvable issue of how to make a difference that really does make a difference – in order to avoid merely arriving at new reifications for a new capitalism. In other words: How do we create a genuine break with the past, and not merely what people in business circles now like to call a ‘disruption’? If contemporary art is the culture of financial capital, then maybe accelerationism is the philosophy of Uber-managers.

The exhibitions, too, clearly struggled with this overloaded concept. Naturally, the accelerationist and speculative rhetoric of the framework was better suited to shows that operated with a now formalized blend of digital/body discourse, post-Internet objects, and theories of production and circulation. For its Relational Changes exhibition at Galerie Christine König, for example, the Bitcoin art trading platform Cointemporary, founded by the artists Andy Boot and Valentin Ruhry, offered just a wifi access code allowing works available online to be viewed via smart phone. The main gallery room, on the other hand, was set up with tables and chairs for events. Across the street at Andreas Huber Gallery, Rózsa Zita Farkas created a show entitled Rehearsals in Instability with works by artists including Maja Čule, Charlie Woolley and Sidsel Meineche Hansen, exploring the entanglement of supposedly counter-cultural models with current strategies of capitalization (Woolley) and opposing the old concept of critique with that of ‘disbelief’.

Others picked specific aspects of the overall concept, like Chris Fitzpatrick, whose Cartoon Physics show played with a parado­xical interlocking of past and future, surrounding the exhibition space with the full contents of a private science-fiction library (Post Brothers, Memories Found in a Bathtub, or What Entropy Means to Me, 2006–15). However strikingly this appeared to visualize a now lost belief in the future, the ‘retro’ look of old books linked the installation with a certain analogue nostalgia. By contrast, in their largely documentary archival exhibition at Galerie Emanuel Layr – with works by, amongst others, Stephen Willats, Karl Holmqvist, Josef Strau, Mathieu Malouf or the Vienna project space Pro Choice – Benjamin Hirte and Catherine Chevalier focussed on social networks as channels of circulation and arenas of value formation. This is something that was surprisingly under-discussed within the overall concept – apparently too preoccupied with abolishing the notion of the artwork and its fixation on objects to take a proper critical look at problems of the ‘post-material’ capitalization of knowledge and networks.

BRACE BRACE, Study for Lifering, 2015, Installationsansicht, Galerie nächst St. Stephan,
Rosemarie Schwarzwälder

In his Produktion show at Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Kolja Reichert, sometime contributor to this magazine and editor of Spike, created one of the festival’s densest shows: held together by Heinrich Dunst’s exhibition design consisting of insulation panels, the works (according to the press release) bid farewell to the principle of the closed artwork. Instead they ‘testified to their own economic and technological involvements’. This began historically with works including Franz Erhard Walther’s videos Proportionsbestimmung I & II (Defining Proportions, 1972) and KP Brehmer’s statistics edition Korrektur der Nationalfarben (Correction of the National Colours, included as an insert with Capital magazine in 1971), followed by a trailer for Cécile B. Evans’s film Hyperlinks or it Didn’t Happen (2014) and a study for a brand of luxury life rings by artist group BRACE BRACE. In between, there were chocolate sculptures by Renzo Martens’s Institute for Human Activities, with all proceeds going to their respective producers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Martens’s controversial film Enjoy Poverty (Episode 3) (2008) on the production of ‘poverty pictures’ in the Congo for the global news economy. With its precise structure, this show responded to the festival’s theme on many levels – but without falling for (or openly combatting) any obvious fetishization of formal-aesthetic newness.

Avanessian’s concept also drew a clear response from those who thought little of it. They included Veit Loers, who set up a RETRO STORE at Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman. Although the show had a dystopian-futuristic focus in the form of Neil Beloufa’s partition installation Souvenir 1 – circles (2013), the remaining works by, amongst others, Franz West, Anne Speier, Fort or Michael Kienzer suffered from being harnessed to a diffuse traditionalism.

Another refusal: at Krinzinger Projekte, Harald Falckenberg organized a so-called Verkauf in Nebenräumen (sale in side rooms). The exhibition space offered nothing but wall labels, while the actual works by artists including Marina Abramović, Joseph Beuys, Martha Jungwirth and Peter Weibel could be viewed by request only in the side rooms, where they would be specially unpacked for serious potential buyers. One might object that making a collector into a curator is a suitably sarcastic comment on the links between art and capital. But like Loers’s show, which ironically used a recently outmoded buzzword to express its opposition to the festival’s accelerationist imperative, this approach quickly exhausted its potential, becoming ‘anti-‘ in an unproductive sense (thus actually bolstering Avanessian’s critique of critique). Likeable as such a gesture of refusal may be (specifically its resistance to the production of added value through circulation), here it smacked of a culturally pessimistic rear-guard action.

In this light, Avenessian’s model really did seem to cause a rift in the Vienna gallery scene, with some putting their foot on the gas, others on the brakes (I’m not sure which is worse). And where alternative approaches were at least outlined, as in Ruth Noack’s show Notes on Crisis, Currency and Consumption at Galerie Raum mit Licht, which explicitly opposed Avanessian’s ‘idealistic paradigm of acceleration’ (press release), trying instead, with works by Wu Dandan, Iris Doujak and Willem Oorebeek, to address specific political ‘injustice, exploitation and alienation’, these nuances were drowned out by the noise of a self-enamoured concept of high velocity (which, it is beginning to dawn on me, was not so far removed from the type of attitude that sees driving a Porsche as a subversive act).

Which all the more raises the question: was the overarching concept actually more of a hindrance? Might a more tacit promotion of invited curators ultimately be more rewarding? The concept certainly deflects attention (at least mine) not only from the individual exhibitions (in the spirit of branding the promotional structure itself) but also from the art – with the result that the actual works are pushed even further into the background than they always tend to be in themed group shows anyway.

On the other hand, it must be said that precisely this tangled multilevel system of object and discourse, superstructure and execution, institution and circulation, promotion, sales, branding and goodness-knows-what-else does at least generate a sense of the complexity of contemporary artistic production that is otherwise often swept under the carpet. Rendering this thorny situation visible, with all its constant self-compro­mising and blurred lines, is an achievement. Elsewhere (in Berlin, for example), people can only dream of such sophisticated public-private funding programmes that might offer this kind of experience. Whether or not they are a good thing is another matter entirely.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.