The last time Slovak artist Július Koller was discussed in this magazine (in 2007 by Jan Verwoert) it was through the sombre filter of his death. In a way, the particularity of Koller’s life had always informed his work and reception, since, unlike many Conceptual artists, he had achieved – as Verwoert implied – a union between life and work that lent a sense of geniality to his self-described ‘Universal-Cultural Futurologic Operations (U.F.O.)’. In this ongoing project, Koller arranged and documented ‘cultural situations’ in the form, say, of comically hued self-portraits, via negativa futurologies, textual ‘anti-happenings’ and various works of elliptical signage.
Koller’s ‘invitation cards for an idea’, as he called them, were acts or missives of hospitality. Likewise, the Conceptual mode he worked in is conductive, even adhesive – picking up images, cross-echoes and narratives where there seem to be few, as history fills in the material content that the works often denied. For this exhibition, Rirkrit Tiravanija ‘orchestrated’ several works by Koller: in the gallery’s basement, original collages on paper lingered quietly; above, a series of new ping-pong tables inscribed with the phrase ‘Morgen ist die Frage’ (Tomorrow is the question) could be played by visitors who – in the moment of contact – inevitably overlooked Koller’s iconic white question marks imprinted on each paddle. The effect of this intervention – an homage to Koller’s 1970 work Ping-Pong Club, where viewers could play table tennis with Koller for a month-long period – was apt. The act of restaging emerged as a work in itself. That is, as a displacement of context, one where shifts in location (Vienna) and time (now) can illuminate aspects of the work originally eclipsed by context, history or reception. Still, I wondered: why Tiravanija, why Koller, and – in a piece where time is key – why now?
In its participatory engagement, its grouping of situations and individuals, Koller’s original work was inevitably figured by Tiravanija as a kind of proto-‘relationist’ project, since the invitational open frame of a work like Ping-Pong Club, recalls, in reverse, the soup kitchens that made Tiravanija a poster boy for Relational Aesthetics. Tiravanija’s piece Untitled (Remember JK, Universal Futurological Question Mark U. F. O.) (2013), a photograph of people grouped in the shape of the question mark outside Vienna’s Stefansdom, made this comparison reverently explicit. The image is Tiravanija’s contemporary restaging of Koller’s Universal Futurological Question Mark [U.F.O.] (1978) – a photograph (not shown in the exhibition) of a group of kids dressed in summer camp uniform arranged in a question mark on a hill (with Koller, in foreground, as a dot). As a reformulation of the problem between the collective and the individual – where the question marks seems an inscription of scepticism that this relation could ever be solved – the work is a physical document of an act and a life’s work spent questioning.
Which brings me to the most salient effect of Tiravanija’s restaging: how, in the six years since Koller’s death, the relationship between the individual and the collective may already have shifted, as collaborative practices seem once again ascendant while the nature of individual agency (on a political level) is markedly unclear, especially given an uptick in collective action worldwide. Koller’s congregations of people in states of common awareness, or questioning, seem like early glimpses into the ‘smart crowd’ – or the slant, in our time, toward collective assemblies (in politics as in art) whose long-term impact we are not yet certain of. Indeed, since the ‘codes’ in Koller’s art contain the sense of both sign (as communicative vehicle) and cipher (as a limit of that communication), Tiravanija’s contemporary framing refreshed the works in a way that emphasized their politicized origins. It also drew attention to their status as efforts to stage conditions of communal power when, in postwar Czechoslovakia, such an act was necessarily thwarted. And might this not say something about our own time, if ‘tomorrow’ is indeed ‘the question’? It’s with this in mind that we might glimpse in this orchestration of contact between Tiravanija and Koller the overtones of invisible agents working in concert – and see the ‘ping’ in ‘ping-pong’ as a ‘ping’ in the computing sense: an attempt for one machine – one U.F.O., one situational agent – to make contact with another.