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Issue 128

UNP and The Building

Maria Lind and Dieter Roelstraete talk to Anton Vidokle about the informal, ‘free school’ initiatives in Berlin

BY Maria Lind AND Dieter Roelstraete in Interviews | 01 NOV 09

Unitednationsplaza (UNP) was a temporary exhibition-as-school initiated by Anton Vidokle in 2006, following the cancellation of Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus. Taking place over a one-year period in a nondescript building in East Berlin, UNP was structured as a series of public seminars and an informal residency programme, and involved collaborations with more than 100 artists, writers and theorists, as well as a wide range of audience members. In the tradition of Free Universities, its events were open to anyone who was interested in participating. The core programme was developed over a two-year research period for Manifesta 6, in collaboration with Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Nikolaus Hirsch, Walid Raad, Martha Rosler, Jalal Toufic and Tirdad Zolghadr.

Following UNP’s conclusion in 2007, Julieta Aranda, Magdalena Magiera and Vidokle reopened the venue that had housed UNP as ‘The Building’, which then hosted several overlapping projects including the e-flux video rental with its accompanying screening programme (e-flux is the online information network co-founded by Vidokle in 1999), a monthly lecture series by (frieze contributing editor) Jan Verwoert entitled ‘Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea!’, a public reading room comprising thousands of publications provided by art institutions from around the world, and bar nights in the basement. In contrast to UNP, The Building’s programming was somewhat chaotic – it functioned as an open space for artists, writers and curators living in or passing through Berlin to present time-based works and hold talks and discussions. For its closing event in August 2009, Aranda, Magiera and Vidokle turned The Building over to the public for a final, two-day series of presentations, screenings, shows, parties, lectures, performances and drawing classes. 

Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Elena Filipovic, 2009. Courtesy: e-flux projects; photograph: Chris Frey

Maria Ling To what degree was UNP ‘educational’? 

Anton Vidokle UNP was structured around an informal educational model: it was not a school in the conventional sense of teaching a specific skill, requiring attendance, giving exams or assigning grades. Perhaps it was closer to an older model, like Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens, which involved a bunch of people meeting under a tree to listen to and discuss ideas. Similarly, groups of people would assemble at a rather ugly building in Berlin to listen to lectures, take part in discussions, attend performances. Like an art exhibition, anyone could come and engage as much or as little as they wanted to.

Dieter Roelstraete UNP worked best when it was single-mindedly dedicated to ‘educating’, however informally. Its success revealed the extent to which people are thirsting for the Athenian model you describe. Obviously everybody wants to be informed, but who would have thought so many people also want to be taught? 

ML I understand UNP, like all of your initiatives, Anton, to be an art project – although at first glance it might look like any other institution, whether public or private. Can you elaborate on where or when the ‘artistic’ occurs in a project like UNP? Does it even matter? 

The Martha Roesler Library at unitednationsplaza, 2007. Courtesy: e-flux projects; photograph: Hans-Georg Gaul

AV One of the qualities that defines our contemporary notion of art is a certain claim to artistic sovereignty that historically became possible with the emergence of a public and of institutions of art, around the time of the French Revolution. An artist today can aspire to such sovereignty, which implies that, in addition to producing art, one also has to produce the conditions that enable such production and its channels of circulation. The production of these conditions can become so critical to the production of work that it assumes the shape of the work itself – such is the case with UNP.

ML This is one reason why I like to think about UNP – as well as e-flux – as partaking in a new fifth wave of institutional critique; one in which building new ‘institutions’, often separate from existing infrastructure, is the decisive factor. It’s about self-determination and involves strategic separatism. 

AV UNP is by no means a unique example of such an approach: I have been very much inspired by Martha Rosler’s seminal work ‘If You Lived Here...’ (1989), which took place at a Dia Art Foundation building in Soho in New York. Due to the lack of support Rosler received from Dia (who commissioned the project), she felt that the only way to do something was by positioning herself as a curator/organizer – as a kind of one-person institution rather than as an individual artist. Another good example of such a complex approach to art production is Akram Zaatari’s extraordinary work archiving Hashem el Madani’s photographs and co-founding the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, which as much as it is a bona fide institution, may simultaneously be a work of art. What passed largely unnoticed in Paul Chan’s 2007 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was his peculiar positioning of the artist in relation to the work: he did not write the play, direct or act in it. The set was essentially a city street. Chan’s artistic involvement consisted largely of spending months working as a volunteer teacher in a local college, building close relationships with community groups and grass-roots organizations, making sure that part of the money raised for the project would go to urgent local needs – in other words, creating conditions for the production and reception of the play. 

Annika Larson and Christoph Keller during the informal screening programme at the bar, 'Revisiting', selected by Magdalena Magiera and Daniela Comani, 2009. Courtesy: e-flux projects; photograph: Chris Frey

DR For me, UNP and The Building were ‘discursive’ projects first and foremost: places where talking about art often eclipsed its actual presentation – provided that one clings to the notion of separating both practices. Sometimes it’s okay to insist on this division, even though it’s often considered antiquated, for it can also mean that the talking and thinking prompted by art works can be more interesting and important than the art itself, and this was often the case at UNP.

ML I would argue that art was intrinsic to both UNP and The Building, but not in terms of presentation of discrete art objects: the paradigm of display was largely ignored in favour of art in many other shapes and forms. The proliferation of discursive projects does carry the risk of what Simon Sheikh has called ‘talk value’ – that it can turn into discussion for the sake of discussion, like any other formalism.

DR I am very wary of the all-too-self-conscious ‘excesses’ of discussion, where every utterance is too quickly and lazily fetishized into an art project, whether discrete or not; what I appreciated about much of the discourse at UNP was that it was so healthily aware of the dangers of calling any form of art-talk ‘performative’, and therefore ‘art’, while nonetheless remaining close to that grey zone of fruitful confusion. 

AV UNP was a collaboration with a large number of people. While I thought of it specifically as an art project, I cannot say for sure that it meant the same to other contributors, such as Groys for example, who don’t define themselves as artists. On the other hand, the talks were often quite different from regular university seminars or lectures: some of them were marathon-like in duration – meeting every night, including weekends, for several weeks; others were structured in unusual ways: for example one of the events Zolghadr organized placed the speakers in the kitchen, while the audience was supposed to listen in remotely, from the main room. Because the sound equipment was not working well, people got so angry that they barricaded the speakers in the kitchen and organized their own discussion that night. 

ML What was the significance of opening UNP in Berlin, as opposed to any other city? 

The e-flux video rental project at The Building, 2008-9. Courtesy: e-flux projects; photograph: Hans-Georg Gaul

AV When Manifesta 6 was cancelled three months before the opening, numerous lawsuits ensued and any possibility of realizing our project under the auspices of the Manifesta Foundation, or another existing institution, dissolved into thin air. All of the funding institutions and sponsors, with the exception of the Ford Foundation, withdrew. For the project to be realized, it had to be done completely independently and at a location ouside of Cyprus. Fortunately, e-flux was able to provide modest yet sufficient funding. After half a century of isolation and division, Berlin was a particularly interesting city for our school-in-exile. Following the fall of the Wall, many artists from Germany and Europe settled in the Eastern part of the city. This huge migration of cultural producers took place much faster than the development of any official art institutions. The result has been an incredible proliferation of self-organized exhibition spaces, collective venues and small independent institutions that have dominated the cultural landscape of Berlin for nearly two decades. These experimental projects enjoyed the same – and sometimes an even greater – degree of cultural legitimacy than the official institutional culture of the city.

DR UNP was relatively strange to Berlin’s cultural landscape, which is probably the reason for its ultimate success. I was often surprised by the huge number of people who turned up – not just the sheer number, but also their readiness to participate actively. That said, more generally speaking, I have often felt there is a relative lack of discursive sophistication in Berlin which UNP partly responded to.

ML I disagree. I think there is an amazing level of theoretical sophistication, higher than in most other cities that I know, but those people tend to stick to themselves. The issue is more the ‘internal’ tensions and struggles – a bit like the leftist groups in the 1960s and ’70s. Some of them, to my surprise, turned up at UNP, which was an achievement.

is the newly appointed Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA, where he is currently preparing a survey exhibition of the work of Goshka Macuga.