BY Justin Hoffmann in Reviews | 05 MAY 02
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Issue 67

Violence is at the Margin of All Things

BY Justin Hoffmann in Reviews | 05 MAY 02

Of course exhibition titles don't have to be logical. Yet you wonder why this show isn't called 'Violence is at the Centre of All Things', when its aim is to expose the fact that far-reaching social processes are often linked to violence. Although conceived some time ago, the exhibition's underlying theme was modified as the anti-globalization protests at the G8 Summit and the attack on the World Trade Center led to a reconsideration of violence and militancy as political tools. With an array of works about revolution and armed protest, 'Violence is at the Margin of All Things' aimed to contribute to this newly activated discourse and to pinpoint how artists today, and in the past, have reacted to it.

The exhibition opens with photographs from the series 'Commune de Paris' (1871). These were the only works on display whose authorship is unknown, and were almost the only documentary pictures in the show. Ironically, background information that would provide some insight into the artists, their political sympathies and the respective political context (many, for instance, may not know what the Paris Commune actually was), was waived. The historical setting was articulated purely through the works on show. Most of the participating artists are in fact friends of the curators, Berlin artists Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, who themselves showed a video in the style of a puppet film, some text-inscribed clothing and a fragment of writing as a scroll of text (Prolog, 2000).

During a public conversation Creischer described the show as a staging of aesthetic strategies that deal with violence and militancy. Fortunately, the little-known graphic work of Gerd Arntz from the 1920s and 1930s falls under this heading. Hardly anyone else at the time had been able convincingly to connect Realism with Constructivism, sociological statements with abstract structures of surfaces and iconic figures with the representation of space. Arntz also helped develop the distilled symbolic language that was later used for logo design or guidance systems and is still employed today as a political weapon in insurrections such as that in Argentina. To remind us of the present and past victims of state terrorism Grupo de Arte Callejero painted subversive protest symbols, in the style of road signs, on the streets of Buenos Aires (Iconas, 2001, and Iconas 2, 2001).
The history of painting and politics is reflected in the works of Gérard Fromanger from the 1970s and in the current work of Dierk Schmidt. Both artists work with set pieces linking the present and the past. In the diptych La mort de Caius Gracchus/ La Vie et la Mort du Peuple (The Death of Caius Gracchus/The Life and Death of the People, 1975) Fromanger connects the execution of the 'first communist', Babeuf, with references to antiquity and a street scene from the 1970s; Schmidt's Untitled (2001-2) offers a glimpse into the Louvre of the 19th century and of today. But one consequence of the plethora of quotations and allusions was that both artists' compositions demanded considerable effort to decode.

To use the police as an integral part of an artistic work can certainly produce a great deal of fun. Klaus Weber does this by giving notice to the authorities of forthcoming demonstrations. As he is the only demonstrator, the police become unwilling protagonists. Weber's video Demo Inverse (2001) shows how the sole participants in one such 'demo' (which lasted exactly four minutes), a police transporter and a car, ended up positioned back to back.

Ultra-red, a group of audio-activists from L.A., used acoustic recordings of the riots at the World Trade Summit in Seattle for their sound and slide show N 30 (2001). The noises and uproar of the events are integrated into an electronic track that further intensifies the severity and violence of the disputes. Ultra-red turn the political conflict into an audio experience.

However, most of the works remained isolated from the often complex political backgrounds. The concentration on autonomous art productions and the avoidance of discursive, process-based art practices made clear that the curators were wary of suggesting too simple and direct a relationship between art and politics. As a result there was little discussion about the actual role of aesthetic strategies in revolts and revolutions - which in the face of incidents such as the months of unlawful detention that the Viennese culture activists of the 'Volxtheater' endured after the Genoa summit would have seemed reasonable.