BY Max Henry in Reviews | 15 MAY 12
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Issue 5

At Your Service - Kunst und Arbeitswelt

Technisches Museum & ERSTE


BY Max Henry in Reviews | 15 MAY 12

Adrian Paci, Turn On, 2004, video projection

The unusual yet striking setting for this year-long exhibition exemplifies how contempo­rary art can unobtrusively adapt to non white-cube surroundings without losing a beat. Hosted by the Technisches Museum Wien (which holds seminal technological inventions), the show features Pavel Braila, Anna Jermolaewa, Daniel Knorr, Ulrike Lienbacher, Harun Farocki, Adrian Paci and Anne Tallentire. The works – mostly videos – were installed throughout the museum, beside oversized artefacts of past epochs.

In the massive entry hall, Jermolaewa confronted visitors with an large-scale photo installation – reminiscent of a Soviet Union–style yearbook – on a prismatic wall chart. In Roll of Honor (2012), the subjects are the museum employees, from conservators to janitors, whose portraits are ordered alphabetically according to their family names;

the hierarchical socio-economic structure of the museum is levelled by letters.

Meandering around the dinosaurs of the industrial era, one could stumble upon Braila’s engrossing A Tribute to the Typewriter: The Ink Ribbon’s Fingerprints (2012). The film was projected above vitrines showing early to late models of typewriters which Braila had selected from the museum collection. With narrated film clips and animations, the film moved from the typewriter’s first patent by Henry Mill in 1714 to its use in industry, military engineering, politics, literature, media theory and, ultimately, by the largely female workforce of secretaries. It was revelatory to see that we’re still linked to this past via the humble keyboard.

Up in the rafters in another area was a constellation of motorized surveillance mirrors by Ulrike Lienbacher. The silvery convex mirrors of Detectives (2012) were hanging on long stems and seemed to rotate in all directions while keeping an eye on the steam engine displayed below – a juxtaposition manifesting the shift from manufacturing to today’s security systems. While Lienbacher’s low-tech mirrors predate surveillance cameras, they suggest an automation making human guards obsolete.

Daniel Knorr, Lui und Morti, 2002

Knorr’s Alpha & Beta Begging Robots (2012) – which references the sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics – was installed inside one of the museum’s pea-shaped fibreglass pavilions. Entering the structure, one encountered a panoramic light-box installation consisting of photographs of three crudely designed metallic robots, shown both as schematic drawings and as finished prototypes. One fully built robot stood outside the pavilion ready to perform as an interactive sculpture: activated by a crank-handle in its back, it offered a compliment and then asked for a coin to pay for its upkeep.

A human story haunts the development of labour, economics and production. While increasing productivity, technology decreases manual labour. People are discarded and become marginalized in society. Paci’s video Turn On (2004) drives this point home with forlorn men sitting on concrete steps and waiting for work in Shkodra, Albania. As dusk settles, each starts his own power generator – a necessity since the electricity can be as sporadic as the jobs. The railway – which still supplies workers commuting into Austria from Eastern Europe – shows up in Jermolaewa’s Nordbahn (North Railway, 2012). These videos of the artist’s interviews with commuters were presented on three monitors beside an Ajax locomotive, a model that ran on Austria’s first steam railway in 1838.

Ironically, the monitor showing Harun Farocki’s Vergleich über ein Drittes (Comparison with a Third, 2007) – a comparative study of brickmaking in Africa, Asia and Europe –wasn’t functioning during my two visits. Throughout the exhibition, curators Christiane Erharter and Silvia Eiblmayr emphasized the socio-political-economic issues related to technology and labour. In light of the current rise in unemployment, perhaps the idle monitor was technology’s expression of solidarity with the workers.

Max Henry is a writer based in Vienna, Austria.