lne Gevers curator  \  writer  \  activist

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Place, Position, Presentation, Public

On the 7th, 8th and 9th of April 1992 the symposium Place Position Presenta­tion Public was held at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht. Place Position Presentation Public aimed to give an impetus to the debate that has evolved around the question of a possible critical function of art. The discussion concentrated on the tense relationship between art and the channels used to present it. These channels may create the conditions necessary for art's existence, at the same time they limit its effectiveness. The following distinctions were made in the context of this symposium: Museums and Galleries as institutions which legitimize and authorize art, but thereby implicitly subdue or reduce its critical sounds to an acceptable level; The Public Space as a "place" where works of art can enter into more direct relations with the environment - in a physical, spatial, and temporal, but also social and political sense - but also a place which has become problematical because it is obsolete; and The New Media, which, both as contexts and as instruments, open perspectives for new realities within which other priorities hold, in terms of logic, myth, and ideology.

From this perspective, choices which are made with respect to place, position, presentation and public have far-reaching consequences for the meaning, functioning and effectiveness of the work of art. They can no longer be considered to be external factors outside of the signifying field of the work but rather should be seen as an essential element in the production process as a whole. The question which was the basis for these issues, and also the guideline for the symposium, was formulated as follows: how is it possible for a work of art, given the manipulative and ideologically affirmative strategies of the (institutional) systems within which it has to function, to play a role that is of any political, social, or aesthetic interest?

The publication which resulted from the symposium Place Position Presentation Public is now ready. With this introduction I hope to account for the chosen formula of a symposium followed by a publication.

A symposium is a gathering of more or less like-minded people with the aim of speaking about or discussing previously selected topics. Symposia were already known in ancient Greece, where a heterogeneous group of people would meet, and while enjoying food and drink, openly and freely express their opinions, define and differentiate them in relation to each other's viewpoints. This inevitably results in differences in position, viewpoint, and outlook. It is this which makes a symposium such an inspiring, but also vulnerable form of information transfer or communication. The contributions, papers, and discussions usually form such a complex whole that it is extremely difficult to find a vantage point from which to gain a comprehensive view of them all. Many listeners find that symposia create confusion rather than clarity, and some ask why such gatherings are still being organized. In answer to this question I would like to reflect on my own intentions and expectations, and their results.

Preparing a symposium is in some ways like preparing an exhibition. First a careful research stage in which the concept and the central question are formulated, then finding the precise ingredients in the form of participants, and finally the crucial moment of the lay-out: creating the context. This contextual approach reminds one of that of multi-media installations: attention is given not to an autonomous object/subject or a privileged signifier, but rather to the interrelational system as a whole. The observer does not only stand at a crossroads of identities, perspectives and significants, as a participant s/he is an intermediary her/himself. The signifying process to which words, images, and events contribute in relation to their syntactic as well as social context, both explicitly and implicitly given, is, to a large extent, determined by him or her. The organizers can be expected to provide a programme in which choices and possible relations are carefully examined so as to guarantee the optimal circumstances for the creation of such individual and collective meanings.

The following considerations played a role in the conceptualizing of the symposium: the central question had to be thoroughly worked out and sharply defined so that there could be no doubt as to the project's intention and aim. The participants were required to have clearly demonstrated political or social commitment through their work as artists, theoreticians, or critics. However, other criteria also played a part. Although political and social commitment were a prerequisite, other factors determine the very possibility of taking a position, and both its nature and quality. In other words, subjective conditions such as race, class, sex, and age determine one's identity - however fragmentary - which is the basis for finally taking a position. It is for this reason that a maximum of variety in race, sex, language (cultural background) and age were aimed at during the selection of the participants. Such a combination implies a great deal of differentiation of standpoints, which can be seen as a destabilizing factor in relation to the notions of place, position, presentation, and public. In particular because the problem of fusion of object and subject - product and producer - can no longer be ignored. After all, although these notions in the sense of 'placing', 'positioning', 'presenting', and 'interpreting' are in the first instance read as referring to the object (work of art, text, media installation), they can also be interpreted in relation to the producing subject. Even more strongly: recognizing that a work of art, a text, or an intervention influences the way subjectivity is produced in our society, also implies the realization that this influence is reversible: subjectivity in its turn influences the meaning and function of the work. And every work is produced by one (or more) subject(s), a subject who may have a clear intention in making a work or art or writing a text, but who has no decisive authority over its meanings or implications.

This is not only the consequence of the impossibility of exercising complete control over the presentation, representation and (mis)interpretation of the work. The fact is that the producing subject does not only include the artist's consciousness, but also his or her unconscious and non-conscious, the domain not subject to repression but not within the reach of consciousness either. This is the area covered by the notion of dominant ideology: the whole system of myths and prejudices which determines our view of society and the way we inscribe ourselves in it (1). To put it in another way: the field of dominant ideology - inherent in subjectivity produced by all of us and controlled by those who are in power - is itself as much part of the production process as it is involved in determining the meaning of a work in its context of place, position, and presentation. It is impossible to place ourselves outside our ideologically controlled and mediated society, outside what we could call the 'public sphere'. But this is no reason to refrain from action, engagement, and taking up positions either, however fragmentary, unfixed, and temporary they may be. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, it is only in action that a person discloses her or his 'who-ness': it is only in action that we come to know ourselves, and enable others to know us. Although society tends to identify us completely with what we are, the central issue is if we can create the possibilities, at the same time, to differentiate and express who we are (2). Only 'in action' we can give ourselves insight into the way in which we construct our environment and, by doing so, open up possibilities for alternative routes.

The first day's papers dealt with issues relating to Museums and Galleries. Debora Meijers, Charles Harrison, Andrea Fraser and Martha Rosler had been invited to give the initial impetus to discussion on this topic. The day was characterized by a great variety of discourses which met each other at various points, criss-crossed, or ran parallel to each other. Though there were no diametrically opposed opinions nor mutually incompatible arguments, the closing discussion etched the divergent nature of the perspectives which had been opened.

Debora Meijers opened the session with a historical sketch of collection and exhibition-oriented activities of museums and galleries in the 17th , 18th, and 19th centuries. This was prompted by the phenomenon of the so-called 'a-historical' exhibitions currently being presented by 'art-popes' such as Rudi Fuchs and Harald Szeeman. Meijers demonstrates that this is no typical late-20th century phenomenon, but that the roots of non-chronological exhibitions go back to the 17th century. Though her analysis ironically exposes the universalizing value judgements of both Fuchs and Szeeman, and puts them into perspective, Meijers' aim is not simply to wag a moralizing finger. The subjective approach of both these exhibition makers may smack of wanting to prescribe 'good taste', but it is also a reflection of our time: a time in which art historical notions of chronological development and separate styles are seen as constructs which could just as well be replaced by other frameworks.

Charles Harrison also approached his subject - modernism - from a historical perspective. He ultimately came to the proposition that the so-called schism between realism (politics) and modernism (aesthetics) is illusory. That is: Greenberg's view of modernism in which the development of art is seen as an autonomous, formal process, is only partly true, and therefore distorted. According to Harrison, the essence of modernism lies is the dilemma of how to link the aesthetic dimension of art with politics. In this sense modernism cannot be seen as a purely affirmative or a negativist undertaking. Modernism is also not the exclusive property of 'high culture': it has always been fed by non-aesthetic sources. Modernism was also class-conscious: an example is the problematical relationship between modernistic artists and art institutions (museums and galleries). Harrison uses these and other arguments to attempt to provide an alternative historical context which does justice to the critical role of conceptual art, particularly Art & Language.

Andrea Fraser presented an "artist's statement". Basing herself on the psycho-analytical theories of Freud and Lacan, and the sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu, she defines art and academic institutions as power-based relational systems, which can be analysed at both a practical and an ethical level. Though she initially communicated her criticism of institutions through performances - taking on a role outside herself, that of a voluntary guide in a museum -, she now limits herself to the role of artist. However, though at the beginning of her career Fraser had the illusion that by creating a distance between herself and the class whose "bourgeois domestic culture" she was partly producing, she could maintain a certain autonomy in relation to its institutions, now she is more pessimistic. In her role of guide she could not dissociate herself from the conflict between those who owned the culture and those who had an educational relationship to it, a battle which is fought particularly within art institutes, and whose prize is the public. Each side appropriated her critical work as a confirmation of its own identity in contrast to the other. It is not even possible to remain outside this conflict as an artist. After all, as an artist she only has the power to appropriate symbolic objects, texts, representations, and practices, when she distinguishes between herself as a producer (of culture) and the other as a non-producer. Again the same pitfall. What other position is possible? After listing a great number of alternatives, her tentative conclusion is that it is impossible for an artist to protect himself within the dominant culture, which is able to assimilate and defuse almost everything.

Though presented with humour and irony, Fritz Rahmann's demonstration also did not express unmixed enthusiasm at the present state of affairs. He drew his arguments from historical sources and his experience with Buro Berlin, an artists' initiative which was set up in the early 80s with the aim of developing forms of production and organization which could function independently of the more established, traditional channels. The initiators (Rahmann, Herman Pitz, and Raimund Kummer) were interested not so much in making objects as in generating processes aimed at public situations in general. According to Rahmann this way of working made it possible to present instead of simply represent. That is, show facts and make them an item of discussion rather than reformulate already existing values. Though this process made the value of art production clear to those involved in it, it also confronted them with its limitations. As Rahmann said: "As soon as facts have become art they are turned into social values. The fre­quency of the breaks proves that it works like that". Merely presenting, without any eye for representation, was tantamount to professional non-existence for Rahmann, Pitz, Kummer, and others. In the Buro Berlin phase they did not choose for the kind of professionalism Rahmann described as follows: to be of any sort of social significance an artist has to "respond (to the well-meaning institutions), corres­pond to (their) timetable, make a name and go regular­ly".

Martha Rosler closed the day with slides of various projects she had executed in New York. The exhibition "If you lived here...", about homeless people in New York, (Dia Art Foundation, 1989) was treated extensively. As an artist and as a critic Rosler prefers to treat social questions which arise from the way in which (art) institutions and the media confirm and reproduce existing relationships of race, class and sex.  

As chairman Roslers' first question to the panel was thus how the various participants could link the subjects they brought up with the issues she raised. This made crystal clear what had already emerged from the papers: though all the participants, without exception, subscribed to the notion that all art is essentially political, opinions diverged as soon as the relationship between politics and aesthetics was at stake. It became obvious that the various approaches stemmed from the European or American background of the speakers, which is not surprising seeing the different histories and traditions of these cultures. Rahmann's answer to the repeated question of how the artist/theoretician can achieve any effect at all with his or her product was a plea for the individual gesture which must not be frustrated in advance by postulating generalizations like "issues of race, class and gender". Andrea Fraser riposted that institutional criticism remains a prerequisite as long as power relationships remain a fact:

"If we do not keep saying who the enemy is, we will constantly reproduce the power rela­tions constructed by these institutions". Debora Meijers and Charles Harrison followed Rahmann's lead, Harrison emphasizing the importance of a distinction between effectiveness and the quality of the effect. Or, in Rahmann's terms: effectiveness cannot be limited to providing (institutional) criticism, but requires an approach that dares to go at least one step further.

Public Space was the central topic of the second day. The papers by Cor Blok, Michael Lingner, Dennis Adams, Adrian Piper, Norbert Radermacher, and Patricia Philips fitted together better than did those of the preceding day. Blok and Lingner's followed on from each other particularly well, and after Adams, Piper, and Radermacher had clarified their positions as artists, Patricia Philips again brought up the urgent and predominating problem of defining today's public space.

Cor Blok's lecture concentrated on the dilemma in which art in public space now finds itself. "Meaningful decoration" as can be found at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam no longer exists, because a pictorial language that can be collectively understood no longer exists, and because "meaningful decoration" presupposes that the artist subscribes to the values which the object to be decorated represents. For the past two hundred years the critical tradition has revolted against these kinds of assumptions. But public space has also lost its collective character: it is no longer "ours"   but "theirs", that amorphous "they" who impose on us not only traffic rules and consumer goods, but also art. And on top of this, Blok argues, the notion of "space" has lost its fixed meaning, through the mobility and constant changes of the modern urban environment, and through the highly "nomadic" character of art.

Michael Lingner also began with a historical analysis. He supported his proposition that contemporary art is developing in the direction of public projects by reviewing the history of the last 40 years: the history of Germany legislation relating to "Kunst-am-Bau", the history of autonomous art which led to a self-chosen dead end, and finally the description of some recent public works which function in the post-autonomous manner advocated by Lingner. His most important thesis is that till now modern art has been involved exclusively in conquering and maintaining its own autonomy (in content, form, taste, and concept). Having become the medium for the free individual's self-determination and identity, the end was in sight for classical modernism. The final step was to put its own, self-initiated idea of full autonomy into question. However, instead of accepting the "anything goes" strategy of postmodernism, Lingner proposes an approach which is based on the idea of post-autonomy. Art has reached the final point on the way towards aesthetic autonomy, and can now no longer avoid surpassing its own inner logic, and focussing on external impulses. Schiller's notion of heautonomy was brought up in this context. Heautonomy is a form of autonomy which is not so much an instrument against society, as one which can be worked out within society. In this sense heautonomous art is the consequence of autonomous selection of alternative heteronomous functions outside oneself (outside the artistic plane). Art is part of a heautonomous structure. Lingner's thinking is based on, among others, the theories of the system-theoretician Niklas Luhmann, who claims that nowadays it is no longer the work of art itself which counts, but the communication about products which are called works of art. From this point of view artistic quality is dependent on the quality of this "communication", a notion which he interprets very widely (3).

After a brief introduction in which he further explained his position as a nomadic artist aiming at public spaces, Dennis Adams discussed various examples illustrated by slides. Doing justice to the title of his paper, 'Masquerade and ambivalence', he first thoroughly described and analysed the diverse locations he had chosen, before treating the work itself. His research into "society's collective memory" - aimed particularly at those aspects which are marginalized, suppressed, or forgotten by official histories - stimulated many reactions. Charles Harrison and Norbert Radermacher, for instance, advanced the view that art involves more than such unambiguous and demonstrative emphasizing of social or political hot issues. Earlier on, in his paper, Harrison had stated: "Politi­cal themes are not simply availa­ble to be used as discursive alternatives to the dogmatisation of the aesthetic".

Though Adrian Piper's viewpoint, like Adams's, is strongly politically motivated, it is quite different from his. Her motives for social commitment and resistance to the dominant culture are more personal: she is a woman and is black. Though her work is far from autobiographical, she often uses her own body and persona as a subject or a starting point. Piper sees racism as a form of xenophobia, the instinctive tendency of every human being to reject those things or people which do not fit into his or her familiar categories. Her works - performances, audio-visual installations, political works - aim to confront viewers uncompromisingly with their personal and often suppressed and therefore unconscious reactions to 'the Other'. Public space is for Piper not so much a location which is limited to a particular area, as the whole public sphere at which her message is aimed.

After Piper's long exposition, Norbert Radermacher felt the need for a brief introduction with the minimum of words. His subtle interventions in the urban environment, usually not asked for, are like aesthetic jewels that fit in perfectly. It is only later that they reveal their slightly ironic and subversive identity. Radermacher's contribution suggests a strategy which might be considered paradigmatic of what could be called a European approach: achieving aesthetic autonomy while being focussed on external impulses. For him aesthetics and politics/ethics have formed a close union.

Patricia Philips closed with slides and commentary on the increasing problems round the notion of public space as such. Public and private are no longer clear-cut, separate domains, and no longer cover the associations of the term "public space". That is: public space has become an undefinable, dynamic notion which is no longer attached to a place. Partly because of the influence of the electronic media the public sphere has shifted from traditional public areas to the most private setting: the living room. Public and private overlap completely. Our present experience of environment has been changed so radically by this that the intellectual and emotional adjustment which it requires of artists, theoreticians and public can be called a major challenge.

The context sketched by Philips enabled the question discussed during the preceding day to be posed even more precisely: "How can art in public space still be effective - in a broader sense than the ego-directed reference of the autonomous work of art". Fritz Rahmann complained that most contemporary art which is presented under the flag of "public art" is no more than a representation of what public art should be. That is: it has already been transported to another level, and therefore, according to Rahmann it no longer functions within the public sphere for which it was initially intended. What is more, the very idea of producing public art comes from "high culture", which as such is imposed on "low culture". Both Adrian Piper and Dennis Adams vehemently attacked this proposition. Piper interprets "public" as the total public sphere, including the domain of representation, within which action can be undertaken. Public as referring to place is no longer an adequate use of the term, and she considers the distinction between high and low culture, as suggested by Rahmann, to be an anachronism. Dennis Adams interpreted Rahmann's dilemma as the problem of "the new public space" (the area of the new media) as opposed to "the old public space" (the public areas in the traditional sense). Without wanting to be nostalgic, he thought that despite the rise of this new public sphere, we have not automatically lost the old one: "we still have bodies". The problem is rather, as Philips had already indicated, that it is no longer possible to distinguish between the two domains, like locating the difference between private and public, and between presentation and representation. It is in this sense that the human aspect, as raised by Dennis Adams among others, is being forced into a corner.

Some listeners found new points of departure in Michael Lingner's contribution. Post-autonomous art is essentially public, and only functions in a public/communicative sense. Instead of producing an aesthetic experience for its own sake (Art for Art's Sake), art will (again) have to focus on external signals. It is only in terms of communication - understood as more than simply the exchange of words - that the ideal of the Enlightenment as part of the modern project can be carried on and art can outlive itself.

The third day, that of The new media, promised to further increase the complexity of the questions posed.

Michael Zinganel, a young Austrian artist, represents a generation of artists who have grown up with the accelerating developments in electronic media. This familiarity might explain the naturalness with which he handles these media, and, combined with an absurdist sense of perspective, uses them to balance on the edge of wonder and nihilism. His implicit criticisms of both the continuing self-confirmation of modernistic autonomous art, and the post-modern mythologizing of the new media were carefully measured, so that the implications of his models of representation and visualization only registered after some reflection.

The approaches of Judith Barry, Laura Mulvey, and Peter Weibel form a contrast to Zinganel's 'reduction technique'. Though they are also based on scanning the possibilities of electronic media in relation to new frameworks of space and time, their arguments seem to stem from more idealistic attitudes.

Judith Barry, originally an architect and designer of stands for fairs and conventions, addresses herself as an artist to public space in the most general sense of the word. Her projects are based on finding ways to use architecture, design, film, and television to deconstruct the manipulative strategies of the mass media. The advent of virtual reality has extended her territory enormously through the way it serves as a guide to the ideological shaping of public space and the subject as a part of it. Barry's contribution consisted of a description of these projects, both those which have been executed, and those which exist as concepts.

Laura Mulvey also dealt with the manipulative strategies of the media. She used both the Freudian and the Marxist concept of the fetish to analyse the representation of women in films, video, and on t.v. As an academic and a long-time feminist she hopes, like Barry, to develop methods which could lead to the deconstruction of patriarchal and power-related ideology as they are reproduced by film, video and the public media.

Peter Weibel also considers it beyond dispute that all forms of reality have been appropriated by ideology. As is to be expected of the king in the land of new media (he is the director of the Insti­tut fur Neue Medien in the Stadelschule in Frankfurt and director of Ars Electronica in Linz), Weibel made a plea for virtual reality as the only tenable, endurable, and ideologically manageable reality. He sees virtual reality as a necessary extension of the interface between reality and fantasy. Access to virtual reality makes it possible to take distance from the ideologically constructed system which we call reality. From this position we can come to new insights on the basis of which new strategies can be developed. Though Weibel realizes that his own representation of reality is of course also not free of ideology, he still considers virtual reality to be the only imaginable context within which initiatives can be developed which could lead to a better society.

However passionately the content of some of the papers mentioned above was put forward, most of the arguments were limited to the complex, discursive field of techno-electronic terminology. This semiotic category of 'science fiction-language' was finally broken out of by the contributions of Keith Piper and Jean Fisher. Piper wiped the floor with the self-confirming high-tech discourse by putting it at the service of his in-depth social analysis. Through his multi-media works and installations he exposes the suppressed, silenced, and forgotten histories and experiences related to his own subjectivity and the position and identity of black individuals in general in our society. At the same time he examines the possible emancipatory potential of the new media in the process of reformulation of African and Caribbean identities.

Fisher also poses the problem of the gulf to be bridged between the fascinating field of the new media and the field of their signification in a larger, social formation. In the hope that the new media will eventually contribute to the development of alternative perspectives and the ability to take up positions other than one's own, she critically followed the achievements by contemporary artists in the fields of film, audio, and video. Her conviction that the new media have a role to play in the development of destabilizing and deconstructing strategies in order to question the established relationships in our society made her argument into a refreshing and positive contribution to the last day.

The discussion, continued by Fisher, was stimulating because of repeated attempts by herself and Laura Mulvey to break through the technological discourse and bring the discussion back to what one could call "social reality". They were not satisfied with Peter Weibel's suggestion that we seek our salvation in the new media in general, and in virtual reality in particular, in any case, not without subjecting their conditions and social implications to a thorough inspection.

This last round of talks in the symposium Place Position Presentation Public brought up a number of fascinating questions. Is virtual reality our last resort, allowing us to take up a position outside ourselves, outside the reality which we have constructed ourselves? Can the techno-electronic media offer more than pure spectacle in this area? That is, do they add new stories to our collective history, whereby in a social sense new relationships and occurrences can take place?

If so, under what conditions; what is the quality of these new forms of communication? Can these media, seen from this viewpoint, be of emancipatory significance in interrelational exchanges between people, or do they merely reproduce already existing power relationships within their own discursive field?

Within this complex force field we have to state our demands and lay down our conditions and here, as creatures of flesh and blood, we have to learn both individually and collectively to experience and live the newly acquired reality, and critically review our position(s) within it.

It remains for me to thank the above-mentioned artists and theoreticians for their enthusiastic participation. Without their efforts, both during and after the symposium, this publication would not have been possible. Finally, let me thank Jan van Toorn, Heinz Paetzold, Cor Blok, Oscar van Alphen, and Sebastian Lopez for their advice during the preparation of this symposium.

Ine Gevers, Jan van Eyck Akademie, 1992

See for this Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Langua­ge, New York 1984 (French edition 1974)
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago 1958
Hans Dieter Huber, Interview with Niklas Luhmann, in Texte zur Kunst, 1, nr.4, 1991