tirsdag den 24. februar 2015


The other day I visited a seminar on socially engaged art in public space. Yet another one. But this one was different. After the presentations, a man stood up and introduced himself as a local politician. He wanted to know why he should hire an artist to deal with marginalized groups, and not a social worker. Why he should hire an artist to design a public convenience, and not an architect. The answer that he was given was that artists are less likely to be associated with authority and can therefore communicate more easily with the people concerned.

On the face of it, this is a sympathetic argument. It is certainly one that is often used in texts on socially engaged art. It features prominently in Grant Kester’s classic Conversation Pieces (2004), where WochenKlausur’s project Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women (1994) is singled out as an example of artists breaking a bureaucratic deadlock. Local politicians and bureaucrats in Zurich were unable to find a solution to problems relating to drug-addicted prostitutes, so WochenKlausur took them out on the Lake of Zurich on a boat and got them to talk together. On facing pages, Kester reproduces images of the boat and the boardinghouse that resulted from the intervention. In the context of the argument, the boat comes to symbolize the role of the artists as free agents and the boardinghouse the solution.

But sympathetic though it may be, an argument like this is unlikely to satisfy a politician or bureaucrat: it implicitly turns him or her into the one who has the real problem. The drug-addicted women may lead a rotten life, but the authorities that are supposed to have the power to do something about it are unable to use it to good effect. The artist, on the other hand, is portrayed as someone who is able to do something and therefore gets the hero’s role. Unfortunately, I was unable to speak to the local politician after the seminar, but I would not be at all surprised if he left with a feeling of finding himself amongst strangers.

As an art historian, I am quite naturally drawn to arguments such as the ones fielded by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells (2012), based on the idea of antagonism. Of course Kester had very little previous art historical literature to draw on while Bishop could base her argument on an analysis of Kester’s, but the difference is telling. While Kester focuses on the type of communication used by socially engaged artists in their interaction with society, Bishop focuses on debates within the art world as well. Her argument is centered on art world concerns – object quality, artistic intention, questions of reception – and distinguishes between a primary audience, consisting of the people who are directly involved in the project, and a secondary one, consisting of anybody who is interested in the work but who has not been involved. Again speaking as an art historian, something that happened amongst strangers is returned to my world. Lovely.

Bishop does not reproduce Kester’s two illustrations of WochenKlausur’s project, but she does reproduce two of his other illustrations, not next to each other on facing pages, but underneath each other on a single one. Kester separates them with two text pages, but Bishop brings them together in what we can understand from the text on the facing page is an opposition – not necessarily one between the works, but between the ways they are read by Kester. The works are Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993-4) and Loraine Leeson/The Art of Change’s West Meets East (1992). Kester contrasts the former’s object-based approach with the latter’s dialogue-based one, but not in a simple opposition: associating Whiteread with the avant-garde tradition of disruption and Leeson with a dialogical approach beyond and outside the avant-garde as a well-known art historical form, he also claims that art historical arguments are naturally biased against dialogical practices. The avant-garde is “ours”, dialogue is “theirs”. Directly confronting the two works on one page enables Bishop to reabsorb them, and Kester’s argument, into the art discourse. As she points out, both works have form and both elicit affective responses. Even if Whiteread conceived her work in the studio and Leeson allowed it to crystallize in dialogue, the result is a form. And even if in Whiteread’s case the debate raged after the audience was confronted with the work while Leeson’s practice puts a premium on the debates taking place before the work is served for the general public, there is still a public.

Kester’s argument distinguishes between hierarchical and hierarchy-free communication, the one geared towards results and the other towards mutual understanding. His two photographs of WochenKlausur’s intervention function almost as a Derridean exergue, an introduction that inscribes the argument on the text before it is unfolded: the rocking boat of hierarchy-free communication vs. the solid foundations of the boardinghouse as a result of hierarchical communication after mutual understanding was reached. But so do the images in Bishop’s book, identical to the ones reproduced by Kester. In her case, the implication is that the same thing may be read differently, thus introducing her approach as based on the arguments employed by others, be they artists or theorists.
Bishop notes, quite rightly, that the success of socially engaged art is never measured by means of comparisons with non-art projects that attempt something similar. Nevertheless, such an evaluation was demanded by the politician at the seminar. The documentation of two phases of a single art project, as in Kester, or the documentation of the final form of two different projects, as in Bishop, cannot supply it, as both are premised on the Look of the Book.

Significantly, one of the items that featured prominently during the seminar was a book that is in the process of being produced about the work of the artist who answered the politician. Pages containing text and illustrations. I agree with Bishop that it is important to see socially engaged art as art, produced by an artist and consumed by an audience. I agree with Kester that socially engaged art implies non-art processes and subjects. But both make their arguments by means of the Look of the Book, and I agree with the politician that art projects in this particular field are consumed by others than the art world and should therefore be accountable outside as well as in. Other juxtapositions are called for: not just the opposition between object and dialogue or the similarity between the object-based and the dialogue-based as art, but also the oppositions and similarities resulting from the project’s identity as something to be decided upon by a city council, to be administrated by a bureaucracy and to be lived with by ordinary citizens, quite apart from art world concerns. For the sake of dialogue and antagonism, the politician should have been up there giving his view of the project, not in the audience asking a question. His agendas, minutes and reports should have been up there, next to the book.


Writing about Knud Pedersen reminded me of another obituary I wrote but never published. Since the man in question made a profound and lasting impression on me, just like Pedersen did, I thought I'd publish it here, now. On the left is a picture of the man, and below is the text:

This is a blog entry about Carlheinz ”Arthus” Caspari. I only met him once, but he made a big impression on me. And now he has passed away. Several years ago, actually. I was never particularly good at keeping in touch and he was never particularly good at answering e-mails. But it is a great shame that the world now has to manage without its Caspari.

It is not easy to write about him. Towards the end of our only meeting, at his home just outside Hamburg, he showed me some pickle jars. They contained parts of his archives, or rather, the papers he accumulated during the course of his life. He sold them, but under a condition: if the buyer opened a jar, he/she had to memorise the documents it contained, destroy them and pass on their contents in an oral form. It is a form of archiving that is inimical to the archive, but also one that suits the man extremely well. So if one wants to write about Caspari, and if one wants to do so in a way that respects his views, it has to be done in a non-archival way.Therefore, I will not use any source material. I will not even mention his birth and death dates, because that would make it possible to pin him down on a timeline, safely caught between two points. The only clue I will give is that Caspari was old enough to have fought on the Eastern front during World War II. Otherwise, I will just write down the first things I remember about him; put some entirely personal and subjective accounts into the circulation that he valued so highly.

The first thing I remember is what he told me about being a German in Paris, just after World War II. Caspari lived in the French zone of occupation. He trained as a theatre director, and because he was on friendly terms with the local French military commander, he obtained a visa that enabled him to study French contemporary theater. When he arrived in Paris, he found that his visa and his letters of recommendation gave him access to the theatres, but no more than that. The actors, who were often of Jewish descent, refused to speak to him or even shake his hand, so he ended up just sitting and watching them rehearse.

Another thing I remember is that he was the inventor of the Eastern as a film genre. Working for German television, he came up with the idea of making a series about the Russian conquest of Siberia, as a response to the long-established genre of the Western. What struck me about this idea was that it put him at odds with both sides of the East/West conflict. It identified both the Soviet Union and the US as expansionist powers, imperialist in their very roots. As in Paris, it left him standing all on his own, although his time not as a German amongst the enemies of Germany, but as an original thinker in a world that chooses sides.

A third thing I remember is what he told me about his collaboration with the Dutch artist Constant. They met when Constant was working on New Babylon, an urban environment designed for the man of the future, Homo Ludens, Man the Player. Caspari argued that New Babylon only could function after a profound revolution in our way of thinking, and he decided to define and pave the way for that way of thinking. He called it “Labyr”, part laboratory, part labyrinth, part labour and part something else entirely. Once again he was on his own, not because he ignored history or the logic of the present, not even because he chose the future, but because he placed himself outside the logic of modern Western time altogether. There is no connection between time as we see it, as a regular, measurable, linear form of progression, and Labyristic time.

Now I would like to stress that these are just things that struck me. Personal thoughts that cannot be read as verifiable, logical conclusions. This is how I will remember him: as geographically and temporarily at odds with the rest of the world, a person the like of which we will not see again in a hurry.


I am unable to generate ideas like Knud Pedersen’s. It was only him who could do that. But if I was to give it a try, I would propose to commemorate his death on 18 December last year with a Knud Pedersen Day. He often spoke about the time he had been invited to give six lectures on Fluxus at the Department of Literature at Aarhus University in 1982. Instead of droning on from the safety of a lectern, he asked the students to start, develop and end a project. Knud Pedersen Day, as I imagine it, has to start, develop and end just like that. As Pedersen himself wrote, not about a day but about a chair: “it is exactly by not specifying it that it gets attention”. The idea with Knud Pedersen Day is to give special attention to a day by not specifying it. Actually, it would be better if it was not called Knud Pedersen Day.

To make a day special by not specifying it is a logical impossibility. Pedersen liked impossible projects. To give just one example, he applied for the job of General Secretary of NATO in 2008, together with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Fogh could be the secretary and Pedersen the general. He knew beforehand that the answer would be “no” and treated the rejection as a kind of trophy. On the other hand, he also happily allowed himself to be surprised when one of his projects became a reality anyway. In 2013, he proposed to let a pupil at Aalborg Cathedral School scratch his or her initials into a wall where others had done the same thing from 1540 until 1848. He seemed a bit disappointed when he got permission, but he accepted it. If you start a project, you have to live with the result, whether you expected it or not.

The impossible is one thing, but there is something else about the history of the Fluxus lectures at Aarhus that says a great deal about Pedersen. By setting others an assignment instead of accepting one himself, he appropriated a university’s core business. He did not respond to the invitation as much as to the institution that did the inviting. Throughout his entire life, Pedersen has worked with (infra)structures. He was not interested in what it was that was being communicated, but how it was communicated. It is tempting to think that this preoccupation with infrastructures already motivated his resistance activities as a member of the Churchill Club during World War II, which were directed against the infrastructures that supported the occupation. It certainly motivated his work within the arts. The first time he manifested himself on the Copenhagen art scene was with Byens Billede, the Picture of the City, a wood-and-steel easel for the display of a single work of art in public space. In 1958, he opened Kunstbiblioteket, the Art Library, where people could borrow a work of art for the price of a packet of cigarettes a week. Neither project, nor other ones such as Faxe kører med kunst ("Faxe Drives with Art) from 1965, during which works of art were driven through the country on the back of brewery lorries, were intended to promote a specific type of art. It was all about the way it was distributed; about infrastructures.

For Knud Pedersen Day to be a project in the spirit of Pedersen, then, it is not enough for the day to remain unspecified, the project as such has to have an infrastructural bias as well. Preferably, it should engage with the mechanisms that make a day special at all. It is not accidental that French historian Pierre Nora also includes significant dates in his famous and often-used definition of Places of Memory.  It is not a question of days or dates, but about the way in which fixed entities - a red number on a calendar - become the locus of memory. A recurring Knud Pedersen Day would be a temporal monument. For the project to be in the spirit of Pedersen, however, it should not be a monument, but ask how a day can become one. Another impossibility, because the word monument implies a thing, a result, while the question is open-ended, without a result.

I think, in order to commemorate Pedersen in a suitable way, that I should cast the proposal to designate a Knud Pedersen Day in the form of an assignment: elaborate a proposal to celebrate Knud Pedersen Day in such a way that a) what is celebrated remains unspecified, yet recognizable as the thing that is celebrated and b) what is commemorated is not fixed, yet recognizable as a process of fixation. I do not know how one could possibly do these things, so the form of the assignment is a welcome way out. But it is also appropriate because Pedersen’s projects are not about what things are, but about how they are done. Pedersen was the only person who could generate ideas like Pedersen's. He is sorely missed.