fredag den 11. december 2015


On 9 December 2015, Nikolaj Kunsthal in Copenhagen opened an exhibition about Knud Pedersen. The exhibition, curated by Johanne Løgstrup, is not exactly your standard gallery show: it only exists of videotaped interviews with people who knew Pedersen and a list of projects on one wall that visitors can refer to while listening to them. I participated by giving an interview and collecting the material for the list. After all, I've known him since 2000 or 2001 and written about him in my Ph.D. and various other publications.

For the invitation, Nikolaj Kunsthal chose an image of Pedersen’s Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art. That is to say, the photograph does not actually show the museum, but the Danish National Bank, designed by Arne Jacobsen and built between 1965 and 1978. When the Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art opened in 1967, it found shelter in a small space in the basement of Nikolaj Church, where Pedersen had his Art Library, but later it became a conceptual museum. No building, no staff, no nothing – according to Pedersen the ideal venue for conceptual art. And since the museum had no actual physical existence, Pedersen thought, it might as well be the National Bank.

But it would be wrong to say that the Museum had no existence whatsoever. Not only did the Museum sponsor many art events, it also existed as a patent. Pedersen took out a patent on the name and used it – more or less successfully – to file lawsuits against other museums who tried to adopt names that resembled that of the Museum. That the new museum in the suburb of Ishøj that the Municipality of Copenhagen opened in 1994 is called Arken, and not the Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art, for example, is due to Pedersen.  If it did not have a physical existence, the Museum at least had a legal one, and that is almost as solid in Western society as we know it.

“The Museum is Closed” is the title of the exhibition at Nikolaj Kunsthal. The museum is closed, but the exhibition is open. The Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art only exists as a concept, but it can act in the world thanks to its legal status nevertheless. Is it accidental that Pedersen chose the National Bank as the place to incarnate his Museum? After all, money has the same un/real character, not really there but available for use nevertheless. Maybe there is more to Pedersen’s choice than just a “why not…?”

See also Knud Pedersen Day, my somewhat offbeat attempt at an obituary for an extremely offbeat man. 

lørdag den 21. november 2015


Boris Nieslony is kicking a stone around, Jürgen Fritz is walking around with a balaclava on his head, dragging a piece of piping and Elvira Santamaria Torres is striking matches. Lee Wen is sitting on a chair, wearing a sleeping mask, Alastair MacLennan is carrying a plastic sheet around and Roi Vaara is folding and unfolding a folding ruler. Myriam Laplante is dressed as Santa Claus, Elvira Santamaria Torres is filling plastic bags with helium and Jürgen Fritz is hammering two long beams together by means of shorter ones. What does it all mean?

All of the actions took place during a six-hour performance by Black Market International, the international performance collective that visited Aalborg last weekend. As I wrote in my last blog entry - see here - I was there to engage the audience in conversation about the event. Since the performance took place in the entrance hall of a community centre containing a theatre, a cinema, a fitness centre, a pizzeria and lots more, this was not an easy task: a large percentage of the spectators just happened to be passing. The taciturn nature of the local population didn’t help either: “So what do you think of the performance?”  [a couple of minutes’ silence] “I don’t know.” “But what do you think they’re doing?” [another couple of minutes’ silence] “It’s a bit weird.”  End of conversation.

But then, this was a very special kind of performance. Black Market International (BMI) perform together, but without agreeing on roles or a plot beforehand. All you see is a number of performance artists, all of them with their own style and background, who meet up, who start out by doing their own thing but who sometimes come together, drift apart, come together again, et cetera. Because that was what’s happening. In amidst all of the chaos the performance area suddenly divided itself into two, one area where people did things and one where people built things. Or suddenly two of the performers were doing something with numbers. Or four of them were slowly moving along in a kind of conga line, swaying from side to side.

In this kind of performance – and there isn't really anyone else who does it quite like this – what you have to look for is not a story or a structure, but the dynamics, the ebb and flow of the action. The famous Untitled Event at Black Mountain College in 1952 springs to mind. Here, Cage himself read a text on music and Zen, Robert Rauschenberg played with a gramophone, David Tudor played a prepared piano, Charles Olson and Mary Richards read poetry, Merce Cunningham and other dancers moved through the room – all independent actions, performed in such a way that the audience could never take it all in. However, the event was organized by Cage by means of time slots allotted to the players and the seats were arranged to ensure that every spectator got a different view (see here). There was no story, but there was a scheme. The BMI performance, on the other hand, was entirely unplanned and unorchestrated. All there was, was the action unfolding in time.

BMI serves performance art the way the textbooks want it to be. This is really performance taking place in its own time, performance that it is impossible to document, performance that takes place in the spectator’s here and now. What it certainly is not, is just a bunch of people fooling around. While it may strike the casual passer-by as strange, perhaps even alien, no-one was tempted to see it as pure nonsense.  It was obvious to everyone that the actions were performed with sincerity and with a lot of experience to back it up.  It is not hard to see why BMI has continued existing for 30 years and why the individual artists take part in it for such a long time: this exercise in leaving all your plans and routines behind leads to the purest, barest performance art imaginable. Whether you like it or not, this is a fascinating experience.

onsdag den 18. november 2015


Elvira Santamaria
Torres, Shadow Self-
, 2015. Photo
© Peter Lind.
 Last weekend, I manned the “samtalekøkken” (“conversation kitchen”) during the Kulstof 15 festival in Aalborg, Denmark. My job was to engage visitors in conversation about the performances they had just seen. This gave me a lot of time to talk about them and to reflect on them. Here are some of my thoughts.

On day one, I watched Elvira Santamaria Torres (Mexico) perform her Shadow Self-Portrait. Torres started by bending over, shaking her hair out and sticking her hand out through it in gestures indicating basic emotions, from supplication to anger. Then she started striking matches, faster and faster, counting each one of them like the years of a life. Finally, she blackened a sheet of glass that she held up in front of her face with soot and traced a stylized face in it with her finger. Was this the shadow self-portrait from the title? Or were the other scenes shadow self-portaits as well?

Myriam Laplante, The Pheno-
menology of Doubt
, 2015
Photo © Peter Lind.  
If Torres’s performance demanded a willingness on the part of the audience to wait for the imagery to unfold, Myriam Laplante (Canada/Italy) captured the viewer’s attention straight away. Her performance The Phenomenology of Doubt started with her writing words on a black wall with a horribly squeaky piece of chalk attached to a piece of string on a nail. “Doubt”, she wrote along the perimeter of an imaginary circle, and “universe”, and “art”. She filled the space in between with other words to create a circular sentence: “doubt in the post-material universe of contemporary performance art through the study of the phenomenology of…” and so on and so on. Then she performed two conjuring tricks: first she put a vase of flowers on her head and danced, finally leaving the vase hanging in the air, and then she lay down on thin air and floated out of the room. Except that she didn’t: you could see the figure in black that held the vase, just as you could see the black table on wheels that she lay on during her exit. It was all a trick. Doubt.

Both performances make demands to the viewer. The first one expects him/her to stay and piece the scenes together, the second one expects him/her to go over the action once again in his/her head in order to work out how the notions of “doubt”, “the universe” and “art” fit in. Intense viewing combined with reflection along the way vs. relaxed viewing followed by reflection. Retroactive reflection in both cases: reconstructing the performance again and again in your head as new layers are added to it, reconstructing it afterwards on the basis of the words supplied by it after the performance has lifted its spell. If performance really is characterized by the fact that it only happens once, like performance theorists used to claim, it is the spectator’s time, not the run-time of the actual performance. If it only happens once, it happens in a strange, broken kind of time that encompasses memory and reflection as much as it does actual experience.

Did the audience comment on this? Not really. Some merely answered "I don't know" when I asked them what they thought of the performances. Some of the less taciturn ones confessed to being frustrated about the lack of narrative in the performances. But among the most talkative ones I did notice a tendency to want to confirm their readings with the artist or, if s/he didn't happen to be around, with me. It may for a long time have been an item of faith among performance theorists that a performance happens in its own time, but it was equally common to point out that performance happens in the viewer's space. I am tempted to conclude that that space, just like performance time, is strange and broken. That these viewers wanted to ask the artist means that they were aware of the latter's presence as a human being, but it also means that they saw him/her as the key to the work in the Modernist sense. A direct line between the artist and the viewer, yes, but one with a big kink in the middle.

To be continued.

torsdag den 29. oktober 2015


This year, the performance collective Black Market International celebrates its 30th anniversary. It does so, amongst other places, at the Kulstof 15 festival in Aalborg, Denmark.

Black Market International was founded as the Market project in Poznan, Poland, in 1985. After a number of changes in the composition of the group, it adopted the name Black Market International. The group's present regular members are Jürgen Fritz (Germany), Norbert Klassen (Switzerland, died 2011), Miriam Laplante (Canada/Italy), Alastair MacLennan (UK), Helge Meyer (Germany), Boris Nieslony (Germany), Jacques Maria van Poppel (Holland), Elvira Santamaria (Mexico), Marco Teubner (Germany), Julie Andree T. (Canada), Roi Vaara (Finland) and Lee Wen (Singapore). All of them, with the exception of Julie Andree T and the deceased Klassen, will be present in Aalborg.

The group's aim is not to create collective performances that can be understood as a single coherent whole, but to achieve a kind of simultaneity in which each participant provides input that will somehow enter into the whole, even if it is not explicitly picked up by the others. Like any black market, open and free exchange is central, resulting in a Kunst der Begegnung, an art of encounter.

At Kulstof 15, the group will encounter a selection of performance artists from the region, namely, Sophie Dupont (Denmark), Nanna Lysholt Hansen (Denmark), Line Skywalker Karlström (Sweden), Olof Olsson (Denmark/Sweden) and Jessie Kleemann (Greenland). Throughout the festival, there will be a Samtalekøkken ("conversation kitchen") during which theatre director Christine Fentz, performance artists Ellen Friis and Henrik Vestergaard Friis and myself will provide running commentary and keep a public dialogue going.

mandag den 26. oktober 2015


My last blog entry dealt with an unexpected question that was asked during the Artist Rooms session on Beuys at Tate Modern on 18 September. Here is another one: was Beuys a feminist?

My own answer was brief and purely factual: his Office for Direct Democracy through Referendum went in for equal rights for men and women. A blackboard that was used at Documenta V in 1972, where Beuys’s contribution consisted of the presence of the Office throughout the entire 100 days the exhibition lasted, said:

“Our suggestion: Equal Rights for men and women! 20 years of party politics have not managed to realise this basic right: the recognition of domestic work as labor (career); to legally place this career on an equal level with others and to legitimate it through salary. Homemakers [sic] salaries! Women and men! If you would like to support our work toward the citizens’ demand to secure a true equal rights [sic] for women, then please sign this list. True freedom for women”.

At face value, unconditional basic income does nothing to secure equal rights for women. It only makes it easier for women (and for men to force women) to stay at home and do the chores. I will return to the question of true equal rights and true freedom further down.

First, I want to paraphrase what another participant, the collector Anthony D’Offay, had to say about the matter. D'Offay, a former art dealer who knew Beuys personally, pointed out that the latter distinguished between a male and a female “principle”, that he counted intuition among the characteristics of the female principle and that he had great respect for women’s intuition.

One might add that he also tended to represent the male principle by means of hard iron and the female principle by means of soft copper. Beuys’ entire universe consisted of opposites, with the energy that animates it circulating permanently between them. In his view, no pole should dominate. If one particular pole appeared to be fixed, it should be liquefied by means of the other.

In terms of sex and gender, such views no longer hold up. To take but one obvious reference, Judith Butler has argued convincingly that being female is not the same as being a woman. Gender roles are established and perpetuated performatively. From this perspective, any female principle set within a bipolar system is suspect.  Respect for women’s intuition is all fine and well, but within a bipolar system built up around a male and a female principle it will only serve to perpetuate conventional gender roles.

Several arguments could be made against this. One of them is historical: the first wave of feminist artists, roughly contemporary with Beuys’s formative period during the 1960s and early 1970s, was concerned with visibility. In order to achieve equality between the sexes, it was felt that traditionally “female” activities, materials and tasks ought to be made visible and to be recognised as equally important as “male” ones. In this respect, Beuys is first and foremost a product of his time.

More importantly, however, Beuys’s ideas about the circulation of energy extended to the field of economics. If he mentions labour, salary and domestic work in one sentence, it is because his Energy Plan distinguishes between “production capital” and “consumption capital”. Every citizen, he said, ought to receive consumption capital in order to satisfy his/her needs. After a particular need had been satisfied, the money, having lost its value, would be returned to a central bank and be issued again as consumption capital. Everybody has needs, so everybody deserves his/her portion of consumption capital, no matter what they do. Payment for domestic labour follows logically from this scheme.

So was Beuys a feminist? I would say not. He wasn’t one in the modern sense of the word because he thought in terms of bipolar opposites and he wasn’t one in his own time because he thought in terms of flows. He isn’t one now because he is not radical enough and he wasn’t one back then because he was too radical. So please don’t get me wrong: if I say that he wasn’t a feminist I don’t mean to say that he was a male chauvinist, heterosexist pig. I mean to say that a concept like “feminism” would have been secondary in his scheme of things. Whether he was right to give it that position is another question.

fredag den 9. oktober 2015


Offset poster for US lecture-series Energy
Plan for the Western Man
(1974)  by
Joseph Beuys, organised by Ronald
Feldman Gallery, New York. Courtesy
Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York
During the Artist Rooms session on Beuys at Tate Modern on 18 September (see my previous blog post) one of the participants asked about the importance of Beuys in the digital age. Frankly, the question had me flummoxed. I had noticed that we were constantly linking Beuys to earlier artists and was thinking about his role today, but the word “digital” threw me.

The first thought that struck me was that the ontology of his work is completely different from that of a digital(ised) work. A digital work exists in as many copies as there are people who are viewing it at the same time and it is constantly renewed onscreen. Beuys, on the other hand, made unique works, often using unique objects. While it is true that he also created over 500 multiples – something which we also discussed –  these often draw upon the material properties of the objects and materials used, so even his non-unique works depend for their functioning upon the handling of one particular copy. When you put his work online, you lose a whole range of meanings.

In response to the question about the digital age, one of the organisers suggested that Beuys, with his love of discussions and his didacticism, would certainly have embraced the social media and the internet as a worldwide communicative platform. Given the broad range of media he worked in and his willingness to try his hand at new media such as performance and installation art, I have no doubt that he is right. However, it is speculative as well: “What would Beuys have done if he had been alive today?” The question about his relevance in the digital age certainly implies a question about the present, but I don’t think it means having to imagine the artist’s live presence in the present. As I understand it, it is about his work as we have it today and the way in which it employs media.

My own answer was a quote by Beuys from a Public Dialogue at the New School in New York on 11 January 1974. Beuys was there to explain his Theory of Sculpture – the idea of social sculpture – and the very first question was: “Have you ever thought of using holography as a medium?”. This got a laugh from the audience, but Beuys was unfazed.  After having asked some additional questions, he said: “This science [holography] could have similar interests to my interests, to look for the whole, if you say ‘holo’ from the Greek ‘holos’, meaning the whole”. Did he counter humour with humour? Possibly – but the way kept referring to holography throughout the rest of the dialogue has a bearing on the question about the digital as well.

Back to the New School. After the initial discussion of holography petered out, people in the audience started complaining about the lack of seats and the noise. People were queuing up outside, but because of fire regulations it was not allowed to sit in the aisles, and people talking in the back rows prevented others from hearing what was being said. Addressing one of the disgruntled visitors, Beuys said: “But first you have to ask yourself whether your intervention is productive for the whole. What you did just now [complaining that a discussion could not be truly public if there weren’t enough seats] was a kind of critique, yes. And I’m saying, is critique the only method to find a solution for the questions we all have in the society?”.  Beuys clearly does not think that critique alone is enough to create solutions. What it takes is people taking responsibility for the holos, the whole; people making contributions that are “productive” for the whole.

After a lot more heckling and wrangling, holography came up a third time, now in connection with Beuys’ aesthetics. Asked how he would describe his new aesthetic, Beuys answered: “I describe it radically: I say aesthetics = human being. That is a radical formula. I set the idea of aesthetics directly in the context of human existence, and then I have the whole problem in the hand, then I have not a special problem, I have a ‘holography’”. To Beuys, holography was more than a medium but less than simply everything. It was more than just a way of writing things and less than everything that can be written. It was “human existence and all the problems it entails”, more specifically human existence as a matter of aesthetics, of sensory and emotional values.

This relates directly to Beuys’s doubts about criticism as a useful way of finding solutions. His arguments throughout the Dialogue suggest that he prefers responsibility to critique, productivity to reactivity, the sensual and emotional to the analytical. In focus is not a particular understanding, but a way of being in the world. Being in the world certainly means something different in the digital era, but I doubt whether the digital as a medium would have any impact on the way Beuys wanted his work to be understood. Holography was brought up as a specific medium, but Beuys turned it into one aspect of human existence. Extrapolating from there, the digital, which is also a means, becomes something we all know from experience, something to take responsibility for, part of a “problem” – a more positive way of saying it would be “condition” – that we are a part of and that we can solve – change – by taking responsibility.

torsdag den 24. september 2015


Last Friday, curator Keith Hartley of the Scottish National Gallery and I discussed Joseph Beuys at Tate Modern. In my introduction, I spoke about the countless ways in which meaning is produced in Beuys’s work. Meaning is a real problem in Beuys’s oeuvre, as it is generated across an incredibly wide range, all the way from private experiential knowledge to universalizing political theory.

Because my first meeting with Beuys as a scholar was in connection with my research on Fluxus, this is where I started. It ought to be easy to deal with Beuys and Fluxus. If you apply the strictest of criteria, Beuys only participated in one Fluxus festival, the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus at the art academy in Düsseldorf on 2-3 February 1963, and of the two pieces he presented there, he only considered one to be a “Fluxus” piece. So: one festival, one work. But what, then, about the exhibition Joseph Beuys Fluxus at the Haus Van der Grinten in Kranenburg in November 1963? If you go by the title, all the works on display there  ought to be Fluxus works, but some of them predate Fluxus by several years. There is even one drawing, Fluxus für Vierzehnjährige ("Fluxus for Fourteen-year-olds"), that is dated 1948/9. And Beuys’s engagement with Fluxus extends way beyond the early 1960s as well: think, for example, of his and Ken Friedman’s multiple Fluxus Zone West/Fluxus West from 1971. In the case of Beuys, Fluxus is both a very narrow and a very broad concept.

Laws – in this case the simple one-after-the other of time – seem to work differently with Beuys. The notion of the reservoir, which he unfolded in his Infiltration-homogen für Konzertflügel ("Infiltration-homogen for Concert Piano"), is a useful one to explain how. The Infiltration-homogen, an action performed at the art academy in Düsseldorf on 28 July 1966, revolved around a concert piano with a felt cover. The felt, Beuys has said, turned the piano into a “Klangdepot”, a sound reservoir. All the sounds that the piano can and will produce, are trapped inside the felt skin, without order, earlier and later sounds, real and potential sounds mixed together. The idea is echoed by the felt itself: the fibres it consists of are not woven, but matted. Felt is a homogeneous material. In Beuys’ work, felt is associated with isolation, warmth and absorption. Beuys draws on direct bodily knowledge about felt that we all have, which is one of the ways in which he communicated. But what is more important here is that each and every one of Beuys’ works, and indeed his oeuvre as a whole, can be seen Depote, reservoirs, felt-like in their structure.

Within the single work, there are always numerous layers and kinds of meaning. In Infiltration-homogen, the experiential knowledge we all have of felt is combined with the conventional sign of the Red Cross, stitched on the side of the piano cover - for Beuys a sign of “emergency” - and a contemporary reference: the subtitle of the Aktion was der grösste Komponist der Gegenwart ist das Contergankind, “the greatest contemporary composer is the thalidomide child”. The drug thalidomide had been taken off the market only five years earlier because it caused serious deformities in unborn foetuses, especially deformed limbs. The crippled child echoes the isolated piano as a container that nothing can get out of. But despite the many things Beuys has said about his work, you cannot compile a Beuys dictionary. Every line you draw through the homogeneous mass of references – the reservoir – gives a particular reading, but you cannot say that any single reading is the correct one. And the same can be said of his dating. If he includes a drawing from 1948 in a Fluxus exhibition, it is to invite the visitor to think about Fluxus. To Beuys, Fluxus was a principle rather than a group of people or a type of work. Flux, later Hauptstrom/”main stream”: flowing.

Beuys’ work was about setting in motion, about abolishing fixed categories. He is perhaps best known for the term “social sculpture” and the slogan “everyone is an artist”. Sculpture means changing things. A felt corner changes the right angles of a room. A thought can change society. It is not surprising that Beuys became politically active. The Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Student Party) was founded in his class at the Düsseldorf art academy in 1967. In 1970, he founded the Organisation der Nichtwähler, Freie Volksabstimmung (Organisation for Non-Voters and Free Referendum). Renamed the Organisation für direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung  (Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum), it was present at Documenta V in 1972, with Beuys discussing his works and politics with the audience for the full 100 days that the exhibition lasted. In 1977, at Documenta 6, he installed his Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (“Honey Pump in the Workplace”), an image of ideas flowing through the social organism. An integral part was the presence of the Freie internationale Universität (Free International University), by means of 13 workshops on contemporary issues such as nuclear power, the effects of capitalism, et cetera.

Beuys’ work and politics became increasingly inseparable – but they are miles apart as well. His theories, such as the Energy Plan for the Western Man from 1974, dealt with society and how to change it. His work, on the other hand, is recognizable as artwork, with a distinct style and an often unique character. It is also extremely puzzling. As a viewer, you’ll want an explanation, but the nature of the explanations, of the available keys, varies enormously, from knowledge that we all carry in our own bodies to abstract theories offered by Beuys. That, to my mind, is the greatest challenge Beuys’s work offers to the scholar and the viewer: to balance all of these explanations.

- More Beuys to follow - 

torsdag den 10. september 2015


On Friday 11 September, during a seminar in connection with the annual Golden Days Festival (theme: "important shit"), I spoke about Het Lieverdje in Amsterdam as cultural heritage. As a sculpture, Het Lieverdje ("The Street Urchin") is nothing special. Commissioned by the Committee for Activity in Amsterdam, it was created by sculptor Carel Kneulman and unveiled in 1960 as a symbol of the Amsterdam spirit, cheeky but lovable. If "anti-smoking magician" Robert Jasper Grootveld had not turned it into the symbol of "tomorrow's addicted consumer" in 1964, the expression "cultural heritage" would never have been used. Grootveld discovered that the sculpture had been funded by Hunter Cigarette Co. and organised a happening there every Friday at midnight. A crowd that grew larger with each week that went formed a magical circle around the statue in order to exorcise the spirit of consumerism, ritually coughing and chanting slogans.

Het Lieverdje - quite accidentally - became the meeting point for a whole range of people with different agendas. There was Bart Huges, who drilled a Third Eye in his skull in order to get permanently high. There was Johnny van Doorn, or Johnny the Selfkicker, a poet who worked himself up in a trance, ranting and raving his poetry. There was Nicolaas Kroese, the eccentric restaurant owner who claimed to have discovered the Fifth Energy that made plants grow and who lent Grootveld a garage for use as a K-Temple (K stands for "kanker", cancer) until it burned down. There were literary figures such as the poet Simon Vinkenoog and the author Harry Mulisch, who immortalised Het Lieverdje and the crowd surrounding it in their writings. There was the photographer Cor Jaring, whose pictures ensured that everyone, both inside and outside Holland, knew what went on. And there was Roel van Duijn, the co-founder of Provo.

As Van Duijn tells the story, he either found Grootveld's Gnot-sign drawn on the wall next to his door one day when he came home or a paper with the Gnot-sign written on it in the letter box. "Gnot", a word of Grootveld's invention, is a combination of the words "genot" ("indulgence") and "god" ("God"). The sign looks like an apple with a dot in it. It also stood for "Amsterdam Magic Center", Grootveld's campaign to turn the city into a place where everything was possible. Van Duijn had handed out leaflets announcing the publication of the magazine Provo at Het Lieverdje, and posting the sign was Grootveld's way of calling a meeting. Apparently he suggested to Van Duijn that Provo make use of ludic means, the very means that made it both notorious and effective in those serious times. The anarchist youth movement only existed from 1965 until 1967, but it turned the city upside down - and it adopted both Het Lieverdje and the Gnot-sign as its own signs.

This year it is 50 years ago that Provo began to organise its happenings at Het Lieverdje. The event has been marked with a documentary, several exhibitions, a Provo tour organised by the Amsterdam Museum and lots of media coverage. When a gnot-sign was discovered on the Royal Palace in Dam square, the place where Provo demonstrated against the monarchy, Paul Spies, the (now ex-) director of the Amsterdam Museum immediately told the press that it ought to be recognised as cultural heritage. Meanwhile, he and ex-Provo Luud Schimmelpenninck placed a white bicycle underneath the sign, carrying a picture frame that picks it out against the background. All the stops on the Provo tour are marked with white bicycles as a reference to Provo's White Bicycle Plan, which Schimmelpenninck was the main architect of.

It is not surprising that Spies wanted to activate the heritage machinery. The Palace is under renovation, and it is always when things are under threat that the notion of cultural heritage crops up. If the gnot-sign is recognised as cultural heritage, it will function the way cultural heritage usually does: a physical object is turned into the unique, authentic sign of an imagined community, in this case the spirit of Provo, as cheeky and lovable as the Amsterdam spirit as embodied in Het Lieverdje. The sculpture, meanwhile, fared differently. During the 1990s, he square where it stands, Spui, got a new pavement with an apple - the gnot-sign - picked out in differently coloured cobbles, but hardly anybody notices it. The owner of a bookshop on the square regularly has to point out to brick layers that they have put the cobbles back the wrong way. The sculpture, meanwhile, is still the focus of demonstrations, ludic or otherwise, that result in the same press photographs as 50 years ago. Especially student protests often take place near Het Lieverdje, as the rectorate of Amsterdam University resides in the nearby Maagdenhuis.

I am tempted to see the tradition for civil unrest around Het Lieverdje as a kind of cultural heritage as well. Some will argue that only physical remains can be seen as heritage, as the word "heritage" suggests "inheritance", the possibility for things to be inherited by later generations. However, cultural heritage is intimately connected with identity; traditionally national identity, but in recent publications on the subject increasingly the heritage of smaller communities as well. Analyses of cultural heritage as a carrier of national identity tend to stress the fact that it creates communities by excluding others. When academics want to address the heritage of smaller communities or minorities, on the other hand, they tend to pull the Butler card, stressing the fact that the performative creation and perpetuation of national identities also leaves open the possibility for changing the status quo, for including the heritage of others. Ever since Grootveld and Provo, Het Lieverdje has been the focus of civic disobedience. Although the students who demonstrate there do not belong to the same community as the early happeners around Grootveld or Provo, they do represent the same spirit of anti-patriarchal, pro-democratic revolt. Het Spui and Het Lieverdje, I would argue, are the locus of the performance of that spirit and have been its locus for the past two-three generations. That, too, I would say, is a type of cultural heritage.

More information on the Golden Days homepage

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.