TEXTS WITNESS REPORT 2011:
DOG-THOUGHTS ON HOKAËS BY ANDREA SPREAFICO
Three years ago in Nanterre, France a dog became the first animal in the world to appear as a witness in a murder trial.
The animal was believed to have been with the victim at the moment of her death. She was found hanging from the ceiling of her flat. Police believed it was suicide but her family demanded a murder investigation. During a preliminary hearing the dog was led into the witness box for the court to see how it reacted to a suspect.
It is said to have "barked furiously".
Normally a witness is needed after a crime, in order to find the guilty person.
Already here my work could be done. I'm not interested in finding the guilty. I also don't like the idea of complexity being reduced to a judgment that sends someone to jail. Even disregarding what I like, what would the crime be? Is art a crime? I think that assigning guilt or crime to art would be a much too easy way to satisfy catholic drives towards medieval images of inquisition, guilt and fire, – with “catholic drives” I mean the tendency to filter truth trough tough infrastructures. Thinking of it in that way the word witness sounds too charged, and would make me come across as someone who barks big words in a situation where I am asked to be more precise than loud.
There has been no crime to be witness of and I won't bark furiously, so I see my role as witness to be closer to the role of a person who is present at the signing of a document and who signs it himself to confirm it. Someone writes a document and a witness has to certify its authenticity. The catalogue you now have in your hands is this document, and this report is my signature. What have I witnessed, and what does the document say? Who is signing it? How?
The document, this catalogue, is in fact signed by many: In the introduction by the director of Hokaës, Anne Szefer Karlsen, in which it is stated that the institution has existed for 35 years. In the rest of the catalogue by a composite group of artists and curators who took part in and created the activities of the institution during its 35th year, even people who visited and others who read this catalogue now. All of you are involved in the signature of this document exactly as you have been part of the realisation of the program of Hokaës. With this signature I would like to emphasise what this year’s programme has been, as seen by my eyes as witness of this programme, not as how it was intended by the institution (for that you can read the introduction text).
Every invitation to every exhibition at Hokaës this year has ended with a statement for the 35 year programme, which stated that the aim of the exhibitions was not to mythologise the institution and its past, but to explore idea of histories and futures, in this moment when the institution finds itself in the position of being an established institution. The intention was not to deal with the history or the future of the institution itself, but with the meaning of having a past and looking to the future. Thus the programme was a statement to say that this anniversary was a threshold rather then an achieved goal. There is a coincidence that I find interesting in approaching the topic of the anniversary. The director of Hokaës turned 35 this year too, and I too turned 35 in the days I was writing these pages. I will use this coincidence as an excuse to report a personal anecdote:
Six years ago in Nanterre – the same city were the witness dog was barking furiously – a person, making a remark on my non-linear career told me: «soon you will be 35, and with 35 you know what you are». He mentioned this age referring to it as the moment when you know what your main activity is, what your role in the society is, in short: what you do. It is clearly non-sense to strictly define an age as a threshold. Nevertheless this age represented a threshold of human life already in the first line of Dante's Divine Comedy and, 700 years after, 35 still belongs to the collective imagination as one of the threshold ages for a human being. If taken too seriously this idea of the threshold becomes the idea of a place of truth: as if a person walks her path, arrives, opens the door and knows exactly where she is. On one side of the threshold she is in, on the other out. That's how an ideal threshold works. In fact there are usually many other doors behind the door in question, just like there must already have been some other doors on her path. One can safely say that the person will never have an overview, nor know where the doors appear. Even if I think it is silly to think that with the age of 35 we cross the line, I can agree with the fact that around 35 a person belongs to a phase that belongs to neither youth nor wisdom.
Adventure and Care
I will hold the first exhibition of this year at Hokaës as example of what can happen during this transition. The moving images by Len Lye shown in the exhibition Len Lye are paradigmatic of a path that could be the one of every artist or any institution: His early films were political reflections on rhythm: the rhythm of the assembly line production of Chrysler cars and the rhythm of the postal system as metronome of trade. In these works the film is the tool used to develop a discourse on a third element. As observers we can decide if the tool is more interesting as the object of investigation – for instance I could say that in the case of the Chrysler-video the object “assembly line production” was overwhelmed by the tool Lye used to investigate it, I saw the topic of the film as an excuse for an intellectual production: the rhythmic film. At the same time I should say that the film about the postal system’s role in trade activated some reflections on the ruling importance of postmen in our time of amazon.com – in this case the object of investigation stands out from the tool. In both cases, though, the film works as tools in relation to a topic and the viewer can focus either on the tool or on the topic. In Lye’s later films this dialogue and its potential to activate different interests in the viewer disappears, as the artist concentrates on the art making technique itself. This doesn't mean that they become auto-referential, but they certainly concentrate on the production of a tool; that which was a method to investigate a topic becomes topic itself, the method becomes the work itself. In these films the focus of the viewer is directed towards the observation of the production details. The artist becomes a designer rather than an investigator, since he investigates his own method. Care overwhelms adventure. Design and discovery belong to any work of art, they are nevertheless present each time in different gradients and their balance is decided by the size and the shape of the discourse carried by the work itself. Over time it is apparent that the artist, any artist, finds himself inside of his own discourse that he feels obliged to develop, and he has to challenge how to do that through his visual agility without being trapped by the discourse itself.
I would say that this path from adventure to care is paradigmatic of an institution too. It starts its own adventure, creates its own past and is obliged to deal with it. The institution “institutionalises” itself. The exhibition Nostalgia by Omer Fast was in my opinion the coronation of the Hokaës institutionalisation. The artist is renowned, the work is beautiful, the exhibition was clear. The work’s content was the reason for the institution to display it during this anniversary year. The film projects an hypothetical inversion of the current domination between the north and the south of the world and the artist projects the spectator into a future where he will regret our time of political power; in this way he coerces us to face the dramatic violence of this power. The content is a future past. The fact that the institution could permit itself this great video installation, independently from its content, is yet a parameter to understand the magnitude of its wealth.
If Hokaës' present shines in this video installation, its past doesn't seem to be forgotten as we can see in another exhibition this year: the exhibition Shot Through curated by Glenn Adamson. Hokaës is born and has grown up as the co-operation between craft makers and visual artists and celebrate this cooperation with an exhibition of weaved high tech photo image tapestries. Here the care reaches its highest point and Hokaës brings its history of collaboration into the domain of the “well done”. Is then the adventure over? Is Hokaës just taking care of its own discourse, of the discourse built in these 35 years?
I mentioned before the idea of “knowing what you do” at the age of 35. In this idea two statements are excessively strong. One is the “what”, i.e. the pretension to read individuality in one category – and we have seen how this is problematic for an institution as well as for the person; the second is the “you do”, i.e. the idea of the individuality as cause of an action. Nietzsche means that this idea comes from the Christian culture of guilt. Wherever it comes from, it doesn't seem to be helpful in understanding this year's program at Hokaës. What happened at Hokaës cannot be read simply as “what Hokaës has done”, what happened is rather “what Hokaës has been involved with”.
From this perspective the exhibition The Bergen Accords curated by Sarah Rifky has been the most interesting. It is the one where the problematic of ownership of the work has reached its most critical point. In my opinion the exhibition was working on five levels: 1) a performance was announcing it two weeks prior to the opening of 2) its core exhibition of new works by Oraib Toukan; followed by 3) the publication online of a text from Malak Helmy and by 4) three evenings when the experimental documentary The specialist by Eyal Sivan was screened. On top of that 5) the curator initiated a procedure to change the name of Hordaland Art Centre (HKS). The show by Toukan was itself sliced in five layers approaching the institution Hokaës in different ways: 2a) showing pictures in the space 2b) changing the space by moving a wall 2c) dealing with the manifestation of Hokaës' board by staging chairs for them to use during meetings 2d) posing as a curator as she “invited students at the architecture program of Birzeit University in Palestine to conceive A table that negotiates a negotiating table 2e) placing copies of an old issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies questioning the Oslo accords in the café area of the Art Centre.
Now, if we see the project as a game and through this metaphor try to understand whom the works belongs to we see that by dividing the game pieces between too many people we can’t play the game anymore. A piece of the chess game can be cute in itself, but it works better if it stays together with the other pieces. The same happens with The Bergen Accords. None of the elements blew my mind, but all the pieces together created a graceful, elegant, fresh, articulated and clever work. The director of Hokaës, Szefer Karlsen, commissioned a curator, Rifky, to do a show and in this show one of the artist, Toukan, commissioned a work from Palestinian students. I don't know if this chain was planned at the beginning – it doesn't even matter here – what is evident is that it is impossible to claim authorship. Each actor brought an element that activated the others in a discourse. We are far from recognising the discourse of each single actor, what we see is that a fabric composed by the actors and their own single interventions appear. This intellectual fabric is stronger and nicer if its threads are straight and solid, but it doesn't break if one of the threads breaks. Under these circumstances the fabric of this project is more flexible and thus more solid than the weaves of the exhibition Shot Through, where the artistic quality of the woven fabric made the works both nice and delicate.
Similarly to The Bergen Accords the show Ways of Losing Oneself in an Image created by one artist, Elsebeth Jørgensen, had different moments and means of expression. One main video installation in the gallery of Hokaës was accompanied by different interventions in the city. In this sense the authorship was more defined, but nevertheless it was the knowledge from the archivists and librarians of The Picture Collection of the University of Bergen where Jørgensen’s materials came from, that activated the intuition of the artist. This exhibition is an intellectual fabric, but differently from The Bergen Accords it has a defined weaver. Through more control by the single artist on the whole work, its choreographic dimension created a more solid unity, but also established some mannerisms, like by using black and white photographs from the archives of the Image Collection belonging to the University of Bergen to create the film archives that constituted the main piece and accentuated the decorative nuances of the work rather then the informative ones. All exhibitions, however, testifies the care of the polyphony that characterise the activities of Hokaës, where every exhibition is accompanied by workshops, seminars or concerts, as I personally have had a chance to enjoy with the Action Weaving Workshops by Travis Meinolf in October, or with the commissioned concert by Espen Sommer Eide, Lasse Marhaug and Maia Urstad to accompany works by Len Lye one evening in January.