TEXTS IN DEFENCE OF EYE CANDY
This text accompanies the exhibition Curated by Erlend Hammer.
A couple of years ago I had an idea for a project I wanted to do at Hordaland Art Centre (HKS). I wanted to give the impression that I was curating a solo-exhibition with a young, Norwegian artist, but in reality I would try to rent out the exhibition space at HKS to Clear Channel for them to show city furniture with advertising during the allocated exhibition period. Clear Channel is not an advertising agency they sell public space to advertisers that have products, services or experiences to sell. Clear Channel owns billboards on buses, on buildings, inside shopping malls and on city furniture, mostly within public space.
Since we normally refer to the art world as a public space, or rather as a part of public space, I figured anything within the art world should be within the scope of Clear Channel’s interest. The purpose of trying to sell the exhibition space was to negotiate the price Clear Channel would pay, thus finding out what could be considered the market value of HKS as a piece of public space. I wanted to get a financial evaluation of the art world as public space (“Öffentlichkeit”), albeit a very specific financial evaluation of a very specific part of the art world.
The plan was to give the audience the impression that there would be an exhibition of new works by Bjørn-Kowalski Hansen, while they at the opening night in reality would be met by regular city furniture with ads. (Both the artist and the institution were in on this from the beginning. Bjørn was also the perfect artist for this project since his work already exists in a murky water between art and commerce, with heavy focus on advertising strategies and branding. He also worked in the room next to my office in Berlin during the first stages of the planning of the project. The work at this point mostly involved us brainstorming about what we could do in addition to selling HKS to Clear Channel. One of the ideas was that Bjørn’s actual work would be shown either in the commercial Galleri s.e. in Bergen, or on actual Clear Channel billboards in Oslo; I would apply for funding from the Arts Council to pay market price for the billboards. That way we would also be able to see how much the Arts Council would be willing to pay to get some art into public space.) To me the motivation was partially that the audience would be flocking to HKS to see the “advertising art” (which I was sure would get plenty of attention in Bergen’s mediocre daily press), thereby turning HKS into a pretentious form of TV, since TV primarily is about selling people’s attention to advertisers by offering “content” in the form of TV-programmes. In this project, however, I would sell the viewers to the advertisers without even having to produce any content. Not only that, I would have sold them a segment of the population that usually “doesn’t watch TV” apart from obscure shows they download off the internet.(1)
I enjoyed the fact that I would be poking fun both at the general audience (by tricking them into coming to HKS to see advertising) as well as at the art world of Bergen and the scene around HKS, which I remembered as having been at the centre of the resistance towards the Clear Channel bus sheds.(2) A resistance I always found kind of lame. The deal between the City of Bergen and Clear Channel was as follows: Clear Channel would build bus sheds and put ads on them. This, some people thought, was not a good idea. The campaign “Byen vår” (“Our city”) emerged and arguments against Clear Channel were plunged out by middle class cultural workers, people who had read No Logo and found advertising vulgar, and “privatisation of public space” an evil that must be fought because it’s a “threat to democracy.” Related to this is the attitude that words like “persuasion” and “rhetoric” are negative because they involve “manipulation” instead of “the objectively best argument.”(3)
Whatever our opinion might be, the practical result of the resistance towards Clear Channel turned out to be a kind of class hatred since those victimised by the lack of bus sheds mainly are working class people who have to use public transport to commute to work: people with low education and low income who spend most of their spare time watching TV, and who we thereby can assume have a fairly relaxed relationship to advertising. They are the ones who end up suffering under Bergen’s lack of well-kept bus sheds. And they do so because a group of well-educated cultural workers think that advertising in public space is lame.
A few months ago I sent Bjørn an SMS which read: “Fuck everything, let’s start an advertising company.” I had just seen the first episode of the TV-series Mad Men. The advertising world, to me, seemed like the pinnacle of advanced analytical, conceptual and strategic thinking. I wanted to wear a suit, drink all day long and have affairs with my secretaries. When Bjørn and I met with Clear Channel in Oslo in April of 2009 nothing was quite as I expected. Their offices at Ullevaal Stadium were not particularly impressive: none of the offices had a bar and the secretaries were as disappointingly grey as the wall-to-wall carpets covering the space. The coffee was mediocre.
On top of that it soon became apparent that there would be no selling or buying of the space at HKS. The reason was simple. The 3624 visitors HKS had in 2008 was not a sellable number. As the CEO said: “To us this is all about the numbers.” They had no interest in, or possibility to, sell advertising space with such a low number of recipients. Neither did the CEO have any interest in the potential attention an alternative form of marketing like this might lead to. His understanding of art was also less sophisticated than expected. Clear Channel, as it turned out, already has an agreement with “another participant in the art world.” I remember becoming filled with a sense of excitement at the prospect of being initiated into a juicy secret from Oslo’s art world. Who could this other participant in the art world be? Was it Galleri K, or was it Brandstrup? No such luck. It was Galleri Pingvin. According to the CEO at Clear Channel shows by “artist” Silvia Papas’ draw huge numbers of visitors to the openings at Galleri Pingvin.(4)
This project is, as all other institutional critique, a mix of a conceptual one-liner (“Erlend Hammer tried to sell HKS to Clear Channel”) and a text. Now the project also consists of an empty exhibition space. I never really had a backup-plan. From the beginning I was so in love with my own project that I never really considered the possibility of this situation. I was sure it would work out, which I think Anne Szefer Karlsen also was, since I remember talking to her at one point in the preparations and realising that she apparently had already started spending the money from the sale on all kinds of fun stuff she would get for and do at HKS.
When Clear Channel categorically turned down the offer to buy the space I first thought about the idea of selling it to someone else, but that felt wrong. I realised that this was a question of yes or no. Clear Channel either bought the space or they didn’t. There was no other option than to let Clear Channel display city furniture with ads. So, a discussion with Anne Szefer Karlsen started about what would the correct path onwards would be. Anne first asked if the space for instance could be used to show a visual presentation of the project, a story about what had been going on, for the audience to read and learn. To me this was not acceptable. Not because I didn’t want people to find out what the process had been, but because exhibition spaces where you tell the story about the process behind a train wrecked project is simply crap art. At one point we also talked about whether we should just go through with a solo show with new works by Bjørn-Kowalski Hansen, since we already had announced to the world that this was what we were doing. But this didn’t feel like an option either. So it turned into just an empty space.
In 1993 Maurizio Cattelan sold the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale to advertisers. This year Elmgren and Dragset pretended to be selling the Danish pavilion as high-end real estate. (An idea that would’ve been fantastic if they actually really sold it.) However, HKS is not exactly the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. As such, the attempt at establishing the value of HKS is not as general establishing the value of “the art world”, but it is specifically related to one particular kind of institution within the Norwegian art world: the publically funded art centre owned by the local branches of Norske billedkunstnere (Norwegian visual artists) and Norske kunsthåndverkere (Norwegian arts and crafts artists), a specific example of an “artist run space.” The art centres are organised so that artists apply for “exhibition slots” and these slots are allotted based on evaluations by the director, in some cases also in line with guidelines from the board of the institution. The art centres are not really driven by individual curatorial voices; they are examples of the social-democratic idea that the art scene is “free” when it is run by artists, particularly how it has developed since the “artist protests” of the 70s. The art centres exist within the same logic that makes it possible for Dag Solhjell to claim that every single exhibition by every single artist in Norway should be covered by publications like Billedkunst or Kunstkritikk.no. Such a claim must necessarily be based on an understanding of art that categorises art as unquestionably good and a general public concern. Such a view does not take into consideration one of the fundamental principles of the art world’s creation of value, which is that some things must be excluded to benefit others.
An important part of my motivation for including an artist in the project (besides the fact that I thought it would sound weird if the only thing the audience knew was that there was going to be an exhibition curated by me) was to claim that showing works at a place like HKS doesn’t really do an artist much good. The function of the empty space is also to claim that this space is not an interesting place to show art. The reasons being that this institution neither has an audience that buys art, nor an important audience to reach for me or Bjørn in order to further our careers. Consequently we might get more from trying to use the space in this way, since that at least can generate more interesting attention than from actually showing art.
This view is based on the following logic. Exhibitions that aren’t primarily sales exhibitions are generally made to generate other exhibitions, and these exhibitions should be in increasingly cooler venues. We start out by showing in small, unimportant venues such as Lydgalleriet so that we can work our way up to places like Kunsthalle Basel. The purpose of institution exhibitions is to increase the prices in the market so that we can make more money from future sales exhibitions. This is how an artist’s, or curator’s, career should develop. If an exhibition space cannot offer this kind of points we need to push on in the system, it is not necessary to make exhibitions there.(5)
And unlike younger, artist-run spaces like Rekord or Galuzin, the art centres don’t offer an ounce of hipness, and as such give very few credibility-points. So in addition to measuring the market value of HKS as a public space, using the space to show advertising would be to claim that this space is not very interesting to show art in and it would be put to better use simply by selling it, pocket the money and find a cooler place to show art. And there is really only one place in Bergen where it’s worth showing art, and that is Bergen Kunsthall. Bergen doesn’t have a single relevant commercial gallery, and the Kunsthall is the only public institution with an interesting audience.
The only reason why artists feel they have to take part in public life is that this is where the money is. This fact is at the base of a large proportion of the choices made within the art world. In whose interest is it really that an exhibition at HKS must be shown to a group of 5th graders? Why is this something that Anne Szefer Karlsen should have to spend her time thinking about?
Exhibition spaces like HKS are based on public funding. Public funding is mainly generated in two ways. One is by pointing to “public outreach programmes” measured by number of visitors and number of events organised both for specialized and non-specialized audiences. The number of children almost count double when it comes to outreach, since the Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs (6) has decided that reaching children should be a particular focus area. That is the reason why all applications to the Arts Council include a section on how the project will attempt to reach children audiences. No good artist really has any interest of showing their art to children. Children do not buy art, have no ability to generate credibility and do not give interesting feedback.
The other way of generating funding is by showing your projects receive attention from the media. To exhibition spaces like HKS, media attention usually comes from local newspapers, Billedkunst or Kunstkritikk.no. If attention like this doesn’t regularly appear, funding bodies might think the venue is not a relevant part of its community, and the funding could disappear or decrease. To larger institutions there is also a need for international attention. Just as with Norwegian pop music festivals like Øya, this is done by including money on the budget to fly in members from the international art press, money often received through various other sources of funding, like the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the embassies of the countries the writers are flown in from. The 2009 edition of the Nordic biennale Momentum, for example, is flying in international critics to a four-day press programme that includes sightseeing in the area around Moss and other potentially interesting places like Edvard Munch’s house in Åsgårdsstrand. The reasoning behind this is that being mentioned in the international press generates cred-energy that will be released as future funding money.(7) It’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily the art institutions that are to blame here; they are simply dealing with the situation at hand. And in a way it’s also not really a problematic situation at all, since everyone seems to win: writers don’t live glamorous jetset-lives and rarely say no to a free trip, and international art magazines don’t have money to fly their writers around the world to every little event.
This September Bergen Kunsthall is organising a conference on biennials, partially because there’s been a lot of talk about a possible biennial in Bergen, but also because hosting such a conference, with so many international participants, whatever the outcome, will look impressive. Most importantly, it’s because the money was there to do it. The biennial conference has an extremely large budget for a Norwegian art conference, and the number of guests from credible institutions around the world ensures that the conference will always stand out as, if not important, at least on a high level.(8) So the money will seem have to have been well spent.
Something else that is very important is that institutions like HKS provide a limited budget for their exhibition productions, other production is something the artist or curator must take care of for herself. HKS also does not provide travel or per diems, but they do offer a fee of NOK 10 000,- Artists that don’t have gallery representation usually do not have lots of cash to produce works. The system thus functions like this: if you want to do a show at such an institution you also have to deal with the Arts Council, which is the primary, or perhaps only, funding body for project support in the Norwegian art world. The system is constructed in a way that if we want to do cultural production we are also forced to enter into the system that is created to make sure that cultural production exists. If this happens to be a system we don’t want to take part in, we are either forced to drop out, or make art that is free to produce. To Bjørn and me, this means that just travelling to Bergen and staying there for four days results in breaking even.
The idea behind why the institutions themselves shouldn’t have sufficient money to cover all production costs is probably that it is seen as desirable to have a system “securing quality” where the artists themselves need to get their projects approved by the public before they can be carried out. This approval, however, is given because there is already an institution involved to vouch for the quality of the project. This means that the burden of legitimizing the work already lies with the institution, so the institution might as well from the beginning have been given the trust to allocate this money by itself. Now, however, the artists have to spend a significant amount of time keeping the financial administration alive, something all artists undoubtedly would testify makes their artistic work suffer. But this continuous application-activity is not only time-consuming. It is in the logic of the project support application that it also leads to artists justifying their own work by presenting it as relevant to the art world in general. (This, however, does not necessarily mean that the Arts Council gives preferential treatment to certain kinds of art, like “theoretical” art. The Arts Council is more than capable of supporting all kinds of art. I know this because I spent three months last year reading through five years’ worth of applications as an assignment for the Arts Council.) It’s this logic that, in different ways, leads to artists feeling like artistic practice, in general, needs to be defended. This, in turn, leads to some artists feeling that “being critical” or political is the only way to justify art. And, finally, this feeling, that art needs to be, justified makes some artists think that it is possible to talk about artists being “underpaid” because “being an artist is a profession.”
Contrary to what Fremkskrittspartiet, FrP (a Norwegian right-wing party with 35% support in recent voter polls) appears to think, the Arts Council project support model is actually a very democratic way of solving how to fund cultural production, but this is precisely the problem. The Norwegian art world needs less democracy, not more. When FrP complain about the “elitist” hegemony of the Arts Council they only reveal that they don’t understand what the alternative would be. (And they would never really be able to carry out a real cut in public spending on culture since this would also endanger a large number of initiatives that have significantly more sympathy with the people than the “contemporary art world”, like children’s sports programmes etc.) Because the alternative would be to let institutions keep control, trusting their professional judgement. This would involve, for example, that the money large institutions continuously need to apply for would be baked into the general budgets of the institutions so that the art professionals could concentrate on their actual work. But this is not an option that would really put the system in jeopardy. That would really allow populist forces to complain that “lots of money” is given to institutions whose directors proceed to “give it to their friends”, and similar problems.
What’s more important, however, and which is why art people shouldn’t enter into public debate to defend themselves, is that the entire problem field should be silenced to death. The discussion shouldn’t really be about the questions which at the moment are being discussed. The ongoing discussion is simply an excuse to smoke the “cultural elite” out of the grass so that “common people” can remember that we exist, that they don’t like us and that voting to the political right is a way of kicking our elitist asses. Nobody needs that.
The current discussion about cultural funding policies is only intended to create sympathy for political initiatives that really don’t have anything to do with art or cultural funding policies. The only goal is to score points with those voters who aren’t able to grasp the full picture of their political choices. It would of course be possible to make use of the same arguments used to attack the cultural elite (friends doing each other favours, and similar issues) to attack other parts of society, like the financial elite. As long as it is the political right that defines the discussion, where art needs to be defended, this of course is not happening. Maybe more importantly; it’s more acceptable to work in finance than it is to work in the arts, so art people are an easier target. As a result of art lacking sufficient legitimacy in public life, questions about cultural policies can be used to make people vote to the right even if this is not in their own financial interests, because cool economical analysis and rational thinking lose out to the emotional triggers that the “culture wars” put into play (just like questions about immigration, which also should be a purely financial question). What this discussion does is to draw attention towards unhelpful “us and them”-structures that serve no other purpose than to split alliances that in reality have shared interests. Cultural producers and the working class have shared interest in resisting the current attack on the social democratic welfare state that is carried out by the political right in increasingly aggressive ways. The culture wars’ only function is to blur our vision.
The willingness of the political left to engage in all kinds of questions about culture and identity allows us to be led astray by distractions that are designed to make us forget real political questions which are much more important to deal with. What we, the cultural producers, need to remember is that it is not in our political interest to define an “us” that doesn’t include the working class. As soon as we think about ourselves as a “we” that “they” are not part of, we have lost perspective on which political goals that actually are important to reach. When the art world gets worked up about FrP because we assume that their cultural policies will threaten our financial well-being, we are tricked out onto a slippery slope where we can’t avoid looking like Bambi on the ice. Which is why we should avoid taking part in these conversations, and instead focus on those questions that really matter, where cultural producers and the working class are part of the same “us.”
It is a faulty understanding of art’s position in society to think that “public” is an intrinsic quality of the concept of art. This proves a lack of understanding of how society works and (most importantly) of how it is possible to work to change society in whatever direction we want. The fact that cultural producers lately seem to have become “more interested in politics” is simply a result of cultural funding policies being attack more seriously than before, and that “being critical” is understood as a way to increase the legitimacy of sustained cultural funding. We are in the middle of a financial crisis which so far seems to hurt the bottom end of the market more than the top. The top end of the market is safe since it is already marginal to begin with and the marginally richest people are still able to buy their Murakamis and their Koons. This is why the non-commercial part of the art world is stressed and allow themselves to be pushed into defending their practice against low-brow attacks that art isn’t political or critical enough. And because the art world sees itself as “an important part of public life” we believe this involves us having to contribute “critique” and correctives to the way society works.
In reality the art world is a very marginal voice in the public conversation. The problem, however, is not that art is a marginal voice in the public conversation, but rather, that we shouldn’t accept this fact. The reasons why we accept this is because it would jeopardise the foundation of our entire existence, since we are living on grants, were we not to. Just like the politicians providing the funding believe, we believe that our function is to offer critique of, or “new perspectives” on, society. The art world’s desire to appear important in public life is really a continuous struggle to defend its own existance, a struggle that hinders the art world in concentrating on what it should be concentrating on, whatever we think that might be.
The parliament election is more important than art. It’s more important that people don’t vote to the right, than it is that they see art. And it’s not because of their cultural funding policies that people shouldn’t vote to the right. That’s why it’s unfortunate when cultural producers make critical statements about the political right based on their cultural funding policies. To the large groups with no sympathy for the cultural field (because we’re elitist snobs who live in Oslo) our attitude towards the political right is a sign that the right’s policies must be correct. That’s why it’s counter-productive when cultural producers publicly criticise the right for wanting to “trash public funding on culture.” Because the majority of people, partially prone to voting for the right in the first place, will most likely think “ooh, trashing public funding of culture…give me some of that” and then they will be even more likely to vote to the right than before. But even more importantly, it is immoral of cultural producers to vote for certain parties based on their policies on public funding of the arts. Such voting is as selfish as rich people voting for parties that make it easier to avoid paying taxes. The most important part of politics will never be arts funding; the most important part of politics will always be to make sure that as many people as possible, beginning with the weakest groups in society and then moving up, can make their lives better. Arts funding is good enough. We don’t need more money for the arts. The money that exists should perhaps be spent differently, and less money should be spent on administration work. The cultural field can hope for more sympathy when we have made contributions towards making things better for the parts of society that actually have more precarious needs.
So what should we do? I have no belief in art as a critical tool.(9) There is nothing cultural producers can do within the art world that can contribute to actual political change. At best “political statements” made within the art world can make people within the art world achieve a moment of insight in particular political questions, but this will only, at best, lead to these people carrying out other, perfectly normal, political actions, like for example voting for a particular political party. I do, however, believe that there are more intellectuals among cultural producers than there are in society in general, and intellectuals have an obligation to contribute to making society better.
That is why it is particularly unproductive when cultural producers spend their time on questions raised by the cultural left. The cultural left’s focus on identity questions, or the “analysis” of questions like “modes of critique, participation and resistance in the charged field between the cultural field and the political sphere”(10) and perhaps “critical art” in particular, is suffering under a certain jargon and is therefore stuck in a quagmire of inaction. The cultural left is trapped within a spectator role ending up running errands for the right by allowing the emergence of conflicts between parts of society that would otherwise have been allies in the resistance towards the political right. This is what the “culture wars” are really about, and the cultural left keeps falling into the same trap again and again. Like when some people think that advertising in public space is an important political issue today. Although the resistance to Clear Channel in Bergen was a practical matter and attempted to reach a particular goal, it was motivated by a confused idea about what matters in politics.
Artists who really want to contribute to political change must work with politics, as must everyone else whether they are carpenters or bankers. This demands an understanding of politics as not about the public debate (which very often is a mock-debate), but about making sure that the right people are in position to make decisions. In addition we must make sure that the very infrastructure where decisions are made is maintained in a way that does not threaten liberal democracy or the welfare state.
We must give up the idea that the art world should have some kind of privileged position to offer political awareness because of its “free role in society.” Art is not particularly well equipped to be critical because it is free, it is unfree because it is trying to be critical.
Erlend Hammer, Strausberger platz, 25th July 2009.
(1) A kind of TV-viewing that breaks with the society contract (OBS) not because we’re ”stealing content” but because we are escaping the real purpose of TV, to subject ourselves to advertising in exchange for the content we’re served. The project would thus also function as a kind of moral victory on behalf of advertising in the face of a morally suspect segment of society.
(2) Which they apparently were not. See also season 2 of The Wire where the entire plotline springs from a misunderstanding.
(3) This is mostly a result of the Sophists being portrayed as evil in the liberal arts education programmes in Norway.
(4) Galleri Pingvin could generously be described as the worst ”gallery” in Oslo, but in reality it simply isn’t even part of the art world. It’s more a kind of scam-operation where IKEA-style artworks are presented as ”art”.
(5) Some artists I have talked to claim that there are also other reasons for showing art, such as having made a new work that one really wants people to see. This, however, is tree-hugging hippie crap. The goal is always sales or cred.
(6) Yes that IS what it’s called….
(7) The writers are invited with hopes that they will write something, but there are of course no demands forwarded. However, if the invitation is made through the editor of the various publications, expectations that something will actually be written are more probable. It also doesn’t really matter if the writer should end up giving a harsh critique, since the words ”Momentum 2009 was reviewed in publications such as Frieze, Art Forum and Flash Art” will look good on future applications to the Arts Council and local funding bodies.
(8) During the same days as the conference in Bergen, documenta are hosting a conference about documenta at a castle in Torino.
(9) We are trapped within a sufficiently post-Duchampian situation where statements made within the art world are seen as being expressed while wearing a clown’s nose.
(10) Sheik, Simon ”Representation, Contestation and Power: The Artist as Public Intellectual.” http://www.republicart.net/disc/aap/sheikh02_en.html
Translated by Erlend Hammer and Anne Szefer Karlsen