Fillip 18 — Spring 2013

Excerpts from Solo Show
Natascha Sadr Haghighian

Excerpts from Solo Show (2008), a collaborative exhibition and catalogue project by Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Uwe Schwarzer


I meet Uwe Schwarzer for the first time at the Sharjah Biennial in 2005. He is there to install an artist’s work; I am installing my own work. We find ourselves surrounded by the putting up of an exhibit in an edifice built by the sheik for the sole purpose of the biennial, a museum, an architecture containing workers from Pakistan and India who paint walls, unpack and install artworks, and polish the marble floors for the arrival of the sheik, all under the exploitative conditions that characterize life as a migrant worker in the Emirates.

The workers are here on a subcontracting firm’s charter. A job in the United Arab Emirates is a promise for a better future, better than any future in their home countries. Uwe is here to guarantee that his customer’s work gets installed according to plan. I am here because I fancy the idea of making myself a picture of how—in which context—my work is shown, because I always like to install my own work. When I arrive in my space, there are two workers busy with the task of painting the walls, and two others are waiting for my instructions regarding where to run the cables. Not only do I witness the working conditions in Sharjah, I also stand as an inextricable part of them. They resemble a bad dream that one can’t wake up from. How did I get here, and what’s different here than elsewhere? Or does something become visible here, something that remains otherwise cloaked because it is too far away, because it happens in blurry, fleeting form—because I imagined I could avoid exploiting anyone with my work? I feel deranged, I’m disoriented, and I feel very naive.

The modes of work and production in the art field are manifold. The approaches range from solitary studio sitters to jetset networkers, from collaborative cutting-edge researchers to collectives and cooperatives, not to mention hyperproductive art companies and the many variations in between.

When the production process leads to a large exhibit, money is relative. While one thing gets huge amounts of money, the other thing gets zero. Material, equipment, shipping, and insurance are paid for at fixed rates. Honoraria, salaries, accommodation, and personal expenses are subject to negotiation. Specialized technicians are paid at their usual daily rate, workers are paid by the hour, and artists customarily get paid nothing, just like volunteers and interns—they are paid with an abstract prospect of self-upgrade, an appreciation in self-value, stimulated perhaps through their participation or inclusion.

My own practice is founded on collective, transdisciplinary contexts. My main interest lies in collaborative, self-organized, and horizontal working relations. In such an environment, decisions were discussed and pitched collectively. Sites and events were self-organized, themes and their representation were chosen and carried out using interdisciplinary methods, and nobody got paid. As these collective working contexts were more and more dispersed—replaced with temporary collaborations, more activity inside the institution—this practice became engulfed by institutional structures and logics (as opposed to collective or self-organized structures) and underwent a tough, complicated transmutation.

I encountered the pressure to professionalize, to align oneself with the given order, with spite and astonishment. The standard responses from institutional personnel—“this is how we always do it,” “that’s out of the ordinary,” “no one has ever asked for that before”—were the demarcations for vitally needed boundary crossings within the institution. Be that as it may, the actual structure of the institution hardly allowed itself to be destabilized or disoriented. At the end of the day, the opening has to offer something to see: an exhibit, anything. The promise of the institution must be upheld at all costs. No consideration is given to whether the content of the exhibition is affirmative or critical of the institution or its context, or playful or aggressive. Most importantly, the production process cannot and should not be delayed. The show must go on. One can do a critical work that confronts the processes of the institution, but one cannot change the division of labour within the institution’s functions. One cannot change the fact that a press representative writes a press release, that a technician installs a video projector or lays a cable.

My understanding of production in these contexts almost became an overzealous over-identification with each and every person involved; ultimately, it was, at best, able to spark disorientation in the work process. Anyway, it is doubtful that the museum employee, returning home at five o’clock to his family—or to his own work—wishes I would liberate him from his “alienated” working relations. It isn’t really his problem that I can’t cope with relegating jobs or giving other people instructions.

Uwe comes from another world. He runs a company that is hired by artists to produce artworks. His identification with this work goes as far as making sure that his customer is satisfied, that his company has produced the best possible work, and that everything is delivered and installed according to schedule. He is paid fairly for his work, and when the project is completed, it is standard procedure that he has nothing more to do with the artwork.

On the one hand, I’m increasingly astounded at the way some artists work while I listen further to Uwe about his profession, and on the other hand, I’m astounded by my own astonishment. I had always asked myself how some artists manage to produce fifty exhibits in one year when I’m already overwhelmed by four. I knew that other people have assistants who answer their emails and help them with research; all the same, I wasn’t aware that specialized companies exist that can produce practically anything (almost anything) that an artist could come up with. I wasn’t aware that many artists produce this way occasionally or even exclusively.

In inner circles, everyone knows these companies. They come highly recommended because they are responsible and produce high-quality work. But appearing in the public eye is something that neither Uwe’s company nor other companies do, and this is good, says Uwe. He doesn’t clamour about his work. No company sign hangs in the courtyard entrance, and nobody seems to wish one did. To top it off, everything that has anything to do with the customers or with their respective productions remains strictly confidential. This is also a reason why many are enthusiastic about producing work with Uwe and his company. Discretion is important when dealing with artworks.

The more I hear about Uwe’s work, the more curious I become. I make up my mind to ask him if we should do a project together. I would like to gain a better understanding of this sector of art production, a sector that remains invisible to the exhibit viewer; also, I would like to renew a questioning of my own practice in order, among other things, to analyze whether or not an insistence upon certain modes of production reproduces unwanted romanticisms that serve the myth of the self-made, the genuine, the authentic—qualities for which everyone loves “the artist” so much—as though the wish for self-directed, unalienated, collaborative thinking and acting pronounces that no one is exploiting anybody and that no artists are setting themselves up for exploitation. On the one hand, I have the impression that Uwe’s working conditions are less distorted than mine, and I almost envy him for this clarity. On the other hand, I sense the necessity to engage in a fresh questioning of existing relations and conditions—which Uwe’s work is only one element of—to avoid accepting them as naturally given.

We meet regularly throughout a period of two years in order to think about a project we could do together. For reasons of discretion, Uwe is skeptical and careful. We decide to invent a pretend artist for the purpose of revealing the different working processes in his company while opening them to discussion. We produce the work of Robbie Williams and document the production procedure.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian

May 2008, Berlin

About the Author

Natascha Sadr Haghighian was born in Sachsenheim, West Germany in 1968 and lives and works in Great Britain. In 1985, he emigrated to the US to set up a ranch in Ellens Dale. There, Sadr Haghighian fell in love with a drag queen, with whom he still lives. Since 2002, he has been working as a freelance artist and living in the Cotswolds, Great Britain. Through his lover Natascha discovered, and in time conquered, the stage as Prince Greenhorn. He has been written about and portrayed photographically and in oil, among other things. (Extracted from

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