Fillip

Fillip 6 — Summer 2007

(Find us at the kitchen door) at unitednationsplaza
Hadley+Maxwell

unitednationsplaza (the unp) is an experimental exhibition/educational institution located in former East Berlin. Nestled in the shadows of romantic plattenbau apartments, the unp building is a small, square box that sits at the rear of a big-box food retailer. One passes by a dumpster to enter through an unassuming metal door. The facilities are modest, almost Spartan: a seminar room, a kitchen, a toilette, an office upstairs, and a bar in the basement. The seminar room features an all-white interior with simply constructed, and remarkably uncomfortable, white cubes for seating that can be reconfigured into various formats from bleachers to barricades. There is a “beamer,” with an underwhelming computer-speaker system for powerpoint and video presentations, panel discussions, and soft-voiced lecturers.1

The unp rises from the ashes of the implosion of Manifesta 6, famous for the legal arguments that have ensued since its cancellation.2 The proposed program for Manifesta 6 was to use an educational model. An examination of Anton Vidokle’s “Exhibition as School in a Divided City”3 reveals his research of other experimental arts institutions, with a particular interest in George Maciunas’ New Marlboro Centre for Arts.4 The site for Manifesta 6 was no mere retreat into the comfort of a pastoral campus, but was to be situated within the politically charged city of Nicosia, Cyprus, at a crucial moment in its conflicted history. With this in mind, Manifesta 6 was a proposal to create a space for new social and political possibilities of artistic production by demanding a certain investment of time from its participants, thus possibly avoiding the typical pattern of artists who drop in and take off from many large-scale international exhibitions. In its conflation of politics and art, discourse, and practice, the unp seems to be an attempt to recover some of the work put into Manifesta 6.

In light of the original gesture that initiated the unp, and in the spirit of what we have come to enjoy as the gift of the unitednationsplaza (poetically demonstrated by the bold urgency of crushing together three overloaded and strangely fashionable words), we will consider the unp here as an experiment with the form and function of an exhibition as school.5

The unp as an institution is dynamic and fragile. It evokes an educational institution, but it does so by saying it in the manner of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, “I would prefer not to.” Consider this phrase polemically, as a threshold of judgment that suspends the suspension of disbelief. For instance, you agree to write an article that you feel you should write, but you would prefer not to. You commit, but somehow defer at the same time. This is an ethical relation to the finality of decision-making,6 and can be linked to the unp to describe how a notion of “exhibition as school” appears within the field of experiments in art and education. The unp deploys a weak force, easily eclipsed by more tangible (social and political) concerns. To sense the unp as an institution that would prefer not to is to maintain its fragile and dynamic character.

At the unp seminars, one can feel the character of the room shift dramatically from speaker to speaker. It is the speaker who often suggests what kinds of subjects may take the position of reception. This is palpable when the imprint of the institution is so light. To illustrate this lightness of imprint, we could reformulate “exhibition as school” as exhibition as not exhibition, school as not school, throwing the organization of both institutional structures into suspension and opening up what can constitute learning experience and/or modes of exchanging discourse.

What exactly is the role of a speaker (performer), and what is the role of an audience (participants) in an exhibition as school? In the overly self-conscious mode of contemporary discourses,7 the speakers we have seen waver precisely on the theatrical range of roles, or characterizations, seemingly available to them: the formal lecturer, the pedagogue, the performance artist/performer, the anti-authorial auteur, the political ideologue, the orator, the critic, the informant, the dinner host, the cheerleader, the confessor, the master of ceremonies, the facilitator, the self-effacing deconstructionist, the romantic deconstructionist, the messiah, and the artist as all (and somehow none) of the above. The audience responds by filling many roles in direct response to the guidance offered: the heckler, the keener, the patient witness, the teacher’s pet, the cynic, the rebel, the spy, the sympathizer, the earnest working class student, the arm-chair politician, the prankster, the connoisseur, the obstructionist, the alarmed critic, the wooed, the disciple, and the distracted doodler. Most importantly, we have seen this dynamic turn on a dime, inverting roles and power relations.

The recasting of art and education is posed as something to celebrate in a spirit of critical conviviality by the unp.8 What the unp offers is a space for serious play in the exchange of ideas around art and politics, and this deliberately open, theatrical format allows the space to be flexible to different experiments in the exchange of discourses, ideas, speed dating, dreams, and, of course, critical concerns. The separation in an overtly theatrical classroom structure is a built-in mechanism for critical distantiation on both sides of the lecturer/audience divide.9

Curator and art critic Tirdad Zolghadr’s series of ten seminars, entitled “That’s Why You Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties,” decisively put this divide to the test, critically addressing a different convention of discursive performance every night. As emcee, he fought to maintain a critical distance in fidelity to the unp as an experimental site, applying his often glib or patronizing technique equally to participants and guests. For example, he continually interrupted Frieze editor Joerg Heiser100 throughout his book launch to tell him, “We’re losing [the audience]; they’re falling asleep.” At the same time, he threatened to put an audience member on stage, purportedly to make participants pay attention. His antics were a welcome relief from what would normally be a stultifying, predictable evening.

Zolghadr’s magnetic personality—a confusing mixture of self-congratulation and irony, wild citations and rhetorical acrobatics—framed the most playful of the seminar series at unp to date, so it comes as no surprise that one of his nights also produced a minor coup. We had the privilege of hearing a number of descriptions of the evening from what would seem to be two sides of the “experiment.” The experiment, set up by artist Chris Evans,11 was to test a mediation of the speakers by having them converse around the kitchen table while being broadcast via live video to the seminar room. However, the participants in the seminar room were unable to hear (due to perpetual problems with the poor sound system) and assumed the garbled sound to be a challenge set up by the artist. They responded by forming their own discussion, and going on a mission to buy their own beer (those in the kitchen were drinking wine). They eventually decided to use the modular furnishing to barricade the performers inside the kitchen. The participants congratulated themselves for performing what they felt was the obvious reaction to a situation of antagonistic separation. However, the organizers of the evening, genuinely surprised (perhaps even hurt) by this somewhat violent intervention, asked why no one had simply knocked on the kitchen door to demand a change to the inadequate set-up.12

Why did nobody knock on the kitchen door? The kitchen door has been a point of contention since day one of the unp, and has become a metaphor for the stubborn hierarchical conventions associated with both school and exhibition. More green room than student lounge, the kitchen is neither off-limits nor inviting. Since there are no explicit laws governing its use, we assume the kitchen door protects a hierarchy we are accustomed to in any institution. Our assumptions and judgments surrounding the passive resistance of the kitchen door, or the institution itself, reveal the unp as a charged site. This anxiety around inclusion/exclusion, pervasive among all participants we have interviewed, is a reminder that there might be more cultural capital awarded to people who, for example, have a drink with Liam Gillick in the kitchen than attend a class with him in the seminar room.

Gillick took the ambiguous kitchen-door politics of the unp to task by using the architecture of the site to divide his performance between half-hour lectures (intentionally alienating and not-to-be-interrupted) and subsequent retreat to the bar in the cellar where he welcomed conversation. The clear laws of engagement put forward by this structure seemed to be a direct challenge to the unp, which Gillick described critically as creating “the conditions for the experimental with no experiment.” His decision also made explicit the tension at the heart of the unp’s existence between seminar and party. At the closing cellar party of Gillick’s week, an acquaintance who we have never seen at any of the seminars told us that the unp was “tired” and no one was interested anymore; this muttered drunk on tequila13
while dancing to Anri Sala’s DJ skills. With its spectacular publicity, the unp has set up a formula whereby one does not have to come to school to say they were a part of an exhibition. This one critic seemed to suggest that it is important for the school to fail so that the partiers won’t feel they have missed anything. Is discursive engagement just a ruse? Are we suckers for going to class?

Sheltered behind the party of the unp spectacle, there is space for very intense discussion and work. We are thinking particularly of artists Walid Raad and Jalal Toufic’s seminar, entitled “The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster,” which consisted of twelve evenings, three to four hours each.14 The goal was to work through only a few sentences at a time using Toufic’s writings. The commitment the two speakers exhibited toward the task at hand, and Raad’s generous determination to articulate a translation between Toufic’s philosophy and ideas of art practice, made for a rare and memorable experience. Ultimately, the form of this seminar took up an ethical determination decidedly different from Gillick’s, insisting on withdrawal and patient thinking rather than urgency and action.

It is significant that the structure set up for invited guests of the unp is uncommonly demanding. Asking speakers to present for extended periods of time makes the more common single presentation impossible. This allows an audience to mull over the events and return “armed,” so to speak, as educated and critical participants.15 Having no explicit demands of the participants in return, redistributes the power relationships familiar to artist talks or classroom scenarios. In the artist talk, for instance, the audience may be anonymous but tends to respect the limits of the engagement. In a classroom, the students are equally as committed to being present as the instructor. Individuals take responsibility for their participation in an extended engagement; the vulnerability of revealing more each day, and having both good and grumpy days, can be shared. At unp, people come and go, but very few participants commit to appearing every night for any given series. The informality of the institution in respect to the audience creates a tenuous space to work through the kinds of difficulties with which presenters can be faced when articulating their ideas publicly over extended periods of time. It often feels like the unp format offers a cruel challenge to its actors. Painfully on display in these performances is each speaker’s decision regarding pedagogical style, and the relative flexibility of their practice to address the “seminar” format, bringing the split between artistic practice and discursive engagement into anxious relief.

The anxieties in the art world about the relationship between discursive and artistic productions, exhibition, curation, and education, meet here in this institution that would prefer not to. As Melville’s narrator overcompensates for Bartleby’s passive resistance by describing his mundane surroundings with abundant adjectives, judgments, and assumptions, so guests and participants alike continue to produce narratives to describe the political climate surrounding the unp and the tensions it reveals. Can the suspension of the properties of both exhibition and school survive the constant attack of our institutional habits and social conventions? We wait to see if this experiment of exhibition as school, the true gift of the unp, will experience the same fate as Bartleby, and withdraw into an intimate part of the architecture of the clean slate, the tabula rasa.

Notes

1. The unp program is organized by Anton Vidokle in collaboration with Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Martha Rosler, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Nikolaus Hirsch, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Tirdad Zolghadr. Many of those involved have conducted seminars that range from several days to two weeks. The glue holding this diverse cast together is Magdalena Magiera, charged with coordination, communications, disseminations, and all else involved.

2. In a letter explaining the cancellation of Manifesta 6, the former curators stated: “Manifesta 6 was planned to take the form of a temporary art school, the Manifesta 6 School, comprised of three departments revolving around diverse cultural issues and debates, and each proposing a different structural model for art education.” See _http://e-flux.com/displayshow.phpfile=message_1149687812.txt _(accessed 29 May 2007).

3. See Anton Vidokle’s “Exhibition as School” at http://www.unitednationsplaza.org/readingroom.html (accessed 30 May 2007).

4. Maciunas, a member of Fluxus, had a particular interest in the form of a school as a “think-tank and training ground for the future avant-garde.” See Vidokle’s “Exhibition as School.”

5. As their website describes it at http://www.unitednationsplaza.org/intro.html.

6. This would also mean thinking about what Melville sets in motion in the text as a whole, rather than a literal reading of “passive” agency. What is Melville’s use of Bartleby’s character within the act of writing? Is the figure of Bartleby a withdrawing centre around which judgment perpetually swirls?

7. Or are these discourses not so contemporary anymore? At what point do we achieve such a separation that we begin to imagine ourselves participating in a historical event, something already past and part of the e-flux archive? With an ad in Artforum, has the event already reached its climax?

8. Note that we mean very specifically the unp, and not necessarily all of its guests. What is surprising is the way conventional patterns of institutional behaviours manifest themselves. Martha Rosler, for example, performed the political ideologue in a blindingly autocratic register, in what appeared to be a promotion of American bipartisan thought. This came across as a failure to recognize the possibilities of the context.

9. Furthering the notion of a suspension of means and ends the unp rests within, perhaps we have a division of division, an exhibition as not not school? To be sure, it is too simplistic to dismiss the importance of thinking such boundaries, the archetype possibly being that between art and life.

10. The evening was announced as: “Suddenly this Overview: Vernissage of Joerg Heiser’s ‘Plötzlich diese Uebersicht’. With Jennifer Allen and Joerg Heiser. A reflexive exercise in how to best stage an evening book launch and the Authorial Voice therein.”

11. This evening was announced as: “Don’t Know If I’ve Explained Myself. A symposium set up by Chris Evans (after Garry Kennedy). ‘The Italian expression Non so se mi sono spiegato seems to apologize for the speaker’s limited skills, but it is actually an unsolicited pause, an opportunity to recap and specify.’ On art world divisions of labor between the artistic and the discursive. With Michael Baers, Annika Eriksson, and others.”

12. Magiera compared the whole event to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film, Das Experiment (2001).

13. The tequila was homemade by artist Eduardo Sarabia for the unp bar.

14. 31 January through 12 February 2007.

15. Raad relentlessly put himself on the line, admitting that he was questioning some of his own processes and past works. As he became increasingly vulnerable, he also inspired a kind of empathy in his audience who seemed to accept his personal confessions as a genuine act of generosity.

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About the Author

Hadley+Maxwell have been working together since 1997. They have performed, published, and exhibited their work internationally in solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver), Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), Kunstverein Göttingen, and SMART Project Space (Amsterdam), among others, and in group exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam), Manif d’art 5 de Québec (Quebec City), and the 4th Marrakech Biennale. They studied media philosophy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland (2004), teach at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, and live in Berlin.

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