Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

Someone Cares
Antonia Hirsch

In Thomas Hirschhorn’s 1992 project Jemand kümmert sich um meine Arbeit (Somebody takes care of my work) he placed some of his sculptural objects on the sidewalk, only to watch how civic sanitation workers ‘took care’ of them—by removing them along with the trash of other neighbourhood residents.

This direct interaction with social space and public institutions may have foreshadowed the spirit in which Hirschhorn’s 2004 Swiss-Swiss Democracy was conceived. As part of this project, Hirschhorn occupied the Centre Culturel Suisse (CCS) in Paris this past Winter, 1 invading spaces that are not usually open to the public and enveloping them in his trademark architecture of packing tape and cardboard.

As in 1992, it quickly became apparent that ‘someone cared’ about his work. While with the earlier work Hirschhorn merely established interaction with a municipal administration through its garbage-removal services, in 2004 he extended his reach straight to the core of the Swiss government, who demonstrated just how much they cared about his project by exacting harsh retribution against the cultural institution that had supported Hirschhorn’s venture.

In classic terrorist fashion, Hirsch-horn’s project planted a metaphorical bomb within the CCS and managed to provoke Swiss authorities to show their ‘true’ face, the face of a system that, according to the artist, flies the flag of direct democracy yet renounces basic democratic principles.

Hirschhorn writes: “Swiss-Swiss Democracy wants to go beyond democracy; this is not a provocation... I want to take siege of the Swiss Cultural Centre... With this presence and this daily production, I want to deidealize democracy and I want to destabilize the good democratic conscience...” 2

Hirschhorn seems to enter into the current discourse on the crisis of democracy by taking aim at those structures which, while ostensibly offering a great deal of opportunities and choices, actually only camouflage an atrophy of agency. This condition permits, for example, the right of participation in plebiscites, but lacks the opportunity to influence decisions regarding what questions must be asked, how, and of whom.

However, instead of targeting the art institution as a stand-in for existing power structures, Swiss-Swiss Democracy renders the institution strangely absent. The CCS was strictly subordinate to the artist’s strategy, becoming completely instrumentalized as the conduit for a critique directed beyond the cultural institution.

Hirschhorn’s project at CCS, accessed through a small alley in the heart of Paris’ trendy Marais district, consisted of a labyrinth of rooms and corridors plastered with photocopies of statistics and newspaper articles in French, German and the occasional English tract, thematizing various aspects of Swiss culture, politics, or economy. Monitors providing additional audiovisual material were positioned throughout the exhibition. The requisite libraries of published texts relating to Switzerland (culture, history, political structure etc.) could be perused while sitting in overstuffed, packing tape-covered chairs, next to one of the numerous packing tape-and-cardboard cutaway models of Swiss railway tunnels.

The project also included the publication of a daily newspaper in which Hirschhorn and collaborator, in-house philosopher Marcus Steinweg, provided the majority of content with the occasional reprint of topical texts by other authors. This photocopied newspaper was produced on-site at the CCS and also provided a venue for the publication of extracts of Steinweg’s daily lectures there. In addition, Gwena√´l Morin’s theatre group presented a nightly performance of Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, with the transformed CCS serving as the play’s backdrop. 3

One could have found plenty of potentially provocative material forming part of this project, such as, for example, the image of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib juxtaposed with the crests of various Swiss Cantons and the hand-drawn slogan “I ♥ Democracy” gracing the exhibition’s announcement poster. However, it was one small aspect of the Tell performance that seemed to galvanize the reactions of Swiss authorities: an actor portraying a dog pretended to pee on an image of Swiss right-wing politician Christoph Blocher, who was elected to the Swiss Federal Council in 2004.

After these Council elections early last year, Hirschhorn, who has made Paris his home for the past 20 years, vowed to boycott his country of origin by refusing to exhibit his work in Switzerland. Though at the time this stance may have been of little interest to a broader public, when politicians reacted so swiftly and forcefully to Hirschhorn’s project at the CCS, their response certainly also filtered into the mainstream media. Only ten days after the opening of the exhibition last December, the Swiss Council of States had already passed a motion to cut Pro Helvetia’s budget by 1 million Swiss Francs—explicitly announced as a punitive measure. Pro Helvetia (comparable to the Canada Council for the Arts and the key financial sponsor of the Hirschhorn project at CCS) was also forbidden by the National Council to make any public statements.

The ensuing media coverage predictably focused on whether Swiss taxpayers should pay for ‘anti-Swiss propaganda,’ questions of censorship, or whether the project constituted (good) art.

Ironically, Hirschhorn had only weeks before been awarded the 2004 Joseph Beuys Prize by the Basel, Switzerland-based Joseph Beuys Foundation. Beuys, who Hirschhorn cites as a key influence, maintained democracy was a vital aspect of his practice and Hirschhorn’s artistic strategies clearly echo Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. 4

Due to its structure of encouraging both institutional confrontation and active (live) discourse, Swiss-Swiss Democracy invites consideration within two discursive frameworks: relational aesthetics and institutional critique. However, Hirschhorn is conspicuously absent from Bourriaud’s notorious Relational Aesthetics text and he vehemently rejects strategies in which artwork comes into existence only through the presence or participation of an audience. 5 He also distances himself from the objectives of institutional critique. How then does Hirschhorn’s work distiguish itself from these strategic positions

Bourriaud’s text, first published in 1998, concisely defines relational aesthetics as an “aesthetic theory consisting in judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.” 6 In his essays Bourriaud, foregrounds this ‘relation-forging’ as an absolute quality for the construction of “hands-on utopias” 7 that avoid the limitations of the capitalist marketplace and its spectacular forms of entertainment and/or regulated spaces for interaction.

If one was to accept the declared goal of relational aesthetics to be the challenging of a dominant, market-driven culture by generating new relational forms, one must recognize that relational aesthetics has possibly degenerated to a similarly idealized but compromised phrase as the term ‘democracy’ criticized by Hirschhorn. The marketplace has not refrained from rendering the strategies of relational aesthetics a commodity. 8 In actuality, the goal of relational aesthetics is the creation of an alternative, a kind of rest stop, where one pulls out of life’s vagaries, but simultaneously ceases to be an obstacle in the flow of things. This basically conciliatory nature of relational aesthetics art may also be deemed to be at the root of its marketability and the concurrent creation of the relational aesthetics ‘label,’ that, in turn, has its own under-acknowledged ‘commodity-momentum.’ 9

When Hirschhorn states “...I am not an animator and I am not a social worker,” 100 he asserts the autonomy of his work and by extension acknowledges the commodity-nature of the artwork, thereby preventing the artwork’s market contingency from forming a blind spot in the discourse that surrounds it. 111

Despite superficial formal similarities to relational aesthetics, Hirschhorn’s aesthetics do not stop at creating the ‘microtopias’ extolled by Bourriaud. Rather, by employing strategies of institutional critique, Swiss-Swiss Democracy recognizes not merely the importance of facilitating relations among people, but also with the (non-art) institutions that determine and structure the sphere in which interpersonal encounters and exchanges can take place.

Swiss-Swiss Democracy highlights not only the difficult topic of dissent within a democratic system, but also the increasing tendency of Western democracies and their institutions to reduce their governmental role to that of quasi-corporate service providers. The already problematic model of the paternalistic state that, nonetheless, ‘takes care’ of its citizens, is now replaced by a framework in which responses to social risks and demands are ‘outsourced.’ As a result, social problems and conflicts fail to influence the political institution proper and are therefore no longer articulated within it. (read footnote)2

Jemand kümmert sich um meine Arbeit benignly and humorously recognized the predicament of arms-length service provision, but remained a mere demonstration of failure: the ‘authorities’ presumably never learned of the incongruity between the service they provided versus one of their ‘client’s’ expressions. Similarly, sanitation workers as well as passers-by were probably oblivious to Hirschhorn’s intent to ‘shape’ social sculpture. In contrast, Swiss Swiss Democracy’s confrontational nature effectively circumvented the arms-length agency, consequently eliciting a direct reaction from the Swiss government, and thereby inscribing Hirschhorn’s critique within the core structure of the state-institution, while also bringing it to public awareness.

Even though Hirschhorn states “I never really understood the critique of the institution,” (read footnote)3 one is hard-pressed not to be reminded of classic examples of a broader institutional critique, as exemplified by Hans Haacke’s works of the 1970s. Yet Hirschhorn’s strategy does not focus on art institutions and systems per se; Swiss-Swiss Democracy‘s somewhat surprising ‘success’ in exposing problematic state-institutional structures lies in the fact that the Centre Culturel Suisse is both a cultural institution and an arms-length agency of the Swiss government. Hirschhorn chose not to criticise the Centre’s limited institutional directive—to promote Swiss culture—but instead strategically utilized the CCS to gain access to the structures that support and sustain the organization, i.e.: the Swiss government. That both the cultural institution and ultimately also the artwork are subordinate to, and possibly even dispensable in his cause proclaims the urgent nature of Hirschorn’s concern.

In the words of the artist: “I don’t make political art; I make art politically.”

# Swiss-Swiss Democracy, Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris; December 4, 2004 to January 30, 2005.
  1. (my translation).
  2. The mythical figure of Wilhelm Tell remains a Swiss national hero and an emblem of Swiss independence who is memorialized on the back of every 5-Franc coin.
  3. The term social sculpture describes the design of all societal forms and relationships and implies the participation of everyone (not merely specialists such as artists or politicians) in the creation of this ‘artwork,’ which represents, in essence, a social sphere. The social sculpture undermines its ghettoization within the art context, and implies art’s immediate relevance, impact and responsibility towards political, economical and societal structures.
  4. Hirschhorn did present, upon the invitation of Bourriaud, his 24-hour Foucault project at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last fall. On the topics of institutional critique and participant-contingent artwork see: Alison Gingeras, “Conversation with Thomas Hirschhorn,” Thomas Hirschhorn (London: Phaidon Press, 2004), 23-31.
  5. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, english edition (Dijon: Presses du Reel, 2002), 112.
  6. Ibid., 9.
  7. Alison Gingeras, “Conversation with Thomas Hirschhorn,” 22/23.
  8. See Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 8/9, for his vision of non-marketability of relational aesthetics art. Seven years later, this passage seems to have been entirely surpassed by contemporary realities. See also Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004), 52/53.
  9. Alison Gingeras, “Conversation with Thomas Hirschhorn,” 25.
  10. Andrea Fraser writes on the topic of this autonomy: “artistic autonomy has a social dimension: the autonomy of art as a field which, like the autonomy of other fields, in Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis, is a condition of its capacity to impose ‘its own norms on both the production and the consumption of its products’ and to exclude norms and criteria dominant in other fields—especially the economic and political fields. Finally, this social dimension of artistic autonomy implies a fourth, political dimension: the freedom of speech and conscience and the right to dissident opinion.” Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: Writings 1985-2003 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).
  11. See Joachim Hirsch: Das Endeder Liberalen Demokratie., March 2005.
  12. Alison Gingeras, “Conversation with Thomas Hirschhorn,” 22-23.

Image: Thomas Hirschhorn, inside Swiss-Swiss Democracy.

About the Author

Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.

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