Volume I – Anna McCarthy & Monika Bayer-Wermuth
Volume I – Anna McCarthy & Monika Bayer-Wermuth

Volume I – Anna McCarthy & Monika Bayer-Wermuth

Sperling

Volume VI – Thomas Geiger & Pieternel Vermoortel

Volume VI – Thomas Geiger & Pieternel Vermoortel

June 2022

Thomas’ work sheds light on topics such as democratization, economization, freedom, play, embodiment, gathering and occupation. All of these are topics whose discourses underwent rapid changes over this last year. This underpinning of change lends a sensitivity and fragility to the work that also informs the rich set of sentiments present in these conversations: alienation, family comfort, fear, loneliness, love, depression, revolt and not to be underestimated anger.

You have Post: On writing and exchanging during fast-changing, troubled times.

Ping. Yet another email. During the pandemic, administration took over; we plan, we replan, we write, we rewrite, we schedule and reschedule. We make one version, we make multiple versions. Ping. Another email again. We speak about the bureaucracy of making art, of making art public, of the uncertainty that even when having fulfilled all bureaucratic requirements the project, the meeting, the … is still taking place? Ping! A change of context: not only a pandemic but now Black Lives Matter, climate change and now also war. Ping! What are we working on…

In 2009, I was reading my way through the letters between the exiled Russian writer Maxim Gorky and Lenin. Those were moving times. Each letter was thoughtfully written and well considered; every word was weighed carefully, which is in vast contrast to our current fast communication streams. Far from the epicentre and ideals of Lenin’s Bolshevism, the Capri School, of which Gorky was a founding member, saw myth and religion fulfilling a central role in the revolution. Within these conversations on the role of literature and of education, elements of access to knowledge, democratization, public and revolt still linger. I read the conversations out loud, and analyzed from afar how struggle and changing politics might have influenced the thinking of these two figures.

How do we publish thoughts that are made redundant from one moment to the next, where yesterday’s concepts feel like ideas from 10 years past?

Thomas and I haven’t been talking about the content of these conversations, though we realized we embarked on writing letters to each other in fast-moving times. What I take from our exchange is how incredibly valuable the experience is of wrestling with one’s thoughts in moments of crisis. How do we, under these circumstances, understand and think through our practices? How do we publish thoughts that are made redundant from one moment to the next, where yesterday’s concepts feel like ideas from 10 years past? This text is a collection of snippets from conversations we had over the period of one year. Very unlike the letters between Lenin and Gorky, there is a very humble nature to our conversation. There are no grand utopias, instead we have found a deep concern with the possibilities of practicing art.

Thomas’ work sheds light on topics such as democratization, economization, freedom, play, embodiment, gathering and occupation. All of these are topics whose discourses underwent rapid changes over this last year. This underpinning of change lends a sensitivity and fragility to the work that also informs the rich set of sentiments present in these conversations: alienation, family comfort, fear, loneliness, love, depression, revolt and not to be underestimated anger.

Pieternel

Hi Thomas, sorry for my silence, traveling took over my existence and as you were describing your time in Paris I also wanted to share some sensations. This week, susan pui san lok is installing at Netwerk Aalst. She wanted to work with curator Nick Aikens together in the space. Even though Nick is based in Brussels, he is in quarantine with his daughter. Susan was locked up in her room in Aalst having conferences with the university in London. This morning we, after 3 days, spent some time together, though Nick joined online. The fact that we can’t ground events spatially makes time fluid. No more anchor points for what happened when and where. Recent historical events feel as though they took place years ago. One example is the take-over of the US capitol, which feels like it took place at least 5 years ago. And what does this stretching means for our understanding of sharing anchor points? Your works have a variety of these elements as their material – curious how this changes their assembly.

PS: here is an everyday image from Aalst / in the middle of the city. Talking about when you don’t see the elephant in the room.

Thomas

Hi Pieternel, thanks for sharing these thoughts and inner conditions – and your photos. First, I thought you’d sent the same photo three times. Obviously it’s not, but it feels like. And it’s a nice capture of our current situation, it feels like a repetition of similar moments. Time is stretched, as you say.

So let’s talk about anchor points. It might not surprise you that I can strongly identify my practice with this word. Working in series and long-term projects (Bust Talks, Kunsthalle3000, I want to become a millionaire) is very important to me. I think this principle has a lot to do with anchor points, because these works are like lines through time. As such, they give orientation, because they also mark positions to which I can return and from which I can move on.

The first and perhaps most important anchor point in my work was the so-called “Thinking Machine.”

Thinking Machine,, performative object, 24.5 × 24.5cm, 2007

Thinking Machine, performative object, 24.5 × 24.5cm, 2007

Working in series and long-term projects (Bust Talks, Kunsthalle3000, I want to become a millionaire) is very important to me. I think this principle has a lot to do with anchor points, because these works are like lines through time.

I “invented” this little machine when I was in art school. I always felt a bit lost there, I lacked structure. I went to the studio every day, and I was missing something that made the days seem different and not the same – maybe it was just my Protestant work ethic that was dissatisfied. Well, that inner state was the beginning of The Thinking Machine. It was inspired by the combinatorial machines of Ramon Llull from the late Middle Ages, as well as from the poetry movement OULIPO, who seek to create works using constrained techniques.

Ramon Llull. logical machine described in “Ars magna generalis ultima. Ars brevis”, 1305

Ramon Llull. logical machine described in “Ars magna generalis ultima. Ars brevis”, 1305

Georges Perec, diagram in “L’art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation,”,, 1968

Georges Perec, diagram in “L’art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation, 1968

The Thinking Machine consists of three rotating discs with 50 words each. By spinning the discs, I get a combination of 3 words that stays with me throughout the day.

The Thinking Machine consists of three rotating discs with 50 words each. By spinning the discs, I get a combination of 3 words that stays with me throughout the day – basically, I try to find the meaning of these words throughout the day in my observations. Since then, this Thinking Machine has been an integral part of my daily practice because it is humble, and it is grounding. Especially in the last two years, it has been extremely important to me. It has been my personal anchor within insecure times.

It’s hard to describe, but working with the Thinking Machine makes me feel like I’m in time and space, and when I find the three words, I’ve achieved my daily journey through time and space. It is a very satisfying moment. It makes me happy. It’s not about making art at all, it’s exactly about finding this state – as a basis.

Maybe you need a Thinking Machine.

place private light

place private light

round soft stone

round soft stone

chair figure foreign

chair figure foreign

gesture private tender

gesture private tender

Pieternel

Hi Thomas, what a great reply, thank you. As to keep up the rhythm, I’m often replying on my phone – it gives a different sensibility to the conversation, but also it allows me to respond from different locations than from behind my desk (with the disadvantages of more spelling and grammar mistakes too :)). This responding from the road, after a studio visit, after having put the kids to school also alters the mental position. Lacking though is the concentration needed to respond from this different position to turn these into anchor points. Think of Simone Forti, who helps us think from different locations in the body.

Simone Forti, ,Slant Board,, 1961

Simone Forti, Slant Board, 1961

For me, your thinking machine has a similar functioning. It makes you act from a position that is outside the ones that have been generated by yourself, your environment, what became over time habits, structures and conventions. It shapes time and space indeed, and it alters the position from which you engage.

An important question that is related to this creation of anchor points – is documentation. How do you document these events and what status do they hold, how do you understand the material that derives from it.

This also made me think of the role of the shutter Ariella Aïsha Azoulay is outlining in her book “Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism”. The shutter for her has a very distinct function – and so does the act of documentation:

Think of the camera shutter. It is a commonplace in the discourse of photography that an operating shutter is necessary for obtaining a legible, sharp and precise image out of the flow of light. (…) The picture to be obtained is presumed to exist, even if for a brief moment, as a petty sovereign. The petty sovereign is not what is recorded in the photograph but, rather, is the stand-alone photograph-to-be, the image that prefigures and conditions the closing and opening of a shutter. The petty sovereign asserts itself at that moment as preceding and separate from the photographic event, from the participants, and from the situation out of which a photograph is about to be extracted. It commands what sort of things have to be distanced, bracketed, removed, forgotten, suppressed, ignored, overcome, and made irrelevant for the shutter of the camera to function, as well as for a photograph to be taken and its meaning accepted. What is suppressed and made irrelevant is excised by the shutter. In the technological and historical discussion of the shutter, the only elements that matter are the quality – precision, clarity, recognizability – of the images, the end product, and the erasure of any trace of the shutter’s operation. This is an effect on the one hand of the means – ends relationship between the camera and images it produces and on the other hand, the dissociation of the camera’s shutter from other imperial shutters. The shutter is a synecdoche for the operation of the imperial enterprise altogether on which the invention of photography, as well as other technological media was modeled.

Here she is proposing an act of unlearning…

The picture to be obtained is presumed to exist, even if for a brief moment, as a petty sovereign.
Thomas

Hi Pieternel, I have to admit that I did not know the book by Ariella Aischa Azoulay. But I can gain a lot from your quote and the term “petty sovereign”, especially from a perspective of ephemeral art, in which documentation plays an elemental role. Documentation and its publication have a lot to do with power, with the manifestation of authorship, and with history-making. The documentation is an evidence of authorship, it is the copyright on an immaterial idea. I once read that the artist Florian Slotawa (Museum-Sprints 2000/01) complained when Martin Creed (Work No. 850, 2008) made a similar work to his and also ran through a museum 7 years after Slotawa’s first run. Slotawa’s video proves his authorship of this idea – unfortunately Jean Luc Godard never joined this discussion, as this action was originally created by the characters of his film Bande à part (1964) when running through the Louvre....

Florian Slotawa, ,Museums-Sprints,, 2001

Florian Slotawa, Museums-Sprints, 2001

Martin Creed, ,Work No. 850,, 2008

Martin Creed, Work No. 850, 2008

Jean-Luc Godard, ,Bande à part,, 1964

Jean-Luc Godard, Bande à part, 1964

The question arises whether an idea is still the same idea at all in another place, in another time. This question is answered by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story Pierre Menard, author del Quixote. Pierre Menard is hailed by one critic for writing a new version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote – a version that is 1:1 the same as Cervantes’ version, but this is exactly why it is so radical for the critic.

That is the power and the legal perspective of the documentary, and I will return to this authorship of the idea. Before that, I want to talk about another perspective of documentation, which is the aesthetic one.

There’s also something fascinating about documentation and how we can capture a moment in time. And I think that’s something that preoccupies all artists who work with life art. The artists’ answers are manifold: some work with photography or video, others do not document and use the “natural” documentation of society: the oral and written word. For me, the documentation is not the reminiscence of a work of art, it is something new, because it creates a new presence. This is the main question for me: how can documentation achieve this, how can it create new moments in time?

How do you document these events and what status do they hold, how do you understand the material that derives from it.

In my “early” performances, I rejected any kind of photographic documentation. I worked only with drawings and written words to retell the performance in a new narrative way. This series of works is called Paper performances, and its goal is for the documentation to act like a piece of visual fiction that is activated each time it is read by the audience. The reading and the dramaturgy created by simple drawing elements on the paper is the stage where the performance is restaged.

Paperperformance (An asshole moves in circles),, text on paper, 45 × 30cm, 2010

Paperperformance (An asshole moves in circles), text on paper, 45 × 30cm, 2010

Paperperformance (Ei Large),, text and egg on paper, 70 × 100cm, 2011

Paperperformance (Ei Large), text and egg on paper, 70 × 100cm, 2011

Paperperformance (Bread & Circuses I),, text and collage on paper, 21 × 29.7cm, 2011

Paperperformance (Bread & Circuses I), text and collage on paper, 21 × 29.7cm, 2011

I became more and more fascinated with pure documentation through language. This led to my work “I looked on my head from above”, a collection of performances by artists from all over the 20th century. All the works are narrated in a single sentence beginning with the pronoun “I”, giving the impression that they are performed by a single person. For me, the authorship of the works dissolved and the pure material, the ideas, came to the foreground as an open source of ideas that could be used again and again to intervene in our daily lives.

I became more and more fascinated with pure documentation through language.

I looked on my head from above, audio work, 22:19min, 2016

And this pool of ideas became the source of my Festival of Minimal Actions where I myself perform these works by other artists, because it just seems that the best way to keep a performance alive is to re-do it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t neglect authorship, I totally respect it, but the author is just not important to activate the work. All of these ideas have the power and the ability to create a new presence at a new time in a new place and have a new impact. That is what is important to me – and most of the artists I re-performed share this view completely.

Festival of Minimal Actions,, re-performance of Fredy Solano – ,Graft,, Despacio, San José, 2018

Festival of Minimal Actions, re-performance of Fredy Solano – Graft, Despacio, San José, 2018

Festival of Minimal Actions,, re-performance of Natalia Domínguez – ,Lava Pies,, Despacio, San José, 2018

Festival of Minimal Actions, re-performance of Natalia Domínguez – Lava Pies, Despacio, San José, 2018

And this pool of ideas became the source of my Festival of Minimal Actions where I myself perform these works by other artists, because it just seems that the best way to keep a performance alive is to re-do it.
Festival of Minimal Actions,, re-performance of Dora Garcia – ,The Black Veil,, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2020

Festival of Minimal Actions, re-performance of Dora Garcia – The Black Veil, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2020

Festival of Minimal Actions,, re-performance of Igor Grubic – ,Bicycle and Flag,, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2020

Festival of Minimal Actions, re-performance of Igor Grubic – Bicycle and Flag, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2020

In recent years my practice has shifted to more “stage” performances, even if they happen on very precarious stages, such as the Bust Talks or Money Talks. Set up as live performances, these works are also being filmed. This shifted the question of documentation, and I began to work with professional cameramen/women to film and edit the material – and to use the fictionalization effects of the medium: Cuts, zooms, static or moving cameras, different angles, etc. For me, this is fascinating because when I see the result, it’s like watching a new performance. It doesn’t feel like the performance I actually did. I think that’s a good feeling, because it shows me that there is a new life, a new performance happening within the documentation.

Bust Talk–Illumina,, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min,Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min

Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina,, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min,Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min

Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina,, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min,Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min

Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina,, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min,Link to video

Bust Talk–Illumina, performance / video, Biennale für Freiburg, 2021, 25:22 min

Link to video

Pieternel

Hi Thomas, I just got back to Vienna. Where shall we meet?

Thomas

Hi Pieternel, why don’t we do it in the road?

Why don’t we meet in the road – covid regulations are not that tight at the moment.

‘No one will be watching us

Why don’t we do it in the road?’

Pieternel

Hi Thomas, nobody will be watching us!

Politics are the clearest in public space – breastfeeding in public in Austria, laughing in South Korea, cross-dressing in Poland, women on the road in Afghanistan.

Liberal ideas play out in private houses. One’s freedom is another’s constraint. In public, you say :) who’s listening:)

Politics are the clearest in public space – breastfeeding in public in Austria, laughing in South Korea, cross-dressing in Poland, women on the road in Afghanistan.
Thomas

Hi Pieternel, public space is not only contingent on new beginnings, on spontaneous and unforeseeable action on the part of humans living together. It also needs to be stabilized if it is supposed to persist, through rules, institutions, and the law. Arendt’s account of freedom within the public space is an account of institutionalized freedom: Public spaces will very often vanish without stabilization. Institutionalization gives them some durability; and the task of stabilizing freedom through institutionalization is in fact the hardest part.

Thinking about freedom, I think about the possibility to express yourself in a direct way. Without hiding – without fears. Kunsthalle3000 is creating these spots of freedom by declaring them as a zone of art where everything all of a sudden is possible. Another anecdote: When doing Kunsthalle3000 in Geneva, we declared a stairway in the middle of the Plainpalais as Kunsthalle. Soon after we started, the security came and asked what we were doing. I was explaining that this stairway became our Kunsthalle and that we will make performances etc here. They said: “Do whatever you want. We are responsible for the square, but not for the stairways.” It was so beautiful to see, that even an over-regulated public space as in Switzerland offers places of complete freedom.

Kunsthalle3000-Geneva,, institution as intervention, Plaine de Plainpalais, Geneva, 2016

Kunsthalle3000-Geneva, institution as intervention, Plaine de Plainpalais, Geneva, 2016

Kunsthalle3000-Johannesburg,, institution as intervention, Beyers Naudé Square, Johannesburg, 2016

Kunsthalle3000-Johannesburg, institution as intervention, Beyers Naudé Square, Johannesburg, 2016

Kunsthalle3000-Paris,, institution as intervention, Habitat / Place de la République, Paris, 2016

Kunsthalle3000-Paris, institution as intervention, Habitat / Place de la République, Paris, 2016

What is the space of art when not taken from the position of the citizen?
Pieternel

Hi Thomas, the question I ask myself and the ones one performs for is: what ought an artist to represent – does one not remain a citizen first? What is the space of art when not taken from the position of the citizen? (What is at stake when departing from the liberal aspect of the arts, what is its agency) What stories need to be told, and what should representation be concerned with? When governing is upside down and even anti-democratic, how can we address events, situations and dilemmas of freedom and meaning, as artists, poets and citizens. What does a civic artist do today?

Thomas

Hi Pieternel, representation is a central topic within my work that allows me to oscillate between the voice of someone else and my own voice. This is very inspired by Brecht’s alienation effect, which is about representing someone else while still representing yourself. It is encouraging the audience to look at the familiar in a new way, and to make the familiar unfamiliar or strange. In the Festival of Minimal Actions I speak through the works of other artists, in the Bust Talks I am both, an Interviewee and a voice of a bust, in Peeing in Public an entire panel of peeing experts speaks through me, and in Money Talks I let capitalism speak through me.

In the Festival of Minimal Actions I speak through the works of other artists, in the Bust Talks I am both, an Interviewee and a voice of a bust, in Peeing in Public an entire panel of peeing experts speaks through me, and in Money Talks I let capitalism speak through me.
Peeing in Public,, performance/video, 21:10min, Kunstverein Kevin Space, Vienna, 2021,Link to video

Peeing in Public, performance/video, 21:10min, Kunstverein Kevin Space, Vienna, 2021

Link to video

Bust Talk–Kifwebe,, performance/video, Kunsthalle Emden, 2019, 18:52 min,Link to video

Bust Talk–Kifwebe, performance/video, Kunsthalle Emden, 2019, 18:52 min

Link to video

Money Talks I (Die Psychoanalytikerin),, performance/video, steirischer Herbst. 34:38min, 2020,Link to video

Money Talks I (Die Psychoanalytikerin), performance/video, steirischer Herbst. 34:38min, 2020

Link to video

Each situation calls for a new answer in terms of representation, and that’s partly what keeps the excitement. And playing with representation allows telling new stories about reality and to experience reality differently.

And to answer your question: What does a civic artist do today? I can only speak for myself, but for me it’s important to share my voice with other voices that are less present or even hidden within silence. I see myself as a mediator, building a bridge across the silence to the public.

Are these performances also to be considered as catalysts towards a democratization process?
Pieternel

Hi Thomas, here is a question on material and change. Let me to a certain extent reframe my previous question. What are you representing when you are active in public space? Let’s say you have the pigeon speaking – then you might be giving the pigeon a voice in the public debate, you make it visible as a citizen. The same could be raised when you bring a concept into public space: concepts as abstract elements (capitalism – or bodily fluids such as public peeing). These voices from the past and future, concepts that surround us, animals and perhaps also vegetation are being given a voice. You use the format of public speaking and as such you reiterate certain given understandings of what public space is while potentially opening this space to voices that are under-represented or not represented at all. Are these performances also to be considered as catalysts towards a democratization process? How does this practice sit with commoning processes?

Thomas

Hi Pieternel, I guess working and speaking in public space means to represent a specific idea about this space which goes back to the ancient Greeks and their concept of the agora. A space like the agora is important for democracy, because it creates space where people can consider views other than their own – a space to become aware of difference and diversity, not in the sense of identity (race, gender, class) but also diverse in the actions, the things that people are doing within this space. In “Les chaises” passers-by were invited to sit on a chair and to do nothing – and to get paid the equivalent hourly rates of the director, assistant and curator of an art institution (CAC Brétigny).

A space like the agora is important for democracy, because it creates space where people can consider views other than their own.
Les Chaises,, performance/photo series, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022

Les Chaises, performance/photo series, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022

Les Chaises,, performance/photo series, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022

Les Chaises, performance/photo series, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022

Les Chaises,, performance/photo series, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022

Les Chaises, performance/photo series, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022

My latest performance “Le Pigeon” is looking at this diversity of action from another perspective. It is strongly connected with the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who lived (allegedly) “like an animal” in a public place to show people the constraints in which they live – and that they are more unhappy than the animals themselves. This is why he was called Diogenes – the dog. In my performance, it is another animalic inhabitant of the public space, a pigeon, which is speaking about our limited use of public space.

Le Pigeon,, performance/video, 18:20min, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022, photos by Elena Lespes Muñoz,Link to video

Le Pigeon, performance/video, 18:20min, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022, photos by Elena Lespes Muñoz

Link to video

Le Pigeon,, performance/video, 18:20min, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022, Photos by Elena Lespes Muñoz,Link to video

Le Pigeon, performance/video, 18:20min, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022, Photos by Elena Lespes Muñoz

Link to video

Le Pigeon,, performance/video, 18:20min, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022, photos by Elena Lespes Muñoz,Link to video

Le Pigeon, performance/video, 18:20min, CAC Brétigny/The Real Show, 2022, photos by Elena Lespes Muñoz

Link to video

[...] to quote Michel de Certeau, I consider myself and my actions to be the smallest social unit with which I can contribute to social progress.

And finally, to answer your last question about social change:

I strongly believe that my work is a catalyst for a social process. But on a very small scale, or, to quote Michel de Certeau, I consider myself and my actions to be the smallest social unit with which I can contribute to social progress. Michel de Certeau’s “L’art de faire” is still an important theoretical backbone in my work, mainly because of its idealism, which shares a similar optimism to Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope”. Both believe in daily action as the main instrument for change. As an artist I find such a conviction absolutely essential, that all actions, no matter how small, can lead to something and elsewhere to a continuation of dialogue and action.

Written on various locations in Europe between January 2021 and April 2022,

Thomas Geiger and Pieternel Vermoortel