11 February 2022
Girl Behind Barred Window, Havana, Walker Evans, 1933; Image credit: Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This essay is the last trace of a seminar in which inherited teaching and learning formats were given up in favor of a more open discussion group. In order to stay true to the rhythm of the discussions and to revive the intensity of the exchange, the seminar group decided at the end of the semester to collectively author an essay: an essay that is – this is how it developed – thematically only loosely linked with the contents of the seminar. The jointly written text, which shows stylistic inconsistencies and leaps in argumentation, but at the same time blurs the traces of the voices it contains, has spontaneously developed into a reflection on the digital setting of its own existence. Just as art front is a perception of limits, this collective authorship is also the document of a collaboration that breaks up the contemporary, digitally defined frontiers and delineates new ones. Thus, the text tells something about issues that fermented in the minds of the participants, something that, albeit often unspoken, went on parallel to the contents that constituted the focus of this seminar.
The seminar took place in the digital winter semester 2020/21 at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. It was led by Ivana Perica.
Look for the right background, start the camera. How does it look? Is the pile of clothes that I still have to iron visible in the corner? No, but that sentimental stuffed animal is. I need to look more professional. I tilt the camera a bit to the right. Fine, that’s it.
That is the space I am comfortable to show, that I can let other people gaze in, that somehow represents me. Making something visible means to offer something for other people to critique and build an idea. And my ideas will be forever tightly connected to my background by me and those who hear them from a 12” monitor. All of my backgrounds, physical – the room I show myself in – or not, the experiences of my life, I cannot escape them.
Unexpected, unforeseen, the pandemic has pushed distance – my eternal wonder and my indispensable condition of possibility – into the realms of the possible again. Finally, the crisis proves how artistic practice has become part of the system, part of the problem. Whether I, whose name is Art, can profit from the currently enforced expansion of distance, and whether I will be able to come out from this, as is often claimed, with a new, more distanced yet more carefully considered view on the world?
Perhaps it is as they say: distance enables critical thinking and without crises critique does not seem to be imaginable in the first place. Nonetheless, I stand here and ask myself: can I really embody critical thinking? Me as art sitting in front of a computer screen fashioned as a front room: am I in the right space for this?
They say that at the apex of Modernism I was confined to a very residual position of autonomy outside society. Thereafter, so they say, my boundaries have become more porous. Some may even claim that they completely vanished. Yet I beg to differ, I have not dissolved into thin air. I ventured interventions. The critics say in return: Yes, but these were merely occasional actions! Your revolutions take place in the realm of ‘as if,’ they don’t create new worlds but merely place footnotes to the existing one.
And today: I have to wait here with my raised hand, up until the host hits the unmute button and allows me to speak. Here I am, next to all the other voices. I am neither outstanding nor salient anymore. One after another all the little tiles of this segmented screen get to talk. But then again I claim to assert my existence in the present: at least I am here, present, although my existence is reduced to a sequence of ones and zeroes. What will the critics say about this?
The critics are right: Adorno’s prophecy about the debasement of Art has proven true. I was dissolved into a constantly expanding field of unbounded aesthetics that in turn boosts today’s ubiquitous creative practices. Along the way, the promise of freedom (to which I have committed myself for centuries) has made a pact with the smirking grin of capital. With my once noble ideal being devalued into pure farce, in recent years I longed more than ever for the promised autonomy: the kind that should detach me from my monetarised self.
In this time of virtual meeting rooms, the spatial privacy given by a university lecture room goes missing, replaced by other people’s unfamiliar objects which I find myself familiarising with. With the people I would have familiarized nonetheless among the chairs of an institutionalised space. That’s why we choose the background, tilt the camera, sit in front of a bookcase, or a curtain or a wall, hoping that the cat won’t move it too much.
The background we choose becomes our front room, the room into which other people are allowed.
As everything else, the front room is a cultural construct easy to grasp yet non-generalizable.
This viewpoint, behind the curtain of this stage that is my front room, in which I have lingered for a long time, that this place and criticism that are remaining unheard behind a screen, have become precarious – that too has long been certain. Criticism “was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.” (Benjamin) Hundred years later I find myself behind this front room window and take care of my vulnerable body. I become neutralized through forced distancing, through a withdrawal to which I consent day in, day out with both my mind and senses. If an escape from society has become impossible already in Benjamin’s time, if we know that an outside is even more impossible today, then the front room brings about isolation instead of autonomy, repression instead of retreat, waiting art instead of political art.
All my attempts to break away from my role on the market shine now under another light. Am I still political and critical towards the market today, being confined in this front room (which is a retreat but simultaneously almost a place for advancement)? Am I still alive in the enclosed and moreover encrypted discussions that take place in the online seminars? Will I be busted while creating added value for my internet provider or boasted as a bearer of the promise for an uninhibited and open-space future?
The front room of my parents was a room no one was allowed to use. Closed by a stained-glass door, it was clean and tidy(er), with its very uncomfortable sofa, souvenirs and other knick-knacks on mini crocheted cloths, and a big table which we never used to eat. No, not even for the holiday dinners.
The front room was not for close friends, they sat in the kitchen with us, drinking coffee and eating biscuits. Whoever eats makes crumbles. You cannot be part of something and not leave a trace of your passage, therefore eating wasn’t for the front room.
The front room was for those rare occasions when special people came to visit: distant family members you want to impress, people of lower or higher social status you want to dazzle, the priest. Therefore, the ugly baroque ceramic salt and pepper dispenser (courtesy of our cousin thrice removed), the shiny silver plates, the statue of the Virgin of Lourdes.
With my once noble ideal being devalued into pure farce, in recent years I longed more than ever for the promised autonomy: the kind that should detach me from my monetarised self.
What are my responsibilities? Jammed between my sheltered private space and the audience, exposed but at the same time invisible, I make myself ready before I stage myself. What does it mean that I – being both art and artist – act as a public persona? Which mask shall I put on today?
Don’t be fooled. This is not me. It is only thanks to my persona that I become political. When I step out into the public sphere with a mask on my face, this is what constitutes my uniqueness. It is only when I take on shape in the actions by an artist that I, the Art, become an individual. I become perceptible, tangible, and I can be experienced close by, I am even coming to be a person. But beware, this is viable only with me as an actor and within the public sphere, only in togetherness that is shared with others.
If action is an activity that happens in the multidimensional space between the many, then it is clear that now I am pushed back into passivity. This room holds the promise to let me out into the sphere of politics. This coming out is what I have been waiting for so long. What I still do.
Sartre said that it was my mission to “act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it’s all about.” But today, Sartre has been deprived of his authority and I am neutralized, shoved aside, put on call. Physical distance was quickly sold out as social distance, and I was left out of it and of myself.
I know, I know: the students already reply, the appearance in the political-public space entails de-subjectivisation. There is no stepping out without abandoning the self, there is no life without death (Blanchot). And I reply that this is exactly what I want, to decompose, evaporate, but just in order to gather myself together again, to condense from the differences. Mine, our common present appearance in the communication device is an appearance in hiding. It stirs up the fear of de-subjectivisation. That is why we are making ourselves up so neatly. We: meaning me, but also the group of people, that are discussing my social, yes, my political potential in their virtual meeting rooms. We take a seat. In front of the screen. And appear to be.
The mask we put on digitally does not really separate us from the private spaces of our own thoughts. Digital masks do not empower us for the public stage. We are stuck in a spatial and temporal in-between. The pixels touch one another, our codes get mixed, we do not.
They say that in the past I could not tolerate any boundaries, no separation into disciplines. Together we used to form a liminal space, in which people appeared and spoke as persons. Today we say the art front is an investigation of an awareness of being part of a frontier. And only tomorrow, after the transgression, or better said the trespassing of these frontiers, political art will be able to break up existing boundaries and set new ones.
In its limited spatiality the front room was a construct of social diplomacy and aspirational self-representation. Every object had the function of crafting a story about my family, but mostly about the ability of my mother to keep such a room. A microcosm in itself.
Yes, maybe you are right, we always had different roles and since the beginning of the academia everybody knew very well who was the teacher and who the student, who could speak and who had to listen. And yet I would say, it has become something else again, since we have to gaze at each other like a group of bi-dimensional miniature portraits, like monads. We meet punctually here with enough background plants or abstract sun stripes created by the curtain shadows. We see each other but we cannot smell each other. We do not take hold of anything, but we pretend to uptake. We have lost the opacity. We operate a teaching, learning and discussion format without precedent. We are committed to transparency so that processes run smoothly and technology does not stall. Everyone knows where the entrance gate was and where the emergency exit is.
The visibility of our positions as speakers ultimately enables us to draw conclusions about and contextualize the people standing behind this text. We want to underscore that: we are a temporary group of authors meeting within the institutionalized context of an art university. Linked, again, by the question of the relationship between politics and aesthetics. In bringing into form, in putting together the pieces we are trying to transfer and translate the exchange of thoughts during the last months, the group’s debates that took place under the illusion of closeness evoked by the internet, into writing. To make transparent this privileged position from which we are speaking seems necessary. “And some are in the darkness / And the others in the light / But you only see those in the light / Those in the darkness you don’t see.” (Brecht)
Is this disclaimer sufficient or is it already self-promotion? Against black and white painting techniques: against the salons, coteries and cliques of the past, and against the digital perfectionism of today’s closed society. Whoever is here, is from here. Whoever is not here, does not even know that we are here. The impenetrable material of stone gave us opacity, but also visibility; the liquid crystals in the glass, these windows that show us sitting in the front room, they make images of us, but we remain in hiding.
Today we say the art front is an investigation of an awareness of being part of a frontier. And only tomorrow, after the transgression, or better said the trespassing of these frontiers, political art will be able to break up existing boundaries and set new ones.
After the seminar, the camera is disconnected, the voice is off: my old solitude. I look outside without being looked at. And I leave the private room without having given up the front room. It expands immeasurably: I sit on the toilet and visit an exhibition in Berlin; I walk in the Stadtpark and discuss dispositives of hygiene using the example of Steinhofkirche; I clean the cat’s litter box and sit in a lecture on perspectives on contemporary art. There are no more art-specific spaces: I am everywhere. Everywhere alone. Unbounded art has lost the addressees of its own unbounding.
What really remains:
Hidden behind the back door of my front room was something real. The clothes, still to be ironed, laid on the kitchen chair. The crumbles that fell off a cookie eaten between meals. The pot boiling. The half-read books on the bedside table. Both were life: the background scene that reveals itself after the background screen disappears. Only that the background screen is never penetrated by the smell of coffee cooked for the guests that previously used to linger in my parents’ front room, by that glimpse of the daily family space that was rendered visible through the sense of smell. There, the invisible was tangible. Here, behind the screen, nobody can smell my coffee.