Vienna Expert Meeting – Ivana Landmann Serie
Interdisciplinary IV
16 October 2009, Projectspace Kunsthalle Wien

PARTICIPANTS: Ivana Borovnjak, Christine Hohenbüchler, Marty Huber, Alexandra Landré (Moderation), Tina Leisch, Lucas Lenglet, Thomas Mießgang, Ulrike Möntmann, Corinna Obrist, Iva Prosoli, Eva von Rahden, Shird-Dieter Schindler, Hanne Seitz, Peter Weibel, Wolfgang Zinggl

 

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Transcription and summary: Nina Glockner

In the following excerpts are presented of the lively discussion at the Expert Meeting.

 

Introduction: Hanne Seitz — Traversing the Spaces of TBDWBAJ

At the beginning of the discussion, Hanne Seitz, who as an art historian works “with artistic processes and approaches, which make an impact”, summarises the TBDWBAJ project by describing the path of the Baby Dolls as a movement through four distinct spaces: The first place of the art intervention is prison, which as an “isolated space” represents a microcosm of social conditions. In this space, the Baby Doll is produced in order to continue its journey as the carrier of the biographies that have been produced of the drug addicted, incarcerated participants of the project. In the “cultural space”, the Baby Dolls temporarily occupy a place as “representatives” of these women, a place that the women had so far not been accorded by society. From here, the Baby Dolls are taken and abandoned in “public spaces” as an art intervention; in places that the women had designated as fitting the events in their lives. After the Drop Off, the biographies (text, audio, places) are archived in “virtual space” on the project’s Outcast Registration website, where they are accessible to all.

The decision, which the finder of a Baby Doll makes in a public place — to adopt or to ignore — Hanne Seitz sees as a potential path to a fifth space, the “private space.”

 

Introduction: Peter Weibel — The Outcast and Society

To get the discussion started, Peter Weibel, who from the viewpoint of an artist and theorist sees the project as very important for understanding contemporary art practices and also contemporary society, takes a close look at the term “outcast”: “How does one become an outcast? Is it something one is doomed to be, which we also call “fate”, as the title THIS BABYDOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE suggests, or is “outcast” a social construction?” The related term of “outlaw”, which describes a person who stands or is forced to stand outside the law, points to the inherent connection between “outcast” and “law”, and how it leads on to violence, power, and equality: “Outcasts, in this specific case drug addicts, are in many cases removed forcefully by police from places where they are visible, and stuck into prison or psychiatric units.”

Referring to the work of Michel Foucault, Weibel analyses the separation into criminals and patients, which has been in operation since the nineteenth century, and which “does not in the slightest sense comply with the right to equality before the law”. Weibel continues: “Problems lie in democracy’s demand — formulated by commentators from the Frankfurt School down to Judith Butler — that all individuals must be accepted as “equal”. Is it possible in practice to view all individuals as ‘equal’?”

Our society, Weibel continues, feeds on “an ideology of the term equality”. However, the construction of marginalised groups, that is, groups which are pushed to the very brink of invisibility at the margins, he sees as an attempt to abolish the principle of equality.

For him this raises the pressing question of how “we in this democracy, as a mission and task of democracy, can protect outcasts in general and these women in particular from violence and the authorities as subjects under law and not as psychiatric cases.”

 

Art Intervention

Besides looking at the content of the project from a socio-political point of view, Weibel discusses the possibility of intervening in society using the tools of art, which is one of the goals of TBDWBAJ. He notes that interfering in a situation that is judged to be unjust is commonly frowned upon by the “art of representation”: “‘Social intervention’ as an art form is viewed as being hostile to art.”

Here, its not only about the resistance of institutions, but about the resistance of society in general, which one encounters “… if one attempts to transfer art from the realm of representation, the pretense of the image, into the realm of reality in which we intervene, where we, as Hanne Seitz has stated, enter into temporary collusion with the actors.” In his opinion, art still offers, as Foucault termed it, heterotopias: “spaces, where alternative action is possible.” Whereby it is actually a question of art itself, how with or in art something can be created, which makes action possible, favorises action, so that in this way it can “…embrace extremely different experiences of democracy’s plurality through action.”

Confronted with a society in which marginalised groups are constructed and are excluded from the public sphere, as action art interventions could de- and reconstruct the public sphere — “conquer and utilise it” — and challenge the hierarchy of what is accepted as being in the public interest.

 

The Consequences of Art as Intervention

Peter Weibel’s contribution is followed by a discussion of what consequences and/or effects, art projects with and about marginalised groups entail or imply, both specifically for the participants of the project as well as for society in general.

Psychologist Corinna Obrist remains highly critical, although her employer, Vienna’s Favoriten prison, is basically open-minded about art projects. She says she is responsible for the inmates, and wants especially to avoid that in the context of cultural projects, they are “named and shamed”. She is enthusiastic about Ulrike Möntmann’s prison project and how the women reacted to it, but she refrains from any definite judgement about the effects the project might have: “I wouldn’t say that anything has improved. What I have noticed though, is that the project has unsettled the participants. And disturbed the order of the prison.”

In Hanne Seitz’ view, it is not the task of an art project to bring about a change or an improvement for any individual. It is good if this occurs, of course, but at the end of the day it is more relevant that it’s about making things public. Through art, the public can be made aware of the separation of society into “outcasts” and “incasts”: “Although we do not speak of ‘incasts’, we assume that there is a middle, a centre, and there are the margins, or rather that a majority exists as well as those who do not belong to it and detract from the image of a ‘good’ society.”

In her opinion, the mission of art is to be unsettling on a very general level, and to make hierarchies of visibility perceptible. She refers to the project “Platform 1: Democracy Unrealized — Democracy as an Unfinished Process” of the Documenta 11 (a world famous exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany), which discussed whether democracy is a process that is actually impossible to complete, “because it is always dependent on the outside, of what does not belong to a society, although democracy nevertheless remains a project, which has to be addressed over and over again. And precisely this process is about action.”

Hanne Seitz thinks that art can direct the attention to “sore points”, and with its attempt to take action is in line with the “project of democracy”. “In TBDWBAJ a question is posed in such a way, that one does not actually want to answer it.”

For Thomas Mießgang, strong reasons to get involved and support the TBDWBAJ project from the perspective of the Kunsthalle Vienna, a government-funded institution, are because it ventures into other spheres and addresses other recipients, and in this way reacts to the inherent “barriers” of the art institutions — areas that are set apart — which even exist when avant-garde, contemporary art is presented. “Since the 1960s at least, art has long since discovered the necessity of moving onto other areas and to stage interventionist art, which encounters the unschooled viewer. […] Especially political art that is presented in the White Cube, I always end up with a certain section of visitors, who are predictable and relatively homogeneous.”

Back in the 1960s, there were many subversive art actions performed in public places that took on the state and its doctrine, and were answered by the “full force of the law”. Even though TBDWBAJ takes place within the context of subsidised institutions, Mießgang attests that the project certainly does represent a gain in knowledge at the structural level: “We will surely not change society with this project, nor will we directly influence the fates of individuals, but we can at least draw attention to an issue on a symbolic level, which will possibly lead to productive further discussion.”

Additionally, the project could also be viewed — both with reference to the “bureaucratic obstacle course” beforehand, and also to its execution — as a “tolerance barometer” of a society.

 

Drug Addiction: Personal Responsibility or the Result of societal Structures?

At this point, Weibel queries to what extent drug addicts should be brought to justice or receive punishment when they are found guilty of an offense that results from their addiction: “In my opinion, here the law not only operates on extremely shaky ground terminologically, but actually operates on metaphysical ground. There is not a single valid, juristic argument for this. Except if one assumes that the drug addict is a free subject, who at any given time has the ability to decide what she/he does or does not do.”

To enlarge upon the issue of personal responsibility, Thomas Mießgang refers to the core of the TBDWBAJ project: “Are the women of the biographies people who commit wrongdoing subjectively and individually, and are thus taken out of the body of society and punished for their individual wrongdoing? Or is the issue a structural problem, whereby a certain societal framework produces a specific percentage of people, who will almost inevitably have to take this path in life, because they are unable to live life any other way?”

The individual biographies exhibit strong similarities with each other in the violence experienced by the women within the family, in institutions, and so on: “This means it is also about structural violence, which at the end of the day emanates from society.”

 

Correlation between Social Injustice and Violence

Wolfgang Zinggl takes up Peter Weibel’s idea from the beginning of the discussion: Which society produces which outcasts, why it does so, and what can be done by art against this. Although he considers art productions that uncover societal connections important — as an example he cites Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon (2009), which “…shows the eternal circle of violence and legitimised social oppression in an analytical way” — Zinggl also sees possibilities for art to effect direct changes or to intervene, without presenting these connections. In view of the current state of society and politics, he thinks it absolutely vital these activities of art increase.

As an example of the structural problematic, Zinggl cites the correlation between social injustice and violence that is confirmed by all studies: “countries with a relatively good redistribution have less crime, fewer acts of violence, and less social problems than those with a great social inequality between the rich and the poor.” The widening gap between poor and rich within society is exacerbated by all political austerity measures with the consequence that it is not possible to address individual problems, and the result is that outcasts are increasingly being “produced”.

The consequences of the interlinkage between structural violence and the legal framework for the participants of the TBDWBAJ project, are described by Eva van Rahden as follows: “This project has to do with drugs and soliciting. These women who go soliciting would not describe themselves as prostitutes. […] As a matter of principle this group is observed very closely so that it does not enter ‘respectable’ public places; thus, although these people provide a service for which there is a considerable demand, the women or men who offer this service are supposed to be invisible as far as possible.”

The consequences of drug-related crime in a domain governed by structural violence can be seen, amongst other things, in the fines imposed on women who go soliciting: “administrative penalties that are not paid are converted into terms of imprisonment for these women, which means: jail. […] This is a group, which is not perceived as belonging, as a true part of society, and therefore one thinks one does not have to accord them any rights.”

The women themselves, van Rahden continues, accept the punishments and pay them off, if they can: “There is no resistance to being punished, because they perceive themselves as without rights, disempowered, and guilty.”

The women already make themselves liable to prosecution, if they are unable to fulfil the mandatory provisions for street workers because of their addiction: “They often do not manage to attend the compulsory health check once a week, and then they are immediately on the wrong side of the law.” Non-professional prostitution to finance their consumption of illegal drugs lies in a “judicial grey area”, and forces the women into situations in which there is a high probability of more, mostly sexualised experiences of violence. This has to be discussed in the context of gender-specific structural problems, says Eva von Rahden. “How can prostitution in order to procure drugs with its associated criminalising and jeopardising of these women be prevented?”

Corinna Obrist, who works in prison with the “tip of the iceberg”, is also the opinion that structural violence has to be tackled with a gender-specific approach. The biographies of many women contain experiences of violence and are comparable with conditions to which women in general are subjected. She also complains about the continuing lack of specifically female-oriented therapy: The traditional institutions for treating addicts are usually oriented on male clientele.

Shird Schindler describes the position of psychiatry with reference to drug addiction: “In my opinion, we still do not really know what the problems are.”

In connection with the biographies published in the project, he introduces the term “life event” — setbacks or important happenings in one’s life. The biographies of Schindler’s patients, too, exhibit six to eight of these “life events”, which is surely above the average of society as a whole. In the treatment of addiction, for a long time abstinence was the ultimate goal, but reality shows that this is unrealistic for many patients: “In our work with patients, we always try to develop a kind of hypothesis: Why, from the patient’s perspective, are drugs useful to him/her in a specific situation? There are very few patients whose motivation we cannot understand. Naturally, there are better alternatives to taking drugs, but basically it is just one of many possibilities.”

 

Gender-specific Concept of Morality

Thomas Mießgang enquires why the “abstinent society” is such a common idea: “What is so attractive about the unattainable ideal of an abstinent society? […] Which intoxicant is acceptable, which is not, and why not?

Non-compliance with the “social imperative” that is expressed by the media and politics defines the outcasts of a society.

Obrist, too, queries how society handles intoxicating substances and intoxication, for example, the differentiation between hard and soft drugs, and the toleration of alcohol. As far as she is aware, there are very few cultural models for how intoxication is handled: “Intoxication is something that somehow has a place in every culture. We western Europeans react to it with sanctions, and even in a way that is a little bit anti-pleasure. Those who do get intoxicated, must not do it in front of us. If they do do it notwithstanding and we find them out, then they should be penalised for their inappropriate behaviour.”

She also points out that a strong gender-specific difference exists in the moral judgement of female and male junkies.

Eva van Rahden states that the moral yardstick, which society applies to drugs, abstinence, and the domain of sexuality, is also very different for women and men: “This tabooing, this sharp moral dividing line between the “whore” and the “decent woman” also functions as a powerful instrument of control.”

Shird Schindler says that from a psychiatric point of view, abstinence is a questionable goal, because neurophysiologically, it is actually impossible. The brain only manages to not want to do something for three months. “We can only motivate ourselves to not to want to do something for a very limited period of time — that is a problem per se. One can choose other goals, which are of a positive nature, and through this make drug use highly unlikely.”

Shird Schindler describes the addiction to substances as a tendentially chronic illness with different phases that alternate. He also cites a long-term study in America, in which drug-patients were monitored for thirty years: “The probands alternated between the phases of abstinence, treatment with medication, followed by phases when they were out on their own and left to their own devices. There may be an abstinent phase but this does not mean that it will last forever; it will probably end at some point. The relapses are usually triggered by life events. […] Despite interventions, the lofty goal of abstinence is not always achieved.”

Despite the many arguments in favour of a liberalisation of drug policy, he finds this approach fundamentally problematic, because every contact with drugs represents an irreversible experience: “If I have once made the experience that I can feel better through the use of a substance, then this cannot be erased from the brain. A biological program is switched on.”

This experience creates massive difficulties especially for susceptible people, and the degree of an individual’s particular susceptibility to addiction can only be determined a posteriori.

For Schindler, the reason why alcoholics are less stigmatised than other addicts is due mainly to economic reasons: “Alcoholics are — this is formulated pretty nastily — economically cheap, for although they may start drinking at 15 or 16, they generally stay fairly capable of working until around their mid-40s. Only then do the secondary diseases begin to show, of which they die relatively young. Because of this, they do not put a strain on the pension funds or the pensions offices, and finance themselves for a long time. Drug addicts, however, immediately cease to function due to the effects of the drugs, and because drug addicts are not socially accepted they often do not even embark on the process of earning money, and have to be immediately supported by society.”

The question about the possibility of responsibly using drugs is discussed in connection with the importance of drugs for women with mostly sexualised experiences of violence.

According to Corinna Obrist, who in the context of her function as a prison therapist has had numerous conversations with the women affected, drugs often allow them to survive. “The use of drugs is very often an active and conscious decision to somehow fight against the pain experienced in some form.”

She supports the idea that the women should not be reduced to the role of a victim: “At the end of the day they all are fighters for survival.”

“Society is confronted with the consequences of drug consumption, which has its own dynamic”, she continues, “whether this is in a psychiatric institution, in the drug aid institutions, or with us in the prisons, as the last link in the chain: What did not work for those affected, or did not work long enough, they bring with them when they end up with us.”

Following a discussion about the interdependent relationship between the individual and society, put forward by the Dutch artist Lucas Lenglet, with reference to experiences of violence and drug use, Corinna Obrist again insists that this debate cannot take place without considering the unequal treatment of men and women, because this is ultimately one of the roots of the problematic. Statistically, women are predominantly to exclusively victims of male violence: “This magnitude of inherent structural violence, which is what makes individual or domestic abuse possible at all, has to be addressed — as a political question, and ultimately also as a question of civil courage of each individual.”

 

Art as a Symbol or an Intervention?

With the key question, whether art can improve the world, the discussion again turns to the relationship between art and society at the end of the debate.

Wolfgang Zingl mentions the artist group WochenKlausur’s intervention “Sleeping Places for Drug Addicted Women”, which took place in 1994 at the invitation of the Shedhalle Zurich, an art institution supported by the City of Zurich: “For women, who are exposed to violence by their customers, the police, the pimps, and the dealers, there are hardly any services of a social nature on offer, no possibilities to find some rest somewhere. We have created a kind of hotel, which — in the centre of Zurich and exclusively for women — offers women a place to sleep during daytime. And this institution actually existed for eleven years before it was shut down.”

As an exponent of an art form that profoundly intervenes from the art context in existing social structures, Zingl criticises the view that art can do anything except intervene. “I don’t understand that at all. Why isn’t art capable of doing what is the most important of all? It is one of my goals in life to demonstrate that this is indeed possible.”

Whereas Eva von Rahden emphasises that the TBDWAJ project breaks up and unsettles each of the spaces as an approach, which shows the double moral standards of society, Marty Huber mentions the potential danger, when the difference discourse is reduced to an individual’s problem, as very often occurs in the mass media. Both enquire as to possible strategies in the media and arts, which consider both individual and structural problems.

As one possible strategy, Wolfgang Zinggl mentions engaging critically with the existing art and culture consensus: “This means that we have to detach ourselves from this cultural collaboration. Not everything that is art and culture is good. We have to become more political within the art and culture discourse and really think about what we actually want.”

After Wolfgang Zinggl’s question whether art is really the place where today, or once again, social interventions take place, Hanne Seitz mentions a dilemma: “What art is, we negotiate, including here and now. It is social discourse. This discourse, however, lives from the fact that there is a place attributed to art, which is free and which signifies: art is autonomous. If this place no longer existed, WochenKlausur, too, could not function like it does anymore. This is an internal dilemma, so to speak. WochenKlausur can afford to work this way, and luckily this model exists, although it is based on something that the group actually rejects. This is a contradiction, but one which I can certainly live with. I do notice, however, that it makes it difficult to generalise.”

Because the art system is “extremely adaptable”, the question arises for Thomas Mießgang whether art should in principle have to stand outside the systems of subsidies in order to be socio-critically effective: “In the social democratisation of art that has taken place since the 1970s, both in Germany and Austria many of the formerly illegitimate art avant-gardes have been re-incorporated so to speak. […] Social criticism, which was not even capable of slightly shaking the foundations of the state, has been absorbed, and the cultural and artistic field of action extended.”

Peter Weibel rejects this proposition. Even though with the support of the state he managed to bring projects like those of the Hohenbüchlers and WochenKlausur to the Biennale in Venice — “a highly commercial undertaking” — this manifestation was heavily criticised, and went under after the year 2000.

At this point, Christine Hohenbüchler suggests defining art as a practice, which aspires to abandon gridlocked discourses and to find other forms of language and expression: “Ulrike Möntmann’s project in jail is art, because it installs itself in between rigid institutionally defined aspects and attempts to find another space, in order to override the various support systems, which actually apply there. To me, what WochenKlausur does is art, because the group tries to enter realms and see them with a different perspective than those that usually apply there. Art is what seeks to generate and realise a different kind of behaviour in a certain social space. The criterion is not whether a project receives financial support or not, but how far it dares to question and undermine institutional forms and existing discourses.”

 

The “Shifting” Concept of Art

Wolfgang Zinggl adds that art is a social construct, which has always been subject to constant change. In his opinion, society itself is responsible for the direction in which the concept of art is moved, and he warns that its definition must not be left to specialists: “If we want to change something in society through art, we can actually change something via a definition of art; if we refuse to put up with the same old thing, perpetually repeating, and join forces to politicise art together.”

“Art can”, Zinggl continues, “have various functions — philosophical, critical, inspiring, emotional, soothing, and so on — which we choose and negotiate, and in this way we shift the concept of art: working on the concept of art inevitably creates social dissent, because people confront each other with their own opinions and desires of what art should be. Automatically. And that’s a good thing.”

At this point he clarifies that he is not thinking about expanding the concept of art. “In reality, the concept is only shifted. Not everything can be art; otherwise the concept will disintegrate.”

That the concept of art has to be changed in order to change the world or to exert a certain influence, makes sense to Lucas Lenglet. He doubts though, that an understanding of art can be changed, when society does not recognise or comprehend something as art.

“If that were the case”, replies Zinggl, “then art would never have changed. There have always been avant-gardists, who wanted to bring in specific things, experimented, and were despised by society until society caught up with them and followed.”

Hanne Seitz also agrees that “…when new things come from art, they always first encounter rejection. Perhaps this is also one of the criteria: that it takes time until something is generalised and manifests itself within society. Especially for these changes, we also need art.”