Space, Action and Practice
art
28 & 29 October 2012, Amsterdam

x

Sabeth Buchmann, art historian and critic, Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art and Head of the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Austria

Alexandra Landré, art historian and curator, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Ulrike Möntmann, artist, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria

Ruth Sonderegger, Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria

x

 

 

The first Accomplices’ Meeting Art I. brought academic disciplines together which are directly involved in THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE (TBDWBAJ) as an art intervention. The meeting took place on two consecutive days and, based on a description of the details of the project and explanation of its theoretical framework and terms used by the artist, Ulrike Möntmann, encompassed a wide spectrum of themes and issues. The object of this summary is to provide a fragmentary overview of the themes that are most significant for the development of the project with regard to practice and research.

 

INTRODUCING THE RELAY RACE METHOD

 

Collaboration is a core element of my approach: collaboration with women drug users with criminal convictions, artist colleagues, academics, and institutions. A free exchange of ideas with specialists from the fields of philosophy, art theory, psychiatry, sociology, political science, and law brings people directly or indirectly into contact with each other. And bringing such widely different, yet specifically focused, expertise together results in the circulation of knowledge among the actors of the TBDWBAJ network.

(Ulrike Möntmann, project description.)

 

At the beginning of the meeting Ulrike Möntmann spoke about her “relay race method” which she has implemented in her practice and research since the very beginning of her project work in prisons. The Accomplices’ Meetings that she organises on a regular basis are important elements of the relay race method: like the baton, the project’s stories, experiences, and methods should be passed on to others and provide a stimulus for experts — such as art theorists, psychiatrists, and sociologists.

Experience has shown that it is not easy to share the perspectives of different disciplines at high level interdisciplinary exchanges, thus the Accomplices’ Meetings seek to avoid treating material in an isolated way and any watering down of expertise through a discussion group that is too large.

As one possible response to The Death of the Author, the relay race method implies a rigorous transdisciplinary approach, and in this way, said Sabeth Buchmann, it intervenes in existing research practices, which is “exciting and also often not envisaged in this form by the institutions involved.”

Meetings, conferences, debates and so on (e.g., debates on art research; the FORMER WEST project) the participants frequently found unsatisfactory in their conventional forms. This led participants to ponder the question whether interdisciplinary transfer of knowledge is possible and how it might be organised. Ulrike Möntmann’s approach (Accomplices’ Meetings and relay race method) is a possible candidate for transforming a knowledge base derived from different disciplines on a specific topic.

Ruth Sonderegger remarked that the relay race method requires an openness that is important for political action, “it is not always clear from the outset what will result and what the main goal is […] but working together and keeping at it — particularly in such competitive contexts as art research — is already part of the critique, part of political action.”

From the very beginning of the TBDWBAJ project the relay race principle included both established experts and project participants. For example, the drug addict Rebecca Mertens wrote down her own biography in eleven sentences for the first Baby Dolls that were produced and this shaped how such biographies would be articulated in the future. Her sober statements recording events in her life, seemingly devoid of emotion, attested to a particular kind of self-observation that is symptomatic of the project participants in prison and their general acceptance of guilt. This is what led to Ulrike Möntmann’s desire to compare the biographies of women in similar situations from other countries in order to investigate the role played by social, cultural, and political conditions.

 

LOCALISING TBDWBAJ WITHIN THE ART CONTEXT

 

SPACES, ACTIONS AND PRACTICES

 

TBDWBAJ enters situations and operates in societal spaces: isolated spaces, cultural spaces, public spaces, and virtual spaces. Opening up and traversing these different spaces enables information about the lives and living conditions of groups in our society who have no political representation.

(Ulrike Möntmann, project description)

 

The original structuring of the project around the abovementioned “spaces”, Ulrike Möntmann still finds effective but she drew the Accomplices’ attention to the metaphor’s inherent constraints: “Spaces are limited, often conceived as having walls bounding them, thus the transition from one space to another is not foregrounded in this figure of speech.”

Sabeth Buchmann suggested “topology” as a possible alternative for it poses no obstacles to movement or infrastructures. This would enable the various strata of the project — actions, practices, articulation, and narratives — to be described in a more dynamic way and thus do justice to its complexity.

 

DECISION-MAKING PROCESSES

 

In view of the fact that TBDWBAJ is an art research project, the group discussed the relevance of decisions that had been taken.

“A great deal of conventional research consists in stating the reasons why one is making or has made certain decisions”, said Ruth Sonderegger, “what distinguishes your art-oriented practices, Ulrike, from those of conventional scholarly enquiry or at least those of interaction in the social sciences which you give space to or create?” It is interesting to examine the beginning of work on this project and its approach at various stages with regard to the various artistic and methodological decisions that were taken. These findings allow one to make comparisons with the conventional social sciences: “In which contexts does Ulrike make decisions in the project that are different to those of social scientists and for what reasons?” Analysing, examining, and describing these decision-making processes, said Sonderegger, enable one to localise the project in an art context and this opens up further issues for external parties.

Ulrike Möntmann said that she already began to develop the method during her first prison project (Lücke project, 1997). Detailed descriptions and analyses of all these projects will form part of the forthcoming publication, scheduled for 2016, and will include the artistic and methodological decisions taken consciously or accidentally in the course of the work process and when confronted by institutional conditions.

 

For Sabeth Buchmann, too, decisions made due to the nature of the work process are particularly important in collaborative work as they bring about a better and more productive readability of the material (e.g., visualisation in diagrams). However, Buchmann asked that the localisation of the project within an art context should be specified. Should it be understood as an aesthetic critique oriented on the field of visual studies, as an expanded art project, or as a sociological method that employs the tools of art? Is the concept already the artistic practice? Or does this rather consist in the production of meaning within the communication and interaction processes with the project participants? “whereby the structurally hierarchical therapy relationship is set aside because in the project it is a joint process of production; for example, the critique of both sides with regard to the issue of the representation of women that consume drugs and have prison records and with regard to the refusal to engage with the conditions”. It is especially important in connection with the publication to decide what one is seeking to render “readable”.

 

In Ulrike Möntmann’s work Ruth Sonderegger sees “institutional tenacity as an artistic process”, whereby the principle of intervention plays a decisive role. In the context of TBDWBAJ intervening applies both to the institutions and to the direct contacts with the women in prison.

As TBDWBAJ is not a project that has been commissioned but initiated by her, Ulrike Möntmann stressed that the preparatory work is a relevant part of the art intervention. Before any contacts are made, it is necessary to research in detail the specific political, societal, and cultural structures prevailing in particular countries and in every institution (“homework”). These advance negotiations between Ulrike Möntmann and institutions before each stage of the project, said Sonderegger, one could call supplemental institutional research.

 

CRITICAL MASS

 

In view of the fact that Ulrike Möntmann operates from the background of an art context, the question arises as to which public she is addressing: “Would you say that the concept of art is simply a concept that can be used strategically? Because the concept of art and its aspirations demands and addresses a specific public? Is this public, which ultimately shares your willingness to intervene, a public that participates? If this is the case, in what sense? Or is actually something being shifted here onto the level of representation thus circumventing the arena of the conflict where change could really happen?” (Buchmann)

Turning away from the concept of public space and towards actual practices, Buchmann asked, “How does one build a critical mass, a constellation of people, political subjects, who are not organised around identity, interest-driven policy, or strategic community but around a form of political critique and offers resistance on the basis of analysis?”

 

TBDWBAJ’S ARTICULATION PRACTICE

 

In this context the question of authorship was again raised; this time in connection with the collaboration of Ulrike and the participants on writing the biographies. Sabeth Buchmann: “What form does the conversation take? What information is passed on? In which dynamic reciprocal relationship does the articulation practice stand to the production of space? How are these interdependent?”

Ulrike Möntmann replied that to begin with no questions about participants’ biographies are asked but instead a catalogue of words is compiled to create a matrix in order to avert the danger of repeating possible traumas: “No suggestive questions but instead a metaphorical ordering of life.” The compilation of around 160 words for the catalogue is relatively neutral and, if necessary, missing words are added. The matrix that results forms the basis of the interviews that follow. After the interviews Möntmann formulates the sentences of the biography which is submitted to the participant concerned for approval and corrections. “These are all actually inventions, or to put it differently an artistic form of thinking: the matrix, the interview, the style and language of the biographies. For me this is the hardest aspect of the collaboration because I am the one who formulates, who determines something. And yet in 98% of the cases the women are really happy when they read their biography for the first time; perhaps because they now have something in black and white that is a kind of justification of their existence.” And it is precisely making this justification of their existence visible that is a goal of the project, and Möntmann emphasised her determination to develop a method that visualises all that has come to light.

In this connection Buchmann identified “hybrid forms which derive primarily from your knowledge of art and your experience with art; forms of visibility including why one thing is visible and another not. Your project does not only function via making things visible, but also to a high degree via encoding of information organised in diagrams. For good reason, because a non-protected visualisation may entail increased control from unwanted quarters.”

 

Next, the significance of diagrams and statistics in TBDWBAJ was discussed, mainly with reference to project participant Rebecca Mertens. Why are they important, what is their relation to the written information, and in what form can they best express the results? According to Sonderegger, the visualisations of information are both the results of the research and a tool of artistic thought. In her opinion such diagrams are not only examples or illustrations of knowledge, they form the “visual starting point of subsequent reflection”, whereby the question remains open as to whether the diagrams are self-explanatory or require accompanying information: “This is, I think, the danger of diagrams, that they do not lend themselves to unconventional interrogation, but on the other hand text alone cannot make things as clear as they do.”

 

FORMS OF PRESENTATION: BOOK VS. EXHIBITION

 

The discussion about data collection and visual means of conveying information such as diagrams led to a discussion of the most appropriate forms of presenting art research in general and the TBDWBAJ project in particular. Ulrike Möntmann sees the book (publication planned for 2016/2017) as her “favourite place” for presenting the entire project and its results: “An exhibition on TBDWBAJ cannot go into the requisite detail. Even an exemplary exhibition (e.g., at the 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2010) only conveys platitudes if the content of a work is not comprehensible.” For comparisons to be feasible, it is necessary to have accounts of experiences and processes, diagrams and other visual material “in order to find a form between language and signs which sufficiently visualises the information on which it is based.”

The environment of “this new knowledge, this new methodology” needs texts, reports, and visualisations of the data in order to function as results. It is planned to hold a presentation in the ZKM in collaboration with Peter Weibel, at which the book will be “unfolded” in the context of the museum.

Sabeth Buchmann understands this approach for the reception of a book can be on many different levels and this enables “the nature of the linkages, mixing, and interweaving” of different practices and discourses” to be made clear: “I think that what your project can achieve very well and in fact has achieved already is on the one hand to give back something to the discourses, methods, and fields from which you have drawn your tools and knowledge. And at the same time to state: yes, I did draw on these things but all the individual elements do not suffice to deal with this phenomenon, to represent it, to articulate it. It requires a combination of all of them.”

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BABY DOLLS IN TBDWBAJ

 

The implementation of the project in the various prisons is always carried out in collaboration with a small group of women drug addicts. I work with them on writing their biographies and together we produce a series of identical porcelain Baby Dolls who will later “speak” the participants’ biographies; that is, decisive events in their lives.

A series of Baby Dolls (each series represents one biography) is exhibited at a museum or art venue in the respective country. In parallel an Expert Meeting takes place in which representatives from the spheres of culture, subcultures, politics, and scholarship debate the themes and issues raised by the project. Subsequently, the Baby Dolls are abandoned in various public places in the respective city that are associated with the lives of the women whose biographies they represent.

(Ulrike Möntmann, project description)

 

Ulrike Möntmann then gave a detailed talk about the projects she has conducted in prisons and therapy facilities since 1997 (see www.ulrikemoentmann.nl). The discussion then turned to the importance and the origins of the Baby Dolls and the act of abandoning them in TBDWBAJ.

During her project Prison Wear Collection (1999–2002), a parallel study by a post-graduate assistant, Anneclaire Kersten, found that dolls were objects that were missing in the earlier lives of the prison inmates. None of the women had owned a doll or a soft toy. One of the women told of her mother’s porcelain doll that she could look at in a glass cabinet but was never allowed to touch. In the course of the project Dutch Souvenir, the first series of Baby Dolls was created in 2002, which under the title THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE visualised the biography of a female drug addict as a souvenir of Dutch drug policies. The TBDWBAJ project was developed on the basis of this work.

 

THE OBJECT IN MÖNTMANN’S OEUVRE AND RESEARCH

 

“The Baby Doll is a vehicle; it is culturally and emotionally loaded, it corresponds to an idyllic cliché and is thus very well suited to be a means of conveyance”, said Ulrike Möntmann. The production of the Baby Dolls, Ulrike continued, has great importance for the implementation of the project in the isolated space of the prison as the outcome of a joint work process. The entire production process, including working with the porcelain clay, learning the technique of pouring, and the finishing of the end product, represents very necessary experience that complements the theoretical work.

Ruth Sonderegger sees in this practice “of a way of working and thinking together” an “incredible possibility of articulating” and terms it “a reflection on work”. However, she has doubts about the status of the Baby Dolls when they are dropped off in public places. In her opinion, as isolated objects the dolls fail to communicate all the research and practice involved: “The fascinating thing about your work is that you investigate structures and in spite of this you demonstrate them by fixing on single individuals”, but in its situation of an abandoned object the doll “is too much of discrete and pretty object”, and this does not do justice to the project. For Sonderegger the Baby Dolls play a very precise role as a part of the diverse communication within the work of the project, and thus should not mark an end point for the public but rather have the status of material required for work “similar to an Expert Meeting or an interim result that you present in a visual form.”

Sabeth Buchmann understands the Baby Dolls “as tools, as a possibility of articulating something” and views them as belonging to the practice of articulating in the widest sense. However, like Sonderegger she sees their meaning in isolation as problematic: “I think it is very difficult to apprehend the status of the objects. So if this is the artistic output and one takes a simple approach, one would read them at best as symbolisations. One would not read them as what they are — because one does not have this information — namely, as a form of abstraction.”

 

DROPPING OFF THE BABY DOLLS IN PUBLIC PLACES: DISCUSSION OF HANNAH ARENDT’S THEORY OF ACTION

 

The action of dropping off the Baby Dolls is the installation of THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE in the public sphere. The dolls of a series are abandoned in public places associated with the areas of life of drug addicts and simply left unattended to their fate. The city’s inhabitants and visitors will either accept or reject the dolls, ignore or destroy them.

When passers-by ignore the doll nothing happens.

When passers-by pick up the doll they hear the biography fragment.

When passers-by turn the doll over they see on its back the name and year of birth of the drug addict.

When passers-by put the doll back down it ceases to speak.

When passers-by take the doll with them its further existence will play out in the private sphere of the passers-by, some sheltered, some unprotected just like children within families, virtually invisible to the general public.

When passers-by destroy the doll its existence comes to an end.

(Ulrike Möntmann, project description)

 

From the public realm, said Ulrike Möntmann, some of the Baby Dolls get taken back into the private sphere where they may be subjected to the same unseen attacks that the women of the biographies suffered. As whoever finds a Baby Doll has to make a decision about what to do this confrontation of the Baby Doll and its finder inevitably leads to an action.

In Sonderegger’s opinion this confrontation is conceived of as “almost too individualistic”, and “not structurally enough”. The action of dropping off the dolls is too isolated from the rest of the work, which viewed as a whole provides insights into “various topographical movements, the relationship between abuse and drug addiction and ending up in prison” and which succeeds in producing friction between structures and the histories of individuals. Thus against this background the decisions of individuals regarding what to do with the found dolls is relatively uninteresting: “To imagine that something decisive or important will happen when the doll is handed over or handed back — I don’t see this happening at all.”

Ulrike Möntmann drew a connection between the decision-making demanded of finders and Hannah Arendt’s theory of action, because “an action is the only activity in which we are free to make a decision that has nothing to do with any activity or occupation, but which has an effect”.

Neither Sonderegger nor Buchmann agreed unreservedly with this interpretation. Arendt’s action, said Buchmann, addressed a public and was not an individual action. “An individual who is irritated is not the initiator of a discourse.”

 

These statements led to the question of how the action of abandoning the Baby Dolls generates or could generate public attention. Sonderegger said that Arendt’s starting point was to formulate a concern through debate with others and therefore by definition “extremely anti-monologic. Action by an individual is not really action; controversy for Arendt always involves others. The power of the public is the power of mutual action with others. It exists where one succeeds in opening up a controversial space within society’s prevailing consensus. There another voice must exist. A counter-action.”

Sabeth Buchmann then asked “to what extent does this interaction generate a public — with an interest in art, in politics, and/or a public that participates in discourse — and how do they react to the dolls? I now understand them better than before through knowing about the production process but an audience with an interest in art would probably see them as symbols of something or as therapeutic aids and will not recognise them as stand-alone aesthetic products. In this sense they do have a difficult status, although I find them entirely plausible as articulation practice and as something that passes between you and the women. As well as right and important with regard to the material practice. However, when I communicate with a public far more needs to be communicated to clarify these levels. In this anonymised form a lot of information is lost.”

For Ulrike Möntmann not talking is symptomatic of disinterest, that is, not sharing and not participating in a joint responsibility and therefore represents an essential aspect of the project. By abandoning the women’s biographies in public spaces and on the Outcast Registration website the theme of the project is declared to be a matter of public concern.

 

However, Sabeth Buchmann as well felt that the translation of the information was too abstract and she suggested — as a thought experiment and with regard to the production of the objects — a souvenir or museum shop as a suitable public place for the dolls: “They really need to be installed in a place where they represent a disruption, engender conflict. On the street they don’t create conflict, but if they were to be put in a souvenir shop they would, because there is a context. I think it’s right to view the dolls as a medium. They are not a medium in the sense that the medium is a direct part of the production; it is part of the circulation. The sphere in which exchange of signs takes place. You don’t want a production that feeds into the level of consumerism; you want signs and meanings to circulate. This must at all costs take place on the level where the intrinsic symbolism of the object resides; that is, the level of objects that are useless fetishes or decoration. And on this level of interpretation and reception they create a disruption.” Buchmann continued with the question as to the point at which “standardised naturalised discourse” takes a new turn and can transform into something else.

Ulrike Möntmann stressed that in her opinion the situation of the finders of the Baby Dolls, who must make a decision, does indeed contain potential for conflict, although she does not follow up the consequences of this.

For Ruth Sonderegger the resulting conflict that the finders have to resolve with themselves is not a political or public conflict because it takes place on an individual, private level. It does not launch a discourse but rather ensures that things stay as they are.

Buchmann sees the danger that here people will see their middle class outlook endorsed: “I have a bad conscience, my view of people is hierarchical, I know that I am in a better position and I sympathize instead of engaging in discourse with people on an equal footing. In my view, becoming public begins where actors structurally — as Rancière terms it — assume the position of speakers. Where is what can be said? Otherwise conditions remain in their positions and no shifts take place.”

 

PRIVATE SPACE = PROTECTED SPACE; PRISON = SPACE OF COERCION AND VIOLENCE?

 

In the context of this analysis Ulrike Möntmann questioned the definition of the private space as an acknowledged protected space, which for the participants of her projects often turned out to be the scene of crimes. “Where do public interests stop and where does the private space begin? It is more or less legal what was done to these women in private spaces. How these conflicts unravel we can hardly verbalise. We need and want private space, but are we aware that potentially this can be a situation in which vulnerable are completely at the mercy of others? To what extent must one intervene?”

Ruth Sonderegger sees the distinction between public and private as a boundary that is not hard and fast. “These boundaries have partly grown and are partly codified law. It cannot be ruled out that sometimes private space is a protected space. That in certain cases this is desired. However, for me the most important thing is that one can make a difference. I think that within the middle class private space there may be possibilities to make certain things public, for example, domestic violence or the rights of children. By comparison the private space in prisons is so over-codified and over-institutionalised that it is far more difficult to bring anything out of it, which you do in part, Ulrike, in spite of this. For this reason in my opinion it would be very important, politically important, to bring information and knowledge out of the prison space and demonstrate that these “cases” are not merely attributable to individuals’ wrongdoing, but that a structure is revealed. There are no boundaries between public and private that are carved in stone. I believe it is good that both exist, but this is a matter for negotiation. But the spaces which cannot be negotiated or hardly at all, like the prison space, are for me pure control, force, and violence that do not allow opposition to be articulated at all. The fact that so little can be brought out of prisons shows what a controlled and coercive space this is.”

 

 

Transcription and Text: Nina Glockner

Translation: Gloria Custance & Isaac Custance