- Elke Bippus, Professor of Art Theory and Art History, ZHdK University of the Arts, Zurich, Switzerland, and Hamburg, Germany
- Nina Glockner, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria
- Alexandra Landré, art historian and curator, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Ulrike Möntmann, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria
- Shird-Dieter Schindler, psychiatrist, Director, Sociomedical Center Baumgartner Höhe, Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, Vienna, Austria
- Ruth Sonderegger, Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria
- Felix Stalder, culture and media studies, Professor of Digital Culture at ZHdK University of the Arts, Zurich, Switzerland, and Vienna, Austria
The third Accomplices’ Meeting featuring the fields of art theory, art history, and philosophy was a semi-public event accompanying the exhibition Out of the Box: 10 Questions Addressed to Art Research* at the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. The project THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE (TBDWBAJ) was one of ten art research projects presented in the exhibition. Ulrike Möntmann’s new sound installation European Outcast Choir was also shown.
The first part of the discussion focused on Ulrike Möntmann’s art practice in relation to art therapy, and the second was on issues relating to the presentation and representation of art research in general and TBDWBAJ in particular with reference to the Out of the Box exhibition.
EUROPEAN OUTCAST CHOIR
The audio archive contains the biographies of 18 TBDWBAJ project participants that are spoken by the participants themselves in their native languages and dialects. The installation of the archive is variable. The European Outcast Choir installation (EOC) at the Out of the Box exhibition consisted of a circle of hanging loudspeakers which visitors could enter. In the middle of the circle fragments of all the biographies were audible resembling a choir performance. On approaching one particular loudspeaker, the visitor heard the complete biography of one of the participants. The translations of the biographies — from the Croatian, Dutch, Frisian, and Swiss German — were projected in sync with the spoken text as subtitles on the wall outside the circle.
(Project description, U. Möntmann)
Elke Bippus described the effect of EOC as “something familiar, possibly also aesthetically familiar. It is not the case that the fates [of the participants] literally scream at us; it is not aesthetically staged to take us unawares, but what I hear is something that is familiar to me. And thus I am able to listen.” Alexandra Landré experienced the choir as “a familiar soundscape”, which conveys an exceptional situation that has become commonplace. The installation does not use elements that shock, but makes a forceful demand for the empathy of the visitors. Despite the factual and detached diction of the participants, Elke Bippus said that especially when listening to the individual voices she discerned “a different kind of brokenness, another kind of life.”
Ulrike Möntmann and Nina Glockner then described the methods used in compiling the biographies and making the recordings. The biographies are always written in the first person and use the present tense. The texts that result are then recorded in the prison with the participants speaking their own text. During this process there is no debate about content; one could describe the procedure as “language training without emotional outbursts”, said Glockner, whereby the sentences are treated as material. The sober tone of the participants’ delivery, devoid of dramatic inflection, said Möntmann, corresponds to the way the women see themselves with regard to the events in their lives. In EOC, said Landré, the voices convey a paradox; the contents of the memories and “the distance to the memories.”
Shird Schindler said that precisely this paradox is characteristic and normal for patients with addictions, and “that this dissociation, separation from oneself comes about when one has experienced things that are almost unimaginable. There is something there, but if I always maintain a connection to it then I shall probably go to pieces. That’s the reason why I have to build this protective barrier as an important measure; not because I am sick, but because it is essential for my survival.”
Schindler described the effect of drugs in this context as “volume control”, which can reduce the memories of traumatic events — the oppressive “background music” — to the extent that one believes they have gone for good. “Certain memories are associated with certain carrier substances and that is also why the drugs are important because it is these cycles that they influence.” From the point of view of therapy it is important to recognise this “background music”, particularly when the aim is to overwrite it in a positive way. Remembering, said Schindler, is in general a very active process in which existing memories are continually overwritten or rewritten. Thus during therapy, in addition to providing a psychotherapeutic setting that offers security, medication is often prescribed to suppress negative physical symptoms, such as restlessness, palpitations, and so on, that are linked to the original experiences in order that the memories can be stored with less negative connotations. “As long as I keep on having the same physical reaction, I cannot change the memories. If I can succeed in associating positive emotions with them then I can turn the memories into something positive. In this way it is possible to achieve rewriting instead of a fixation through re-enacting the trauma.”
Elke Bippus remarked that a similar effect is often attributed to art: “Aestheticisation enables you to approach a thing. Otherwise, you would protect yourself against it. One can approach horror, one can approach war stories or anything that one would normally suppress thinking about via a certain aesthetic transformation.”
Schindler said that primarily what is at stake is to charge the phase of remembering with an additional — but not necessarily aesthetic — function to generate distance. Compared to other forms of therapy, art therapy reinforces this distance: here it is not the therapist who becomes the “figure for projections”, but the results of the art therapy emerge during the activity as well as in the following (joint) reflection session as “projection screen”, as an intermediate in the relationship between therapist and patient.
The discussion then addressed the question as to what extent Möntmann’s artistic practice can be situated on the periphery of art therapy. Ulrike Möntmann said that she would never claim that her work is art therapy. For unlike art therapy where the material created remains with the therapist and patient, she takes the information that is generated and carries it out into the world: “I augment normality by including these women’s paths of life in it, because I think it is very important to render visible the exclusion that has taken place. And the vehicle for this is to stand up and raise one’s voice. It is palpable how awareness arises in the course of collaboration with the inmates; one can also detect it physically in the way that the women start to square their shoulders.”
Although the project is not categorised as art therapy, said Elke Bippus, this does not preclude that it has therapeutic effects. Through the fact that the material which is created is then separated again from the relationship between the women and the material, “it can become significant in a different context and utilised for something else. Actually, one has a form in which something is articulated or materialised that one can always return to and interrogate.”
In Schindler’s view the project goes several steps further than art therapy and it still includes therapeutic elements, particularly because it addresses the lack of self-esteem problematic of the addicts, which is an integral part of nearly every therapeutic approach. “The women’s statements are taken out into the world and are a part of life. I have difficulty in referring to this as “normality”. However, illness is also a part of normality, just as death is a part of life.” Schindler said that the status of an artist as initiator of the collaboration was for him a big difference as opposed to the therapeutic point of departure.
Möntmann cited the difference in objectives: whereas therapy is concerned with bringing about a change or improvement, often with the goal of a life free from drug-taking, her project aims at expanding awareness, including self-awareness. The documented texts of the biographies and the matrix are appreciated by the participants as a right to exist.
Thus for Schindler the project exerts an influence on existential problems, which play a significant role in general in a therapeutic context: “Some of the addicts worry about whether they exist at all. These are prenatal problems that are connected with abortion attempts or dramatic events prior to birth. In such cases the patient affected exhibits a certain insecurity: Do I really exist? Because before I was even born there existed a hostile energy that was directed against me. Then comes the next stage, with birth: “I’m here, I am on Earth. There may be problems there, too — a difficult birth, a caesarean, and so on — a critical psychological point may also be located there. And then the question arises: Am I valuable the way that I am? The theme of being-in-the-world. And I think that the entire work of TBDWBAJ has a great deal to do with this question being answered in the affirmative.”
THE MATRIX METHOD
Each matrix is a formal description of a life. Basic concepts and terms are printed on separate sheets of paper which are then cut out and assigned to the appropriate years in a participant’s life.
The process starts with assigning commonplace words, such as family, money, happiness, consolation, drugs, health, relationships, education, care, admission, hospital, and so on.
The terms can be used both positively and negatively; it is about identifying circumstances that play a role in everyone’s life.
Terms are additionally assigned to sub-themes and specified, for example, mother, father, sister, child, uncle, house, home, youth institution, homeless, sexual violence/abuse, verbal abuse, physical violence, affection, friendship, companionship, all types of drugs, many types of physical and mental disorders and illnesses, death, bonding, lover, love, trust, neglect, divorce, psychiatry, compulsory detention, therapy, detention as a result of a crisis, prison, and so on.
(Project description, U. Möntmann)
Schindler described limiting possibilities as a “principal element of art therapy” and then spoke about the matrix method developed by Ulrike Möntmann for compiling the biographies, which he regards as explicitly containing this therapeutic element: “Nothing is available indefinitely, one has to make do with what is there, one can perhaps fight to get this or that in addition. And this is then configured and a certain form emerges, a certain structure.” From the point of view of therapy, this “limitation” is necessary: “If one always makes everything possible, one never arrives at these limits.”
While this limitation which is applied in the matrix method is regarded as an indispensable tool in therapy, in an art context, said Bippus, in some cases there is criticism of its standardised nature.
In this connection, Felix Stalder asked about the direct effects of this method on the participants: “How significant is the fact that the form is the same for everyone? That their lives can be depicted in the same way as other lives, that their lives are not unique but fit into this highly standardised format just like all the others. Is this something positive?”
Ulrike Möntmann described the effect as “reassuring”; Schindler considered it as “easing the situation”. Elke Bippus surmised that this effect connected to the aims of the project: “I think that the matrix enables the participants to bring themselves and what they have experienced into a kind of normality. The women are not forced to justify or condemn their own personal fate, or explain how they ought to work on it or have worked on it. Instead, they can do this via the matrix and describe it as part of a type of normality. In this way a possibility is created of comprehending it.” Developed originally to avoid re-traumatising the inmates, this method facilitates finding new formulations of one’s own life. “The matrix confronts the participants with the disintegration of a standardised judgement that was made at an earlier point in time. Suddenly, these assessments have ceased to exist and you get new ideas.” (Möntmann)
Schindler viewed this as another instance of the effect of overwriting: “In a new context I overwrite the memory with a new combination of words that I have chosen. And that I have chosen the words is very important; that I have the control over the words I choose.” Felix Stalder saw the new formulations not only as overwriting using one’s own way of describing, but also as overwriting the internalised external labelling processes; that is, “what others have formulated for me”. In his opinion standardisations “provide freedom on one level and not on another. You lay down certain things, you standardise, in order to trigger other things.”
Ruth Sonderegger drew attention to the museum context in which the Accomplices’ Meetings was taking place and raised the issue of the institutionalisation of art research: “One should really reconsider the question of whether art research ought to be in this administrative context and what the price of this is, whether one really wants to work in “art research”, to work in these institutions”. And what influence does the framing conditions of the PEEK (Programme for Arts-based Research) format or being integrated in the structure of the University of Applied Arts have on the project and research? Although influence exerted by the general conditions of an institution is not something that only affects the field of art research, it is nevertheless necessary to engage with this question, including with reference to the current example of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) here in Vienna. Ostensibly in pursuit of synergistic effects, said Ulrike, a master’s program at the University of Applied Arts curated an exhibition project titled “Art Research”. The idea came from the university’s rector and the art research projects attached to the university were “installed” in this project. “What effect does this have on the projects concerned? Is the exhibition format you have described added value from the point of view of the projects’ researchor are the consequences negative rather than positive?
Alexandra Landré was interested above all in how one has to deal with existing contexts — “power structures” — in order to facilitate functioning partnerships within institutions, for example, with curators. “Over the course of the research work a free space has to be created, a different form of creative coproduction or mutual exchanges”. For Landré the occupation of this space has significance within the structure of Möntmann’s work and she advocates converting the dilemma into “a positive definition of the required conditions”.
To organise exhibitions and utilise synergistic effects are not actually the problem, said Bippus. The problem is rather that exhibitions are for prestige purposes and are limited to a certain time period so that collaboration does not have a chance to develop. In her view, the decisive question is whether accepting the institutional framework (including with regard to funding) compels one to take an exclusively pragmatic and strategic course of action and whether anything at all can be developed within this given framework.
Felix Stalder added that changing institutional structures — not only in art research — result in everyone having to do far too much in parallel in order to function, and that this gives rise to “narrow, efficiency-oriented thinking”.
A consequence of this, said Sonderegger, is the growing importance of one’s personal “time management”, whereby she attempts to pay as much attention as possible to content. Looking back at the past Accomplices’ Meetings, which took place outside institutions, Sonderegger remarked on their engagement with themes that were special, particularly compared to “day-to-day research work”. “If one takes Foucault’s An Aesthetics of Existence** seriously, then the following questions arise: Which offers will I accept? Or if not, why not? Day after day.” Further, Sonderegger emphasised that particularly the (temporary) appropriation of spaces is essential for the TBDWBAJ project, and strongly recommended expanding the studies and diagrams of spaces: “In addition to the spaces in prison and on the streets, there are the PEEK spaces and there are the institutions for art research; I believe that one should think about these spaces just as carefully as about the others.”
For Bippus it is also about giving considerable thought to “the space of art, and also the space of scholarship”. The collaboration between Bippus as a visitor to the project and Möntmann as project leader is defined by the PEEK guidelines: “Something must be communicable after these three years. Then one could work on it, but one is already in this loop. And that’s what I mean by being involved: we are part of this structure. One has to remind oneself of this all the time and then one is able to decide: When does one do something out of pragmatism when does one do something strategically, and where must there be free spaces?”
ART RESEARCH AND THE EXHIBITION
The participants then broached the subject again of the exhibition Out of the Box: 10 Questions Addressed to Art Research. Alexandra Landré saw in it an “overwriting” of the works due to specific structures of the displays and the utilisation of prominent visual elements, such as the strategic decision to place only texts upon the walls: “In my understanding an exhibition should facilitate the works on show, should enable them to occupy the space. But here it’s different, the spatial design dominates the works.”
Felix Stalder saw here a direct connection with the institutional structure of Arts-based Research at the Academy, where in his opinion the institution intervenes more and earlier in the work and preparatory process than is the case with other exhibition situations. Bippus saw this intervention above all at the level of communication: “Unlike other exhibitions, here a communication strategy is used that brands the works as research and thus pigeonholes them as belonging to the area of art research.”
Sonderegger asked whether art research in general wants to be exhibited. Whereas Möntmann said she was sceptical about exhibitions of art research, Bippus was of the opinion that decision for or against such a presentation should depend on what had resulted from specific processes and questions. Her interest was not in “illustrations of research”, but in the linkages between various areas and qualities.
Felix Stalder returned to the subject of the powerful influence of the institutions that appropriate things which were actually emancipatory once upon a time, such as the shift from the completed artwork to the process: “Is research a method or an intermediate activity, which lies somewhere in between the beginning with its questions and the end with its output, and is thus invisible for the public? Should the research be exhibited, which I find odd, or should an artwork be exhibited that presents itself as such; an artwork, however, that has attained its specific form and orientation through the process of research and without which it would not have this particular form and orientation?”
Whereas Bippus regarded the form of the exhibition as possibly “a further step” within the art research process, Landré saw in the format of the exhibition a potential “method”, an “experimental setup”, which is not about “illustration or materialisation of one’s own ideas”, but about developing these ideas by engaging with the public.
Ruth Sonderegger asked whether it was necessary for Möntmann’s work to be presented in an art museum context: “In all of these processes you appear in various semi-public contexts, you enter closed spaces — and this is a complex fusion. In connection with your particular work — you work in prisons, you take your work into the public realm — I ask myself whether there is any need to act in a representative capacity?” “So far, your work focused on rejecting the majority of art spaces and developing new questions and modes of work in collaboration with women prisoners. That’s how I always imagined it: you want to develop something with these women. And this benefits the women above all: you also get something out of it and you want by all means to conduct research on these institutions. From this work the object of the dolls resulted, not because you think the dolls are terrific. What’s special about them is a result of you engaging with the women in prison. And they are the main issue. Perhaps it is also about a community of psychiatrists and prison workers. When you are working on a project I doubt whether you are thinking about museum visitors. I think that as soon as one starts thinking about plans for exhibiting at the ZKM, for example, one has to think about other people, who should take something away from the presentation. I don’t have a solution, but I find your project an extremely intelligent, responsible construction, a cross between social work and research using creative artistic tools, but not as something that ends with an exhibition.”
As an example of a very successful presentation Ruth Sonderegger mentioned the published conversation between Elke Bippus and Ulrike Möntmann***, which contains research findings in the form of photographs, diagrams, and encounters. Although Sonderegger still finds it really interesting to introduce the project to a wider public, she said that art venues are just one option and one could consider moving into other public places, for example, the town hall, the Museum of the Medical University of Vienna, or the streets.
With respect to appropriate formats of presentation and the claim to validity of the research results, Bippus perceived a division of the project into two phases: the completed phase of project implementation and the evaluation phase in collaboration with scholars, scientists, artists, and so on.
Bippus also mentioned that funding by PEEK has a momentum of its own, which by stipulating a time frame and on account of certain organisational structures indirectly demands a final presentation of the years of research work.
Ulrike Möntmann only partially agreed with this view because she said the methods and goals of the project had been defined before it received funding from PEEK, and the research work follows the logic of the project. The funding from PEEK does not mean any change of policy, it represents a faster and more stable continuation of the project in which meetings, experiments, and an increase in cooperative work (collaborators, relay race, Accomplices’ Meetings) is easier to achieve. The book, which was decided on before PEEK confirmed its financial support, is still the main form for presenting the project and will function as the basis of the planned exhibition: “The book is the freest space for this work. And this can be developed at the ZKM. In that order.”
Landré also saw an increase in the project’s productivity facilitated by the PEEK funds: “More reflection, more research is taking place that generates a specific form of material”. At the same time she regarded it as a matter of importance to continue to reflect on the necessity of exhibiting the project’s material. At the time of this meeting, Ulrike Möntmann regarded the ZKM more as an ideal possibility for an expanded presentation of the book: “If I have enough space and that exclusively and do not have to restrain myself when dealing with others, then I can simply spread everything out and say: I did that.”
However, in the “unfolding” of the material, said Nina Glockner, the parameters of the form of the exhibition come into play, “for example, the EOC installation is a translation of the Web archive. The voices, the biographies are all there and the intervention is minimal, yet in spite of this the installation communicates other aspects of the work, for example, the significance of the collective. In all areas of the book aspects of such translation processes will be of relevance.”
Stalder also mentioned the conditions that a spatial presentation, an exhibition entails: “When you display the book, that is the presentation. When the presentation is audiovisual or in the form of texts then the specificity of the space also comes into play and it becomes a presentation that is an installation. You transfer the book, with its heterogeneous material form, to a space. Thus the material which exists in the book, in the text, in diagrams, in whatever form, passes over into a different materiality, you produce a new state of aggregation in the space in order to render all aspects accessible.” With regard to the specific meaning of space, Möntmann declared her interest in “occupying space, making use of space”. This applies to all aspects of her work.
Sonderegger remained sceptical and questioned once again the importance of the planned exhibition: “Why not just do a book, provide open access to your super Web archive, talk to all sorts of people in the meantime; why do you need to add the art context? There is a lot to be said for this, for lots of works and lots of people. I don’t see that in your case an exhibition is absolutely necessary. Which media and audiences do you expect the most from, and what decisions does this entail?”
Möntmann also sees the publication of the project’s findings as mainly in the book and the Web archive, but regards their spatial presentation in an exhibition as expanding the possibility of communicating them. In contrast to the “hierarchical”, linear structure of a book, said Möntmann, “completely different choices are feasible. One can take the order apart and arrange it in another way, because unfolding within a space is less hierarchical, the line of sight is not predetermined.”
Felix Stalder expanded on this idea: “To unfold the book, if I understand this correctly, does not mean to make all of the material three-dimensional, but to make the material that is in the medium of a book accessible in a different way. There are various ways of doing this; some things will be highlighted and others will inevitably remain closed. That is why you don’t want a system, instead, you introduce a range of conflicting orders.” Stalder emphasised that the friction resulting from the juxtapositioning of material hinted at how much there actually is, but does not reveal it in its entirety. The material can only be grasped “within a system of organisation but never by itself.” “The material does not exist as material, only within a specific order, which could also be another.”
In this context, said Stalder, he was interested in how artistic work relates to research processes: “For me research means generating material according to a set of methods. Then the question arises as to make the material accessible and this is what art research can do because it has a large repertoire of formats at its disposal.”
ACTIONISM AND INTERVENTIONISM IN TBDWBAJ
In addition to the desire to enquire, generate material, and an artistic interest in “different forms of ordering and presentation”, Ruth Sonderegger identified in Möntmann’s work at least a further important level; namely, “an actionist and interventionist” level.
With regard to the level of political and public relations work, Möntmann seeks to “protest against the prison system, and — sometimes literally — to change the living conditions of the incarcerated women. And this does not belong to the sphere of autonomous art. If one seeks to intervene, this means one has a purpose or a goal. This is what I find so intriguing about this project, that there are autonomous parts as well as obviously interventionist ones. Thus it is not only a question of what kind of different organisation systems I can have, but what effect I can have.” In Sonderegger’s view the most important potential effect of the project is to shift, crisscross, and mix publics, for example, by bringing “closed spaces where little information circulates and scant exchange takes place” out into the public realm: “I see many paths for your work to enter the public sphere and these lead only partly to art spaces.”
As Elke Bippus regards her own sphere of activity as located within the arts and sciences, for her the question is where the spaces for actionism and interventions are located there. In her own activities, for example, she could include Ulrike’s work in her lectures and in this way introduce it into the debate. Bippus asked Sonderegger for her opinion of whether the political momentum of the project would be lost if one operates “very academically” within the arts and sciences in order “to reach a different audience. That is why I wanted to talk about being involved, the political aspect of what we do within the structure of the project”. That “certain themes as well as methods get introduced into the realms of the arts and sciences and that certain knowledge is produced”, Bippus said that for her this approach possesses a political momentum.
The arts and sciences, said Sonderegger, are “large, intractable apparatuses” within which it is not easy for her to operate. In her opinion, “it only gets political when there is no longer any space for consensus. I agree with Rancière that ‘dissensus’ is micropolitics; that certainly means something to me. These micropolitics may be discernible in the exhibition, but it will be a different form of insubordination than when I go through all possible channels and fight, for example, that the women in prison are provided with better furniture, like you have done, Ulrike, and continue to do. Politics are found where there is dissension or where it is still possible to produce dissension without its being integrated immediately.”
Transcription and Text: Nina Glockner
Translation: Gloria Custance & Isaac Custance
*Out of the Box: 10 Fragen an künstlerische Forschung, exhibition mounted by the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, 28 November 2013 – 5 January 2014, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. All projects presented in the exhibition were supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK), and are hosted by the University of Applied Arts.
**Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977–1984, ed. L.D. Kritzman. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 47–53.
***Ästhetik der Existenz, T:G\10 series, ith, Edition Voldemeer, AMBRA, Zurich, Switzerland, 2013.