Issue #43, 2013
Scene

ART AS TACTICAL TERM.
A Discussion between Johannes Grenzfurthner and Vlad Morariu

Johannes Grenzfurthneris an artist, writer, curator and director. He is the founder and artistic director of internationally-acting art and theory group monochrom. He is also founder of US-based movie production company monochrom Propulsion Systems, LLC. He holds a professorship for art theory and art practice at the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria, and is a lecturer on culture jamming at the University of Arts and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria. He is head of the Arse Elektronika festival in San Francisco, host of Roboexotica (Festival for Cocktail-Robotics, Vienna and San Francisco), and is currently working on his first feature film Sierra Zulu and on the documentary Nothing To Hide. Johannes’ artistic and textual work engages themes from contemporary art, activism, performance, humour, philosophy, postmodernism, media theory, cultural studies, sex tech, popular culture studies, subversion, science fiction and the debate about copyright and intellectual property.

 

Whoever happened to be in São Paolo during the Biennial in 2002, and wanted to talk to Georg Paul Thomann, the artist representing Austria, most surely ended up by being very disappointed. Previously part of the Viennese actionism movement, later forgot, and then rediscovered, Thomann made the trip to Brazil but during the opening days he remained in his hotel room. Was this to be interpreted as a gesture of contempt against the art world? Rumours, spread probably by the Austrian technical workers at the pavilion, said that he was actually enjoying himself watching porn in the room. The workers themselves caused some political stir when Taiwan’s project was censored under political pressures of the Chinese Government. Three years later, in 2005, Thomann died in a car crash. The same workers from the pavilion organized his public funeral, that took place in the small town of Hall, in Tirol.

In fact, Thomann never existed, and the workers were members of the Viennese collective monochrom.1 Their Thomann project was, however, a good starting point for a long discussion about the conditions and possibilities of tactically navigating through the realms of technology, subversive politics, and art.

 

Vlad Morariu πJohannes, we didn’t have a recorder when we talked last time, but I remember well our discussion about pranks. I think it would be interesting if we slowly head towards that topic again. But before I’d appreciate if you tell me about how monochrom started back in the 1990s.

Johannes Grenzfurthner ∫The background is that I grew up with a conservative father that was interested in conspiracy theories. Our house was stuck with books about UFO theories, the Philadephia experiment, the Bilderberg Group, etc. This idea that there is someone up there, controlling us, might have influenced my interest in political forms of science fiction, comics, and cyberpunk. I think I revolted against my father by asking questions. By wanting to know if all that was really true, if there is proof for all the crap in those conspiracy books. I guess I developed a form of underground dialectics by dealing with paranoia, but also realizing the real power struggles of capitalism and its totalitarian grasp on humanity. I was a teenager punk and joined the Austrian anti-fascist movement (ANTIFA). And on top of all that, I had an interest in bizarre things, like obscure fanzines and music and DIY science. Imagine that in 1988 I got my first computer with a modem. The internet was still available in the universities only, so I joined Bulletin Board Systems and the FIDONET. I sent my first email in 1988 on that platform. Soon I would join discussions about cyberpunk with people from all over the world. Around 1991–1992 I realized that there was no publication, even underground, in the German-speaking world dealing with politics, punk, technology, cyberspace, art and technology, so I sent out an email to the FIDONET message boards services. Two hours later Franz Ablinger replied and said that we should do it together. This is how the monochrom fanzine started in 1993.

πI should understand that there was nothing of the sort in the leftist scene... How was it actually back then?

∫There were hacker groups like the CCC, but in classic leftist circles there was nothing. Until 1996–1997 they were very anti-technology. In 1996 people from the leftist scene, squatters and punks alike, were telling me that they would never use the email because it was “controlled“.

πBut, then, when did the shift take place?

∫I think it happened when the underground left learned that it is easier and more cost-efficient to put some of their stuff online rather than printing it. Most leftist were not very revolutionary in this respect, preferring to stay close to what they knew. But this is the problem with subcultures in general, and it is, in a way, equally valid for those who spent their time with pranking and subversion. I learned that the further you go down from mainstream to alternative culture to subculture towards the underground, the more conservative and exclusionist the mindset becomes. And the more white and male.

πSo what happened with monochromafterwards?

∫Well, we realized that the fanzine preached to the converted, because it was only those interested in the subcultures that read it. So we thought of reaching a broader audience. Of course, we started with the newsletters and website. We were already acquainted with the male-dominated leftist scene, and we also knew the male-dominated nerd scene. So it was clear for us that we had to escape from both. As a result, we started to do puppet shows and to experiment with other forms of narration, with drawing and with cartoons. At that time monochrom literally exploded. We call it our “Cambrian explosion“, a term from evolutionary sciences. We understood that different messages needed different media vehicles: sometimes that’s a 25-page essay, other times it is a song, a theatre play, �a computer game or a short video. We developed skills in using different media, but also the group itself developed, as we are nine people now. And I am proud to say that we have many women-colleagues and collaborators as well.

πAre you calling yourselves artists?

∫We never considered ourselves artists. Maybe activists. Instead, many of those interested in what we did called us artists. Over the time we learned that calling what we do “art“ has some benefits. First of all because you can get money, as there is art funding for weird stuff that nobody can define; second it’s good to call it art because sometimes it protects you from getting arrested. “Art“ is a tactical term. It could happen as well that in some contexts it is the worst thing you can do, because nobody takes “art“ seriously any more.

πWere there cases when you were on the verge of being arrested?

∫Sure, especially in the case of some performances. To give you an example: in 2008 we did a Nazi Petting Zoo. It happened during the European Football Championship, that took place in Austria. You may know that showing Nazi imagery in Austria is a very sensible issue. A part of the Austrian society, larger and larger actually, simply tries to forget what happened between 1938 and 1945. But it happened. Austrians were active in the Third Reich. In our performance a friend of ours dressed in a brown SA uniform with a swastika. The basic idea was that people on the street could feed and pet and hug the Nazi, receiving a loving embrace from history, come to terms with their past. And we ran this performance for seven-eight hours, half a kilometer away from the huge soccer fan zone, with a massive police presence. We expected that after an hour or so we would be taken in by the police. Interestingly, they didn’t, they walked by all the time and left us do it.

πWhat about the people?

∫We had the most interesting discussions about politics; but also really fringe situations. It depends on how people see you: is it an ironic art project, or a provocation? It also depends on how you evaluate your own project while being in it and playing a role in that “theatre“. There was the strange situation of a Polish fan giving a high-five to the Nazi. Or a 16 year old punk who gave the Nazi a kiss. What I am talking about goes back to our previous discussion, the problematic aspects of pranks and public space, and how people perceive a project. The question is how can activism, public and political art still work in the realm of the spectacle?

πSo dealing with perception is one of your constant concerns.

∫Yes. For a long time, the politically involved people and the left did not take us seriously because we were not real leftists. We were always in between, not artists, not scientists, not activists, not this and that. In Austria, and almost everywhere else, this always creates friction. Who are your peers? Who support you? If you are not part of a scene, you are the guys that people talk bad about, because you do not accept the rules of the scene and obey the scene’s hierarchy. In the last years we have done work because there is a lot of politic movements emerging from amidst the hacker circles, so we went to their conferences and we built a reputation as activists and political commentators. But you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to get into the hacker scene. All these scenes work with exclusionary and elitist, top-to-bottom mechanisms.

πSo you deliberately avoided exhibiting in art galleries?

∫Well, there is an interesting story about the first time we were confronted with the invitation to exhibit in a real art gallery. Back in 1997 we built up a movable robot with a camera that would transmit pictures to our web server; very slow, of course, but people could control it over the internet. It was pretty sensational for that time and the money we invested in it. The idea was that people could discuss what they wanted to achieve together, as a community. The robot was called “Exot“. First we did the project in our apartment, and by moving it around, people started to draw maps of our flat, almost like they were playing a Dungeons&Dragons roleplay game where they have to explore a cave. Just that the cave was our apartment, haha! The project received a huge public attention. All newspapers reported about it, televisions came, we even brought the server to a radio studio and people could move it there. And then a curator from the prestigious Secession Gallery called us and asked us if we wanted to show the robot in their exhibition called Junge Szene (Young Artists Scene). We agreed, although we were surprised, because we were not part of that scene at all. When we showed up for setup, with the server, with the robot, we asked them where we can plug in our cables and connect to the internet. And they looked at us with big eyes: “Internet? What internet?“ Secession didn’t have internet. Even more, they had invited us without having understood the project: we realized this when they proposed us that we should exhibit the robot as an object. And that encapsulates our relationship to the art world. They invite us, although they hardly understand our motifs and interests.

πWhen you compare it with all those who struggle to climb the ladder of the art world, this story becomes anecdotal.

∫We are really bad in climbing the ladder, or at least make money from it. I think that the art world partially functions in an economy of scarcity: as an artist you somehow end up limiting yourself to one big project per year, and you sell even less. In contrast, in a year timespan we produce a lot. We basically undermine our position in the art market, our market value, just by doing too much.

πBut, nevertheless, your projects situate in its proximity. Take your intervention at the São Paolo Biennial as example.

∫This was an interesting case. You know, at the time, as a representative of Austria to the biennial, one needed a commercial gallery to take care of the logistics of such a project. Zdenka Badovinac, the curator of the project, had to find a gallery to be the intermediary between us and the state. We ended up working with Galerie Christine König. Basically, the government transferred money to König’s accounts and she took care of everything, from plane tickets to the transportation service of the materials. It was the first time we had a gig of that proportion in the art world and already we had to do things like that. Pain in the ass. Probably the government mistrusted artists or art groups and tried to avoid to give them money directly.

πI find fascinating these forms of “collaboration“ between the state and commercial galleries. Why would you need a private gallery to intermediate the relation between artist and the state? Unless this is a masked way of supporting the art market by indirectly subsidizing it...

∫Monochrom has never been in that position again. We decided that we don’t need gate keepers and would be way more careful in dealing with this kind of structural bullshit by simply avoiding it. But for sure it had to do with the manners in which the conservative government that came to power one year before changed the way that the arts were funded.

πHave you ever contemplated the idea that your message is subverted by such mechanisms?

∫We think more in terms of how to get things done. If there is too much crap attached to it, so that the message is lost, we just don’t do it. You have to decide if it’s worth doing it, plain and simple.

πLet me ask you directly, why did you do the Georg Paul Thomann project?

∫We did it because we wanted to avoid to represent Austria; at the same time, I have to be honest and admit that we needed the money. For which reason we had to solve the dilemma of doing a smart project without being the poster boys’n girls for a right wing government. The initial idea was only to publish a 500 pages book about Georg Paul Thomann’s life (the book’s title was Who Shot Immanence?), in which we would formulate our critique about art, the art system, technology, and history, all condensed in this fictional character. But afterwards we realized that we accidentally pranked the whole Austrian media system, because nobody discovered that this guy had never existed. Journalists are fuckin’ bad at googling! This pushed us into keeping him alive for 3 years, then kill him and organize a public funeral.

πWhich brings us to the discussion about the effectiveness of public interventions and pranks.

∫For me the essential question is why would you do it? For example, why do a prank? Some people just like to mess with people’s minds. And here, for example, we could start a discussion about the Yes Men2, because I think that a huge part of their work is pranking for pranking’s sake and as a career vehicle. I remember well when their members used to do other types of projects. Particularly a comic series, about EuroMan, the European Currency superhero. It was a cartoon explaining what is going on in the financial markets, identifying lobbyists with villains. But soon after they focused only onto being the Yes Men. From a political perspective, as political artists, as a political prankster, I think you always have to evaluate if the action you are taking is not harming the cause. If you don’t manage to bring in more information about the political underside of pranking, it remains a simple technique.

πIn what ways would you say that pranks work?

∫I am an optimist and I will say, yes, they work... but probably not in the way people intend them to work. Look, for example, at Yes Men’s BBC pranking about the Bhopal disaster.3 It was very well made, starting with the website and even with the unplanned effect of their BBC intervention. But at the same time an infinitesimal amount of the people that saw the live broadcast learned later that this was a prank with which some artists tried to force a public discourse. Those people are not reading the New York Times or art magazines. You could end up with the idea that Dow Chemical is nice since they repay those poor people in India. From a statistical point of view, the Yes Men did a good PR stunt for Dow Chemical. And that’s the last thing, I guess, they wanted to do. If you do political pranks, I think that one needs to make them more complex and multi-layered.

πDoes this come back to the old leftist idea that we need more information that reveals hidden aspects of reality?

∫I am not culturally pessimistic to say that more information is necessarily bad. But what is absolutely necessary, the machete you need to cut up in the jungle, is a framework for seeing things differently. This is why I believe in theory, it is the weapon that you use to structure reality. And not everybody wants it, some even fear it. And this is equally valid for the underground culture. I always found it interesting how much of the political discourse is just based on hate. Hate can be powerful, but it’s not changing anything. For which reason some leftists will never get to the point of seeing a bigger picture. I think that at least once in your lifetime you have to be Jörg Haider in order to fight Jörg Haider.

πYou remember perhaps that in Anti-Oedipus,Deleuze and Guattari suggested that each one of us nurtures a little fascist.

∫Totally. This is why I am a proponent of political correctness. It comes from the realization of how fascist language is, how fascist your own thoughts are. So, against all those that say that there is no point in using a politically correct language since you still think fascistically, I would say that language is the field where you can start to fight back. For we grow in and with language, and language shapes the ways we think.

πJust because monochrom seems to love contradictions, the last thing I want to ask you is how do you see your position within the MuseumsQuartier4, in Vienna, one of Europe’s leading cases of how the ideology of cultural industries is put in practice?

∫Ah, yes. MuseumsQuartier is a big machine. We faced lots of criticism concerning our presence here. We had a long discussion among ourselves whether we should move to MuseumsQuartier in 2002 or not. On the one hand we needed the space, and it was cheap. On the other hand, we knew and trusted some of the curators that worked here. It also helped that through MQ we could invite people to be artists-in-residency and do a good old “Umverteilung (redistribution of wealth) of social capital“. And I mean people that would never get it otherwise, because they are not artists. Just imagine, we had Jacob Appelbaum here, who later became so important for the WikiLeaks project.

πNo politics of clean hands, then...

∫If you ask all the members of the monochrom about our position here, you will get different answers. But at the same time you have to realize that MQ is made out of people for which this is not their dream job. We chose to be here, some of them don’t even have the alternative, and are clearly more exploited than us. MQ works in a strange way. For they don’t really control the institutions here; they only take care of the public profile, the facilities, and the poster campaigns. They have no control over the MUMOK or the Kunsthalle. At the same time, within the MQ there were struggles between institutions. For example, MUMOK and the Leopold-Museum wanted the space of quartier21, where we are hosted. Because they couldn’t agree on who gets the area, MQ offered it to small institutions. Besides all the criticism that we got, referring to the fact that we were not really doing art, MUMOK even advised us that we should go and be the avant-garde of gentrification in the 5th and 6th districts of Vienna. So, in 2004, when we were asked by the Profil magazine to do a monochrom photo session to be included in their “Easter issue“, we seized the opportunity: the result was that I ended up being crucified with duct tape onto the walls of MUMOK. This is when, probably fearing the bad press, they stopped picking on us. So now I would say that for us the MQ is a vehicle for spreading certain messages. We are also part of it. We pretty much know every person, every screw, every square inch of the area. It’s a nice playing field.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

1. �Monochrom’s archive of projects, including acounts of what happened at the São Paolo Biennial in 2002, is to be found at www.monochrom.at.

2. �The Yes Men, a duo created by Jacques Servin (alias Andy Bilchbaum) and Igor Vamos (alias Mike Bonnano), are one of the most well known tactical media groups.

3. �A gas leak that occurred in the night of 2nd–3rd of December 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed up to 8,000 people and caused injuries to other 600,000. It is considered as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters in history. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 2001. After launching a fake Dow Chemical website, on the 3rd of December 2004 Bilchbaum of the Yes Men appeared on BBC World as “Jude Finistera“, a spokesman of Dow Chemical. In this quality he announced that Dow would liquidate Union Carbide and use the resulting twelve billion US dollars to offer compensation for medical care, to cover costs of cleaning up the site, and to fund research of the effects of Dow’s products. On the Frankfurt stock exchange the news caused Dow’s shares’ price to fall, erasing two billion US dollars of its market value. Two hours later it was revealed that this was a hoax and the values of shares were reinstated.

4. �Located in Vienna’s 7th district, MuseumsQuartier (MQ) is home to many cultural institutions, from Leopold Museum, MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art) and the Vienna Kunsthalle, to the quartier21 platform that offers space and support to about 50 small and medium-sized autonomous cultural initiatives.