onsdag den 21. september 2016

TALK ART FLAT!

Keep Art Flat! opened last Thursday. A flurry of activity, and there it was: nearly 250 works by 95 artists, presented for your enjoyment at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen until 6 November 2016. For every visitor there is a free catalogue with articles by John Held, Vittore Baroni, Chuck Welch and myself. And because we know that the audience won't be satisfied even with that, there is Talk Art Flat! on 28 September. Two hours of discussion about Mail Art and politics, from 17 until 19 at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Don't miss it!

søndag den 11. september 2016

SANDIE, HER ARMPIT AND ME

It is often said about the art of Thomas Hirschhorn that it engages people because it is based on fan culture. Hirschhorn’s monuments and other installations, the argument goes, do not speak to the visitor in the “professional” language of art, but in the more informal language of genuine personal excitement. Ray Johnson, so often credited with the “invention” of Mail Art, also had a thing about fan culture. The Shelley Duvall Fan Club is perhaps the best known of his fan clubs, but he also initiated a Paloma Picasso Fan Club, a Jean Dubuffet Fan Club, a Marcel Duchamp Fan Club, and a Blue Eyes Fan Club, the latter with a Japanese section called the Brue Eyes Fan Crub. Is there some sort of point here? A link between 1960s/70s Mail Art and 1990s “relational” art?

There is certainly a link between Mail Art and ‘zine culture. Mail Art and home-produced fanzines use the same means to a similar effect, and the ‘zine and tape circuit regularly made use of the same infrastructure as Mail Art did. There may also be a link at the level of con- or intent: Johnson often employed the symbol of a potato masher, identifying himself as a “masher”, someone who comes too close – a stalker, in today’s vocabulary.

But it is important also to note that Mail Art had no style of its own. The visual similarity with fanzines is likely to be due at least in part to the fact that they use the same means (photocopy, offset) and are produced at home by a single person. Moreover, the similarity between the fanzine “feel” and the “feel” of a Johnson work cannot support a claim about Mail Art as a whole. Johnson’s work has always had a tendency to come too close. Much Mail Art produced by others comes close because it arrives at someone’s private home, but it rarely comes too close.

Look at Cees Francke. His work on the theme of Sandie Shaw seems upon first glance closely related to Johnson’s Fan Clubs. The difference, however, is that Francke’s work comes too close to the person of the artist as well. There is fan culture in his Sandie Shaw-worship, but there is obsessiveness of a different type as well. It’s not just Sandie Shaw who’s in focus, it’s armpits as well. Sweaty armpits. Immaculate armpits. Sandie’s Third Armpit.

Neither Johnson’s “club” atmosphere nor Hirschhorn’s homemade look suffice to explain Francke’s project. Not even the two combined are enough to capture its full breadth. Mail Art is about “us” and about Doing It Yourself, but it is also about the “me” of the sender and the receiver and all the ways in which the work manages to capture the one and engage the other. One of Francke’s stamps reads “Sandie Shaw Internal Apparitions”. Mail Art is about being “inside” and about doing a lot with minimal means, but in Francke’s case, “internal” also refers to the sender’s and the receiver’s innermost feelings and “apparition” to the images they give rise to.

søndag den 28. august 2016

ARCHIVING MAIL ART WITH DAVID ZACK

”These stories are either true or else told as if they were true by reputable artists such as those the article is about”. There is something strangely tautological to this comment, attached by David Zack to a photocopy of an article of his called “Teaching of Art, Art of Teaching” in Art in America (December 1971), although it is hard to pinpoint what, exactly, the tautology consists of. Either the stories are true, or “reputable” artists have told them as if they were true. But where, exactly, does one find proof for the fact that the artists are reputable? In an article. Written by Zack.

The approach is not unlike the one chosen by Zack in his landmark “Authentik and Historikal Discourse on the Phenomenon of Mail Art”, also in Art in America, the January/February 1973 issue. The article begins with an account of Nut Art, which Zack writes was “definitely invented in 1967 by Roy De Forest and myself”. “Definitely invented”: the author feels it necessary to underline the truth of the statement. The article is full of reports on the reports of others. “Soon after Clayton moved to California from South Dakota I began to receive (…) letters reporting the exploits of a friend named George Gladstone, a local madman (…)  who planted the highways with critters cut from dead inner tubes and alarming neckless heads”, for example. Zack reports on letters reporting on barely believable incidents and activities – and if he does not do that, he reports on barely believable exchanges that took place via the mail. The factual report and the outrageous scheme, the document and the forgery mix in a manner that makes it very hard to tell what is what and how the reader can be sure that it is all true. In insisting on the truth of his reports, or reports of reports, Zack manages to cast doubt on their truthfulness.

Another example of Zack’s tightrope act on the border between document and fiction: his Twenty-One Correspondence  Palimpsests are letters – Mail Art works – by others, annotated by Zack. He advertised them to his contacts in the name of the Correspondent Art Services Foundation, secretary David Zack. The CASF, he wrote, was a non-profit organization dedicated to “research on communication arts and related services”. The Correspondence Palimpsests were available as originals, sealed in polyethylene and framed, and as Xerox copies – not a fixed number of copies but between seven and 49 of them.  On one letter he wrote: “This is a letter from Jim Haining, one of the most powerful friends of anyone in mail art. (…) Jim Haining’s mail is a fountain of interest - - -  for one thing he was the first to show me what Mircofiche looks like (…) and for another he introduced to me the concept of the work of art shared among friends as if it were a puzzle “. So: Zack adds background information on the writer – rather random bits of information – to a letter sent to himself and asks his network what to do with it. There is a document, there is information about its provenance, but there is no purpose, at least, not yet. It is up to the recipient to decide what to do with it. Zack brushes the archive, but passes it by because he does not imply any particular way of using the material.

True stories, letters that were really sent and research material that is not tied to any particular topic or goal. Zack manifested himself as an archivist of the phantasmagorical. His records and files are deceptive, even hallucinogenic. In a strange way he demonstrated the problems inherent in all Mail Art archives: the material stands as a witness to an exchange, but although it is has a physical reality and can be seen as an unchanging witness of an exchange that once took place, it does not really capture the exchange. It always goes beyond fact. It speaks to you as document and work at the same time.

When will we learn to stop making a difference between the art collection and the archive?

onsdag den 17. august 2016

LOMHOLT FORMULAR PRESS

In which type of art do you look for a key to a work in the works of others? That’s right, in Mail Art. Mail Art, like no other art form, is designed to invite other artists to respond, and the responses tend to be superb guides to the potential of the work that provokes them.

In 1978, British Mail Artist Pauline Smith wrote, in one of her beautiful Letraset compositions, “I’m afraid I don’t know what this is all about” on a work called A Length by Niels Lomholt, or Lomholt Formular Press, as he used to call himself. German artist albrecht d. added: “I can’t speak Danish” and “It’s a surprise for me to read that Pauline Smith has the same problem”. Surely it could not have come as a surprise to him that Smith did not speak Danish?

Lomholt Formular Press published formulae, documents that have all the trappings of the bureaucratic form but function in the exact opposite way. Rather than making information comparable and quantifiable, they are tailored to generate an ever-expanding cloud of responses that radiate from the formula outwards. There are all the usual boxes and dotted lines, but instead of easily answerable questions they are headed by phrases such as “Are you satisfied with not being able to move any part of your body but your feet?”, “The duration of the action … measurement as experienced” and “Describe the point between run and walk”. Surely language is not the only problem, or even the biggest one.

American Mail Artist Irene Dogmatic wrote, “To tell you the truth, I have trouble participating in your projects quite often, (1) because they seem extremely self-contained to begin with (i.e. the idea seems inherent in the forms you send, almost as if they can stand without additions by anyone) and (2) quite often your ideas are over my head”. And Davi Det Hompson, also from the US: “It’s difficult for me to find a place to enter into your formula. Yes, there are plenty of empty boxes and dotted lines, yet, you seem to have already filled the important ones”. These artists have difficulty filling out the forms because to them, they already seem to contain everything that is necessary. The boxes and dotted lines make it clear that a response is asked for, but the general setup – and, to venture a guess, the images and words added by Lomholt himself – indicates that all the necessary ingredients are not there.

Smith’s and albrecht d.’s response does something else. It is critical, but it engages with the work as well. Smith sculpts her words around the words and images that are already present on the page, drawing attention to the form as a visual composition. Albrecht d. responds to the bureaucratic overtones, adding comments such as “Formular paranoia” and “Lomholt shows the crazy world today”. Both respond in the spirit of their own work. Smith’s Mail Art works are immediately recognisable by the beautifully balanced Letraset and collage compositions, and albrecht d.’s work, both in visual art and in Mail Art, thematises the violence and paranoia of everyday reality. Both artists responded on the basis of their own practice.

On the template of A Length, Lomholt wrote a numbered list of what a formula is to him: a process, a practical example of the irrational development of an action or an idea, a way of asking questions, a world that has not materialised yet, a series of material layers, a chance of watching the private as it develops itself, a starting point for change, a mirror, a list of other things and a poem. One thing is to hear him say it, another is to see his contacts enact it. To watch artists such as Smith and albrecht d. as they try to come to grips with the form, as they develop the work in the process, as they respond to the questions posed explicitly and implicitly, as they help to materialise the work, as they mirror themselves in the form and are mirrored by it – as they interact with it as a work of art in their own artwork.

Self-contained? Over your head? Impossible to penetrate? All you have to do is look at the way others have come to grips with it.

mandag den 15. august 2016

WAIT AND SEE / WATCH WHILE YOU WAIT

On 17 February 1979, Mail artists Niels Lomholt, David Zack and Horacio Zabala met in Falling, Denmark. It was uncommon for Mail artists to meet. One of the hallmarks of Mail Art is that it made it possible to work together with people you had never met and were unlikely to meet. When Swiss Mail artist Hans-Rudi Fricker in 1986 tried to institutionalise Mail Art meetings by proposing “Tourism” as the next step after “Mailism”, his collaborator Günther Ruch designed a stamp saying “Tourism in Mail Art Remains Tourism and Not Mail Art”. But the meeting in Falling was a meeting of friends. Lomholt, Zack and Zabala set special store by their postal exchanges.

From 15 September, works by all three artists will be on display at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen as part of the exhibition Keep Art Flat: Mail Art and the Political Seventies. If anything, the event will show how different they were. Lomholt operated under the name of Lomholt Formular Press. His formulae use the trappings of the bureaucratic form – dotted lines, boxes, figures – to invite his correspondents to think differently about the world surrounding them. Zack is best known as the author of the first “manifesto” of Mail Art to appear in a mainstream art magazine, "An Authentik and Historikal Discourse on the Phenomenon of Mail Art" in the January/February 1973 issue of Art in America. Less a manifesto than a rambling account of his own personal experience of mailing art, it is typical of his contribution to the network: long texts full of verbal acrobatics and obscure references to people he knew and situations he had experienced. Zabala emigrated from his native Argentina to Europe in 1976. At the time, Argentina was in the grip of the "Dirty War", waged by the military regime against political dissidents, so it is not entirely surprising that the project that was to keep him occupied until 1981 was called Today, Art is a Prison.

The strength of Mail Art was that it could accommodate people who worked with the bureaucratic form, the hallucinogenic narrative and the “socio-imaginary test” (as Zabala called his project); that it could bring together people from Europe, the US and South America; that it did not require them to agree upon anything. The 1970s may have been dominated by the Cold War, but Mail Art was not about taking sides. It made it possible to express one’s views, certainly - but it did not force people to subscribe to a specific agenda. There are no absolute judgements in Mail Art. It is not about what you do, but how you do it. Criteria are generated on the inside, not imposed from the outside.

Fluxus artist Dick Higgins had a stamp that read “No Anticipation Allowed”. Stamped on an envelope, it translates as “wait and see”. My programme for the coming month is “Anticipation Required”: watch while you wait. I have always been fascinated by Mail Art's inclusiveness and diversity and drawn towards its typewriter-and-newspaper-cutout aesthetics. I have been writing about it since 2008 and have spent the past many months together with Mail artist Niels Lomholt and art historian Lene Aagaard Denhart, preparing Keep Art Flat. In this blog, I will now roll out the red carpet for the exhibition, presenting the reader with related works and thoughts, an artist or a work per entry. In anticipation.

mandag den 2. maj 2016

CO-LAB 2

Last Saturday I found myself counting seconds during a performance afternoon at Overgaden in Copenhagen. For nearly three hours. Here is why.

Sometime last year I volunteered to be part of Co-Lab 2, a project curated by Portuguese artist Marcio Carvalho. The idea is to create one month long collaborations between non-Western artists and representatives of the Western institutional world.I participated as a representative of Copenhagen University and got to collaborate with Kenyan artist Atò Malinda throughout the month of April. The event at Overgaden was the final presentation of our efforts.

When we first met, we had nothing. All we knew was that she is interested in the way African artefacts are treated by Western museums and that I teach gallery studies. The most obvious way forward seemed to be to visit a museum. We chose the National Museum of Denmark, which has the largest public collection of African artefacts in Copenhagen. Although our backgrounds are completely different, at least we could meet around the same object.

We ended up spending several days at the museum, having long discussions about the objects on display and the way they are made to represent African culture(s). The question of culture (singular) and cultures (plural) is important, because one of the first things that struck us is that in most displays, the objects were used to represent the entire continent, or at least large swathes of it. Another thing we kept returning to was that the African displays are predominantly brown – the brown of pottery, baskets and wood, wood, wood. Nothing stands out. And then there was the importance of text: the way objects appeared empty whenever there was no text, the way words immediately started to seep into the object whenever there was text.

So we ended up talking about representations; Atò about the objects and the people they are made to represent and myself about the displays and the way they address the visitor. To the casual listener it may have sounded as if she was the wronged party and I was the insensitive apologist of the system that maintains the wrongs, but it did not feel like that. We were both bitter and we both had fun - so much fun, in fact, that we decided to treat the discussions themselves as our joint performance.

How to represent a discussion on representations? How to represent a discussion that is understood as a performance? After all, large part of such a discussion consists of all the things each of us brought with us, and an equally large part consists of the thoughts each of us had afterwards. In short, the words that are actually spoken only make up a tiny part of the discussion, and even they cannot be correctly understood out of context and/or without the participants in the discussion being present to account for them.

We arrived at two answers that more or less respond to our respective positions. Atò conducted a painting workshop during which the visitors were invited to paint empty boxes brown – the exact shade of brown that they already had been painted with once. She would squeeze the paint onto the brush herself, without leaving the visitor a choice, and afterwards she would place the boxes on a table as if she was installing a museum display.

I myself, meanwhile, had recorded all that we had discussed during our last visit and had worked out how many seconds we both had spoken. The numbers were read out in real time, stopwatch in hand: “Atò 4 seconds… Peter 5 seconds… Ató three seconds”, et cetera. All that was objective about the conversation was represented, all that was subjective – the actual content – was edited out. The result was a long, slow pattern in time that functioned in the exact opposite way from the original discussion. Short exchanges became interesting, longer arguments dull. And while the discussion had served to make us understand the other better, we appeared as opposites during the presentation: Atò hospitable and service-minded, me self-absorbed and unapproachable.

But there were links, too. Next to me, I showed a picture of the room that the particular part of our discussion that I was presenting had been about, accompanied by as many “facts” as I had been able to collect. Atò referred to the discussion we had in that particular room in the way she addressed the visitors and the way she displayed the painted boxes. Despite our different ways of presenting ourselves, we were still speaking of the same thing – not the object as such, but the discussion, understood as an immaterial object.

Afterwards, we – not only Atò and me, but also the other participants, Nigerian artist Odun Orimolade, Cameroonian artist Christian Etongo and their respective collaborators, Mette Garfield and Jessie Kleemann –spoke about the effect of such collaborations with the audience. What do they achieve? Maybe our presentation had been blank and uncommunicative, but our explanation seemed to strike a chord. The brown boxes and the empty seconds, the empty offer of participation and the uncommunicative patterning of time – they resulted in a good deal of discussion.

Someone asked why we had not made our discussions public. We could have – but then we would only have been discussing representations, not representing a discussion. We would have been turning what presented itself to the eye into words, but we would have lost the experience of doing so. A result is all fine and well, but what it is it without the experience of arriving at it?

fredag den 11. december 2015

THE MUSEUM IS CLOSED

On 9 December 2015, Nikolaj Kunsthal in Copenhagen opened an exhibition about Knud Pedersen. The exhibition, curated by Johanne Løgstrup, is not exactly your standard gallery show: it only exists of videotaped interviews with people who knew Pedersen and a list of projects on one wall that visitors can refer to while listening to them. I participated by giving an interview and collecting the material for the list. After all, I've known him since 2000 or 2001 and written about him in my Ph.D. and various other publications.

For the invitation, Nikolaj Kunsthal chose an image of Pedersen’s Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art. That is to say, the photograph does not actually show the museum, but the Danish National Bank, designed by Arne Jacobsen and built between 1965 and 1978. When the Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art opened in 1967, it found shelter in a small space in the basement of Nikolaj Church, where Pedersen had his Art Library, but later it became a conceptual museum. No building, no staff, no nothing – according to Pedersen the ideal venue for conceptual art. And since the museum had no actual physical existence, Pedersen thought, it might as well be the National Bank.

But it would be wrong to say that the Museum had no existence whatsoever. Not only did the Museum sponsor many art events, it also existed as a patent. Pedersen took out a patent on the name and used it – more or less successfully – to file lawsuits against other museums who tried to adopt names that resembled that of the Museum. That the new museum in the suburb of Ishøj that the Municipality of Copenhagen opened in 1994 is called Arken, and not the Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art, for example, is due to Pedersen.  If it did not have a physical existence, the Museum at least had a legal one, and that is almost as solid in Western society as we know it.


“The Museum is Closed” is the title of the exhibition at Nikolaj Kunsthal. The museum is closed, but the exhibition is open. The Copenhagen Museum of Modern Art only exists as a concept, but it can act in the world thanks to its legal status nevertheless. Is it accidental that Pedersen chose the National Bank as the place to incarnate his Museum? After all, money has the same un/real character, not really there but available for use nevertheless. Maybe there is more to Pedersen’s choice than just a “why not…?”

See also Knud Pedersen Day, my somewhat offbeat attempt at an obituary for an extremely offbeat man.