Salzburg symposium “this is not a protest song” part 2

The second part of the symposium I attended last week in Salzburg featured a speaker simply using the monkier Ubermorgen (meaning: the day after tomorrow), one half of a conceptual art duo based between Switzerland and Vienna (link at bottom).

His appearance was that of a banker, or Greg Wallace from Masterchef – without the charisma. This is not to dismiss his work. He seemed a bit reluctant to be there, so went about the forum by describing his artwork, which seems designed to provoke as much as possible. Examples include the launching of a website in 2000 that offered to auction American’s votes from them and back to affiliated lobbyists. Naturally, this was controversial, resulting in threats by various American organisations and coverage on CNN, yet he defended it by saying it was perfectly legal in Austria to do this. They also created a website featuring Teletext-designed ‘pornography’, launched a telephone helpline for neo-nazis, works in oil-slick art, and organised an exhibition of an installation based on immigration, which featured invitations from an officious, intimidating pseudo-department of the Government. These works resulted in him getting sued/threatened repeatedly, things which he dismissed nonchalantly. 

In contrast to this aloof-dom, during Q&A an art lecturer questioned the validity of the work as art, before expressing aggrievement for the Zurich exhibition on ‘torture’, which actually adopted torture methods in live experiment. The audience member said he had almost walked out because of this sensationalism, accused him of trivialising torture and laughing irreverently about the various issues, and that he’d expected some social comment where there was none. The ‘artist’ responded quite articulately, for someone put on the spot before 70 people. He stated that he takes his work very seriously, thank you very much, and that there is no social comment or political sentiment related to it (despite the fact that each project he described tended to reflect current affairs of that time), and that if the audience member was offended, then sorry, but he wasn’t sorry. I take my work very, very seriously, he added again – in case we didn’t believe him. 

This exchange was the most entertaining thing about the symposium. It reminded me that the British National Curriculum now expects that any creative/practical work be accompanied by skills of evaluation – that is, the students should ‘reflect’ on their process, be self-critical, qualify and justify what they have done, and measure how effective it is.

Quite the opposite of what we often see in the professional world, whether Ubermorgen, or, say, Bob Dylan refusing to talk about the meaning of his music, film directors avoiding comment on theoretical interpretations, etc. Artists, as a collective, seem to be above self-comment – and can instead wave the ‘my work speaks for itself’ flag. That Ubermorgen claim an ‘apolitical’ (or was it ‘amoral’) approach is a bit tired – and the audience member was right: it would have been much more interesting as artwork if he had expressly made some social comment. After all, his organisation does have a manifesto on its website, and the futurists and Dadaists for two were never embarrassed to talk about the meaning of their work in a context of the era it was borne into.

Nevertheless, I liked Ubermorgen and their ideas. Even if their artwork doesn’t really excite me, it’s clear they are impelled to make people react, and there’s nothing wrong with raging against apathy. In fact, re-interpretation of the worlds events in this manner seems to me a cute way of challenging our conventional media’s versions of current affairs, and forcing people to confront uncomfortable truths.

Ubermorgen are busy stirring things up from their safe central-European retreat, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.


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