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by Ruth Noack And Roger M. Buergel

Words From An Exhibition

When we were invited to reflect on the possibilities for playing with boundaries, we were in the middle of completing an exhibition. The obvious response was to use the opportunityto give the exhibition’s concept a kind of test run. We did so less for reasons of advertising than out of an interest in finding a form in which a methodology of exhibition beyond the dichotomy of theory and practice could be negotiated. At the time we proposed the thesis that our lecture itself was an exhibition. That was not intended as a provocation;rather, it was a serious attempt to give priority to our film examples over the spoken word. The idea was to give the films the status of intellectual, emotional, and aestheticarguments; to that end, it was important to choose the right medium. We saw our task in organizing the cinematic images as if we were installing an exhibition. The difficulty in writingabout this venture afterward is that the images themselves can only be represented, and they lose their complexity thereby. Their meaning is of necessity reduced to the meaning we give to them; other levels of meaning are closed off to readers. That makes our text more flat; we lack not only the support but also the competition of meanings and sensualities that made our play with boundaries possible. There is no use crying over what was said back then, but the problem remains: how can thinking about an exhibition be brought into this new form. Not only the excitement but also opportunity for an opening, and potentially even the derailment or tattering of what had been thought previously, should continue to bepossible. For us, it seemed worth experimenting: namely, if the images can occur here only as support for a given line of argument and no longer as something autonomous thatcan also undercut our arguments, then we will attribute to the theses themselves the status of images. The theses will be organized as pictures in an exhibition: that is to say, in arelationship to one another that is not restricted to epistemological thinking but also develops its own aesthetic effect, or at least does not preclude that possibility. The risk of such aprocedure is, primarily, that it might fail: that nothing of interest might happen or that the gesture would not point beyond simple self-mirroring, the fetishising of one’s own practices.With a little luck, however, something else comes of it.

The point of departure for our venture is the thesis that it is possible to imagine the exhibition as one of those transitional zones with which the present publication is concerned. Anexhibition would thus be a place where the drawing of boundaries could be made visible without this visibility necessarily going hand in hand with a legitimisation of the boundaries.An exhibition would also be a place where things (artworks, discourses, fields) could be assembled in such a way that the joints creak. For example, in an exhibition on the currentfate of modernism one might clarify the relationship between political populism and aesthetic hermeticism; or, as was done in our above- mentioned exhibition, inquired about therelationship between the organizational forms of the global justice movement and aesthetic relationality.1 But we are not happy with the image of a place that makes a given praxis possiblea priori. We want to characterize the exhibition itself, not its topology, as a form of action.

Our second thesis is that the exhibition is an action that can be understood as an act of communication. Thus we define the exhibition as a medium or, to borrow from GiorgioAgamben, as a gesture.2 Our concern in an exhibition is neither with ends in themselves (keyword: l’art pour l’art) nor with something completely subordinated to an external meaning(keyword: art as social policy) but rather doing something that opens up possibilities. That may sound idiotically abstract, so we should add immediately that it need not be understood so abstractly. Consequently, at this point in the lecture we showed an excerpt from a film that we wanted to use to express the dynamics of Agamben’s conception in more concreteterms.

In De stilte rond Christine M. (released in English as A Question of Silence; Marleen Gorris, The Netherlands, 1981, 96 min) a court psychiatrist accepts an assignment to assess the mental state of three women. Though they did not know oneanother, these three women killed a boutique owner, without any apparent motivation. The psychiatrist is unable to get thewomen to talk. Only when she questions her own position as a liberal assistant of the legal system of the state does sheperceive the act’s socio-political connections. The murder was the women’s reaction to the (not exclusively class-specific)oppression of women. The film gives expression to female anger without idealizing the act itself. It takes on an ethicaldimension by refusing to let the solidarity of women be undercut by their differences. The excerpt we selected showed the part of the trial concerned with determining the women’s soundness of mind. Contrary to all expectations, the psychiatrist findsthe accused to be of sound mind, which triggers a wave of outrage from legal scholars. A violent exchange of blows follows; at the height of the melee, the public prosecutor is moved to ask what is then the difference between the murder of a manby three women and the murder of a woman by three men. Seemingly out of nowhere, one of the accused begins to laugh, and gradually that laughter infects nearly all the women inthe courtroom. Within the film’s diegesis, the laughter provokes the formation of a collective that potentially includes the female viewers as well. As long as the laughing continues, thelaw is suspended. At various times in history, laughter has been granted the power to subvert authority. The laughter in our example can, of course, be interpreted as such a gesture: a gesture that, as in the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, reveals the apparatus of the state to be a performative body whose actions are sustained by arbitrariness. De stilte rondChristine M. does not, however, deny that the state performance imbedded within a patriarchal structure has real and not so pleasant effects. The laughter in our cinematic example can,of course, also be interpreted as a gesture in Agamben’s sense: a gesture that opens up possibilities, namely, the utopia of abolishing patriarchal power relationships. The crucial point with regard to our reflection on exhibitions, however, is that it is a utopia conveyed through the media.

The film does not pretend to be revolution; rather, it stages the revolution; it is integrated into the medium.3

And here we come back to the abstraction of the concept of the gesture, and hence to our third thesis: the mediality or mediated nature of the political act is not politically relevantwhere a narrative is presented as the possibility of a better world, in a kind of parallel universe,4 but rather where reality and representation are combined. The crux of the paralleluniverses of the media industry, one that affects Hollywood films just as much as daily newspapers, is precisely that they fit together all too easily; causing us to forget thatsomething is being mediated. On the one hand, we lose any awareness of the process of mediation and consequently any need for better images and more complex forms ofmediation. On the other hand, we give into the illusion all the more easily that we ourselves are somehow free of mediation, beyond all mediality.5 And that is catastrophic, both politicallyand personally.6 But neither should mediality per se be fetishized.

Politics should not be limited to creating the space for political responsibility. Nor do we appreciate the narcissism of an art that resorts to depicting the media character ofsubjectivity. Consequently, an exhibition that is content to open up a space of action does not go far enough. For it is not a matter of indifference how this space is negotiated and whathappens in it. One of the things we like about Marleen Gorris’s film is that it has a concrete political project: the desire to call forth a feminist audience that is constituted bysolidarity not as a uniform community. Calling forth an audience, a phrase we deliberate chose for its double meaning of invocating and producing, is one of the most important andmost difficult tasks of an exhibition. That brings us to our fourth thesis. Several years ago we remarked: “The challenge, then, does not merely consist of developing other visions. Italso involves creating new kinds of imagination, not just in order to produce different images, but also to keep working on their underlying basic structures.”7 Nothing of that has changed; in the course of our practical work on exhibitions, however, the category of the public has simply become more important. The point is no longer merely to negotiatethe specific set of questions at the site of visual production and then to use the exhibition to convey the results. Only with the exhibition is it determined what results are achieved.This idea necessitated changing how we define our concept of action. Earlier we put forward the thesis that the exhibition is an action that communicates something. That thesis is not wrong, but it leads one to believe that this process of communication is unambiguous and linear, namely, that certain content is communicated to a public by means ofartworks, by means of passing through the exhibition. The public is too passive in that view. In fact, there are at least two possibilities open to the audience: they can be interested in the exhibition and its object or they can take a stand against the interpellation. And there is yet another objection: what happens when our conception of the process ofcommunication is more relentless, when we undermine its influences? Can we, for example, truly speak of an audience that exists before the exhibition? And do the works have meaningapart from their audience? Briefly, both questions have to be answered in the affirmative. But that isn’t all. For us, it only becomes interesting when the exhibition manages to do this in a waythat ‘not just’ powerful. It has to create space for the propositions and influences that preceded the moment of reception as well as for the possibility not just to reflect and change them butalso redefine them in a radically new way.8 It is not so much about disbanding links based on identity than about an attempt to relate lifestyles, everyday practices, and subjectivitiesin productive ways.

For an exhibition to act in our sense it has to be capable of attracting and seducing a public. Hence we work with all available means for presenting and teaching. But that isn’tenough. If an exhibition wants to do more than recognize existing conditions, that is to say, wants to become part of a political reality without being swallowed up by it, then ithas to walk the line between social involvement and aesthetic autonomy. Hence we need artworks that can do both: establish relationships and create distance. It cannot beemphasized enough that the aesthetic autonomy does not like in the things themselves but is an effect of perception. Those who perceive them in a given case still have something to say. And so we have come to our finalthesis. In order for an exhibition to be able to change the world, it has to make itself radically permeable. Otherwise it isn’t possible forsomething to enter it and then exit it having changed, be that an audience, an idea, or an action. But this radicalness holds manydangers. One horror surely lies in the idea that that which one person perceives as radical seems unreal, unimportant, and imprecise tosomeone else. Still worse is when only the violence of the propositions is evident, rather than opening doors. Ultimately, the difficult thing about permeability is still that it implies at least two openings. And that means that there has to be a praxis of permeability that goes beyond theidea of permeability and beyond permeable form. For such an action, for such an exhibition, there have to be people who demandpermeability of themselves.

Translated from the German by Steven Lindberg


Roger M. Buergel is an exhibition organiser and author, he has two children. Curated exhibitions were Things we don’t understand (with Ruth Noack, Generali Foundation, Vienna,2000), Governmentality. Art in conflict with the international hyper-bourgeoisie and the national petty bourgeoisie (Alte Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, 2000), The Subject and Power –the lyrical voice (CHA Moscow, 2001). The Government (with Ruth Noack, Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg; MACBA-Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Miami Art Central;Secession, Vienna; Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2003–2005). He was the artistic director of documenta 12.

Ruth Noack is an art historian, she has two children. She studied art history, audio-visual media and feminist theory in the USA, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. From 1990she works regularly as a lecturer and writer in German-speaking countries, and since 1992 as an exhibition organiser. Since 2000 she has taught film theory at Vienna University, theUniversity of Applied Arts, Vienna and Lüneburg University. Since 2001 she has undertaken a research project on the Construction of Childhood. Between 2002-2003 she was president ofAICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art) Austria. Since 2005, she is a curator of documenta 12. Exhibitions (selected): Things we don’t understand (with Roger M. Buergel, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2000), Organisational Form (with Roger M. Buergel, Galerija Skuc, Ljubljana 2002–2003; Galerie der Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig and Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg, 2003). The Government (with Roger M. Buergel, Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg; MACBA-Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Miami Art Central; Secession, Vienna; Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2003–2005).



1 Formen der Organisation, Skuc Galerjia, Ljubljana; Galerie der Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig; Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg, Lüneburg

2 Agamben’s typology distinguishes between two types of gestures: those that are ends in themselves, which he characterizes as ‘ends without means’ or poiesis, and those that he labels ‘means for ends’ or praxis. To these two conventional types he then contrasts a third, radicalized type that he calls ‘means as such’. This last type is distinguished by supporting or spreading something. We refer here to the English version of Agamben’s essay, which he reworked several times. Thus our translation of the terms into German does not correspond exactly to the terminology in the German-speaking world. See Giorgio Agamben “Notes on Gesture” (1992) in Means without End: Notes on Politics (trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2000, p. 49-60

3 Agamben makes the astonishing assertion that the cinematic medium itself is borne by gesture and thus simply does not belong to the realm of aesthetics but rather to realms of ethics and politics. Without wishing to get into greater detail, it should be said that Agamben’s ideas are indebted to Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema. Anja Streiter discusses “Notes on Gesture” from the perspective of film studies in “Doch das Paradies ist verriegelt . . .” in Hemma Schmutz and Tanja Widmann (eds.) Dass die Körper sprechen, auch das wissen wir seit langem / That Bodies Speak Has Been Known for a Long Time, exhibition catalogue Generali Foundation, Vienna; Cologne: König 2004, 49-64

4 This is by no means intended to deny the necessity of alternative narratives and their correlate, the imagination, for ethics or politics.

5 For Agamben, being constructed as a medium does not simply mean that the shaping of one’s own subject is dependent on the media but also that we are human in a very different place than we used to thinking. If we are human-beings- in-the-medium, then it is not simply the image we have of ourselves that is mediated by the media but in being human we find ourselves fundamentally and constantly ‘in mediation’.

6 The socio- political problematic of a construction of the subject that denies its own mediation has been exhaustively discussed in feminist theory of the past thirty years. In the context of playing with boundaries, see the philosophical sketch of an alternative to (feminist) identity politics in Antke Engel Wider die Eindeutigkeit: Sexualität und Geschlecht im Fokus queerer Politik der Repräsentation, Frankfurt am Main: Campus 2002

7 Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack Dinge, die wir nicht verstehen / Things We Don’t Understand exhibition catalogue Generali Foundation, Vienna; Dresden: Verlag der Kunst 1999, p. 89

8 The theoretical backdrop provided by Michel Foucault’s definition of government as a form of the direct exercise of power or as an activity that structures other activities (the field of action of others, see Michel Foucault “The Subject and Power” in Michel Foucault Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd edition, Chicago 1983, p. 221) is far better suited here than Agamben’s concept of action. Hence we took up this idea for our next exhibition Government, Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg; MACBA, Barcelona; Secession, Vienna; Witte de With, Rotterdam 2003-2005


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