It’s title is a reference to the idea of soft power, as well as the 80s British New Wave band Soft Cell, while suggesting “a padded cell and by extension the panoptic gaze of the state or the institution.” Also referencing Benjamin H. Bratton‘s reverse panopticon effect as ‘exhibitionism in bad faith,’ where one understands they’re being watched but acts as if they’re not, the show looks at architecture, as it is employed within commercial and museum settings. It thus places emphasis on ‘surface, image and display,’ while rendering us “passive consumers and impotent political agents.”
“Diderot’s account is a very romantic, early form of art criticism,” writes Maximilian Schmoetzer in an email about one of the many inspirations on his latest solo exhibition, And then masses of detached stones and other accessories common to the genre. Running at Berlin’s ROOM E-10 27 at Center from March 17 to April 30, the installation of objects and a video draws on the 18th century philosopher’s writing on art and the salons of 1767, along with a book by the architect — and Diderot contemporary — Giovanni Battista Borra. The show also examines the destruction of the Roman Arch of Triumph at Palmyra in Syria by ISIS, the extinction of the Northern Bald Ibis, native to the ruins, and an exhibition animation featuring a baking soda box walking through a 3D scanned reproduction of the arch in New York. Then there’s a pillow fight in London’s Trafalgar Square, and a rally by German Nationalists, Pegida, in Dresden. These are but a few of a series of potentially unrelated themes and events that, when viewed together, make a lot of sense.
Schmoetzer’s work often assembles seemingly disparate elements to express a common idea — that idea being one of techno-colonialism. It emerges in Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ symphony-as-allegory to the empty heroics and late-capitalist destruction of GoPro slogans and Red Bull Stratos space-dives in ‘Preliminary Material for 2022’ (2016). Or, the discovery of a new avian species, instigated by a weather disruption, that was in turn discovered by the artist in a spontaneous shift in exhibition preparation for his A rare bird in Estonia(2016). The random diversion of the Fox Sparrow’s migratory habits matches the accidental misdirection of a DHL artwork delivery for the show in Tallinn, followed by a six-week delay and parallel pattern: a strange coincidence.
“I took the title from Denis Diderot’s TheSalon of 1767,” Schmoetzer tells me, about the sentence from the 18th century French text that became And then masses of detached stones… “He describes the ancient ruins of Palmyra based on drawings by artist Giovanni Battista Borra from the book The Ruins of Palmyra. Borra’s drawings depicted the earliest known images of Palmyra and display a variety of architectural details that inspired architects and artists across Europe.” Channeling a cultural history of reproductions and appropriations, Schmoetzer’s work lambasts the fields of western science, advertising, entertainment, politics and, of course, contemporary art as sites of colonial production; where a 3D-modelled reconstruction of the Monumental Arch of Palmyra would complete a ‘world tour’ of London, New York and Dubai, before being returned to where it came from in Syria.
These are just some of the associations that Schmoetzer makes in a body of work whose themes he’s ambivalent toward; ones where the notion of intensity, as well as ideology and modern warfare circle back to Diderot’s Enlightenment, a philosopher credited with incorporating the world’s knowledge in the first general encyclopaedia to describe the mechanical arts. “I chose it as I concluded,” he says, about the moment a Diderot quote became his exhibition title, “So, in a way, it gave a finality to the work.”
** There appears to be a particular kind of networked syntax you use in your work, a number of associations that draw on several ideas and relationships at once. Do you have a clear lexicon you draw on, or is that something that’s still consciously abstract in your own mind?
Maximilian Schmoetzer: Yes and no. I have something like a script in mind. It’s always a mess to begin with, and to some extent, I want it to be less messy and that is probably what keeps me going: creating a mess and tidying up. At some point I know it’s clean enough. It’s important for me contextualise the ambivalence that is present in my work by adding another layer that is not necessarily part of it.
I wrote a short text in preparation for the show, which needs to be reworked, but eventually it will be issued in a publication that Jelena Seng, Thomas Butler and I are planning on producing. The publication’s premise is to address and expand on philosopher Tristan Garcia’s 2015 essay La Vie Intense. Une obsession moderne (‘An Intense Life. A modern obsession’). Thomas will contribute a text that directly addresses Garcia’s book and uses it as context to discuss ideology, modern warfare, and contemporary art practices. We invited other writers to contribute work that will be loosely centered around this notion of intensity.
** Birds are a recurring motif in your work, is there something about them in particular that draws you to them as a subject? I’m seeing an evolutionary connection between birds and dinosaurs, then humans via extinction myself…
MS: I don’t really engage with evolutionary ideas in my work. In A rare bird in Estonia, I stumbled upon a report about an unlikely bird sighting in the country during my preparations, which I referenced. Bizarrely, DHL managed to send my show to Spain instead of Estonia. It took them six weeks to retrieve the package and they eventually spat it out in Berlin without notice. The first date for the show had to be cancelled. Funnily enough, during the preparations for the current show at Room E-10 27 / Center, another bird fell victim to DHL. Only, in this case, it was actually a piece of clay and I can’t really blame DHL for the loss, but poor packaging.
However, for the show at Center, I use the story of the now extinct Syrian colony of the Northern Bald Ibis. Its disappearance more or less coincides with the destruction of the cultural heritage of Palmyra, Syria. This story would need a longer explanation, but, in a nutshell, I introduce these elements (the destroyed heritage and the bird). Both went extinct at a point of rupture, when the geopolitical and ecological crossed paths and went awry. These fugitive entities oscillate between the binaries of us and them, refusal and complicity, aesthetics and politics, nature and culture, extinction and preservation. By interlocking both disembodiments (the arch and the bird) my project embarks on a migration in which, strangely enough, virtual (re-)creation and physical materialisation, historical references and recent events coincide.
In the end, birds are innocuous agents as source material for artistic work. Having said that, a kind of endearing anthropomorphisation (or transplantation) of natural processes into the banality of my world view incentivises my ‘bird-y’ approach.
** There has always been something quite visually striking about your work, also super-creepy, I wonder what your thoughts are on your position within a certain ‘post-corporate aesthetic,’ if you will, that your work pulls against?
MS: For me there’s a whiff of anachronism to corporate aesthetics. In that sense the ‘post-‘ is already inherent, deep within the roots of these aesthetics. The next step is actually to uproot it and have a look at it on a speculative level, because from this perspective a dissonance can emerge. I would say that the allegorical use of a dinosaur is a shortcut that collapses time, which is important for me as a video artist. Natural history, in its fossilised state, becomes artificially resurrected dinosaurs by means of technology and is capitalised on as a product by cultural industries.
Of course, we have to accept this limited reading of natural history as a container for outmoded ideas that is recyclable. Then it becomes literally an pan-optical eye of technology staring back at us. Ultimately, the dinosaur is clearly an allegorical agent with a certain use-value. It’s a commodity and it fluctuates between obsolescence and the critique of it.
** On the point of this tension, you are clearly highly-skilled at graphics and video, a sought-after quality in the advertising world, for example, how does your work critically site itself within this space?
MS: I gained a lot of experience while working for other artists or art institutions. Yet, I’m successfully resisting advertisement jobs. Luckily, I don’t have problems finding work in the art field. I hope it stays like this as long as I’m dependent upon it. However, as of late, I feel a bit trapped in regard to my personal work, so I’m diligently unlearning some of it at the moment.
** The theme of this exhibition feels like the most literal one to date, drawing strong connections and parallels between the extinction of a species, human self-destruction and colonial narratives writing and re-writing themselves, what sparked this shift from abstraction?
MS: I wouldn’t call it a shift from abstraction. That’s simply not the case. Throughout my previous artistic practice, I have explored the narrative and visual patterns, presets and design used in science, advertising, entertainment and politics. I’m currently invested in the subject of what I claim to be a wave of a techno-colonialism armed with 3D scanning and printing technology. A phenomena that situates itself — via its use of algorithms — at the intersection between digital files and physical objects.
A case that warrants particular attention is the digitally-reproduced copy of the triumphal arch leading towards the Temple of Bel in Syria. The arch project was conducted by the Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) in conjunction with Harvard and Oxford Universities, and the government of the United Arab Emirates. The original 1,800-year-old arch of triumph on the colonnaded main street was blown to pieces by members of ISIS during their 10-month occupation of the site. The IDA’s facsimile arch stood in London for three days before travelling to New York in mid-September. It will be sent to Arona in Italy and Dubai in 2017, and then eventually back to Palmyra after its world tour. The replica itself was generated by collating hundreds of images, and it was constructed at two-thirds the size of the original. Even taking into account the stated fidelity of the copy to the original, it’s hard not to perceive this fake as an unfortunate attempt of war propaganda to cash in on a symbolic victory over terrorism.
** Potentially relating to this, and perhaps this question is too direct, but in your ‘Preliminary Material for 2022’ video, Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ composition plays, with some critics suggesting the wolf represented the threat of fascism in the 1930s. In the context of the video and when it was made, presumably in mid-to-late 2015, it felt more related to the threat of capitalism, but it appears that the connection to nationalism now is far more literal. And yet, both concepts are still related, contemporary capitalism and nationalism. Is that something you considered in producing and then looking back at this work?
MS: Yes, true. While I was working on the video, my intentions where certainly to unpick the idea of heroism and its strange afterlife within capitalism. ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is a classic children’s story with a young hero. As a kid, I listened to the record at my grandmother’s and I always felt sorry for the wolf for some reason. Back then I didn’t understand the underlying juxtaposition between the wolf and fascism. However, during this kind of unresolved showdown moment in my video, when the cameras are facing each other, we hear the Prokofiev’s theme of the wolf playing.
Of course, GoPro’s slogan ‘be a hero’ is everything but the actual possibility of heroism. It is marketing, but literally, the consumer as hero and empty shell for fleeting branding strategies. The hero has shifted to an accelerated stimulation on the surface of things in art, culture, advertisement and so on. This is something that I had in mind while producing the work. Last, but not least, the stupidity of all this white male heroism explored in the video is something I aim to unpick. ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is a fascinating example of how deep the rabbit hole of this kind of heroism goes, and how I got instilled with all of this as a kid.**
There is no information to accompany the show save for a sketch of a small street winding off into the distance with a cat lying in the road. The two Berlin-based artists have worked previously together in 2014 for a show called Phobismus [transl. Phobia] and in 2012 for a show titled Mercy for Objects that took place in the now closed Terminal Projects in New York.
It appears both artists work delicately with drawing and painting on varying papers, silk, or found and provincial surfaces to create tender feelings and illustrations that sit somewhere between representing emotion and avoiding all meaning and exact placement at all.
Agatha 184.108.40.206 takes place in two parts. Split across Center, Berlin, and the Berlin Hilton, the project explores the possibilities created by Agatha Valkyrie Ice; a post-gender, digital-only figure, given form in ‘Chapter 1’ through sculptures, digital prints and scents, and in ‘Chapter 2’, the carefully-staged cavorting of a cast of pastel-clad androdgynous nymphs, sharing a room in the Berlin Hilton with themselves and further works.
‘Chapter 1’ was exhibited at Center, from the April 2 to 23; uncompromisingly synthetic materials providing the canvas for similarly un-artisanal modes of production, with PVC as a canvas for digital prints, lasercut cabling casing above careful messes of odour – patchouli and Red Bull, dead flowers and bathwater.
Each chapter carefully references the other; the Hilton logo appearing in wall-based prints, spoiled bath-towels coiled in the patches of disorder that seem to illustrate the prints and sculptures they lie beside. They’re the outcome of a collaboration between Berlin-based artists Clémence de la Tour du Pin,Dorota Gawedaand Egle Kulbokaite. A shared preoccupation with the reshuffling of conventional exhibition spaces sees them co-opting the styled, gauche anonymity of a semi-luxury hotel room in ‘Chapter 2’, for a performance/exhibition that exists only in its online documentation.
Skinny boys and girls in turtle-necks preen and sniff one another – the specially made smells (contributed by International Flavors & Fragrances) that constitute part of the controlled messes in ‘Chapter 1’ clearly at play here – in an environment totally and consciously removed from sensory physical experience. The other artworks blend in with the stainless steel and marble effect well enough that the ubiquitous uncanny of the hotel room is thrown into starker-than normal relief, through the screen. **
The show’s press release comes in the form of an all-caps rambling description of an unknown narrator’s first trip on Jimson weed seeds that begins at a party and ends in a mental coffin somewhere on his/her friend’s couch the next day.
Berlin’s Center is bringing in a new project called Agatha 220.127.116.11, running at their Kurfürstenstraße location from April 2 to April 23.
The project takes on the construction of an ‘open source’ post-gender character named Agatha, the Latinized form of the Greek name Agathe, meaning “good”, and the main character of a Cornelius Cardew story with the same name.
‘Agatha’ exists through a ‘performative film script’, kept alive in multiple hands and existing virtually through online networks, and the exhibition itself consists of two scenes from this script. Joining Kulbokaite and Gaweda in the project is Clémence de La Tour du Pin, who will be appropriating the character for approximately one year, and who recently worked with Adrien Figeac of Coty Inc. as well as five perfumers from IFF NYC to develop a smell for the avatar.
In the sparsely furnished, dimly lit hall on the third floor of an enormous dilapidated house, bed frames are loosely arranged around ornate plaster columns in irregular rows. The reference to an orphanage, or a dormitory is immediate and obvious, yet the recurrence of digital printing and a wall-mounted flat screen brings your thoughts back to the Berlin art scene.
EDENunlimited/tbc.tbc is a collaborative project by artists Clémence de La Tour du Pin and Antoine Renard and the curators Elise Lammer and Emiliano Pistacchi. It pulls together sound and installation works of 19 artist from 13 contributing not-for-profit spaces. The show holds a strong aesthetic reference to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster‘s TH.2058 show, which imagined Tate Modern 50 years into the future as a post-apocalyptic shelter, an installation housing rows of bare metal bed frames and remnants of personal effects. Despite the reference though, experiencing EDENunlimited will not be like walking through the eerily deserted isles of an abandoned ward.
Emphasising audio, each of the 13 installation pieces on show have its own aural composition. Technology varies, ranging from a pair of subwoofers, that seem to be hooked up to two-stroke engine oil, erratically amplifying dialogue from de La Tour du Pin and Renard’s ‘I Do It So It Feels Real’ (2014); to a variety of dinky portable MP3 docks; to several straggly in-ear headphone sets. At the far end of the room, a performer reinterprets Jacques Roger’s ‘Audio File’ (2014) on an acoustic guitar. His quiet strumming rises above the conglomerate noise of the show evaporating gently a moment or two later. In addition, the general sound system, a constantly changing, continuous layer in the exhibition ambience, throws a shroud over the space, at times dominating, or sublimating to, the individual pieces.
Selected by Switzerland’s SALTS, Hannah Weinberger‘s moody track featuring samples of running water, dripping pipes and hollow plumbing, ‘Hi’ (2013), evokes moisture and dankness. It lends itself to the damp old walls that house the exhibition. Occasional sound bites emerging from Andrew Birk & Ian Swanson‘s ‘Road Poets Flip Chasm’ (2014), pull and push perception in unexpected directions. A low hush of digital static in the space sounds like insects. A voice advises, “you imagine the smell of it … life feels like static … life feels like not life … like a cot in an institution”. Electric prickles run over your skin like the static ghosts of bed bugs and roaches. A digital reminiscence of this corporeal imagination of the tiny horrors that lurk in dormitories, scabies, lice, contagious skin conditions; digital pricks and burns experienced by those with electromagnetic sensitivity. “You can feel the analogue is about to break.” In this case it is the digital that is breaking, janky systems that run low on battery, or having been set in energy-saver mode are drifting off to sleep.
According to the project brief, “contributing art spaces were selected following a set of secret yet random criteria.” Though we will likely never learn the “secret criteria” on which the show is premised. This exhibition evokes intimacy, it is about revealing what is initially hidden.
Like finding a colony of holographic ants on the underside of a log, each piece in EDENunlimited must be discovered. You crouch against the wall by Aimee Heinemann‘s ‘Greek & Roman Mythology 2003: World Aquaculture & Apocalypse Narratives’ (2014), invited by UK’s Almanac, insert a pod or two into your aural orifices and tune into Heinemann’s voice. Following a lilting narrative, it transports you somewhere else, into a magical wikipedia of bodies and psychologies and smoky experimental skies, the voice tells you, “Strange Galaxies”.
From one thin bare mattress to the next, the exhibition winds through a series of simulated privacies. A text printed on silk, ‘Bind To’ (2014) by V4ULT’s Anna Mikkola and Hanna Nilsson, hangs, shower-curtain-like as an imperfect partition between pieces. Coming upon Jacent Varoym‘s ‘La Sieste (Abyssus Abyssum Invocat)’ (2014), a scene strewn with clothing, a half-drunk glass of wine and a plate of curry wurst, confronting and embarrassing you with these abject remnants of life. Visitors to the space sit on beds and talk in hushed tones. Everywhere you walk, you feel like you’re interrupting. You stop by Andrea Lukic‘s, ‘Who Will Let Her Hair Down When I Cannot Sing My Heart’ (2014) and poke the grimy nub of an earphone into your ear to discover the sound of fire crackling from the imitation flames of wood, pebbles and light bulbs. Though the intimacies are calculated, their simulated viscera is tangible.**
Left to the elements, artworks are vulnerable to weathering, theft or destruction. Scattered across the Grunewald nature reserve on the Western outskirts of Berlin, the first intervention of Stoneroses – an ongoing project by Santiago Taccetti and Mirak Jamal in collaboration with Center for Project Space Festival Berlin -is subject to the same conditions. Though it will be documented and posted online, much of what will take place during the exhibition will not be witnessed. With no scheduled ending, no maps and no physical bounds, one may view Stoneroses by joining one of their tours, or by stumbling upon it.
At the tour meeting point, some visitors wait with blissful expressions, not noticing the time. Others wave their smartphones around in the air and bitch about connectivity until the second tour kicks-off, one and a half hours later than advertised. The show exists in a state of flux, the results of which will be seen, the causes largely imagined, its contingency is virtual.
In a grass clearing between the glittering dune – a remnant of the area’s former incarnation as a sand mine – and a small lake, a common house plant emerges from a swirl of freshly turned earth. Among the muted greens of the native foliage surrounding it, Steffen Bunte‘s decorative perennial looks conspicuous, almost artificial. Its green gives off a toxic glare and the dark sandy earth exposed by its recent installation looks purple against the plastic sheen of its stem. The plant’s leaves are laser engraved with product descriptions from the BMW i electric and hybrid car division. Slick slogans, ‘pure impulse’, ‘life modul’, ‘eco resort’, ‘add-on mobility’ become stand-ins for an urban attitude towards nature. Though made of the same ‘materials’, the urbanite has the feeling of being extraneous or even toxic to the ‘natural environment’. The impression is a posture, an attitude of plastic.
Several hundred metres away and dangling on a wire strung from a branch is Aleksander Hardashnakov‘s ‘Freud Diablo 1’. A few objects twist and turn; the red blade of a circular saw, metal washers, something that looks like a piece of cuttlefish or a mango seed wrapped in gauze. The materiality is rustic, it suits the nature around it, so much so that against the texture and noise of the forest – the leafy undergrowth and optical trickery of shapes in nature – the work sways, limply dissolving into the scene.
We walk on.
A herd of colourful joggers pass by. Our attention turns skywards. Tethered high to the long straight trunks of several pine trees is “World is all of one skin” a work by Ivana Basic. Several cushions are fixed to pole-like tree trunks with wide elastic straps that cinch the cushions through their middles, giving them the posture of a body being slogged in the guts. Basic has marked the satin cushion covers, of an indefinite, visceral colour, with inkjet prints of patterns from her own skin. Their colour, a purplish tone not usually associated with a forest landscape, accords to certain hues of the pine trunks and yet their texture and their fabric pops off the bark. They have the quality of exposure. As if they were objects that have been yanked from the tree’s interior and placed out on display.
The din of trailing conversations is covered by the sound of leaves crushing underfoot. Laid on the forest floor, Jamal’s two part work, ‘Walks in the park – Screenshot 6:20’ is in a process of embedding itself into the scene. As video abstracted into sculpture, the pieces – depicting a negative and a positive of the same distilled image – play with binary as a process of convergence/divergence. The first piece, cast in MDF, is set into the dry leaf floor as if it had been uncovered there. It has a fossil-like quality. The other piece, cast in resin, cracks and crumbles like a non-biodegradable polymer sheet. Both pieces point to an idea about lasting through time.
Almost immediately we come across Taccetti’s ‘Everything that isn’t me’. White plastic rip-ties fixed around tree branches somewhat mimic the trees own spindly brown limbs, jutting out at obtuse angles, mixing in with foliage of other plants to form layered patterns against the sky. The more recent adjunct, unlike the tree’s own, organic, appendages, are straight, white and plastic; reminiscent of prosthetic limbs. Each plastic strip is laser-engraved with the work’s title. Taccetti tells us that this was Einstein’s response to the question, “what is the environment?”, and that this sentence is something of a marker for the entire project. The binary pretends to offer an unambiguous idea of ‘nature’, yet the definition is constantly shifting. From your own perspective you are not ‘environment’, for everybody else, you are.
Walking from piece to piece, nature and art battle for attention. Anything (other than you) could be an artwork; a pock-marked ant-hill, a mossy log, a cluster of yellow mushrooms. At first, the sounds of electric guitar riffs come across as another native element of the forest. We pass by Rubén Grilo‘s jokey riff on the proverb, “If a tree falls in a forest” with his work ‘If Nobody Laughs’ depicting adjacent trees sharing a flat joke about pigs, at an accelerating pace. Perhaps it is the time of day, or perhaps it is to do with our proximity to coeval.gen.in (Clemence de La Tour du Pin and Antoine Renard)’s ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ a continuous six-hour performance of a guitarist practising Slayer songs.
The forest and the tour starts feeling hectic, epic. Nuzzling a papery log, Anthony Salvador‘s ‘http://goo.gl/maps/yeqU3 (I come from a long line of death)’, looks like something somebody has left behind. A time capsule of found objects in a semi-opaque plastic bag. Someone pokes at the objects inside, “a rear-view mirror… sand… is that a dead frog?” We leave the frenzy behind. Sandra Vaka Olsen‘s ‘Transfer Stick Leaf’, two copper sculptures stretch from the ground, bending over ferns like an echo. The sleek metal forms are bedecked with abstract, green toned UV epoxy prints of a leaf with water drops. The piece plays with the aesthetics of what it will become, when the copper oxidises, when it will be covered in morning dew. The piece looks magical, harmonious now, when the sun goes down it will glow.
Returning to ‘base’ the sky is ablaze. A new group is waiting for the next tour. One visitor drains the dregs of red wine from his plastic cup, casts a gaze into the darkening pine forest and says, “Blair Witch project space…” Leaving the reserve, the experience of the exhibition’s final installation, ‘Finding something nice while looking for something else’ by Zuzanna Czebatul, is everything that it promises to be. A heavy concrete bench, standing at the mouth of the forest. **
Berlin, it is widely known, is a global centre of the “emerging” artist, even if said artist doesn’t emerge from his nightlife long enough to see the sun. And the city, now nearly profligate with pop-up project spaces, has decided to dedicate an entire summer month to nothing but. In what (in retrospect) seems a curiously belated move, Berlin celebrates its inaugural Project Space Festival Berlin, inviting 30 of these sites throughout the city to open their doors with a different surprise event scheduled for each day of August.
To open the festival, the Import Projects curatorial initiative screened Austrian artist Ursula Mayer’s contemporary art film, ‘Gonda’ (2012), written by Belfast-born writer Maria Fusco and partially shot in a real-life smoking volcano. The event, titled Vibration / Frequency / Substance, was followed by a conversation between Mayer and curator Nadim Samman, discussing the artist’s approach to narrative structure and notions of the “queer audience”. Despite the seeming abundance of art events on any given night in Berlin, the screening ran past capacity, dozens of nodding heads spilling out of the small room and straining to see amid mid-20s Berlin.
As with anything amalgamating 30 distinct artistic ideologies and practices, Project Space has the potential to be diverse at best, disjointed at worst. Following Import Projects’ Friday film screening, the festival’s opening weekend introduced Agora‘s ‘Stravaganza’, a group performance installation involving, among other things, a man in a billowy white dress that stretched across the Neukölln space’s garden, as well as tête‘s culinary art event, Hors d’œuvre: The Secondary Concern.
By mostly only revealing events for the first two weeks of the festival, Project Space forges ahead with an air of last-minute mystery. Some of the venues –such as the Selda Asal-founded Apartment Project (one of the first artist initiatives in Turkey) –have yet to announce their events, and all that’s left to go on is the promise of eclecticism laid along the conceptual platform of the project space.