The "Exhibition" in Crisis within the System of Art
Art can no longer be thought of as an area located, so to speak, outside of society or as something quite special and different vis-à-vis society. Though the development of modern art has been determined by its ever increasing autonomy, it is exactly this process that has led to the fact that art itself has become an independent social system, that is, an "autonomous society". (1) Many of socialization's essential features, once considered negative, have now been taken on by art in its own right. The autonomy of art is subsequently less threatened from without than it is from within.
The art system, from the beginning, no longer stands in contrast to its milieu. Rather it shares the fate of modern society that, through an increasing differentiation and self-sufficiency, is also a feature of all its subdivisions. The system of art cannot acquire and preserve any autonomy in the classical sense, for example, that formulated by Adorno as "self-sufficiency versus society", (2) but only that of "self-sufficiency within society". (3) Up to now, art's important function as a "critical branch of society" (4) has been automatically forfeited as a result. From now on, any attempt to disclaim this fact must rebound onto itself.
The level of autonomy and differentiation that art has meanwhile achieved allows it to be described in line with the systems theoretical analysis of the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, as an "auto-poietic functional organization". Originally a term in biology, "auto-poiesis" defines the reproductive principle of systems that make "the elements they consist of from the elements they consist of". (5) "Such a transformation of elements into elements are called an operation, and the term, auto-poiesis, thus states that a system is made up of operations that it produces itself." (6) "Everything that functions in the system as a unity, is given its unity by the system itself." (7)
The auto-poietic way the art system functions in no way causes its hermetic isolation. On the contrary it allows art "to develop an especially rich relation to its milieu" (8) that proceeds by way of communication. Like the economic system which is not based on goods but on payments, or the legal system which is not based on courts but on normative expectations, in the end the art system is founded on special types of communication. Since these have the character of events and not of objects, art works - contrary to the common assumption - cannot be counted as the final, non-decomposable elements in the art system.
For art to be maintained, only communication needs to function, whereas everything else assumes a secondary rank as a necessary condition for communication. Consequently the function of what was previously called a "work" has changed. It now consists of initiating a specific communication and keeping it going. In so far as the "work" gives the act of communicating a common object, it organizes participation in the communication, reduces its arbitrariness and regulates the expectations of the communicative participant. What distinguishes art is no longer the fact that it is made up of an arrangement of structures. Rather it evolves first of all by way of communicative processes, in which the artist's materializations have an instrumental part to play.
Though its own type of successful communication is a crucial condition for art's self-reproduction or auto-poiesis, if and how communication functions is still essentially dependent on the works. Even if their significance has been relativized in the sense that they are no longer the actual, existential forms of art but are simply the artistic end-products, they have not lost their importance. That such "works" fulfill their communicative function in the art system is, however, determined by if and how they make their presence felt therein.
Exhibitions continue to be the dominant form for presenting art works. Not until works are exhibited in some form or other can they become a factor in the art system. If the works as communication programs are, so to speak, the art system's software, the exhibitions can be seen as the driver behind the software, its OPERATING SYSTEM. This sees to it that the hardware's different programs, such as the art institutions, do their job and unfold their communicative capability. From computer technology we know, without wanting to belabor the analogy, that the quality of the operating systems determines the performance of the programs. For this reason the job of putting on an exhibition is seen as an independent artistic achievement and has, meanwhile, not only been highlighted, but the curator's status as a kind of meta-artist accepted and anticipated. But beyond the mere exercise of power, the curators have hardly been able to justify this anticipation, at least not as regards its qualitative aspect.
Ever since the "continuity of art", by reason of its autonomy, no longer "has been integrated into the social structure and therefore guaranteed," (10) the dysfunctionalism that can be seen everywhere in the operating system, that is, the "exhibition", threatens not only the attributes of art known today, but also their survival. This can come about by an intensification in the crisis-susceptibility of modern art when, on the one hand, works continue to be produced in a traditional way for exhibitions and when, on the other, by a lack of alternatives, there is a failure to develop other operating systems. This risky and negative cycle can only be breached with great difficulty. Because the underlying concept in art and its practice is still the main factor, the essence of art is inherent in the specific material qualities of the object. These last are identified with art's being. The idea that aesthetic experience is directly mediated through a suitable presentation and the simple scrutiny of such objects is one that essentially determines the art process. As before, exhibiting such works in "white cubes", that is, in rooms exclusively designed for this purpose, is seen as an authentic form for publicizing and perceiving art.
However, when art is transposed into being a process of communication, time replaces space as the decisive factor. Art is no longer bound to certain objects and places, and neither the room nor the form the exhibition takes continue to be predestined to mediate art. Which can, in principle, take place anywhere. The whole public realm has turned into a locality for art. It remains for art to choose between different public arenas, each with its own communicative conditions. Art today no longer lives in the works but through the communication about the productions that are called works. Wherever such a communication arises that can generate a total structure, there art can set up its production. In this sense, the conventional "exhibition" is not an art-processing operational system but an object-fixated machinery by means of which art produced elsewhere is simply reproduced or even only represented.
If art-production and work-production are no longer equated, aesthetic experience can be effectuated in a communicative process. A characteristic of this process is that it takes place between the viewers by means of the works and not contemplatively between the viewers and the works. In any case the question as to quality, which systems theory likes to pass over, needs to be posed anew: artistic quality, which is especially crucial in deciding whether something is art or not, then becomes dependent on the quality of the communication. In this respect, however, art cannot only be a matter of communication per se, but is a matter of its own process, one clearly distinct in form and content.
It is not the job of theory to draw conclusions from these reflections or develop strategies for aesthetic activity, for example, how communications between artists, other art professionals and laymen could come about. Nor is it possible to define theoretically what aesthetic communication could or should concretely be. But some other basic aspects to put into practice can be named:
1. The paradigmatic change from the historically traditional autonomous to he-autonomous and communicative art is only possible if the "exhibition" as art's operating system is further developed and surpassed. For that, a first step could be a more intense dedication to the communication between the works. For the decisive and genuinely relational importance of one work is partly determined by the other works surrounding it in an exhibition. That they do not mutually blot each other out but at least co-exist is all the more probable if the works are produced in situ in a process of artistic communication between the professional participants. The individual configurations would then result from the forms the participants found for their inter-communication. This obviously requires both producers and public to consent to a new understanding of artistic work, one that is free from the formerly valid definition of autonomy.
2. If art is only to become possible through communication, the cycle of extreme self-referentiality must be broken. Instead of reflecting solely on a work's placement in an imaginary museum, the whole complex of artistic practice should correlate with the actual conditions under which art can be mediated. This could mean, for instance, the inclusion of certain sites or persons and other specific communicative factors in the artistic calculation. Reference points and motivations for aesthetic communication can all the more readily be found, the more the context of everyday objects and needs is taken into account. By incorporating such outside references, we can overcome the hermeticism of autonomous art and its forms of exhibition.
The example that I have chosen is called "Systems for Mobile Communications" that was realized as an exhibition of the Kunstverein Celle in the castle there. The project, conceived and realized by the artist Jörg Brombacher from Karlsruhe, is an especially suitable one for detailed commentary on a new model for an exhibition, since the theoretical discussion on the problematics of the exhibition between Brombacher, the video artist H.P. Karl Dimke and myself as curator and author flowed directly into this "correlative work". The heart of the matter under discussion was the following:
As with music where less attention is now paid to the compositions than to the way they are performed, so are with art the individual works overridden by the exhibition itself. How a work appears aesthetically is mostly determined by its staging in the context of the exhibition. What often happens is that the single work is dominated by the architectural surroundings and thus relativized, even negated. Or single works become so self-sufficient - for instance with the help of their own exhibition architecture - that it is the exhibition that is destroyed as an entity. A basic intention of the present project was to avoid this dilemma.
For this reason the artistic work from the beginning was conceived so that it was a totality identical with the exhibition. There were no single objects that were shown in the exhibition, but the exhibition as a whole was the aesthetic object. Not only was the architecture of the room incorporated, but the artistic decisions were also made according to the character of the historical building, its site and other situational and atmospheric peculiarities. No other interests but exclusively aesthetic ones played a role, whether conceptually, formally, content-wise, materially or technically.
Of course, the basic understanding of aesthetics here was one not primarily oriented toward traditional values such as truth, beauty, sublimity, distinctiveness, originality or modernity but toward communicability as its highest maxim. This objective was not simply fulfilled by having the work come about in a communicative way in correspondence with the site and a discourse between three authors who had each taken over a specific and partial, artistic function. It was above all a question of making the exhibition into a totality for the viewer that could generate communication, proceeding from the idea that production and reception need to correspond.
For communication to succeed - as systems theory would formulate it - joint "observations" are a prerequisite. Equally, the crux as well as the success of an exhibition depends on making observations possible. This common ground predestines "observation" to be the theme of any exhibition interested in aesthetic communication. In contrast to conventional exhibitions, the observation is not directed at the presented objects, out of which in the best of cases a fictive dialogue could arise and for which classic aesthetics has coined the term contemplation. Instead making "observation" the theme means that not the objects but observation itself is observed, by which the probability of actual communication is raised considerably.
In this respect the installations in the exhibition are not to be thought of as aesthetic objects but serve as instruments for observation. The funnel-like, telescope-tubes made of sheet steel and hung in wooden frames are instruments conceived in such a way that their use enables you to watch watching. This is, for one, possible because, by looking through the tubes, other persons also acting as observers become visible who - because of certain devices at the windows which allow this - might even be outside the exhibition rooms. When your glance falls on a person who is occupied in observing something that remains hidden from others, your natural curiosity is awakened. The operation of watching watching, which theoretically appears to be difficult, is in practice easily accomplished with no additional motivations or explanations.
Further, observation becomes observable without losing sight of the other observers: the museum-goers can decide with a few touches of their fingers on the telescope-tube (or the hardware) to call up a choice of text and video programs as software, by means of which different aspects of the act of observing come under reflection theoretically and are taught practically. This can occur because of an interplay between statements and questions that also evoke the connection between art, communication and observation. On insertable, transparent disks like over-sized slides, texts can be read that are arranged typographically to affect the eye. For instance:
"Art originates from a process of aesthetic observation. - What do you observe?
"Art objects are apparatuses for aesthetic observation. - Who's observing you?"
"Observation is based on differentiation. - What is your criteria for differentiating?"
"If art first originates from observation, can it be un-observable? - Then what?"
Theme: OBSERVATION / Tablets (Brombacher), textual version
1.1a: How is art otherwise possible except by way of observation and by participation in communication, when there is no direct contact between spirit and matter?
1.1b: The prerequisite for every communication is that the viewers mutually observe each other.
1.2a: Art originates from a process of aesthetic observation. Close up you can observe other things than from afar. Why don't you give up your distance?
1.2b: Each observation is alone made possible by that which always and completely remains invisible.
1.3a: You especially use art as an instrument to observe art. How can it also become a medium for free observation?
1.3b: That which remains invisible can only become overt by communication between the observers.
2.1a: Art originates from a process of aesthetic observation.
2.1b: What do you observe?
2.1a: Art objects are aesthetic observation apparatuses
2.2a: Art objects are apparatuses for aesthetic observation
2.2b: Who's observing you?
2.2a Observations are based on differentiations.
2.3a: Observations are based on differentiations.
2.3b: Why do you observe?
2.3a: Differences are made according to certain schemata
2.4a: The capability of choice between different schemata is the prerequisite for aesthetic observation.
2.4b: What is your criteria for differentiating?
3.1a: While you are reading this, you are being observed.
3.1b: By whom?
3.2a: While you are observing yourself reading, you cannot observe anything else.
3.2b: Or can you?
3.3a: After you have observed yourself reading, you observe others.
3.3b: Doing what?
3.4a: If art first originates from observation, can it be un-observable?
3.4b: Then what???
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