IKT Siena Conference: lecture Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife - June2001

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This short essay is connected to the IKT (IKT - International association of curators of contemporary art) lecture presented in Siena in June 2001, titled "Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife". This lecture addresses the do's and don't of art in the public realm, and the highly specific tools one needs to cope with the benevolent (or malevolent, for that matter) properties of the public realm in all its intricacies.

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IKT Siena Conference: lecture Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife - June2001

  1. 1. Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife Availability and Appropriation - an extended function of Art in the City Victorinox Inc., based in the town of Ibach-Schwyz, Switzerland, manufactures the Swiss Champ Swiss army knife. There are thirty-three functions and sixty- four individual parts concentrated in this knife, which weighs one hundred and eighty-five grams. It takes four hundred and fifty manufacturing steps to make a single Swiss Champ Swiss army knife. The Swiss army knife is a statement incarnate about hybridization, densification and multifunctionality. If an icon needs to be found that represents an extended function of art in the city, the Swiss Army Knife is a Swiss Champ. Some five hundred meters from here Ambrogio Lorenzetti created his frescoes in the Sala dei Nove. These stunning allegories of good and bad government suc- ceed in condensing universal laws of cause and effect into one monumental dis- play, surrounding the nucleus of the Siennese city republic. Outside, the Piazza del Campo slants gradually towards the Palazzo Pubblico, causing rainwater to flow towards the building where once a unique social and political experiment came to development. The Piazza is materialization in stone of what Lorenzetti conveys in the ‘The Good City-Republic’: the fertility of water merges with the fertility of good government. In sum, art was profoundly political and politics were profoundly artful in the days of the Siennese republic. The Piazza del Campo and Lorenzetti’s frescoes are the reflection of a new Ren- aissance order. Within this order each individual’s position in society was clearly defined, including that of the artist. We all marvel at Siena’s well-preserved buil- dings, palazzi and public spaces, but at the same time one should always be aware under what circumstances city states like Siena were developed. Socially, politically and physically the city of Siena remained proudly independent, until its hard-won status quo was overrun by the powers that be in Tuscany. Nowadays the powers that be create a multitude of different urban and architec- tural scenarios. Between historical reconstructions in European cities on the one hand and the rampant building boom in Chinese and Latin American cities on the other, there is a multitude of emerging urban scenarios. It seems as if the hybri- dization of the world population reflects itself in a hybridization of the city as a li- ving organism. Basically my lecture centers around this very question: what are the instruments one needs in order to shape one’s surroundings, one’s houses, one’s artworks? In 1977 I found a partial answer to this question in ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’, a seminal book written by the American architect Robert Venturi. The title conveys the essences of the book: complexity can be a quality, and con-
  2. 2. tradiction can be an asset to a building or an artwork. In his book Venturi shows the way in which architects and artists develop new conceptual and material in- struments to redefine both their profession, their attitude, and as a result, their buildings and artworks. Basically Venturi advocates a both/and attitude, a simul- taneity of urban and architectural spaces: spaces acting as multi-interpretable statements about space, both in the cognitive and physical sense of the word. Somehow this book is a plea to adapt the instruments of architect and artist to the newly developed status of both the private and public domain, and as such to the social implications of one’s undertakings. Much has changed since the publication of Venturi’s book. The practices of archi- tecture and city planning have become as hybrid as the cities themselves. Apart from the new Asian economical zones where the private and public domains are clearly defined, and in the American gated communities where the ‘collective’ pri- vate domain of a happy frightened few is shielded from the outside world, the borderline between public and private evaporates rapidly. Also the relationship between city and landscape becomes more and more liquid, especially in densely populated countries such as the Netherlands. The more liquefied and complex the public domain becomes, the more hybrid the practice of city planners, architects, and artists. Leafing through Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL one cannot escape the impression that Koolhaas deals with the city as an organism in continuous transformation, not only with respect to architecture and city planning, but with respect to visual culture at large. Availability > Service In the midst of these many-faceted developments the artist makes himself avail- able to the world. This so-called availability is based on the artist’s frame of refe- rence, and his ability to merge sensitively and intelligently with any given physical or conceptual context. This context is either chosen by the artist himself, or of- fered to him by others. To a high degree the instruments the artist chooses from in the contemporary ur- ban domain is based on traditional notions of what art could or should add to ur- ban visual culture. And there is one, essential question: are the instruments and logistics of contemporary art sufficient to cope with the magnitude with which other disciplines shape the city? In short: it all boils down to choosing the proper instruments. The collective me- mory of art and artists is a formidable asset, provided that the artist knows how to deal with the prosaic, multi-faceted reality of the public domain, both in the con- ceptual, visual and logistic sense of the word. In terms of patron, program and place Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s world was clearly defined, so he knew his instruments and knew where and how to apply them. No matter how much is done today in public art, in many cases the instruments of the artist still resemble the ones Lorenzetti used. One could call this logical, since there is a continuum in the position of art in society, but on the other hand visual art may be rendered obsolete if the instruments stay the same, no matter how many large-scale temporary and permanent art projects are being realized in the contemporary city.
  3. 3. There is no doubt that the hybridization of the city asks for a hybridization of the instruments with which the artist operates, without debunking art’s historical fra- me of reference. By making himself available to act in the urban domain the artist offers his range of ideas to the public discourse at large. But of course there are different discour- ses happening at the same time. How can he relate to them and how can he ap- ply his instruments efficiently? I would like to give one specific example: In the course of three decades the Swiss artist Rémy Zaugg operated in a multitude of situations, both in museums and the public realm. In 1987 he took part in Skulptur Projekte Münster, but he was reluctant in adding just another visual ‘statement’ to the melting pot of artist’s contributions. Zaugg went in the opposite direction and came up with a short title acting as both beginning and end of his role in Münster’s urban domain: “Über die Nutzlosigkeit der Skulptur im Jahr 1987 in der Stadt des Jahres 1987.” (das erste Skulpturprojekt). Translated: “On the uselessness of the sculpture in the year 1987, in the city in the year 1987”. Zaug’s polemical statement within the context of Skulptur Projekte Münster revol- ved around the notion of necessity: why organizing a large-scale urban art pro- ject when it is necessary to question the viability of art in the public realm? And secondly: how necessary is it to organize yet another project in a city which has a hard time dealing with its existing heritage? During a walk Zaugg came across with two neglected nineteenth-century sculp- tures in a park near the Ludgeriplatz, At that very moment he realized he could be of service. He determined a new location for the sculptures on the Ludgeri- platz and designed pedestals for them. In spite of having been invited by Kasper König, Zaugg essentially was his own patron, while acting as ‘servant’ of Mün- ster’s heritage at the same time. Throughout his career Rémy Zaugg developed a fertile discourse with the archi- tects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. In 1995 their periodical collabora- tions found their zenith in an overview of Herzog & De Meuron’s building projects in Centre Pompidou. Zaugg was responsible for the display of drawings and mo- dels in a large room where paintings by Zaugg and photographs by Balthasar Burkhard, Margherita Spiluttini and Ruedi Walti were presented as integral part of the presentation. To me this exhibition is a high point of the way different disci- plines meet in order to present projects in the public domain within the bounda- ries of a semi-public domain, the museum. By doing so, the artists and architects managed to reshape their instruments with respect to their practice, their context and their public. Availability stands for the deployment of the artist, all too often with a limited set of instruments, catapulted into the open by patrons, curators, and above all the artist’s own wishful thinking. Because of logistic complexities and the proverbial pitfalls in the urban domain the artwork is rendered obsolete in the face of pro- cesses which are beyond his control. Service stands for the ability to play an active and conscious role in the urban domain provided he is well equipped, and willing to share his instruments with
  4. 4. other players in the field. At the same time he should be conscious of his own status vis á vis the status of other parties: the art world’s mediators, architects, authorities, and the community. Appropriation > Exchange The concept of ‘Appropriation’ has a negative connotation. All too often artists and architects appropriate the history, qualities and flaws of a given context to implant their ideas and, literally, their hardware. It is truly a sign of the times that opportunism is considered to be a quality. Appropriation can also have a positive effect, as long as the result of the act of appropriating a place, an image, a concept, or an existing situation leads to a deeper understanding, a fertile exchange, above all to a profound symbiosis of mind and matter. Herzog & De Meuron appropriated art galleries and museums to define their po- sition as architects. They effectively appropriated the memory of visual art, but they are no usurpators. While one gets the impression that Koolhaas uses visual art as a backdrop in S,M,L,XL, Herzog & De Meuron have developed a fertile ex- change between their own architectural practice and the art world. In the course of thirty years a multitude of art projects has been developed in the city. The practice of realizing art in the urban domain seems to have become un- limited. The Venice Biennale spreads itself all over Venice, and although national ambitions are the main cause, it is also due to the vitality and contextual flexibility of visual art itself. But when the Biennale is over, the Giardini are taken over by the crows: the city resorts once more to its status as historical monument. This is not only the case in Venice, but also in Arnhem, Berlin, Münster, Kassel or Gent...all these cities where the migratory circus of the art world sets up its tents periodically. Only for an instant the lions roar and the elephants trumpet, until the tents are taken down again. There’s nothing wrong with that; after all I advocate the both/and attitude. Many beautiful, hilarious, profound and important public art projects have been reali- zed. In many cases the city was endowed with artworks that have a lasting and profound importance to the city and its community. I would like to see that the effects of such undertakings have a lasting influence on the city, an influence that will affect decision-making at large. Beyond its own platform visual art all too often suffers from a marginal existence along the side- line. For that reason the relationship between the art world and authorities, insti- tutions and other groups operating in the urban realm should be intensified, not only as long as the circus is in town, but on a continual basis. Let’s reshape our instruments; it will be worthwhile. IKT/Siena – the 10th of June, 2001 © IKT/Ronald van Tienhoven 2001

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