EMPIRIEN is a series of interventions in public space (1998-2006) that work with the transposition of signs as an idea of reorganizing elements of our urban surroundings. These interventions are reduced to almost imperceptible events that through a redefinition, or reconstruction, of everyday space try to make visible different social mechanisms.
Without previous notice objects will be shifted and replaced in public and semi-public spaces. The users of those places take the initiative and reestablish the ‘normal’ everyday order of things and thereby go about dismantling the interventions.
X Ferry Bus Station, Hong Kong Central / Materials: twenty-five meters of thread /
In the Lorentz transformation, if the X´-axis opposite the X-axis is rotated around the zero point “0,” all points of the X´-axis (except 0‘) vanish from the observer’s experiential realm in reference system S into the fourth dimension. This seems to contradict all normative experience.
One must imagine, however, that one X‘ -axis passes through each point of the X-axis. This means: we must imagine a plane in Minkowski space that is densely filled with X‘ -axes. Each of these comes from another time and is present simultaneously—even when an observer in S discerns just one point of each axis, namely the one point located on his own X-axis.
Brownie Ranch Balzac Coffee, Berlin / Materials: 10800 cm3 of brownies /
After arriving in Berlin in 2000, I began working at a bakery where I specialized in making brownies. At that time, I developed a system of cutting brownie sections in the baking pan that represented the proportions of a primitive hut in 1:50 scale.
I assembled the prototype only once in the bakery, later offering the pieces for sale.
Europe Towers Bausch & Lomb storage, Walldorf / Materials: six pallets of ninety-one boxes each; Lot N* 800523/547 /
Over the course of two workdays, I restacked 546 boxes of optical medical products from DIN pallets onto Euro pallets. The boxes were stacked according to a system similar to the distribution of housing units in high-rise apartment buildings, which allowed the same quantity of boxes to be stacked on the smaller Euro pallets, while making them more stable at the same time.
Two days later the Europe Towers were dispatched to Holland together with the rest of the stock.
Jobcenter Arbeitsamt Südwest, Berlin / Materials: one piece of furniture /
In a job-center in Berlin, a temporary ramp had been installed to transport files between the first floor and the basement. While waiting for a work permit, I moved part of the ramp to a corridor in the basement.
Sleeping Policeman and a Hole US-military base, Heidelberg-Pfaffengrund / Materials: approx. 0.98 m3 earth /
Much has been written on the history of metaphors. Little is known about their materialization. There are objects in this world for which one prefers to use metaphors, since their true meaning extends beyond the functions or physical outline that they describe.
I dug a hole on the property of the US military airport in Heidelberg (Germany). The earth was placed on a bike path on German territory and served as a bump for reducing bicycle speed.
Fragile – handle with care / appropriation / Covent Garden, London / Materials: nine cardboard boxes /
On the evening of February 21, 2004, nine cardboard boxes intended as improvised accommodations were set up in front of the Covent Garden Theater Museum in London. The morning after, the camera recorded how the homeless had appropriated the intervention.
A street artist performed a comedy in front of it.
Mudança* Eixo Monumental Via N1 Oeste, Brasilia, Brazil / Materials: forty-eight meters of rope + one sign
* to move, relocation; change (Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in his first official speech as president of Brazil on January 1, 2003.)
Farmers belonging to the Movimento sem Terra (Movement of Landless People) of Brazil took over state land on April 22 in the satellite city of São Sebastião, near the capital city of Brasilia. By the time I arrived, people were already demarcating property lines and clearing the lots.
Take your Time Long Tsai Tsuen, Hung Shing Yeng, Lamma Island, Hong Kong / Materials: six dustbins
Lü Dong Bin, one of eight immortal Taoists, is believed to have lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). One time while traveling, as he waited for his porridge in an inn, he fell asleep and saw his future life before him. When Lü Dong Bin awoke, eighteen years had past and he decided to live as a hermit.
Fox fur / donation / Museum of Natural History, Berlin / Materials: one fox fur
On March 11, 2000, I bought a fox fur. I kept it and took care of it in my apartment. On July 1, 2001, I donated the fur to the Museum of Natural History, Berlin. The museum administration was not interested in keeping the specimen.
Hröns Tieckstrasse 5, Berlin / Materials: three plastic chests + three wooden chests /
According to Jorge Luis Borges (in his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius), certain objects exist in the utopian land of Tlön that are merely projections of human will. For example, if somebody has lost a jewel box and several people go searching for it, it is possible that each person will find the box, but in different places. This implies a multiplication of the object. Such multiplied objects are called hrönirs and are characterized by a peculiar, barely noticeable deformation that distinguishes them from the original. If a hrönir is lost, and its duplicate then found, one will notice an even stronger transformation due to the function of human memory. Such objects are called hröns.
One could hypothesize that the entire variety of objects that make up our cosmos come from ONE original object that has been modified and multiplied by the projection of human will throughout the centuries.
Neolithic Hagar Qim Temple, Malta / Materials: one rope + two racks /
On the island of Malta, a rope and two racks were placed in front of the archeological site of Hagar Qim. These framed two stones coincidentally situated in front of the temple entrance.
Mekka St. Clement Danes, Central Church of the Royal Air Force, London / Materials: one carpet /
In Whitechapel, London, I bought an oriental carpet in an Arabian bazaar. Lost in the labyrinth of the city, I embarked on a pilgrimage for hours in the opposite direction of Mecca, finally placing the carpet at the St. Clement Danes, Central Church of the Royal Air Force.
Bastón / donation / Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin / Materials: one walking stick /
On January 21, 1999, I bought a walking stick and carried it around with me for some time. Years later, I donated the walking stick to the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin. The museum administration was not interested in keeping the exhibit.
Popular Volkshochschule Mitte, Berlin / Materials: ten tables /
Since Pyrrho claimed there is no truth to the reality of sensorial things, the legend circulated that he would not avoid things standing in his way or horses or wagons approaching him, or he would even walk into walls in the conviction there is nothing consistent about sensorial perceptions. Only his friends, it is said, prevented and saved him from all sorts of foolhardy collisions.
Language is not a welcoming land, as much as we tend to forget about it in daily communication. Reality is also not a welcoming machinery, though it seems that we have grown used to its rusty hinges. Mario Asef’s work detains both language and reality (the cultural engine that produces it) with a minimal intervention that modifies their landscape. He respects the structural elements of language or cultural situations, he studies them. And then he introduces a slight modification that provokes a twist, a bristle that detains some elements of our cultural structure in an unexpected angle. Finally, he puts them back to roll into the structure, now affected and changed, and, most of all, exposed to our perception. The ground of facts is a spiderweb (Der Boden der Tatsachen ist ein Spinnennetz), we read in one of his statements, which could easily be understood under the logic of the aphorism. Common sense is a fragile territory, and our security cannot be anymore established in the ground of facts. Language also abandons part of its power here, and there is rarely a statement in Mario Asef’s work that is not slightly touched, brought back from its bombastic character into a natural move. This is also a general trait of his work. Again, something is modified, and our perception and thought are affected, but this is done elegantly. A scarce or apparently casual line drawn there where you would not need it or expect it, can be enough sometimes. In Asef’s pieces danger is not in tragic and dramatic exposures. It lies right before us, in a very small margin that has been taken out or changed.
A thesis is a Japanese Garden (Eine These ist ein japanischer Garden) says the writing on the opposite wall. It would actually be a relief to think that we can bring our walk through the garden to a memorable ending, the hill that offers us the harmonious view of our thoughts and actions. And we might need indeed a breath into this fragile (or solid sometimes) phantasy before going down back to the garden. This closeness and return to the material is a recurrent question in Asef’s work. Be it a brick, a cake, debris, a lottery poster or the ink of words on the page, the materiality of thought is always perceived. Thus, there is never a two-dimensional experience, space, even in a small caress of volume is present. And this is especially striking in his statements, where language thinks (as it happens with the aphorism) within a very small margin of space and through very few elements. But the weight of the word on the white page (which could turn this kind of writing into visual poetry or slogans) is too much, it unbalances sensitivity. And there is where the line appears. It is never a decoration, and its relation to the words is not clearly stated. But it seems to have the function of bringing back language a little closer to its materiality, even to remind this inked decisions that there is a void around them. Casual, programatic, or even ironic or playful sometimes, the lines that appear in Asef’s work create a relational tension that incorporates language but also goes beyond it. Those lines need to be handled with care, and cannot always be trusted. So the best thing we can do is to approach the ear, the eye, and ask them what are they thinking in there. For there will be no better clue to understand and enjoy the unbalanced garden they are part of.
Ernesto Estrella Cózar is an educator, poet, and musician born in Granada who has lived in New York between 2000-2012. He completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and between 2007 and 2011 he was assistant professor of Contemporary Poetry at Yale University’s Spanish and Portuguese department. Since the spring of 2012 he has turned to Berlin as a second base for his artistic and academic work. As a musician, he concentrates on the voice’s potential to explore the poetic process through sound. In this vein, he has created a wide array of performances that have been presented at international festivals in Argentina, Uruguay, Austria, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Russia, Finland, Latvia and the U.S. Since his arrival to Berlin, he has been teaching seminars at Potsdam University. Moreover, in 2014 he launched The Voice Observatory, along with sound and conceptual artists Mario Asef and Brandon LaBelle. Funded by Berlin’s Senate, this laboratory of investigation offers regular seminars, workshops and performances related to the voice in its acoustic, communicative, performative, and socio-political dimensions. Most recently, his work in cultural management and civic education has led to the creation of the Nomadic School of the Senses.
Mario Asef’s first studio visit with Node’s resident curators was, for me, one of the most motivating moments of these ultimate months. It was the last studio visit of a long rainy Berlin day. The eight of us were exhausted and immediately ‘occupied’ the green carpet of Mario’s studio. What could have been an awkward meeting (because of our tiredness), instantly turned into an extraordinarily appealing talk. Every piece of work he showed us led to a conversation about several topics, sometimes related to art, sometimes to philosophy, politics or social relations. When the visit finished most of us felt the need to somehow try to work with him. We wanted “more Asef”.
For Faraway, So Close! we selected three pieces from Mario Asef’s video series History is now: Börsianer/The Operators, Man’s on Moon, and Revolution after Revolution.
In his videos, Asef brings us back to the concept of intra-history, introduced in 1895 by the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in his book En torno al casticismo or to the most recent vision of micro-history by the Italian Carlo Ginzburg. For Asef, history should be interested in the routes whose principle leading roles are played by its peripheral actors; that is to say, the paths followed by those men who make history in an unconscious manner, by those who do not aspire to the title of heroes. The historical event is not the monumental fresco that encourages the mythification of politicians, military men and priests, the traditional heroes of history… Mario Asef decodes these concepts, recovering “micro-historical moments” (as he points out) in order to reveal the present as historically significant. Börsianer/The Operators juxtaposes the apparently sterile composure of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange with the life of homeless people from the suburbs of the city. What at first sight could be regarded as two antagonistic worlds become the two sides of the same instinct of survival. Abstract values versus reality? Civilized world versus wilderness? Every downturn of the financial market becomes crucial to our lives, as nature is experienced as an all-embracing fact and dictator of reality… like the bucolic backdrop shown through the glass of an aquarium.
Man’s on Moon looks back to 1969, when Commander Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. This scene, broadcasted to every television of the Western world, incarnated the faith of our civilization in technology and science during the Cold War era. In the same year, one of the most feared serial killers of America, Charles Manson, was arrested. His arrest marked the milestone of the end of the hippie-era, the end of Martin Luther King’s dream… In Man’s on Moon, Asef cuts together sequences from the Apollo 17 Mission and audio extracts from Charles Manson interviews, reflecting on the social dynamics that lead to an ontological discussion of truth and reality.
In the words of Asef, “when a staged revolution is part of a country’s historical reality it shapes the direction of everyday life”. Filmed in three Romanian towns (Sibiu, Pitesti and Bucharest), Revolution after Revolution examines how advertising strategies of the post-Communist era are digested as part of Romanians’ everyday lives. The modern architecture of the sixties and its dead ideology forms the background where citizens become actors (or heroes?) and revolution turns into allegory.
The illusion of security
“We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instance of death we cannot permit any deviation… we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.” George Orwell, 1984
Priorities seem clear: first learn, then understand, and finally accept. The whole purpose here is not repetitive or blind obedience but disciplined and controlled minds… George Orwell could not anticipate the economic globalization and the sophistication of information technology in the Western world, but he formed the basis for understanding some of the most serious problems we face today.
Living in a contemporary world means to be surrounded by a multiplicity of electronic devices that gradually shape new borders of our personality. We expand and consider our private space to be inside our iPhones, computers and mailboxes. This unreal and imaginary possession of information can lead to manipulations, performed not only at an individual level. In particular, the lack of corporate and governmental transparency has been a topic of much controversy in recent years, yet the only tool for encouraging greater openness is the slow, tedious process of policy reform.
The Transparency Grenade by Julian Oliver for Studio Weise 7 was the central pivot on which the exhibition in the Fichte-Bunker turned around. It represented two actions: firstly, the invention and construction of an electronic device, and secondly, a situation. The Grenade itself was a replica of Soviet F1 Hand Grenade with a different mechanism of destruction, equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna. It was also a situation, because it made the viewer directly responsible for pulling the ripcord to detonate the Grenade in order to unmask the decision-making processes of any corporate or Governmental Institution. Email fragments, HTML pages, images will be revealed, reminding the occasional user of his weaknesses and strengths. As stated by Michel Foucault, the individual is a part of the power structure’s cogs and secures it with his own attitudes and behaviors. However, and it may seem contradictory, this power (as read in George Orwell’s1984) is omnipresent and omniscient, a power that is constantly being apprehended, but which never answers. State institutions are mechanisms that seem to obey their own laws and rules, they are bureaucratic labyrinths completely unknown by us. Thus, we find depersonalized individuals facing an apparatus against which there is no way to oppose. Numerous references were forwarded about this in Faraway, So Close! by Argentinean artist Mario Asef, especially in the video piece Börsianer / The Operators, which juxtaposed the apparently sterile composure of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange with the life of homeless people from the suburbs of the city. What at first sight could be regarded as two antithetical worlds became the two sides of the same reality. Every downturn of the financial markets becomes crucial in our own lives…
The viewer inside the Fichte-Bunker was confronted with a dystopic reality, a world not desirable, but conceivable. John Stuart Mill coined in the last years of the nineteenth century the term “dystopia” to refer to an unwanted society, opposed to utopia. Mill described an oppressive and closed-on-itself society, usually under an authoritarian government, but presented to its citizens as a utopia. George Orwell’s 1984 was one of the most refined examples of dystopia. It insisted, in a very persuasive way, on the power of technology as a basic tool for social control and the end of privacy. Orwell portrayed a society that to survive, created a perverse, permanent monitoring system from which originated an increasingly imperceptible but ever-present control, a subtle and not clearly coercive method that left citizens with the permanent doubt of whether they were being watched. It is through the uncertainty of not knowing how to maintain the subordination of being under surveillance, through a large and always-on screen, receiving and transmitting information, that individuals were handcuffed by their actions. All this, centralized by the everpresent Ministry of Truth, which was a pyramidal structure of white concrete over three hundred meters high. The Ministry of Truth acted as a vast Jeremy Bentham style panopticon that distinguished, watched and controlled all of what happened in that society.
According to Zygmunt Bauman, uncertainty about the future, the fragility of our social position and the anxiety of our own existence are persistent elements of our society. Therefore, one of the basic actions of human beings has been to preserve the order and to ensure its durability from incursions coming from the outside: an “outside” characterized by disorder and insecurity; an exterior that, in each historical moment has had different characteristics and traits, but always an enemy, an enemy that has always been the “other”. Against this “other”, that represents the fragility and the precariousness of daily life, all societies have been provided with multiple defensive tricks and tools that allow us to preserve, keep the acquired and make it our own. In this way, any risk must be eliminated in order to procure a comfortable place in a world that shows itself as threatening and hazardous. Uncertainty and confusion have increased with the rapid changes in recent decades of new information technologies and globalization. Cities, urban areas and transport are no longer safe places and have become a major cause of worry and insecurity. Now spatial structures conceived to isolate, exclude, reject, resist, camouflage, and absorb have been encouraged.
The need and desire to feel safe in today’s world has become a handy justification for the implementation of measures that threaten the foundations of democracy and social life. It is odd that cities had never before counted on so many security measures, but never before the feeling of insecurity has been so present. Agreements have been made, according to city planner Peter Marcuse , in order to promote the physical 1 “bunkerization” of space (controlled indoors, such as shopping malls or office buildings, containing within them all the facilities necessary to work, eat or relax) up to the social “bunkerization” of all democratic activity (the limitation of movement, freedom and action, the decline in social and political participation, the growth of exclusion…). This creates new sociopolitical realities where security is exchanged for a restriction of freedoms. Power needs a fearful, insecure and vulnerable society. To keep it, people have to be submissive and in this way consolidate the power’s efficiency. However, we cannot forget that the expression of power is becoming less and less visible, and therefore its influence is difficult to recognize, to anticipate and bear up. The exercise of power is gradually more elusive and insidious, it is everywhere and nowhere, it is ubiquitous, absent, invisible… To this wicked and endless game, that creates fear and creates, at the same time, many and various systems to control it, also referred Faraway, So Close!.
1) Peter Marcuse, After the World Trade Center. Cuadernos de arquitectura y urbanismo, Barcelona. 2002
Carolina Jiménez, (Madrid, 1983). Journalist and cultural manager. Lives and works in Berlin. As a political journalist, she has worked in Spanish media like Cadena SER, Agencia EFE and Temas magazines. In the cultural sector she collaborated with contemporary art centers such as Matadero Madrid or La Casa Encendida in Spain. In 2012 he moved to Berlin after being selected to participate in the residency for curators of Node Center for Curatorial Studies. In Berlin she has curated the exhibitions Faraway, So Close! at Fichte-Bunker, We Can Draw It in GlogauAir and Coversation With Alice in Altes Finanzamt. He has been coordinator and manager of SAVVY Contemporary, award for best independent space Projekträume 2013 by the Senate of Berlin (Berliner Senat). She is currently in charge of the communication at Node Center for Curatorial Studies-Berlin.
Urban space and its appropriation by the people who use it is the source of Mario Asef’s artistic work. In his videos, photographs, sound installations, and interventions the artist deals with architectonic as well as socio-political discourse and investigates how they are represented spatially. Like a researcher he examines the constructions of public life by working against the dominant order in subtle ways. This occurs by reordering things without notice or by removing elements specific to the location and adapting them to the art context. Accordingly, these urban objects are first apprehended as artworks when they are documented in photographs or written about in texts.
Asef’s group of works Empirien (1998-2006) presents an entire series of interventions documented in this way. For instance, in the work Fragile—handle with care/appropriation (2004), the artist placed cardboard boxes in front of the Covent Garden Theater Museum in London, which were then taken over by individuals and used as sleeping spots. By converting packaging into housing, Asef indirectly draws attention to the negative spaces of the city, which make life (survival) possible, but also to the present absence of the homeless. Like illegal immigrants or street musicians, the homeless also count among the—for the most part—undesirable users of public space.1 The artist stages this situation like an experiment. That vagrants then make use of it in practical ways undermines the efforts of local authorities.
In and of themselves the unforeseen and the ephemeral are inherent to Mario Asef’s interventions. He never knows how long his rearrangements will last or whether or how passersby will take them over and put them to use. This participation is the trigger for a non-verbal communication outside of cultural institutions. For the most part the users of the locations involved quickly grasp the initiative, deconstruct the intervention, and reestablish the usual “normal order” of things.
Raumprothesen (spatial prosthetics) can be viewed in many respects as a further development of this creative process. In this case, urban phenomena are actually translocated into the art establishment. Here Asef manifests his socio-critical stance by inviting street musicians to play at his opening. The performative evening was consciously designed to provoke interaction between the art-going public and individuals who operate primarily within the urban locations outside of cultural institutions.
In contrast to Empirien, the participation of everyone involved takes place within the exhibition space. As a result of this appropriation beer bottles, cigarette butts, and trash pile up on the floor and imprints from fingers and people sitting are pressed into the sculptural elements—the “Raumprothesen”—that the artist has integrated into the exhibition. “Prothese” (prosthetics) means here, so to speak, the artificial extension of the room that fulfills a specific function. As such the objects don’t even stand out at first. Rather, their white color and inconspicuous positioning on the margins allows them to be seen as a fixed component of the exhibition space.
A central aspect of this work involves returning the purported sculptures to the public locations where the elements that inspired them formally are found. For his work Asef initially pilfers material from the city. In this case polystyrene insulation board for acoustically isolating homes is used. In the context of his exhibition this building material is transformed into sculptures. Through their use (disintegration), mostly by the musicians to whom the sculptural elements were assigned as stages, they are, in turn, viewed as everyday objects. Throughout the entire duration of the show the viewer can observe the process of using the space along with its Prothesen. In addition the brief musical performances have been captured in a documentary video as staged memory, and are continuously on view. Here the quality of the recording plays a secondary role. Asef films more like an anthropologist who attempts to understand the circumstances from a distance. After the presentation in the art context is over, the objects and musicians alike make their way back onto the streets. Once there, people will again use the “Raumprothesen” as seating and eventually dispose of them. With this, a cycle of varying translocations and ascribing of meanings apparently comes to its end.
Whether in urban public space or within the space of an exhibition, the experience of those involved in Mario Asef’s interventions go far beyond the actual participation. Rather, through his subtle interventions, the viewer is sensitized to the processes at work in urban, social surroundings.
1 Asef’s socio-critical stance goes back to the artist’s own personal experiences. He himself migrated from Argentina to Germany twelve years ago.
Susanne Trasberger (formerly Köhler) studied cultural sciences and aesthetics at the University of Hildesheim. She curated several exhibitions in Berlin (e.g. NGBK), Worpswede and at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. She was director of Kunstverein Junge Kunst, Wolfsburg, production manager for the exhibition XIII. Rohkunstbau in Berlin and published various art catalogues. She currently lives in Berlin and works for Texte zur Kunst.
Sabeth Buchmann – Mario Asef about EMPIRIEN a series of interventions in public space
Sabeth Buchmann: It would be relevant to discuss your work in relation to so-called social minimalism. This term refers to standardized forms of work with an industrial aesthetic that is based on historical minimalism and that-as in so-called institutional critique and the so-called context art of the eighties and nineties-is loaded with socio-cultural significance. Examples include the works of Janine Antoni, Angela Bulloch, Tom Burr, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Henrik Olesen, Christian Philipp-Müller, Heimo Zobernig, etc. In my opinion, one certainly can make these associations, alone due to the apparently alinear structuring of the concepts of your work-which are rooted in the work world and everyday life-according to typologies that are more or less randomly compiled according to letters of the alphabet.
Mario Asef: From the very start the interventions were conceived as a kind of journal, in which chronology played a deciding role. In retrospect, I discovered that the series contained very specific themes, in which the intervention assumed a specific position and which, to a certain extent, demonstrated a continuity within the timeframe of a year or longer.
Naturally these themes do not need to be organized in a linear manner. There is no reason why one theme should come before or after another. The format of the book as a medium does favor a linear reading of the works. For this reason I resorted to a random classification of these themes, in order to refer to and create awareness for the non-linear coexistence of the different thematic areas.
On the one hand, this highlights the fact that a certain kind of knowledge that one acquires through experience (Empirien) is not stored chronologically in the memory. It is abstracted in a way that space and time exist independently of one another. On the other hand, herein lies a negation of conventional historiography, which always runs counter to psycho-physical element of memory in order to represent a constructed, linear xobjectivity towards events-which ultimately only serves a political aim.
S B: The kind of terminology you bring into play –Empirie and the notion of experience-seems to formulate an opposing stance to the minimalist tradition related to conceptualism, in which the artwork is based on ideas or theoretical propositions. At the same time, one is not given the impression that you are interested in the aesthetic or phenomenological experience in your work but in experience as a form of information about the specific context in which the works are placed. My question is whether you are concerned here with opposing moments in the perception of the xobjects and situations you construct?
M A: Yes, I do try to clearly separate different stages of perceiving the work. I think there are different levels of experience. This term is normally reduced to a sensitive level, in which an immediate effect is ostensibly generated through confrontations with the material world, without an impact on other mental levels. However, there is also a level of “mental experience,” in which material is charged with certain signifiers that strongly influence experience and that can generate different kinds of perception, depending on the possibility of interpretation in socio-cultural contexts. [All such knowledge can be confirmed as true or false, so that one single experience can be associated with multiple, and perhaps even contradictory, meanings.]
My working process consists of setting up a hypothesis in mental space and then looking for an experience in actual space that can confirm this hypothesis. In other words, this reverses the empirical process through which knowledge is gained, and thereby the function of a “contemplative action” is artificially generated and pursued ad absurdum.
Thus, an idea is not created from experience but implanted within experience as an abstract thought. Idea and experience thus becom e a systematic construction of a thought experiment that aims to produce an unpredictable effect.
S B: To what extent would you say your approach is related to project formats that circulate under the term artistic research? This includes an almost scientific investigation of locations, contexts and discourses. I am asking this, because, on the one hand, you often work with text and commentary; on the other, you seem to place value on the literary and poetic quality of your xobjects and projects-a quality that analytical research projects sometimes lack. So here are two questions in one.
M A: These works are not based on any kind of research project. This analysis normally develops as a kind of assimilation process. We know that the analysis cannot continue to exist independent of an xobject of investigation. This means that the analysis exists as a whole and can therefore very quickly lose its relationship to empirical reality and remain unaffected by it. In order to disempower the analysis, one can use analysis itself as a means of establishing a critique of the analysis. In this sense, humor plays an important role in my work.
The basic idea is to create a system within which one can move more or less freely. For this purpose I often fall back on pseudo-scientific methods, always in the hope of achieving a poetic sensibility that lies beyond this methodology.
This might sound paradoxical. However it is true that science (particularly since the beginning of the 20th century) has strongly influenced the cultural imaginarium of the Occident (here one could include Cubism or Futurism in conjunction with numerous science fiction visions, etc.). In other words, it is fertile ground for poetry. New scientific discoveries open up new perspectives on life and also new fantasies.
S B: Maybe we can use this point to delve more concretely into the sculptural aspect of your work. I have the impression that you-although your works could best be described with the term “situation” or “situative intervention”-still hold onto what one could call a classical approach to the xobject. For example, in the intervention Europe Towers, which you realized in a Bausch & Lomb warehouse, you bring together the aspect of a new order within European norms and a reference to modular typological forms of modern architecture, and at the same time you use cardboard boxes. The association with Warhol’s serial xobjects and minimalism is obvious. Are you interested in pointing to the frame of reference in which you are operating, i.e. the institution of “art?” At the same time, you interventions are apparently always located outside of this frame of reference, in the factory, on the street and in contexts that impact “other” social levels and realities in order to engage there with genre-like conditions of artistic production.
M A: Although a clear reference to the art context is implied in my interventions and precisely because the transformative significance of xobjects play an important role in my work-xobjects that are taken from everyday life into a gallery and museum and are then again returned to the street-I do not want to define the formal element of my work as sculpture but as structure in public space, as converted elements of this public realm that have taken on artistic reference through a “shift in order.”
One should also consider the fact that precisely these references function contextually. That is to say that once the documentation has been put together, the works must be shown in an institutional space in order for them to evoke the artistic references that were a consideration in the working process but do not play a role in the initial confrontation with the intervention.
It is really important to me that all xobjects undergo an additional process of transformation. Only in this way do such interventions have meaning.
S B: A conspicuous element of all the concepts of your work is that they always contain a moment of retroactive impact that is mediated through the documentation: that means that different sites of intervention-such as in Brownie Ranch, Job Center, etc.-always function as a mediated site for the production of signs. However, this is exactly what seems to make it possible for you to integrate an act of chance in a specific way-an act that embodies the moment the work is perceived. In this context I am thinking of the work Mudança. This raises the question of whom you want to address in your work.
M A: In the first phase of the process the addressees are always passersby. Later the work shifts more in the direction of addressing the viewers and consumers of art. They all represent the corpus of the social, and in this way they all represent the intended audience. In other words, the interventions consist of reorganizing elements in social space. The passersby, users, clients or workers who happen to be at the places I have selected rearrange these elements or simply destroy them.
Initially this kind of participation is the catalyst for nonverbal communication outside cultural institutions, and it represents a kind of transgression of the artistic context. Later the works are documented, and this documentation is shown as art in an institutional context. As a result, the range of addressees becomes wider, and the relationship to the work is changed, because the reorganized elements have already vanished and they only remain as a kind of “staged memory” (documentation) in the gallery or museum.
S B: In conjunction with my previous questions I am interested to know whether you have certain specific artistic conventions in mind when you take photographs, or whether you tend more towards a journalistic style.
M A: All interventions were documented with an analogue pocket camera. Personally, I have no photographic ambitions. My position resembles that of tourists who are always outside of the contexts in which they find themselves and who try to make sense of the given situation from a distance. This distance resembles the rhetorical distance of a poet, the mathematical distance of a scientist, the structural distance of an observer. At the same time, I try to engage with the paradoxical realm of the photograph. As in Dead Policeman and Hole, in which the significant motif within the context remains positioned behind the camera. The location was namely a US military base, and, as is the case at such sites, one is not allowed to take photographs.
Or in Fragile, in which a comedian placed himself in front of the intervention after it had already been taken over by homeless people. The public photographed the show and also the appropriated intervention in the background, which remained “invisible” to people because they didn’t know about it. This means that the motif of my intervention was reproduced dozens of times, but it remained invisible to people.
This phenomenon is repeated in the many interventions of Type L, in which people simply shoot photos in a museological context in order to look at them in peace and quiet at home. However, when they get home, they realize that these locations where they have been did not correspond to what was represented in the photographs. In other words, some elements take up previously unsuspected positions, although everything still looks completely ordinary.
S B: It is almost a banal cliché to say that the function of art consists of making something visible. As if the field of visibility were a privileged field of work. Your work seems to be concerned with opening up other possibilities of perception. We talked about this initially in reference to the notion of information, which targets cognitive or intellectual elements. Here, I primarily mean your work with literary texts, such as those of Borges, which deal with a transformation of language itself in a way that is more or less implied in all of your interventions.
That brings us to Marcel Duchamp, who comes to the fore in Type L, your act of donation: here information and language refer to the museum’s classification of apparently non-aesthetically coded xobjects. One could also draw other parallels, for example to Beuys and Broodthears, in the sense of a reflection on the meaning of exhibiting and the associated institutionalization process of modes of production and understanding. What would you like to add to this reflection?
M A: These kinds of references to Duchamp or Broodthaers are certainly an aspect of my intentions, although my interest is more concentrated on the aspect of the classification systems for xobjects in our environment. Thus, these interventions represent a parameter for the classification of private xobjects, which generate an absurd moment when combined with the predominant value parameters of our culture. That is the reason that we laugh when we think about choosing to make a differentiation, and it recalls Jorge Luis Borges story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, in which he presents a list of the classifications of animals in a Chinese encyclopedia.
So my works speculate with the notion of creating a Museum of the Absurd, in which the exhibited items provoke new chains of reactions due to specific constellations, such as those of museological grammar.
Over the course of the history of art we have learned that every xobject is a carrier of meaning for cultural signifiers. Why not rethink the traditional encyclopedic structure of our museums and reconceive it as a porous organism in which public interaction is a source of a continual reconstruction of the institution?
Sabeth Buchmann is an Austrian art historian and art critic. Currently she is Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art and the Head of the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. She contributes to books, magazines and catalogues. Her publications include Film, Avantgarde und Biopolitik (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, 2009) and Art After Conceptual Art (The MIT Press, 2006).
Mario Asef is a visual artist born in Córdoba, Argentina and currently works and lives in Berlin, Germany. He studied architecture and art in Argentina, Germany, and England. His work has been exhibited worldwide most recently at Junge Kust e.V. (Wolfsburg, Germany), Kasa Galerie (Istanbul), Abandoned Gallery (Malmö, Sweden) SSamzie Space (Seoul), Nouvel Organon (Paris). Recent museum exhibitions include Hamburger Kunsthalle, Villa Merkel, Kunstlerhaus Bregenz (Austria), and the Akademie der Künste Berlin.
Mario Asef’s camera simply observes—it does not monitor (by recording everything in a blanket manner), it does not stare (by focusing unscrupulously), it does not gather (by picking up everything that passes before its lens), but it is just there, it observes what is happening, very directly, in the margins of goings-on and locations. It seems completely natural when a plastic bag catches its attention, following it as the wind buffets it about on a square in Buenos Aires (Edad de hielo / Ice Age, 2011). Or when it beholds a preacher for world peace at an intersection in London (Pass Over, 2003-5). Or it sits as a silent guest behind the visitor’s window at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, registering the activities on the dreary floor in front of it and what is happening on the other side of the door outside (Börsianer / The Operators, 2009): the operators are working in the cut-throat field of global speculative trading as if in a semi-public cage, whereas those stranded on the streets are left to face its consequences with their own bodies. Images of artificial nature mediate between the agonal spheres.
The attentive gaze of Mario Asef’s camera quietly watches the everyday details of the world, thereby making it possible to draw conclusions about farther reaching injustices. Because of this his videos are not image apparatuses that produce big dramatic impressions, seduce through beauty, or seek to overwhelm the intellect. For Asef, video is first and foremost a simple technological possibility for splicing together observations of daily life, recording visual sketches, and later for tying these together artistically into complex layers of meaning. Inherent to the pensive observing of goings-on in public space is a claim to the public sphere. His videos not only address spaces and instances of authority or conquest, such as stock exchanges, revolutions, war, post-colonialism, or global trade, but they also undermine their appeal to power by showing the somewhat peripheral moments of everyday life and portraying the emptiness with signs of thoughtfulness and helplessness, with empathy, but also with humor and a sensibility for the small pleasures on the margins. In a certain sense, Asef’s particular narratives of daily experience perforate the ideal texture of a world conceived as a coherent actuality. Idea and reality are related together in a thought experiment that Asef, elsewhere, calls History Is Now.1 According to this motto, history would not be viewed as a resolved occurrence of the past, but seen as a process characterized by various temporal experiences that takes place in the here and now, without knowing what is next. It is the conception of a history that is continually transformed by stories. With Asef the historical occurrence becomes an open situation that evokes a “third text” between the signs.
“Bolsa de comercio” means stock exchange in Spanish, but an ordinary plastic bag is also called a “bolsa.” With this commerce-bag double meaning in mind, Asef follows the movements of a plastic bag in a pedestrian zone in Buenos Aires in his video Edad de Hielo. Like a tumbleweed in the Wild West, the bag careens around the square. During the eight-minute long video the object comes to life for the viewer, becomes a lung that inhales and exhales, is stepped on, pauses, and with the next burst of wind becomes active again—what existential happenstance! What’s more, a voice-over in Spanish talks about nature as the only corrective factor in man’s striving for objectivity and ends with the rhetorical question: What remains after all the acquired knowledge and various prognostications other than concrete experience? Asef observes what’s happening with the camera in order to create a situation out of them in which the viewer is able to move or think more or less freely. Therefore it is necessary to leave the stories open-ended, to not tell them all the way, to not dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, or provide them with an ending. Asef’s videos are based on detailed observations on a sculptural level. They do not provide an overview. They present modest materials in the streets of Buenos Aires or in post-revolutionary Bucharest (Revolution after Revolution, 2005), they portray desperate moments on the alleys of Frankfurt, or dogmatic monologues from jail. The scenes of underdogs, be it people or things, are spliced together with centers of power such as the stock exchange or the lunar conquest. In Man’s on Moon (2006), for example, one sees images of the moon landing, astronauts in spacesuits and their vehicles, while Charles Manson raps in staccato against society in his typical nagging voice. Both spheres, the extraterrestrial and the outcast, are in need of a survival capsule and thus Manson sees eye to eye with the man on the moon: “I am a mechanical man.” It is about the big questions, about the spirit that animates.
Bothered by the Border (2006-8) creates an entirely difference situation. The camera shows a man singing karaoke music live on a square in the middle of people. Mario Asef had been invited to South Korea. There he visits in a park a karaoke meeting point for war veteran retirees and spontaneously sings a song. The camera is located in the crowd and shows him at times as the singer and at times the dancers beside him. Asef heightens his exotic foreigner status by singing in overtone in a foreign language. He imitates a Tuvan song from Mongolia newly set to music by the folk rock band Yat-Kha. No one understands what Asef is singing and no one is bothered by this, on the contrary, everyone is quite amused. Even a few women join in among the large number of older men. Asef later recounts that they are prostitutes who visit the meeting place regularly and are paired with the elderly gentlemen by younger men behind the scenes. Nearly all the seniors were soldiers in the Korean War, which sealed the split between North and South Korea in 1953. It is their meeting point in Seoul and Asef seeks out this particular situation. After the fact, he dedicates the lyrics of his song Bothered by the Border on the split through Korean society to this generation of fighters. The subtitles, added later, construct for us viewers a narrative space in which anecdotes are combined with tragic history in a light-handed manner.
Asef is not so interested in sociological milieu-studies or the psychological intimacy of individuals, which are often tritely put forward especially in art these days. Instead, in his videos he compiles meta-stories on the formation of narratives and history itself. Sabeth Buchmann, in conversation with the artist, coined the designation “social Minimalism”2 for his three-dimensional work, insofar as traits of historical Minimalism of the 1960s to the 90s (so-called object-based art, concept art, institutional critique, contextual art) are recognizable but are underpinned with socio-cultural meaning. During the course of this discussion it becomes clear that classifications or genre-specific categorizations are in fact possible, but for Asef (as perhaps for every artist) not really applicable. This is because he himself is always questioning art-critical categorizations as well as conventional histories, forsaking market-oriented genres, and breaking apart clichés.
Mario Asef’s video works demonstrate that history and stories belong together. In them, an artistic method is developed that makes use of oppositions to create new images in the viewer, a “third text” of open-ended interpretation, a sentiment or a mood, rather than explaining in alternation. In talking about the science of history Hayden White said: “Also Clio composes poetry,”3meaning that in representing facts analytically science also employs poetry, but its methodology does not disclose this, thus concealing its literary strategies in explaining events. Mario Asef uses, wittingly or unknowingly, the ideology critical insight of “Metahistory” (Hayden White) by uniting history with contemporary perspectives. He elevates his right to the public sphere not as a bold demand, but by realizing it with artistic methods, thereby creating visual poetry.
1 Mario Asef, History Is Now, videos: Pass Over, London – 2003/2005 – Revolution after Revolution, Bucharest – 2005 – Man’s on Moon, 2006 – Bothered by the Border, Seoul – 2006/2008 – Börsianer/ The Operators, Frankfurt am Main – 2009 – One-Euro-Land, Bremen – 2010 – Surf, 2010 – Edad de hielo, Buenos Aires – 2011
2 Sabeth Buchmann and Mario Asef, “Dialog,” in Empirien, eds. Mario Asef and BrotfabrikGalerie (Berlin, 2009).
3 Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973).
Dirck Möllmann *1963 – 2019
curator of the Institut für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum Steiermark, Universalmuseum Joanneum.
Curator of the Hamburger Kunsthalle 1996-2009; co-founder of VIDEO Club 99, Hamburger Kunsthalle 1999-2009; Stile der Stadt, Plattform für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum, Hamburg 2006-2012; collaboration with the Galerie für Landschaftskunst, Hamburg.
Exhibitions (selected): “SNAFU. Medien, Mythen Mind Control”, Hamburger Kunsthalle 2007, “MAN SON 1969. Vom Schrecken der Situation”, Hamburger Kunsthalle 2009, “Spring” Kunstfrühling, Gleishalle Bremen 2009; sculpture project “raumsichten” for the binationalen offenen Museum “kunstwegen” Grafschaft Bentheim (DE) and the Provinz Overijssel (NL), 2009-2012, Sadtkurator Hamburg 2018-2019.