In 2002, when Monochrom was invited to act as the representative of Austria at the Sao Paulo Biennial, instead of going as yourselves, you sent Georg Paul Thomann, one of the country’s most prominent avant guard artists, and also a complete fabrication.
Yes, we were asked to represent the Republic of Austria at the Sao Paulo Art Biennial, Sao Paulo (Brazil) in 2002. However, the political climate in Austria (at that time, the center-right People’s Party had recently formed a coalition with Jorg Haider’s radical-right Austrian Freedom Party) gave us concerns about acting as wholehearted representatives of our bloody nation. We dealt with the conundrum by creating the persona of Georg P. Thomann, an irascible, controversial (and completely fictitious) artist of longstanding fame and renown. Through the implementation of this ironic mechanism – even the catalogue included the biography of the non-existent artist – we tried to solve with pure fiction the philosophical and bureaucratic dilemma attached to the system of representation.
It gave me something of a hearty guffaw to hear about how you and your fellows, manning the Austria country booth as the artist’s technical support staff – the lowliest of low in the art world hierarchy – went about revealing the fictitious nature of the artist.
Yes, we turned the tables. When members of the administration, journalists, or curators asked about the whereabouts of Thomann, our irritated answer was that he hadn’t cared to show up so far, and that he hadn’t helped with anything, because he was supposedly watching porn in his hotel room all day, while we – the members of his technical crew – didn’t care about that bullshit at all. But we informed other technical support teams about the basic idea of the project. They were also given detailed information about Thomann’s non-existence but we did not give them any hierarchic directives about what to do with their knowledge but left it up to them if they wanted to reveal the fake or keep spinning the story. Most people enjoyed doing the latter and they also kept telling different versions of the heard information until finally a bubbling geyser kept erupting in various ways and constantly led to new outbreaks of tittle-tattle.
What happened next, as I heard you describe it, was that “bubbles and bubbles of rumors” began to form around the expansive floor of the biennial. I found this moment in the arc of the project to be particularly interesting and was hoping you could perhaps share some of your thoughts and recollections.
Let’s give you a brief summary of the background. The basic principles of an art-super-structure like a Biennial is simple: lots of little white boxes in which art was set up – and little artists, spreading business cards like prayers. There is a nice German term: “die Warenformigkeit des Kunstlers” (“the commodity value of the artist”). We hardly had any contact with other artists… and that was bad. They came from more than 80 different countries, but they were hiding in their white boxes. Everyone was busy building his or her own little world. Then, during the final setup phase we found out about an incident, which took place in our neighborhood through a copied note.
One year before the Biennial, Chien-Chi Chang had been invited to be the official representative of Taiwan at the Biennial. But then, three days before the opening, his caption – adhesive letters – had been removed from his cube virtually over night. ‘Taiwan’ was replaced with ‘Museum of Fine Arts Taipeh.’ But to Chien-Chi Chang the status as an official representative of Taiwan was very important, because his photography artwork dealt directly with the inhumane psychiatric system in Taiwan.
Chien-Chi was trying to get in contact with the Biennial administration and the chief curator (the German Alfons Hug), but didn’t succeed. Communication was refused. After that he decided to write an open letter, but the creative inhabitants of all the little white art-combs didn’t seem too interested in the artist’s chagrin, who by now wanted to leave the Biennial out of protest.
We were interested in the situation and did some research. We found out that the Chinese delegation had threatened to withdraw their contribution and to cause massive diplomatic problems. To them, Taiwan was clearly not an independent country (c/f ‘One China Policy’) and they put pressure on the Biennial management to get that message out. The management did not make this international scandal public and it was quite obvious why.
monochrom decided to show solidarity with Chien-Chi. We wanted to set an example and show that artists do not necessarily have to internalize the fragmentation and isolation that is being imposed upon them by the structure of the art market, the exhibition business, as well as the economy containing them. For us, though, this is not about taking a stand for either the westernized-economical imperialism represented by Taiwan or for China’s old-school Stalinist imperialism. This is about integrity and solidarity, values that we chose to express through a collaborative act. Together with other artists from various countries we launched a solidarity campaign: we took off some adhesive letters of each collaborating country’s signature and donated them to Chien-Chi Chang. monochrom sponsored the ‘t’ of Austria, while the Canadians donated one of their three as. The other participating artists were from Croatia, Singapore, Puerto Rico and Panama. A lot of artists and curators from other countries refused to support the campaign for fear of – as they would call it – “negative consequences.” WTF? But at least some of the artists were pulled out of their self-referential and insular national representation cubes which, in themselves, so rigorously symbolized the artists’ work and his or her persona as commodities.
After some time we managed to attach a trashy, yet legible ‘Taiwan’ to the outside wall of Chien-Chi Chan’s cube. Numerous journalists took notice of the campaign and Chien-Chi opened his exhibition in front of a cheering audience. Some days later, we found out that Chinese and Taiwanese newspapers massively covered the campaign. One Taiwanese paper used the headline “Austrian artist Georg Paul Thomann saves ‘Taiwan’.” In other words, a non-existing artist saved a country pressed into non-visibility. Who said that postmodernism can’t be radical?
What was it like – even from a kind of phenomenological sense – to be in the midst of this bubbling, to experience the formation of a scandal from its very embryonic moments? Is there something in the interiority of situations like this that you see as essential to the creation of new kinds of solidarity?
First we would have to define what “new kinds of solidarity” mean. What would be the ‘new’ part of it? Does it go beyond old and traditional forms of solidarity? And why should it? I think that classic forms of solidarity were carried out by political groups or other collective entities. They tried to express their (let’s label it as) “old-school solidarity” by pointing their collective fingers at someone who they thought were mistreated: “Look, look this human being is being oppressed!” And they always did it “in the name of something”. Old-school solidarity was one more frickin’ medium that people used to get a message across. Thus it was always part of the realm of representation. Your act of solidarity represents the one you show solidarity with, but your act is also advertisement for yourself, your cause and the (political) identity you wish to construct. Politics is always drama. Best example for this would be the “supporters of Palestine”. There are tons of ethnic groups on this rusty little planet who have to suffer under worse conditions. But nobody seems to be interested in showing solidarity with them. Where are Henning Mankell and Noam Chomsky when you really need them? Involved in some stupid fast-food anti-imperialism. We have to understand that the “object of solidarity” is something you pick for a reason… and most of the time it’s to feel good as a group and to impress your peers. But that has nothing to do with factual, non-reductionist political analysis. Collective entities define themselves through acts of representation and this representation is comparable to the construction of national pride or patriarchal family structures and values. Solidarity can be read as an act of defining identities. And that can be very dangerous, because old school solidarity always wants to be “right”. You are always “the good one” supporting the poor bastards. Smash dichotomies!
What we experienced at the Biennial of Sao Paulo back in the spring of 2002 was a very non-collective act. We were no real group, no leaflets, we had no common agenda, we were a psycho-geographic swarm. There was no basis for acting or speaking as a collective and there was no need to bundle our powers or form an identity. Yes, we tried to recruit other artists to join in our little act of solidarity. But it was no protest, we didn’t protest a certain political agenda because we didn’t want to end up in the old black and white world that, for example, all the apeshit Pro-Tibet supporters live in. Bah! Their ugly flags! Their patriarchal projections! Richard Gere! Yuck! So it was a kind of “free flowing solidarity”, not to be abused to form a political movement or statement. The only form of identity that was formed was the simple idea that even bourgeois artists can decide whether they want to be part of the Biennial and its stupid rules or whether they want to be part of action and fun.
To make it short: we are interested in micro-political solidarity, temporary solidarity that can’t fossilize. Solidarity is important if it can evolve and vanish within a short span of time and all that’s left is rumors and vague commemorations. Let’s call it a process of counteracting – that might be well-known in the field of the urban guerrilla but that so rarely pops up at art shows.
Read Part 1 of the Interview
Read Part 3 of the Interview