The Exhibition that Became a Film

Counter-Production (Part 2) at Index recreates in film an exhibition that was shown at Generali Foundation last autumn, but without critical friction or a meaningful shift in perspective.

Installation shot from Counter-Production (Part 2), 2013 at Index - The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation. Work by Henrik Olesen. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.
Installation shot from Counter-Production (Part 2), 2013 at Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm. Work by Henrik Olesen. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.

“Production continues around the clock, year round, without interruption. The factory, in the world, the world factory.” This is the poet Johan Jönsson reading from his books Efter arbetsschema (After Work Schedule, 2008) Livdikt (Life Poem, 2010) and (, 2012) in Erik Pauser’s film portrait Maskinen (“The Machine”), which premiered at Moderna Museet: “You are always there. It is always here. […] There is nothing that is not also production.” I am on my way to a different film screening, Counter-Production (Part 2) at Index, but take the path past Moderna, thinking how Jönsson’s recent books can be read as a form of “counter-production” through their manner of putting the production that takes place within health care, or within the factories, against that which is carried out in poetry.

Counter-Production (Part 2)
Dexter Sinister, Goldin + Senneby, Henrik Olesen, Johannes Porsch, Josef Strau, Josephine Pryde, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Marine Hugonnier, Marion von Osten, Mary Ellen Carroll, Ricardo Basbaum, Seth Price
Index, Stockholm

“I hold down his arms. // Yes. I hold down his arms. // It doesn’t feel like an assault. // No. // I don’t know what the alternative would be. // No // Nah. // Yes // Yes // My colleague parts his buttocks and injects two Microlax doses rectally. // Nah.” The contrast between the reading and the experience depicted is palpable. There is never any danger of confusing the work with its description in the text. If the poetry and the labor constitute each other’s «counter-production», it is because Jönsson is constantly seeking the material distinctions between different links in production. The work and the poetry consume each other, negate each other, live off of each other. Instead of an immersive fiction, the reader is faced with a «montage» of radically different forms of production.

So. One can write poetry about working in health care, and one can make a film about a poet, or about an exhibition. This we know. I walk on towards Index. What is being shown? In the informational material Counter-Production (part 2) is described alternately as a “translation”, a “sequel” and a “virtual incarnation” of the original exhibition at Generali Foundation in Vienna (Counter-Production, autumn 2012). A thirty-minute-long one-channel video projection is shown in the exhibition space, together with a dozen posters of the works included in the original exhibition.

Counter-Production (Part 2), Index - The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm 2013. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.
Counter-Production (Part 2), Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm 2013. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.

The posters have the character of oversized exhibition advertisements, with the possible difference that they also show a black and white picture of each work in its initial context. Other information consists of a pedagogical text beside the each artist’s name, the works’ title, year and the name of the gallery that contributed to financing the work. The film is a montage of short sequences, with still images and tracking shots through the space of the exhibition. The camera glides over the texts put on a gray concrete wall, including Tony Smith’s well-known description of a nighttime tour of the New Jersey Turnpike. The next clip shows a collective performance with people wandering around a room and reading from sheets of paper they hold in their hands (but you do not hear their voices). It is followed by images of various films, installations, objects, etc.

Moving an exhibition from Generali Foundation to a small institution like Index naturally involves some difficulties. This is easy to understand, but the question is what the curators, Diana Baldon and Ilse Lafer, want to achieve by showing a film version of the exhibition. The curatorial argument is familiar: the project wants to turn away from “traditional exhibition norms”, at the same time as it wants to make visible “how artistic and curatorial methods in our time overlap.” Why? Two reasons are apparent: the project wants to “instigate debate about the ability of curatorial practice to catch up with the actualities of artistic practice”, and discuss how art and exhibitions today “circulate in the same way as any information on the Internet.”

The latter train of thought is inspired by the artist Seth Price, and his well-read, post-conceptual manifesto Dispersion. But does art today actually “circulate in the same way as any information on the Internet”? The obvious answer is no. Art preferentially (most often) has the form of material objects or actions in the spatial context of the exhibition. This is an important different between art and other types of information. And does the readymade actually enact, as Price writes, “the dispersion of objects into discourse”? In that case, as he claims, “no one needs to make the pilgrimage to see [Marcel Duchamp’s] Fountain”. But why should the experience of the work be made irrelevant and consigned to the past just because the object is a readymade? It is a conclusion without any basis in reality.

Seth Price, Redistribution, 2007. HD Video, 44:15 min.
Seth Price, Redistribution, 2007. HD Video, 44:15 min.

That said, Price is correct that digitalization makes possible an art that can be recreated in ever new, upgraded versions. At least it has become possible for art to describe itself in these terms and Price’s own practice is an example of this. But the question is what art can gain from reproducing consumer capitalism’s most obvious lies (that information circulates free and boundless, that upgrading is necessary because it is possible, etc.). For Price, however, it is of course not about re-producing, but rather counter-producing marketing methods by incorporating them in a knowledge process. And if we disregard the contradiction that he, on precisely this point, identifies the fetish character of the commodity with the static object, then this is not an unreasonable perspective. The fact that counter-productions are “folded back into the experience of production”, describes quite well how objects usually become part of processes of learning and knowledge. I see nothing to object to in this.

What knowledge is it that is actually being produced? If we turn again to Counter-Production there are different answers to the question. In Marion von Osten’s video piece The Glory of the Garden (2009), the staff at Arnolfini in Bristol “chronicle the changes in management strategies, spatial arrangements, and the language of communication that occurred there over thirty years”, in which they are said to have realized “how the free-market orientation of such changes has been accepted unquestioningly, even perceived positively as progressive new modes of programming, service, and fund-raising.” Henrik Olesen has, for his part, made a work about Alan Turning that “shows the extent to which the production and reproduction of bodies are subject to political and sociocultural regimes”, and a computer assemblage that “foregrounds materiality and problematizes the value of computers in the production, reproduction, dissemination, and representation of artistic work today.” To name two examples.

Marian von Osten, The Glory of the Garden, 2009. From Counter-Production (Part 2), 2013 at  Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.
Marian von Osten, The Glory of the Garden, 2009. From Counter-Production (Part 2), 2013 at Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.

This sounds like interesting work, but the strange thing is that their knowledge processes are withheld from those who visit the exhibition at Index. Here you can read about the works on explanatory panels, and see images of them in a film, but there are also no objects, no installations, no performances. There are no works or documents alongside the secondary information, and thereby no possibilities for the visitor to absorb, verify or develop the knowledge that the works are said to generate.

But if Counter-Production (part 2) wants, in the first instance, to discuss “curatorial practice” and its possible closeness to the artists’ way of working, do they accomplish their goal? Is the exhibition-as-film an example of a knowledge generating process that counter-produces the curatorial practice’s established conventions as they come to expression in the exhibition-as-exhibition? One could imagine that the posters’ texts in one way or another comment on the work’s staging at Generali Foundation; or that the film, for example through the character of the images or the composition, made us attentive of some fundamental aspect of the spatial or temporal dimensions of the exhibition visit, to name two possible scenarios.

However, with the reservation that I have perhaps missed something, I cannot see that the film accomplishes either of these goals in any significant sense. As “translation” it does not seem to win any new ground for the originary iteration. And rather than a “sequel”, it has the character of a “trailer” for an exhibition that the visitor will never see (if she has not already done so). In this sense, the film appears to be a “virtual incarnation” of the exhibition, which confirms Price’s notion of the redundancy of the object, but contradicts the ambition of shedding light “over the actuality of the artwork itself and its processes of production” (which was the goal of the exhibition in Vienna). This of course raises a host of issues alongside the film’s flaws or merits. Like why it is even shown in an exhibition space instead of, say, posted online “like all other information”, or why Index’s thoroughly real exhibition locale is used to present a “virtual” version of an exhibition in another place.

In the end we are also forced to make reflections of a more fundamental nature. Should art be a space for the abolition of differences, for groundless fictions of frictionless digital processes of production, or a place where actual distinctions between aesthetic operations and their place in a global information economy can be made? Should it resist, or be subordinate to, what Johan Jönsson describes as “a virological and non-teleological spread of language […] that constantly mutates, taking new formations and continually dispersing […] always with connections to the hyper global circulation of capital”? At heart, the perspective of Counter-Production is probably close to my own understanding of these questions. However, we arrive at diametrically opposed views as to how such an understanding should be implemented in an exhibition.

Counter-Production (Part 2), Index - The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm 2013. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.
Counter-Production (Part 2), Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm 2013. Photo: Johan Dahlgren.