|Jochen Gerz: Creative Stimulator
of Participatory Art
The idea that art is (or should
I say, is to be?) created by all people is not new though it is largely
ridiculed and rarely tested.(1)
Is it still provocative? Hard to say. In today's "turbo"-capitalist world
of frequently misleading if not idiotic "information" and, just a frequently,
simply boring "enterntainment," the urge to be provocative has become a
futile endeavor of public-relation nitwits. They swallow everything, from
Coca Cola to revolution to Moses, Jesus Christ, Buddha and Mohammed,
and turn it into shoddy merchandise. Or rather, slick ads for shoddy merchandise
- ads that are themselves merchandised: sold and bought in the PR market.
So it's hard, some say, to compete against that. And not only hard but
Jochen Gerz has a quiet way of working
on his projects that appeal to people to "join in". His manner is unassuming,
without the extravaganzas of those who want to be "hip" in the art market.
He is refreshingly open to the kind of risk that today's "risk-taking"
managers, investors, and politicians shun. It's the risk that doesn't promise
a reward in cash which he takes - the risk of being alive: open towards
everyday life, everyday people. Everyday needs, concerns, scandals, worries.
Memories if not histories. Visions and fears. Hopes and despairs. And the
thoughts, words, acts that spring from it.(2)
There is no money in it, in a significant or predominant sense; maybe a
little occasionally, enough for him and his wife to survive. The "pay-off"
or "dividend" (if we are to use the perverse key-terms of today's usual
"risk-takers") is of a different sort. It is discovery.
Discovery? Yes. Creative seconds,
moments, days. Unearthed thoughts, and emotions. Opened windows of
the mind. Not in him, only, and perhaps not even "first of all" in him.
But in those everyday women and men, those contemporaries, he succeeds
to involve - in what? Yes, what? An art work? A project? A new, surprising
situation? Yes - and it takes shape under their feet and before their eyes
and in their mind BECAUSE THEY ARE INVOLVED IN IT. Sometimes THEY are an
anonymous number of persons. As few or as many individuals as happened
to respond, for instance, to that "pillar" Gerz conceived.(3)
A pillar which was slowly sinking into the ground of a public square, a
public location crossed by hundreds or thousands, day by day. The column,
the pillar, hidden today, in the ground, bears a text they could read while
it was visible. Since the moment the column had disappeared, into the ground,
only their memory will remain. And the imagination. The emotions felt and
the thoughts thought about it. About the disappearing, now "hidden," pillar.
The text, now "hidden." And all that which the text referred to. It will
remain, as a "hidden" presence. Remembered. Re-actualized. Made present
in the pre-conconsciousness, the consciousness. Returned to, actively,
again and again. "Confronted" not only by those who saw this public sculpture
in slow motion. But also by those who are compelled to reflect on
it, or who choose to reflect on it, now. Even though they came too late
to see it while it was disappearing. It is a challenge, and the challenge
is taken up, actively, by that unguessable number of individuals who are
touched, who respond. The effect, the changes brought about: uncalculable,
"hidden," like the sculpture is, today. And yet, present. Sometimes, "invisible"
tremors, "subterranean" shock-waves, relying on the vases communicantes
some Surrealists so pointedly referred to, may work actively in us,
even though hardly noticed as a part of ourselves. A creative moment, a
creative awakening, an active involvement need not always be a very conscious
affair. And yet these moments of "discovery" are present in us, and
sometimes the beginning of a turn-about, in our lives.
It was Sartre, in the 1940s, who
told us that the imaginary (l'imaginaire) is the central aspect of art,
its essence: not the concrete object, not the photograph of it - but what
happens in our mind, our consciousness when we have seen the object (or
But isn't Jochen Gerz, in conceiving
his public sculptures, focused more on memory than on imagination? For
this native German, born in 1940, "exiled" for many years in Paris and
now in Ireland, the need to actively confront the past, especially the
Nazi genocide (and the terrible war unleashed by Nazi Germany), has been
a recurring motive force in several of his projects. And yet, Gerz seems
to play, quite radically, with this tension, between being and nothingness.
Between the object he has created (the column, for instance - or stones
with inscribed names that have been inserted into the pavement), and its
negation, its Nichtung or disappearance, as it gives way
(present or not) to a signification, an imaginary presence that lingers
on and undergoes transformations, as it produces offsprings, as it "multiplies"
in the minds, in the consciousness, in the dreams and day-dreams of individuals.
An unaccountable number of individuals, probably a growing one, will have
become more than just onlookers, more than people briefly noticing a work
of art. So, is such a public sculpture, such an art project, after
all activating? Is this the famous stone thrown into a pond? Is this the
Buddhist sage, the Taoist priest, the ancient Greek philosopher who by
posing questions, by offering a startling line, by voicing a paradox, sets
in motion creative processes, processes that involve the intelligence and
the feelings of those who discover that they have, after all, eyes to see
and ears to hear and a conscience not blind to the crimes of the past and
the needs of the present?(5)
Everybody is an artist, Gerz said,
echoing Joseph Beuys. Echoing Surrealist artists of the pre-WWII era. Echoing,
perhaps, Marx who strongly believed (like William Blake, before him!) in
Prometheus Unbound, in the creative potential within the individual, within
every human being: that potential which WANTS TO BE SET FREE, in every
one. It is a vision of man that postulates his (as yet, largely unrealized?)
liberty. That accepts the existence of his budding, seminal liberty. His
capacity to "transcend" that which is and that which he is. This
creative potential is, after all, the possible basis of all self-emancipation.(6)
But Gerz, you see, is not working
for a revolution tomorrow when he is pushing towards a new art. An art
that is an art of liberation in the way that a certain theology is a theology
of liberation. Yes, he is determined to give things a push, determined
to set something (in you, in me, in himself, in individuals) in motion.
A self-liberating process. Open-ended. Still he does not dare, does not
want to preclude "results"...
Every human being, every man is
an artist. Yes, Jochen Gerz, the man who left Germany, who studied in London,
who lived and worked in France, who now chooses to live in Ireland with
his French camarade, muse, wife, fellow artist, Esther, embraces this view
when he quotes Beuys. For Beuys, certainly, to insist on the artist quality
in everyone was a radical step ahead, but it still reflects a rather
idealistic view. As a teacher at the art academy in Dusseldorf, Beuys could
encourage his students to discover the artist inside themselves, he could
encourage them to have courage, to engage in self-liberation, to discover
artistic freedom and even social involvement. As an artist, Beuys relied
on the imagination of the viewer as every artist does. And certainly, his
way of working meant that he demanded a lot of it. But wasn't there still
the gap, the gulf between exhibiting artist and visitor of an exhibition?
As a thinker, reflecting on art and society, Beuys was wonderfully idealistic.
Gerz, however, introduces the dialectics that "put a bit of down-to-earth
materialism," one might say, into the idealistic statement just quoted,
this statement that treats potentiality as facticity, or so it might seem.
Gerz completed the statement of Beuys by adding its missing half:
Every artist is a human being, a man - un homme, ein Mensch.
And what does it imply if not to come down from the pedestal that the culture
scene has occupied, that so many gallery owners, art critics and art professors,
sometimes even artists themselves have reclaimed, either for themselves
or for "noted" artists, for the "genius" at any rate that they identify,
and this more often than not in order to push up the price and to bath
in the glory of having "recognized" such eminent creative talent.(7)
If Gerz is modest, it's not because
he is average in the sense of being epigonic: he treads on new ground,
new terrain - there can be no question about that. If he is modest, it's
because of his political "position," his choice, his consciousness that
tells him he is a man not above and not below other women and men. It's
because he is radically democratic; this, yes - and probably solidaire:
in a spontaneous and at the same time, in a reflected, reflexive way solidaire
with his fellowmen. It's because he is (I suspect) full of concern for
the lot of the world, the future of this place we inhabit, the lot of his
and your children and grandchildren. He may not shout it OUT LOUD (indeed,
he doesn't) - but the urge of the Surrealists, to change life, to make
a difference and thus bring change, to enable improvements of our neighborhood,
our town, our society, can be felt in & can be "read" in many if not
all of his projects.
It is a liberating, a participatory
art that is taking its distinct shapes - involving people who by common
standards "are no artists." And who are not even especially engagé,
to begin with. Although this is what they may well become in the course
of a project. But even if only minute changes happen inside them, in their
lives, thoughts, emotions, their práxis and its concrete
acts, its meaning, and the difference it makes, this is already beautiful.
Beautiful living art that they have come to create inside themselves and,
by reaching outward, also out of themselves. Living art - that they embody
still. Even tomorrow when the project is already part of the past. Art
history and social history and history of an experiment at least as far
as the period of its conception and its formal, material "realization"
The column may have disappeared
into the ground.
The stones inserted into the pavement
may wear off under thousands of footsteps.
The concrete people asked to participate
or volunteering to participate for a given period of time - those women
and men, for instance, who were secretely thinking up their wishes for
a peaceful Europe while giving their name in order to have it inscribed
into the location chosen by Gerz, or those others who were joining the
inhabitants of a run-down neighborhood, living with them for a time in
the same street of a de-industrialized Ruhr District city, obliging themselves
to write down their thoughts, emotions, impressions, day by day - they
all may have dispersed into the four directions of the compass.
But something, like a prairie fire,
will spread. Something, like an avalanche, will increase. Something, like
love, will continue to bloom. In them. In us. In others, yet. Maybe tomorrow.
Maybe earlier or later or too late. This is not what Gerz or anybody else
can hope to control. This is what Gerz certainly doesn't want to control.
He has conceived something, has started it, has set it free. It's on its
own course now, it has its own "life" as a creative process (an "ART" process,
a "LIFE" process...). This is living art, de-materialized in the end, l'imaginaire.
The material object: withering, waning. The art work as social experiment,
project that makes a difference in the lives of people: temporal, like
every composition with a beginning and an end, thus of limited duration.
The artist, temporal rather than immortal, as well - a fact that he, Gerz,
accepts, even on the symbolic plane, that of "lasting reputation."
He accepts, he says, to recede into the background, to wane, as everything
and every one.(8)
Part of the living process, the historical process I might add; a process
that goes on. And yet, he and we who turn actively towards the works he
initiated, know something will remain, it will blossom, bear fruit, develop
into something else. And thus go on, and carry on a larger, deeper, more
comprehensive human project that his projects, his works, inscribe themselves
In our once sleepy minds, forgotten
HOPES, suppressed FEARS are visible suddenly. And out of it, as Blake
knew, VISION springs.(9)
And with it, CHANGE. CHANGES. The beginnings of a new, much more
Feb. 13, 2010
(1) If I speak of people, I imply individuals choosing
their own, lonely "artistic" path as well as the usual people often referred
to as consumers: "serialized" individuals giving in too often and too much
to the impulse and pressure of prevailing conditions. And, of course, I
also include those individuals who have chosen to form a "group"
involved in project-focused cooperation.
From an optimistic point of view, that is to say, a "necessary"
point of view, in the face of a past that includes the Nazi genocide and
a present that includes the genocidal exploitation of Congolese raw materials
by Western corporations (both resulting, within the short span of a few
years, in about 6 million victims of human perversity), no one must
be discarded and "written off": none of the isolated "artists", certainly
not the "lonely crowd" Riesman referred to so pointedly so many years ago,
and surely not those actively involved in projects.
What does it mean to say that all "people" can be "artists"?
They can discover, hidden in them, their creative potential: their authentic
expressive faculty, their ability to think and act and create, neither
urged on by destructive impulses directed against themselves or their fellow
men, nor seduced by the carrot or whipped and driven forward by the stick.
Ezra Pound, himself seduced to mistake the Italian Fascist
Ordine nuovo for the projected beginning of the "Good Order" that Master
Kong had invoked, was right in one essential way: Man is always able to
"MAKE IT NEW". He can err, in isolation or as a crowd. But he can discard
old ways, old errors, and attempt to "make it new." If he exists under
given conditions that have put their stamp on him, he is free to "make
something of that which has been made of him." The creative potential to
transcend that which exists is inscribed into the human condition, into
the human species.
(2) As an artist committed to democracy, to the vision
of active participation by those who have been thrust very often into passivity,
a false, consumerist desire to be "entertained," to be "coached," to be
"lead" and "saved," or who have let themselves fall into an apathy and
a readiness to "let things happen" to them, Gerz has moved from the studio
into public space, and perhaps also from idiosyncratic (more hermetic)
concerns towards much that is tied to "everyday life" and the needs of
women and men in everyday reality. The urge is prevalent, in his projects,
to activate these contemporaries in their milieu, within "everyday life."
- It is, above all, Henri Lefrevre who has, from a theoretical point
of view, shed light on the significance of our concern for and exploration
of everyday life: all those matters, concerns, situations, contradictions,
relations (and structures) of domination and exploitation that manifest
themselves in the context of la vie quotidienne. His diverse contributions
alert us to the relevancy of focusing on those things that either persist
(as the debris, the heavy weight of history, one might say) or, more significantly,
take shape in a new and fresh way, in the context of our lives. If we attempt
to see "everyday life" as our laboratory, our space for creative involvement,
isn't this a way to confront both the historical weight of the past (present
in our minds and "on our shoulders") - and, at the same time, all the potential
for change that exists in us? Changes that we can bring about, starting
where we are, in the midst of la vie quotidienne...
(3) See: Jochen Gerz with Esther Shalev-Gerz, MONUMENT
AGAINST FASCISM, Stuttgart (Cantz/Hatje) 1994
|SOME PROJECTS BY JOCHEN GERZ
L’ANTI-MONUMENT. LES MOTS DE PARIS (Paris)
MONUMENT AGAINST FASCISM (Hamburg-Harburg)
2146 STONES – MONUMENT AGAINST RACISM (Saarbruecken)
SQUARE OF THE EUROPEAN PROMISE (Bochum)
2-3 STREETS - An Exhibition in Cities of the Ruhr (Duisburg / Muelheim
an der Ruhr / Dortmund)
AMAPTOCARE (Ballymun, Dublin, Éire)
(4) Jean-Paul Sartre, L'imaginaire. Paris 1940
(5)There is no need to invoke the midwife analogy of Socrates
who refused to "teach," insisting that by posing questions, he was merely
- like a midwife - helping others to discover in themselves the potential
to actively confront the ethical (and thus, social and political) problems
of their day. Or to put it in simpler terms, their potential to think,
and discern "true" from "false." In our days, the playwright, poet, and
thinker Bert Brecht has similarly insisted on the necessarily active role
of those usually referred to as "recipients," "onlookers," "viewers," or
"the audience." It was an active role he sought to stimulate and encourage,
by his "questions," both in actors and "the audience." Even if the questions
Gerz has chosen and today chooses to pose may appear to us as of a different
calibre than those posed by Brecht (they certainly seem to be less ostentatiously
inscribed into a radical political frame of reference), his insistence
on the active "involvement" or "response" of those who confront his public
sculptures, or other projects, and his critique of the prevailing tendency
to limit the individual confronted with art to that of a passive recipient,
a "viewer" or Zuschauer, seem to be "Brechtian" indeed in the modern context.
(6) The insistence on the active rather than passive individual
is typical for Gerz. And this not only as far as his critique of the "passive
viewer" facing a work of art is concerned. For Gerz, the idea of an individual
limited (or limiting himself) to the role of the "passive viewer" is contradicting
the notion of democracy itself. Democracy implies active participation.
One might add, democracy as an unfinished project (or as a certain deconstructivist
said, as an unfinishable work in progress) requires this very awareness
that it is linked to our perpetual, permanent, self-liberatory project
as members of the human species. And especially insofar as we are disempowered,
marginalized, in "our" highly industrialized Western societies. Or belong
to the hungry and oppressed in the so-called Third World. This emphasis
on "self-liberation" is not new, though. It is interesting to note
that, preceding all "Marxist" dogma which he ridiculed, Marx (who, by the
way, refuted "systems" and who said of himself, Je ne suis pas Marxiste)
emphasized very clearly "that the liberation of the working class can only
be accomplished by the working class itself." Not by self-styled "left-wing"
leaders. Not by theoreticians, not by political parties of the left - whatever
their contributing, "maieutic" role. Equally noteworthy, his concept of
"party" referred to the social block or camp of the oppressed proletarians
of his day, and the allied intellectuals (of whatever class-background)
who confronted the reality of oppression and exploitation by the dominant
aristocratic and bourgeois social forces. "Party" was a descriptive sociological
category that took on a political meaning to the extent that this part
of the population gained "consciouness" of their situation and of their
innate (but suppressed) desire directed at improvement of their lot, and
towards liberty, towards self-emancipation. Clearly, the term "party" as
he used it (especially in the earlier and middle part of his existence
as a critical thinker) did not refer to organized "political parties" (like
the pre-WWI German Social Democratic Workers' Party, the British Labor
Party, or the party that he did not live to see develop, the Russian Social
Democratic Party (Majority faction; in Russian, majoritaire is rendered
by the term Bolshevik). Therefore, all political rights and tasks were
attributed by him not to party leaders, party committees, etc. but entirely
to the oppressed segment of the population (to the "damnés de la
terre", the "wretched of the earth") whose active role became historically
necessary even if formal liberty was granted, because this was not enough
and because material liberation could only be the result of self-emancipative
activity. Emancipation, in Marx' view, required the active subject, the
active individual more or less consciously (and courageously) choosing
to join together with other active individuals, in order to change life,
in order to change the world. In a certain sense, this is a basic insight
shared later on by others who invoke participatory democracy, including
advocates of non-violence.
(7) Of course, the sentence added by Gerz has also another
implication. It slyly raises our awareness that the artist, this human
being, has also human needs and desires. He needs to eat and if left to
starve, this violates his most basic human needs. If left to live in a
moist, cold, mildew-plagued one-room apartment "on the other side of town,"
or compelled to seek accommodation, during cold winter nights, in the New
York sewers or discarded supply tunnels of its subway system, if, in other
words, he's (or she's) down-and-out, we must not romanticize it and seek
comfort in the fact that he (or she) "is an artist - and artists live on
air and love" (as an odd German saying has it - "leben von Luft und Liebe").
(8) The acceptance, on the part of Jochen Gerz, that he
will "wane" (as an artist) and recede into the background appears to be
not entirely unlike the readiness of some "revolutionary" artists to discard
the notion of individual authorship, and become "anonymous." Of course,
such anonymous status can be a fake. It cannot be willed. The Odyssee,
ascribed to Homer, may be the work of several epic poets and the name,
Homer, may be no more than a "label" or "stand-in" for these individual
poets who added to the work and who didn't care to add their "author's
name" because this was unusual at the time, perhaps, or because the active
reception process of those "clan members" or "individuals belonging to
a tribe" who memorized, recited, and in turn contributed to the epic, became
more relevant than any major individual contribution. Is it permissable,
today, in the case of Gerz' projects, to ask to what extent, despite his
initiative, a kind of (perhaps similar) "collective" authorship is realized?
And perhaps even desired by him, Gerz? And this even though he is a man,
I think, who undoubtedly insists on the importance to perceive the specificité
of the individuals involved. Because, I add, he sees them as involved "members"
or "active participants" in a "project," stressing perhaps their choice,
certainly their active, inventive, therefore creative (instead of routine
and programmed) contribution. In this, and due to this active involvement,
his co-workers in some projects, like "2 or 3 streets," sometimes may appear
more like members of a "group" (as the term was understood by Sartre),
rather than "figures" in a routine-governed, largely "serial" collective.
Those who, unknown to each other, obliged themselves to think of and think
up and keep in mind and hold on to their individual wish for a peaceful
Europe can even be likened to the sworn members of a secret society of
the 18th or early 19th century. Separate, living in different locations,
without material contact, they are nonetheless united by a common bond,
that is to say, by the variety of hopes they embody: something that in
a larger, wider sense amounts to a common engagement for a cause. On the
other hand, passers-by on a square are so often so much like the lonely
in a lonely crowd: isolated, "atomized". But isn't it the act, the choice
of turning towards the public sculpture that lets some among them overcome
There is something else, besides the possibility of overcoming
isolated authorship in order to arrive at joined, creative authorship,
that strikes me as radical in Gerz' approach. It is the de-materialization
already noted, the determination to transcend the specific material object,
whether it was, in his early phase as an artist, the painting hanging at
the wall, or later, the sculptured pillar or column that, in order to be
symbolically de-materialized, had to disappear from our vision, negating
our chance to see it physically as more than a small patch in the ground.
This runs counter to the art market which produces the fetishized, commodified
object that you (i.e. some) can put a prize on, that others can acquire,
and take away because it is a commodity, in the market. The "waning" object
just as the "waning author (i.e. artist)" both put an obstacle into the
way of commodification, so much is clear, I think.
Or, as Andreas Weiland told me, "Es geht um Entfetischisierung
des Kunstwerks, seine Auflösung in's Bewusstsein der - fast
im Brechtschen Sinne - aktiv einbezogenen Menschen, die damit aufhoeren,
passiv zu rezipieren. Es geht also um aktive Rezeption des Projekts als
Vorschlag [proposal] an Einzelne, mitzuwirken, sodass es also zu einem
gemeinsamen (kollektiven?) Projekt wird. Die oder der Mitwirkende aber
beginnt in der Co-Aktivitaet, aus der Vereinzelung herauszutreten und sich
zu transformieren, was wiederum das Projekt, das "Kunst-Werk" transformiert,
es noch deutlicher macht zum Raum bewusstseins- und letztlich gesellschaftsveraendernder
Praxis. [What is at stake is the de-fetishization of the work of art, its
dissolution into the consciousness of individual people who are - in an
almost Brechtian sense - "involved" and who thus cease to be passive recipients.
What is at stake therefore is active reception of a project. taken as a
proposal made to individuals, a proposal to participate in its creation,
making it thus a shared (collective?) project. The woman and/or the man
participating begins, thanks to her or his co-activity, to transcend societal
isolation; they begin to transform themselves which, in turn, transforms
the project, the "Art-Work". Which thus, even more clearly, becomes a space
of consciousness-changing and society-changing práxis.]
(9) Yes, William Blake again. Didn't he say "FEAR and
HOPE are VISION"?