1980s

Text by Jochen Gerz

François Mitterrand 1981The eighties are not the age of the past but of remembering the past, the beginning of a new outlook. Memory (collaboration, colonialism) – never heard of in France? The Empire, never heard of in Brixton and Coventry? Contemporaneity – technology, innovation, civil society and public consciousness are the prescription against state crime. Whatever makes it to this VIP list is part of the elite of export-driven industries. Human Rights top every poll. The industries of consciousness are the German contribution to the propagation of the end of denial and the admission of “Schuld” (guilt) as a feel-good factor both inside and outside the EU. Coming to terms with the past is a new peace-making competence (South Africa, Germany, Ireland). Perhaps the last utopia is the transnational and transitional memory. Peace is in sight. Lots of culture is the daily diet. Culture is a new trust. Everybody is a minority in Europe, but all sides need to be involved in the negotiation, this mantra is a seller. The economy and all the golf clubs go in for culture. At the same time, the end of the Soviet Empire happens and not many people see it coming. The Eastern European states do not need memory, they do not need to negotiate peace. They are free. No strings attached. Culture is good for you, but Bill Clinton is right: It’s the economy, stupid.

Jochen Gerz: "Der Kopf der M.", (The Head of M.) 1977

He remembers two visits to Greece, one for the Bielefeld Poetry Colloquium organised in 1981 in Athens and a later visit to Delphi for a contemporary art symposium (meeting Marcia Tucker and Dean). Both visits stay with him like interrupted dreams. Jogging in Delphi and the walk to Marathon with the old poets. The intensity triggered by certainties you meet inside yourself at every moment during your stay, your “knowledge” from nowhere, which does not fit this place. Greece is not Greece. Where does the certainty come from? The encounter of the two, this mix is the intensity of Greece.

Jochen Gerz: "Die Reise", (The Voyage) 1981The return to two pasts in Athens, visual poetry and Europe (the other past). The somewhat diluted theory of experimentation and the appearance of academia, the takeover. The presence of academics and critics does not produce theory, the need for theory, or give theory a lifeline at least. Or does he call something theory, ten years later, that did not exist before? Before, meaning 1968. The trip to Athens is a family visit, somebody dies and he himself has been abroad for a long time. We all get older but nobody tells you. Everybody lives a professional life. Everybody teaches somewhere, most people have other things on their minds. Poets, publications and friends – as if they were clumped together in this. In what? As always, seeing does not make him part of what he observes. Where does he belong? What is he doing? Why did he come here? Can he return? If so, would it mean going backwards? Would he like to if he could? Father, I have sinned. Meeting Ernst Jandl, Gerhard Rühm, Hartmut Geerken, Priesnitz, Pastior, Ulrike Mayröcker, Oswald Wiener, Christina Weiss. Maybe this is what happens: a dissolution, the end of a movement. They call it Visual Poetry because they never knew what to call it. Your name is my name. Everybody has been an island for years already. Something is overdue. What we do is not sustainable for ourselves. This is routine; this has become the normality. He remembers Ezra Pound looking for Europe, looking up Europe in Elsie Butler’s amazing book.

Europe is the second past. What makes him remember? Europe is Athens. You cannot leave it when you are leaving and you cannot find it when you are looking for it. You can only remember Europe. This is the reason why he has not seen this before. Europe only has a past. This is why he does not make the link to his own present work, the Greek Pieces and the Kulchur Pieces. The second past is the first past, but it comes to you only later. When you look back. The age-old poets’ slow walk to Marathon, he likes walking. Hearing the breath of others and finding time to speak. And: the immense piles of litter on the beach. This is not Marathon, this is what we call pollution. This is the other place, our times. He remembers both. 

Postcard, CanadaDuring the day careful talks about who cares. More visits to the past: the German occupation of Greece in World War II, and again like an old joke: antiquity (antiquity as a clan). The Greek Myth (Schwab) is over, the present is reborn without parents. Everybody seems to run around looking for the mother sheep. The end of an attraction – sitting outside in the warm night above Athens, he remembers a talk about something different and far away. It happens when Ossi Wiener has a pee. Ingrid scribbles something on a napkin. A name. A place? And when he comes back, they are talking about the Yukon. At daybreak the surrender and a few more words. Fifth Avenue, Dawson City. See you there. Next door is many miles away. At the end of the night the plan: a new life. Talk later. Don’t tell anybody. A gift is a good translation for as close as it gets.Jochen Gerz: "Le Grand Amour 1", 1980

Visits to Germany; love is blind. He thinks he knows these people.Jochen Gerz: "Le Grand Amour 2", 1980/81 Most people know their parents. They say: We do not want a sleeping lion, we do not want a weeping mother… anything easy (city and museum officials discussing the brief, explaining the commission for the Monument against Fascism to the artists of the competition). They say: We do not want something we already know, something that pleases us. Without these people there would be no disappearing monument. They walk right over him, into his life. Return to charming old Paris after he finds out. Paris is a tree that never loses its leaves. Memory as he has not seen it before. Did he say public memory is kitsch? Did he say nothing has happened since 1968? (They say: We want the knife that turns in the wound).

Many people speak, as if they were speaking together for some time already, one after the other, speak and listen, men and women of different generations. How old is he? Civil society is quite a marvellous way to deal with the difficulty of denial. It can happen any day, that is the lesson. One day the unsaid grabs the mike. It is the soft-spoken beginning of something he does not know. He thinks he knows these people. Politicians, administrators, academics. Yes, this is a real invitation. He cannot put himself in their way (like a monument). He cannot put a monument in these people’s way.

Visits to Esther’s Israel, no honeymoon. The discovery of the other memory, Yad Jochen Gerz: "It is no Mystery: Your Knowledge will kill you", Tel Hai, Israel, 1983Vashem, community and naked life. No need to run away or: how to start counting with two. Memory, they left with nothing else. “We escaped with nothing but our lives”, with life and a canon as old as time. It is true there is nothing to life but life. Life is naked. Whose life is more naked? The return to the chosen land, the return to an exile called home. The chosen land of survival. Passover for goyim. You may very well speak German here. We do not need to fight over whose life is more naked, over how much you need to believe in, how much you need to doubt. Who needs to be chosen? Visits to Israel; the discovery of Bauhaus, of everyone’s Weimar, of all our own modernities. Meet the many alibis for living a naked life and the secret joy of trading. 

Perhaps it is just a moment, a glitch. Is it true, did it happen? An idea is a moment without the following page or the previous one. It is a page ripped out of a lost book. A page without anything else. A page of naked life. The signatures make the monument disappear. Does it happen? Do they really do this? Who are they, the few people he meets? The politicians, the engineers, the art historians? What do the civil servants want? Is it these people’s own idea? Do they know? What do they remember? A moment in the public eye, years of media controversy, a slow and sometimes painful moment of public authorship, eight lowerings later, many signatures, scratches, graffiti, banalities, a few swastika, many repairs later, the Harburg monument has completely disappeared. “Nothing can stand up against injustice in our place.” Everybody knows this from the beginning. It is gone and the monument is now a story to be told. Memory like a future device, like a warning. Change can change. “Who will we be many years later"

Society is not only the people in the room, it is also the others who do not fitIssue of the trade union newspaper of Solidarność, 1981 into the room, who do not know, who could not care less. What do the people who are not in the room know? Who tells them? What is the truth? Can the truth be what they do not know? Democracy is a movable room, a dynamic space, a room for all. They are inside the room, wherever they are. Oblivion is also inside the room. So they should know. They’d better know. And art? What does it have to do with people? What does it have to do with all those who do not know? Building a new room is changing the room. There is only one room.

Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz: "Mahnmal gegen Faschismus", (Monument Against Fascism) Hamburg-Harburg 1986Back to the public meeting in Hamburg in 1983. What to call these people? Who invites them? What brings them together? Memory is a fairly new word. They say: Yes, we know. They did not survive Treblinka. They do not remember what did not happen to them, but they claim to know what happened before their time. To other people, to people like themselves. And they admit that they know who was in charge of the genocide. People like themselves. Can they bring all sides together? They admit that they are not sure about themselves. What would they do? That is what they do not know. What do they need to do with this? Is it memory, memory the unifier? Or do they need to remember in order to be able to move on – in what direction, together in the same direction? Things have changed, now you know. But it lasts only a moment and that’s cruel. It can change again. Maybe it only happens inside your head. Tomorrow he says: It was only a moment ago, a few years. That can’t be? He tells himself: stop whining. “Whatever happens, there is always someone sitting in the corner of the room putting pearls on a string.” It is memory that is sitting there. This story is not about art, not about him. It is about them.

Working that way within society was a way to continue. Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz: "Mahnmal gegen Faschismus", (Monument Against Fascism) Hamburg-Harburg 1986One day he will be back in the street, but how? People, or rather the public mind, is the real site of contention, not the street. He cannot say this without being scared. He will not win this. It is only a matter of time before he gives up. Before time moves on.

Art without a museum, a dealer, an opening, a curator, a gallery, a collector, a critic, a sculpture, a drawing, an installation, an auction, an introduction, an academic, an art school, a catalogue, a magazine, a wall, a sale, a fair and a viewer… art after art. After all he knows has happened, after all he knows is the past. 

Jochen Gerz: "Adventus", 1990The eighties see the return of the pictures and “the hunger for painting” and he prepares for a new cycle of timelessness (all the futures of the past: 1980 up to the present day). Many artist friends discover they have been painting before doing art. But the new conceptualism is the age of the curators. Past and future are the stuff new shows are made from. Everybody likes Duchamp and an academic career. People like quotes, like to sing a song from the songbook, like what they need to like. The new age of practicalities is nigh. The art world is growth (smiley). How to explain that there is progress in everything, in every item, in every catalogue introduction? A brand new bridge for every riverbank where we have all been before is needed – a bridge of terms and conditions. The need to say we is new. The news is not easy, the new is always difficult to understand, hence the need for a guide, a competent opinion. Art departments flourish. How to make parents understand that art is not a big joke, is no longer “l’art pour l’art”? They need to crack the nut. They need help. They do not know. They do not have the time themselves.

But they need to invest. They need to be able to take a risk in order to play the Jochen Gerz: "Le paradis", (The Paradise) 1986game. They need asset management. They need to follow the rules. They need the right timing and to know where not to go. That art means buying and selling more than owning, even more than creating. That art is cash on the wall (Calgary Herald, 1982). How to explain this all-pervasive need for information and networking? And that making it all known to their envious friends is a serious business? There is more to art than artists. Art is a PhD. Vasari’s children are spreading the word and information is the new knowledge.

Discussing art (rather than the artwork itself) becomes a trademark of contemporaneity, and progress a trademark of societies that tolerate and even embrace the new. And the new is not an object. Art is part of a knowledge and consciousness industry. Art is not alone anymore; it is embedded in a growing number of somehow similar productions. The notion of industry expands to more and more activities and manifestations that are economically driven, that are service-driven. The notion of the object does not disappear but implies more and more complex networks of activities (and technologies!), and not only of a material nature. And whatever the networks of activities imply, at the end of the process of “fabrication” is a sale or an acquisition. And: Everything and everybody needs a manual (a license for understanding).

This act of consumption is not an end in itself but an essential step within the distribution process of something that comes with a time-bound guarantee. Consumption stops time for a while. And after time has gone by and the guarantee is no longer applicable, something else can or should replace the object, which is no longer new. The flow of replicable items is not the flow of reproducible items. The replicable item refers to the need and the capacity of people to replace things

Creativity is acknowledged as a provider of new industrial developments on an unlimited scale. The “market” for creativity in general is expanding much more than the art market, but the potential of art to network globally on a sophisticated level is seen as a sign that art can be an avant-garde again and again. Art indicates cultural growth. The aura of the avant-gardes of early modernism is today a cornerstone not only of art history but also of the creative industries all over the world, and even for entire societies in the Western world and beyond that are proud to call themselves “cultural” or aspire to do so in the future. Art is the myth of this secular, materialistic and commercial setting.

Postcard, Canada, Haida dancers, 1900Societies rely on this myth in a hyper-explainable, rational world, on a planet that, as a community, needs to communicate and explain more and more exceptions to itself: accidents, natural catastrophes, genocides, climate change, infections, terror, and inequality of course. All of this is happening and known worldwide. It is related to the presence and activities of the human species. It shows the ever-growing need to explain and to make sense of the human and the “humane” world. It uses society as a resource, it stands for its survival. Survival is not a term that makes people think of gods anymore. 

The term “unthinkable” coins a persistent trend in the rational cultural world. Indeed by now it is a traditional medium for the question as well as for the answer. The change from the reproducible to the replicable is made possible by the new, and the promise of the new object is by its nature something that can be found both in art and in industrial production. Art today behaves industrially, not only as a production but also as a “message”. The appointment is arranged, time and place agreed upon. It is communication. Ultimately all is PR, this is the message of the disappearing object. The term “creative industries” closes the gap and marks a common level playing field for potentially one (plural) message. Remember Lautréamont (1906): Poetry must be made by all, not by one? Here we come. 

Farblithografie, 1987One could call it the end of a fatal attraction, the end of an inequality or the return of resemblance. It is quite easy to hide behind difference, to accept exclusion as long as you can admire it in return. It is easy to be small, to disappear. Whatever makes life a challenge for oneself is outsourced into a culture of the Holy Grail. Secrecy surrounds the event of culture, the advent of creation: the new picture show, the new sales pitch. The mantra is: A viewer is a viewer. 

Yes and no. There is also another piece of evidence. Resemblance. You are me, I am you. There is resemblance at play (and at work) in both cases: the pyramid of the Führer and the mastaba, the level field, the equal grounds for public expression.

Culture is a necessary remaining step. In spite of, and because of, all that happens. Violence and distortion cannot silence the need for equality. The level field of access is the last unconquered peak (excuse the image). Radical access to the level playing field, the authorship of all: this is culture. Culture is not a social withholding tax; it is access. This civilisation will be judged by one criterion only: equality. It may look foolish, but equality matters. The distribution of practice conditions the access to quality as well as to goods. If poetry is to be, to exist, everyone must make it. Poetry means to act.

Fall of the Berlin wall, 10.11.1989It is not possible to pin it down to a year: men and women. One outcome of 1968 is a more feminine art community, and this means more artists (women and men) and that is one way that things continue to change after 1968. Maybe the first changes come through students at universities, young people in the media, galleries. If painting, the traditional nucleus of art production, is not the first to surrender, the art environment – galleries, critics, academics, distributors, media – is putting up less resistance. Art looks at the world through the eyes of its time, and these eyes belong after 1968 as much to women as men. These eyes are less different from each other than before. The impact of women is growing. This is new and that is what counts in the arts. Art with writing, writing with the body, body art written with body ink and leaving body traces. Art within time (with a beginning and an end), art that does not last, new forms of mobile, liquid communication, stains. Not painting so much as many media bundled together, all possible media at the same time. New media art is an art that blurs the identities of gender not only of artists. The art world expands. Artists and viewers move into the same space. All of society is the new focus of art. Consumers and producers move closer to one another. People continue (after 1968) to talk about hugging each other.

Nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl, 26.04.1986

Jochen Gerz: "The US Doubt", 1989Empathy is a new criterion. People are a growing concern. Life (after survival?) cannot be taken for granted. Pershing, Chernobyl. Violence is caused by technology. Technology is people, but it starts to leave people behind; it is visible since it implies authorship and responsibility in general. Humanity is people. This is the legacy of Nuremberg, of the 20th century. You cannot judge fatality. Question fatality. Fatality is an authorless crime? After Mother Nature and plenty of good and evil gods, who is in charge of fatality? State crime is the new fatality. Ask who is hiding. People. Question yourself. Remember inequality. More people turn to the arts, but many more talk about something else, injustice. Victims need a voice. What is “here”? Here is maybe a village or a country or “this side of the world”.

Oil clean up after the Exxon Valdez accident, 1989Here perhaps is the planet. Here is the place of a specific technology, a device. Can they measure becquerel – or not? Here is not geography but information. Whatever is in the news happens to everyone. New laws are written. Laws are changed all the time. More people are informed, more people are conscious and more people are concerned. More people are getting involved and more people create. And technology is accelerating day by day. Creation leaves more people behind than cash. After 1968, the generation of artists are people (women and men) from a more aware and self-aware society. But the stumbling block is inequality. Culture is authorship for all or a lie.

My name is Jochen Gerz