I spent the past week in Umeå, Sweden, and Vienna for two fantastic (honestly!) conferences on “genres of scholarly knowledge production” and the “poetics of infrastructure” (Der Standard wrote up a little review — and quoted me, the “media scientist” (ha!)). They couldn’t have been held in more disparate spaces: In Sweden, we met in HUMlab’s two labs: one featured an 11-screen display system; the other featured a wall screen that allowed for the juxtaposition of three different images or videos, and a huge adjacent floor screen. In Vienna, meanwhile, we met in the Depot, a low-tech “international anerkannten Institution und Plattform entwickelt, in der Wissenschaft und Kunst in einen Austausch treten”!
Each room had its distinct charms and quirks, but the Depot’s aesthetics were more my style (what can I say?: I’m a Cabinetmaker’s Daughter). And while I much preferred the hardwood, analog parquetry at the Depot, I couldn’t help but notice a formal resonance with the fascinating Elizabeth Palmer Peabody pre-printed grid worksheets — an integral part of the feminist history of data visualization — that the brilliant Lauren Klein shared with us in Umeå (see photo above).
I also found some time to explore and, of course, visit museums and see some art. I’ll catalogue my experiences Chinese-encyclopedia style: I saw (1) “natural” stuff; (2) things related to the ego and its analysis; (3) things related to old media and historical modes of representation; (4) things in containers; (5) stuff that is blue; (6) things woven or sewn; and (7) bananas, lions & Loos.
First, Nature: Right after arriving in Umeå — as the sun was setting at around 2:30 — I went straight to the Bildmuseet, a bright, airy museum with remarkably satisfying acoustics, which I happened to remark upon when I last visited a year-and-a-half ago.
Footsteps on pine floors, resounding in the sun-drenched galleries of Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden. Such an inexplicably satisfying sound.
— Shannon Mattern (@shannonmattern) May 14, 2013
The Campana brothers’ Woods is a spartan Dr. Seussian forest of wood-and-flax arboreal sculptures. The dried leaves’ sweet smell — and taste — permeated the gallery air. There was an allergy warning posted outside the gallery, for good reason.
Later, I visited the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien — Vienna’s Natural History Museum — a magnificent time-capsule of 19th-century museology: the vitrines-and-specimen-label approach to classifying and compartmentalizing nature.
Also in Vienna, at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), Carsten Höller’s LEBEN installation — which transformed “living” into an experiment — included Gimpelwaage, featuring two cages, each with two bulfinches, all of which were trained to sing a lullaby. The cages were suspended from a scale, which registered slight variations in weight caused by, say, one of the birds taking flight.
In Höller’s installation, even human nature was made the subject of experiment. Those birds were present, in part, to serenade visitors who paid to spend a night in a nearby Elevator Bed. As TBA21 explains:
The hydraulic double bed can be raised to a maximum height of 3.5 meters, allowing guests to quite literally perch high above the exhibition space as they sleep. They are also invited to use the adjacent High Psycho Tank — a flotation bath filled with a high concentration of Epsom salts, triggering a state of weightlessness and isolation from all external influences and inducing an intense feeling of relaxation. Before heading to bed, guests are invited to try Insensatus, a triad of dream-enhancing infused toothpastes created by Höller in collaboration with the renowned perfumer Ben Gorham, generating dreams with a female, male, or infantile orientation.
A set-up ripe for psychoanalysis.
Speaking of psychoanalysis, I also went to the Freud Museum. This was a rather overwhelming experience for me, because the warring forces of destruction and construction, of trauma and healing, were so palpable in that apartment at Berggasse 19. In particular, I was struck by both the horror and sublime goodness of humanity. I read testimony from the Freud household maid, who watched as the benevolent doctor and his family, who “had done nothing but good,” were accosted by the Nazis — and in reading her account, I cried. Then I read scores of letters from British and American government officials and colleagues who did everything in their power to assure the Freuds’ safe escape from Austria — and I cried again. I was afraid one of the museum clerks would see me; I assumed they’d lead me through a secret door for emergency analysis. But I managed to finish my tour and take my leave without incident, my emotions fully sublimated.
Meanwhile, at 21er Haus in Vienna (OMG – what a great venue!), Joseph Kosuth organized “Sigmund Freud and the Play on the Burden of Representation,” in honor of the 75th anniversary of Freud’s death. Excepting all the Paul McCarthy crap, the exhibition featured a fantastic array of psychoanalytically-inspired work: Kosuth’s own language-based pieces; works by Baldessari, Vaneesa Beecroft, Victor Burgin, Mark Dion, Susan Hiller (whose 1994 intervention @ the Freud Museum has long fascinated me), Hans Hollein, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Hito Steyerl, Bill Viola, Francesca Woodman, and a bunch of other interesting pieces, including some lovely and new-to-me library photos by Clegg & Guttmann.
Back at the Bildmuseet, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s exhibition gave individual visitors agency in activating his work — a primarily egocentric aesthetic experience. In his Frequency and Volume, you walked through the gallery, passing through intensely bright, broad streams of light generated by two projectors. Sensors detected your presence and filled the shadow you cast on the wall with map coordinates, while fuzzy radio broadcasts associated with those coordinates played over the PA system — faintly if your shadow was small, louder as the shadow increased in size. As Lozano-Hemmer explains on his website:
The piece can tune into any frequency between 150 kHz and 1.5 GHz, including air traffic control, FM, AM, short wave, cellular, CB, satellite, wireless telecommunication systems and radio navigation. Up to 48 frequencies can be tuned simultaneously and the resulting sound environment forms a composition controlled by people’s movements. This piece visualizes the radioelectric spectrum and turns the human body into an antenna. All the receiver equipment used and antennae are exhibited in an adjacent room.
The project was developed at a time when the Mexican Government was very active in shutting down informal or “pirate” radio stations in indigenous communities in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero. The question “who has access to the public space that is the radioelectric spectrum” is one that deserves attention and visualization tools not just in Mexico but also here in the developed world, where there is a remarkable assymmetry in the assignation of frequencies only to government or corporate interests to the detriment of community-building, experimental or artistic uses of the spectrum. This project was inspired by the “Manifesto for Antenna-Man” and the radio poetry experiments by the Mexican estridentista artists in the 1920s.
On another floor, in Pulse Room, users grabbed a metal “handle,” which recorded their heartbeats — and that beat was then translated into a pattern by which ~300 incandescent bulbs were illuminated. The illumination pattern also enacted a memory of previous participants’ pulses. The visual and sonic echoes in both pieces are reflected in the uber-title for the multi-part installation: Draft of Shadows, a reference to a poem by Octavio Paz: “…footsteps / in the mind more than shadows, / shadows of thought more than footsteps / through the path of echoes / that memory invents and erases….”
STUFF USING OLD MEDIA & MODES OF PERCEPTION
“Peter Weibel – Media Rebel” at 21er Haus explored techniques of perception and display (and he experimented at various scales — from the level of typography to macro-scale museological conventions) and materialities of storage (ranging from various media formats to shipping containers). I got in trouble for taking photos, but having this documentation of the cleverly-designed show made the public shaming well worth it.
Downstairs at 21er Haus, Krüger&Pardeller’s “HOMO FABER” installation presented, like the Weibel exhibition, myriad modes of representation and presentation, including a 3-D “audio play” (which I didn’t understand — because Ich spreche kein Deutsch!). Nevertheless, as the museum explains, the show embodies debates about the nature of artistic production — specifically regarding sculpture:
In the 1950s debate focused on the extent to which a sculpture can be autonomous, in other words can be an entity in itself. The issue of the surroundings became increasingly essential, and artists began realizing their work in large, space-consuming installational forms. The crisis in classic sculpture at that time led to environment and installation art.
I certainly got the sense that I was viewing and inhabiting multiple sculptural scales simultaneously: there were drawings of sculptures, texts about sculptures, maquettes, full-scale sculptures; plus, the installation itself was a sculpture of circulation, and the sound components transformed that space into an inhabitable, navigable sonic volume. Even the speakers were sculptural.
THINGS IN CONTAINERS
The abovementioned works certainly fit into this category, too, but this section focuses on works whose subject matter has nothing (or little) to do with nature or media history. Hey, this is a Chinese encyclopedia: the categories are meant to be leaky!
My afternoon at MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (or, Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst), offered the most pleasant few hours I spent in Austria. The building itself provided a spectacular container for galleries and classrooms — and those galleries reflected some provocative experimentation with display techniques and museological conventions. We begin with a rather traditional Baroque/Rococo/Classicism room, into which Donald Judd was invited to make an artistic “intervention.” Then, in the Asia collection, Johannes Wieninger and Tadashi Kawamata created a rough, sinuous 2×4-and-glass scaffolding, and scribbled labels directly on the glass with magic marker. Buddha sculptures were nested into crevices carved into the walls.
In the Renaisssance/Baroque/Rococo collection, Franz Graf made use of floating structures to convey the transparency and delicacy of the glassware and lace on display. In the Biedermeier collection, Jenny Holzer inserted electric signs along the crown molding — and I liked that the linearity of her signs was reflected in the chairs’ arrangement, in a long row at the center of the room. I was also quite taken by the 1825 Viennese ladies’ writing table, with recesses for flowers and a posh foot cushion.
The chairs all lined up in Barbara Bloom‘s Art Nouveau presentation, too; here, Bloom highlighted the “drama” of bentwood furniture’s evolution and presents the work– referred to as the “Viennese chair,” despite the fact that the style didn’t originate in Vienna — in appropriately dramatic cabaret fashion. Bloom’s approach reminds me a lot of the fantastic Fin de Siècle chair exhibition at the Swiss Institute, which I wrote about last month.
And then, of course, we have the magnificent Viennesse Secession rooms, presented in chronological order to represent the evolution of the style — Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimpt, Adolf Loos, Dagobert Peche…. Sadly, I was a few days too early to see their new Ways to Modernism: Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Their Impact exhibition. Damn.
The innovative containment continued in the exhibition of the 100 Best Posters of 2014 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; and in the MAK DESIGN LAB space downstairs, which is organized “functionally,” into sections for cooking, eating and drinking, decorating, sitting, transporting, protecting and adorning, collecting, communications — with a few “Chinese encyclopedia” wildcards thrown in for Hoffman/Geometric, Helmut Lang, ornament, and production.
THINGS THAT ARE BLUE
While MAK organized its collection by period, medium, or function, the 21er Haus arranged its bookshop by color. But some exhibitions took this chromatic approach to the extreme.
Kunsthalle Wein’s Blue Times was inspired by the ubiqity and popularity of the color blue. The exhibition was designed to juxtapose blue-works to “design an associative social history of the colour that focuses on its psychological, metaphorical and associative power, but also its instrumentalisation for ideological, political and economic purposes.”
There was even a Blue Salon, with blue books, blue music — Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was on the record player while I was there — blue textiles, blue minerals, and other blue artifacts and texts.
THINGS WOVEN OR SEWN
The Campana brothers, at Bildmuseet, offered these little woven stools outside their flax room. And at Mumok, in Vienna, Rory and I met up to see Cosima von Bonin, whose work was new to me — and who brought to mind Mike Kelly, Jacques Tati, and Rosemarie Trockel. The exhibited work ranged from stuffed-animal tableaux to tapestry/quilts, and each gallery pumped in sound via cartoon-ish early-iMac speakers or through sound-projecting dome speakers suspended from the ceiling.