PRINT March 1999



Being something of a specialist on playgrounds myself, I can assure you that Carsten Höller’s two slides (Valerio I and Valerio II, both 1998) at Berlin’s Kunst-Werke are quite effective and also unusually fast. It’s fun to take the slide instead of the stairs, and its amusing to see others shoot out from one of the curved cylinders. However, what first attracted my interest wasn’t so much the slides themselves, as a small drawing with the fascinating German title Hochhausrutschbahnverbindungen (Slide connections between skyscrapers), which convincingly adds a visionary dimension to the works. One could easily want to dismiss these pieces for being a little too much fun, but the drawing displays them as but a tiny fragment of a futuristic city where huge bodies of glass and steel architecture—thirty-four stories high—are connected by slides for human transportation. In fact, the two rather modest slides in Berlin are viewed by Höller as prototypes for more advanced projects to come.

With the slide ride and the utopian drawing fresh in my memory, I met Höller in a hotel lobby. He was wearing the most elegant pair of lederhosen I’ve ever come across. One of Germany’s most successful young artists as well as a doctor of biology, Höller is also an outspoken and articulate critic of today’s society. Indeed, he sees his slides not only as a practical and ecologically sane means of transportation, but as a subtle critique of global utilitarianism. The joy of losing control while sliding down may not be a viable alternative to the sober rhythms of competitive capitalism, but it certainly does provide a form of pleasure unconnected to the fluctuations of the market.

Daniel Birnbaum


The Valerio phenomenon—after which I named the two slides I showed last year in the Berlin Biennale—supposedly originated at a rock concert in Italy last summer. It’s an interesting example of mass hysteria. A sound technician at the concert disappeared, and someone in the audience, pretending to know his name, shouted “Valerio!” More and more people joined in. It was, apparently, infectious, and it spread beyond the concert hall. All over the city, people were shouting “Valerio! Valerio! ” It actually spread from Brindisi to Rimini and other cities. There is something about the sound of this name that makes you want to shout it out loud. You feel a little better after you’ve done it, just like after having traveled down a slide.

When people are on their way down a slide, they often shout for pure joy. This is related to the Valerio phenomenon. I’m interested in the aspect of letting go. Once you let go, you travel without motivation to some specific place. It’s a very special state of mind. Maybe “happiness” (or “pleasure”) isn’t the right word, but it has to do with relief or even freedom.

I have a childhood memory that relates to this work. Everyday, on my way to school in Brussels, I would pass a large building in the middle of a park. The house was an old folks’ home. Silver slides led from the top floor all the way down to the park. Those slides were fire escapes, but one could develop slides for any number of different purposes. I’m experimenting with more complex structures—for instance, a forking slide with several routes, and an extra-large slide that you sail down more freely.

The Berlin slides are prototypes for other possibilities in other places. A slide is a sculptural work with a pragmatic aspect. It can be used as a means of transportation—one that is effective, environmentally sound, and elicits happiness. You let go and lose control, and a moment later you arrive safely at another place. However, at the Berlin biennial you don’t have to use the slides, you can just as well use the stairs. That gives you several possibilities: You can enjoy the piece as a construction, even as a metaphor. And you can watch other people slide down, or even slide down yourself. Once you’re off, it’s a relaxing way to travel.

In today’s world a utilitarian way of thinking is so dominant that other forms of seeing and acting have become almost impossible. This is linked to the enormously powerful and competitive (albeit foolish) economic structure that continues to spread over the world like a contagious disease. Utilitarianism is also a kind of mass hysteria, but not one that has to do with the irrationality of freedom and joy, at least not primarily, but with cost-benefit analysis. It is the mass hysteria of cost avoidance and benefit maximization. I’m quite disgusted by this development, as it suppresses other concepts to the point of extinction—like unproductivity, unreasonable behaviors (for instance, passionate devotion), exaggeration, tranquillity, and intrepidity. To shout “Valerio” is, of course, desperate and hopeless, but it provides relief from the burden of straightforwardness.

The worldwide mass hysteria of competitive utilitarianism leads to uniformity in any area that has been contaminated. The argumentative power of utilitarianism does not allow for a counterposition, whatever that might be. It has to be parasitized from the inside with other self-reproducing forms that originate out of demands, demands not fulfilled by this governing principle—for example, the demand for pleasure, not for entertainment or fun, which are surrogates for true pleasure. Obedience to utilitarianism can also lead to pleasurable moments (this is part of its success story), but there is simply no need for submitting entirely to this narrow approach to life.

It is fashionable today to try and set up a dialogue between art and some other field, whether it’s fashion, architecture, design, or science. In fact, my works have been viewed as an endeavor to extend art in the direction of science. However, I am quite uninterested in such attempts, because they generally rely on an outdated idea of autonomy. If one assumes that art is autonomous, one may try to build a bridge between two spheres: art and fashion, art and science. That kind of dualism and its supposed dialectical outcome, in a chic “autonomy-is-over” attitude, is not valid. I prefer the “and . . . and . . . and” model to the banality of duality. It’s true that I have worked as a scientist, and that clearly has influenced me and what I do. But I have also been a child, a driver, and many other things. The attempt to transcend the concept of art is usually a pseudoradical gesture, and my projects have nothing do with that. I’m interested in issues that matter.