New York

Rainer Ganahl

Baumgartner Gallery

FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, Rainer Ganahl has been lurking in the corridors of higher learning, monitoring the often unglamorous sites where knowledge is acquired and transmitted. He's produced long-term projects on the instruction of foreign languages and documented academic conferences and lectures by photographing speakers at the podium. His most recent efforts shed more light on the social spaces in which intellectual discourse is formulated, reworked, and introduced into everyday life.

In 1998, Ganahl formed the first in a series of reading groups focused on the writings of Karl Marx, the white-bearded sage who has played such a colossal role in the now-commonplace merging of art with theory. This show revolved around a central viewing station, where one could choose from a plethora of videotapes, each showing footage from a group meeting in New York, London, Toulouse, Oslo, Frankfurt, or Kiel. A stationary camera had captured the conversations in a practical, low-budget fashion; Here, as in all Ganahl's work, critical thought is materialized and secured for posterity. Other works on display included photographs from the reading sessions and public lectures (for instance, the British literary theorist Terry Eagleton on the future of Marxism); a blown-up, wall-size list of's first ten matches (out of more than 1,600) in an online search using the keywords “Karl Marx”; a videotaped interview with Ganahl's stubborn Stalinist travel agent, Rudi Gurtin; and a neon sign advertising the artist's website (, which includes a message board and a chatty, multilingual inventory of what visitors love or hate about Marx.

Ganahl's project gives off more than a hint of the fan club, with its voracious desire to categorize its idol's output. His work is often overtly comical, especially in the question-and-answer session Ganahl conducted with Gurtin, in which the artist tries in vain to get Gurtin to see the error of his ways. Also humorous are the photographs of the seminar participants, whose range of facial expression is fairly limited: occasionally pensive, but more often distracted, confused, or bored. In addition to this comedic aspect, the fact that several of the videocassettes were in the European PAL format—making them inaccessible to gallery visitors—led one to question the seriousness of the installation as well as the entire project's status as research.

Yet Ganahl's work is unmistakably earnest; there's little question that he means the process to be constructive. Ganahl aims for a high level of intellectual rigor in the sessions, as the seminar tapes demonstrate. He's constantly interrupting the reading to interject questions and comments (“Marx was a bit naive on that point”), and participants are encouraged to express their puzzlement at difficult passages in the texts.

As with documentation of most performance art, viewing the work in the gallery may leave you with the feeling that you're missing the crucial element of live interaction. Still, the project retains a spirit of old-school collective debate that keeps it alive once the encounter has ended.

Gregory Williams