Eigene Systeme

Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof / Institut für Zeitgenössische Kunst

The attempt to counter prevailing political, economic, and social realities with an alternative model may be the most ubiquitous impulse in modern and contemporary art. “Eigene Systeme” (Autonomous systems) tried to situate itself in this dichotomy of “own” and “other.” The emphasis was on experiment, the fictive, and individual spaces of freedom. But the real constraints of economy and ecology, urbanism and time were the borders of these realms, within which a total of eight artistic positions had room to play and to work with their “autonomous systems.”

In the video Being, 2000–2001, Luis Felipe Ortega undertakes his own personal form of time travel. Filmed during a road trip in Mexico, it thematizes Ortega’s subjective perception of time. His attention fastens on tangential details like factory fans or a woman’s feet and thus runs against an economy of time oriented toward productivity. Instead, the work tries to construe its own form of time based on constantly shifting ideas, metaphors, and spatial imaginings.

Ortega’s video, with its emphasis on the subjective, was countered by the work of Nils Norman, which occupied an arena more public than private. Besides proposing an ecologically valid architectural model—Proposal 10, 1998, the repurposing of Vienna’s Generali Foundation as an ecosystem complete with mushroom and fish farming—Norman presented photographs from his archive of “Urbanomics,” 1999–2002, in which selected motifs of modern urban design are presented as means of social control. On the other hand, these same motifs—among others, the absurd fencing off of weeds—could also be read the other way, as metaphors, perhaps, for niches of protected space.

Works functioning as self-contained systems were contrasted in turn with ones that embedded themselves parasitically in extant structures in order to negate them. The most impressive of these, as a realized project, was Minerva Cuevas’s Student ID Card, 2002, an office that produced convincing-looking student identification cards for anyone interested. Only the definition of this work as a one-time artistic intervention set a limit on its potential for undermining the distinction between students and others.

Eigene Systeme” reads like a continuation and update of the old dialectic of “self” and “other,” independence and colonization. What was striking, though, was the lack of any polemical approach and the near-absence of any trace of the pathos of revolutionary plans for a better world. Instead, in comparison with what one would have expected in the ’60s and ’70s, greater importance was attributed to the private, as in an untitled work from 2002 by Viola Klein, who combined a questionnaire about social behavior with a personal iconography of palm leaves. When the collective did come into play, it was often treated as a screen or surface on which to make associations. Thus the Danish artists Rasmus Knud & Søren Andreasen presented five videos that referred to, among other things, the discourses of architecture and technology. But they were done in the style of commercials, products of information and image overload. In this case, the task of establishing autonomy fell to the observer, whose task was to anthologize the offerings.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.