Katya Sander

Changes brought on by the gradual dismantling of Western Europe’s welfare states are giving new urgency to questions about the function of public space and its potential uses: How are surveillance and control structured? In what ways does the hierarchical organization of public space become apparent? How is “the public” produced, and what roles do its participants play? Such questions came to the fore in the three video installations by Danish artist Katya Sander shown together under the title “The Most Complicated Machines Are Made of Words.” What Is Capitalism?, 2003, shows the artist conducting a curious kind of man-in-the-street poll. She stands not in a crowded downtown pedestrian zone but rather in a bleak wasteland outside Copenhagen—elk can be seen crossing the field in the background. Nonetheless a few people walk by. In the mirrored exhibition space, which extends the projection into infinity, the passersby come out of nothingness and disappear back into it, uncanny and otherworldly apparitions. But then Sander looks directly into the camera to make sure the equipment is still working, saying “Do we have an image?” and so breaks the illusion. She approaches her pedestrians with the question “What is capitalism?” They give vague, awkward responses: “A principle of expansion.” “Like a big bubble that can only implode.” “A system of representation. The way money represents a given value.” “An economic system, a system of exploitation.”

Double Cinema, 2000, stages a favorite tool of consumer capitalism: a focus group. Two videos projected on opposite walls show a consumer poll being conducted as researchers watch from behind a two-way mirror. It is a textbook situation that goes awry because the questions posed by the nervous woman moderating the discussion remain curiously vague, leaving the consumers confused. The work was displayed in a room arranged with opposite banks of tribunal seating for viewers, continuing Sander’s critique of the surveillance apparatus of the focus group into the exhibition space.

Sander shows capitalism in various moments of failure. In Exterior City, 2005, the social system of the welfare state is revealed as a capitalistic pretext or a quasi-utopia. A young woman wends her way through the labyrinthine outdoor passages of various apartment buildings, identified by a voice-over as social housing in Vienna and Malmö. This urban activist puts up posters, a few fleetingly recognizable lines of text addressing her DEAR FELLOW RESIDENTS or DEAR CO-OP MEMBERS—an attempt, surely in vain, to find fellow agitators for an undefined cause. Architecture is presented as a carrier of social desires, in this case the fantasy that collective residential architecture will make for happiness despite neglecting the needs of individuals. Corresponding to the claustrophobic residential buildings, the closer you get to the screen, the narrower the exhibition space and the smaller the benches.

In all three works, some ideological conception of space (or lack thereof in the case of the wasteland of What Is Capitalism?) is borrowed from the video content and transposed to the architecture of the viewing room. This sustains the Foucauldian assumption that each of us participates in existing power structures, even in opposing them. Staging the interruptions and failure of utopian projects, the contradictoriness of systems, and disorientation in attempts to put these processes into words, Sander’s works become paradoxically exhilarating.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.