New York

Rainer Ganahl

Rainer Ganahl’s “Seminars/Lectures” is an ongoing series of photographs, begun in 1995, which depicts an august roster of intellectuals—rock stars of academia from Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Cornel West to Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Rancière—delivering their ideas to audiences across the country. A sampling of images from “S/L” (the title invokes Roland Barthes’s S/Z [1970]) were included in a recent retrospective at Columbia University’s Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery (a very appropriate venue). Also on view were recent photos focusing on the often jarring juxtapositions between Ganahl’s highbrow subjects and the visual aids or backdrops that become the “sets” for their “performances”: Griselda Pollock lecturing under a projection of Marilyn Monroe and Jackson Pollock; a tableau of graying white males (Eric Hobsbawm, Carl Schorske, David Montgomery, and Ira Katznelson) pondering “The Cold War and the University, at the New School,” under a José Clemente Orozco mural of Latin American peasants.

The show illuminated Ganahl’s focus as not just the aesthetics of academia but the politics of education and learning. Who gets an education? How is knowledge disseminated and applied? As the artist pointed out in an introductory wall text, American universities are vastly more expensive to attend than their European counterparts, giving the lie to the myth of American class mobility. And while Ganahl is best known for “S/L,” the larger goal of his practice is the dissemination of knowledge beyond the lecture circuit. The artist uses photography to document seminars that he organizes himself, in which participants discuss selected works in a variety of settings: “Reading Karl Marx,” for example, took place in Kiel, Oslo, Frankfurt, New York, London, and Leeds between 1998 and 2001; other events, such as a reading of Frantz Fanon in Central Park that took place during the 2004 Republican National Convention, exploit the resonance of specific times and places.

But while the exchange of ideas across national and cultural boundaries might be a utopian end were it genuinely untrammeled, there is still the language barrier to contend with. Informed by structuralist and poststructuralist ideas about the relationship of language to epistemology, Ganahl has taught himself several languages—so far French, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Modern Greek, Korean, and Arabic. (His native tongue is Vorarlbergian, an obscure Austro-German dialect.) Stacks of videotapes documenting this process, including My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese, 1999, and My First 500 Hours Basic Arabic, 2002–2004, were displayed here on a low platform, serving as both documents and absurd emblems of certification.

Ganahl’s argument is that even basic language education is politically fraught, since the tilted socioeconomic playing field makes it virtually impossible for some people (read: poor immigrants) to ever achieve “mastery.” The linguistic friction between cultures is evident even in rudimentary texts taken from language instruction materials, excerpts of which Ganahl has paired with photographs of the lands in which the languages are spoken. For instance, Basic Canadian, In the eyes of the people, 2000, captures graffiti in Quebec that reads LES ITALIENS CONTROLLENT LE QUEBEC. Here, a third linguistic/ethnic group enters the already troubled English-French imbroglio. (Language as a cultural and political battleground was similarly showcased when Ganahl provided an open forum in the form of whiteboards for visitors to the 2003 Armory Show in New York to make known their opinions about US politics. As if proving his point about language, politics, and power, someone wrote: “If it wasn’t for War, you’d be speaking German or Japanese.”)

Ganahl poses some important questions, and while the disparate elements of his practice have occasionally seemed disjointed, this retrospective tied them all together, revealing his engagement with language, pedagogy, and politics to be unified, cohesive, and vital.

Martha Schwendener