The Hague

“After Neurath”

The last few years have seen a growing interest in the work of Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath (1882–1945), who, after World War I, developed a system of “pictorial statistics” that he later dubbed ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education). In collaboration with the artist Gerd Arntz, who executed the graphic symbols as linocuts, Neurath devised a method for making complex statistical information more easily accessible. Neurath was convinced that statistics could help enlighten people as to their social conditions, and that they were an essential tool for progressive politics. As the political climate in Europe grew worse in the ’30s, Neurath relocated to Holland; he lived in The Hague between 1934 and 1940, when he fled to England. The exhibition “After Neurath: Like Sailors on the Open Sea,” curated by Steven Rushton—which is part of a more extensive yearlong project (also called “After Neurath”) at Stroom—combined printed matter from the Neurath/Arntz holdings of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag with works by contemporary artists.

Among the works on view were graphs of geopolitical and social data from Neurath and Arntz’s 1930 picture atlas Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy), along with “updates” of these charts by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann. Neurath was a positivist obsessed with social planning; in spite of his leftist political convictions, his visual statistics, as tools of planning and control, would seem to be compatible with a variety of modern social systems. Creischer and Siekmann seek to counter the technocratic and depoliticizing streak of Neurath’s project by conceiving at least some of their updates as interventions that break with his positivism, for instance by turning the neutral heading “Reallöhne 1928” (Real Wages 1928) into “Ökonomische Ungleichheit 2001” (Economic Inequality 2001). Perhaps more tellingly, Creischer and Siekmann’s posters Fortress Europe I, 2003, and Fortress Europe II, 2006—relating to migration and asylum seekers—are so complex that Neurath’s ideal of near-instantaneous legibility collapses.

Something similar happens in the work of the French collective Bureau d’études, who present a series of large diagrams, “The Agro-Food System,” 2006, that use a “pictographic grammar” of signs to denote various social and political actors. Whereas Neurath and Arntz’s graphs often present rows of units denoting numbers of people or amounts of a certain type of commodity—one simplified linocut car by Arntz standing, for example, for one million automobiles, and a row of ten for ten million—Bureau d’études try to chart intricate social structures. The results look like Piranesian flowcharts that suggest that society may be beyond visualization, throwing the usefulness of diagrammatic representation in doubt.

The other contributions seemed less essential to the overall exhibition—with the exception of Oliver Ressler’s video installation Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies, 2003–. Formally, Ressler’s installation can be characterized as research-based art at its most generic: Sixteen monitors show video portraits; black adhesive tape lines on the floor extend from each monitor, bearing a quote from each protagonist’s monologue. While the work’s visual qualities are not compelling, the videos still manage to fascinate, thanks to the web of ideas formed by the various interviews with economists, political scientists, authors, and historians, who propose alternatives to the current economic-political system. These urgent arguments that a different world is both necessary and possible were perhaps the most fitting tribute to Neurath’s ceaseless charting of a world rent by inequality and oppression.

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