“Political/ Minimal” at the KW Berlin and the road conceptualism has travelled

Francis Alys, Paradox of Praxis 1

Recently, while visiting „Political/Minimal“ curated by Klaus Biesenbach at the Kunst Werke in Berlin, I found myself wondering about the possibility of keeping on doing conceptual work today. Afterall hasn’t conceptualism exhauted all its self-reflexive possibilities already?

Done only one or two years ago, some of the works in the exhibition explore a classical reportoire of forms which are usually associated with minimal art from the 60s. Instead of repeating its typical hermetism this revived minimal brings forth all kinds of political issues.

I was specially impressed by Terence Koh´s piece, an unpretencious pink triangle which mimed the real one sewed in Men´s shirts to differentiate them as homosexuals in concentration camps. This fact alone explains and contributed to their small survival rate.

In Derek Jarman´s film „Blue“ (1993), an empty blue surface is projected together with a soundtrack revealing quotations from the artist´s diary as he went blind because of AIDS. The film, his final work, accompanies the disease process on an almost daily basis. Speaking of quotation, Tino Sehgal performed “Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things”, a dance piece based on some of Dan Graham´s and Bruce Nauman´s historical performances.
All works pointing to the fact that contemporary conceptual works seem to have abandoned the self-reflexivity and hermetic level which characterized conceptualism in the late 60s and early 70s to embrace aesthetic, personal or political experiences foreign to historical conceptualism.

In itself, this use of former formal structures and strategies to convey a whole new meanings represents an openness. No doubt, did self-reflexivity correspond to a specific moment in Modernism, in which different disciplines took themselves and their own field of research as their own prime subject matter, be it as a reaction to the threat of new disciplines popping up or, the trend of interdisciplinary methods or, a specific socio-political context.

Self-reflexive new media artworks conceptualize their own technical specificity, like Paik exploring things like the effects of magnets in electronic images or, pioneering live broadcasting or, Vito Acconci developing work which played with the possibilities opened up by closed-circuit, etc. in some sort of parallel to Greenberg’s ideas on self-specificity on painting.

Instead of representing a certain decay or a dead end, self-reflexivity has come to include a broader sense. The exhibition “Political/ Minimal” teaches us exactly how historical conceptualism surpassed its own hermeticism to embrace a whole new series of issues outside itself.

Given their specific nature, media art works occasionate an unforeseen and totally different relation with the society they are produced in and which they are produced for. Technology is part of all levels of our life, it is designed to be automatic and acritically assimilated, its is filled up with corporate values and hidden intentions (to force a new need upon us, to makes start a new behaviour, etc) and is distributed through whole different channels. It is in this sense that works reflecting upon the effects and consequences of technology could also be considered self-reflexive.

In this sense, some works no longer conceptualize around their specific technical functions and language but on their impact on us, on society at a larger scale instead.
Moreover, works dealing with self-reference, quotation, referring and reflecting upon icons of the past, should also be thought of as self-reflexive works – Duchamp´s Gioconda with a Moustache when mocking artistic value, cultural tradition, etc.

Self-reflexivity in media art thus includes works dealing strictly with the technical specificities offered by the medium (formalism), works dealing with the consequences for the individuum and society derived from the specific technical possibilities opened by the medium and works referring, quoting other works within a given cultural tradition (linguistics).

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