“Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox: 1989–2017” at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna
Text by Isabella Zamboni
When writing about “information overload” in his best-selling 1970 book Future Shock, futurologist Alvin Toffler predicted the troubles caused by the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced in the then-developing so-called information society. Cognitive, psychological, even physical troubles. At a distance of almost fifty years, amid the current explosion of content production, media devices, and a general FOMO, not experiencing a sensation of excess at a book exhibition is somehow a relief.
The “chapters” of Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox: 1989–2017 are numerous (eleven), and the single room they occupy at Kunsthalle Wien is not massive. Yet walking through the hall, one is confronted with an airy arrangement, a scattered rhythm of contributions, and an encouragement to leaf through the pages—but not to linger too long. Considering that no chairs, tables, or other obvious reading spots have been provided, the show exhibits agents of an experience that happens outside of the Halle: reading. In this, the display conceived by the collective Rio Grande and the design studio Dallas seems to make an ironic comment: the publications are exhibited on shiny brown brick roof tiles mounted on three little gabled rooftops (without houses beneath). Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox does not resemble a reading room, nor a book fair, nor a discursive Lesetapete (“reading wallpaper” typical of 1970s exhibition design), nor a library, nor a series of educational vitrines. Rather, it is a collection of suggestions that hints at the ideal condition for their consumption: Sunday at home. Yet when books meet art, reading is not constrained to words; of course it implicates the eye. At the very end of the exhibition, artworks touching on the printed world pop up on the wall, for instance a close-up of a librarian’s feet, as if he is stretching to reach books on high shelves, in a small painting by Sanya Kantarovsky. At times books are presented as images, as when we encounter them opened to specific pages and protected by glass. In the publications submitted by Jochen Lempert, arranged in a row, the big wasp on the cover of Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera seems to be whirring from the garden of the suburban home shown in the open spread of the book next to it toward the close-up of an iris shown in the next book over. In the series submitted for inclusion by Josh Smith, the Russian avant-garde clashes with a flirty boy-band teenager.
The show does not pretend to be exhaustive, as curator Luca Lo Pinto makes clear, but rather offers a three-dimensional bibliography, an index. The thematic approach pointedly does not focus on artist’s books, but rather on the relationship between art and publishing—the importance of the reading experience for artists; artist-run magazines; artistic interventions into the press; post-digital projects; the bookshop as a curatorial enterprise; artworks that experiment with language and publishing—with a small retrospective dedicated to Philippe Thomas and an offsite project inside the former library of crucial Viennese artist Franz West. The period analyzed ranges from 1989 until 2017, from the advent of the World Wide Web and the fall of the Berlin Wall to today.
In the chapter “The Message as Medium” a question arises, which can be addressed to the artistic encounter with publishing in general: Does art produce “knowledge”? The chapter shows artistic interventions in magazines and newspapers, in some cases camouflaged, in others standing alone as works, in yet others focusing on the medium of the press itself. In times where facts are not guaranteed assets, then one could argue, as Ada O’Higgins did last year in Texte zur Kunst, that institutionalized, methodological, academic or theoretical “objective” writing has become a poetic object itself—a precious treasure now needed more than ever.1 But the experience of art’s engagement with publishing in the Vienna show seems to demonstrate the significance of knowledge of another sort, a knowledge of art, insights and cognition that neither concepts nor information (or poetry), but art, produces—a relentless movement from thing to sign, from vision to concept, from presence itself to a reference to something other (language). On the last “rooftop” of the Kunsthalle, in a December 1980 intervention by Alighiero Boetti into the Italian Communist-oriented newspaper il manifesto, we see a boxed-off blurb unemotionally listing the grammar rules of Esperanto—verb tenses, adverbs, pronunciations. The box is directly under a news article announcing the crisis of American labor unions and patriotism among the working class under Reagan’s presidency. At left, an article suggests how “Christian values” dictate life by gradually taking the place of stricter religious dogmas. Boetti’s box exposes, because it is inserted among critical essays, through artistic appropriation of words and concepts—rendering signs, then thing—the fatigue of seeking a common, pedantic language of struggle.
1. Ada O’Higgins “If You Don’t Like the Reflection. Don’t Look in the Mirror. I Don’t Care,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 103 (September 2016), 88–93.
at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna
until 28 January 2018