congress / reading room

License to Create

Agnieszka Rasmus-Zgorzelska

Artistic formats aim to democratize art. To those who want to create, they give a possibility to show their efforts to the world on preestablished, clear and fair rules.

Are you intimidated by modern art exhibitions, where abstract installations lack any commentary that would shed some light on their meaning? Are you afraid to participate in artistic events organized in spaces access to which is blocked by an entry phone? Scared of booking a museum visit via telephone? If so, you’re the target audience of a self-taught French artist living in Denmark, Thierry Geoffroy.

Geoffroy stages his events in public spaces and cultural institutions. During these events, invited artists and their audience can chat about things that bother them or discuss the problems of modern societies. One such event consisted of discussing the role of the artist in the modern societies while running backwards through the streets of London. During another event, participants were supposed to plaster the side of a respected museum with subversive slogans every day at noon.

Geoffroy called these stagings “artistic formats”. Connotations with “Big Brother” and “American Idol” are not coincidental.

An artist, like the producers of television shows, sells a license to use his idea and create an international “format” upon that idea. The audience can easily access these formats of artistic expression, viewers know what to expect of them and can even participate in the stagings.

The Colonel acts the fool

Thierry Geoffroy, nicknamed Colonel (after his father's military rank; he was a colonel in the French army, stationed in Algeria), was born in 1961. He studied medicine for three years, but started staging his first exhibitions while still a teenager – one of these exhibitions showcased pictures of his grandfathers in military uniforms, photos which he found in a collection of old photographs. After dropping out of med school, he threw himself into his artistic work, he traveled, took lots of photographs and filmed short movies, performed, interviewed various people on the street, pretending to be a naive tourist-cum-ethnographer. His performances, documentaries and exhibitions always had very revealing names, e.g.: "TV is loneliness," "Sports-centered art show" or "Why do people go crazy over Cindy Sherman?". The names are a testament to his ceaseless fascination with mass media, the intermingling of art and information, journalism and entertainment.

Geoffroy knows that nothing is so appealing to the audience as making a fool of oneself. For example, while in the Scottish town of Huntly, he tried to measure the percentage of “Scottishness” in each Scot, eagerly commenting his faux-scientific experiment.

Geoffroy says: "I'm a serious man, but I do my thing in a funny way, I want to make it big in the media and be noticed. Some artists choose pornography, others kill animals. I chose being a funny man".

But his stagings are not without a deeper meaning. That Scottish faux-experiment, during which Geoffroy asked people he met on the street only one question: “How many percent of a real Scotsman are there inside of you?”, while funny, was meant to expose the absurdities of modern politics. Using that same idea, Geoffroy filmed a few TV series, posing a similar question to Danes, Germans and Dutchmen.

He accomplished an interesting feat: he sold his parody of a format to a few production companies. Moreover, his shows broke out of the realm of television and the Internet and were even shown in museums and art galleries all over the world.

So, did he use mass-media tools to create a work of critical art? Hanna Wróblewska, the director of the Warsaw-based “Zachęta” gallery, explains: “The position of art in our world is changing. It’s no longer meant to satisfy the patron or the needs of the religious masses, so the artist has to negotiate a new position in the society. The only way to salvage the bond between the artist and the audience is for the creator to convince the consumers that art is actually something everyone can engage in, something that not only entertains, but changes us, makes us think. The role of the television format is hard to miss. Some artists will consider it a world they can experiment with. Their first attempt will be revelatory, the second – entertaining, the seventh or tenth – suspect to critics, but all the same, the viewers will be satisfied, because they want to know what they’re participating in.”

The most famous of all formats conceived by Geoffroy is the Emergency Room – it’s a space, set apart from the general space of the gallery or museum, where artists present their works on a daily basis, thus providing commentary on social and political events from a given day.

Geoffroy claims that the goal of Emergency Room and other formats, such as an exhibition staged inside another artist’s exhibition or discussing various matters while dancing or running is exercising of the artist’s “awareness muscle.”

The artist’s role is to be “society’s thermometer”, reacting to its problems. In Emergency Room, the form of created art is not as important as the tensions produced in the act of creation. The Situationists, a countercultural socio-artistic movement, had similar aims. And since we’re living in the 21st century, Geoffroy, in accordance with mass-media logic, records his every artistic undertaking and uploads the videos to the Internet, where the chance of them creating such tension is extremely high.

Pecha Kucha, Bar Camp, Blackmarket

Such ready-made templates, allowing the artists and the audience to discuss current events, are created by various artists and curators, often without labeling them as “formats”. One of the older formats is the poetry slam, an informal reading during which poets compete with each other by reciting their work.  Everyone who can secure a venue, an audience and a few willing contestants can organize such an event. Pecha Kucha, another example of a format, is a presentation (often a PowerPoint one) during which the speaker can show only 20 slides (with 20 seconds per slide); the audience of a Pecha Kucha can drink beer, heckle, or in any way comment the speaker’s performance. All attempts at adapting the Pecha Kucha format for business environs have failed – they were deemed too simplistic. On the other hand, BarCamp conferences became a huge success. The BarCamp conferences differ from their exclusive forerunners in that anyone can organize them or participate in them. Blackmarket is an information exchange, an event during which the participants can arrange short, face-to-face meetings with specialists in a given field. Blackmarket was patterned after speed-dating but devised by people from theater circles, who were interested in analyzing the dynamics of social interactions during performances.

The artistic experiment that is formats has been already copied by people not linked with culture. Last year, a Blackmarket event was organized by marketing people to share knowledge with newcomers to their trade.

The X Apartments event, organized last year in Warsaw and a few other cities by the Goethe Institute, also has theatrical roots. These “performances in apartments” gave the audience an unusual opportunity: the spectators could interact with the artists and decide for how long they want to watch them perform. Thanks to the X Apartments, the audience could experience art in the artists’ private space; it was also a chance to visit places that aren’t commonly associated with the creation high culture, such as sprawls of prefabricated housing projects or courtyards of old tenement houses.

Formats aim to democratize art. To those who want to create, they give a possibility to show their efforts to the world on preestablished, clear and fair rules. Art critic Piotr Rypson, claims that “the art world is so commercialized that it begs for some kind of protest, new forms and new places to where one can participate in the creation of art, places outside of the mainstream dominated by marketing strategies, lifestyle and the oligarchy of cultural institutions”.

Formats liberate art from the tyranny of the salon, they facilitate access to and consumption of art. Often, they use means of the official establishment against itself, infiltrate cultural institutions to engage in subversive activities.

Events conceived by Geoffroy are often staged by big institutions, and they thrive in the official circulation of the art world (one example, the Biennalist event was a discussion of the biennale’s subject, taking place at the venue of the exhibition while it was still going on). Bogna Świątkowska, director of the Warsaw-based Bęc Zmiana foundation, says that formats enable communication with an unqualified audience and encourage participation in cultural events. Besides, formats outgrew the realm of solely artistic expression and therefore commenting them does not require mastery of the art critique language. It’s true – slam poets are rated by way of vox populi, with applause, shouts and heckling. Pecha Kucha speakers are treated the same way. And yet, these formats are able to attract sizable audiences. However, as Świątkowska points out, cultural animators and creators have to be aware that the format can be potentially dangerous to the artist’s freedom; the artist has to retain independence in choosing themes  and forms of expression. “Besides,” Świątkowska asks, “how many TV series can you really watch before you start feeling cornered?”.  

Contrary to what some might think, formatted artistic events are full of variations and improvisations; excesses, variations, lack of supervision – all of these elements become part of the action.

There have been Pecha Kucha presentations translated into sign language (Whangarei), with an audience of about 2,000 people (Tel Aviv), in a tent (Oaxaca), there was even a roundtable version (Sheffield) and one presentation was coupled with an introduction of a collection of energy drinks (Gdańsk). Formats are know to slip out of control from time to time. A drunk can take the stage during a slam or someone taking part in Emergency Room can decide take action with regards to artwork in the museum – there is no sign warning people to stay away and not tinker with the format. People participating in Geoffroy’s running debates can break a leg – especially when there are stairs involved, like during the Critical Run organized in the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art.

Filip Kozarski, the founding father of Pecha Kucha Nights in Poland, said that during one of the first presentations, the screen fell hitting both the speaker and the first rows of the audience and spraying everyone with rainwater. The accident became a part of the presentation and the audience wholeheartedly applauded.

Artistic templates?

An evening of fun, a social debate or a business presentation disguised as an artistic event or simply employing a curator – can they really be called works of art? Does every person working with a certain template automatically become an artist? Iza Kowalczyk, art critic, explains that the Internet has trained modern consumers of culture to actively engage and participate in cultural events and to create their own meanings. “But we can’t really say that the consumers have become artists, they remain users,” continues Kowalczyk. “The most important things are now the audience’s will to «use» a work of art and the methods employed in said usage.” Piotr Rypson adds that attempts at abolishing the creator/consumer divide have already been made in the 1950s and the 1960s in the happenings of John Cage and Fluxus, the works of Tadeusz Kantor and Włodzimierz Borowski.

As much as the artistic experiments of the 20th century have inspired formats, it was the Internet and other interactive technologies that really created this participative form of consuming art, one could even say that they imposed its adoption.

Hanna Wróblewska said that it was in the year 2000, when Olbrychski attacked his portrait during the “Nazis” exhibition and Cattelan’s sculpture of the pope was getting rescued from under the meteorite (both of these happened in Zachęta, where Wróblewska is the curator), that art stepped out of the framework within which it used to operate. Katarzyna Kozyra used to film people with a hidden camera in a sauna; the act was later emulated by Renata Beger, a politician in the Sejm, the Polish lower house of parliament. “It was a mutual exchange, although I don’t think that the non-artistic side was aware that such an exchange has taken place,” adds Wróblewska.

One of the participants in Emergency Room said that “as an artists you have to have an opinion and you have to express it”. Unfortunately, this imperative can result in an overproduction of low quality work.

Formats produce an immense number of works, the quality of which is questionable at best. This will result in a vast repository, which future ethnographers will analyze and future art historians will evaluate.

Among the results of Emergency Room, there were brilliant statements and revelatory forms, but there was also material rather reminiscent of a high school newspaper: articles torn out of daily newspapers with simple commentary added in ballpoint ink, screenshots and banal video mashed-up with naive statements made by artists. All of them are collected and documented in the so-called Delay Museum, where they immediately lose any context and timeliness and thus become part of an archive of noise in which we all live, creators and consumers alike. Hanna Wróblewska summed it up in saying that “ever since the Internet became commonplace, everyone is an artist from a copyright standpoint. Calling it art and assessing its value is the task of critics and audiences. Art has always been a child of negotiation.”

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz