Most readers of Kunstkritikk will probably already be familiar with Texte zur Kunst – the German journal that has, quarterly for a quarter of a century, nurtured a wealth of leftist and institutional criticism within the realms of contemporary art and culture, rather like a younger, European counterpart to October, the American journal that has set new standards for connecting critical theory and art history ever since its inception in 1976.
In a Berlin context, Texte zur Kunst is quite a mainstay within its field: ever since the journal launched its first issue in 1990 from its head quarters in Cologne, it has worked to put many critical, queer and feminist positions on the map. In short, it has lambasted and chastised wherever stern action was called for, prompting a steady process of evolution that has, over time, taken the journal far (away) from its oppositional function to its present-day position as something of a mothership for the intelligentsia, all engaged in a flurry of including and excluding within a set of criteria that have by now grown quite entrenched. Today, Texte zur Kunst thus forms its own canon of ever-expanding circles revolving about the journal’s zu Hause, in the Henzelmann Tower (it relocated to Berlin in 2000); a building that proudly towers above the Karl Marx Allee, close to the Alexanderplatz.
True to its own well-established tradition, last Friday the journal held court on the occasion of its 25th anniversary (its last anniversary was also commented on in Kunstkritikk) and the publication of its 100th issue. The theme and title of this illustrious event was Gala Conference: Canon Today. It was as a regular reader and card-carrying fan of several figures from the journal’s inner circle (including Judith Hopf and Jutta Koether) that I entered the journal’s discoursive afternoon bash on this “Black Friday”, held in a dark theatre in Haus der Berliner Festspiele – one of the modernist playhouses of the city. The audiences were warmed up for the seminar by the tones of Madonna’s Celebration (’feat. Acon’); upbeat club music accompanied by a slideshow displaying the 100 covers of Texte zur Kunst created through the years.
After the usual bout of general (and endless) thanks and acknowledgements, sponsor messages and host introductions, Isabelle Graw (co-founder of the journal along with the late Stefan Germer) opened the conference by offering an explanation for the “Gala” format: in addition to signifying a celebration, the term should be read as a commentary on the art industry’s ever-increasing focus on fashion and the marketplace (it also happens to be title of a glossy German magazine) – what Graw described as contemporary culture’s “celebrity principle”. While pointing towards trans-disciplinary presentations – such as the journal’s long-standing associations with music and fashion – the concept also refers to the expanded field of pop culture and politics; fields that are as frequently used as the starting point of Texte zur Kunst’s discussions as actual works of art. For example, the very first issue, from September 1990, focused on the theme of “Avantgarde und Massenkultur”.
As regards the theme of the day, canon, Graw stated that: “We do not consider the canon as a given, but as a site of struggle that is constantly rewritten, and therefore ever-changing and shifting”. The matter of canon is discussed as a living, vibrant, mutable field of (power) positions; one in which the TzK journal, by now a veteran within the realm of criticism, is itself a key player today. And this was exactly the starting point taken by the first speaker, cultural philosopher Juliane Rebentisch, co-editor of the anniversary issue: canon has formed a locus for critical discussion at Texte zur Kunst and has, more introspectively, become an entity nurtured by the social milieu surrounding the journal. “We hope to shed light on and look at the canonisation that has been made around the magazine,” began Rebentisch. Indeed, the basic premise of the day’s programme is that all speakers – most of whom belong among the magazine’s close associates – are invited to “come out” (the term used by Rebentisch) and discuss their own canon.
And then things speed up: In an endeavour to maintain a suitably festive tempo compared to the last conference of this kind, held in 2010, the pace is accelerated. Fifteen minutes have been assigned to each contribution, and everyone strives to entertain; a fact that is accentuated by the sprechstallmeister, Andreas Beyer, who, in jovial Oscar fashion (marred slightly by rather poor English), introduces Rebentisch as Texte zur Kunst’s resident philosopher. In an aside, Beyer is wearing a glittering jacket, a fact on which he himself comments in a series of platitudes and friendly curiosities: “gala is referring first and first to apparel, glitter is canonical”.
Somewhat predictably, the responses to the journal’s invitation fall within the scope of three relatively classic presentation formats: critical/theoretical, art historical, and performative/musical.
The first category consisted of a range of general thoughts on the concept of canon and its impact as a bone of contention, a manifestation of power and a sign of the times is at core, all presented from a variety of theoretical positions, including: Peter Geimer, who criticised writings on art for engaging in what he rather gloriously calls diskursive klingeltöne (discursive ringtones); Gertrud Koch and Alexander García Düttmann, who discuss canon as a function that is always dated, linked to a particular time — a tide that one can go up against by dissolving oneself in it; the artist Hannah Black, voicing an aggressive-personal injunction to “Fuck The Canon”, and the younger theorist Paul Feigelfeld, who presented one of the more energetic contributions, issuing a stern warning and urging us all to take a closer look at our tools, our infrastructure, our digital mediation. A critical gaze at the journal’s navel is offered by Brigitte Weingart in a dense tirade thundering against its “clique collaboration”, whereas Caroline Busta (Texte zur Kunst’s relatively recently appointed editor) seeks to summon Bjarne Melgaard via Skype, a distinctive position far removed from the inner circle of the TzK establishment. However, Melgaard elects to stay away, or perhaps Skype is out of order?
The winner of the theoretical category was surely the young artist Georgie Nettell, who breathed fire in an incandescent two-minute rant about being the “second generation wave” invited to take over the family business: “One thing is to rebel against your left-leaning parents, another thing is to find you look just like them,” concludes Nettell as she leaves the stage. Applause. And this serves to neatly outline the fundamental problem of this gala event: How can one rebel against a canon when even the most critical of contributions is immediately canonised? And how does one discuss canon when everyone belongs to the same coterie? The theoretical offerings almost seem to act as one long series of introductory exercises on self-reflective perspectives on or mirroring multiplications of Texte zur Kunst, a serial short-format sequence of introspection that mostly remains purely celebratory, for how can you stand outside – unless you stay away altogether?
In the second category, a range of contributions executed in a more classical art historian vein – which include younger positions such as one of the great new hopes of painting, Avery Singer – each speaker quite simply elected to discuss an example of a canonised (or outsider) artist position. The two museum directors Daniel Birnbaum (absent due to illness; his text was read aloud by gallery owner Christian Nagel instead) and Matthias Mühling each described a single artist whose work they have exhibited or are exhibiting.
In an alternative offering to this rather tired genre, cult queens Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon chose to focus on the generational artist Seth Price, reading aloud from his recent Fuck Seth Price against a noisescape quite literally being played up against photographs of Price and other grand male positions (taken from a campaign for the menswear brand Brioni) together with the Texte zur Kunst logo, filmed and projected in real time. Despite its almost too-perfect design for this TzK context, this concert set itself free from the problem that besieged the aforementioned contributions: the fact that serial discourse is too dense and heavy to truly live and breathe within fifteen brief minutes of fame. They point to the simple fact that on stage, within the confines of such a compact format, the artistic contributions are the most effective. For example, Reena Spaulings’s Emily Sundblad lends her voice to Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden in an affecting invocation of personal fragility and wistful sadness, a counterpoint to the market mechanisms that dominate the name of this day, Black Friday.Notes of leave-taking and melancholia are also struck in the artist Michaela Meises chansons on death in Göttingen and unemployment. The musician Dirk von Lowtzows sings about (art’s) doubts and solidarity, and poet-artist Karl Holmqvist’s talk-&-chant “Words are people, language is power…” invoking a place somewhere beyond the institution, while the most succinct contribution might have been that of the recent winner of the local Preis der Nationalegalerie der Junge Kunst, Anne Imhof, whose two love songs prompt a total silence in the grand theatre, with the 700 seat ‘parkett’ almost full.
And so, despite the ever-more agile and intense programme, we end up rather far away from Madonna’s overture of high-octane celebration. And perhaps it is because of such attempts at straddling different genres and generations that the event seems to choke on its own format. A good friend of mine recently sent me a picture of Madonna – the ageing pop goddess in a plastic surgery-fuelled, botoxed and post-human attempt at retaining her status as young and controversial. Building on this analogy, one might meaningfully ask: is it even relevant to continue to merge a desire for (youthful) gala and glitter with the journal’s long-established and thorough work on critical theory? The long arguments work so well when unfolded on the page (and indeed when treated in a more classic, sedate style, such as the 20th anniversary conference), but on stage it becomes obvious that the brief discursive entries cannot top the performances – or even pop. In situations like these the vast gulf between the entertainment industry and contemporary art-and-criticism becomes painfully obvious.
On stage, with quick turnovers, singing, noise and accordions are by far preferable to discourse. A fact and function that, in turn, catches the artists far too one-sidedly in the treadmill of light entertainment. Thus, we are served up too much and too little at the same time. Perhaps some sort of friendly “Parental Advisory” should have been issued beforehand: The theatre is a hierarchical superstructure imbued with a mono-focus that, rather than instigating a palette of different formats of critique and expansion of its own canon, is perhaps more likely to reaffirm typified contributions or a conservative celebration of the special status acquired by the journal. Thus, the whole thing becomes a ritual wake rather than a carnivalesque take on the many years of dissent and rebellion.