NU-E — Platform formalism

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FROM: The Nordic Art Review
Running on empty: What happened to the art within the exhibition? Today it
seems as if exhibitions, big or small, have become spectacles beyond their
Platform formalism
Rather than being an inspiring way of creating or displaying art, the platform
format has begun to function as a conventional practice, used without much
consideration. The original intentions behind it – generosity, real interaction
and open dialogue – have developed into an aestheticization of a certain
politics. Is it still possible to create a stimulating chill-out room?
By Pernille Albrethsen
I have the feeling I have been invited to hundreds of so-called platforms in
the name of art. Over the last couple of years, I have read countless press
releases declaring that “artist x has constructed a platform which explores…”
or “the exhibition is to be viewed as a platform for the investigation of…”.
The prototypical model for a platform art project as seen in numerous exhibitions is environments such as the chill out space, obligatory reading room, various versions of ‘self-service’ situations, like the archive or the complete office setting (ready to be used for any kind of activity), and other environments in which the public somehow are invited to join in, interact or ‘just be’. The platform strategy is used both as the fundamental structure for entire exhibitions and in single works of art.
Naturally, these formats – chill out spaces, meeting places, reading rooms etc.
– are not in themselves arrangements that cannot be laid out in an inspiring or thought-provoking manner. I guess it is still possible to create a stimulating chill out room (or, on second thoughts, perhaps we really do need a break from them). The problem is not the platform format itself, but the attitude that accompanies or has become a tiresome undercurrent in this kind of art. It is my impression that this construction has somehow reached its limits (as all formats and mode of expressions eventually do). Rather than being an inspiring way of creating or displaying art, the platform format has begun to function as a conventional practice, one that is often used without much consideration.
It seems as though the idea of the platform is often inscribed into the overall concept (of the artwork or the exhibition) as a way of securing and underlining a certain humble approach to the idea of producing an artwork or of organizing an exhibition. The artist or curator wants to set out an open, generous attitude in which everybody is invited to interact and engage. These intentions are, of course, hard to oppose inasmuch as they are obviously attractive and sensible. However, over the last couple of years, it has struck me how the platform – as structure and as concept – has developed into being a particular mode of expression, one which in itself vouches for a democratic situation where artists and viewers somehow come to function on equal terms. As such, the platform can almost be regarded as an aestheticization of a certain politics.
I guess if you looked at press releases from the 1980s you would find plenty of references to concepts such as: simulacrum, meta-narrative, high/low or the Sublime. In that regard the idea of the platform is, of course, just a token of the Zeitgeist, signaling a spirit radically different from that of the 1980s. Instead of postmodern ‘Schein’ we have the 1990s engagement in the everyday, direct interaction with society, in which ‘real’ social structures (on an intimate as well as a global scale) function as new materials for producing art. This is the idea of an art practice based on context and relations, as described by numerous critics and theoreticians over the last decade.
The idea of the platform also suits as an image of what has been going on, not only in the art world, but in society as a whole, with the network economy, new technology based on non-hierarchical functions (the web), and even the way we have professionalized the act of meeting new people through the concept of net-
working. Instead of the term ‘platform’, the art world could as well have come up with an expression long the lines of ‘net-something’. But there is reason to believe that the notion of platform came to the art world with Gilles Deleuze’s
& Felix Guattari’s “Mille Plateaux” (1980), which surely played a vital part in forming the vocabulary of early 1990s art and art criticism. No doubt, the notion of deterritorialization in terms of rhizomes, nomads and the like influenced a fair amount of the art writing of the 1990s.
The platform as a structure naturally accentuates a certain openness – something that functions in a coordinated and non-hierarchical manner. Thus, the platform was a perfectly reasonable shape for Rirkrit Tiravanija’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1999. Tiravanija, who in a positive sense truly knows his way around the forest of platform art, constructed the first Thai Pavilion in the shape of a simple platform of wooden boards. By erecting the pavilion in the middle of the Giardini di Castello, Tiravanija inscribed the entire garden area, complete with all its national pavilions, as the backdrop to and immediate context of the Thai Pavilion. Of course, it matters that TiravanijaÌs pavilion is literally a platform when you compare it to the other pavilions trying to outdo each other with fancy architectures representing their home countries. It is, however, primarily the social implications of TiravanijaÌs platform that makes it an interesting representative of the genre – it questions the exclusive representation of nationalities, as well as the idea of national representation in general. But the actual activities that took place on the platform/stage – an opening, a reading by Navin Rawanchaikul etc. – also contributed to the coherent expression in which both originator and objective were clear.
It is my impression that there is tonnes of misunderstood ‘Tiravanija-art’ around. In particular, there is a lot of art dealing with ideas about cultural/social platforms such as TiravanijaÌs, but in a less carefully considered manner. There is the cliché of the social-art project interacting with society by inviting visitors in for a cup of tea and an open talk about love and life in the local community. These can be particularly far-fetched practices, since the artist sometimes comes across as a kind of pseudo social worker or as a kind of old-fashioned anthropologist, who performs her field study without taking her own personal involvement into account (which ironically has been a crucial subject within the field of anthropological science over the last decades).
Interestingly enough, while the discourse about platforms stems from the early 1990s, with its most interesting artistic expressions dating back to the mid-1990s, this is not a phenomenon of the past. On the contrary, at a time when we are witnessing the most watered-down versions of the concept, the discourse is now becoming ‘top of the pops’. Thus, the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2001 was titled “Plateau of Humankind”. Documenta 11 in 2002 also announced that the exhibition would already open in early 2001 with a series of events around the world, the so-called Platforms – and the documenta-Halle section of the actual exhibition (Platform 5) was a typical platform exhibition full of self-service activities; a substantial library, a videoteque consisting of hundreds of hours of video documentaries and several computers for surfing designated websites. At this year’s Venice Biennale, “Utopia Station”, one of the exhibitions in the gigantic Arsenale show consisted of one big platform, with art taking place in and around a large plywood construction, and in the adjoining outdoor area. There were ongoing events (performances, readings, talks, lectures etc.), take-away art and self-service art. The general impression was unclear and chaotic, since everything was jumbled together into a connected festival-like whole, making it hard to tell who was behind what.
There is certainly nothing wrong with testing new formats, especially in vast super shows such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale – in fact, the “Utopia Station” was one of the more interesting exhibitions in this year’s Arsenale
show. One cannot help feeling, however, that it is a bit affected to wrap some of the most prestigious exhibitions – which are known to be significant to an artist’s career – in the levelling-out vocabulary of the platform. It seems that, regardless of the rhetoric applied, the art world functions in as hierarchical a manner as ever.
In fact, the idea of the non-hierarchical construction, which characterizes the platform exhibition, sometimes has serious implications for the artists involved. It is common knowledge in the art world that a majority of contemporary art institutions run programmes that they really cannot afford – in the sense that they apparently cannot afford to treat artists with respect when it comes to reasonable honorariums or even per diems. This problem is sometimes more noticeable with exhibitions structured as platforms, because the institutions or curators (consciously or not) have a possibility of mounting even bigger projects with many participating artists, lots of names, and with less money. As artist Michael Elmgreen remarked with regard to his and Ingar Dragset’s performance piece at Utopia Station, which included a chimpanzee:
“Some people have been very concerned about the conditions for our performing chimpanzee – in fact, she has much better conditions than most of the participating artists at the biennial. She gets money for her performance, her space was ready when she arrived, she has transport and nice accommodation organized and paid for.” The risk is that the platform format in itself somehow entails a legitimate excuse for not treating the artists decently. As if the no-budget, non-hierarchical structure almost makes it inappropriate to inquire about the fee – as if ‘we are here for different reasons’.
Oddly enough, the no-budget attitude of the platform has also contributed to the development of a certain platform aesthetic. In cases where the platform concept is most fully developed – in the installation/staging of the exhibition itself – specific materials are often employed to further underline the general policy. The exhibition architecture, video rooms, benches, tables, shelves, info stands and actual platforms that make up these kinds of environments are often made out of materials like plywood and chipboard. These materials are to the platform aesthetic what stainless steel was to early Minimalist sculpture.
And in fact, both plywood and chipboard are chosen for the same reason that the Minimalists chose steel, namely for their inherent neutral, historyless quality. These are cheap, accessible materials, something that helps to stress general platform ideas of openness, accessibility and a humble attitude. Their very uniformity is in itself another indication that the concept of the platform has evolved into an aestheticization of policy.
So what kind of politics are we talking about? As already mentioned, general platform politics is about sharing – about establishing some kind of democratic setting for everybody involved. But, because of the particular structure of the platform – in which nobody stands out, everybody is invited in, and you never really know who is behind what – the platform attitude can, in the worst cases, also be viewed as the result of a mistaken concept of democracy. The platform artist/exhibition wants to get as far away as possible from the idea of the singular ‘auteur’, as well as that of the genius artist, and the platform structure helps to emphasize the notion of some kind of shared authorship. This is why individual trademarks are often hard to find in platform exhibitions – and why it can be hard to figure out who is expressing what. The point being that you are not necessarily meant to know who is ‘saying’ what. And there is a risk that this attitude will result in a legitimization of a certain depoliticized approach, rather than in promoting a flourishing democracy. An important aspect of democracy is also the obligation to voice your opinions and take responsibility for your own viewpoints and actions. Proclamations of openness do not necessarily lead to democracy.
Still, the platform can also be viewed solely as a token of our time. Just as Modernist artworks can be regarded as a reflection of the production machinery of their day (production of objects), the platform format too can be said to mirror the predominant industry of our time, namely the service sector, in that it focuses on the exchange, interaction and distribution of information. As we have already said, the problem of the platform is not a matter of a particular format, but rather of a particular attitude, which has developed into a kind of conformity. And if we consider the original intentions behind it – generosity, real interaction and open dialogue – it is almost ironic that the platform has almost grown to be the new simulacrum of our time.
—Pernille Albrethsen