Aleksandra Mir

Social Aesthetic

Social Aesthetic: 11 examples in the light of parallel history, AFTERALL, #1, London, 1999
By Lars Bang Larsen

What I choose to call 'social aesthetics' is an artistic attitude focusing on the world of acts, and which experiments with the transgressions of various economies. The term is coined as a common denominator, as the one that simply lends itself with the least resistance from the internal and external dynamics of some recent and historic artistic and art-related examples. One could probably say that the examples below describe a recent tradition of art as activism; yet perhaps closer to a discussion of the uses of art-institutional space than is commonly seen in art activism. The term "ephemeral" art is also often used in this discussion. Common to the understanding of the eleven examples is that the dynamic between artistic activity and the realms that are, by tradition, relegated to the fabric of the social hardly describes a dialectic. Social and aesthetic understanding are integrated into each other. Here, some forms of social aesthetic activity have deliberately been launched within the art circuit as art projects; others qualify, or qualify for, artistic discussion after their actualisation in other contexts.

What I choose to call 'social aesthetics' is an artistic attitude focusing on the world of acts, and which experiments with the transgressions of various economies. The term is coined as a common denominator, as the one that simply lends itself with the least resistance from the internal and external dynamics of some recent and historic artistic and art-related examples. One could probably say that the examples below describe a recent tradition of art as activism; yet perhaps closer to a discussion of the uses of art-institutional space than is commonly seen in art activism. The term "ephemeral" art is also often used in this discussion. Common to the understanding of the eleven examples is that the dynamic between artistic activity and the realms that are, by tradition, relegated to the fabric of the social hardly describes a dialectic. Social and aesthetic understanding are integrated into each other. The same thing goes for the dichotomy of institutional/non-institutional space. The present examples all share the fact that art and the art institution as resource become frames for activity that is real, because social interaction and the observation of its effects without conceptual rigidity is allowed.

The social aesthetic artwork involves a utilitarian or practical aspect that gives a sense of purpose and direct involvement; in the construction of the subject's interaction with culture it could be said that social aesthetics discusses a notion of the lasting phenomenon which substantiates a critical cultural analysis, a reason for one's existence. It is a way of involving the metaphorical value of artistic concepts and projects on other professional spheres, such as architecture, design, financial structures etc., either as an understanding integrated in an artistic project, or as process of decoding and actualising art-related activity in its location in culture. In this way artistic work assumes a general focus on performance in a social perspective, either by means of its own nature as a forthrunning project without closure or by the real activity it occasions. This often involves collective organisation and an employment of art's capacities for going against professional specialisation.

Nonetheless it would be wrong to say that the opposite of social aesthetics is a painting or a sculpture, or any other traditional form of artistic expression. Social aesthetics can't be observed alone, in this sense the term is double bound: it says that the social probably can't operate in a meaningful way without the aesthetic and vice versa, hence both the social and the sphere of art and aesthetics inform it.

The following examples are all related to the Scandinavian art scene, which may be due to a certain orientation, especially among Copenhagen artists. But if one employs the results of the small, but distinct number of artists working with a productive revisitation of 1960s strategies in the visual arts, it would surely enable an outlook untrammelled by geographic boundaries. There remain many stories left unexplored in the local and global histories of art's ramifications on the social.

The eleven examples are presented in pairs across history. A pair represents associated motifs and related engagements and ideas. As motifs they qualify each other by dint of uncovering mutually specific, historical references. A sort of historical double-exposure or cross-fertilisation, if you like.

Playground action on NØrrebro, Model for a Qualitative Society and N55 Spaceframe

During one Sunday in the spring of 1968, the artist Palle Nielsen built a playground in the slum of Copenhagen's Northern Borough. Together with a left-wing group he planned to clear the court of a neglected housing scheme, subsequently erecting new facilities for children. At seven o'clock in the morning the group went around to all the residents with a bag containing two rolls and a paper attached to it with an image of two children playing on the kerb, and it read:

Do you have children yourself? Or do you just hear the children scream and shout in the staircase and gateway when you come home? Do you remember your own possibilities for playing as few, and that gateways and staircases were whereabouts? Why do the children still make noise in the gateways? So few things have changed since you were a child. You may now follow up the demands for more kindergartens and day nurseries, for better playgrounds and youth centres, and for larger investment in children's well-being by participating actively in a public debate. Have you asked your municipality or your local owner's association about investments in child-orientation? Do you know that the authorities empowered to give grants are willing to invest in children's well-being if you demand it? It is your attitude towards the needs of adolescent children that decides the size of investment that permits increased clearing of backyards, better play facilities in future developments and new designs of municipal playgrounds. Sensible facilities for play means that the children stop making noise in the gateways and staircases. They won't have time. They'll be playing.

So, the residents came down and participated in the action, and by four o'clock in the afternoon everything was changed.

In 1968, during a research stay in Stockholm, Palle Nielsen picked out Moderna Museet as a framework to explore what he had previously been practising as actionism. After a period of bargaining for an invitation, a playground in the museum, Model for a Qualitative Society, was built in October 1968 with the assistance of a group of local Vietnam activists. Facilities for continued creativity were at the children's disposal during the entire course of the manifestation, in the form of tools, paint, building materials and fabrics. The Royal Theatre donated period costumes from different epochs to be used for role play. To this day, the noise level of the pedagogical art project is surely unparalleled in art history: loudspeaker towers were placed in each corner of the exhibition space, and the young museum-goers operated the turntables with LPs from every genre, playing dance music from the Renaissance at an ear-splitting level. In the restaurant a number of TV screens with live transmission offered a panopticon for uneasy parents, and enabled more sedate visitors to take in the active study of children's contact language. The playground architecture made concrete the pedagogical aim: a protected but pedagogically empowering milieu, to be accessed freely by all Stockholm's kids (adults had to pay 5 crowns to get in). During its three-week exhibition period the Model received over 33,000 visitors, 20,000 of whom were children.

The notion that a child's early social relations form the adult individual was investigated by way of the Model. Creativity and experiential contact were thus incited as ways of assigning new priority to human needs which acknowledged the 'qualitative human being' as an individual of society. The great need for group relations and the necessity to work collectively as an alternative to authoritarian society was made evident. The Model accepted the white cube as a 'free' topological premise: free in the sense of public access, accentuated by the anti-elitist stance of the Model; free in the sense that what is inserted into art institutions automatically legitimates its existence (or that is what they tell us, anyhow). Hence the Model embraced the art institution as a vehicle positioned in such a way in culture that the statements it conveys are catapulted into society.

The Copenhagen artists group N55 re-think the social dimensions from which we basically structure our everyday lives. In the summer of 1999, on a dock by Copenhagen harbour, they built N55 Spaceframe: a residential unit of transformable, lightweight construction in flexible steel modules designed in collaboration with an architect. It is a functional and inhabitable sculpture and constitutes a radical revision of the house as we know it, as an object stationary in its construction and placement. Being much more than merely a goal-oriented installation, the construction of the living unit suggests an organic process that people may enter in all possible ways. Musicians, artists, architects, writers and curators each contribute to the social ambience of the work with projects, labour force, and their mundane, sociable presence. N55 Spaceframe constitutes the frame for activities that the participants themselves will establish, without any institutional interference. N55 Spaceframe is, for that matter, a utopian project inasmuch as it is an initial gesture, a rediscovery of the world. But in contrast to the great utopia, each time it is erected, N55 Spaceframe is architecturally and socially connected with the social surplus that it provides in connection with the process of construction and the contexts within which it functions. The 'utopian' in the project is not like a master plan that analytically anticipates social change, but one that describes a determined attitude from people's actions in concrete situations.

Palle Nielsen's way of practising art as a critique of architecture and living conditions is aligned with N55's praxis as a social fantasy, so to speak. As a re-conceptualisation of the residence, the N55 Spaceframe stands, shimmering, in the middle of Copenhagen as a fantastic creature which has just landed, staring the demands of contemporary living right in the eyes. If the idea of settling in an N55 Spaceframe doesn't appeal to you, then the project, at least constructively, constitutes a way of reflecting on the opposition between the individual and the forms of habitual thinking that too often sneak their way in as a syntax for our lives. One could object that N55 is merely replacing the old habits and linguistic forms with new habits, but in the space between these two positions and in the movement away from that which already is ossified toward the new and self-conceived, room is being made for the formulation of new differences. N55 accommodates what is currently the dominant, neo-liberal determination of freedom of choice and is displacing the market mechanisms' relational dynamics in the direction of postulating that there are things which must be done.

Palle Nielsen's projects for Festival 200 and Middelburg Summer 1996

In his writing, Palle Nielsen addresses the notion of large-scale communication including collective production of significance and value, and modes of distribution. Proceeding from a collective discussion and praxis surrounding common intentions, and in contradistinction to "consumption's constraint and the production apparatus's power over the people", one can have qualitative and quantitative goals and thereby push communication boundaries. This calls for a positive and outgoing revision of aesthetic expressions which have been overhauled and repeated, and a revision of traditional forms of art distribution. The art institution's resources are cast into public space.

Festival 200 in 1969 was the 200-year jubilee of Charlottenborg Udstillingsbygning, the exhibition building of the Royal Danish Art Academy. Art historian Troels Andersen was invited to curate the anniversary show, and in accordance with his orientation towards non-violent anarchism—and in response to a minimal budget—artists from all over Europe were given a train ticket and free exhibition space if they would show up and participate with some project or other. In the week before the opening of the exhibition, the invitation to participate was open to everybody.

Palle Nielsen participated in three projects: a shooting range, a roulette, and an offset-printing works, all functioning representations of mass communication with popular appeal, imbuing the exhibition with a theme park atmosphere. Placed as the first thing by the entrance, the roulette was provided by the child-welfare committee and functioned as a metaphor for the anarchistic freedom promised by the exhibition. The shooting range offered air guns with which you could shoot your dislikes, organised in the form of photographs of Danish and international politicians and public persons. The roulette, as well as the shooting range, stood unattended.

The offset-printing works consisted of state-of-the-art rotaprint equipment to be used freely by everybody, and its appurtenant photo lab enabled general access to artistic expression. The festival's daily paper, flyers, leaflets, and printed matter in all colours were produced here. Some of it was distributed in the city or in other contexts, while others were integrated into the exhibition.

Palle Nielsen's projects introduced a reflexivity between play and production which must have seemed somewhat frivolous in the light of the era's will to revolutionary upheaval. On the one hand, play qualified large-scale communication as a way of stating that political artistic engagement doesn't exist in terms of practical politics, but as reform work with the prospect of change. On the other hand, play had to be organised and set free, seeing that society no longer offered integrated possibilities for living in its regulated, specialised spheres. To introduce social processes in the art institution is, according to Nielsen, socially irrational. Social processes should happen where people are, in direct relation to what they do. But since social reproduction is in dire straits, there is a strong need for the production of participation, and for accessible metaphors of freedom.

In 1995 and 1996, Jens Haaning produced a series of production lines, where a number of people engaged in symbolically charged, but ultimately undefined activities. In Weapon Production (1995), part of the group show 'RAM' in a Copenhagen suburb, a handful of young immigrants with some previous experience (so to speak) assisted the artist in the production of illegal street weapons; in Flag Production (1996), shown at the 'Traffic' show in Bordeaux, France, Asian pupils from the local art academy sewed flags for an unknown nation. 'Middelburg summer 1996' (1996), a solo show at the De Vleeshal kunsthalle in the Dutch city of Middelburg, was in a sense the culmination of these works, in that the activity of the workers wasn't art related in the first place: Haaning engaged the Turkish-owned clothing manufacturers, Maras Confectie, to relocate its production facilities to the kunsthalle for the duration of the exhibition. The entire institution was transformed into an appropriate environment for Maras Confectie's twelve Muslim (Turkish, Iranian and Bosnian) employees, replete with an office and canteen, soccer banners and blaring Turkus (a kind of Turkish blues). As a beholder, you had to adapt to a peripheral position, as opposed to laying claim to the visual control and leisurely regulated space that exhibition architecture usually offers. You were, in fact, trespassing in foreign territory: not only an alien workplace, but a place where 'aliens' work.

'Middelburg summer 1996' provided an episodic mobilisation of the dynamics of the cultural other, or 'the world market as ready-made', as one critic put it. The work's critical position could also be summed up in the words of sociologist John Foran, writing in the 1997 Theorising Revolutions: 'Oppositional cultures are often elaborated in contradistinction to the state, but they are also always rooted in the actual experience of diverse social sectors, that is, they have an eminently practical dimension.' As Fordist artefacts, production lines embody the dimension of physical labour, which is rapidly becoming obsolete in the era of immaterial work. Apart from privileging cultural otherness in a collectively organised form, 'Middelburg summer 1996' rejected art's service relationship to information society. Its laconic, alienating stageplay resisted the communication-driven prescriptions of the agents of the digital age, along with their (our) continual innovation of forms and modalities for the commerce of ideas.

Nielsen and Haaning point to conflicts in social processes and come up with solutions which are formally alike; for both projects Nielsen aptly calls the printing works a 'production installation'. It could be said, however, that 'Middelburg Summer 1996' is an aestheticised version of Nielsen's production installation. Actual participation is one step removed, something that may make the two works seem to differ in their conception of aesthetics; what actually aligns them may be their political stance in terms of social irrationality (as an aside to his work, Haaning quoted Arthur Schopenhauer's dictum for De Vleeshal's website: 'The world is my imagination'). The printing works at Festival 200 and Middelburg Summer 1996 each delivered critiques of the different effects of the acceleration of modernity's displacements, which increasingly control us as social beings.

Public Bath and N55 Hygiene System

In a feature on Copenhagen called 'Bursting the Gates of Welfare Utopia', the Village Voice's David Gurin wrote in November 1969 about 'the energy and beauty of the young Danes involved' in Festival 200:

[Troels] Andersen and a committee of Danish artists offered a second-class train fare to artists from all over Europe. An adventurous group accepted his invitation and put together a fantastically relaxed and unpretentious show. On some days it included a rock band in the sedate Charlottenborg courtyard. Otherwise it began for the visitor on the wall above a grand staircase that leads to the main floor of the gallery—pictures of Albertslund [a working class Copenhagen suburb] and old Copenhagen were flashed side by side by two slide projectors. They seemed to beckon the viewer to stand up for some kind of environmental choice. A third projector flashed abstract forms. In an anteroom on the main floor were pinball machines and a shooting range with the prime minister of Denmark and Richard Nixon among the bull's eyes. In the grand exhibition hall were drawing tables and two offset printing presses. Materials and paper were liberally provided and anyone could design and print his/her own poster with expert help. At the back was a primitive hut, like a succah, with uneven slats of wood for walls, and branches and leaves for a roof. Inside lived a nude "family", with varying numbers of adults and children. They ate, drank, played and talked. (. . .) Occasionally one man in the family would climb up a rope ladder from the hut to the high ceiling of the hall from where, perched nude on the rope-ladder, he would film all the spectators whose eyes were on him. (. . .) Another room had a Danish artists' love letters strewn on the floor—people stood around reading them. (. . .) In another grand exhibition hall were a ping-pong table and a functioning sauna and shower. Artists and visitors—and the genius of the festival was that the two were not very distinguishable—played ping-pong, saunaed, and showered in the openness of the hall. (. . .) One especially touching room had a single rose in water on each of eight pedestals. Each day one rose was removed and a new one added, so the roses were in a gradually withering away of life and death.

The public bath and sauna were installed by the artist Paul Gernes. He wanted the artwork to be inserted in situations where things are used and thus his practice became strongly oriented in the direction of public art. The everyday function is taken literally in his public bath for Festival 200, and 'transposed to a level where it affects our senses and our thinking anew' Troels Andersen continues: It was given in the ideas of Morris, Ruskin and Gropius that people's behaviour in a surrounding world which in such a high degree as ours is determined by things, could be changed by a revaluation of the surrounding objects, aesthetically and functionally. But these fashioned objects let themselves become easily integrated in the existing situation without any significant changes in norms of behaviour. Our society is still built on the nuclear family, and our whole production of consumer items (also counting a number of "art objects") is based on this structure. What the conception of the happening among many other things contained was the suggestion of a new type of social form. (. . .) It implied the establishing of a new situation, the construction of an offer—but didn't necessarily force people in a certain direction.

Troels Andersen's characteristic of the revaluation of the object also applies to N55 and their catalogue of functional art objects, with which they aim to create a social surplus. So far, N55's production of functional art objects with ethical and aesthetic consequences include a home hydroponics unit (a device for the domestic growth of vegetables), a clean-air machine, a hygiene system (low-cost bathroom), new designs for chairs, and a table. Everything is of N55's own design, in some cases with the help of experts to solve technical problems. Compared to an ordinary, utilitarian logic, their objects have a twist in relation to formalistic design: N55's attitude to the object is characterised by a sensitivity towards its role as a social determinant, as a role maker. The object answers back at the activity that surrounds it, instead of being a design-like hypostasis of itself. Or, in other words, the human activity and the object factor meld into one another. Ergo socially generous and disarming gestures like a collective installation of the hygiene system in mirthful colours, or the projection of a bed serviceable for six persons instead of the customary one- or two-person model.

The Oslo Trip and Travel Agency
In May 1970 the artists Finn Thybo and Per Bille were invited as part of the Danish representation in the Young Nordic Biennial at Kunstnernes Hus (The Artists' House) in Oslo. They decided to spend their grant of DKK 8,000 on buying 50 return tickets for the Oslo ferry and distribute them to 50 youths, mostly artists, musicians and architects. The group was to be installed, collectively, in the exhibition as an artwork on the opening night, together with musicians from Oslo invited to participate in a pickup concert with the Copenhagen band Furekåben. Thus the group itself comprised the work of art and no one was allowed to leave it at any point.

Arriving in Oslo in good spirits the group, despite its hippie appearance, made it successfully through customs with Black Afghan disguised as Tom's Caramels, and moved in one long column up through the streets of the Norwegian capital. To the amusement of local businessmen the group then occupied what later turned out to be the rear entrance of the Oslo bourse. Wearing red banners and red ribbons round the head, or dressed up as native Americans, the group documented itself in front of banks and the sights of the city with a banner reading 'PEOPLE OF THE WORLD UNITE'. The arrival of the artwork at Kunstnernes Hus occasioned great commotion in the management, and the entire board was called for, but in the end accepted to host the group. Next, flyers for the opening party were distributed in Oslo, and snapshots and film were quickly developed; the same evening the doors of Kunstnernes Hus were opened for a presentation of documentation of the trip and the concert, where the director was seen in the rhythm section playing the bongos. The group returned in good order to Copenhagen on the ferry the next morning.

In Jens Haaning's work Travel Agency (1997), airline tickets were sold at competitive prices as artworks at Galerie Mehdi Chouakri in Berlin, capitalising on German tax laws which exempt art from an eight percent VAT. Accompanying certificates stated that if used for their original purpose, these tickets ceased to exist as art. If art is taxed less than other goods, why not label those other goods 'art'? That is, the airline ticket had a double capacity, each of which could be respective to art logic and economic logic; but if you want to grasp the idea of the work and the conceptual itinerary of each 'artwork' you can not do without the supplement of the other logic. By refusing to valorise high culture, and instead concentrating on the exchange of artistic ideas with real-world economics, Haaning created the possibility for realising certain financial gains while upsetting the market at a micro-level.

In the Oslo Trip and Travel Agency, subversive sensibilities and art institutional allegiances together instigate a set of mutual deformations of incompatible cultural logics. Ideally, cultural and economic significance are put on equal footing, each invested in the multifold processes of ideological and geographic exchange. For Oslo Trip participants Finn Thybo and Kirsten Dufour, however, the work itself described a break with the art world for 15 years.

'TTA Logstor' and 'Life is Sweet in Sweden'

After the Oslo Trip the work of Dufour and Thybo moved further in the direction of activism. They worked with squatters in Copenhagen, and experimented with alternative social structures in small, closed communities in Jutland. In the 'aesthetic and political void' of the early seventies, Dufour and Thybo were looking for a position from which the local population in a given place could participate actively in a social, humanistic and political action. Based in Logstor in Northern Jutland they started a ragpicker group in 1975, for the benefit of liberation movements in the third world, among them Zimbabwe African National Union and Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front. During the 12 years the group 'TTA Logstor' (Toj Til Afrika, clothes for Africa) managed to collect the following and send it off to Africa:

112 tons of clothes and shoes
30 sewing machines
1 dental clinic
3 operating tables
15 hospital beds
17 wheelchairs
27 packages of other hospital equipmentv 39 packages of toys
30 packages of educational material
DKK 447,911,-


These means were obtained mainly by household collecting, flea markets, inquiries at hospitals etc., and clearing up of estates. TTA workers were voluntary and paid a membership fee. Thybo describes the aims of 'TTA Logstor':

Interactivity within the ragpicking group:
By collecting the surplus [of consumer society] and recycling it for humanitarian purposes, we solved several problems at the same time: we could make people aware of the conditions in other parts of the world and get them involved in an action, in the project.

Leaflets about the collection of clothes were handed out to new households, and press releases about the annual flea market were sent to newspapers and local radio stations that covered the whole province. Here we informed others about the local conditions in those countries where we supported the liberation movements. We also spoke about the fact that the clothes were given to the liberation movements who distributed them in the refugee camps over which they had taken responsibility. Last but not least, essential because of their tremendous contribution, the core of the group, "the activists", who actively took part in the daily work, were recruited from the local community.

It was our basis that Clothes for Africa should be both a local/social and a political/global project (. . .).

The last flea market was held in 1986. There was a steady reduction of activism, membership flow ebbed out, there was a split in the group, and the eventual conclusion was that it looked like solidarity work belonged to a certain generation.

In August 1995, Gothenburg was turned upside down. Sweden's second-largest city was about to host the World Championships in athletics. In an atmosphere of self-conscious activity, the urban environment was transformed through a series of 'beautification' projects, ranging from the architectural re-modelling of the inner city to the injection of a host of new commercial venues—greenery, colourful advertising and 'fresh paint' signs were sprouting up everywhere. A new black market for apartment sublets appeared and restaurants were openly advertising for 'young blonde female staff'. The visitors arrived at a sparkling new Gothenburg, starting the for-all-tourists search for the authentic folk and local spirit. With gorgeous weather, the pride of the citizens was only slightly stained by the embarrassment of having invented the place and themselves specifically for the tourists, and embarrassed that this act of deception was larger than their own naoveté. More than that, the debate over the day-to-day adjustments to all the newness made clear that, for better or worse, the Gothenburgers were losing their sense of belonging to the place they were proud to represent. The staging of the host's role turned from being as abstraction, 'the city', toward involving every single citizen. The distinction between 'guests' and 'hosts' began to dissolve. Not even a guide's uniform guaranteed discretion: everybody was new to the place they found themselves in, and to each other.

In the middle of this turbulence Aleksandra Mir opened Life is Sweet in Sweden, an alternative tourist office in downtown Gothenburg. 150 square meters were made available from the public sector, and Mir renovated and decorated the premises in a half-official, half-private cosy atmosphere that should make everybody feel welcome. Equipped with comfortable sofas, plastic greenery, an aquarium, dim lights and soft muzak, electric footbaths, a television with shopping channels and even a fresh smelling lavatory, the tourist bureau was freely available for use by any and everybody. The host's role was personified by everybody who wore the hostess uniform for Life is Sweet in Sweden; a blue-yellow dress-suit in a stewardess-cum-cashier cut, with the company's logo embroidered in silver on the breast pocket. From the beginning, twelve uniforms were available and during the project, 46 persons assumed the role as hostess, regardless of whether they had any connection with Gothenburg or not. With several hundred guests every day during the ten days that the World Championships took place, the tourist bureau became a social limbo, taking shape according to the constellations of people that were interacting with one another on the spot. The entire process of the situation established itself as a public coefficient where the participants, guests as well as hosts, were involved in a mutual endeavour intrinsic to sociability.

Common to 'TTA Logstor' and Life. . . are that they initially were launched outside of the art contexts; 'TTA Logstor' as development aid, and Life. . . as a contexts specific, anthropologically therapeutic project, so to speak. Both projects were later introduced, or they have an afterlife, in art discussions: Life. . . was evaluated critically as art after the fact, and Dufour and Thybo presented documentation from 'TTA Logstor' for their exhibition in N55 Spaceframe, offering up the project for a new narration removed from the terminology of its time. These are the distributive similarities between Life. . . and 'TTA Logstor'. But they can both be contained in the same sphere of the aims and characteristics of the 'happening', as outlined above by Troels Andersen. Just as 'TTA Logstor''s working premise was the local belonging in a global society, and the identities created across assumptions of geography and nationality, so Life. . . was a deconstruction of place and of the notion of local identity, a collective intervention and mobilisation in the face of an ambivalent official economy.

Both projects, like the other examples, take place in time and depend on the other, whether it be the cultural other or the people in local surroundings waiting to become activated. Not least of all, the projects each depend on the other in order to live on as collective memories via the people who took part, and the ones the stories are told to.