Aleksandra Mir

The (un)corporate report

By Marc Spiegler
Art Review, London, January 2007

There are few formats so mind-numbing as the corporate report. Copywriters, graphic designers and photographers take on their production strictly to make rent. Reading them is a task few undertake happily. Nonetheless, the annual reports of the Zürich-based Ringier AG media group are carefully stacked by art collectors alongside catalogues and monographs. A copy of the 2003 edition, designed by Christopher Williams – which include a five-and-a-half hour DVD of a pirated cooking show hidden inside a circular hole bored through its pages – even surfaced in the second-hand section of Printed Matter New York’s art-book Mecca, where it was discovered by Beatrix Ruf, the Kunsthalle Zürich director and curator of Ringier AG’s collection.

As a privately held corporation, Ringier – which employs 6,000 people at magazines, newspaper and TV stations all over Europe and Asia – has no legal obligation to publish an annual report; in a country known for its opaque business practices, the gesture is a pointed demonstration of transparency. Led by Michael Ringier, one of three siblings who inherited the media group, Ringier AG ranks among Switzerland’s most active corporate collectors of contemporary art, with strong holdings in artists such as John Baldessari, Jeff Wall and Urs Fischer. Ruf has spearheaded the annual-reports project since its inception, when the first report used photography by Clegg & Guttman. The artists – including Williams, Richard Prince, Sylvie Fleury and Liam Gillick – are generally already present in Ringier AG’s collection, and the project has proved so popular that the print run rose from an initial 5,500 in 1997 to roughly 7,000 since 2000. Ruf and Ringier offer the artists carte blanche on everything except the text inside. Consequently, when the reports are lined up on those collectors’ shelves, each year’s edition appears to be wholly unrelated to the others. No two are the same size, and their materials vary, from slick glossy sheets and vellum slipcovers to a brown paper stock that seems more appropriate for wrapping freshly cut steaks.

The artists have handled the commission in diverse ways; Swiss artists Christian Philipp Müller invested most of 1999 in its production; “For a year, he acted as a sort of pseudo-journalist.” Ruf recalls. “He traveled the world to visit Ringier’s offices and production sites in places like Romania or Vietnam, meeting people all over the company.” By contrast, for the 2005 report Prince simply sent in a stack of archival material – mostly cartoons and rough drafts for his joke paintings. The result looks like a regular company report in the beginning, but ultimately turns out to be roughly 80 per cent Prince. The precious year’s edition was equally art heavy: 47 pages of Ringier report followed by 256 pages featuring 128 images each, all selected from the company’s online archive using an algorithm designed by Los Angeles artist Matt Mullican in collaboration with a Ringier group mathematic expert. To date, says Ruf, no artist has declined the assignment – though some requested to postpone the project, like painter Richard Phillips, currently doing the 2006 edition. “I had known of those reports because I worked in Switzerland, and I was happy to be part of the roster of artists who had done it, “ says Mullican. “I think it all comes down to the people involved in the project – the artists, Beatrix, and Ringier.

Commissioned to do the 2002 report, Aleksandra Mir stayed in Zürich for two months, setting up shop inside Ringier’s headquarters and mining a ten-million-photo image bank. Not just delving through the archive but also doing her own research throughout the country, Mir selected a succession of images that run across the entire report, an extension of her previous Hello project. “I knew Ringier would present me with an opportunity to do deep research in an immense photographic archive, which is nothing less than a goldmine, and create a work I could not have produced anywhere else.” Mir says. “I received a private office, free reign in the archives, the use of their in-house photo researchers, the assistance and budget for clearing rights. As an artist-in-residence, I could move freely around the company as if there were no walls between the departments.” In the resulting report, an image of German formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher and Swiss photographer Michel Comte adjoins one Comte with Basel-born film producer Arthur Cohn, followed by Cohn with actress Geraldine Chaplin with actor Omar Sharif, Sharif with skiwear designer Willy Bogner, and so on, in dizzying daisy chain that ropes in Saddam Hussein, Bono, Jacques Chirac, Neil Amstrong, Andy Warhol and Mir herself, among hundred of others.

For Ruf, the recurrent phenomenon of the artist actually becoming part of Ringier’s everyday activities has been one of the project’s most interesting aspects. “Aleksandra Mir and Matt Mullican, among others, worked with the image archives, Liam Gillick was interested in the printing plant and was asking them to resurrect rarely used old techniques, Christopher Williams hijacked the set of the cooking show Al Dente,” she explains. “But I think in almost every case there was the possibility for those inside the company to see artists using the same ‘ingredients’ in their work as Ringier’s regular employees. And for the artists there was the chance to extend their fields of activity and to create and reflect on extended contexts for their work, which in the end is what any artist tries to achieve.”