“I’m still wondering - what is the idea in your film?” – strategies of appropriation as critical practice

Claudia Slanar
Copie Non Conforme, Kunstraum Niederösterreich, Wien, 15.07.2014

In re-enactments of popular culture, spectacular staged re-creations of historical events, designed to appeal to mainstream audiences, generally form the focus and point, inter alia, to the vestiges of an important function: working through – and thus resolving – a traumatic experience in the psychoanalytical sense of the term. In contrast, artistic re-staging and re-enactment strategies attempt, by altering the original event, to enable new modes of reading and contextualisations, which generally reference blind spots and omissions rather than seeking to resolve these. In a similar fashion, the exhibition Copie Non Conforme, curated by artist Amina Handke, does not focus primarily on working out or working through an experience or a historical event, but concentrates instead on the process of appropriation that unfolds as a result. This notion also allows the curator to open up several fields of discourse by means of the works shown: authorship, originality, authenticity, copyright and, last but not least, (self-)empowerment.
  In art history terms, Appropriation Art refers to an art form that came into being as a reaction to Concept and Minimal Art; the artists in question – inter alia Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman or Jack Goldstein, known as the “Pictures Generation” – grappled with a range of images, reworking them in media-critical or feminist terms. In the process, they also drew on advertising images, calling into question and deconstructing the strategies and messages deployed. In this sense No Mohr by simon INOU and Mara Niang, which aimed to redesign the Vorarlberg M*bräu logo and font, slots into this tradition.

Copie Non Conforme_Kunstraum Wien   Fig. 1

Accessible codes and forms are translated into other forms that are just as readily comprehensible. In keeping with the aesthetic of propaganda, the political issue is immediately apparent: standing up against racism and racist stereotyping and regaining authority to interpret one’s own image. This interpretative authority through shifts in meaning is also at the heart of Mara Niang’s second work, Politique de l’Autriche, Politique de l’Autruche; in the exhibition, an Austrian flag, bearing the word  “autruche” (“ostrich”) rather than “Autriche” (“Austria”) is hung strikingly in front of a window overlooking the imposing Palais Niederösterreich’s courtyard. By “simply” switching one letter, an associative space is opened up, encompassing concerns ranging from xenophobia to ways of dealing with the recent and most recent past. Lena Lapschina carries out a different kind of exchange in her piece Wien, Deutschland: she transposes a piece of graffiti found in the public realm into the exhibition space, enlarges it to fill a wall and “sketches” out its lines with adhesive tape.

Copie Non Conforme_Kunstraum WienFig. 2

Despite decontextualisation, the irony of the original – a heap that suggests dog-poop, with a church tower emerging out of it, framed by a text in German proclaiming “Vienna stays German!” – fits perfectly into the art context. The graffito was originally produced with a stencil to make it easier and faster to reproduce, so that it could be used to “tag” all over the city. This transposition de facto gives rise to an “obliteration” or weakening of the subversive dimension, a point also addressed by the artist. However, this does not stem principally from the smoothing away of the original content’s rough edges, but rather from the fetishisation of the purported original. If strategies dealing with irony and humor are employed to appropriate common policies, then the tongue-in-cheek hijacking action by the group Statt Wien seems rather effective. By appropriating the City of Vienna’s information and PR channels, they appointed a Commissioner for Begging, called an Organised Begging Day, and advertised it in brochures. Of course the Viennese, with their “hearts of gold,” could not fail. When surveyed in a “party political broadcast”, they responded positively to all these initiatives (given that they were, after all, ordained from above). The material appears so convincingly authentic that you only realise it is “fake” if you take a closer look (which the exhibition context naturally encourages).
  Parody and mimicry, along with pastiche and allusion, are the textual strategies adopted by many artists in the exhibition; in the best-case scenario, such as in Statt Wien’s work, this produces a “crack in the matrix”. Here the intervention is not just a utopian proposal but already produces a transformation of reality: “the distribution of the sensible” (Jacques Rancière), its subjects, objects, the visible and invisible, and indeed the sayable and unsayable, is re-configured. As mutually determined forms of this “distribution,” rather than “either-or” options, art and politics become tangible in artistic strategies that engage with this complex interaction, which has a broader focus than simply aspiring to substantiate a particular argument.
  In Statt Wien’s YouTube piece, the beggars are played by actors, as is also the case for some of the figures in Amina Handke’s Appropriated Beggars. In contrast, others are “really” begging. But what does this distinction actually mean? It is above all the shared gestures and postures that are rendered visible in the seven portrait-format video panels. The performativity of work, with both the actors and the beggars toiling away just as hard, along with the associated forms of precarity, suddenly make the call for a Commissioner for Beggars seem not just entirely logical but indispensable. Appropriated Beggars references Kutlug Ataman’s Beggars (2010) too, but also functions without this “original” piece.Copie Non Conforme_Kunstraum WienFig. 3

Nevertheless, in this part of the exhibition, which addresses the appropriation of artworks in the form of re-enactments, additional explanations are a more essential supplement. This is because information about the original and its mode of reading are crucial to shed light on shifts in meaning and the problematic issues related to the process of coming to terms with history or inclusion in the canon.
  This becomes particularly clear in Stefanie Seibold’s Matt und Schlapp wie Schnee, a re-performance of Gina Pane’s (1939–1990) action Discours mou et mat from 1975. Photographic documentation and the score of the original are an integral part of the work. In addition to two projections of the re-performance shot from different angles, the piece includes a copy of the poem read out by Pane during the action, two copies with the titles of the essays “Négritude” by Vilém Flusser and Pane’s “La Négresse flashée et sa rémanence”[1], published in ArTitudes International (Edition 33/38, 1976/77),[2] as well as a black-and-white copy of a photograph of a black woman wearing men’s clothing. As part of the research project “Troubling Research: Performing Knowledge” at the Academy of fine arts in Vienna, in Matt und Schlapp ..., an attempt is made, in collaboration with artist Teresa María Díaz Nerio, theorist Patrizia Grzonka and photographer Maria Ziegelböck, to present a re-reading of Pane. In the original reading, Pane was renowned primarily for her (spectacularised) self-injuries, which were ascribed to a feminist discourse with a clear psychoanalytic slant. For Seibold the installation seeks to activate the omissions – nakedness, gender, whiteness – that draw attention to blind spots in discourse. Audiences need to take their time for this amalgamation of material, and be willing to engage, to read around the subject, to establish connections and look carefully. But where would that be possible, if not in an exhibition space like this?  Coincidentally, the camera as a medium for scrutinising and displacing reality is also an issue tackled here and, ultimately, is the question of what artistic research signifies in this context and what it should (be able to) do.
  “Our dialogue about these images has only just begun”, Marion Porten writes of her re-staging with Jamika Ajalon of the famous photo series with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat boxing. In a similar vein, the film that inspired the exhibition’s title, Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme (2010), also acknowledges that it addresses the start of a process with an uncertain and indeterminable outcome. Even without the additional Non (2011), this title references the contested territory of the definition of original, copy and counterfeit. The film, itself a tribute to Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954), engages thoroughly with these issues. This is precisely where a number of the works presented in the exhibition lag behind, displaying too little confidence in playful gestures – in both the ludic and acting-related sense – which could be set in opposition to the interpretative authority of a dominant narrative. Hito Steyerl maintains a playful openness in her video, Lovely Andrea (2007), with an anarchistic-essayistic narrative modus inspired in no small part by Johan Grimonprez and Herman Asselbergh’s dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y from 1997. In this work Steyerl searches for bondage footage of herself, plunges into Japanese sub-culture and, through the prism of bondage rituals, ponders freedom and subjection, as well as censorship and commercial utilisation of images. She deploys interviews with protagonists from the scene and an array of images drawn from popular and high culture. These include an animation portraying a female superhero who can make images appear and disappear: a figure highly reminiscent of the eponymous heroine in Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 video Technology/Transformation: Wonderwoman, which is also included in the show.

Copie Non Conforme_Kunstraum Wien          Fig. 4

A different discourse, which resonates in many works in the exhibition, is foregrounded here through the unexpected, open nature of the work, and through the disintegration of order. That becomes clear  in the making-of for the closing credits in which Steyerl, when asked whether she is a feminist, resolutely replies: “Yes, definitely!”

Copie Non Conforme
January 17th–March 15th 2014, Kunstraum Niederösterreich
Herrengasse 13, 1014 A-Wien

(Translation: Helen Ferguson)

[1] This translates as: “The photographed ‘negress’ (explicitly used as a deprecatory term, author’s note) and her enduring existence (or her  after-image, author’s note).” C.f. also the essay on Pane’s positioning in a “whiteness” critique by Teresa María Díaz Nerio, who works with Stefanie Seibold: http://teresadiaznerio.wordpress.com/what-about-the-black-women/

[2] ArTitudes International was founded in 1971. According to footnote #1 in Teresa Maria Diaz Nerio’s essay, volume 33/38 of the magazine was dedicated to the topic “Les Negres.” Vilem Flusser’s contribution was published in this volume but might have been written even earlier as the book Intelectuales y anticomunismo: la revista Cuadernos brasileiros (1959-1970) suggests. In 1966 or 1967 a related article, „Da Negritude“ by Flusser, was published in the magazine Cuadernos brasileiros related to a series of articles on Africa on the occasion of the first Festival Mundial de Artes Negras in Dakar in April 1966.

INOU Niang, No Mohr, 2012
© Artists

Fig. 2
Lena Lapschina, Wien, Deutschland, 2013
© Artist

Fig. 3
Statt Wien, Bettelbeauftragter, 2012
© Artists

Fig. 4
Dara Birnbaum, Technology/Transformation: Wonderwoman, 1978/79
© EAI New York