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A Brief History of “Poor Man’s Expression”


A Mexico-based computer programmer coined the phrase “poor man’s expression” to illustrate a relatively simple means of developing a programming process. This reminds us of the claim made in theoretical physics that, in place of complicated test arrangements, all you need is a pencil. For Martin Ebner and me, “poor man’s expression” became just such a “pencil,” with which we designed an exhibition in May 2006 around our general ideas regarding technology, film, and conceptual art. Now, I would like to return to what originally fascinated us about this combination of words and why it became the title of our project. Secondly, the phrase might serve as a framework for a certain mode of operation.

Originally for us, the exhibition title “Poor Man’s Expression” suggested a simplified means of visualizing complex relationships. The first installment of the project was in Vienna; then it traveled to the Filmhaus Berlin, where it was exhibited in cooperation with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art. The exhibition aimed to examine the relationships between film, video, technology, and art, with a particular focus on the reciprocal influences between conceptual art and experimental film. In a third development of the project, there will be a publication expanding the ideas surrounding this concept.

But the phrase “poor man’s expression” also signifies, for me, an idea for an ongoing development of projects and ideas, a history of minor stories that began for me twenty years ago with the Botschaft collective. A certain moment of self-organization and independence, a taking-of-ground within a limited period of time, was explored by a number of self-organized spaces in Berlin throughout the 1990s, and as many of those spaces were later institutionalized, this era of activities and practices deserves to be revisited. By interpreting “Poor Man’s Expression” as a possible development of those strategies, I want to review also the ideas employed then and propose a reciprocal interpretation.

The title “Poor Man’s Expression” suggests a do-it-yourself aspect. For some, DIY is an attitude as well as a punk-related ideology, one whose adaptability to cultural practices has been analyzed by theorists—and yet it appears to remain somehow “homemade,” especially against the backdrop of the art boom in recent years, as witnessed by events like the Miami Basel Beach fair. The rapid selling-out of punk has lead many to lose interest in its ideals, but that is the wrong impulse. It has always been about creating a basis instead of accepting one, however tempting the offer might be. In contrast, the ability to create one’s own environment—to determine one’s own context as much as possible, even if it can never be complete or wholly autonomous—is luxury. Perhaps this is an illusion, a distorted mirror image. Ideally, however, freely chosen conditions allow for a clear view of the exhibition/idea/image/film without obstructions that might ruin the concept.

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