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Positively Counter-Publics Revisited

The essay revisited in this month’s column comes from the early 1990s, an often overlooked and misunderstood period of transition, now regarded as merely what happened after the Wall fell and before the triumphalism of Brit Art, the aestheticization of relationality, and the subsequent (re)introduction of art as lifestyle and market values. It was, however, a much more ambiguous and ambitious time, during which artists and cultural producers from around the world attempted to localize knowledge and politicize art in new ways. Published in German by a small, now defunct alternative press, Renate Lorenz’ “Kunstpraxis und politische Öffentlichkeit” is consequently little known outside of its historical and linguistic context.

Appearing as the opening essay of the 1993 volume Copyshop: Kunstpraxis und politische Öffentlichkeit (which Lorenz also edited as part of the collective BüroBert), the text was informed by the discussions and discourses of the early 90s but also, in its turn, informed them. The volume and the essay alike testify to a specific attempt to place art within the political—not in opposition or subservient to it, but as fully immersed (hence the “and” of the title: Art Practice and Political Publicness). It is not just art and publics with which the essay is concerned, but art and political publics.

So it is only logical for Lorenz to begin and end the essay with the discussion of a protest, an example of direct action in the field of culture that is not, nominally, a work of art. The occasion was the inclusion of right-wing filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in the exhibition and symposium “Deutschsein,” “to be German,” at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf on March 14, 1993, which led to widespread protests against the opening of the exhibition and a boycott of the symposium. For Lorenz, such actions are as much artistic practice—performed by art workers—as the speeches and the works in the exhibition. In other words, Lorenz understood the field of cultural production to be a social reality, and thus a political space not only for representation, but also for actions and inter-actions. Although her text goes on to mention examples from the 1980s, this understanding in fact marks a crucial shift in the perception of the relationship between art and politics. In a move away from the politics of representation (seen as the articulation of the art objects themselves) towards a broader conception of the art world as a social reality, this shift anticipated discussions that would take place in the late 1990s designating artistic practice as a work field—as social avant-garde and a form of precarious labor.

The essay returns in its conclusion to the protests against Syderberg, and cites the “Deutschsein” curator’s comment that such a discussion (as took place between the protesters and the museum) could not form the basis of an exhibition, to which Lorenz replies: “Why not?” Her answer is not only polemical, but actually suggests a method of exhibition-making that Lorenz, among others, would by mid-decade go on to explore at length as a curator at Shedhalle in Zürich. Here, the exhibition was conceived as a political project, as something already embedded within the political; as such, it demanded specific positioning. Exhibition-making was considered a medium for contestation and articulation: a specific way of producing a public—or, rather, a counter-public.

Read the full article here.