‘Making Strange’

Posted on Thursday May 31, 2012

One thing New York offers that’s not so easy to find at home is discussion about contemporary art issues.

I’m just back from a panel discussion organized by the Whitney Museum, entitled ‘Making Strange with Nora M Alter, Hans Haacke, Liz Magic Laser and Graham Parker’. According to the blurb, ‘Taking cues from the writings of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, this panel discussion focuses on how contemporary artistic practices can make strange current social, political and economic situations through a variety of public interventions, videos, and performances.’

This required some introductory stuff about Brecht, and we were possibly lucky that the sound system wasn’t working so well at this stage.

New York-based multimedia artist Graham Parker then talked about his interest in confidence trickery (surely the purview of all artists?) using the example of how he’d disrupted people’s interaction with the capitalist system by placing fake ATMs in prime locations, including in an art gallery.

More seriously, German-born American political/conceptual artist Hans Haacke (yes, the one we met in art history lessons) retold his experiences in trying to get the German parliament to approve his design for a public artwork for the northern courtyard of the Reichstag building in Berlin. Referencing the Nazi use of the word ‘Volke’ to exclude almost all minorities, he proposed a simple work with the words DER BERVOLKERING (‘The population’; that is, the totality of people living in Germany) on a bed of soil provided from their home area by members of the parliament. Not surprisingly (and therefore, un-strangely?) this was controversial, although the work was eventually made.

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Then it was the turn of Liz Magic Laser (her real name, according to a fellow-student here who has worked with her) to show excerpts of some of the performance works she’d made, in which actors disrupted public events (including by performing excerpts of Brecht’s plays in banks’ ATM foyers – a nice segue from the first two speakers – and in cinemas).

This set me thinking: what would happen if I, now, in the closing stages of this artists’  panel discussion, took four books from the table in front of me, walked up to the speakers’ table, opened the books and handed one to each artist-speaker, and then ‘conducted’ a composite reading by the speakers? How would these artists cope with such disruption (I mean, ‘public intervention’)? Would they embrace it as a fellow-artist ‘making strange’, or would they be totally pissed off? I’ll never know. It was already well past dinner time, and what was left of the audience was released into the strange night air.