Art Conversations

Christine Martin in conversation with Rainer Ganahl

Part I

RAINER GANAHL: Christine, I’m leaving for Istanbul in a couple of hours but keep asking me questions …

CHRISTINE MARTIN: Because this issue is about capitalism, I would like to focus primarily on your DADALENIN work (2007), as shown at the Moscow Biennale in 2007, where you also held reading seminars with Lenin texts. Specifically, I would like to hear about your experience of being both enlightened and repulsed by Marxist-Leninist theory and practice in your art and life in America.

RG: Lenin himself was fascinated with the American model and its efficiency. He wanted to industrialize Russia to the point that it could compete with and surpass the United States, and where–according to Marx–the “highest state of capitalism” turns into communism. I became interested in Lenin through a little book I would recommend to everybody entitled Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917). It is quite a remarkable book; in it, he describes imperialism as a quasi-natural consequence of a system that destroys itself through the development of monopolistic accumulation of power in more and more concentrated pockets, and the drive to ever bigger markets for resources, labour and consumers. It is a brilliant expose. Lenin wrote this book around 1916, in Zurich, while he lived in Spiegelgasse, next to the Cabaret Voltaire, the founding place of Dada.

When I was invited to do something at the Cabaret Voltaire, I focused on the relationship between Dada and Lenin and became 100 percent convinced that Lenin was a founding member of Dada–something that is indirectly confirmed by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and other testimonies. Lenin dressed in a wig and participated in the scene at the Cabaret, as we can see in a diary entry by Hugo Ball: “A small nice looking man, who already was greeted before he entered the podium, Mister Dolgaleff was offering two humoresques by Tschechow and presented popular songs … An unknown woman was reading Jegoruschka by Turgenjew and verses by Nekrassow”–Lenin’s preferred writers. Or, in another passage, we read: “Towards 6:00 p.m. … an oriental-looking group of four small men carrying folders and images with them entered … They introduced themselves: Marcel Janco, the painter, Tristan Tzara, George Janco and a fourth man, whose name I can’t remember,” but most likely Lenin (see sources and more on my website: www.ganahl.info/dadalenin.html).

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All my ongoing DADALENIN work plays with this connection. Given today’s state of ideology, economy and technology, I purchased bronze Lenin busts–the most metal-moulded man in history–on eBay and rearranged them with other stuff, including the four porcelain letters for dada. I myself also cast the neologism DADALENIN in bronze, trying to add some bronze to a forgotten, if not repressed, history. I started a Reading Lenin seminar, which I’m still conducting when given a chance, and ventured into all kinds of media, including painting with a collective painting workshop for Google portraits of Lenin as well as other Lenin-related topics, for example, Red Terror Lenin (2007). Lenin was committed to undoing the history of injustice and repression, but created a system that itself was equally repressive (if not more so) than that of the czar’s at its worst. The czar’s family was also among the first victims and were annihilated, according to the script of Ubu Roi (1896), by Alfred Jarry, which was presented at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich before Lenin returned to Russia for his October Revolution in 1917 (see also my Ubu Lenin).

CM: Why did you kick The Complete Works of Vladimir Lenin across Red Square in Moscow and then bicycle recklessly up to Lenin’s tomb?

RG: Well, my specific book destructions (I have also done it with Freud and Handke so far) always have to be seen in a particular context and history. Kicking a valuable, quasi-antiquarian, 1962 edition of Lenin’s collected works over Red Square towards the Lenin Mausoleum while videotaping it meant risking tension and was to remind us of Europe’s traumatic history of book destructions that were often followed with repressions and killings. Since I expended much effort reading Lenin with different people throughout the world, I felt somehow entitled to also read a bit with my feet and test the reaction of the security details on the most sacred place of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, after a couple of minutes, but not far away from the marble Mausoleum where Lenin rests, I was apprehended by the police and taken away in a car. They didn’t really care about Lenin, but cared about something else: in the car, I was threatened with high fines, deportation and a 10-year visa rejection for what they labelled in Russian as “hooliganism,” but was finally invited to pay $150 for immediate release. I left the car and went for my second performance, entitled, From the Lenin Monument, October Square, to Lenin Mausoleum, Red Square–Bicycling Moscow–a bicycle ride without holding the handle bar in the middle of the street while filming. Bicycling was also Lenin’s way of transportation in Paris and Geneva. In Geneva, he almost lost an eye while crashing into a tramway, and, in Paris, he was run over by a car and sued the automobilist successfully.

CM: Do you consider your work a political practice, in that you focus on globalism, terrorism and ideology?

RG: Yes and no. Somehow, anything is political when you manage to make people think, write and/or talk about it and make your–or for that matter, also “their”–point possible about things political. This creates the necessary awareness effects. My work is mainly discursive, so it invites discussions and is in constant need of justification and contextualization–even if it is at the same time also retinal and, as in the case of my bicycle affairs, spectacular. For me, the political is anything that concerns at least two people and their environment. This rather open definition is necessary in order not to be shoehorned into the rather narrow definition of “the political artist,” since I just want to be “an artist”–a vague and open denominator that functions best if not predetermined.

CM: Have you consciously tried to historicize your work? I mean, expose your subjectivity, i.e., the specific time and place that you are working from: Austrian, American, postmodern, male, mid-40s, etc.?

RG: As an artist, in the process of making something, I am not trying to “historicize” my work–that is the business of others, though I am sometimes part of these “others” since I am also asked to explain and write about my work–in that context I try to haunt ghosts, provoke and stress historical links and references and sometimes act excessively drunk.

Then, we also have works like Silenced Voices–Bicycling Istanbul’s Topography of 21 Murdered Journalists (2007), or my work on German-speaking Jewish immigrants who were victimized by the Nazis, in which I was, of course, trying to be as historically accurate as possible.

Concerning subjectivity, I have come to somehow understand–particularly after having studied the texts of Said, Fanon, Spivak, Butler and others–to be aware of my ethnic, sexual, national and class positioning, which of course plays into anything we do but also constantly changes its meaning according to situations and places. But in order to offer you hmore specificity here, you would have to ask me specific questions for specific pieces made at specific moments in specific contexts and specific locations.

CM: I am wondering about the aesthetic of your work. Do you consider it a version of socialist realism because you do not attempt to adorn your installations with more decoration than necessary?

RG: I believe in Occam’s razor: why should I embrace decor? My aesthetic choices are defined by the Sprachspiel of my artworks, their functions, their goals, their contexts and material realities. In this sense, I feel more like a “historical materialist” than a “social realist” since socialist realism adopted the bourgeois aesthetic of the French and German 19th century and only changed the subject matter and protagonists depicted.

CM: Do you subscribe to the theory of deconstruction in your work?

RG: I don’t really believe in the by now academically dated “theory of deconstruction” a smart fashion on expensive US campuses in the 90s that adored a D-named French philosopher drawing from an H-named German one. Again, I believe in analytical and historical thinking that is materialistic, aware of its own context and language and sensitive to the multiple renderings of ideological formations. Ideologiekritik is after all a German invention and has been a tool in the hands of all kinds of German (and non-German) masters–including (unfortunately) those who brought death.

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Part II

CM: I would like to talk about the romantic piece you did in a downtown NYC loft, riding your bicycle with the girl on your handlebars reading from Flann O’Brien: “It was the grip of a handlebar … Her handlebar …” I really love how tender this piece is compared to your other work. You really love that bicycle, don’t you?

RG: I love my girlfriend, Romana. I have a very close relationship with my bicycle, something that I share with Alfred Jarry, who was riding drunk while shooting Paris monuments and Flann O’Brien, the writer of the novel, The Third Policeman, written in 1940. In this story, the protagonist is a bicyclist and we see the velo eroticized and taking on yet another literary dimension. Romana sits for more than 20 minutes on the handlebar reading selected parts of a chapter, while I am pressing down on the pedals, with a third person filming from the centre until we all nearly collapse due to the grinding, endless turning.

But, of course, the bicycle is for me not only an instrument of seduction and love, but also a utopian vehicle of past and future modernities. I very much see it as an invitation to rethink urbanism and transportation, and I want all private traffic banned from all inner cities in exchange for free-effective public transportation on tramways or buses. I want the bicycle to be the design model even for velo-cars that could be powered by a combination of passengers and batteries. Accident-prone, fast, fuel-burning, heavy-metal cars should be not allowed into urban centres except with permission and in the public interest. This would trigger a new urbanism that could reinvigorate our social spheres, our living spaces and help combat the big 20th-century killer, obesity, which reduces people’s lifespans as fast as global warming heats up the planet. It would also reduce the brutal fight over resources that we see now not only in Iraq.

CM: Is riding your bicycle an act of resistance?

RG: Critical Mass is an important bicycle movement, and is probably more about direct resistance than are my crazy bike rides or my bike-related art works. I’m more trying to focus discussions not only about immediate bike policies (more bike lanes, less car traffic, etc.), but in a more general way–let’s say even a more pathetic way–to ask questions that touch upon a broader spectrum of issues, including art and aesthetics. After all, I’m just an artist and not a bike-politician or bike-rebel. I see bicycling as a way towards a self-sustainable life and advocate the utopian power of it, as mentioned above. Bicycles stand for their own speed, their own versatility–bikes pass nearly everywhere–their own energy and ecology. Bicycles rock.

CM: What do you love about the USA?

RG: New York City. The diversity of its people and the fact that it is still the main switchboard for world finance, news production, ideas, technological innovations, entertainment, power and worse. The USA is a wonderful place and easy to hate, particularly when one equates Washington politics, corporate power and arrogance with this country. But let’s be fair, the USA also produces its finest critics and adheres to some constitutional freedoms and laissezfaire attitudes that I value. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t also go on for hours and attack their records on human rights, their wars, their environmental crimes, etc. But then, do we prefer a Chinese government, a Russian one, or a French one (when it still had something to say)? The USA is a strangely complex place that somehow doesn’t need any justification for being great and miserable at the same time–according to what one prefers to see or feel. Anything is really somehow possible and I see people taking long efforts to come here … and people, ideas and money are still coming. In this sense, the USA is the quintessential capitalist country if we take capitalism as this ever-changing, self-contradicting, paradoxical machine in permanent crisis that absorbs and spits out all productive and counter-productive energies of the world. China might be on the way to challenge it, but they are simply not there yet.

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CM: Is the international art world that you function in a capitalist structure, in terms of class and power?

RG: Is there any place that is exempt from class and power? I doubt it. But again, capitalism starts when you are born and your capital is increasing (or decreasing) by the day depending on where, when and into what family/ context/history you are born. So, it is unnecessary to underscore that today’s art world is a truly international, super-capitalist circus and some players become incredibly rich while others (including me) operate on micro-budgets. It is like in the rest of the world. But the beauty and interest of the arts lies in the liberating fact that the notion of what constitutes art is in permanent negotiation, and arguing over these definitions is vital and closely tied to our self-understanding, our ideological perspectives, our class, our lives. Anybody just can get up and say, “I don’t like that artist” or “f–that piece” and that is it. Our voices count and good artists know how to deal with taste formations. We don’t need to be rich for this; self-generated capital is sufficient.

Post Script

RG: Did you like my answer about “deconstructive theory?”

CM: Yes, your answer really dated me.

RG: Dating you wasn’t my intention. I never really liked the “fashions” but many people think that way, so we should leave it. It will be provocative. It will kick some people in the legs. It is not so much the “thinking” but the big word labelling. I never remembered you as a “theorist,” you were more a pragmatist and situationist and activist and down to straightforward language. You never needed to hide behind fancy words and concepts. You could name things and grab the beast with both of your hands on the nose and ears. That is your big quality.

RG: P.S. Me too, I’m out of the loop. I have no idea anymore what is going on in the field of theory. I have the insight and feeling that theory is out and not chic anymore. Students today are into cute objects and idiosyncratic personal productions and private mythologies … like the art world. There is no theoretical world left. Money-making and selling is in.

CM: Do you want to meet for dinner, when you get back from Istanbul?

RG: Yes, Romana and I will come.

CHRISTINE MARTIN, AOCAD, JD IS A WRITER AND LEGAL GRAPHICS CONSULTANT LIVING AND WORKING IN NEW YORK CITY,

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