by Manu SharmaApr 14, 2022
A swinging/sliding barrier stands silently in between the public space and the institutions of art. This barrier is an entry point into a world that is accessed through _______________________________. If I were to prescribe the specifics of this blank, the description of it would render my words impotent. So, instead, I would translate the silence of the blank-gateway and ask: When does this barrier become a threshold for your entry into which world?
In a conversation with STIR, German artist Thomas Geiger shares that for him, this world is the dynamics present within and around public spaces. “As a young artist there are no open doors to galleries and museums for most of us. So, the public became a space for me to work as well as exhibit. And this was the moment when I started, I want to become a millionaire. Here I would place myself in public and hold a sign, transforming the open streets and parks into prospective moving grounds for my identity as an artist… witnessing the differences of behaviours marked by happenings and gateways while simultaneously creating a mechanism for financing my works,” says Geiger. For 11 years, he has been selling stamped, signed and numbered certificates out of an edition of 1.000.000 – for 1 Euro each and this street performance has now become the economic backbone for Geiger’s artistic practice “creating many poor collectors, as opposed to a few wealthy ones.”
Acknowledging his personal body-politic and its relationship with open spaces, Geiger takes on different garbs to perform multiple identities and a plurality within liveness. Wearing a hat in I want to become a Millionaire, a blue shirt in Bust Talks, a suit in Peeing in Public, he slips in and out of clothes, moving his body, putting forth provocations through his public art. But what decides the choice of material clothing in these performances? “I really like the banker outfit because it gives me a lot of space to perform and exhibit. For instance, dealing with the police becomes much easier because no one expects me to be an artist or an activist. On one hand it creates access and on the other hand it designs - a camouflage,” shares Geiger.
After multiple artistic interlocutions, Geiger, desiring to centralise performances in the public spaces, created Kunsthalle3000 - an institution as intervention, functioning in a specific time in locations such as Vienna, Johannesburg, Geneva, Beirut, Nice, Langenhagen. Geiger on the question of creating Kunsthalle3000 points that “Institutions generally have a difficult relationship with the public space because it is outside their radius. To me, creating Kunsthalle3000 was to create an institution that is moving around, interacting with different elements of the public.”
Kunsthalle, which in German-speaking countries stands for a municipal museum, the historical objective of which was to make art accessible, becomes a space-time for Geiger and other artists to think about access within and outside of institutional belongings. “Eine Kunsthalle für alle - a Kunsthalle for all - was a phrase that marks the beginning of the Kunsthalle tradition with the statues of Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1909. Kunsthalle3000 follows this principle by literally declaring specific spots within public space as Kunsthalle to create an intensive, yet temporary locale for performance art, discussion, confrontation and interchange,” he states on Kunsthalle3000’s official website. The 3000, for Geiger, is “a futuristic ideal and also a homage to the works of German scenographer Christoph Schlingensief.”
What is also summoned in his performances are exchanges with the invisible, inanimate and inaudible present within the concourses of everyday encounters. In his performance series titled Bust Talks, Geiger conjures busts and statues as observers and witnesses. In Bust Talk- Illumina, the absence of that material sound - which is present but not articulated - is activated by excavating the tricky, glorious past of the statue of Illumina (in the Stadtgarten Freiburg, Germany) that has been decapitated by unknown persons in 2014. Here, Geiger asks, “Your official name is Illumina. Is that also your real name—the name you give yourself?” The camera lens zooms and closely captures a fly that hovers around Illumina’s headless neck – puncturing the silence with a sentient liveness. Geiger, turns to the audience - becoming a listener as well as the translator of silence – and responds, “She says no, it is a bit too ‘high’ for her. She is not a goddess and I just call her Luxo.”
Recalling this moment when Luxo’s head was being visibilised by the presence of a fly, Geiger reveals, “At the end, when I ask Luxo what does she deal with as a philosopher, she responds that she is currently learning the language of the insects. When we wrote the dialogues, we had no clue that insects would be flying around the statue but it was truly magical to witness this co-incidence.” Speculating the nature of this liveness, Geiger also shares that even in the choice of materials, he uses his surroundings. The statues, the chairs, the bricks – all become cultures to work with, producing contextual aesthetics, serving important functions within the performances.
Every piece in Geiger’s body of work provides a new encounter. One such example is the work titled Some Great Europeans (commissioned by the Morni Hills Performance Biennale 2019) which posits conflicting, peculiar and continuing questions on the hegemonic relationships between the east and the west. In thiswork, Geiger invites visitors of an art museum in Chandigarh, India (one of the Le Corbusier buildings) to select one image from a series that carry statues of some “great” Europeans and requests them to interpret it on an improvised pedestal. While acknowledging the criticism that came his way while interacting with STIR, Geiger states, “I like that the work is shifting. Working with the audience in Chandigarh was an attempt to build relationship with people. I felt charged as I witnessed their blooming energy in occupying different positions around the bricks. This work is important… not only because of the process and the connection established with the audiences but also because it helped me encounter my role in artmaking and its possible perceptions vis-à-vis the past roles of European colonialists. And, so, I like that this question is raised and this work is shifting.”
But in this time of our ongoing cohabitation with the coronavirus, the crucial questions to ask would be: What happens to this practice of interventions that are catalysed in public spaces? What happens when the public must be abandoned? To address these, Geiger pries open the possibilities and impossibilities of physical interactions by re-performing existing works of other artists in the Festival of Minimal Actions (previously staged in Brussels, 2014; Paris, 2015 and San José, 2018). This rediscovery and reinterpretation of works of past and present seek novel reflections on accessibility, reproducibility and authorship.
Sharing how his perspectives about the public space has shifted in a world recovering from the pandemic, Geiger shares, “In the beginning, we all had this ‘pioneer’ feeling that something new is happening. But, now, I think it is exactly the time when we have to remember what public space really means. The public space gives us many, many, many possibilities. Especially when democracies are shaking, this is the space where we can come together to imagine and realise change. And if we don’t do it, it is going to be transformed into an economical space, into a highly observed, a strictly controlled space. Public space is not a given. Even in democracies, it is something that you have to constantly fight for as citizens.”
Currently, Geiger is processing a performance titled Pigeon as a part of Kunsthalle3000 at CAC, Brétigny’s The Real Show - a copyleft concept that is being explored across several opuses. To be performed on January 28, 2022, at Bretigny-sur-Orge night market, boulevard de la République, the performance invites the roaming figure of a pigeon to share its vision of the public space. Ultimately, through this performance, Geiger seeks to ask and invite questions on norms that entail the human condition and in that, intervene and present another use, another occupation of public spaces.
Kunsthalle3000 can be viewed here.