by Devanshi ShahDec 03, 2020
I was disappointed by my encounter with the deep fake incarnation of Sigmund Freud. “Hey Siggie,” I projected into the microphone, as instructed, to attract his attention. He remained trapped within the television screen; his fugitive digital avatar quarantined within it. To his right a green ear appeared, a sign that he was listening. I could now ask him anything at all. But he wasn’t programmed to offer a fitting response. I was aware that how I framed my question would say more about me than it would about him. Still, I am not afraid to admit I expected more than the incoherent, long-winded sentences in scholarly German I received that was too pedantic for my beginner ear to comprehend. His speech was punctuated by superficial glitches, like the broadcast was being interrupted, like parts of the seance were being lost in transmission.
The volunteer minding the work at the Steirischer Herbst headquarters told me that when she first encountered him some days ago, his vocabulary was non-existent. Since then, he had been quietly accruing words by listening in on what was ambient; recognising individual voices, even. He was manifesting symptoms of sentience, coming into a nascent form of existential being. Would he be content to remain the mascot of Paranoia TV, the title of the 2020 edition of the famous annual contemporary arts festival native to Graz, Austria’s second-biggest city? Would he learn to hypnotise? Would he spy on the intelligence of life forms around him and accumulate their subjectivities? Would he make a run for it and plot his escape from forced quarantine? Would he revise his own theory on Paranoia? Would he still maintain the relevance of projection as a defence mechanism of the paranoid mind?
The Paranoia TV website homepage states its reason for being as a reaction “to the fears and uncertainties of today’s world and reinvents itself as a media consortium”. Through its duration, from September 24 to October 18, it will project itself as a platform for the uncanny and the disturbing. “Broadcasting on several frequencies around the world, it responds artistically and critically to the global pandemic and the complications it has introduced, not only to our everyday lives, but also with regards to the production of cultural events.” This seemed a rich curatorial premise, re-examining the core value of contemporary art while investigating methods of dissemination in a pandemic moment, when social distancing had to be reinforced so strictly that the hypocrisy of the alleged border-lessness of the EU region was revealed.
The Steirischer Herbst curatorial team embraced, perhaps too fully and not critically enough, the television format, playing dress-up so thoroughly that its headquarters resembled a TV studio. The artworks were evolved as ‘corona-proof’ as possible, in the event that strict social distancing norms would once more be enforced. A hundred television screens were installed in different parts of Graz to make the broadcast as public as possible. The usual press conference and walk-through was replicated as a boardroom meeting, with the lead curator, Ekaterina Degot portraying herself like a CEO. Instead of a conventional opening, she was to present an address that would be televised at a certain hour, while, at around the same time, she would appear at The Orpheum, in Graz, and speak live to a select group of privileged attendees.
I listened to her speech soon after my disheartening non-conversation with the theory-spewing deep fake Freud. It was clear she was trying to play with the criss-crossing realms of fact and fiction, trying to seed in us the belief that what we were listening to was one form of authentic, while what was being said at Orpheum was another. I don’t quite remember. And, to be honest, as a seasoned viewer of Indian television where the borders between real and fake news have been so wholeheartedly blurred, it stopped being a joke a long time ago, it was hard to digest this denouement. I was unconvinced by what felt like a curatorial gimmick.
I thought of Bani Abidi’s excellent 2007 series, The Address, one of the photographs from which features a seat with a blue curtained background, and a microphone awaiting a speaker, while others show people in public places waiting for the scheduled address to take place. The anticipation for an event that would perhaps never transpire seemed a more relatable visual metaphor. Ekaterina did appear on our screens at the SH headquarters, and made many statements about the times we were inhabiting that felt tone deaf to me. Her speech at the Orpheum had a more profound intonation, since she addressed the exclusivity of art, touching upon the hierarchical structures proliferated by the art world.
What I couldn’t wrap my head around, though, was why, as a curator, she chose to privilege what has established itself so clearly as an autocratic form of address. In India, for example, a sense of dread pervades when the Prime Minister announces to the press that he will ‘address’ the nation. Was Degot playing with the violence of that Third World experience of suspense? Was her speech intentionally filled with insights that upon further retrospection seemed almost banal? One element, for instance, that was common to both addresses was the reassurance that “for the first time in a very long period—the whole world is experiencing the same conditions in parallel. There is no First or Third World any more. Different cultures or identities make little sense, as we all go through the same ordeal”. It reminded me of a meme a friend sent me during the third month of lockdown in New Delhi, that played with the over-relayed trope of all of us being in ‘this’ together. The comic had boats in different sizes to reveal the inequality of the lockdown experience. Many had the luxury of metaphorically sitting in private yachts while closer to where I call home, people were struggling to stay afloat on driftwood and twigs. In Austria artists were fairly richly compensated for by the government, while in India, many were either running community kitchens to feed starving migrants or struggling to pay their own rent.
How could art have the same equivalence in both contexts? Degot ends her speech at Orpheum by asking whether contemporary art can do anything in times like these. “It can,” she says. “Because despite all the divisions art sows—and sometimes exactly because of these divisions—it points us towards the dimension of what is not here. Art is always about a better world. It has perspective. It has movement inscribed in it, whatever the medium...” As loftily optimistic as her pronouncement sounds, it doesn’t account for how art has been historically instrumentalised by various fascist and autocratic forces to further the cause of engendering hatred, or how art has also been built on the backs of oppressed labour.
Experiencing this one-directional discourse made me think a lot about how the festival was using screens as a medium, and how it was repurposing existing forms of dissemination to inject art into people’s lives; from a food delivery service that would ensure free copies of a newspaper work by Joanna Piotrowska to Akinbode Akinbiyi’s Photo Booth installation at Am Eisernen Tor square, inviting viewers to sit for a one-Euro photograph which, when printed, was accompanied by other images from his archive to Roee Rosen’s tender colouring book for adults, Lucy is Sick, which would be given to in patients and staff at a hospital in Graz to Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s A Convention of Tiny Movements at two Spar outlets in the city—sound installations that intervened while you were perhaps shopping for essential and non-essential items. Added to this was a robust online program available for free through a downloadable app as well as on the Paranoia TV website. A lot of content was generated, and much of the art is inflected by what I am temporarily calling quarantine aesthetics until I can find a better term. It attests to how deeply our collective consciousness has been traumatised by our forced retreat into the domestic and the politics and poetics of being compelled to be stationary as we fantasise about movement.
Vadim Fishkin’s installation Dictionary of Imaginary Places evoked this for me with a vulnerable immediacy. He intervened in the circuitry of two street lamps in Graz so that they recite, on loop, the thousand-odd names listed in the Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a title he chanced upon once at an airport. Each lamp is set aglow each time a place is invoked. I liked the work because it seemed as though an audience was irrelevant to its inherent being. I loved the idea of the two lamps continuing to recite fictitious names in the dark of night when the streets were finally empty, with only the falling autumn leaves and the moonlight as witnesses. We are always theorising about why we need art. As people invested in its production, we adamantly project it and look to impose it upon an unsuspecting public ‘for their own good’, even if they may not necessarily feel the materiality of its absence. We are so committed to claiming art as essential. Fishkin’s installation seemed to quietly reframe the question. Does art need us?
Click here to watch Artworks Made at Home (2020) by Ahmet Ögüt. Commissioned by Steirischer Herbst, Ögüt’s video takes viewers on an insightful survey of the recent history of art made at home, for the artist's home, and reflects on the space of domesticity, even from a feminist perspective.