27 November 2012


"The party for Gorbachev dribbled on for awhile. Eventually the opportunity arose for some small talk. Here at last was my chance to clarify everything. To my astonishment, someone introduced me as 'the German Vyssotski'. My name seemed to trigger a memory - perhaps the scandal of my expulsion from the GDR more than fifteen years ago - and I was excited and happy and solemn. My heart beat in my skull, my brain was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of emotions. In such circumstances words of conversation are, anyway, only crude identification marks amid the headlong rush of protocol. How are people supposed to talk to one another, if they don't even have the time to be silent together? Which is all to say: I embarrassed myself. I said to this complete stranger a sentence which I had believed could never pass my lips again. My four words were spoken as a kind of reflex action, like a dying soldier giving a password; the thirteen letters fell from my mouth like teeth that had been knocked out. Before me stood the last torchbearer of Communist ideology. I said: 'I am a Communist.'

Years of despair and hope culminated in that moment: Gorbachev embodied all the wild thoughts and shouting matches of three decades. A film was running inside my head, beginning with my first doubts after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 and ending with the crushing certainty that the Communist heaven on earth could be nothing but perfect hell.

But as failed Communists is our place in world history therefore as contemptible as that of our old great enemies the Nazis? Of course not! We were always better and always worse. Put more precisely: Our crimes were all the worse, because they stemmed from a better tradition. The Nazis grew out f the blood-stained stupidity of racial delusion, and they remained true to their colours. Hitler honestly promised the extermination of the Jews and held onto it. When the war was already lost, when he needed every truck and every locomotive to supply the Wehrmacht, he still requisitioned enough trains to transport the Jews to death camps. If that was not devotion to principles!

We, however, betrayed everything that we ever promised. We emerged from the humane tradition of the Enlightenment. Our intellectual fathers were the radical democrats of the French Revolution, our poets Heine and Buechner, our thinkers Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. Communism and Social Democracy were siblings in the same historical family: but the intolerant son became a much-admired murdered and the prim sister and unloved wallflower.

It causes me the deepest sadness and it is to our everlasting shame that no one liquidated so many Communists as the Communists. Hitler murdered 64,000 German Communists. But Stalin's executioners murdered almost the whole of Lenin's Central Committee and liquidated a couple million cadres as well. The Nazis did not butcher their own people, apart from a few individual cases. And what was butchered in the Communist workers' movement was a fundamental humane tendency, which historically never existed in Fascism.

We failed. Now any kind of hope for a more just society seems to be discredited until the end of the world. Despite all that, this ruined childish hope is still close to my heart. The best and the bravest and cleverest people who created me were almost all left-wing rebels and undogmatic spirits, all of them burnt children of Communism. And when I met the last representative of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the old wounds burst open again and bled. And it was far from melodramatic, on the contrary; it was a confusingly pleasant pain.

'I am a Communist.' And see: Gorbachev responded to the stimulus like a Pavlovian dog in the Party academy. The little red bell struck, and the old ideological saliva flowed. It seemed to me as if a romantic revolutionary spasm passed through his body. He had evidently not been expecting this signal from the past here in Hamburg. Suddenly he gained a firmer grip on my hand and, looking through my eyes deep into my heart as if through reversed opera glasses, he squeezed meaningfully and tragically, communicating what we both knew very well: it doesn't matter anymore.

Am I exaggerating? No, Gorbachev's handshake was really something! It was a worker's handshake. No, wrong! Real workers shake hands without the noble proletarian emphasis, which Gorbachev had.

One often hears the claim that at the very last moment of life, all of the past rushes through the dying person's head again as a compressed, abbreviated film. I did not at all feel like dying, but I did see a speeded-up film as Gorbachev gripped my hand in a vice: a film of the death of the Communist idea. Our handshake lasted at most three seconds - but for me it became an epic to fill a whole evening.

It was a remarkable handshake; it bore no resemblance to the ones I knew from officials of the labour movement, who shake hands to show that inside they are still workers. Intellectuals who had picked up important posts in the Party or the trade unions exaggerated the proletarian manner, disguising their genteel mitts by gripping all the more resolutely. They took the hand of the unsuspecting so skillfully, that with a relatively small expenditure of energy they could still crush the victim's fingers. This hyper-proletarian trick worked especially well on women. The loyal party handshake also had a formative effect on the arts. Party artists painted monumental workers' hands, with which no real worker could compete. State actors, playing class conscious workers in Socialist Realist films, shook hands with this gusto.

The true Noble Proletarian Handshake begins long before the actual pressing of flesh. It is clearly developing as the proletarian handshaker approaches the person to be greeted. The proferred arm arm displays two indispensable components: it must be extended somewhat further than normal, and the elbow must point outwards and upwards a little. This signals the strength of the working class hidden beneath the jacket, the mighty arm and the shoulder muscles of the steelworker or miner. At the same time it's noticeable that the fingers are unusually far apart. This gesture has its origins in the fact that the reliable comrade worker is distinguished by the noble mark of primitive manual labour: his massive hands. These calloused digits have only a moment ago laid aside shovel and spanner, hammer and sickle for this greeting. Siberian frosts and the fire of the blast furnaces have hardened his skin. The delicate articulation of the finger joints has been restricted as if by a gouty stiffness. This clumsiness acquired through labour must make every heart beat faster that beats honestly on the side of working people.

By contrast, of course, the political body language of the Heil Hitler greeting was entirely appropriate to the class enemy: the slippery smooth fingers are pressed together and are slightly bent. Petty bourgeois pen-pusher's hands. The honest heavy hand of the class conscious worker does not get up to such tricks. Its vigorous grip signifies a feeling of grass-roots heartiness which is foreign to the decadent class and its intellectual parasites. All the effeminate elements hostile to the Party, the work-shy sceptics - the whole bourgeois rabble - betrayed itself by its limp body-language, even before it had uttered a single word.

At the moment of our handshake Gorbachev stiffened meaningfully. We were silent for a brief eternity. I even had the feeling that the habit of this rite of fraternal affection practised thousands of times would propel Gorbachev into giving me a fraternal kiss. Elevating my cheeks to the ranks of Erich Honecker's and Jew-hater Yasser Arafat's. Fortunately this chalice passed me by. So we stood there, two survivors by the open grave of a fixed idea. Then we went on our way."

- Wolf Biermann, Shaking Hands with the Zeigeist

24 November 2012

"Opium began life in the Chinese empire as an import from the vaguely identified 'Western regions' (Ancient Greece and Rome, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan); the earliest Chinese reference (in a medical manual) occurs in the first half of the eighth century. Eaten or drunk, prepared in may different ways (ground, boiled, honeyed, infused, mixed with ginger, ginseng, liquorice, vinegar, black plums, ground rice, caterpillar fungus), it served for all kinds of ailments (diarrhoea and dysentery, arthritis, diabetes, malaria, chronic coughs, a weak constitution). By the eleventh century, it was recognized for its recreational, as well as curative uses. 'It does good to the mouth and throat', observed one satisfied user. 'I have but to drink a cup of poppy-seed decoction, and I laugh, and am happy.' 'It looks like myrrh," elaborated a court chronicle some four hundred years later. 'It is dark yellow, soft and sticky like ox glue. It tastes bitter, produces excessive heat and is poisonous… It enhances the art of alchemists, sex and court ladies… Its price equals that of gold.' Opium was supposed to help control ejaculation which, as sexological theory told it, enabled sperm to retreat to feed the male brain. Opium-enriched aphrodisiacs became a boom industry in Ming China (1368–1644)—possibly contributing the the high death rate of the dynasty's emperors (eleven out of a total of sixteen Ming rulers failed to get past their fortieth birthday). In 1958, as part of a final push to root out the narcotic in China, the new Communist government excavated the tomb of Wanli, the hypochondriac (though long-lived) emperor of the late Ming, and found his bones saturated with morphine. Enterprising Ming cooks even tried to stir-fry it, fashioning poppy seed into curd as a substitute for tofu. Opium was one of the chief ingredients of a Ming-dynasty cure-all, the 'big golden panacea' (for use against toothache athlete's foot and too much sex), in which the drug was combined with (amongst other things) bezoar, pearl, borneol, musk, rhinoceros horn, antelope horn, catechu, cinnabar, amber, eagle wood, aucklandia root, white sandalwood; all of which had first to be gold-plated, then pulverized, turned into pellets with breast milk, and finally swallowed with pear juice. (Take one at a time, the pharmacological manuals recommended.)

It was yet another import—in the shape of tobacco from the New World—that led to the smoking of opium. Introduced to China at some point between 1573 and 1627 (around the same time as the peanut, the sweet potato and maize), by the middle of the seventeenth century tobacco-smoking had become an empire-wide habit. As the Qing established itself in China after 1644, the dynasty made nervous attempts to ban it as 'a crime more heinous even than that of neglecting archery': smokers and sellers could be fined, whipped and even decapitated. By by around 1726, the regime had given up the empire's tobacco addiction as a bad job, with great fields of the stuff swaying just beyond the capital's walls. And somewhere in the early eighteenth century, a new, wonderful discovery had reached China from Java, carried on Chinese ships between the two places: that tobacco was even better if you soaked it first in opium syrup (carried mainly in Portuguese cargoes). First stop for this discovery was the Qing's new conquest, Taiwan; from there it passed to the mainland's maritime rim, and then the interior. 

It was smoking that made Chinese consumers take properly to opium. Smoking was sociable, skilled and steeped in connoisseurship (with its carved, bejewelled pipes of jade, ivory and tortoiseshell, its silver lamps for heating and tempering the drug, its beautiful red sandalwood couches on which consumers reclined). It was also less likely to kill the consumer than the eaten or drunk version of the drug: around 80–90 per cent of the morphia may have been lost in fumes from the pipe or exhaled. Through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, China made opium-smoking its own: a chic post-prandial; an essential lubricant of the sing-song (prostitution) trade; a must-have hospitality item for all self-respecting hosts; a favourite distraction from the pressures of court life for the emperor and his household. Opium houses could be salubrious, even luxurious institutions, far from the Dickensian den-of-vice stereotype (like an 'intimate beer-house,' a surprised Somerset Maugham pronounced in 1922—a mature stage in China's drug plague), in which companionable groups of friends might enjoy a civilized pipe or two over tea and dim-sum.

Somewhere near the start of the nineteenth century, smokers began to dispense with the diluting presence of tobacco—perhaps because pure opium was more expensive, and therefore more status-laden. Around this time, thanks to the quality control exercised by the diligent rulers of British India (who established a monopoly over opium production in Bengal in 1793), the supply also became more reliable, no longer regularly contaminated by adulterants such as horse dung and sand. A way of burning money, smoking was the perfect act of conspicuous consumption. Every stage was enveloped in lengthy, elaborate, costly ritual: the acquisition of exquisite paraphernalia; the intricacy of learning how to cook and smoke it (softening the dark ball of opium to a dark, caramelized rubber, inserting it into the hole on the roof of the pipe bowl, then drawing slowly, steadily on the pipe to such the gaseous morphia out); the leisurely doze that followed the narcotic hit. The best families would go one step further in flaunting their affluence, by keeping an opium chef to prepare their pipes for them. The empire's love affair with opium can be told through the beautiful lyrics it manufactured for consuming the drug, through the lyrics that aficionados composed to their heavy, treacly object of desire, or in bald statistics. In 1780, a British East India Company (EIC) ship could not break even on a single opium cargo shipped to Canton. By 1839, imports were topping 40,000 chests per annum."

—Julia Lovell The Opium War

12 November 2012

bubble cults of the Main river basin

1) Setting: Create a "special" environment, most often modelled after a café, i.e. small round tables covered with a checkered tablecloth, butcher block paper, colored pens, a vase of flowers, and optional "talking stick" item. There should be four chairs at each table. 

2) Welcome and Introduction: The host begins with a warm welcome and an introduction to the World Café process, setting the context, sharing the Cafe Etiquette, and putting participants at ease. 

3) Small Group Rounds: The process begins with the first of three or more twenty minute rounds of conversation for the small group seated around a table. At the end of the twenty minutes, each member of the group moves to a different new table. They may or may not choose to leave one person as the "table host" for the next round, who welcomes the next group and briefly fills them in on what happened in the previous round.

4) Questions: each round is prefaced with a question designed for the specific context and desired purpose of the session. The same questions can be used for more than one round, or they can be built upon each other to focus the conversation or guide its direction.

5) Harvest: After the small groups (and/or in between rounds, as desired) individuals are invited to share insights or other results from their conversations with the rest of the large group. These results are reflected visually in a variety of ways, most often using graphic recorders in the front of the room.

World cafe whitewash

“The other one is that I’m very uneasy with Cafe-style type of consultation. I went to two of the items with respect to the Library, Mr. Merry, and I just had a sticky on the board, you never know where it went, you never saw it reappear again, with no idea of whether it influenced things.”

“There are also concerns about this ‘World Cafe’ format. For many of us who participated in them, it is simply a white-wash. First of all, people who are in favor of a project will dot every single table, sometimes 2 or 3 of them. As someone said, ‘you know these results are written on these little pieces of paper/post it notes — and guess what. There is a conclusion reached. Is it a conclusion that everyone voted on? We don’t know that. So, basically I think you need to rethink that.”

“But I want to make a comment regarding the World Cafe formats. Engagement is about getting all opinions into a room, not just those opposed to a project. A true representation of getting people who support, oppose, and aren’t sure, at the same table. It isn’t just about compromising.”

“We are here tonight because I’m assuming that the developers invited us here tonight and because they are interested in hearing what we have to say. Whether or not the World Cafe has every single person’s input into the final design, it is up to the developer at this point — in their living room. They have invited us here, which I think is wonderful.”

3 November 2012

Fattening Cannibals in the mensa

"Euler does not exempt her own image from this pictorial universe of ambition. In an untitled self-portrait from 2008, she has wrapped her right arm over her head so that it reaches the left half of her face. The pose recalls a formerly widespread procedure used by German primary schools to test whether a child was ready for school: The candidate’s hand had to reach the ear on the other side. Euler paints herself a certificate of maturity and membership but also stages the artist’s life as a perpetual performance test. The detail of the hand clutching a cigarette in a deliberately awkward pose identifies her as a member of the bohemian segment of the art world, the more so as it imitates a habitual gesture of her professor Michael Krebber. And at least since Francis Picabia’s Espagnole à la Cigarette, 1921–22, the female smoker has been an art-historically overdetermined trope, signifying transgressiveness, meditativeness, and autoeroticism.
Moreover, from the early twentieth century through the 1980s (the heyday of Virginia Slims’ well-known slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby”), cigarettes also signified women’s emancipation, which may also help account for their appearance in Euler’s works. Certainly with the series of women’s portraits Euler showed at Real Fine Arts this past spring, she had visibly broken free of the male-dominated universe depicted in her earlier portraits. The friends portrayed here likewise catered to their own desires—the painter captured one of them taking a drag on a cigarette, another slurping an oyster. She had not, however, abandoned the affiliation with Neue Sachlichkeit. The thin layers of oil she used to create these pictures once again allude to that movement and the way in which its own facture recalled Northern Renaissance panel painting."
—Isabelle Graw "Social Realism: The art of Jana Euler"

1 November 2012

top drawer homers

"APG’s [Artist Placement Group] slogan was ‘the context is half the work’, an idea in tune with the post-studio tendencies of art in the later 1960s, and indebted to earlier works such as Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of 1951 (a series of glossy monochrome canvases that reflect shadows and light in the gallery) and to John Cage’s 4′33′′ (1952, a ‘silent’ performance in which peripheral sound becomes the composition’s content). However, instead of pulling the audience into the work, as Rauschenberg and Cage had done, APG operated on the inverse principle of pushing the artist out into society. The idea of artists working with business and industry was a familiar tendency during the late ’60s. Early APG documents reference examples in Europe as comparative models: in France, the Groupe Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV, discussed in Chapter 3), who were sponsored by industrialists interested in the exploitation of techniques and visual phenomena; in Holland, the Philips electricity company worked directly with an artist to make robot art; in Italy, competitions were sponsored by Esso and Pirelli; while in Britain, various sculptors were working in new materials that demanded close collaboration with steelworks (Eduardo Paolozzi), nickel laboratories (John Hosking) and glass fibre manufacturers (Phillip King). In the US, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), set up in 1966 by the Bell Labs scientist Billy Klüver in collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg, aimed to bring science to the service of artistic innovation, while on the West coast in the same year, curator Maurice Tuchman established the Art and Technology programme at LACMA. APG differed from all of these models in its heavily theorised underpinnings, and in not basing the placements around sponsorship or using collaboration as a way to gain access to new technology. Science and industry were not at the service of art, but rather, the two domains were to confront each other ideologically. From today’s perspective, it is tempting to suggest that the tacit agenda for each placement was for art to have a positive, humanising effect upon industry through the inherent creativity of artists and their relative ignorance of business conventions, but Steveni maintains that this was not the case. Outcomes were not determined in advance, and entirely depended on the individual artist in a given context; this was what APG called the ‘open brief’. Nevertheless, some artists were clearly more politicised than others, and this was reflected in their decisions to work either on the shop floor or in the management of a given company. Latham himself claimed to be beyond party politics, which he derided as a ‘form of sectional interest civil war’.
First-hand immersion in an industrial workplace could nevertheless have the effect of strengthening artists’ existing political commitments. Stuart Brisley, who chose to work on the shop floor of Hille Furniture factory, proceeded with his placement in a manner that will sound familiar to any artist working site-responsively today: the main task was social (earning trust) rather than realising a sculptural object. Going to the factory three to four days a week while also holding down a teaching job, Brisley chose to focus on the department with the most onerous work, the metal-polishing room. Workers were initially suspicious of an artist foisted upon them by the management, and it took time to gain their confidence. Brisley initially began by asking questions about how the production line could be improved. Unsurprisingly, the answer was a sceptical ‘why?’, since the workers habitually felt that no one was interested in or listened to them, even though they had many questions and criticisms, which Brisley in turn began to relay to the management. As an outsider this left him feeling empowered, since he could begin to initiate change. One of his contributions was painting the polishing machinery in the colours of football teams chosen by the workers; another was to introduce large mobile noticeboards which could be pushed around the factory floor, so that workers could exchange information and communicate with each other. He also made a sculpture using 212 Robin Day chairs, which when stacked formed a complete circle, ‘a syndromic sign of the factory line itself’.
Brisley felt that the machinery painting project had begun to confuse his identity as an artist, since ‘one was actually moving away from art more into a kind of potentially collective situation’, while the information board incident led him to feel caught in a ‘permanent conflict’ between ‘factory and management’. Despite the modesty of these interventions, Brisley argues that the placement at Hille went on to inform his work in setting up an Artists’ Union (1972 onwards), and impacted upon his protest-based performances of the 1970s. It also had the effect of distancing Brisley politically from APG’s efforts, which he felt to be too enamoured with management (rather than workers), and whose structure he perceived to be ‘a tightly knit, highly autocratic family business, with a poor record of human relations’."
—Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells