Counter Campus with Stephan Dillemuth. 2005
An "artist's garret" created from material found lying around at the museum.
Counter Campus, Baltimore Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Curated by Chris Gilbert. 2005
Counter Campus. Baltimore Museum of Art. Baltimore. USA
Nils Norman in Collaboration with Stephan Dillemuth by Chris Gilbert
In a fictional interview with Werner von Delmont set in 2033 – occasioned by the aging educator’s overdosing on ginkgo pills – Dillemuth’s professorial persona makes numerous direct assaults on the stranglehold of corporate power. Yet equally telling are his asides that reflect critically on his own involvement. At one point, his interviewee and son Hans-Dieter has just described how at school, under the influence of corporate power, courses on “Enterprise Strategies,” “Team Abilities,” and “Individual Initiatives” have replaced other topics; he then recalls how his father “freaked out” when they were supposed to set up its own private company during the summer holidays instead of making a trip to Italy. Von Delmont replies: “Indeed taking a holiday from Neo-liberalism, just did not seem possible any more…”
Von Delmont’s words, which might be taken as an offhand remark, are in fact doubly reflective (insofar as the “holiday” mind-set may be seen as integral to neoliberal thinking), and they ring true of Dillemuth’s and Nils Norman’s practices both individually and working together. Operating within the condition of pervasive neo-liberalism – the inability to take leave from the reign of COINAGE (to use a favorite term of von Delmont) – provides the foundation for their intersecting investigations into the academy and its dubious relation to a corporate public. The idea signals, for one, how the moebius strip-like character of the neoliberal world is properly an occasion for much ambivalence. This is a world in which one’s own self-initiative, autonomous reading club, or learning center is just as likely to end up generating a new counter public with attendant forms of counter-knowledge, as it is to end up inspiring new enterprise strategies, generating profit for capital, and additionally – perhaps on a tertiary level of capitulation – bringing in real estate developers to recoup its value through processes of gentrification. Such a closed circuit situation rightly, of course, brings with it not just ambivalence but also vigilance – a range of strategies that exceed the flatfootedness of most critical art which is so easily assimilated to profit.
The artists’ critical self-vigilance comes fully into view in the manner and methodology of their current project, which grows out of a dialogue that the two carried out in 1997. That exchange, which took place over the internet, parodied key artworld figures. Unpublishable for that reason, it has had a long afterlife, resulting in a series of satirical drawings, an array of plaster sculptures, and most recently Brecht & Cruickshank Shnitzelshank, a life-sized model of a bohemian café said to be from “London's murky pre-culture-regen-boho zone of the outer reaches of East London… where the remains of the day mingle and mosh.” Insofar as much of Baltimore is not unlike East London – meaning that in both sites’ bohemian mingling is likely to include real-estate speculators or at least their plans – it is appropriate that their current project, a Bohemian Research Garrett, picks up on the Cruickshank project and its double-edged approach to bohemia. Posited as both a site of meaningful self-determination and probable cooptatation, the somewhat absurdist bohemia of the research garret alludes to a lineage of romantic depictions of the artsy life from Spitzweg to Puccini, even as it connects aptly to its location in a city where newly dubbed art districts lure youth and well-meaningly radical artists into top-down development schemes.
As is illustrated by the garret, Dillemuth and Norman’s strategies for confronting the threat of cooptation, though clearly in the service of a critical project, often call into play strategies that fly under the flag of the playful. In Dillemuth’s case, his practice is considered research, a process which he scrupulously distinguishes from investigation by claiming that research makes advances in the very field one is researching. Hence artistic research would make a contribution to the arts and would as well be itself artistic. His decision to frame his work as ‘artistic research’ – and locating it within the field of arts – not only distinguishes it from a host of artist practicing investigations into other fields yet not making contributions to those fields, but also allows him to favor artistic or literary means that privilege a host of framing devices, performance strategies, and fictional personae over the more usual information aesthetic of research-oriented artists. The result is a practice that is happily irregular, often amateur in appearance, and with its build-in self-criticality is quite resistant to being picked up by the normalizing flows of capital and of affirmative professionalized art.
In a comparable way, Norman’s work, which often involves utopian projections that he calls ‘Proposals” framed as blue prints for better K-marts, schools, redesigned parks, or info hubs employs a complex “ironic” delivery mechanism. The utopian aspiration which these proposals wear on their sleeve is employed critically as lever against the present, while the project most often remains clearly unrealizable. Norman’s visual gambits in these works are made more complicated by texts that seem to offer more direct, even first person critique of the manipulation of the urban environment. Despite both artists' sophisticated gamesmanship, their work is hardly of the artworld parlor game variety. In different ways for each, an allegorical or referential mechanism operates allowing their work to reach far beyond itself and the artistic sphere. Norman manipulates schematic signs – blue prints and diagrams – whereas Dillemuth engages in a process called dramatization, which proposes to address the world within the theatrum mundi of the stage. Both the humor and referential capacities of the work operate in tandem in their practices: if humor especially in the guise of satire allows one to poke holes through capital, referentiality extends its reach. Hence, while as von Delmont rightly maintains, it may not be possible to take a holiday from capital, it may be possible to create a holiday in it. Further, insofar as this holiday reaches beyond itself through the referential capacities of drama or schematization, the critique’s scope is enhanced considerably.