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Resist the Flattening Effect of Being on Display

Interview with Sal Randolph, September 2002, by Anna Balint for ART-Hoc, a magazine based in Bucharest, Romania, and Chisinov, Moldavia (issue 22-23, December, 2002) [image: Sara Reeske working at the Free Manifesta Headquarters, 2002]

Christoph Büchel, selected artist for Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt 2002 sold for 15.000 USD his right to participate at the show at an ebay auction. Sal Randolph, a young artist from the United States won the auction, and turned her right of participation into an open structure, an artistic hosting project and a three month long event running under the name Free Manifesta. Her announcement circulating on the net brought an unforeseen success and resulted in a lounge for about 225 projects and artists who invited themselves to Free Manifesta. It is not the first time that major art events and their audience serve as alibi for spontaneous art demonstrations, and parallel events at a specific location, but Free Manifesta is special in that these kinds of artistic expressions could converge in an open artistic construction. The following interview is looking over the results of the project and sums up Sal Randolph’s second experience with free culture.

Q: Looking over the statistics of Manifesta 4, it is impressive the number and variety of the projects you hosted at Free Manifesta. Whilst Manifesta is supposed to be the biennial of young European artists, you succeeded to expand the limits of the show, and turn it into an international art event. Did you have in mind any border issue while conceiving your project?

A: Only in the sense that an important part of the project had to do with the idea of open access, free access. With that in mind I do resist the idea of a show based on nationalistic or geographic criteria.

Q: Did you expect such a large-scale contest?

A: Yes—I had just done a similar project in New York, the Free Biennial, so I had an idea about what to expect. I was quite surprised by the size of the response to the Free Biennial, but it did allow me to be a bit prepared for Free Manifesta.

Q: Were the works presented mostly conceived specially for Free Manifesta, or did the artists use the opportunity to promote their older work? What was the response to your artistic concept?

A: It was a mixture of the two. There was no requirement that the work be new, but many artists did use the opportunity and the situation to create something fresh and specific. For me it was important to leave it up to the artist how to make use of the context that was being offered. I think the response to Free Manifesta as an art project varied — some people were interested in the project as an artwork, and others were interested in it simply as a show, and as a platform. I wanted it to work well on both levels, and for both artists and audience to be free to make use of whatever aspect of it they wished.

Q: To what extent Free Manifesta worked as a commission for artists? How many of the works were site specific, relating either to the context of the city of Frankfurt, either to the Manifesta show?

A: Approximately 60 pieces were created especially for Free Manifesta, and most of those responded specifically to context of the show, either in terms of addressing questions of art, money, gift, and access, or in terms of engaging Manifesta 4 or the city of Frankfurt. Herbert Friedl’s piece, for instance, was conceived to coincide with the Frankfurt Art Fair, which was taking place during the first week of Manifesta/Free Manifesta. It was a multiple of 1000 plastic shopping bags which said, “YOU CANNOT BUY ART / ART CANNOT BE SOLD”. Most of the visitors to Free Manifesta that week had just come from, or were on their way to the art fair, whose motto was “buy art.” Robin Kahn & Kirby Gookin (aka SOS International) gave out 100% certificates to Frankfurt’s most famous department store (“Take This: 100% off Merchandise Event”)—implicitly encouraging everyone who took a certificate to engage in a performative event at the department store register. Christina Ray’s “Virus on Foot,” Nick Grindell’s “Frankfurt by Boat,” and Adrian Lear’s “Strategy of the Void” each built the idea of psychogeography, borrowed from the Situationists, by creating structured walks and explorations of Frankfurt. The first two of these invited participants to share their intimate, on foot, reimagining of the city. Raphael DiLuzio shot, edited, and presented a new video work, “Axismundi: Frankfurt” during his two week residency at Free Manifesta. New video work was also premiered by Igor Antic, Simon Morris & Howard Britton, and three students from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Luna Atschekzai, Laura Dumitrescu, and Alexandra Härtel. Christina Pavesi’s “Comments” collected viewers responses to Manifesta 4. The SCAPE duo walked through the Manifesta spaces wearing black T-Shirts, one saying “Don’t look,” and the other saying “now.” Street artists SWOON and Rryan Ceol tagged the outdoor courtyard of one of the Manifesta 4 exhibition spaces with a 7 foot poster collage. And hundreds of passers-by took stickers from the booth and placed the words “FREE MANIFESTA” around the city, as well as on their shirts, hats, and messenger bags. This is really just a small taste of what happened. There were also performances, street installations, thousands of free art objects given away, interventions in the Free Manifesta exhibition space, etc.

Q: As an open structure connecting different projects your initiative extracted a public service from a mainstream art system. What was the relationship between Free Manifesta – and the official “selected and paid” show? Was Free Manifesta an autonomous space of production, did it create also an alternative social interface, were there many collaborative initiatives ? A: This is a difficult question for me to answer. In one sense I was surprised at how easily Free Manifesta fit into the context of Manifesta 4. In another way, though, it had a tendency to infiltrate its host, growing through and around it. In the end Free Manifesta was larger than Manifesta 4, with more than three times as many participating artists. It sprawled across the city, over the internet, through the mail, the phone, and social networks. And because most of the Manifesta 4 artists did not live in Frankfurt and were only able to be there for a few days at the opening of the show, Free Manifesta had a somewhat more personal presence in the city with a large number of artists visiting and spending time in Frankfurt to do their projects. Several of the Free Manifesta artists became involved with a local alternative exhibition project called Don’t Miss and had shows organized by Don’t Miss director Saul Judd. Also the artists who happened to be in town for their projects at the same time met, and often became involved in each others projects. Other connections were more elusive and ephemeral, but I feel that there is now a large community of people who are interested in some of the same questions I am and who have come to know more about each other through these projects.

Q: Compared to the previous Free Biennial experience in the US were you surprised by any aspect of the Free Manifesta?

A: The two were quite different in feeling because Free Manifesta had a public space, an office and information center in the Manifesta 4 exhibition space at the Frankfurter Kunstverein. The experience of working every day in a museum space was very interesting and challenging. At first the office looked like a design display, and I was worried that it would be impossible for the project to be really alive in such a formally beautiful space. Soon enough though there were artists using it as a studio and intervening in the space with their work, and boxes of free art arriving every day, and music, and coffee, and hanging out. By the end, when a group of artists from France were watching over the office and I was back in the US, things got quite wild—art everywhere on the walls, covering the signs, covering everything freely.

I was also surprised by Frankfurt itself, and what a great underground art & music scene it had—I came to really love the city which was at its best between midnight and 6 am.

Q: It looks like that you had to perform a tremendous amount of work as curator. Did you organize everything alone, did volunteers show up, or mostly the artists organized the events themselves? Did you have difficulties to find the appropriate location and ways of display for all the projects?

A: Yes, it was certainly a lot of work! But of course any big art project is demanding. I did all the main organizing myself, produced the website and newsletter, kept office hours at the Kunstverein, communicated with all the artists and hosted visitors, etc. However each artist was completely responsible for producing their own project—all I did was handle their information: make a web page, copy their flyers, promote their events through the calendar and newsletter, etc. Quite a few artists involved with the project helped out with the office, including one who helped me set things up before the show began and several who were in Frankfurt after I had to return to the US in August.

It’s important for me to say here here that I wasn’t a curator in any traditional sense: to me it was not a curatorial project but rather an artwork in the medium of social organization. My aim was to create a structure that acted as transparently as possible, which artists could use to meet their own needs (for exhibition, promotion, context, connection) and bring forward their own intentions and desires. Because each artist chose their own location and media, I wasn’t really responsible for this aspect of things. But of course many people asked for help, and when possible I did bend the rules to try and help people set things up, particularly for people who traveled to Frankfurt to do their projects. I might note however that quite a few artists did public space projects in Frankfurt, most of them without asking for any kind of official permission, and everyone was able to do that kind of work without any difficulty or resistance.

Q: Did Free Manifesta have a budget?

A: Despite the unorthodox nature of my entry in Manifesta 4, they gave me the same budgetary support they gave any of the other artists, in my case about $5000 which was mainly used to build and set up the office space, make copies of various print materials, and for my housing while in Frankfurt.

Q: Besides the official website of the show, Manifesta 4 commissioned an alternative web project, the e-manifesta of the Technology to the People group. e-manifesta was a bulletin board for announcements, and also a space for reflection about the show and contemporary art in general. What is your experience about these models of communication?

A: I was very excited by the e-manifesta project which also had a physical world component in the Manifesta 4 exhibition area called the “Trespassing Space,” theoretically open for all kinds of community uses. I think both had amazing potential. Unfortunately, however, they were rather under-used and never gained a real momentum or community base. The structures were in place, but not the people.

Q: Apparently the Free Manifesta web page was not only a text pool, but became also a site of documentation and interaction, whilst information was circulated by the Free Manifesta newsletters. How many subscribers did the newsletter reach?

A: There are about 500 subscribers to the newsletter, which was also published on the website. The newsletter also went out to some larger email lists, such as the local thing-frankfurt.com mailing list. The website http://www.freemanifesta.org will stay up indefinitely as a kind of catalogue of the show, and will continue to give access the work which is ongoing (for instance, many of the internet and mail art projects).

Q: How does Free Manifesta relate to the concept of gift economy?

A: Free Manifesta was an experiment in creating a small but working gift economy where the artists contributed their work and I contributed structure and organization. Over the course of several previous projects involving free art I had become interested in what happens when people give things away.

Q: There wasn’t any restrictive criteria to enter Free Manifesta. Perhaps the non-selection is
gave the energy of opposition…

A: Yes, I think that was the key for me as well: the non-selection (or self-selection). But interestingly, that kind of openness is not actually typical of traditional gift economies, where gifts are usually exchanged within closed circles. The idea of a gift economy with open access is something fairly new—it borrows one of the better qualities we associate with market-based systems. I think this is part of what has given internet-based gift economies such an energetic
quality—gifts available to anyone for use, gifts that anyone can contribute to. It alleviates some of the problematic qualities of the gift (obligation, dependency, social restriction, burdensome gifts, etc).

Q: Besides the Situationist inspiration of the psychogeorgaphical projects, to what extent the projects were critical about capitalist economy and cultural industry?

A: A very large percent of the work was critical either implicitly or explicitly, and I think everyone who took part in the show understood it to be an act of resistance to the dominant commercial and institutional paradigm in the art world. More than 40 artists gave away a total of several thousand individual art objects. These were obviously acts of both generosity and resistance. Almost all of the work created especially for Free Manifesta engaged these ideas, and much of the existing work came from communities like the net art and mail art communities that have been working outside of the gallery and museum circuit for many years (although museums have recently developed an interest in net art).

Q: Was there an emphasis on free speech, and if any, could that be understood as a reaction to the spread of surveillance in society, and new restrictions of civil rights in the aftermath of September 11?

A: I spent the months after September 11th working on the Free Words project. It involved going into bookstores and libraries around New York and slipping a free book onto the shelves for anyone to find, and it also involved walking the streets putting up bright pink stickers which said FREE WORDS. Although I had created the project over the previous summer, I felt keenly the resonance of those simple acts of nonobedience. It changed my relationship to social power structures like bookstores, publishers, urban planners and also my relationship to public space in general. It was this experience which led me to start the Free Biennial, and to enter Free Manifesta.

Q: Were there people who the possible challenge for cultural institutions by creative commons? Can you grab any influence of the ‘free’ net economy on free culture?

A: Of course. The whole early history of the internet, as well as the open source/free software movement are one of the most powerful examples of what a gift economy can produce. Yes, I think you’re right that there is a challenge being presented. The internet in particular offers the potential for a decentralization of power, a more level playing field between individuals and institutions. As art forms change, cultural institutions may begin to feel some of the pressure that the music industry is feeling now. Though copyright issues didn’t come up in any explicit way, also these questions are deeply connected. In fact my next projects will be moving in this direction.

Q: The rise of new media and internet culture brought also several social and economic utopia: it seemed in the mid-nineties that grassroots social and art networks will be formed due to the easiness of the communication, and the law costs of immaterial digital works. It seemed for a moment that the social promises of the early 20th century avant-garde, Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture can be fulfilled: the internet can foster network democracy from below. However, disembodiment and dislocation limited at the same time this culture. Though circulating idea may influence reality, established systems may hit back with successful immunization programs: appropriation, inclusion or neglect, as it happened with the large concept art and mail art movement in the 70’s and 80’s.

A: Well, I think you sum up what is hopeful and what is problematic very clearly in that statement! On the hopeful side, I do think there are some qualities of the internet, which are, fundamentally new, which make the current moment different from the 60’s and 70’s. Certainly none of these projects would have been possible for me to organize in any other way. Almost everyone involved in Free Words, the Free Biennial and Free Manifesta—I’m guessing something like 700 people or so—came into contact with the projects through email or the internet. They hadn’t known me at all before that. Internet communication combines qualities of broadcasting (one to many) with personal contact (one to one) and group discussion (many to many) – this creates a very flexible field for organizing groups and creating temporary institutions. I think it also has the potential to change the way historical information is gathered and organized. Although things can disappear from the internet of course, they can also persist—for instance there is no particular pressure for an internet exhibition to ever end. Email communication and internet-mediated discussions are self-documenting—only a modest effort needs to be made in order to preserve them. In this way individuals and smaller groups can take over some of the preservation functions of museums and institutions.

Q: Adorno predicts in his Minima Moralia that gift will lose its meaning when gift culture is organized and starts to generate a gift industry. Could his opinion have any relevance when about exchange of cultural objects? Or, on the contrary, free cultural exchange is not a free service based on capitalist attention economy, but it is a valid protest against the capitalist market of cultural objects. Does Free Manifesta’s statement reconsider art as a basic public facility?

A: I think it is dangerous to be too utopian about gifts or the gift economy. I don’t think gift economies in art or culture are any kind of complete cure. To me it is more of a balancing action. The market and institutional systems are so strong right now that they are creating a kind of distortion field, pulling art in some very particular directions. Because of this many kinds of work and ways of working are being ignored or stunted. It’s not so much that I think of art as a basic public facility. This would imply an institutional kind of solution. Instead, I think of art as a basic human activity, part of being a person. I see it very broadly, and in this way I am of course sympathetic with Joseph Beuys. Rather than creating another industry of control (flattened, utopic) I’m more interested in systems which are open, messy, democratic, contradictory and chaotic. In other words, alive.

Q: New art servers, art ports, media lounges that emerge and disappear not only on the net, but they reach established art institutions and museums. Do you sense that contemporary art scene is more accepting the attitudes of the alternative networks together with the alternative collection and distribution forms?

A: I think there is definitely an interest in more socially activated, networked, and participatory artworks, particularly in Europe where state funded institutions play a stronger role relative to the gallery system. Both Manifesta 4 and Documenta XI included a number of these kinds of projects. The problem that museums and big shows have in working with this type of artwork is that it fundamentally resists exhibition—it is made to be used rather than displayed. It is very difficult for museums in particular to fundamentally incorporate use-space. Viewers still come to museums and exhibitions expecting to be shown things, rather than expecting to do anything. Because of this, most social artworks don’t show well in these sorts of exhibitions, even if they are included.

There are some signs of hope, however. A few of the Documenta projects, for instance John Bock’s and Thomas Hirschorn’s, created use-spaces and were quite successful in resisting being deadened or flattened by the exhibition context. Notably both were built by the artists, and took place physically outside of the ordinary exhibition areas. They also allowed for and required the ongoing presence of groups of people who were engaged in work. The biggest and most surprising challenge for me in creating Free Manifesta was in finding ways of resisting the flattening effect of being on display. If I hadn’t been there in person for most of the exhibition period, it would have been impossible.

Q: To what degree was Free Manifesta a time-based project, a unique experience? Was it an ephemeral project, or there are lasting benefits, gateways opened from Free Manifesta?

A: The project was meant to function both as an event and as a model. It is very easy to feel passive and helpless in relation to social hierarchies and institutions. Access can seem very restricted. I wanted to experiment with alternative ways of gaining access, and of relating to institutions of the art world. Part of the point, especially with the Free Biennial project which was done with a very low budget, is that anyone can do this. In fact there is already a group called Liberarti creating a similar project in relation to the Liverpool Biennial.

Q: Thank you for the conversation.

Anna Balint, September 2002