dis-positiv: a rather unusual exhibition practice
Berlin’s art scene behind glass

staatsbankberlin, April 2-9, 2003. This past week Berlin's art scene once again showed its true vitality. Day after day the visitors returned to see an exhibition - dis-positiv - that changed every two hours. The "works" on display were not art but the individuals behind the scenes: the critics, curators, dealers, collectors and art historians of Berlin and Northern Germany. The people who have a defining role in contemporary art ¬- those whom we view as mediators between art and the general public. Individuals who have now become major agents in today's business of art. The artist Richard Jochum developed the exhibition concept in 1998. The issues underlying his approach are manifold. If the text published on an artwork counts more than the work of art itself, then the critic has almost replaced the artist. In this context, it is only logical to exhibit the people who constitute contemporary art (i.e. the contemporary art scene). The project has a humorous aspect along with its fundamental critique. It expresses a desire to pause and reflect and reconsider the question of what we are actually producing in the art industry. dis-positiv took place with tremendous success in Vienna in May 2000. In the following fall another dis-positiv was organized in Bregenz, Western Austria. A smaller version was realized in Cologne, and finally the project traveled to Berlin.

The exhibition was officially opened by the Austrian Ambassador Dr. Christian Prosl and the Vice President of the UdK (Fine Arts Academy) Prof. Peter Bayerer on April 2nd. Both speakers were honored to be part of the ceremony but were apparently somewhat at a loss for words at such a strange gathering of the art world, which was brought together without any clear-cut art objects on view. The first exhibitors Jonas Burgert and Ingolf Keiner, curators and project managers of Fraktale - a Berlin based biennale - invited performance artist Anja Ibsch to join them for the opening night. Together they produced a highly dramatic and symbol-laden performance about the relationship between art and discourse. While Anja Ibsch cleaned the floor around the 70 sq m Plexiglas "viewing container" on her knees, the two curators were inside the structure. They threw a dead owl - representing the arts - back and forth to one another in a performance scenario that increasingly resembled a battle - the heated exchange between artist and theorist. The tension was broken when Anja Ibsch entered the glass enclosure, threw the dust collected from the floor into the water bucket where the dead owl had landed and took a drink from the liquid. The transformative power of the female body and the activity of cleaning up the remnants of the battle made a strong statement. The performers left the stage with resounding applause.

April 3rd 2003. Art critic Peter Herbstreuth and film director Marianne Wendt were invited to inhabit the dis-positiv space. Here too, performance was the medium of choice. While Marianne filmed, Peter Herbstreuth and his ten-year-old daughter served fried eggs to the public. Inside the glass enclosure were hens, straw, a table and a chair, the atmosphere was relaxed and the public was at ease. Even the artist Richard Jochum enjoyed an egg prepared by the critic-turned-artwork.

Suddenly the atmosphere changed drastically as the lights went off. Peter Herbstreuth sat his daughter on a chair, blindfolded her eyes, and snatched the first hen he could reach. He laid it on the table and slaughtered the animal before the eyes of the shocked public. He then wrapped the animal in a white tablecloth, unbound his daughter and jumped over the table he had been using to prepare food. All three left the room before an utterly frozen audience. There was no relief after the traumatic event. During the second hour of the performance only the hens and a rooster remained on view.

In following two hours three members of the Young Academy of the Natural Sciences discussed the encyclopedia of the future. The public could listen to their talk but were not allowed to participate. On the third day of the exhibition Michael Thoss - curator at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Hannes Boehringer Professor of Philosophy - inhabited the space for his respective two hours. While Michael Toss sat in discussion with some staff members inside the structure, Hannes Boehringer sat outside the enclosure and reflected on his subsequent status as an artwork. Once inside the dis-positiv structure, he sat and read. During the second hour a number of communicative Berliners entered the space and initiated a discussion with the philosopher.

Each day brought new surprises. All of the exhibited individuals chose a different way of presenting themselves. Some invited guests or artists. One dealer organized an opening. Artforum Berlin had a team meeting. The alternative art scene organized a discursive picnic with the public outside of the glass structure. Curator Renate Wiehager presented the recently opened DaimlerChrysler art collection, and the influential lawyer for the arts Peter Raue invited the former Senator for Culture and used the space to hold the first press conference on an upcoming exhibition of the MoMA collection at the National Gallery, Berlin. Critic Peter Funken and guest Richard Rabensaat used their two hours to produce a text via light projection and microphone, which the public followed attentively for the entire time. Given that the typical museum-goer remains in front of a work of art for an average of 4 seconds, it was highly astounding to witness this long attention span dedicated to a single work.

Saturday was the long night of discourse lasting until 2 am. Berlin's well-known art crowd welcomed the long opening hours. Almost every evening the doors of the staatsbankberlin shut long after regular closing hours.

The undulating Plexiglas structure of dis-positiv gives the public full visual access to the "exhibited works" through its transparency. The exhibitors are able to share the space with the public but are still set apart. This subtle border heightens the experience of the viewer and those on view. Inside the dis-positiv enclosure one does not have the feeling of being on display. Due to its size (a large New York two bedroom apartment would fit inside) one feels safe, yet one can wander around the structure at a close range or step back for some distance.

The atmosphere generated during this week-long event was very special. The art world saw people they knew but did not frequently encounter. The project provided a moment for members of the art world to reconsider what they are doing and to think about their position in the art world and their temporary status as an artwork. People came to see the presentations of those they like and dislike. dis-positiv was not simply another platform; it was a different experience - something that highlighted essential questions about the attitudes and actions of people within the visual arts.

Critics were free to choose their individual form of presentation. Everyone embraced the project. Richard Jochum and his Berlin team made a selection of "artworks" in order to present the variety of the local art scene. The preparation and research lasted one year, and every second person invited agreed to join the exhibition. Now everyone is curious hear where dis-positiv will take place next. The next stop is New York. dis-positiv is in preparation for another presentation in the spring 2005.

Text: Rose Marie Gnausch
English: Rose Marie Gnausch & Laura Schleussner

The author is an art historian and artist based in Cyprus.