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What do WochenKlausur's projects have to do with art?

Art is always what people want it to be. It is not a question of consensus; everyone does not have to share a single view on art. It is more that people who use the same definition for art find themselves in groups. They find themselves united on the basis of their common conception of art, as they do on the basis of their views on religion, morality or tulip cultivation. If under the heading art a group understands the academic conception of the nineteenth century, in other words the mastery of craftsmanship, a universal ideal of beauty, and the material art object, then it will get into disagreements with others who see art as the process instead of the tangible artwork. If a group wants diversions, spectacles, events and thrills to fatten up its free time, then it is in disagreement with another group that approaches art with respect, devotion and contemplation. Yet another understanding of art is the following: enough consumption and enough genuflection. This is a conception of art that feels responsible for the social, political and economic conditions under which we live.

Words change their meaning according to who is using them. Take the word common, which has acquired an additional pejorative meaning over the years. Originally associated with community, it has a social meaning. Various associations with the ordinary and average - in other words with that which people have in common, with that which is not unusual - have added a meaning to this adjective which implies coarse, asocial and even underhanded.

Changes of meaning don't necessarily have to occur unintentionally. The word tree has been understood to mean the same thing for a long time. But if a poet were to jokingly describe a telephone pole as a tree, the description would be accepted. If the readers were amused by this description and used it themselves wherever they found the opportunity, and if eventually Webster's added a corresponding entry ("slang for telephone pole"), then the tree would no longer be just what it once was.

The understanding of a word like art can be influenced. It is permanently being influenced and constantly being "negotiated" anew. With every change in the word's meaning, the functions of art also change. In view of the American philosopher Richard Rorty's claim that concepts are continually being implemented as means of achieving certain purposes, all that remains in the end is the question: What is the word art used for? Who achieves what with it?

If the word art is used to indicate something extraordinary, an exalted entity created by humans, then the stipulation is likely to be included that art should not have anything to do with everyday mundane situations, that it must remain untouched by reality, just as it leaves real circumstances untouched. By contrast, there have been efforts since the beginning of the twentieth century to develop another understanding of art. Since then actions, ideas or processes that involve themselves in the circumstances under which we live have also been considered art.

Just as traditional artworks, material objects, whether paintings or bottle drying racks, cannot initially be art per se, but rather are awarded this appellation through special sanctioning, perfectly normal actions or sociopolitical interventions can be given this appellation. Following their presentation within the context of art and after the acceptance of their petition to be recognized as art, these actions mutate and suddenly are art. When something like medical care for the homeless is made available, or when conditions in a deportation detention facility can be improved, then these are interventions that in no way differentiate themselves from similar activist measures taken outside of the realm of art. They first become art when this is demanded by the activists and confirmed by a community.

There of course instantly arises the question of who in society determines what is to be recognized as art and which criteria are used thereby. Is it the majority? Is it an elite group or a "mafia of experts" who make all decisions within a closed circle of insiders? Marcel Duchamp always pointed out that other paintings could just as well hang in the Louvre. Still there must be some determining forces at work, because although everything can be art, in the end everything is not really art after all. Clearly there are notions and criteria in the background, whose functioning is responsible for what is given recognition.

Powerful institutions like museums, schools and media are decisive for what becomes art. The economy has an influence as well as politics and scholarship. All of these factors establish the appellation art. WochenKlausur's work is thus not a priori art or non-art. It becomes art through its recognition, and that comes about within institutional mechanisms. Every art remains a fully harmless raw material until these mechanisms take this raw material and circulate an opinion about it.


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Is there something like an artistic quality in activism?

Because there are no universally valid norms for art, there can also be no absolute "artistic quality". Quality must always serve as a stand in when no absolute criteria for good art are admitted and yet these are still tacitly being clung to.

Quality, like art, needs criteria to which it must conform. For the art of intervention it is easy to establish criteria for quality. It is simpler to delineate criteria for an art whose declared goal is to bring about concrete improvements in social coexistence than it is for traditional art, whose quality judgement remains subjective as long as precise criteria do not exist. The quality of WochenKlausur's art can be recognized by comparing the results achieved with the intentions declared. Whether a project has succeeded or not, and to what degree it has, is easier to assess than the question of whether a painting is pleasing or not.

Efficiency is a criteria that is not compatible with certain notions of art. According to these notions, art is something of genius. It goes beyond conventional standards and thus cannot be measured by these standards. WochenKlausur's activist art has little in common with such conceptions of artistic quality. It seeks to achieve results through concentrated effort and certainly does involve innovation and creativity. In contrast to conventional art, which can present every result as a success, interventionist art must establish its intentions at the start of its work.

When differing conceptions are at the basis of art, then qualities cannot be weighed against one another. If someone wants to jump over a two meter bar, then one measures their performance by seeing if they succeed and not by considering how beautifully they jump or how far. Whether art has quality or not is merely a question of whether it conforms to certain predefined criteria.


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What is it about the activist interventions that is art: the result, the process, the idea?

In traditional art, a great diversity of materials were formed and manipulated. Marble, canvas, pigments and other materials were the point of departure for every creation of form. They helped the artist's imagination take on tangible shape. In activist art, sociopolitical relationships have taken the place of these material substances. Like the old materials that were given formal shape, they are the substance that is manipulated. As with marble or the painting surface, this substance is not arbitrarily formable. In order to transform existing circumstances, the limits of variability must be recognized, just as they must be in traditional art. This means that the hurdle - the envisioned transformation - must not be set too high. It must be high enough that one can speak of a noticeable change while still being low enough to be jumped over. The art is in aiming for a recognizable and sensible change and then bringing it about. For example, an artist could take it upon herself to get a one-way traffic regulation for her street repealed because she had recognized the senselessness of the regulation. She would then make an effort and do everything possible to realize her plan, just as the Baroque master made an effort to realize his plan for a ceiling fresco in a cathedral, regardless of whether he personally put his hand to the task or not.


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Why must a sociopolitical intervention be art? Can it not simply remain what it is?

Why must Beuys' chair of fat be art? Why the polyester figures from Duane Hanson, which more than one hundred years after Madame Taussaud started making wax figures are also nothing more than hyperrealistic renderings of people. Why must a black square be art if it could just as well have been painted by a house painter as a color sample? Or why a childhood drawing from Paul Klee, which doesn't look any different than many other children's drawings outside of art. Of course: A sociopolitical process can also have nothing to do with art. All around the world at all times, projects and initiatives are successfully completed without even the slightest consideration of art. People have always been coming up with new solutions, also when it was simply a matter of helping others without any mention at all in the newspaper's art and culture section. The shelter director Gregor Hilvary, for example, thought out an ingenious system of rotating sleeping places in order to offer more refugees beds than the law allowed, thus protecting them from deportation. He didn't receive any art professorship for his achievement. His efforts could not even be mentioned publicly because that would have endangered the execution of his plans. Why art, then?

First, with every successful project that is recognized as art, intervention in existing social circumstances wins increased significance. The word "social" is then used more positively again. Just as certain "revolting" materials can suddenly be made more appealing through art, social activism can also decrease the nimbus of pathos and presumptuous "do-gooder syndrome" that often surrounds social efforts by revaluating them in the context of art?

Second, the mythos "art" is of assistance when one is interested in helping realize an intention - in the political field, for example. In 1989 the artist Patricia L.A. Paris designed a light installation. A long, poorly lit underground passage in Whitechapel, meeting point for all the muggers and cutthroats in London, was to be lit up with four floodlights, brighter than the light of day. The artist actually won a competition with her design, but unfortunately was never able to execute her installation. Shortly before the planned setup, lighting was installed in the passageway by the community itself, which also took the opportunity to clean up the trash and pigeon corpses. Paris was infuriated. The planned floodlights had lost their purpose, and so she withdrew the project. And yet it had been her idea to improve the passageway's lighting. Her intention was realized and had the desired success, even though she had contributed nothing more than her "planned" artwork. With the help of her art, the authorities had been compelled to take action. As an average citizen she might also have achieved that, only she would have had to place an official request for better lighting, like eighty others before her. With forms, waiting lists and fees. Months later she would have received a letter in which it would be called to her attention that at the moment circumstances make it impossible to...

Third, the media reports less about the most exciting social work than about the dullest cultural events. Thus WochenKlausur uses the media in any way it can. Through newspaper articles and radio and television coverage, pressure can be put on decision makers. For instance, it helped WochenKlausur that the culture moderator of a Viennese radio program called up a city councilor live on the air and asked her why the doctor for a project to provide medical care to the homeless was not being subsidized, when such a measure must be fully in the spirit of a community governed by the Social Democrats, and moreover when the artists had already taken care of all the arrangements.

Fourth, experience from the completed projects shows that in many fields an unorthodox approach opens doors and offers usable solutions that would not have been recognized in conventional modes of thinking, such as those of science, social work or ecology. When in a project to improve the sense of well-being in a Viennese secondary school classroom WochenKlausur simply ignored the Austrian standards for school construction, because they were completely inappropriate in meeting the pupils needs, then this is an approach that had never been tried by the experts, architects and interior designers. In order to avoid potential difficulties in their professions, experts must stick to the existing guidelines, even when they are clearly preposterous.

Community facilities and social institutions are sometimes overloaded. A backlog of items then remain unprocessed. Even if solutions are near at hand, many problems also remain unsolved because the departments responsible are unwilling to cooperate, because of partisan agendas or because conflicts over jurisdiction, strategic considerations, or hierarchical structures are in the way. Often deficiencies can only be recognized from an external perspective. Through certain freedoms that art has been granted, an area is opening for art where the deficiencies of codified politics can be pointed out and their resolutions can be paradigmatically demonstrated. Art's opportunity to approach a problem unconventionally, naively and open-mindedly is in principle an opportunity open to anyone who approaches a problem from outside.

When too many people tinker around too long on a project, average difficulties often become irresolvable deadlocks. Example: After the City of Vienna informed WochenKlausur of the difficulties involved in finding a doctor who would be willing to work in a situation envisioned by the group's project to provide medical care to the homeless, and after the city administration reported that years of effort in this direction had proven fruitless, the obstacle seemed insurmountable to the group. How should the artists find such a doctor when the community had already been searching for years without success? The group tried it nonetheless and for a start put advertisements in the relevant medical journals. It worked! Thirty serious applicants responded within a few days. Despite extensive efforts on the part of the responsible officials, no one had thought to put a simple notice in a professional journal.

This is central to the psychology of the artist and to the abilities that differentiate him or her from others. At first artists do not differentiate themselves from others at all. But then at some point they do, at least in the decision to be an artist. Occasionally more basal causes are at the root of this decision. If one asks - not very psychoanalytically - what they are, then the answer is a rich and unusable palette. That artists' sensibilities lead them to notice where trends are heading before others do, that they have the ability to draw attention to problems that are not seen by others, that they make finer distinctions in certain areas, originate issues that attract attention and the like.

None of that can be proven. Still, the word art draws in unconventional minds and nonconformist potential like a magnet. It attracts people who do not want to integrate themselves in a regulated work process, in a preprogrammed career with retirement thinking and safety nets. The conception and execution of sociopolitical programs does not unconditionally need art. There are, after all, also trained specialist who make similar efforts. Still, why does no one think rebuke the publishers of newspapers and tell them that they should leave politics up to the politicians?

In fact there is no reason why artists should have better ideas and problem-solving strategies. On the other hand, there also aren't many reasons why such interventions shouldn't be carried out by artists - as well as by all other people - if they are efficient. Taking responsibility outside of the framework of official directives and organizational structures can become a matter of duty when extremely obvious deficiencies, whose resolution does not require years of training or special experience, are awaiting action. When these activities are carried out by artists at the invitation of art institutions and are recognized by a community as art, then they are art.


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Does the external form, the outward appearance, still have any significance at all for activist art?

That the dog comb became art is not to be explained through its formal structure. Although form historically played a major role in the bestowal of the appellation art, it is of tertiary importance today. If formal discussions are necessary, then only in the context of function. For instance, it is better to work in an office that has a pleasant atmosphere and it is more appealing to maintain clarity when designing a graphic layout.


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Are not social issues being brought into today's art because all of the others have been used up?

To a degree matched by hardly any other field, the visual arts have brought themselves to a conclusion. They have become aware of the infinite possibilities for aestheticization and have played out every last avantgardistic strategy. It's like good fun at a jolly gathering, which outdoes itself through further excesses and can always take on new forms until it collapses.

After this magnificent feast for the eye, one can say without a bit of put-on social consciousness that art's self-referential summersaults have in the face of real hardship become vanity. An art debate that merely serves as entertaining reading between two political outrages, such as cuts in subvention for disabled people and the ever-increasing cruelty of the laws on political asylum, is nothing more than a hand warmer for the self-satisfied bourgeoisie.


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Can WochenKlausur's activity be effective as a critique of the art business when it still plays along with the art game?

WochenKlausur's intention is doubly political. On the one hand, a small contribution to the transformation of society is made with each project. It makes more sense to have a modest influence on existing circumstances than to only talk about them and criticize them in other ways.

On the other hand, all of these projects bear witness to the opportunity art has to intervene in real events. Thus the notion of what art is can experience a shift. This shift into the realpolitical field of action should - beyond the scope of the WochenKlausur projects - also become apparent in the transformation of the art business. WochenKlausur's intention is just that: If acceptance can be assured for art that opens small fields of concrete action, then the current conception of art will be shaken. This approach will achieve more than polemics and spiteful opposition or an emigration into other disciplines ever would.

WochenKlausur works consciously within the art system. If the art system is to change, then the rules of the game that determine it must at first be recognized. The rules of the game cannot be radically changed, only in small steps. Radical changes disturb the continuity with previous notions of art, and thus inhibit the use of a common conception of art. Using the word art with a changed meaning and yet in a way that is understandable to a large number of people is a prerequisite for admitting any shift in the conception of art.

A transformation of the possibilities open to artistic activity is the real political goal of WochenKlausur and much other activist, interventionist and littoralist art today. If the conception of art changes, then the art business will also change. Polemics and criticism alone will not alter the art business.

Denial doesn't change anything either. Today many people uncompromisingly renounce the art business. They quit the field and devote themselves to other tasks. Yet this denial only strengthens the traditional structures, because those energies that would have liked to have changed the structures are thereby dissipated. This is a mistake that was not recognized in the seventies. It is like the representatives of an opposition party who occasionally make a statement by leaving the parliamentary chambers out of frustration over their powerlessness. Their behavior only makes the result of the vote even more unequivocal. Leaving the rigid art business only results in its being strengthened.

The art business can only be changed through uncompromising practice that operates according to an altered conception of art. The existing art business is still propped up by the marketable artwork, by the original and the commodity. The most effective critique of the traditional position is the constant advocacy of a new conception of art that also gets by without material artworks. If it is not developed and supported by those who are active in art, then such an attack doesn't make much sense. The transformation of the concept art is only possible when art itself changes its own rules and practices. The situation follows a logic similar to that of the referendum among Swiss men concerning the voting rights of Swiss women some years ago. If the men don't want the women to vote, then they will not be allowed to vote, even if admission of both sexes to this referendum would have produced a different outcome.

If art does not realize of its own accord that its rules and definitions are no longer up to date, then everything will remain as it has been. The transformation of the concept art without the agreement of those active in art is impossible, even though this transformation would produce a completely different "art constituency" that would then be responsible for this conception.


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Does not WochenKlausur encourage the trend in government toward abandoning responsibility for social issues? Are WochenKlausur's interventions not simply "Band-Aids" that fight the symptoms but do nothing to change the status quo, or maybe even support it?

Doubtlessly there are problems whose apparent solutions give rise to other problems that are worse than the original problems. The criticism that WochenKlausur's efforts could be merely treating and hiding the symptoms - where the state should have acted to bring about fundamental improvements - is justified.

And yet this criticism misses two important points: Firstly, most of the art institutions that invite WochenKlausur are supported by government subsidies. Public obligations are thus in fact being called in when these funds are then used to bring about improvements. Secondly, there is a still greater danger that neither the symptoms nor their causes get treated. This is always the case when the root of the problem is sought, but nothing is done about it due to our feelings of powerlessness upon finding the huge root bales below, whose dimensions cannot even be evaluated.

All problems can be traced back to more fundamental ones. The conviction that it one day will be possible to change the absolute fundamental basis - if only these small helping measures were not always delaying the coming of this final day - remains an illusion that prevents the small steps. The excuse that the individual is powerless to change anything concretely about exiting circumstances causes many to take the easy route and do nothing. This excuse is similar to that of the apathetic voter, who argues that the individual vote has little effect and could just as well be abandoned. If everyone stayed home from the polls and leaned back with this comforting excuse, then that would be the end of democracy.

This can be illustrated through the problems faced by a wheelchair user. If he cannot make it up the stairs because there is no lift, then he can be helped if two strong arms take up his cause. But this feeds the criticism that a general solution to the problem is being put off. The landlord sees that one can do without a lift after all and avoids an expenditure. Accordingly, it would be better to leave the wheelchair user on the stairs and start a political petition instead of helping him. Or one can help him and at the same time demand that a lift be installed. Agitational art often takes the easy way out and sticks to denunciations. But every successful tangible improvement is really a supporting argument for political demands.

From the comfortable position of prosperity, it is easy to speak out for a general change in the system and reject small steps because they "only support existing circumstances, which must made to boil over so that something happens." This overflooding theory has seldom led to success. If one must first wait for a catastrophe before everything changes for the better, it could well come a little too late in never-never land.


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How much resistance comes from professional groups that are traditionally associated with the sorts of activity (politics and social work) that are practiced by WochenKlausur? What is the level of acceptance in the art world?

In fact it is less the specialists in fields outside of art who fear that someone could be muddling around in their business. It has always been much more the art establishment itself that feels threatened. There is the fear that art could simply dissolve if it wanders too far into the sociopolitical terrain. The art scene is worried that through an acceptance of politically activist art it could forever leave its publicly sanctioned avenues, which are pleasantly privileged even if they don't necessarily lead anywhere. The art community is afraid of losing its identity and its existence.

Why, then, should our conception of art not be allowed to dissolve? If it is important, then it will continue to exist. If it is obsolete, then it doesn't make much sense to prop it up for its own sake. Besides, this fear is unjustified: It merely reveals that a conservative establishment is clutching on to its elitist privileges. In this century there have been innumerable fruitless attempts to do away with the manifest conception of art. When it was still easy to shock with something "new", the conception of art was widened to include everyday or technoid objects, to include things that were considered disgusting or forbidden. Most of these attempts were finally taken up by the traditional arbiters of art and landed in museums, where they are conscientiously attended to in the writing of art history. Activities that sought to dissolve the art concept into the field of mysticism have in hindsight merely extended it. Today as well there is no need to talk about the dissolution of our conception of art, but rather about its transformation. That can only do it good.



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