when attitudes become form

When Attitudes Become Form* [Bern 1969/Venice 2013](Post 3)

Another highlight of the show was this recreation of Walter De Maria’s “Art by Telephone.” There was a great selection of ephemera and archival materials from Getty Foundation at the Fondazione Prada. In that section, I found a letter to original curator Harald Szeeman from De Maria after the 1969 show said that De Maria had called seven times and no one picked up so there was no phone bill to be paid!  

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Lawrence Weiner & Michael Heizer : Quand les attitudes deviennent formes, 1969

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While I was in Venice, I had the opportunity to see When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 curated by Germano Celant in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas, at The Fondazione Prada. The project reconstructs Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form, an exhibition curated by Harald Szeemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969. Thought of as landmark exhibition, one that defined Szeemann’s curatorial approach to curatorial practice, Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form has been the backbone or impetus for a series of investigations over the past forty years, and I was excited to see this particular presentation.

The notion of reconstruction and reenactment as it relates to exhibition making is interesting, especially in this case where the project attempts to reconstruct not only the grouping of works, but also the architecture in which it was originally presented. The exhibition becomes a work itself and the experience of viewing it becomes akin to that of an archaeological dig. While walking through, I became overtly aware that the works within the show exist in a multitude of pasts and a split present. I use the term split present, because for me, the works seemed to exist simultaneously within the reconstruction and within my contemporary viewing of them. The group I was with, artist and curator friends, all remarked that the works lacked life, that they felt like ‘stand ins,’ and that the act of reconstruction had robbed them of something unexplainable but paramount. The narrative lure of Szeemann’s show is strong, and the impetus to look at the architecture and organization of the space before examining the works tends to overtake you, overpowering the objects and pieces themselves.

But then something exciting happens, at least for me, it did. I stopped looking at the wall labels, stopped paying attention to the attendants trying to walk us through the show at a speed that would keep the line outside the Foundation moving, and began to see the works. Pieces I had never seen before in person, or works I didn’t know about- a telephone with a sign by Walter De Maria saying he will ring the gallery whenever he feels like it, or an amazing Eva Hesse lying on the floor. So despite all the interesting uncovered details about the exhibition architecture and the story around its making, despite the fact that the Foundation won’t let you stand too close to the works, and pushes you through the exhibition at speed that at times seems rude, the exhibition still holds its own. It makes me think about how works interact with one another and gives me pause as I plan and work on exhibitions to come. While we were in the show a friend of mine remarked, “I like thinking about how this is the first time these works are all together again, reunited so to speak after all this time.” I left thinking what might the works say if they could speak, not just to us but also to one another. CF

Images are all Installation views of When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013, curated by Germano Celant in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice 1 June – 3 November 2013. Courtesy: Fondazione Prada. Photos: Attilio Maranzano. Lifted from Mousse Magazine online.

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‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’, Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice, 1 June – 3 November 2013. Curated by Germano Celant in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas.

This post looks at a recent example which takes unauthorised exhibition-making to a new extreme. ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’ was an attempt to literally remake the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information), which was curated by Harald Szeemann and which took place from 22 March to 23 April 1969. New walls and floors were constructed inside of the Ca’ Corner to replicate the exact dimensions and design of the Kunsthalle Berne in Switzerland. Artworks from the 1969 exhibition  – made up of a mixture of originals, replicas and markers where the works have been lost – were placed as precisely as possible in their original locations.

Putting aside the sheer thrill of being able to supposedly step back in time, to physically experience an exhibition which most visitors would have only read or heard about, there are is one, somewhat disappointing predicament which appears to have been brushed over in published reviews to date.  In the exhibition catalogue Germano Celant makes a point of explaining that an incredible amount of research was carried out to produce  ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’, from the examination of Szeemann’s archives, to firsthand accounts by artists and documents, to photographic and written traces in the Kunsthalle Bern library (“Why and How: A Conversation with Germano Celant”, in When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013, p. 403). The catalogue itself overflows with essay contributions by a dream team of curators and writers in addition to Celant – Claire Bishop, Boris Groys, Charles Esche, Jens Hoffman, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Terry Smith and Jan Verwoert – just to name a few. Notwithstanding these factors, absolutely no mention has been made in the exhibition or the catalogue of the other seminal exhibition of 1969, ‘Op Losse Schroeven (Situations and Cryptoestructures)’, which was held at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and which opened one week before ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. The fundamental importance of ‘Op loss Schroeven’ to understanding the importance of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ was explored in a book entitled ‘Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Scrhoeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969’, edited by Christian Rattemeyer and published in 2010 by Afterall Books. In his introduction Rattemeyer explained that:

Less known today, yet equally prominent at the time, was an exhibition with which ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ shares a considerable history… . Organised by Wim Beeren (1928-2000)…  ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ had much in common with ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and referred to the Bern exhibition on the title page of its catalogue. Both exhibitions included many of the same artists, were reviewed together in several publications and were perceived as companion shows by contemporary critics. They shared organisational resources (Szeemann had a larger budget and routed many artists via Amsterdam so that they could install their works for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’), as well as intellectual and conceptual traits. However, despite the remarkable overlap of artists, travel schedules and studio visits, and despite the fact that Szeemann’s notes on organising ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ were published in the catalogue for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, the two exhibitions have fared rather differently in their long-term reception, with Szeemann’s show claiming a considerably larger share of the historical record. Due to its somewhat longer roster of artists, better funding and publicity, catchier title, and in so small measure due to the subsequent prominence of Szeemann himself, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ assumed the role of the representative exhibition of that moment, while ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ has almost disappeared from history, its reputation largely confined to Dutch-speaking historians and audiences. (“ ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969” in Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969, London: Afterall, 2010, pp. 15-17). 

Rattemeyer also contributed an essay to the catalogue for ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’, but other than his use of a single footnote which mentions this book, the relevance of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ is not mentioned, not by Rattemeyer, nor by any of the other contributors. This predicament demonstrates the myth-making power of exhibitions and all of the writing that comes with them, catalogues, wall texts, press releases and so on. Arguably, both ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’ are exemplary exhibitions, precisely because of their success at writing and re-writing (art) history.

‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’ is also a brilliant case study for considering the question of what rights a curator has in an exhibition, if at all. Can ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ be considered a type of ‘compilation’ and therefore be categorised as a ‘work’ with copyrights attached to it? If ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ does attract copyright, is it possible that Szeemann still owns the copyrights to it? Have Germano Celant and the Fondazione Prada infringed Szeemann’s copyrights by staging ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/ Venice 2013’? There is at least one court which would say that they have, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musée_du_Cinéma_–_Henri_Langlois

WHEN ATTITUDES BECOME FORM: WORKS, CONCEPTS, PROCESSES, SITUATIONS, INFORMATION.

HARALD SZEEMANN, who died in February at the age of seventy-one, was the most influential curator of his generation–and, arguably, the most influential of all time, since he practically defined the curator’s role as we understand it today. For decades, he worked out of a studio he called “The Factory” in the small Swiss village of Tegna, conceiving exhibitions that were international in scope and consistently dodging the categories of traditional museum practice, often daring to place historical and contemporary artworks beside anthropological artifacts, sacred objects, technical devices, and occult instruments. Szeemann sought, he said, to create shows that were “poems in space.” And in the wake of his move away from quasi-scientific museological attempts to classify and order cultural material, the figure of the curator would no longer be seen as a blend of bureaucrat and cultural impresario. Instead, he emerged as a kind of artist himself, or as some would say–with no small degree of skepticism toward Szeemann’s genuine belief that art exhibitions were spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organizing society–a meta-artist, utopian thinker, or even shaman.
Szeemann himself preferred the down-to-earth Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition maker) as his job title. But this modest term hardly conveys a real sense of his curatorial endeavors, whose “controlled chaos” (Szeemann’s phrase) might productively be traced back to his brief career in theater during the 1950s, which included a renowned transvestite act and an homage to Dadaist Hugo Ball before ending with his egomaniacal one-man production of Urfaust in 1956 (yes, Szeemann played all the roles himself). “It gives you the same rhythm as in theater, only you don’t have to be on stage constantly,” he said in these pages regarding his decision in 1957 to enter the art world and direct exhibitions. Four years later, at the age of twenty-eight, he became director of the Kunsthalle Bern. It was a rather provincial institution at the time, but the bare-bones venue– precisely because it lacked any permanent collection–dictated that Szeemann take up a kind of improvisational, laboratory approach and working style that he would maintain throughout his life. At an unbelievable pace–an exhibition opened every month–Szeemann introduced a baffled local audience to the newest generation of American and European artists, many of whom received their earliest opportunities from the young director. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first major project, for example, was wrapping the kunsthalle in 1968; and the venue also offered Andy Warhol one of his first shows in a European institution.
But the landmark event of Szeemann’s tenure in Bern was also his grand finale: “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” the first major survey of Conceptual art to take place in Europe.
The tumultuous 1969 show, subtitled “Works, concepts, processes, situations, information,” marked an important methodological shift for exhibition practice, in that artists were more or less free to contribute any work that they felt would be relevant. Since the artists, in Szeemann’s words, “took over the institution,” they also did their best to redefine the physical conditions for the show: Lawrence Weiner removed three square feet of wall space; Michael Heizer demolished the sidewalk with a metal ball; Richard Serra contributed one of his “Splash Pieces” involving molten lead. Richard Long, on the other hand, left the institutional framework behind and went on a three-day hike in the Swiss mountains. As the title suggested, this was not an exhibition of artworks but of “attitudes,” the implication being that the artists themselves, as creative subjects and eccentric personalities, were as much on display as the often ephemeral works resulting from their activities. In fact, in the introduction to the show’s catalogue, Szeemann mentions that some of the Conceptual and Earth artists who appear in the catalogue had no works in the show. Today this kind of approach is accepted practice in many international exhibitions (for better and, some would say, for worse): First the artist is invited, then comes the question of what the work will be. But in 1969 this method was entirely novel. (Though one should also note that Szeemann was not entirely alone: For example, New York artist and curator Seth Siegelaub was exploring similar ideas contemporaneously, notably creating a show in which artists could make their pieces “anywhere in the world.”)
The new model had no less an impact on the public role of the curator, who was now not only an accomplice but also a key protagonist–the enterprising figure responsible for the exhibition’s very staging as an event. Unfortunately, the public reaction to “When Attitudes Become Form” was over whelmingly negative (“When Platitudes Become Form,” “Sabotage in the Art Temple,” “Is Art Finally Dead?” “Stupidity …” are just a few headlines found in local newspapers at the time), and scandals accompanied the opening (Daniel Buren, who hadn’t actually been invited to participate in the show, was arrested for executing a poster project illegally in the streets). In addition, Szeemann, who had already come under heavy fire from the kunsthalle’s board for not showing enough Swiss artists, was assailed again for the number of foreign artists he featured. Under such increasing pressures, Szeemann decided to resign, but only to become something that had never previously existed, assuming a role that would affect the most fundamental operations of the art-world community for decades to come: the independent curator.
By choosing not to direct an institution, Szeemann forged a new mode of working, eschewing traditional museum tasks such as collecting, restoring, or keeping board members and trustees content in order to engage a wider cultural context. To this end, he created the Agentur fur Geistige Gastarbeit (Agency for Spiritual Guest Work, “guest worker” being the term for immigrant laborers in Switzerland and therefore an obvious jab at Bern), a one-person business with a team of devoted collaborators taking care of exhibition architecture, transportation, insurance problems, bookkeeping, and all other practical matters. Szeemann’s agency had no objective othr than communicating his vision of a radically different zone of energy, passion, and intensity. Every show he did from the early ‘70s until the very end was defined as “spiritual guest work,” made in the service of “a possible visualization of a museum of obsessions.” The only museum Szeemann was truly interested in, he said, was the one in his own head: an imaginary, otherworldly entity, a kind of utopian sphere that actual exhibitions could only hint at. It was, he insisted, a museum of obsessions: “Where no obsessions are to be discerned, I have no reason to linger.”
During the following three decades, he made his mark on most large-scale undertakings in the art world. In 1980 he created “Aperto,” a section of the Venice Biennale devoted to young artists, and two decades later, in 1999 and 2001, he returned to the festival as director of the entire international section, which he expanded to the massive size it is today. But it is important to acknowledge that while Szeemann’s becoming independent signaled the beginnings of an art-world infrastructure familiar to us now, events leading up to the presentation of “When Attitudes Become Form” had already marked a crossroads of sorts for the financing of art institutions. In retrospect, all the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship and branding in contemporary art today are fully articulated in
this show. Remarkably, according to Szeemann, the exhibition came about only because “people from Philip Morris and the PR firm Ruder Finn came to Bern and asked me if I would like to do a show of my own. They offered me money and total freedom.” Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue seems uncanny in its prescience: “As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are committed to support the experimental,” writes John A. Murphy, the company’s European president, asserting that his company experimented with “new methods and materials” in a way fully comparable to the Conceptual artists in the exhibition. (And yet, showing the other side of this corporate-funding equation, it was a while before the company supported the arts in Europe again, perhaps needing time to recover from all the negative press surrounding the event.) Significantly, as an independent curator Szeemann was innovative throughout his life when it came to financing his ventures, always exploring approaches from outside the art world: “The exhibition 'The bachelor machines’ is in its financing an alternative undertaking whose model might have been film production,” reads the telling first sentence of the catalogue for that 1975 show.
“The Bachelor Machines” was among Szeemann’s most original projects, based on what he described as “a belief in eternal energy flow as a way to avoid death, as an erotics of life.” Terrifying yet fascinating apparatuses have been conceived by, among others, Franz Kafka, Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry, and in their “splendid ambiguity,” he wrote in the show’s catalogue, these machines stand for “the omnipotence of eroticism and its negation, for death and immortality, for torture and Disneyland, for fall and resurrection.” That exhibition, along with such others as “Monte Verita,” named for an early-twentieth-century utopian commune of artists and intellectuals (1978), or “Gesamtkunstwerk” (1983), named after the Wagnerian vision, allowed the curator’s own passions and obsessions to fully materialize, and through them, Szeemann’s unique signature became most legible. These shows perhaps best fit Szeemann’s presentation of himself as a lonesome cowboy–“old school,” he said to me in an interview for Artforum in 2001– who preferred doing everything solo instead of surrounding himself with a team of advisors.
A notable exception was his 1972 Documenta 5, generally seen as the most pioneering of the Kassel extravaganzas–emulating the “controlled chaos” of his Bern days, Szeemann famously refashioned the show from a “100 Day Museum” to a “100 Day Event”–and likely the first example of a large- scale exhibition with separate sections organized by different curators and devoted to individual themes, including realism, propaganda, art by the mentally disturbed, and science fiction.
The most controversial category was also the one that most clearly belonged to Szeemann. Originally labeled “Mysticism and Shamanism” in an apparent nod to Joseph Beuys, who was at Documenta in a makeshift office answering questions about art, Szeemann ultimately settled on the title “Individual Mythologies,” a phrase he coined with respect to French sculptor and alchemist Etienne Martin’s hermetic cosmos–which seemed to him to be built upon an intricate yet impenetrable system of signs, a kind of myth unknowable to anyone but the artist himself. So, Szeemann seemed to ask, how can a deeply “egocentric” universe ever be communicated in a language shared by many? When criticized for having produced a confusing oxymoron rather than a helpful artistic category, Szeemann referenced Viennese actionists, Vito Acconci, Christian Boltanski, Mario Merz, and Paul Thek, insisting that, in the end, all truly interesting artists are the originators of individual mythologies. Yet in Szeemann’s view there were also fascinating creators of individual mythologies outside of the art world. One of the most unusual shows he ever staged happened soon after Documenta 5 and took place in his modest apartment in Zurich: “Grandfather-a pioneer like us” (1974). Described as “a torture chamber in the service of beauty,” it presented the personal belongings–first and foremost the hairdressing equipment–of Szeemann’s beloved grandpa, a Hungarian-born hairdresser and adventurer who died in 1971 at the age of ninety-eight. In Szeemann’s opinion this show remained one of his more important achievements: an arresting and unique glimpse of the evasive, heavenly museum of obsessions.
All creators of individual mythologies must be mad, Szeemann seemed to suggest–yet throughout his life he liked to quote the Italian publisher Mazzotta’s slogan that “now is the time to find the lunatics.” For his part, Szeemann was a prophetic activist in search of visionaries. There are people
who have an inexplicable ability to detect subterranean currents of water or (especially in the Alpine countries) crystals and veins of precious ore, and Szeemann was like that–a kind of dowser of artistic energy. He knew he had this gift, and although he was not a significant theoretical writer, he often wrote with great energy and detail about his quest-in diaries, preparatory notes, open letters, and beautifully impulsive catalogue essays and articles. One of the latter, titled “Inszenieren ist Lieben” (To Stage Is to Love; 1991), has become a canonical document for contemporary curating, spelling out a program of setting energies free and emphasizing nonverbal levels of significance inherent in the works on display. Of course, even in ordinary conversation he could articulate his project succinctly: “In putting together an exhibition,” Szeemann once said, “I took both connoisseurship and the dissemination of pure information into account and transformed both. That’s the foundation of my work.”

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Harald Szeemann - Ein Portrait 1/5