The tears in our social fabric
by Laurie Rojas
Amidst the fogged-up 19th century hall we stare in awe at the tightrope walker suspended a few meters above as she gradually makes her way across the long rope. We are inevitably curious about the blindfolded birds of prey being carried up a white staircase to nowhere and for apparently no reason. A sense of dread and curiosity came over the audience when the drones started lifting vertically in synchrony; they hovered about the hall in different directions with no clear purpose. One of them hits a visitor. A gripping melodic tune starts playing from one of the speakers, and a man begins to slowly cover his arm with shaving cream. Then he casually begins to shave it off with a steel razor. It is as mundane as it is disturbing: will he cut himself? Some time passes and a group of dancers begin to frantically walk and run in perpendicular lines. It is difficult to make sense of, yet entirely absorbing.
Angst II was an “exhibition-as-opera” that took place over a two-week period at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin—mesmerizing at times and unsettling at others.
In contrast to the meticulous orchestration of traditional opera, no single night was the same as another. No visitor could ever experience the same element or situation, at least not in the same way, twice. And no one, not even the artist, could experience the whole that was happening simultaneously throughout the hall. The exhibition, which was free of charge, evolved through the various evenings; even some of the performers and elements—like the birds of prey—varied each night. The four-hour-long performance had a basic structure but was not always followed, and hundreds of people could freely enter or exit the hall at any time. Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is an important precedent here in breaking the traditional rules of opera that thereby provoked confusion and uneasiness.
Rarely did any performer in Angst II make eye contact with the visitor, if they did it appeared accidental. There was no distinguishable barrier to define stage or audience; and yet the boundary between a performer and the visitor was never broken, even if they touched. This went completely against the grain of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie’s director Udo Kittelmann’s claim that “everybody is part of [Angst II],” a claim often used by museum curators nowadays to appeal to larger audiences.
The whole “opera,” as incomprehensible or difficult to formulate it may be, is characterized by a series of fragmented situations, that oscillated between harmony and dissonance, that were directed by Anne Imhof. However, many of the collaborators, around 30 performers and technicians, had freedom, although limited, to improvise and modify the elements. There was an unquestionable nihilistic quality to many of the situations the performers created, which their normcore, health goth, and sportswear-clad bodies reinforced. Just as if Dionysius was brought into the modern era through cynicism in the form of a “heroin chic” style and attitude. This created resentment for some but made others feel at home. The sense of an in-crowd and out-crowd dynamics made the comparisons to Berghain—Berlin’s notorious techno club—somewhat justified.
Although divided in three acts that show in different locations—in June at Kunsthalle Basel, in September at Hamburger Bahnhof, and in October at La Biennale de Montréal—opera is a loosely applied term to define Angst. It was, however, an exhibition that blurred the boundaries between theater, music, dance, sculpture, photography, painting, and so on, which arguably is one of the most dominant trends of the 21st century—often labeled post-medium or Gesamtkunstwerk.
Imhof’s “exhibition-as-opera” is related to the exhibition-as-work-of-art that has become the calling card of many of the French artists associated with relational aesthetics, such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, and Philippe Parreno. These are significant references given their close relationship to Tino Sehgal and how close his “constructed situations” appear to be to Imhof’s own work. Many of these relational aesthetics artists have, not surprisingly, crossed over to opera. Imhof’s work, however, is distinct in some key ways, and as such could represent a post-relational aesthetics practice, because unlike the aforementioned artists, the format is not a closed system but significantly more open to change and chance. This appears to be the general trend: even Philippe Parreno’s Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commission (Anywhen, until 2 April 2017) marks the first time the artist works without the construction of a timeline, a cycle, or a loop, and the work is much more open to unpredictable changes.
Another relationship between Imhof and relational aesthetics is that they have all produced works that have been labeled a Gesamtkunstwerk; not only as a vague notion of a total artwork, but more specific to our moment, a glorified way of referring to time-based immersive art. And yet even the use of Gesamtkunstwerk to characterize Imhof’s work seems inadequate. But the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk has evolved over two centuries and it has had an impact on the evolution of opera and theater, it's played an important role in its transformation. It can be useful then, to reflect on the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk and its relationship to Imhof’s work, if we want to understand how Angst II represents a possible transformation of contemporary art. At least, treating her work as a Gesamtkunstwerk is an opportunity to transform our understanding of art in our moment.
What most talk of the Gesamtkunstwerk in contemporary art today has missed, is its historical relationship to the Enlightenment and 19th-century romanticism, whereby the idea of the synthesis of the arts was about aesthetic aspirations of an emancipated society. However, after the embrace of Wagner by fascists in the early-to-mid 20th century the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk was associated with totalitarian aesthetics. It has since then been recovered from this barbaric destiny but certain valuable concerns have been lost in the colloquial use of the term—namely the issue of the audience’s experience.
Brecht, for example, decried the intoxicating effects of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk because audiences would be so consumed by the experience that they would suspend disbelief and could submit to emotional manipulation. Music was the main accomplice in this manipulative social contract (the Enlightenment term theorized by Rousseau and adopted by Brecht). Although Brecht’s own understanding of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk is arguably inconsistent with Wagner’s own, it was Brecht’s critique that nonetheless motivated his work in epic and musical theater. Brecht aimed at renegotiating new relationships (or social contract between individuals and society) with the audience through his theater. Brecht preferred a theater that would construct conflict as a form of social critique and not be spellbinding.
Another significant model of the Gesamtkunstwerk to consider with regards to contemporary art is Andy Warhol’s Factory. The Factory between 1960-68 became the site in which the Gesamtkunstwerk was recast in the form of the creative carnival, whereby the line between performers and spectators, art and life, temporarily ceased to matter.
The Gesamtkunstwerk today, however, aims to create a particular experience, that of absolute immersion, or a sensorial universe. But this could be read as an ideal aesthetic experience (Wagner) or one that could be negative and undesirable (Brecht).
What occurred in Imhof’s Angst II, can be understood from the perspective of Wagner’s, Brecht’s, and Warhol’s legacies, but also working against them. To begin with, there was a considerable attempt to manipulate the audience, to seduce it at times and at others to alienate it. As a consequence, Imhof’s audience and spectator experience is a critical component in understanding the meaning of the work.
The vast hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former train station designed in the 1840s, was very different from the more intimate spaces Imhof used previously, wherein the audience could stand or sit stationary. However, the need to take up the entire hall did not allow for the audience to stay in one place, instead, they behaved more like a mass of sheep that needed to be herded and scattered at different moments. This was perhaps unavoidable given the space, but it conditioned the way the audience and performer interacted, even if it was more chaotic, it required a higher degree of control and self-awareness (from the performers and the audience), and played a role in how the piece evolved night after night. The self-awareness of the audience, however, was more fragile and fleeting.
The large hall also demanded a superior attention to the auditory experience and music. The audible elements varied dynamically, from very loud to very quiet, melodic to non-descript, with speakers of different sizes and types spread throughout the hall. The sound and music emitting from the various speakers signaled much of the transitions and set the pace for the performers and audience.
A slow arpeggio reverbed across the hall soothing our discomfort in an unpredictable setting, building up anticipation or drawing our attention to a specific aspect of the work. More indescribable textural non-melodic noises came from the dancer’s bodies in motion (captured by mics attached to dancers and amplified on the speakers); that would become an element of distraction. A loud, angry, and screeching vocal recorded live with a looping machine close to loudspeakers completely dispersed the crowd and left them aimlessly wandering the hall looking for something else to pay attention to.
Angst II produced a pendulum of experiences that swing between fascination and boredom, amusement and repulsion. The transitions between these two opposites was sometimes subtle and other times abrupt, but all the elements, temporal or spatial, played their part in the manic-depressive mood swings. The themes of power/control and vulnerability/uncertainty were often present. The audience was manipulated into moments of absolute pleasure and even intoxication, produced by near-theatrical moments like with the tightrope walkers, which then dissipated and transitioned into moments of disorientation. People did not know what to do with themselves and many just conversed which each other as if it was an intermission. The performers’ use of improvisation and choreography, along with the music—created by Billy Bultheel, one of Imhof’s longtime collaborators—are the most significant ways these opposing experiences of become intertwined.
And yet, the content and meaning of Angst II is excruciatingly difficult to define. The impulse to try to make the irrational moments—or the whole—meaningful is constantly frustrated. The incomprehensibility actually demands more of its audience, demands we pay more careful attention to it. This prompts a reading of the exhibition that is enigmatic. While forcing us to reject any notion of a comprehensible whole within it, it is also highly nihilistic. This was reinforced by the performers’ considerable amount of anti-social behavior—spitting, kicking soda cans, staring at empty walls.
Over time it became more about endurance, maintaining the tension between attention and distraction, while the performers became increasingly misanthropic and occasionally aggressive. Several times the performers could be seen lifting the middle finger, sometimes this was subtle part of the dance moves and sometimes a sharp “fuck you.” Their distrust of the audience and the audience’s distrust of what was happening could often be seen in facial expressions and body language. In all these ways Angst II is an expression of deep social contradictions—the sources of our incurable angst. The audience cannot make sense of their experiences and the artists cannot connect with the audience they were seeking. The social contract is broken. The tears in the social fabric are the reality which has been made palpable in the experience.
And yet pleasure was granted in this existential drama. It was far from Schiller’s joyful playground of art or Adorno’s promesse de bonheur, and yet happiness, play, and freedom were conjured in it still, but often in negative form. The potential for these was there but also restrained or fleeting, think of Warhol’s Factory as a counterexample. Just as the particular components of the piece could not add up to a cohesive, harmonious whole—because this is an impossibility imposed by reality outside art, by society—it could not reach the aesthetic ideal of a total work of art even if Imhof wanted it to.
This all appears to mean that neither Wagner’s utopian Gesamtkunstwerk, or Brecht’s distinct utopian epic theater, or Warhol’s carnivalesque Factory, are reproducible or recreatable today. They were expressions of art’s emancipatory, even transcendental, potential in their time, while the elements of their productions do appear in Angst II, they were fleeting. But the Gesamtkunstwerk, or any total work of art, still holds a promise, it just appears in a changed form. The possibilities offered by art have not been exhausted even if the contemplative experience has disintegrated, the social contract broken down, and the aura of art has been destroyed. However, the tension between the individual and society, art and life, cannot be reconciled in art so long as it is not resolved in society through political change. Art cannot escape the domination of capital, but Imhof’s art at least points to the desire to recognize it and break from its golden chains.