May/June 2007

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text / Jill Dawsey

PETER FRIEDL in conversation with Gean Moreno

Greeting us at the entrance of the traveling survey exhibition Peter Friedl: Work 1964-2006 at Miami Art Central, a neon text reads badly organized.1 Mimicking an unrefined scrawl, Untitled (badly organized), 2003, may initially seem like a humorous commentary on itself. This is because, unlike the perfect bureaucratic font of so many neon text works that now fill art history books, this work may in some sense be described as badly organized. It breaks ranks. It calls attention to itself by disregarding the anonymity of a less idiosyncratic script. As such, it may return too much of the author to the work. On the other hand, Untitled (badly organized) may also be letting us know that all neon text works have been badly organized. After all, there is something to be said for the inextricability of neon works from what Friedl calls the "first-world office aesthetic," considering that artists introduced neon into art production precisely because it allowed them to sidestep aesthetic choices.

Peter Friedl Untitled (badly organized), 2003, neon tubing, cables, transformers (courtesy of Galerie Hohenlohe, Vienna)

Untitled (badly organized) also comments on the institution of which it is part, and perhaps on the very idea of the retrospective. First of all, it seems to ponder—or make us ponder—if this particular survey was organized improperly. Or, more to the point, if any retrospective of Friedl's work could ever really be organized otherwise. After all, so many of the works here, like Bremer Freiheit, 1998/2003, are presented as posters on the wall, like blown-up catalogue pages. It would, indeed, make no sense to reconstruct such projects in a context different from that of their original and specific production. In this, Friedl's work adheres to a rigorous understanding of context-specificity that may be too much for the logic of spectacle—even at the lower frequencies of exhibitions.

Then, there are Friedl's deliberate gestures of interference and the way they tax the grammar of the retrospective. The show's title is a first clue. Work 1964-2006—really? In 1964, Friedl was four years old. The presence of childhood drawings in this exhibition pressures normative understandings of his interest in representations of childhood, which appear in his Playgrounds project or in the books of children's monologues. They also obviously blur clean chronological demarcations of a career's beginnings or location. Everywhere we find small roadblocks to the perfect organization of the traditional survey.

Peter Friedl, Untitled, 1968, ballpoint pen on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm (courtesy of the artist)

In addition, important referential aspects of Untitled (badly organized) may remain unavailable to the casual viewer. For instance, an American publisher actually used the term "badly organized" to support his rejection of Theodor W. Adorno's own draft English translation of Philosophie der neuen Musik, which he had so admired in German. What's more, the neon mimics the handwriting of Herbert Marcuse, Adorno's colleague at the Frankfurt Institute.2 This may well inflect the work, inserting it into a history of exile, of displacement, and in particular, of European culture's mutation in America. As such, the work may function in the context of social theory at least by association. Even more interesting, information isn't simply available. It is discovered later. One has to do some digging. There is something in it like a slow release valve, so that the more one engages the work, the more information becomes available.

As modest as it may seem in comparison to Friedl's long-term projects like Theory of Justice, 1992-ongoing, Untitled (badly organized) sends us on a journey that cuts across geographical and disciplinary lines. If, so far, I've focused on it almost exclusively, it is because it condenses the ways so many of Friedl's projects work—as nodal points where numerous lines of thought and reference intersect, creating a large network of material that trades simultaneously in the logic of critique and in the potentialities of narrative. As with most of Friedl's projects, Untitled (badly organized) carries more information than initially seems available. This information unfolds on multiple and often seemingly independent levels. There's a game of disclosure and withdrawal at work here. It's a way of running interference on our increasingly homogenous practices and on our stabilized ways of doing things. At the same time, it opens the work to the larger geopolitical issues we face in an age when, as Friedl proposes in the following interview, conflict has replaced consensus as our leading political integer.

Gean Moreno: Your current traveling survey Peter Friedl: Work 1964-2006 seems rather appropriately titled, seeing as the very notion of work is always under scrutiny in your practice. It's always a question of understanding how the conditions in which an artwork functions help determine its meaning. It's more than the relationship between a work and the context of its production. It's also a matter of the subsequent and changing relationships to the conditions under which it is displayed.

Peter Friedl: It's a way to deal with gaps, breaks, ruptures, and other difficulties. By inserting my childhood drawings i nto the framework of a retrospective, I make it more of a statement about continuity.

GM: What is important in this idea of continuity?

PF: Reconciliation without appeasement. At least, it allows you to embrace history. That's the retrospective brackets or parentheses—the retrospective both as a medium and as aesthetic experience. Of course, you can say that the conditions alter the meaning. I think everybody knows that. The question is: what kind of quality can you get out of it? How can you subvert it and push it further, also in a historical prospect? Ultimately, it's about autonomy more than context.

Peter Friedl Untitled, 1969, pencil, ballpoint pen on paper, 29.6 x 41.8 cm (courtesy of the artist)

GM: How does the introduction of these drawings in the exhibition function in relation to the representations of childhood that are so often central to your projects? Map, 1969-2005, is an interesting case here. We get both the original drawing and its representation in the same space. Each demands its own reading, and each reading is different.

Peter Friedl Map, 1969-2005, silkscreen on paper, eight parts, 234 x 333 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Erna Hcey, Brussels; photo: Philippe De Gober)/span>

PF: Childhood is usually misrepresented so one can again work with it. This is a "can the subaltern speak?" method. People also tend to misunderstand childhood in a positive way, which is another advantage. If you deal with relatively complex questions, there is always a risk that things will get too complex. It is better to deal with them on another, inadequate level such as, for example, a child's level as opposed to an adult's. At a certain point when he was in jail, Gramsci began to translate some of Grimm's Fairy Tales. I like that, not just because I lived in Italy for ten years. You will hardly find those texts in a serious edition of Antonio Gramsci's works. And you definitely won't find them in non-Italian editions I think that's an interesting image. I did two projects based on children's monologues in order to avoid pictures entirely. In Four or Five Roses, 2004, I worked with kids in South Africa. I decided to start recording interviews with children in playgrounds in Johannesburg and Soweto, and later in Cape Town and the surrounding townships. I went to the recordings with assistants and friends who spoke the languages I don't speak. Later, all of these children's monologues were transcribed, some were translated into English, and all were edited and published in a book.

GM: On the one hand, your practice can be deemed discursive insofar as it examines the conditions that determine the functioning of artworks. Simultaneously, however, you tax the new doxa of much current discursive practice—such as the "portability" of situational aesthetics, or the election of an analytical stance over narrational pursuits.

PF: I do not really see a contradiction between analytical and narrational stances. Such distinctions are somewhat helpless and clumsy. Of course I am interested in narration—much more than I am interested in what you call situational aesthetics. You just have to think of the nineteenth-century novel to understand that narration can be an ethical position. I don't mean "narration" in a fashionable sense, since narratology and storytelling are now part of the weirdest politico-economical agendas. After losing the 2004 US election, Democratic strategists complained that they never had a good story to tell or sell. One of them declared, "a narrative is the key to everything." This is the epic that never was. I try to save narration for an aesthetic agenda that isn't just primitive. I think that some of my projects, like Playgrounds, can be described as studies in narration.

As for the discursive practices you are mentioning, it's very important to be concrete and real. Today, and especially in a US institution like Miami Art Central, this certainly sounds quite exotic and pathetic—or simply academic. For me, a concept like genre is more important and successful than others. Genre means to exhibit something; it does not necessarily mean to believe in something.

GM: Can you elaborate on your understanding and use of genre?

PF: I would like to get something similar to classical solutions. As such, I decided to expand the concept of genre beyond its usual historic limits in order to launch a more ambitious rescue maneuver.

Ironically, the golden age of genre theory coincided with concept art's establishment of first-world office aesthetic as a new symbolism. For example, the function of non-contested narration: thanks to genre theory, classical cinema did not deny the signs and conditions of production. It contained them. If you looked carefully, you could easily decode them. That's quite interesting if you're concerned about criticism ending up like the criticized. The concept of genre offers the possibility to look at things differently. Genre keeps the difference alive.

GM: If I understand you correctly, you are not interested in specific genres per se—western, science fiction, and so on. You focus on the structure of genre, which allows you to present a narrative while simultaneously revealing the signs and conditions of its production in slightly-coded form. The critical component, insofar as it is registered in this unveiling of conditions of production, is sneaked in under a seemingly transparent narrative. Is this how Playgrounds functions?

Peter Friedl installation view of Peter Friedl: Work 1964-2006 at Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), Barcelona, May 26-September 3, 2006 (photo: Tony Coll): foreground: Playgrounds, 1995-2006, digitized slides, five wall projections (courtesy of MACBA, Barcelona); center left: New Kurdish Flag, 1994-2001, nylon, 150 x 250 cm (courtesy: Kadist Art Foundation, Paris); top right: Untitled (Barcelona), 1998/2006, wall painting, dimensions variable

PF: There's always a narrative. If it's too transparent and stupid, you have to look at the narrative behind it or find a better one. Genre structurally functions like an ideal mise en scène. So the question is: mise en scène for what? I use genre to create something like an autonomous zone. In fact, I am interested in how one can aesthetically and temporarily disarm configurations of power. However, I am not interested in any critical operation in itself. One could also declare: it's all about creating an intelligent, competitive image. I remember conversations with Michael Asher in Barcelona two years ago, when I started to prepare this retrospective. He looked a bit frail but we had a lot of fun. I think people never really understood his most perverse projects because the historical category of institutional critique was in the way. Of course, it is not totally wrong but it does not say much, aesthetically. Benjamin Buchloh, for example, does not understand this.

Peter Friedl From the series Playgrounds, 1995-2006, six hundred color slides (courtesy the artist); TOP: Delhi, Lodhi Colony Park, 2004; BOTTOM: Gugulethu, NY 134 Playground, 2002

As for Playgrounds, you can describe it as an ongoing project that started in 1995 and shows documentary-style photographs of public playgrounds from all over the world in alphabetical order. So, it looks like an anthropological or anthological project that focuses on an urban typology of modernism. And yes, I took all the photos. I like to travel and I like traveling concepts. The pictures shown in the series are as important as those that are not shown.

Peter Friedl, From the series Playgrounds, 1995-2006, six hundred color slides (courtesy the artist): TOP, LEFT TO RIGHT: Salvador, Parque do Rio, 2005; Miami, M. Athalie Range Park, 2007; BOTTOM, LEFT TO RIGHT: Ciudad de Mxico, Jardn Mdicos por la Paz, 2006; Rio de Janeiro, Parque do Flamengo, 2002

GM: Speaking of things not shown, a kind of imperceptibility seems important to you. Your works often carry information that isn't obviously available. Can you say something about the negotiation between things that are obviously there and the other material—the not-so-obvious references and the background stories that take on a more spectral, there-but-not-quite-there quality?

PF: That's an important point. People sometimes forget that there is no such thing as "visual arts." If you want to experience and understand anything more in depth, for example a Giorgione painting, you need other kinds of knowledge. Time is another crucial point: you don't always have to understand everything immediately. In this, there is no real difference between understanding a tree or how your car functions. Of course, you can always get along somehow. But more verticality can provide more understanding and more pleasure. That's why you have to negotiate the transfer between different levels and layers of information carefully.

GM: Can we speak of the centrality of texts in your practice?

Peter Friedl installation view of OUT OF THE SHADOWS, 2004-2006, at 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art, Seville (BIACS2) (photo: Werner Maschmann)

PF: I do not write very often and I do not like writing at all. It happens maybe once a year. Then I write a travelogue-manifesto like The Curse of the Iguana,3 or an essay on Glauber Rocha, the Brazilian filmmaker.4 There must be very good reasons for writing.

Centrality may be too strong a word. All my work is about overcoming the dictate of visibility. That's one step. The second: not to use text as a substitute. In my books with children's monologues, I use text as an artistic and even pictorial strategy. There's also the OUT OF THE SHADOWS project, which is an attempt to draft the structure for a dictionary of an unbiased history of Cyprus.

Peter Friedl installation view of OUT OF THE SHADOWS, 2004, at Witte de With, center for contemporary art, Rotterdam (photo: Bob Goedewaagen): far right: No Photography, 2004, computer animation, 4:15 minutes, loop (courtesy the artist and Galerie Erna Hcey, Brussels)

GM: The Glauber Rocha essay brings up problems of autonomy and control. You discuss this when you write of the current fate of Hélio Oiticica's work, which has "entered the circular normality of spectacle." I think that your texts, in general, function as a way to locate your output within particular aesthetico-political coordinates. Could you say something of this effort to maintain control over the work? Could you also speak about the fabrication that is the limitation of the artist's space? Your work makes it patently clear that this space does not end at the studio door or the exhibition site.

PF: In Oiticica's case, especially if you love him, you can say that it's the usual posthumous transformation. I like him too, of course, but I found Glauber Rocha's struggle and odyssey through the 1970s more radical. I wanted to remember that difference. Confidence is nice but control is better. If you do not take things for granted, you have to emphasize and extend creative control as much as possible, to all parts of production and presentation. I know this is quite impossible in the contemporary art world but I can't help it.

GM: Your first texts were about theater. Can you say something of the relationship between theater and your work? After all, some of your projects, like La Bohème and Peter Friedl, often involve a kind of staging.

PF: When you are twenty years old and you can place an interview with Bob Wilson in a German magazine you just do it. It was the early 1980s. Logically, I quickly became a true enemy of theater

I was much more interested in the representational complex as a specific form of modernity starting, say, with Sétphane Mallarmé's Le Livre. Remember, this was the pre-digital era. There was something like an unrealized potential-before film finally became the paradigm for visual arts, which probably was not a good move. This potential was not necessarily more fragile or irregular than, for example, minimalism or conceptualism. That's different from staging. What is staging? I mean, to exhibit something is never normal. It disrupts a particular level of reality. Suddenly, there's a stage where something is happening—a platform, a frame, a display... None of these aids should just symbolize disarmament. Instead, they have to push it further.

GM: Staging operates less literally in a number of other works. In these instances, the work itself&mbsp;what is presented becomes a stage or a nodal point where a number of references or narratives meet. In the video King Kong, 2001, you register the history of apartheid South Africa in urban space and cultural products that crisscross with your own ongoing interest in representations of childhood, the history of King Kong films, and the history of singer Daniel Johnston, who of course brings his own baggage to the work.

Peter Friedl, two stills from King Kong, 2001, video projection, color, sound, 3:57 minutes, loop (courtesy the artist and Galerie Erna Hcey, Brussels)

PF: In King Kong the material is overcharged, but you don't see it. I like that: you can see something that, at the same time, is something else. This means that you bring differences—that could be expressed more dramatically at any moment—into a new balance.

Peter Friedl, installation view of Theory of Justice, 1992-2005, newspaper clippings in display cases, at Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), Barcelona

GM: The vitrines that comprise Theory of Justice as well as the identically titled artist's book are filled with protest imagery that speak to an uneven distribution of wealth, benefits, and opportunity, among other things, in different geopolitical contexts. They seem to illustrate the renewed understanding of politics as an exclusionary practice, which writers like Agamben, Negri, Hardt, and others have propounded in their theoretical work. And yet, the work is titled after John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which is perhaps the last important liberal treatise on distributive justice. I'm presuming that the link between your work and Rawls' seminal text isn't simply ironic. Can you unpack how the work engages this liberal line of thought?

PF: You could also take a less metaphysical work, for example Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. The Theory of Justice installation—another of my long-term efforts—is based on my collection of newspaper clippings. Collection sounds more appropriate and lyrical than archive. Aesthetically, an archive is nonsense unless you dig for mythological information like in the Walker Evans archives. Remember his newspaper clippings.

You can certainly find many images of protest in Theory of Justice. There's also something like an imagery of public integrity or intimacy. Newspaper images are multiply-published and differently-contextualized consumer images. I like the fact that newspaper cuttings are becoming slightly anachronistic. Here, however fragile they may be, they get another chance in a different timeline. The chronology of depiction supplants the date of publication; the images become originals again. It's a project on pictorial justice: what happens if the pictures themselves want to become theory? The selection is of course very strict. In fact, my collection is shrinking rather than growing.

You were asking about the link to John Rawls and his attempt at renewing social contract theory. Well, there's still a difference between this kind of political liberalism and the neo-liberal present. Apparently, it was possible for him to work out such a theory in 1971. Today, the global drama of expulsion and exclusion makes it quite evident that justice and distribution theories are out of touch with reality. Conflict takes the place of consensus. The link is less ironic than it seems.


1. The exhibition originated at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona and was on view in Miami [January 20-April 15, 2007]. It will travel to the Musée d'art contemporain in Marseille [June 30-September 16, 2007].

2. To produce this work, Friedl traveled to the Marcuse archives in Frankfurt to search for the words "badly" and "organized" in Marcuse's handwritten manuscripts. Organized was easy to find in his English writings. There was, however, no badly. The artist then resorted to sampling badly by using letters and syllables from other words.

3. Peter Friedl, The Curse of the Iguana: On Genre and Power, Frankfurt am Main: Revolver Books, 2002. Der Fluch des Leguans. Über Genre und Macht was originally published in German in 2000.

4. Peter Friedl, "Avenida Glauber Rocha," in Peter Friedl: Work 1964-2006, Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2006.

Gean Moreno is a Contributing Editor of ART PAPERS. He explored Eugenio Espinoza's practice as remake in the July/August 2006 issue of ART PAPERS.


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