How young, savvy art producers bring new talent directly to the public by exploiting new spaces, technology and social media, thereby sidestepping the art world’s gatekeepers
Suddenly, a phalanx of silent, stony-faced soldiers in helmets and heavy boots, appears through an archway of the old Imperial Stables, a disturbing sight in the midst of a peaceful European city square. Lined with cafés, fountains and museums, Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier (MQ) is not exactly the spot for military maneuvers. Approaching the line, however, the “why” becomes clear – the black-clad soldiers were part of MOTA, or “Museum on Tour Austria”, a new project by the art label XXXX
ismTMC from the subversive duo, IV Toshain and Matthias Makowsky. On the soldier’s t-shirts, visible only through infrared telescopes, messages of peace by artists from Syria, Iran and the Ukraine can be read.
The giant Nomos Basileus morning star was created entirely in the workshop of the artists Toshain and Makowsky. It is intended to hang in unlikely places, like here in the Winterpalais of the Belvedere.
Photo ©IV Toshain
The project, performed at five locations around the city, is a response to the political tensions and war-zones around the world. “With this piece, the art moves to the people,” explained Toshain. Originally scripted with real soldiers, ministerial jitters about political slogans from countries like Syria or Ukraine meant using students instead.
Toshain and Makowsky have no gallerist and no reliable source of funding. They perform as artists, curators, managers, producers and shippers, staging their work in impossible locations like the Heldentor, Vienna’s largest war memorial. The elements are created in their own workshop, from the giant “Nomos Basileus” morning star hung in the Belvedere’s baroque Winterpalais to the flying Chinese martial arts stars who burst balloons of color onto silk, revealing messages in nano-technology paint writing.
The MuseumsQuartier is an ideal setting for Toshain and Makowsky. With four million visitors a year, it provides a workspace for 50 creative initiatives, visiting artists, and 60 festivals from dance to open air screenings, MQ projects director Christian Strasser views as complementary to the institutions. “I have to help shape culture and inspire people,” he said. “My aim is that all visitors feel and experience the diversity of this cultural space.”
The big questions, such as how art helps us to evaluate our existence, and why we collect certain kinds of art are foremost for Anastasia Soutormina (27), a young intern at the private art fund, Phileas. “It’s about iconography. Elements move from media into our brains and make us value it more because it reminds us of something. To broaden the canon you need to go to what you have not seen.”
Interventions in public spaces have long been a powerful means for artists to challenge the public’s perception of art as something immutable and untouchable. From Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, to Austrian Aktionismus, to the World Portable Gallery Convention, art has been offered as a portable Brustkino, by chance or appointment, or by delivery, as the WPGC did via Mathieu Arsenault’s “existential bicycle courier” service. For Toshain, “Art doesn’t exist if nobody interacts with it.”
Art doesn’t exist if nobody interacts with it.
– Toshain, artist and independent curator
Toshain and Makowsky staged their first collaboration, Parkfair, parallel to the commercial ViennaFair. The Gesamtkunstwerk, on the theme “EntARTainers,” produced for €10,000, displayed 30 artists’ pieces in a shopping center parking garage. “It was about celebrating artists, not selling. It was by artists for artists,” said Makowsky. For “TerminARTor” in 2014, they convinced the ministry to let them stage it in the Ehrenhalle of the Heldentor.
“At art fairs the works are shouting, ‘look at me!’” said Toshain. “Here the concept was, block all this out. You get in, you take this night vision device and perform, as part of this artwork. Only in this space, do you see the work in this special way.”
Conceived around the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, TerminARTor also reacted to the political situation in Ukraine, Syria and the Arab Spring. “We invited artists to forget their portfolio, their gallery, their curator, all that shit,” said Toshain. “Think what you would say if you had to go out and demonstrate?” Viewers entered a dark space inside the huge monument, where through night vision telescopes each saw messages of peace on the 100-year-old stone images of war.
Basking in Art
Worldwide, large museums enjoy growing popularity, investing heavily in new buildings and relying on well-established names. The world’s three most-visited art institutions – the Louvre, the British
Museum, and MoMA in New York – collectively drew in 22 million visitors last year. It’s a different story for smaller institutions hit hardest by budget cuts.
Collectors buy Basquiats, while newer names go unsold at the big auction houses. The reality for new artists and the managers who hope to work with them is shrinking wall space, and dwindling attention of influential curators.
Phileas, whose partners include Jasper Sharp and Francesca von Habsburg, seeks to provide more opportunities for Austrian artists. “In countries like the U.S., philanthropy is well-established. In Austria,
people want a return on investment,” says Soutormina. Phileas calls on up to €500,000 per year to showcase artists at the Venice Biennale and Dokumenta festivals. Private funding fills parts of the gap left by shrinking public subsidies, but many art funds are in essence gatekeepers in other clothes. Even larger Austrian institutions with relatively stable budgets are feeling the squeeze. The MQ is run by the MQ E&B, a private limited company owned 75% by the Austrian Republic and 25% by the City of Vienna. Many events rely on additional sponsorship, with little left over for the artists.
“It’s important to encourage cultural institutions to talk to each other,” says MQ director Strasser, “and realize joint projects that benefit all.” Director Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern agrees: “We don’t want to build iconic buildings anymore. We’re building networks.”
Artists have to adapt too. Toshain produced fluorescent posters with Anna Ceeh through the art label FEMIN
ismTC. Soutormina multitasks as part of the Faebrik curators network, has performed in the MQ, and manages events at the Burggasse 21 gallery. “I’m completely exploiting myself,” Soutormina admits, “but I’m happy doing something bigger, where I can make people think. Freud said a discourse must be transformative, not just informative. After being touched by something, you see the world differently, because it always stays with you.”
A day before their performance in the Hauptbahnhof, Toshain and Makowsky charmed the station police into granting a permit.
“It was so busy, multi-culti, we had drunks, not museum people,” smiled Toshain. “There was a fight, the police came, kids playing football, all jumping to look through these telescopes. It was completely different for them.” She was surprised by the laid-back response of the arty crowd in MQ. “It was so interesting to see the contrast. You think things happen where art is, but it doesn’t. Art happens where there is no art.”
Strasser is determined to maintain spaces where art can happen. “When you enter the MuseumsQuartier, you have to feel the special atmosphere of the area, the feeling of being in an arts and cultural complex.” Soutormina, too, sees her future outside the traditional art world frame. “The Museum of Knowledge went from one place to another, reflecting the local mentality, religion. It’s generating knowledge.”
Toshain and Makowsky plan to stage their soldiers next in New York City. They briefly considered the Intrepid air craft carrier. The project, they say, has freed them. “Art now is so much bureaucracy. You need money, insurance, packing, transport. We don’t want any white cubes, any walls. We just want to get on an airplane and make art.”
Museums can often seem more like mausoleums, where art, roped off from us, dies in library-like silence. While the aggressively beautiful Nomos Basileus star waits in pieces for its next outing, in the streets, art comes to life.