|DOES NOT CONCERN CORNELIA SOLLFRANK ALONE:
DIALOGUE AS A CONDITION OF AESTHETIC PRODUCTION
There are several focus points in Cornelia Sollfrank’s
artistic activities which help provide an
overview of her “complete works” and which in
turn can be arrange in a package of discourses
dealing with contemporary art production. The
use of diverse and changing artistic strategies,
epitomizing hybridity, employing variety in the
choice of media and combining a wide range of
artistic areas and forms of presentation—all of
these have become practicable possibilities in
the attempt to achieve an artistic “profile” and is
part of the image program that administers and
reproduces the operating system of art. Despite
the obvious lust for the perfect surface displayed
by the culture of corporations and publishing,
the now much favored impression of a slick and
submissive profile nevertheless still goes astray
whenever one risks a closer examination of
Sollfrank’s working method.
“Programmed seduction”—this is how Ute Vorkoeper aptly characterized Sollfrank’s tactical work with surfaces and role playing,1 referencing the risks and side effects that come about when one takes on an artist whose work consequently and successfully defies definitive specifications. This might be due to Sollfrank’s complex range of diverse activities on the one hand, but also due to the diverse roles she takes on in the process on the other. Both make it difficult to put together a coherent picture—a profile to be precise—of the artist. But it seems to me that the new or expanded functions realized by all the other components (material, users, services, reception, distribution, presentation) contributing to the production of her work is even more decisive. In accordance with conceptual approaches, Sollfrank shifts the content of the respective starting point in which she tries to have an effect, to perception. The focuses of the various parts are reconfigured in terms of the overall situation. The sharp separation between her own share in the process, and those made by others, is negated.
Instead of further concentrating on Sollfrank’s artistic identity or her self-conception, as the hurried stand-at-attention business logic perhaps advises and in any case does, I prefer to take the questioning of traditional functions of authorship and role playing, which have repeatedly been seen as central aspects of Sollfrank’s work, as a starting point. What other possibilities are there when the conventional distribution of roles has become questionable?
NET.ART GENERATOR – "WHAT CAN I STILL DO? SHOULD I STILL DO SOMETHING?" (2)
Using the example of the net.art generators (since 1999), Vorkoeper pointed out the fun that one could have as the user of an image production process that “leaves the work to the machines.” And she also calls attention to the accompanying, albeit not automatically visible effect of the playful game: Like it or not, each participant contributes to the artist’s symbolic as well as economic gain. (3) In her text “copyright © 2004, cornelia sollfrank,” Cornelia Sollfrank takes up this aspect and analyzes the various “authorities” who contribute to the production of art in accordance with copyright regulations in the case of the net.art generator: computer programs, programmers, users, original authors and artists as the sources of ideas. The doubly amazing upshot: Sollfrank comes to the conclusion that, from a legal point of view, she wrongfully designates herself as the author of the images generated by the net.art.generators she conceived. Despite this, she nevertheless exhibits them and—as far as possible—also sells them. And she concludes her investigation with a declaration of intent that is available for all to read: “I will continue to strive to gain as much profit as possible and to work at undercutting the art system’s existing categories and hierarchies at the same time.” (4) But as legal criteria are presumably not vital to Sollfrank’s artistic decisions, which ones are? And what can be said about those—apparently deeper underlying—realms of possibility invoked by Sollfrank when she speaks of undercutting “the art system’s existing categories and hierarchies.” Is it possible to meet Cornelia Sollfrank down there?
FEMALE EXTENSION – »THE CODE IS THE COLLECTIVE« (5)
“The aesthetic, just as the juridical or the cognitive, is only one variety of the social,” wrote the Russian linguist Valentin N. Vološinov. Art is “not a case of one foreign element affecting another, but of one social formation affecting another social formation.” (6) Particularly Sollfrank’s activist and anti-institutional interventions have in fact the distinction of bringing diverse “social formations” in the cultural field “in contact” with each other.
In the case of female extension (1997), an intimate knowledge of a certain net art practice enabled Sollfrank to start with the hubris of the institutional power of defining and to assist the effectiveness of net art’s generally underestimated potential. With the artificial multiplication of her authorship produced by way of programming, she proved her skillful dealings with the Internet as a medium. This trick was the logical consequence resulting from the necessity of participational requirements as well as their institutional conditions while simultaneously abandoning the ethics and self-image of the artistic approach she invoked. The pretended insider knowledge of the institutional experts had their share in the invention of the tactical face insofar as it was stultified even further.
However, it is remarkable that Sollfrank nevertheless inserted her name in the place of the fictitious authors precisely to achieve an enlightening effect. She was authorized to do so particularly because she played into the hands of a field of players who were less interested in the individually found form itself than in the value a found form can have in collective or communicative processes. Not for nothing Sollfrank stressed that she could not have had realized female extension without the practical assistance and empowerment of numerous co-producers. And it was only possible for Cornelia Sollfrank to shed light on the rules of this action’s game because she did put her name to it. This was the only way for the other voluntary or involuntary participants to have benefited from it in terms of gained insights.
The entire course of the competition finally became manifest in a series of press releases. In doing so, the press itself assume the rather uncommon part of contributing to the documentation of an artistic process. In addition, the disavowing failure of the experts became comprehensible to a public whose education in matters of judging art is usually dispensed with.
TAMMTAMM – ARTISTS INFORM POLITICIANS (KIP)
The confrontational encounter between two social groups is also the defining principle behind the organizational form conceived by Sollfrank in the TammTamm—KünstlerInnen informieren Politiker (Artists inform politicians, 2005–08) action. The starting point here was a decision by the Hamburg Senate not only to provide a municipally owned building to the former Axel Springer-Verlag board member Peter Tamm for his collection of militaria and model ships, but also 30 million Euros for the renovation of the building and the presentation of his war-glorifying collection. This decision caused a great deal of discontent among a large number of creative artists in the city.
Sollfrank moderated her idea of bringing each of the 121 representatives of the Hamburg city council responsible for the decision together with a creative artist from the city for a private conversation. The contents of the action were left to the participating artists; the documentation of the 121 contacts, or attempts at contact, was published in a joint Internet platform founded by Sollfrank. (7) KiP operated under the assumption that the political representatives legitimized by democratic election must enter into a critical dialogue with the creative artists. As in female extension, a democratic claim and its catchphrases were taken literally: “closeness to the citizens,” “readiness to engage in dialogue,” “participation.” The prerequisite was the basic readiness of the politicians to at least discuss their respective decisions upon request, if not to consult with experts. Practice showed that the assumption had to be revised to the extent that only some of the representatives were willing to talk. Excuses or cancelations were common; admitting a lack of expertise and time constraints were the most common justifications. But KiP was also able to show that a readiness to engage in dialogue was not an empty phrase for artists and that collective cultural policy commitment is possible despite the pressures applied by the art business as regards individuality and rivalry.
female extension and KiP are model examples of Sollfrank’s conveyance strategies. Decision processes hidden in everyday life as well as evaluation foundations characteristic for the understanding of art and culture in a certain field break through to the surface. Sollfrank carefully targets her operative interventions so that the uncovering of the “business condition” which is operated with in each case is left to the participants themselves, as it were. The confrontation between diverse “social formations” (Vološinov) first makes comparisons possible: between that which circulates as a verbally articulated claim and that which manifests itself in the dialogue. Related to sociological test cases, Sollfrank’s interventions make the results available. They provide empirical material to those who are not satisfied with pure speculation or an “I knew it all the time” mentality.
THE THING HAMBURG / [ECHO]-LISTE – »THE MODE IST THE MESSAGE«
Perhaps one of the most significant messages of Cornelia Sollfrank’s work is that an exchange of information and arguments in addition to a controversial discussion on artistic positions and projects, social as well as cultural policy news is necessary to form the critical foundation that is an indispensible prerequisite of artistic production. The consequential examination and testing of forms that trigger such dialogues is the most important characteristic of her work.
With the founding of [echo], a mailing list on “art, criticism and cultural policy in Hamburg,” Cornelia Sollfrank began the artistic experiment of a local and simultaneously virtual network for creative artists in Hamburg. The list existing since May 2004 now belongs to an natural part of the daily routine of its circa 850 members.
The [echo] List as well as the “Internet Platform for Art and Criticism” THE THING Hamburg, which has been in existence since 2006, are two examples of the construction of Internet formats that rely on dialogue, disagreement, controversies, criticism and analysis. THE THING Hamburg drew upon the new idea from the nineteen nineties to use the incipient medium of the Internet for an exchange among artists and to develop separate forums for their own writings about art and criticism. Sollfrank applied the concept originally planned as a global network to the local Hamburg art scene. Along with a group of editors belonging to various cultural and political scenes in Hamburg and nevertheless active nationally at the same time, the plan concerned building a structure that enables a concentrated reflection as well as spontaneous news reports and controversial discussions.
Both projects can be seen on the one hand as an alternative to a media landscape that usually ignores local developments in the art field and does not allow its otherwise hype-oriented attention to be irritated by unhedged positions. But the dissatisfaction with the determining cultural policy conditions and a decision-making process defined by lobbyists and insiders in art political committees on the other hand made the independent formation of structures more than necessary.
The permanent role change with which Sollfrank herself contributes to the communicative occurrences on the list and the platform is simultaneously a component of the shaping and framing concept. The roles can be enumerated in the case of the [echo] List: the disputatious Sollfrank who participates in discussions and supplies content to her “community” taken from the arts pages of the daily and weekly newspapers, the commentator, sometimes a mediator or a fact supplying moderator, and the irritator— sometimes protected by aliases—who designs scenarios by means of hoaxes to test the credulity of her readers. Further functions can be imaged in the face of Sollfrank’s cunningness, but are more difficult to prove...
But her continuous changing sides between internal and external perspectives is characteristic for Sollfrank’s method: she sometimes joins the rows of users, at other times she observes the situation from an analytical distance. The identification attempt regarding each and every counterpart practiced in everyday life must necessarily be doomed to failure in the face of these varying levels. The relationship to Cornelia Sollfrank as a counterpart offers no ascertainable security, but meets up at least with something indefinable or insecure for at least as long as the focus is directed at a fixed counterpart, implying coherence in the process. Sollfrank does not offer this coherence.
»I ALWAYS CONSIDERED OUR FORM OF ORGANISATION AS A KIND OF AESTHETICS.« (8)
“Man is never coextensive with himself. The identity formula A=A is not applicable to him.” (9) Sollfrank’s virtual identity multiplication, but also her research on the structures and effects of social contexts, of which she is a part, seems like a retroactive presentation of Michail Bachtin’s analysis of the dialogical. To offset the Russian formalist school and traditional aesthetics, Bachtin came to the conviction that a new philosophical foundation of aesthetic is required in which the interdependencies between the artwork and the cultural context are to experience a systematic analysis and explanation. Seen in retrospect, his starting point was perhaps the seemingly simple, but nevertheless far-reaching plan “not to research the word in the medium of language or in the context of a text removed from the dialogical context, but particularly in the dialogical medium instead, in the field of the true life of the word.” (10)
Seen over an extended period of time, the [echo] List allows one to understand the repercussions of the participating users’ articulations and non-articulations as concrete manifestations of cultural policy developments. Regardless how important and necessary the verbal contributions of each and every participant are, Sollfrank’s projects are concerned with the occurrences between the participants instead, the meanings of which, according to Bachtin, can be deciphered “in the medium of the dialogue.” Bachtin’s understanding of dialogue was by no means compatible with the idea of a meaning that can be completely controlled by the subject of the statement; one assumes, rather, that he shared the opinion of his colleague Valentin N. Vološinov—about whom research is to this very day still unsure if it is fact a pseudonym for the literary scholar himself. Vološinov had insisted on an “ideology of everyday speech” for the language deployed based on the respective social reference system of the speaker. The meanings deciphered in the dialogue are essentially traceable to the comparison or confrontation of converging value systems.
Unlike everyday language, artworks or scientifically fashioned systems are therefore to be separated from unregulated, unfixed internal and external speech. They are also not completely separable from the ideologies of everyday life: just as works emerge from everyday language, they also have an effect on it. Vološinov even goes as far as saying that the works cease to exist outside lively evaluative perception. The fact that works can only unfold their effect within the framework of the perceived context is crucial. (11) This also means conversely that the reactions and the perception disclose their ideological location through the confrontation with the processed language systems. Therein lay perhaps the parallels to Sollfrank’s endeavors: Her framing formations would then offer that relay with the help of which the converging statements become perceivable in its dialogicity. The seemingly neutral formats always only enable the visibility of the individual as a contribution and in relation to the other voices and statements. The relations can be interpreted and evaluated as friction, reaction, alliance, ignorance and so forth as regards the other statements. This also offers the possibility, ideological, i.e. unreflected anchorings of the respective speaking to be learned better. At best, not only that of the other, but also one’s own.
The dialogical projects thus form the constructive side of Sollfrank’s contribution to the tradition of artistic institutional criticism. Paradoxically, particularly the success of artistic works with a deconstructive claim such as “institutional critique” show how quickly their practice on “l’art pour l’institution” (12) can be recoded and placed in the service of cosmetic image improvement. Representatives with an explicitly political claim attempt to avoid this paradox by largely transferring their field of activities to a different “public space.” Foregoing the benefits offered by institutional resonance, they make their specific competences available in self-help organizations outside the official art context. Sollfrank’s choice of contexts is characterized, on the other hand, by the change and irritation-producing entanglement of institutional and self-organized work contexts. Working on organizational forms goes hand in hand with criticizing existing structures. As obvious the real political and legal limitations of artist freedom regularly become in the process—it is not the register of the juristic or the political that carries Sollfrank’s decisions. It is the register of an art that discovered aesthetics as a possible “variant of the social” and thus protects, contends, questions, examines, defends, maintains and attempts to shape it as attractively, lustfully, but also as practically as conditions allow. And because this endeavor can by no means be achieved by a single person, it is accompanied by the constant search for allies, companions and teammates who must intermittently reckon with being directed towards their traditional and unquestioned evaluation foundations. This is not so terrible as long as one does not interpret the resulting embarrassment as a loss of face, but understands it instead as a sign, that this elusive thing—art—really concerns more than just one‘s own self.“
Translation: Michael Wolfson
(1) See Ute Vorkoeper, “Programmierte Verführung. Cornelia Sollfranks Netzkunstgeneratoren testen das Autorenmodell,” in: net.art generator. Programmierte Verführung, Nuremberg 2004, pp. 8–13.
(2) Cornelia Sollfrank, “copyright © 2004, cornelia sollfrank,” in: net.art generator. Progammierte Verführung, Nuremberg 2004, p. 55.
(3) See Ute Vorkoeper, “Programmierte Verführung. Cornelia Sollfranks Netzkunstgeneratoren testen das Autorenmodell,” in: net.art generator. Programmierte Verführung, Nuremberg 2004, p.12.
(4) Cornelia Sollfrank, “copyright © 2004, cornelia sollfrank,” in: net.art generator. Programmierte Verführung, Nuremberg 2004, p. 56.
(5) “The mode is the message, the code is the collective” was the motto of the Old Boys Network (OBN) and the networks working principle at the same time. OBN was the first international alliance of cyber feminists which Cornelia Sollfrank co-founded in 1967 and which she decisively influenced for five years.
6 Valentin N. Vološinov, “Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art,” in: I.R. Titunik and Neal H. Brunss (eds.), Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, Indiana 1987, p. 95.
(7) http://news.web-hh.de/tamm.php (accessed February, 5, 2009).
(8) Cornelia Sollfrank, interview by Maider Zilbeti about her work with OBN, in: Zehar # 63 (August 2008), p. 9.
(9) Translated from Michail M. Bachtin, “Der Held im polyphonen Roman,” in: Literatur und Karneval. Zur Romantheorie und Lachkultur, Frankfurt 1996, p. 129.
(10) Translated from Michail M. Bachtin, “Typen des Prosaworts,” in: Literatur und Karneval (note 9), p. 100.
(11) See Valentin N. Vološinov, “Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art,” in: I.R. Titunik and Neal H. Brunss (eds.), Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, Indiana 1987, pp. 93–116.
(12) See Jochen Becker, “L´art pour l´institution. Die bezahlte Kritik,” in: Kunstforum International 125, 1994, pp. 217ff.