Issue #05 Positively Counter-Publics Revisited

Positively Counter-Publics Revisited

Simon Sheikh

Issue #05
April 2009

The essay revisited in this month’s column comes from the early 1990s, an often overlooked and misunderstood period of transition, now regarded as merely what happened after the Wall fell and before the triumphalism of Brit Art, the aestheticization of relationality, and the subsequent (re)introduction of art as lifestyle and market values. It was, however, a much more ambiguous and ambitious time, during which artists and cultural producers from around the world attempted to localize knowledge and politicize art in new ways. Published in German by a small, now defunct alternative press, Renate Lorenz’ “Kunstpraxis und politische Öffentlichkeit” is consequently little known outside of its historical and linguistic context.

Appearing as the opening essay of the 1993 volume Copyshop: Kunstpraxis und politische Öffentlichkeit (which Lorenz also edited as part of the collective BüroBert), the text was informed by the discussions and discourses of the early 90s but also, in its turn, informed them.1 The volume and the essay alike testify to a specific attempt to place art within the political—not in opposition or subservient to it, but as fully immersed (hence the “and” of the title: Art Practice and Political Publicness). It is not just art and publics with which the essay is concerned, but art and political publics.

So it is only logical for Lorenz to begin and end the essay with the discussion of a protest, an example of direct action in the field of culture that is not, nominally, a work of art. The occasion was the inclusion of right-wing filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in the exhibition and symposium “Deutschsein,” “to be German,” at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf on March 14, 1993, which led to widespread protests against the opening of the exhibition and a boycott of the symposium. For Lorenz, such actions are as much artistic practice—performed by art workers—as the speeches and the works in the exhibition. In other words, Lorenz understood the field of cultural production to be a social reality, and thus a political space not only for representation, but also for actions and inter-actions. Although her text goes on to mention examples from the 1980s, this understanding in fact marks a crucial shift in the perception of the relationship between art and politics. In a move away from the politics of representation (seen as the articulation of the art objects themselves) towards a broader conception of the art world as a social reality, this shift anticipated discussions that would take place in the late 1990s designating artistic practice as a work field—as social avant-garde and a form of precarious labor.

The essay returns in its conclusion to the protests against Syderberg, and cites the “Deutschsein” curator’s comment that such a discussion (as took place between the protesters and the museum) could not form the basis of an exhibition, to which Lorenz replies: “Why not?” Her answer is not only polemical, but actually suggests a method of exhibition-making that Lorenz, among others, would by mid-decade go on to explore at length as a curator at Shedhalle in Zürich. Here, the exhibition was conceived as a political project, as something already embedded within the political; as such, it demanded specific positioning. Exhibition-making was considered a medium for contestation and articulation: a specific way of producing a public—or, rather, a counter-public.

Lorenz’s essay places itself, as would her curatorial work, within a certain history of struggle and dissent, referencing precedents from the previous decade such as ACT UP, WAC, and Martha Rosler’s groundbreaking If You Lived Here project, as well as discussions of the “new” and “old” left in Germany, and various networks of production and distribution that could be considered “counter-public.” As defined by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, a “counter-public” designates another public sphere in opposition to the normative, bourgeois public sphere, with its adjacent, imaginary life-world and organization of experience.2 It is, in this theory, not a matter of simply criticizing the bourgeois public sphere (such as the museum) for its exclusions, nor of introducing other experiences into this sphere (this form of politics), but rather of offering other spaces altogether for representation and dissemination—other ways of producing subjectivity and articulating political agency and action.

Thus the metaphor of the “copyshop” in BüroBert’s “sampler” (their word for anthology) was used to suggest just one of these other spaces. Citing Michel Foucault on the circulation and publicization of knowledge in ways that counter authorities’ monopoly on knowledge (and thus on power), Lorenz emphasizes a politics of information. The copyshop is a place where knowledge is literally produced and distributed in one and the same movement, but also in unauthorized ways: copying in a copyshop is also a way of circumventing copyright, of establishing other relations to texts and images, as well as to their uses.

Tellingly, the essay has a subtitle in the form of a sentence, a comment: “dieser Untitel markiert, daß Kunst hier ‘hemmungslos relational’ betrachtet werden soll,” which might be translated as: this subtitle marks that art here must be seen as “unrestrainedly relational.” This is, of course, a specific writerly move, an unauthorized use of language, but the statement itself points to something quite significant: the positing of another relationality. It reminds us that before a post-conceptual art of the 1990s was formalized and marketed as Relational Aesthetics, there was an earlier push to situate artistic practice within the political that was less a means of safeguarding art’s autonomy than an aggressive assertion of the indivisibility of representation and action (or activism, for that matter).

In response to Lorenz’ move, let me make one of my own, and also conclude by returning to the beginning and to the context of Lorenz’ text: the early 90s, just before Brit Art and relational aesthetics partially buried other modes of address and other histories of the decade’s art. In revisiting the histories of critical texts—of the practice of critique—we must also revise history and question the solidity of its narratives and the placement of certain trajectories as central and hegemonic. We must look at history’s margins—not only to find the delimitations of art history and how it is written (by its victors, mainly), but also because it is only from these margins that we can approach history as discourse production, and thus construction. It is from here that we can posit counter-histories—other relationalities and practices, such as the ones proposed by Lorenz in “Kunst und politische Öffentlichkeit.”


BüroBert, ed., Copyshop: Kunstpraxis und politische Öffentlichkeit (Berlin: Edition ID-Archiv, 1993).


See Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Owen Daniel, and Assenka Oksiloff (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Contemporary Art
Art Activism, Protests & Demonstrations, Relational Aesthetics, Germany
Return to Issue #05

Simon Sheikh is a curator and critic. He is currently assistant professor of art theory and coordinator of the Critical Studies program at the Malmö Art Academy in Sweden. He was the director of the Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen from 1999 to 2002 and a curator at NIFCA, Helsinki, from 2003 to 2004. He was editor of the magazine Øjeblikket from 1996 to 2000 and a member of the project group GLOBE from 1993 to 2000.


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