Provocative art vs. Structured art

Meet Johannes Grenzfurthner – an artist from Austria, founder of monochrom and a ‘context hacker’. One of monochrom‘s projects was hacking the São Paulo Biennial; he tells the fascinating story in this TEDxVienna talk which he called ‘On how to subvert subversion’:

‘Context hacking’:

We try to find the best context and the best medium for a certain message; the best weapon of mass distribution. […] And we deal with subversion a lot.

subvert /(səb-vûrtˈ)/

  1. To destroy completely; ruin: “schemes to subvert the liberties of a great community” ( Alexander Hamilton).
  2. To undermine the character, morals, or allegiance of; corrupt.
  3. To overthrow completely: “Economic assistance … must subvert the existing … feudal or tribal order” ( Henry A. Kissinger).

(from the American Heritage Dictionary, as referenced on

Disciplinary society (as defined by Foucault) – it tells you what you should not do; you know your boundaries – there are stop signs and you know where they are. So the Viennese activists Grenzfurthner cites in his presentation were doing what they weren’t supposed to do – they were ‘creatively disobeying the stop sings’ in order to provoke society to react on it.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, subversion was about provoking society – the Viennese activists were using the boundaries of the disciplinary society they were living in to provoke people.

Grenzfurthner argues that today we live in a society of control:

Control society the stop sings are in our heads. And you don’t subvert yourself.

The control society tricks you to believe that the hierarchies are gone, but they are not.

If you want to subvert the structure of the control society, you need to trick the system. And that is what they did.

Hiring a subcontractor to represent them was provocative by itself – they used the now typical business technique of outsourcing to get their message through. They corrupted the whole system by changing the places of people within the structure – the artists become tech support staff; no one cares anymore what they think because they are not where artists should be – and no one listens to tech support staff at art exhibitions… Then, they tricked the system again by giving the other support staff more information than the people you would normally expect they would approach – the other artists. But this structure was already corrupt in some way – the exhibition was supposed to be about art, but there was more politics in it than in some official political structures.

This story reminded me of another supposed-to-be artistic act that now has a more political than artistic role – the Eurovision contest.

In the 70’s, Eurovision helped launch the career of artists like ABBA. Today, the presenters struggle with how to call Macedonia in order to be politically correct. As the Bulgarian journalist Sibina Krasteva pointed out in an article called ‘Emigrant-vision’ (source in Bulgarian), the show has turned to ‘a contest for emigrant solidarity instead of a music contest’ – it makes of it less a music show and more a ‘clash of nationalisms’. It is not about which song people like anymore – it is about which emigrant diaspora has the strongest voice, and which country they support. The usual comments around the show don’t have to do much with the songs either – they deal with questions of geostrategic powers and political influence. It also makes the political voices in the respective countries flow more easier – political parties supporting the contestants gain momentum. Some politicians (like the President of Bulgaria, quoted in the same article) even cite reaching the Top 5 at the Eurovision contest amongst the most important events for his country.

But wait a second… that much politics in art?

All those international ‘art’ events, supported by political organisations, are helping structure art. One might ask, how can you structure art? And, why would you?

Well, art can have a very strong influence on people. There have been numerous examples for it. Propagandists from the 1920’s relied on it to get their messages across.

An interesting example of the ‘control society’ might also be the introduction of an email tool called ToneCheck. It is supposed to be an ‘Emotional Spell-Check’ for typists to use while writing emails – so that they have a chance ‘to reconsider their words before hitting “send.”‘. Or as Grenzfurthner would probably put it – a tool to help the stop sign in your head work better:

Currently, there is a short film contest run by – one of the big recruiting websites. The contest is called ‘Love Mondays’ – filmmakers are encouraged to represent Mondays in a creative and positive way, and compete for big awards.

This contest can be seen as another way of structuring art – a company tells filmmakers to love Mondays and while doing so, to also convince the viewers that Mondays rock. Why? Because Mondays are associated with ‘going to work’. And it is better to feel happy about going to work, even if it is not the best job you have always been dreaming about. Or, to quote Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (which by the way deals mainly with structuring society):

Follow the rules. Play the game. Be happy.

(taken from the radio drammatisation of the ‘Brave New World’ novel, broadcast on the CBS Radio Network in 1956)


2 thoughts on “Provocative art vs. Structured art

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Provocative art vs. Structured art « Rumena Zlatkova’s Blog --

  2. Pingback: My online presence and social media usage | Rumena Zlatkova. I live to create.

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