Live In your Head: When do Attitudes become platitudes: what effect did the recreations of Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition have on the ideas that it put forward?

ALEXANDER KASPERI WITHEY

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The 2013 recreation of Harald Szeemann’s landmark 1969 exhibition ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, at the Venice Biennale, was the most recent in a string of recreations and reconfigurations of this exhibition. To what extent does the recreation change the pertinence of the original curatorial rationale and the ideas behind the works that were presented? Does the re-contextualisation of the exhibition facilitate a historical and conceptual flattening of the ‘attitudes’ that were put forward? This essay will examine the original exhibition and the radical approach that this offered, in terms of exhibition rationale and the significance of the works. I also touch on upon other attempts at recreations of this exhibition and whether or not this re-presentation can (also over time) alter our perception of the initial attitude. I will also look at the construction of the exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale and what lies between the condensing of history and context within the methodology of working in contemporary art and how this influences the curatorial choices for exhibiting.

The works assembled for this exhibit have been grou­ped by many observers of the art scene under the heading «new art». We at Phillip Morris feel it is appropriate that we participate in bringing these works to the attention of the public, for there is a key element in this «new art» which has its counterpart in the busi­ness world. That element is innovation—without which it would be impossible for progress to be made in any segment of society.

 Just as the artist endeavors to improve his interpre­tation and conceptions through innovation, the com­mercial entity strives to improve its end product or service through experimentation with new methods and materials. Our constant search for a new and better way in which to perform and produce is akin to the questionings of the artists whose works are represented here.

 For a number of years, we have been involved in G sponsorship of the arts in its many diverse forms—through purchase of works, commissioning of young
artists, presentation of major exhibits, and so forth.

These activities are not adjuncts to our commercial function, but rather an integral part. As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are com­mitted to support the experimental. We hope that those who attend this exhibit will be as stimulated while viewing it as we have been during its prepa­ration.

K John A. Murphy President
Philip Morris Europe

(Szeemann, 1969)

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Bern, Switzerland. 1969

One of the most documented and commented upon exhibitions in recent art history, When Attitudes Become Form opened to the public in March of 1969. This was ostensibly a point in time where the core approach toward exhibitions, the roles of curators and the roles of artists with and within institutions came to a turning point. The Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland hosted 69 Artists from America and Western Europe, showing around 127 works. Many of the works were made in the weeks leading up to the show itself. The major turning point that is cited with Attitudes, is the relationship between artist curator and exhibition. The artists who participated at the Kunsthalle began largely to make their works in situ, taking over the institution and using the modernist halls of the Kunsthalle as an oversized artist studio. The ‘Attitudes’ in question related to the ‘Process’ nature of the works presented. The work, according to the 1969 exhibition catalogue, spanned Multiformal or non-rigid art, Conceptual art, Land art, process art and many protagonists of the then emerging Arte Povera movement. The making, the language of producing and interactions between works were taken as paramount to the actual ‘form’ they were to eventually take. Szeemann desired the work for this exhibition to break free of the network providing ‘objects’ for the wealthy (Szeemann, 1969). Artist Piero Gilardi had described a framework for Attitudes as encompassing a format and forum to open up debates on what work and the institution could be (Gilardi, 2008: 178).

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Works included in the exhibition spanned a range of classifications, and nationalities, albeit within a euro- and US- centric framework of what was deemed the important ‘new’ art of the time and which Szeemann professed to champion. The inclusion of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Joseph Kosuth, Douglas Huebler, Michael Heizer, Lawrence Weiner, Allighiero Boetti, Richard Long, Eva Hesse, Ger Van Elk, Hanne Darboven, Dennis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria, Richard Serra, Gilberto Zorio, Mario Merz, or Jannis Kounellis (among many others). According to Szeemann’s introduction in the catalogue, this grouping of artists was not so much interested in the making of objects, but far more in the complex layering of meaning that leads beyond the object and the situation. Some artists decided to present what he called ‘information’ instead of an object (or process), such as Richard long’s account of a 3-day walk in the Swiss mountains. Form, in this exhibition was supposed to account for the artist’s action, experiment and as an extension of the gesture with a (mostly) complete rejection of a fixed methodology of working. Scott Burton’s introduction to the Attitudes catalogue groups these artists into various categories or strategies of working, loosely bound together by their materials or marks on the Kunsthalle (Burton, 1969). Piero Gilardi had helped to put together a very similar exhibition in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum: Op Loesse Schroeven curated by Wim Beeren earlier that year (with practically all of the artists being included in Attitudes) with the intention to bring together a group of artists to create a ‘temporary artistic community’ where collaborative work and discourse would eventually formulate the exhibition (Gilardi, 2008: 178).

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Although this kind of approach may be overused in our current contemporary framework of display, this was at the time a fairly novel way of dealing with spaces. Although artists were already approaching alternative models for exhibition, such as ASPEN magazine’s 5+6 edition disseminating the publication as a stand alone exhibition in 1967 including sketches, diagrams, reels of film, photographs and essays (Falguieres, 2008: 45) (with several of the included artists in Attitudes) or exhibitions put together by Mel Bochner or Seth Siegelaub (Coates, 2014).

Throughout the history of curatorial practice, the role has assumed a somewhat didactic position in putting forward the apparent and often ambivalent currents and attitudes about the social role of art and its exposure to the public. In David Levy Strauss’ essay he points out Szeemann and Walter Hopps as two of those who had a more radical approach toward curation in the 1960’s. This approach earned them their laurels as star-curators with almost mythical status, carried through their careers to the present (and posthumously). Levi Strauss points out that Curators aren’t necessarily specialists in any field, often falling into the trappings of a curatorial jargon which obscures the framework behind the concept of an exhibition, rendering it opaque to the majority of an audience (Levi Strauss, 2006). What we see with the conception of Attitudes could be the beginnings of the complex relationship between the curator, the financing of art exhibitions and the strange interplay of politics between the gallery systems and art movements which has perhaps become embedded within the model of the (large) art institution today. The exhibition strategy for Bern was largely down to creating a ‘temporary depository’ for the works as opposed to a museum that isolates the work as something severed from history (Gilardi, 2008: 178).

Attitudes professed to discover new systems for information, exchange and artist interaction. Conversely it also established a new system of corporate funding unparalleled in the staging of exhibitions before the 60’s. Suddenly corporations, Phillip Morris and the PR firm Ruder & Finn (generously cited in the catalogue), were able to provide enough financial backing to transform the exhibition from a mere exposition of art works to what Daniel Birnbaum considered the staging of an event, putting not only the happening of the artwork to the forefront but also the role of the curator closer to that of a theatre director (Birnbaum, 2005). Certainly exhibitions of this scale demand a high level of financial support for them to exist. But as Piero Gilardi describes in an interview with Francesco Manaconda, the origin of the financial backing can make an attitude altogether sour (Gilardi, 2008: 180).

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In the run up to the exhibition(s), Gilardi states that because of Szeemann’s insistence on working with Leo Castelli to gain access to Bruce Nauman the condition of his inclusion was to include other artists under Castelli’s representation, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner, Keith Sonnier, Robert Barry thereby distorting altogether the attitude of the show. Castelli controlled access to some crucial US artists and also had political sway with Phillip Morris and more broadly within the establishment to promote a kind of avant-garde propaganda for the proliferation of US art within Europe (Gilardi, 2008: 182). Furthermore there were only three female artists included in the exhibition. This resonates with the problematic position of Szeemann’s somewhat hidden ‘cultural chauvinism’  evident in the make up of the artist roster (Coates, 2014).

It is at the same time important to remember that much of the art wouldn’t have existed without corporate funding. Public funds for institutions or exhibitions (particularly in relation to the avant-garde) was still in its infancy compared to today. This is not to say that the alignment between funding and intent was often confused or blurred. This is well represented in the opening statement of John A. Murphy, president of Phillip Morris Europe (above). He appears to confuse the anti-form conceptualism of Attitudes with the progressive, innovative and decidedly modernist stance of improvement within business (and the arts). In this way it is difficult to say whether the globalising aspect of the exhibition was entirely at the hands of the curator or even the funding, but an alignment of misunderstandings of how this was all represented together. It is however within the responsibility of the curator to secure these potentially opposing forces in order to avoid the work that is presented from collapsing into itself (Robertson, 2014: 50-53).

Robert Blackson marks a clear delineation between re-enactments, reproductions, simulations and repetitions. Two of these are pertinent in relation to the exhibitions that will be outlined. Repetitions, he remarks are perpetuated in the present, and seldom afford a new or alternative view of what has come before. Re-enactments on the other hand are always founded within repetition, but with the loose ability to allow something new, veering away from the prescriptive, to happen (Blackson, 2007: 30).

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Under these terms we can look at the second and immediate staging of Attitudes at the ICA in London a few months later in September. Barry Barker notes that, Curator Charles Harrison had been put under pressure by the original sponsor Phillip Morris to continue the exhibition. Lacking their own funding for a significant exhibition, the ICA was obliged to a show that was essentially free of cost, but was able to add their own selection of new British contemporary artists into the discussion including artists such as Victor Burgin and Guy Sherwin (Barker, 2010).

Although there was the ability to bring the exhibition to London, which included new artists into the debate over the perception of contemporary art and its relationship to society, the slight change in the included artists (yet under the same heading) began a chain reaction of events that Daniel Buren (who was not invited to the Bern exhibition) has referred to as not so much a focus on exhibiting works of art but exhibiting the exhibition itself as a self contained work in its own right (Buren, 1972: 43).
41d337ac27d489fa9cb56e1c0f6ca9d5Qiu Zhijie puts forward that once certain strategies have become developed within exhibiting works, the ‘software’ as he calls it, has been devised, images (or kinds of works) are programmatically repeated and are by necessity repeated as it becomes a trademark, a recognisable product. (Qiu, 2001: 145) Curator (or Catalyst) Hans Ulrich Obrist continues this line of thought critically in the sense of the institution in his essay on “The future of Art & Patronage”, describing how institutions in their multitudes now, are in danger of becoming the flattened norm of ‘cultural patronage’, of prescribing how things are, rather than exploring the means of what they could potentially be, benefiting the few, rather than being at the service of the public (Obrist, 2014: 63).

Réna Montero and Stephanie Tabb. Model overview, 2012, of When Attitudes Become Form
Réna Montero and Stephanie Tabb. Model overview, 2012, of When Attitudes Become Form

Under the many guises and formats of other recreations or spin off shows embedding the ‘trademark’ of Attitudes, of particular note is a kind of re-enactment that took place in 2012 at the CCA Wattis in San Francisco. Jens Hoffmann’s re-curation under the moniker: When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes: works-concepts-process-situations-information. (A Restoration / A Remake / A Rejuvenation / A rebellion) (Barker, 2010).

The lengthy title suggests that something different is happening in this reconfiguration. As the original, 69 artists were included, but instead of the cohort of 60’s artists an entirely ‘new’ show was born out of pre-existing and specific works for 2012. What was left of the original Attitudes here was a miniature, scaled model of the exhibition, miniatures of the works included and the related ephemera. But crucially this was allowed to exist amidst the works as an addition rather than a dictation of the ‘attitudes’. Rebecca Coates’ essay, exploring the same subject, insisted that the new works in some way ‘replicated’ this ‘attitude’ (Coates, 2014). If the premise of this exhibition was to build upon a ‘living past’ the danger is as Smith again points out that these works are relegated to a dead present, or a forced celebration of old working ideologies. Instead he instils at least the hope that this exhibition talks far more of how a contemporary refiguring and reimagining of a past event can allow modern audiences to appreciate and add meaning to the previous one (Smith, 2012: 202).

As Lucy Lippard says, curatorial limits are in their essence arbitrary yet paramount to containing any one exhibition (Lippard, 1973: 127). She addresses this by contending that by grouping works into specific and superficial categories or frameworks can lead to complete misunderstandings on the part of audiences. In some ways these two re-enactments of Attitudes may have used the trademark of the canon but allow at least for space for an alternative dialogue. Rebecca Coates makes a valid point in her essay, notwithstanding practicalities (financial, logistical) of acquiring the Bern works for the CCA Wattis show, that the original pieces may not have had the same impact for todays audience (Coates, 2014). Alois Riegl proposed a model of comparison between old and modern works; where old works can have, and correspond to the new in their method and conception, even in divisive ways. If a modern work cannot be contrasted or lacks the historical referent to the past then the effect for the viewer can be significantly diminished. In particular, the exhibitions dialogue with the audience is perhaps where many curators or curatorial models appear to miss out (Gubser, 2014: 464).

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Venice, Italy. 2013

If as Terry Smith says, Exhibitions are ‘intertexts’ used by curators to create a dialogue between each other, then what does the simulation of Attitudes in Venice, 2013 communicate to us? (Smith, 2012: 204). The intention for this peculiar remake of Attitudes, according to the press release, was to resuscitate it for the the exhibition in Bern. Staged in the opulent surroundings of a Venetian Palazzo, the Fondazione Prada funded transplantation of the 1969 exhibition to the Ca’ Corner behind the backdrop of the Biennale of 2013. Curated by Germano Celant and in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas, the exhibition almost functions like one of Demand’s photographic remakes, literally grafting the exhibition’s contents and a rebuilding of the Interior of the Kunsthalle, albeit revealing some of the interior of the Palazzo. The exhibition featured most of the artworks from the ’69 Exhibition in as close proximity to the predecessor as the space allowed: “The result is a literal and radical superposition of spaces that produces new and unexpected relationships: between the artworks themselves and between the artworks and the space they occupy” (Fondazione Prada Press Office, 2013). The aim was to literally analyse this time capsule, and try to thread some new connections between the paradigm of history and contemporary art and curating.

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Some of the works had been unavailable or no longer existed. The visitor, equipped with an architectural plan, followed their way through the exhibition along numbered and catalogued sites where unavailable works were marked out with white lines on the floor of the Palazzo (Coates, 2014). Scattered across the first floor of the exhibition is a host of historical ‘ephemera’ (photographs, diagrams and correspondence letters) echoing the way in which Szeemann worked. The Venice exhibition, unlike Dorner’s conception of a ‘complex dynamic learning system providing feedback loops to encourage dissent’ (Obrist, 2014: 123). It appears to be a reiteration of the past with little addition.

Douglas Crimp talks about how removing an object out of circulation, consigning it to a museum of sorts, or fixing it within any kind of finite and perhaps ‘Disneyfied’ (Spencer, 2013) framework, mixing the ‘new’ archive material with the already well documented original exhibition replica, creating a set of flattened juxtapositions and relegating the entirety of the material to a vacuous silence (Cranfield, 2014). RAQS media collective contest of contemporary exhibitions that there should be an element of responsibility on the part of the curation: “A responsible exhibition is one that can look good and think acutely, not one that thinks cleverly yet acts shabbily, or one that looks handsome but thinks dull, predictable thoughts” (RAQS Media Collective, 2010: 101).

Perhaps it is not explicitly the realm of the nostalgic and fetishistic (Spencer, 2013) where this exhibition responds to the past, but it is unsurprising that Germano Celant would be the figurehead leading the curatorial foray into the ‘resurrection’ of Attitudes In Venice. An old accomplice of Szeemann, they had shared many of the same interests (in artists). Celant appears particularly smitten with this model of remaking, elevating his (and consequently Szeeman’s) curatorial process to that of creating an artwork in its own right, it is possible then that Celant is in fact celebrating himself and his legacy of Arte Povara through this re-curation.

Harald Szeemann
Harald Szeemann

Although Coate’s essay lauded the resurrection of Attitudes as a grand feat of contemporary exhibition making, it could also be seen as falling into the same particular pitfalls as the exhibition in Bern. Bringing Szeeman’s ‘curatorial chauvinism’ as she calls it even more to the forefront of the conversation. It would seem that the only thing that has been really added to the conversation, or the general Attitude of this exhibition is the exposure of a flawed system in which viewers were given constant reminders of the remake (Spencer, 2013). Many of the works became inaccessible through tighter health and safety measures, both for the preservation of works and visitors alike (Coates, 2014). Szeemann had been working against himself in Bern, a self professed opponent of globalization, seeing it as a stark parallel to imperialism (Levi Strauss, 2008). Venice saw Phillip Morris exchanged for the more fashionable Fondazione Prada as sponsor (of which Celant is director) in what Coates calls “an act of truly and almost unimaginably vast power, influence and wealth” (Coates, 2014). It is maybe not so difficult to imagine the resurrection of an outdated exhibition and a perpetuated cultural ideology are remade for Venice, as these kinds of international exhibitions were born out of a ‘colonial model of world exhibitions’ Qiu goes on to say that these kind of exhibitions clarify the relationship between the current art system and capitalism as well as its ties to colonial values (Qiu, 2001: 145).

The goal of re-curating as Smith articulates is not the rote re-iteration of past ideas or forms but instead to adapt the materials or works to come into a discussion about current situations within art and more broadly within our society (Smith, 2012: 194). “If the future existed in a concrete sense that could be discerned by a ‘better brain’, we wouldn’t be so seduced by the past.” (Birnbaum in Obrist, 2014: 58) so if the better brain of the curator is engaged, where does the responsibility lie? This is well illustrated with a comment by RAQS Media Collective in 2010: “While we might have spiralled onwards from the morphing of attitudes into forms towards the translation of latitudes into forms, we have, at least the urgent responsibility to ensure that our platitudes do not become our norms” (RAQS media collective, 2010: 102).

Conclusion

We have looked at the conditions surrounding the first iteration of the Attitudes exhibitions and some of its problematic, yet perhaps unavoidable pitfalls of the time. As the emerging practice of artist as curator and exhibition as artwork have emerged so too have the dominant forces in the politicisation and restriction of art emerged and grown with this practice. There still appears to be a lot of scope for playing room in large exhibitions or even within the re-enactment of a certain trademark of exhibition such as Attitudes even when large sponsors are involved. Certainly the exhibitions at the ICA in 1969 and at the CCA Wattis in 2012 invited visitors to an alternative dialogue offered to Bern’s conception of the model. These models can and have shown their success in engaging audiences and instigating possibilities for new works to be present, adding to the legacy, or at least giving a nod to the past and stepping forward into alternative methods of thinking about the artistic process and how this can relate to exhibition making. What we find in the 2013 ‘resurrection’ however, is an unfortunate attempt to dig up a trademark that has been overworked for a greedy, oversaturated biennial audience, void of any particular nuance in the new. Instead it has been somewhat predictably installed as a repository of the past, a resonant caricature of history. It may not be ultimately at the fault of the curator but rather a symbiosis of the elements that go into exhibition making if a concept gradually collapses in on itself over time through its repetition. An exhibition can then only be pertinent if it is to speak about the past if it can also engage the viewer into ways of stepping into the future.

 

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