Ursula Maria Probst: Be a bad girl
What role is currently attributed to the artist subject in the aesthetic, political, and economic field of the art industry? And, under the pressure of a ruthless commercialization of everyday life, how is it possible to influence society’s aesthetic production? Characterized by neo-conceptual considerations, Elisabeth Grübl’s reactions to potential areas for artistic action confront de-bordering institutional guidelines through architectural interventions and also through video productions using media structures effective in this context. Her formally reductive installations and interventions question the common concepts of work, art, and author by exemplarily transforming the process of aesthetic experience. The phenomenon of perception as well as the concept and depiction of reality in the charged relationship of media and art are central aspects of her work. Grübl’s artistic strategies with regard to the regimes of the gaze, behavioral norms, and control mechanisms, are co-defined by the relevant institutional and public contexts.
In the video production One Hour Elevator (2000), Grübl positions her video camera on a stationary tripod in an elevator in the media department of a factory building in Helsinki. The passengers entering and exiting the elevator are filmed nonstop for an hour’s time. The presence of the camera does not seem to restrict the happenings in the slightest. Although individual passengers in the elevator react nervously at times, the direct confrontation with a running camera does not disturb them any more than that. The static positioning of the camera recalls Andy Warhol’s legendary film Empire (1964), which recorded one eight-hour take of the Empire State Building: the only element of change was the daylight, resulting in the “real time” factor determining the sense of time. The activity of the elevator’s entering and exiting passengers in Grübl’s video contrasts the sense of standstill triggered in Empire. The camera’s mediated gaze evokes scenes of surveillance and the power of control. This project thematizes how modern, spatially situated modes of control function in daily life through surveillance cameras and how seldom any of the affected persons protest this. With his diagnosis of the transition from disciplinary societies to societies of control, Gilles Deleuze—in his text “Postscript on the Societies of Control” 1) —already anticipated the explicit control systems with which factories and office buildings are increasingly equipped nowadays. This transition, which is characterized by private enterprises adopting what were formerly public security duties, introduces a paradigm change. In One Hour Elevator, Grübl thematizes how the “paranoid chic” of surveillance has become a fixed component of urban lifestyles. The images of surveillance cameras, originally negatively connoted in the context of control technologies, have earned their security-policy based legitimization as a consequence of terror attacks, and are currently increasingly reinterpreted as symbols of a new, self-confident urban lifestyle. Grübl addresses this absurd phenomenon of exaggerated security needs in One Hour Elevator. The trend toward privatization of public spaces has led to a segmentation of territories and their control.
The individual is also, consequentially, increasingly confronted with his or her fragmented identity. In her video Scan (2000), Grübl reacts to the current widespread technological and dematerialized transport of images with a clever, computerized mathematical process, which, when visually implemented, simulates a scan procedure. The face of each person is only visible through a small stripe continually moving from top to bottom, as though through a scanner. The productive gaze, which the particular time of aesthetic experience enables, is thus visualized and as a result, deconstructs the binarism emanating from the assumption that identity, charm, beauty, and style are conceived in a limited frame. As soon as we can enter into an unlimited identification with the idealness of beauty, we are no longer subjects of desire. The discourse of the deconstruction of identities has shown that there is no nature per se, but instead only processes of de- and re-naturalization, and no identity per se, but instead only processes of identification. Yet the way in which Grübl implements the mathematically differentiated scanner is laid out more discursively than metaphorically. On the one hand, the image is taken apart and given a new function in order to interact with the scanning process more effectively, and on the other, it would be a theoretical fallacy to view this as a project of disembodiment. Instead, visibility and invisibility, seeing and visualizing, performativity and receptivity are at our disposal. Here, the sensors of a present/absent pictorial existence connect special fields of visual culture that are concerned with the structure of views between popular culture, art, and computer programming. The logical visual dismantling of the picture material reveals the psychological and cultural significance of image and editing techniques without thereby forming a starting point for a narrative sensation. The emphatic equating of the scan with the white picture screen literally negates the identity and all identifying details for recognition of the filmed persons. We don’t see ourselves in these types of pictures or, better yet, we don’t want to see ourselves there. The intentional lack of authenticity counters all of the idealizing that portrait pictures tend to trigger. According to the media theorist Kaja Silverman, there is, in essence, no ideal subject and this is precisely the thesis that Grübl investigates.
Elisabeth Grübl’s interventions in public space, in which she moves on the interface between art and design, reveal her intuition. How is it possible to react to a male-connoted public advertising campaign? A hairdresser has applied the irritating name “BE A GOOD GIRL” in lettering on its display window. The pressure of commerce and consumption not only make living conditions more difficult, but the visual environment also increasingly has an influence on how images are constructed and how we experience our own subjectivity. Grübl doesn’t dismiss the disquiet evoked by the slogan BE A GOOD GIRL as politically irrelevant, but instead, develops a project to confront semantic structures that result in behavioral principles, conventions, and thought and power strategies. As a counter offensive to BE A GOOD GIRL, in a night-time action in collaboration with Sabine Heine, Grübl transformed the lettering into the provocative appeal: BE A BAD GIRL. As a feminist motivated work, here she reacts to the experience of a threatening ambiguity and carries out an exemplary re-designing of the female image through radicalization of the appropriation process. The linguistic stylization of the Other through the phrase BE A GOOD GIRL brings up associations with social identity, which immediately trigger stereotypical images. Social attributions determine the reality of human life and create role models, which offer behavioral securities and establish ever more precise behavioral codes. In view of a social environment that characterizes identity through the anticipated expectations of others and likewise through the desire of the individual, Elisabeth Grübl chooses the latter. Although previously feminist artists’ perceived the socio-cultural dimensions of girls’ “bad behavior” as problematic, which was a source of disappointment, the project BE A BAD GIRL has now started a provocative appeal to coolness, without running the risk of being reduced to an affirmative rebellion. The key concepts here for Elisabeth Grübl’s and Sabine Heine’s selection of semantic symbols from everyday life and their deconstruction are stubbornness and resistance. The “image communication” that results is mediated through traces of medial symbols. Decomposition meets with the reconstruction of social grievances through a semantic montage process. This consequentially sets in motion a subtle switch from the side of reception to that of production. In the staging of a transformative act for the triggering of identification codes, the project BE A BAD GIRL also uses neo-conceptual approaches alongside socio-cultural ones. Beholders are liberated from their passivity, the art work from its work form, and the artist from her authorship. One could call this the liberation thesis, which in Grübl’s projects is subjected to renewed analysis and goes beyond the beholder logic of the “open art work,” which is accompanied by the imperative of involvement. Hereby set in motion is an “economy of attention,” which demands the “emancipation of the art consumer.”
Visual programming in public space circulates in the most diverse ways. Often one carries it around, either as an imprint on a T-shirt, as a sticker, or plastic bag. In the project “O.T. Social Study, Personal Installation,” an edition of 10,000 plastic bags made of silver foil with the inscription GRÜBL & GRÜBL become a portable emblem for an artistic corporate identity, which leaves behind the personal artist soul. As a reaction to the logocentrism of the advertising branch, Elisabeth and Manfred Grübl choose their name as a trademark. Among the collaborators in this project from 1999, organized by Elisabeth and Manfred Grübl on the occasion of an exhibition at the Viennese Galerie Trabant, were, among others, museums, book and record stores and their customers whose distribution system allowed for performative networking in public space. In this participatory project, critical focus was on the mutual dependencies of art, consumerism, and sponsoring. The bases of the real and imaginary exchange of art objects were coherently questioned with regard to the economies of material culture. At the same time, Elisabeth and Manfred Grübl raised the question of how today’s artists can display their immunity in the face of marketing maneuvers and supplementary aestheticization. Working as a motor for this discourse is insight into the increasing loss of symbolic capital within the art industry’s market logic. Elisabeth Grübl and Manfred Grübl also do not spare comment on the observation that even projects belonging to the genre “art in public space,” can very quickly become simulations of democracy. They confront the commonly propagated problematic of art in public space with a successful project, Nightliner (2000), an installation in the city space of Innsbruck, which resists all empty rhetoric. In this Grübl & Grübl intervention, their artistic configuration of public transport busses with blue interior lights forms a self-networking, guidance system through the city. The reappraisal of the up-dated, art-historical concept of site specificity, as it has been dealt with in the U.S. already since the 1960s, is expanded here through a concept of mobility. Nightliner—as part of the project “The Invisible Touch,” initiated by Maja Damjanovic for the Kunstraum Innsbruck—traveled for an entire year through the city and subsequently infused the urban topography with its net of blue light.
Elisabeth Grübl’s projects reflect the burgeoning logic of a tactician who in the investigation of diverse types of intervention, also reflects on the possibilities for artistic autonomy, resistance, and the critique of authoritarian systems. In doing so, she embarks on the search for a way out of the dualism of the real and its representation. Her work is laid out contextually and individual projects continually relate to one another, which leads to a densification of the elements over the course of time. With her projects, Elisabeth Grübl moves the principle of the processual-nature of aesthetic experience before the idea of aesthetic autonomy: setting radical impulses for a new look at beholder and reception relations.
1) This essay first appeared in L'Autre journal, no. 1 (May 1990)