…what happens when real news becomes fake, and sci-fi becomes reality… and your host becomes a font of jokes.
Welcome to Artipoeus… art you can hear.
When I lived in Hollywood, I worked for Hollywood lawyers — entertainment attorneys who represented movie stars and movie studios, negotiated contracts, brokered finance agreements, set up multi-million dollar production deals and, of course, settled disputes.
Hollywood lawyers are pretty much exactly like you see them in the movies: alpha personalities, totally egocentric, and really, really impatient. Everything had to be done NOW. This was back when we still used fax machines, which always required confirmation of receipt — lawyers love paper trails (except when they don’t). It was a pretty typical scenario that the moment you hit SEND on a fax to a client the attorney would be right there, hovering, bouncing on the balls of his feet, demanding “did they get it? did they get it? did they get it?”
And you’d have to calm your bouncing attorney down for the trillionth time, and remind them that the data had to physically travel through space and time, across wires and phone lines and it would take a few minutes, mmmkay? Information takes time — it’s not science fiction.
Except, these days, it kind of is.
The Blain Southern gallery in Berlin is housed in the former printing press of Berlin’s daily newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel – The Daily Mirror which.. .isn’t that the name of the paper Clark Kent worked for? So if Chicago is Gotham, then that makes Berlin… Metropolis? I mean, speaking of science fiction. Or are we?
Anyway, when Blain Southern took over the former printing press of Der Tagesspiegel, the gallery kept a lot of the key elements of the architecture — most importantly, the double height ceilings, that soar two full stories, and the long, unbroken ground floor where the actual printing presses worked. It’s a space that’s about 40 meters long and that the gallery likes to invite artists to fill with huge installations. How great is that? A huge space to play with and fill with whatever you want — it’s an artist’s dream.
Right now, the space is filled with… a printing press. It’s a little Back to the Future. But not quite: it’s not exactly the old linotype machines that Der Tagesspiegel would have used — massive iron machines that took blocks of text set letter by letter by an operator, slathered in ink and stamped onto newspaper — you’ve seen them in old movies. Tur’s print-making shop is more of a monotype shop, where letters are carved into a board of wood, making a single slogan or phrase, to be painted over with ink and then pressed onto thick, sturdy paper.
There are three stations for making these block prints, placed down the center of the gallery. The printing space is defined by industrial metal shelves that anchor the borders of Tur’s workspace, where clean sheets of paper, already carved print blocks, uncarved wood, ink, paintbrushes and other materials are stored. They’re also used as drying racks for freshly made prints. Tur works with assistants, printmaker artisans from Berlin, that Tur bustles around, both directing and working with side by side at the same time.
Of course, they’re all beautiful. It brings to mind Anne Imhof’s Angst II, and the beautiful, wispy, disaffected performers slinking around the Hamburger Bahnhof. Everyone has to be beautiful in art these days… or maybe everyone just IS beautiful, partly because they’re all in their 20s and 30s and, as earnest as they are, life hasn’t carved itself into their faces yet. I don’t know. It’s not about them anyway.
It’s about the printmaking process, and the prints themselves.
Printmaking is a slow process: you have to cut the letters or, in this case,carve out the wooden stencil… but then you have it — you don’t have to do it again. However you’re also stuck with that font — you can’t just change it with the push of a button. So you have to decide: how do you want to communicate to people? What font best illustrates your message and speaks to the culture you’re addressing?
I don’t know when I started paying so much attention to fonts — I think it was in Vilnius, when I visited the former KGB Headquarters, and noticed that, even as late as 1991, the Soviets were still using 1930s Stalinest power fonts. In France — where language is celebrated through clever word play and elaborate compliments — street signs, cafe awnings, metro advertising tends to use the lightly architectural, looping, whimsical fonts of the Belle Epoque (called, Belle Epoque). In Germany, advertising and signage prefers the direct, unembellished, clarity of Helvetica and Arial, or the academic authority of the older German fonts. In England, it’s the proper Times New Roman. America, being a country of immigrants, is all over the place with fonts; it has a fantastic variety of fonts. Tremendous fonts, really. Although I think the most appropriate font these days is comic sans.
Nasan Tur’s font of choice for this installation is that standard newsprint font, Times New Roman, and they announce simple slogans: Living is Resistance. Failing is Weakness. Power is Fragile. Ambition is Essential. Empathy is Naive. Slogans that sound like they come from an Alt Right playbook, black all-caps solidly sitting in a puddle of white on inky black fields, as though they’ve emerged out of the darkness to guide us on our way.
The prints Tur and his team produce get framed and hung on the gallery walls, so the exhibit itself evolves over the course of Tur’s installaton there. When I was there, only a handful had been hung in the gallery space, black splotches clustered on the far wall, like a murder of crows flocked into the corner, plotting their next move.
Tur is of course referencing the history of the building with his printmaking set-up, but he’s also working counter to the speed of information, using a process that is delibarately slow, one that could never keep up with the dissemination of news these days. Everything is available all the time, but sorting through the noise — the slogans, the propaganda, the actual facts and events — this is the process that suffers most in a world of sci-fi speed. As fast as technology is, you can’t fact check a speech until someone actually speaks it, and — as I learned from those lawyers — you can speak lies faster than any wireless connection. So Tur is printing slogans that are out of date by the time the ink dries.
Tur’s printmaking set up is bare and clean and neat, sitting in this gallery with a certain precision, surrounded by all this empty space, space that was once filled up with printing presses clacking away at high speed — well, high speed for back then. It’s a lot like the news today, one little blip that stands out among all the stuff that never makes it through to our attention. Missing informaton, in a way. And all that missing information surrounds Tur and his dogged printmaking process.
Walking around the set up, I’m struck by two prints hanging on the same rack to dry: the slogan “failing is weakness” is I think by accident on this day, hanging over a print of “living is resistance”, which is drying on the floor, almost like it was tossed there, discarded, the alpha slogan dominating over the mewling “living is resistance” like a hovering attorney.
The other thing about those Hollywood lawyers, their inflated self-importance and their impatience, is that everything was a priority. Everything. It was also typical to be handed a document to revise and be told it’s top priority, and then five seconds later handed another by the same lawyer, and told that this one is a top priority too . And five seconds later, to be handed a third, with the same top priority status. This would go on all day, and I would have to remind them that not everything can be a priority, so please choose one. This usually devolved into a circular argument: they are all priorities, they’d shout at me; but, I’d protest (because I’m the worst employee ever), when everything is a priority then nothing is.
On the second floor at Blain Southern, and you enter a sort of antechamber – a small room with a glass wall overlooking the main floor, and a single video screen. On screen, a video of Nasan Tur’s 2013 work, Berlin Says — part of a series of he’s been doing since at least 2008. Tur uses spray paint on a huge canvas – 17 meters long – to replicate graffiti messages from the streets of Berlin, layering each over another, other again and again until the individual messages become indecipherable, a fast forward version of the lifespan of graffiti, which by nature is temporal – painted over by another graffer, by the city, by the weather.
In Tur’s version, canvas is white, the paint is red, the scaffolding truck is yellow. The artist, of course, is dressed in black. The imagery is simple and striking – primary colors and the little blot of black that is the artist in front of what, in the end of recording all those desperate, passionate, pleas to be heard, becomes a solid, red, gurgling scream – a block of… priorities that is too big and too loud to ignore, but too dense to be intelligible.
From this small room, you walk across a bridge to a gallery space on this level, and from the bridge you can and stop and survey the printmaking from above. Watching Nasan Tur and his assistants bustle about, carve out the wood, lay the paper, roll the ink, press the printing blocks, the way they’re all working together, quietly, industriously, crossing here, stretching there, step, stretch, pivot… it’s a beautiful choreography.
It feels very Hearst-like, and makes me think of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane and Rosebud. No, not really. But it does make me think of empires and power, of ambition that gets drunk on its own ability to get a reaction, eventually influence, and ultimately control. And it makes me think of another privileged entrepreneur who takes a principled democratic stand for the little guy, but only to reinforce his own prerogatives. It makes me think of what it feels like, to stand over a domain and be the boss of everything, and how dizzying it all is. Although that could also be vertigo.
The upstairs gallery is also long and narrow. It’s anchored on either end by a large, landscape photograph – each one a beautiful shot of the sea, one with a spit of land jutting into it, hazy and blue on the horizon, the other just the vast expanse of sea. The skies in each are either early morning just after sunrise, or evening just after sundown. They are pastel colors of rosy pink, soft blues, wisp of white clouds tinted gold by the sun. Dreamy, calming shots – almost like those screen savers that give you little windows of escape from Windows Office.
I’m most attracted to the one on the far wall — I have a thing with the far walls in this exhibit, for some reason. Anyway, that’s the one with the hazy spit of land almost hovering over the sea, like a mystical island floating on the horizon. If you look closely at the blue water, there is a slight ridge, a remnant of a wave, and it pools little eddies of water alongside it, almost like stepping stones leading to the island. Or away from it. It’s very moving, in a way.
On one long wall in this gallery, there are 7 signs, watercolors of simple numbers and, in delicate pencil at the bottom of each, just above Nasan Tur’s signature, a place and a date. These numbers, the place, the date are the people who have drowned escaping war in their home countries: refugees who didn’t reach refuge. No names, because the names were lost in that sea of information we call the news.
They are actually a part of the seascapes that anchor each end of the room — the images are lifted from media and enlarged several hundred times, the drowned bodies cropped out, just as the incidents themselves eventually get cropped out of our narratives. That hint of wave in the photo I’m so drawn to? That’s the wake of a capsized boat. Those footsteps across the water are the swirling eddies of bodies sinking to the ocean floor.
Funktionieren is an exhibition about stuff that isn’t there, really. The empty boats, the bodies floating, sinking at sea. The names of the people who died. It’s about communication. Information. Filters. About what gets lost in all that noise, and what gets through.
After going round and round with the Hollywood lawyers about sci fi vs reality, the meaning of priority, and what constitutes hovering, eventually I just got smart and quit. I realized arguing facts with people who work in a business built on illusion was Looney Tunes. You have to constantly up your game, be louder, brighter, bolder, you have to be the psychotic Heath Ledger Joker because the merely sociopathic Jack Nicholson one will no longer suffice. And in the process you become… something else. You become no longer you.
Funktionieren in everyday German means “work”. But in formal German, it means “suffice”.
In today’s world of speedy technology, fake news and real news gets spread at exactly the same rate and so often, sensational news — forever getting bigger, louder, bolder — literally obstructs the flow of serious news, forcing real data and events into side streams of information that only a few people pay attention to. It’s a great way to manipulate reality, but it doesn’t actually change reality. Or does it?
And I think that’s what Nasan Tur is getting at.
Nasan Tur’s Funktionieren is on view until January 28 at Blain Southern Gallery, Potsdamer Strasse 77-87 in Berlin. The artist and his assistants are live in the printing studio every Friday from 2-5pm, and Saturdays from 1-5pm.
Artipoeus is written and produced by Susie Kahlich, sound design by Greg Palmer, and broadcast on WRP in France, and IndieRepublik in Germany. Not in Europe? You can stream us on Soundcloud or download us on iTunes. Just search for Artipoeus. And you can see photos and read transcripts of this episode and more at artipoeus.com.
Artipoeus : art you can hear!
That’s all for Artipoeus this week. I’m Susie Kahlich. See you around town!