One of Thierry Geoffroy COLONEL’s most important tent artworks is now part of the German museum collection Kunsthalle Mannheim. Congratulations with your acquisition Sebastian P. Baden For a couple of years ago, in close dialogue with the artist, I wrote a text about this tent artworks for a book called “THE EMERGENCY WILL REPLACE THE CONTEMPORARY – Questioning the structure.”
Text from the book THE EMERGENCY WILL REPLACE THE CONTEMPORARY – Questioning the structure published in 2017 (ISBN 978-87-970047-0-8)
TENTS AS ARTISTIC EXPRESSION
Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL has been using tents as a form of artistic expression since 1991. His tents can be perceived as both paintings and sculptures, and can also be employed in performative interventions, created to stimulate debate.
The artist uses the sides of each tent as canvases, on which he paints statements. He generally uses spray paint, and the aesthetic of the written text expresses the artist’s impatient, disconcerting nervous energy at the moment of action. The shaky style of the text and uncorrected grammatical or spelling mistakes are intrinsic to the artistic intention, illustrating tension and speed. There is an authentic spirit of emergency captured in the tent artworks.
After the action part of the production, the tents become mobile sculptural objects. Each tent is placed according to its surroundings, so that the context of the place and the written statement on the tent become connected conceptually. Photos of the tents are thus not only documentation images, but can also be considered as visual artworks in themselves.
A tent structure inevitably recalls the state of emergency the world is facing, bringing to mind refugee tents, military tents, and tents as temporary shelters or protection from unforeseen disasters. The tent has become a globally recognized symbol for emergency and precarious living conditions.
Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL’s tent artworks have been exhibited worldwide, in The Maldives Pavilion, Venice Biennale, IT; The ZKM Museum, Karlsruhe, DE; Marta Herford – Museum für moderne Kunst, Herford, DE; Kunsthalle Osnabrück, Osnabrück, DE. The tents are also in the collection of the Danish Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as in private collections in Paris, Copenhagen, Cape Town and São Paulo.
ULTRAFAST, ULTRACONTEMPORARY and EMERGENCY ART
Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL’s artistic praxis is driven by the vision of creating awareness about dysfunction in the world, through art. Since 1988, he has been working with art formats that support the production and presentation of artworks produced “in the now”. One of the earliest formats, ULTRAFAST, provided the setting for a series of exhibitions that were constantly changing in different ways. Either they were moving in space, for example exhibitions on the clothing of people moving around within an exhibition space or outside in a public space, or they took place in the same location, but new artworks replaced the older ones each day.
The ULTRAFAST, pulsing way of working has not only to do with speed, but also with time. This is why the artist later introduced another term, ULTRACONTEMPORARY, linked more closely to the notion of time, and continuing his critical positioning towards the established understanding of contemporary art. Contemporaneity is an interesting phenomenon, because it forces us to make a connection between the self and time. Con + tempo (with time) alludes to some kind of togetherness or closeness to the present moment. To express with time (Con + tempo) would therefore mean to express something while you are still within it. Today’s understanding of “contemporary” has become so open that it incorporates all kinds of art made during or after the 20th century, or any art created by artists living today, independently of its pertinence for the present moment. By using the word Ultra and creating a new term, ULTRACONTEMPORARY, the artist brings the focus back to the time aspect and insists on contemporary signifying “in the now”.
The aspect of time is present not only in the artist’s decisions regarding methods and form, but also in the content of the artworks, which also has to be in the now, relating to what is happening in the world at the moment. Many burning topics need to be addressed urgently, before it is too late. The artist calls this kind of art “EMERGENCY ART”. This is art produced by artists who are constantly on the alert, recognizing dysfunction and homing in on the most pressing global issues. This way of working includes the ranking of emergencies, as with a real hospital situation, when a doctor has to prioritise between different patients based on the level of urgency, using a triage system.
Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL’s questioning of the contemporary art structure
Since 1988, Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL has continually questioned large staged art events such as biennales, art fairs, and Documenta, through critical art formats such as BIENNALIST – a format that responds to and questions, through artworks, the motivations of biennials and other global art events.
He looks into these art events and their motivations, asking questions such as:
Could 860,000 visitors have been intoxicated by an apathetic gas that keeps them from reacting?, Are global art events designed to make people cry about something in order not to make them see something else?, Is there a strategy for being delayed in order to create a distraction from the present and avoid debating the important topics of today?, If the most important contemporary exhibitions in the world, such as Documenta, focus solely on past issues or a few in the present, contextualized by curators or art historians, how can we then expect art to be avant-garde?
For decades, artists have questioned the canvas and the pigment, and since the1960s-70s, conceptual artists like Marcel Broodthaers have questioned the structure of the museum, leading to the art movement known as Institutional Critique, associated with artists such as Daniel Buren, Andrea Fraser, and Hans Haacke. With his art format BIENNALIST, Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL questions global art events. He takes the theme of each biennial seriously, studying it in order to contribute to the debate the biennales want to generate. With this format, the artist is often on location, testing the pertinence of the biennales. In 2007, the artist produced projects called “The next dOCUMENTA should be curated by a car” and “The protest school”.
In 2012, The BIENNALIST project was supported respectively by the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art for conducting operations at the Athens Biennale curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, and by the Sprengel Museum, for operations carried out at the Venice Biennale.
At dOCUMENTA (13), Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL realized the project “The Emergency will replace the Contemporary”, which received strong attention from the media and art critics. Most recently, in 2017, he has been looking more closely into documenta 14 and the Venice Biennale 2017, through the exhibition #documentasceptic.
How a small inoffensive artwork confronted the great contemporary art structure
“The Emergency will replace the Contemporary” is probably one of Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL’s most important tent artworks, a convergence of the artist’s focus on emergencies and his critical approach to contemporary art structures.
This single unsolicited artwork managed to destabilize the established contemporary art structure of dOCUMENTA (13). The impact of the artwork and its pertinence to the now are values of equal importance to its aesthetic and formal qualities. Using the strategy as a brush stroke, the global art scene as his canvas and the emergencies of the world as his artistic motives, Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL has, over the years, developed a unique take on art, going beyond the notion of contemporary and opening up new fields such as EMERGENCY ART and ULTRACONTEMPORARY ART.
His artworks activate a new set of values and a new kind of artistic, humanistic and political ethos in art. He has a firm grasp of concepts, highly attuned to the fact that different aspects of assessing quality are interconnected. This conceptual underpinning creates a new synthesis of ideas, communicated through the artist’s oeuvre.
The main statement written on the tent artwork is “THE EMERGENCY WILL REPLACE THE CONTEMPORARY”. Its prophetic aspect makes us realize how the artist is not only able to grasp the importance of the now, but can also predict the future of contemporary art.
There are two key words in the statement “THE EMERGENCY WILL REPLACE THE CONTEMPORARY”: the contemporary and the emergency. In his general artistic praxis, consisting of different art formats and object-based artworks in a variety of media, Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL demonstrates his interest in the relationship between the two terms. The first, the contemporary, stresses the connection between the self and time, while the second term, the emergency, stresses artistic readiness to act in time, before it is too late.
The critique of contemporary art’s ability to be “in time” is also expressed in the two other statements on the tent (ART IN DELAY CAN NOT HAVE IMPACT and THE CONTEMPORARY IS ALWAYS TOO LATE, NEVER IN TIME). With these, the artist wanted to express that an isolated focus on the past is dangerous, because it creates a distraction and makes it impossible to have an impact in the present.
The fourth slogan on the tent “I AM NOT WORKING FOR THE TOURISM OFFICE” questions the role of the artist, which unfortunately often has a utilitarian function with a predefined purpose, such as attracting tourists. We can thus ask ourselves if the real potential and purpose of art should be to serve industries that are fundamentally based on commercial and not artistic or humanistic values.
During dOCUMENTA (13), Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL was observing, registering and forming opinions on what he saw in and around the staged art exhibition context in Kassel. Some of the messages related to his research were communicated as text on a tent placed under one of Joseph Beuys’ trees from the “7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration”, on the lawn in front of Fridericianum, just after the dOCUMENTA (13) press conference, on June 6th, 2012. This tent is today part of the art collection at the Danish Contemporary Art Museum in Roskilde.
Another tent was made the next day, June 7th, with the following statements: “THE EMERGENCY WILL REPLACE THE CONTEMPORARY”, “I AM NOT WORKING FOR THE TOURISM OFFICE”, “ART IN DELAY CAN NOT HAVE IMPACT”, and “THE CONTEMPORARY IS ALWAYS TOO LATE, NEVER IN TIME”. This tent created a chain reaction, inspiring other artists, organizations, and initiatives to use Friedrichsplatz as their base and platform for expression.
On June 8th, two Chinese artists installed a tent on the same lawn, and on June 9th, the Occupy movement also set up their own camp. On June 20th, the Belgian art magazine H ART published, on their front page, a picture of the artist’s tent with the statement “THE EMERGENCY WILL REPLACE THE CONTEMPORARY”.
By the next day, June 21st, the tent had been removed and confiscated by the dOCUMENTA organizers, later to be found in the basement of Fridericianum by the artist Bongore.To create attention in the media and among art critics by circulating images and statements from the tents is part of Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL’s artistic method, because it is a way of reaching a wider audience, including people beyond the art sphere.
Maybe the fact that an unsolicited tent made the front page in an art magazine and “stole” the media coverage of dOCUMENTA was the reason for the confiscation.
To remove one of the artist’s tents was easy, while it was more difficult to remove the many Occupy movement tents, since this would provoke a more intense counterreaction. The Occupy encampment was therefore welcomed by the dOCUMENTA (13) curator on July 8th. Consequently, a new tailor-made name was given to the camp: dOCCUPY, clearly marking the fact that what should have been a resistance movement had been incorporated into the established and authorized system. The dOCUMENTA decision to include Occupy in their program was a strategic move to neutralize and render harmless the revolutionary spirit of the protest, while still keeping their image as an inclusive art event intact.
Documenta’s welcoming of the Occupy protesters might not have been an honest gesture of hospitality, but rather a necessary solution or a strategic move they were obliged to make, in order to save their image of openness. Even though dOCCUPY was now an official guest at Documenta, there was a pre-set time frame for their existence. A group of people who could serve Documenta’s interests were asked to infiltrate the camp under cover, in order to observe and control its development.
Eight days before the end of Documenta, a vote took place in the camp to decide if dOCCUPY should close down or not. The voting was democratic, but since there were so many infiltrators advocating for Documenta’s desire to end the project and clean up the exhibition areas before the art collectors with buying potential came to Kassel (in keeping with tradition, the last week of the 100 days-long show) the result of the ballot was to remove the camp.
Additionally, the removal of the camp was turned into a performance in which the camp members were playing out their own elimination. A re-enactment, including role-play, took place on Saturday 8th September at 3 pm. A number of the protesters from the Occupy movement played the role of police and acted out the brutalization of the campers while obliging them to pack and remove their tents. In this way, one more time, Documenta managed to turn a serious activist movement into a harmless symbolic artwork overseen by the Documenta authorities.
Today, we can reflect on the fact that Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL’s tent artwork, which kick-started the growing Occupy movement, was removed, while the Occupy encampment in the same area was for a while welcomed by Documenta. There would probably not have been any dOCCUPY project if the tent by Thierry Geoffroy/COLONEL had not been placed on the lawn in front of Fridericianum in the first place.
We can also analyze how a single artwork could create a disturbance within the complex structure of the biggest contemporary art event in the world.
Perhaps it is possible to value artworks based on their capacity to challenge established structures and propose new ones.
Questioning the structure to avoid apathy
Ideally, artists should have an important position in our society as free and independent minds who can produce vital reflections about the socio-political conditions of the time we live in.
Unfortunately, time and time again artists’ critical and important reflections are used or misused for other purposes, such as the promotion of products, gentrification, and cultural colonialism. In that case, the role becomes the function; the unique role of the artist, as someone independently and critically reflecting on our society, becomes a simplified and restricted function with a purpose and role dictated by others.
The only way an artist can avoid his/her role becoming purely functional is by constantly questioning the structures within which his or her art is being presented. Biennales and large-scale exhibitions such as Documenta should, as the most influential contemporary art structures, be a natural object for investigation.
Documenta can be considered as a “Vatican” of contemporary art, a benchmark reinforced by belief in art’s critical potential. It is promoted as the quintessential art platform for critical thinking and political statements: the art world’s decision makers and intelligentsia make pilgrimages to Documenta in search of the latest trends. Large-scale art events such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale have an enormous international impact and great power to influence public opinion. This influence should be evaluated by participating artists as well as the audience, who should not merely absorb the messages communicated to them via the curatorial strategies, but be sceptical and question the motivations behind them. They should not fall asleep, but be critical and constantly question the structure.
A show labeled as a “critic show” can give the public a feeling of being critical, but it can, at the same time, draw public attention away from vital and serious issues that authorities do not want to create critique around.
There could be a diversion taking place within curatorial choice. Curating goes hand in hand with filtration. Certain topics, artworks and artists are highlighted as central, while others are relegated to a peripheral position or even go unmentioned.
Furthermore, curating always includes an educational element, which facilitates learning and the acquisition of knowledge, values and beliefs. The person or the institution teaching would naturally also have the power to shape knowledge, and so would be in a superior position. The choice of content and methods is an influence on the interpretation of an artistic message, and the receivers are being led in a pre-defined direction of thinking.
Faking the intention can be another method for diversion used in the contemporary art world. Often, contemporary art events create an image based on inclusion and audience interaction, presenting a semblance of openness. Therefore, most are considered authentic, positive, even humanistic platforms, surrounded by an aura of purportedly unquestionable benevolence. In reality, this can be a strategy for circumventing potential criticism.
A delay in contemporary art could also be seen as a diversion strategy. Even though we believe that contemporary artists should react to the important issues and emergencies of today’s world, we are not giving artists appropriate platforms for immediate expression and impact in time. Artists cannot show art connected with the pulsing and unpredictable present, since all exhibited artworks have to be defined, produced, and explained in advance. Either because of the practical and curatorial planning, or because of a wish to control and to have the ability to censor, most contemporary exhibitions are in delay from the outset.
The artist and art thinkers are also recurrently victims of ongoing self-censorship, in order to navigate around these contemporary art structures. Self-censorship makes it difficult to achieve an authentic and honest artistic intention. What is exhibited is just one part of the story, while the other part, at least as important, is auto-censored out. Auto-censorship is more difficult to identify or fight then direct censorship, since it is an embedded control function that contemporary art carries in the DNA of its structure. It is less visible than the imposed censorship emanating from a specific authority, and thus acts as a more sophisticated and complex control mechanism, often having an even stronger control effect.
A “critic show” can thus be a setting for fake criticism, giving us the illusion of permitting critique and having freedom of thinking when, in reality, we are manipulated in a specific direction controlled by external forces, and often interests of an economic or political nature. This fake criticism within today’s contemporary art sphere could be a source of apathy in our society. If the lack of real concern or interest in making a change infiltrates the art community, and what we consider to be the avant-garde force in our society falls asleep, we might risk our world heading in the direction of narrow-minded, or even totalitarian thinking.