Thank you for your understanding is the most recent project by artist Cem A. in collaboration with the Berlinische Galerie (BG) in Berlin. It consists of a series of signs placed around the museum that give different reasons for why the venue has been closed (actually for renovation). The signs were changed every few days, and an image with a person posing with them was posted on the BG’s social media. From May 25 until the end of June, the signs are on show in the frame of the reopening exhibition of the Berlinische Galerie. Dalia Maini talked with the artist about the linguistic structure of institutions and the spaces of critique they can open.
When I saw the images posted on the BG’s Instagram page and read the statements on the signs, I thought they were oracles. In my mind they were not professing fake news, but foreseeing the destiny of the museum, the reasons for its closure in the future. In this sense, they contextualize the museum space in the broader social, environmental, and economic landscape of the constantly changing city of Berlin and of the multiple struggles of the present times. This operation is not automatic, as institutions often present themselves as ivory towers; but, though they are less affected by the material realities of social struggles, rent increases, economic scarcity, and climate change, they are nevertheless called to partake discursively and comment on what surrounds them.
The signs I choose try to be topical to the current struggles and discourses of the city. Issues like the housing crisis or the vanishing of the museum were topics that I specifically want to touch on, also in reaction to the exhibition Klassenfragen at the BG, which surprisingly collected a great reaction from the public—surprisingly, because responding to current demands and events in Berlin is difficult, as there is always so much going on. The artistic operation of Thank you for your understanding was an opportunity to work with topicality to counteract the pace of bureaucratic and logistical processes in museums, which prevent immediacy and de-potentiate critical discourses coming from the public. Instead, the signs were made just before the reopening of the BG, and the order of their appearance on social media was organized by testing the public reaction to the sequence of the jokes. We tried to diversify them according to their demands, and this linkage between public desire and art institutions for logistical reasons never happens.
But, unlike memes, whose creators always stay anonymous, the signs in the images posted on social media are portrayed with characters active in Berlin’s art scene. I believe your art aims to land on a level deeper than that of Institutional Critique or so-called politically engaged art but foundational to how we perceive and navigate spaces. By linking communities with their struggles, the messages on the signs become less abstract; hence, these images operate both on the representational and linguistic level of a community of reference.
I surely wanted to connect with Berlin also by engaging with the people who partake in cultural and social discourses. It was important to fill places that are both speculative and, as you said, probable. This stems from my broader interest in the linguistic landscape of institutions and how language can enable more diversity or call out the marginalization of certain artists and narratives. Institutional languages also have an effect on the body, which moves according to the directions imposed by signals and labels and also blocks you from questioning things. We are so critical of what’s happening in an exhibition space—as artists and curators or anyone interested—but then there is a door in the museum that is labeled with a no-entry sign, and no one asks why. I find it very interesting that the ways in which the language regulates these spaces are never questioned. I pinpointed the same mechanism in my work Floor Piece, on show at the Grimmwelt Museum, where I placed signs in the exhibition space that interfered with the visitors’ experience.
How then does the reappropriation of institutional language, or the intrusion into the space with new signifiers, work on the institutions themselves? Don’t you think, at this stage of society, that the institutions are aware of the politics of space they enact but are ossified in the frame they create?
I build that question the other way around. There is a contradiction in expecting people who are closest to the institutions to be the ones who are most critical of it. But if you are an employee of the museum, it represents sustenance and financial well-being, beyond the power structures it replicates. Instead, I try to collaborate with the public in order to create critical discourse around institutions. It’s the same with memes; they also function by reorganizing public opinion. For me, the less visible part, that of linguistic critique—the paradigm shift that memes can initiate through public consensus—is the most crucial. If public opinion changes, the institutions will definitely change, as they have to adapt to public funding. The public is actually always above them, but it’s just a very long way for the public to reach the institution. So, I viewed this as an opportunity to speak with the public directly through the comments that they left underneath the images section. And the reactions were many; this level of engagement with the institution rarely happens in a physical space. But on the web, like in a public forum, people can hold their voices, which, again, shows that the public already has their opinions, and they just need a different space to be able to raise them. I believe that artistic agency can speak directly to the public and then hopefully activate the urgency of engaging with the institution in a less delegatory way.
The tactic of creating contingency between public attention and social issues through memes is a question of “good” mediation and possibilities to counteract. Communities online and their demands can be easily polarized, and, as you said, the time of institutions is shaped by a sequence of decisions backboned by financial and political constraints, as is the upholding of public infrastructures. We still need to see a museum that is fully shaped by public consensus, such as in a direct democracy. Indeed, the sub-plot of your work, and what makes it brilliant, is that you aim to relativize, if not decentralize, the role of institutions by revealing the mechanism that makes them necessary in the validation of art as such, and it gives back agency to the artist and the public.
Institutions and curators often fill the blind spot of communicating the artwork through the creation of a narrative frame between the public and the artist. To reveal this mechanism, I created, on commission of the Louisiana Museum, eight fictional exhibition posters that replaced the existing posters in the Louisiana Café. These posters adapted internet memes to Louisiana’s visual aesthetic; in some ways, posters are already meme templates on their own. The logic behind their syntax is memetic and can easily become a running joke. The posters in the cafe invited visitors to consider the power art institutions have in coding and contextualizing our shared understanding of art history. And, as the public always assumes that what institutions present are the facts—“this is the truth.” On the contrary, this work directly communicated with the audience. And on the posters, I printed phrases that institutions would never use, under the protection of artistic freedom.
I am with you on this syntactical revolution of the codes of art institutions: they may reveal the open secret that, actually, museums are apparatuses that create surplus value around the art objects or discourses, which would exist anyways in different spaces, maybe less separated by public life. Museums without artists, art workers, and artworks don’t have any reason for existing. Therefore, a little less merit should be given to them, and more attention to the conditions offered by them to everyone involved.
Yeah, actually some may feel likewise; indeed, one of the signs installed outside of the BG was stolen the day before the opening. And I find this gesture flattering—shocking, but also flattering. A reward sign has replaced it instead, but maybe this act is the only possible way of reappropriating art at the moment. I hope that these signs can be the documentation of this spring of 2023 so that, when people look at them in the future, they will see an archive of information about the status of art and institutions.
Cem A. is an artist with a background in anthropology. He is known for running the meme page @freeze_magazine and for his site-specific installations. Since it was founded in 2019, @freeze_magazine has evolved as a tool for creative collaboration between Cem A. and other artists, researchers, and organisations. His work explores topics such as survival and alienation in the art world.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Thank you for your understanding, An artistic Intervention by Cem A., Berlinische Galerie, 2023. Photo: © Victoria Tomaschko.