by Marion Briggs
For the three months from May to August, as part of the event Ursache Zukunft (Origin Future), contemporary artists involved in taking art into the social sphere are showing their work at the Goetheanum. They include Shelley Sacks, George Steinmann, and Viennese group of artists Wochenklausur. From the program, they are introduced as follows:
Shelley Sacks is presenting the social sculpture project Exchange Values at the Goetheanum. This incorporates a process of dialogue relating to the world economy. In this work she followed 20 banana boxes from the point of sale back to the producers, who were then invited to engage in active imaginative work, concerning their situation and the world economy. These "social sculpture processes" are an integral part of the whole project. She is also developing social sculpture processes in connection with Origin Future. Shelley Sacks studied with Joseph Beuys in the 1970s and was actively involved with the Free International University in Europe and South Africa. Since 1990 she has been living and working as an artist in England. She is the founder and director of the Social Sculpture Research Unit (SSRU) at Oxford Brookes University, which explores the concept of social sculpture developed by Joseph Beuys in the 1970s, in relation to our work toward a sustainable future.
Born in 1950, George Steinmann studied painting and Afro-American studies in Bern, Basel, and San Francisco. He has also worked as a musician since1966. He lived in Finland from 1970-75 and today he lives in Bern. He has been creating major Interventions and Installations all over Europe since the 1980s, in which social configuration or reshaping is seen as art. George Steinmann will be developing an Intervention for Origin Future, in collaboration with research units at the Goetheanum. He holds the Meret Oppenheim Art Prize of the Federal Office for Culture in Switzerland.
At the invitation of art and cultural centers, the Viennese group of artists Wochenklausur has been developing and implementing small, but concrete proposals to reduce deficits in social policy since 1993. Art is no longer seen as a formal act but an intervention in our society. "In theory there are no differences between an artist who does his best to paint a picture and artists who do their best to solve a particular problem in our society. The self-chosen task must, however, be precisely defined, as in painting." (Wochenklausur) Five of their projects will be presented at Origin Future, including the current one. Members of the group will be at the Goetheanum at regular intervals.
In an interview for Anthroposophy Worldwide (10/06 issue), Shelley Sacks stated: The more we are able to take seriously the spiritual, the more we discover that the relationships created between us are more real than many an argument and fact. For this reason, I’m looking forward to our congress initiative. Johann Wolfgang Goethe – and Rudolf Steiner and Joseph Beuys along with him – called to us to form new organs of perception, new eyes and ears – precisely in the contact of one person with another. And in summer 2007 at the Goetheanum we would like to make possible the stimulus for developing these new eyes and ears, without which we cannot reach the other person and his dignity.
At the time of the Art Section meeting in May, the installation of Shelley Sack's Exchange Values had been present in the former cloakroom of the Goetheanum for only a matter of a week or two, but already it had caused considerable consternation. Why is this in the Goetheanum? What has it to do with Rudolf Steiner's impulse – not to mention his art impulse? It attracted many negative comments in the visitors book.
The event itself was the initiative of the Social Science Section and the Rudolf Steiner Archive in Dornach and is independent from the Art Section. However, it played a role in our conference, including the withdrawal of Alfred Frischknecht from giving the opening lecture.
One conversation group, led by Ursula Gruber, met for a session at the installation and discussed the experience of it. During the discussion, following a request to approach the work with a sense of artistic observation, there was a gradual increasing of openness and understanding. In our plenum sessions a number of voices made a plea for tolerance and consideration for the striving of the artists involved. Whatever conclusions we reach, moving beyond opinion and reaction, there is the intention of the people involved. Alexander Schaumann took those interested on a tour of the exhibition in Haus Duldeck of the drawings of Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner, and I had volunteered to give a tour of Shelley's installation. Other voices spoke out on the importance of social sculpture for the development of art.
I have been involved with seminars organized by Shelley Sacks at Oxford Brooks, and regular readers of the Newsletter may remember articles I have written about Shelly's work and the work of Joseph Beuys. It is of great interest to me that her work is now in the Goetheanum and that, after hearing her speak of Exchange Values, that my first encounter with it is there.
I decided to spend some time with the installation. Initially I approached it as if I was looking at pictures in an exhibition. Each of the "pictures" consisted of banana skins stitched together and stretched on a metal frame. As I went from one to the other, I observed the color, the pattern, and the texture. After about three, I began to experience a frustration at not being able to see "behind" them, as I would in a painting; with a painting there is color and an image to stimulate the imagination. Then the sound coming from earphones attached to a metal box below came to my attention. The box had a number on it. I picked up the earphones and listened. There was a voice of a banana grower speaking about the problem of bananas. In the background was the sound of the sea or tropical birds calling. One by one, I listened to the voices, wondering if the patterns or quality of the banana skins might have some quality peculiar to the person who had grown them. Most voices had a depressed, trapped feeling in them.
A new dimension opened up, and I found myself in an inner dialogue with the growers. What are you asking me to do? What can I do to help? Buy your bananas? Not buy your bananas? If they are such a problem and America is such a problem, why not do something else? I could do something, you could do something to change the situation, to take it in hand and transform the world in some way to make it a better, fairer place to live. We are all masters of our destiny. Yes – in other words, everyone is an artist, able to create the world we live in. Then this became more than an economic question – it became the stimulation to understand that the ultimate creative freedom lives in us all. Then I understood why it could be in the Goetheanum. Behind it lies the essence of the philosophy of freedom.
This was my own personal journey with Exchange Values. However, I heard in the various conversations that others, too, had experienced aspects of what I have described. In the conversations around the round table, new encounters and insights lit up.
To quote from Shelley's interview again: One cannot mobilise anyone externally. This always leads to dictatorship,no matter how worthy the ideas may be. In this sense, the art of which we are speaking – the objects we create – are instruments of awareness for the purpose of bringing about this inner movement. It is no coincidence that artists seeking this spiritual, original human substance today seldom paint pictures. We have far too many paintings in our civilization, so we have to find other ways – perhaps voices, perhaps listening, also imaginative thinking.
As to the question: Is it art?: There appear to be three levels of creation and creativity: The materials put together as an installation, the interaction of the people who participate in conversation stimulated by it, and an engagement of the will that prompts a transformation in and of the world.
Herbert Dreiseitl spoke of the artist as midwife. His work with people to bring about an artistic solution to a place in nature or a city space leads in his experience of solutions that he would not have conceived by himself. It is a new dimension of artistic creation that leads people to feel more engaged with their environment and empowered to make changes.
Are artists to be held only to what have become traditional materials, such as paint, stone, and concrete? In answer to the needs of our time, additional materials are available, some invisible.
We can each judge from our own experience. The important thing for me is that what is presented through social sculpture is not rejected out of hand, but a dialogue takes place that can bring in new understanding and perceptions that bring us forward in to a new place as a Section. I experienced a change, a situation less polarized in our meeting, and the real possibility of a new beginning.
Shelley Sacks will be in Dornach for the Social Sculpture Conference from 18th to 21st July. Details are on the website: http://www.ursache-zukunft.net/index.php?id=54.