Drive In

Clearings in the Thickets of the Streets. On the poster projects by museum in progress.

"Is there life beyond posters?" (Karl Kraus)

Public space in the city is a combat zone. The aim is to attract attention and there are numerous means to that end – neon advertisements flicker beside information kiosks, street musicians perform in front of window displays, flags fly beside video screens. If, hidden between all this, a fountain plays or a sculpture asserts its sheer presence, we ask ourselves what is the use of this nostalgic and pretty decoration. It is better to face the facts unsentimentally – if art wants to stand its ground in the cities, it cannot ignore the socio-economic and cultural reality. And that reality is most especially conditioned by advertising.

One of the most important visual advertising media is the poster – and Austria has one of the most high-density poster landscapes in the world. There are still billboards in the quietest suburbs – and there they are the undisputed rulers of the streets. This has of course not escaped the notice of artists who are interested in participating in the visual regime of everyday life. Whereas at the beginning of this advertising inflation, i.e. in the seventies and eighties, artists such as Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and Group Material struggled for participation in this channel of communication for political aims, it appears that another form of access has established itself in the nineties. An overview of the numerous poster projects which have been realised by "museum in progress" in this period shows how much experiment has been focused on modular and non-linear ways of laying out posters. Obviously many artists find that the various sizes and combinations in this modular system provide a particularly suitable format for the world today.

Since 1991, "museum in progress" (which specialises in bringing art into media space) – mostly in co-operation with Austrian Airlines and the Vienna poster advertising company Gewista – has given eleven artists the opportunity to realise their on a wide scale for the medium of the poster. The posters appear on 2,500 to 3,000 billboards in Vienna – and in recent years, in co-operation with "europlakat" also in other important European cities.

The series began with a commission for the Austrian artist, Gerwald Rockenschaub. Rockenschaub used Gewista's modular system as his starting point, in which each large-scale poster consists of from eight to a maximum of 72 individual sheets. He had these standard poster sheets printed in monochrome industrial norm colours and created forty colourful combinations. How they finally looked on the billboards was decided on the spot by those putting up the posters. While passers-by allowed themselves to be stimulated by the contrasting billboards which suddenly pushed their way in between the advertising clamour in the winter of 1991/92, in art circles Rockenshaub's concept marked a sharp break between the unique "Neo Geo" image of the mid-eighties, which was based on geometrical abstraction and the schematic encryption of everyday aesthetics, and the space-oriented, installation of painting which did not shrink from the anonymous appeal of industrial production.

A year later it was the turn of the French artist, Bernard Bazile. Under the title "Marie Antoinette" – a homage to the Stefan Zweig novel of the same name – he brought the image of two red chairs in front of baroque yellow wallpaper into the city. Even people who did not immediately realise that it was stylistically related to the 18th century noticed that some kind of break in time must have occurred. The poster worked as a "conversation piece" which, arching from Schönbrunn to Versailles, brought up the subjects of frivolity and luxury, the symbol of an empty chair (decapitation) and the contemporary furnishing of public space.

The next poster project – in 1993/94 by Felix Gonzalez-Torres – made the sponsor themselves into the subject of the poster. Gonzalez-Torres created a "Portrait of Austrian Airlines" in the form of an alphabetical list of all the destinations to which Austrian Airlines had flown since the Second World War. Since the list included the year in which the airline began flying to each destination, interesting conclusions could be drawn about political and economic developments. Gonzalez-Torres did not hold to the normal colour scheme in which Austrian Airlines usually presents itself; instead of the corporate-design red, he chose a pale lime green as a background. The lettering itself was silver. The project by Gonzalez-Torres is so far the only one in the "museum in progress" poster series to take socio-economic relationships as its direct subject matter.

The work "Family Photos" by Hans-Peter Feldmann the following year (1994/95) also played with the of the portrait but approached it in an abstract way on an aesthetic level. Feldmann drew attention to the enormous difference between public and private pictures by wantonly ignoring their separate spheres. In a complete break-through of the different picture worlds, framed black and white photos against a blue background suddenly appeared on the city's billboards as though these prominent public spaces were personal family albums. Feldmann had appealed to Austrian Airlines employees for "private photos". There was such a large reaction that Feldmann was able to extend his project into the Austrian daily newspaper "Der Standard" and the in-flight magazine "Skylines".

The subsequent poster projects were to remain true to the aesthetic theme. For her work "Beauty" (1995/96) Rosemarie Trockel had twelve "cloned" beauties fabricated on computer – frontal head and shoulders portraits of models which were given an even more perfect "supernatural" appearance with the help of Paintbox (replace, mirror, retouch). As with Rockenschaub, Trockel allowed for the Gewista workers to decide upon the combination of these mosaic-style "beauties" as they were putting up the posters. However, apart from her systemic instructions Rosemarie Trockel also saw her work as a feminist statement. The historian Robert Fleck wrote at the time: "Beauty most particularly becomes a 'curse' when the mass media and advertising industry prescribe a norm of perfection, and in today's society it is the woman, not withstanding any possible emancipation, who is by far the most affected victim of an ever more inhuman concept of beauty."

For his project "Visitors" in the winter of 1996/97 Beat Streuli covered the city with large photos of young anonymous tourists in Vienna. Streuli photographed them individually from a distance – average-looking young people talking or looking. The effect of this work was principally based on a specific mirror effect; the international people on the posters were so commonplace that they hardly differed from the passers-by in front of them. – Except that there was something wrong with the weather – memories of easy-going summer street-life suddenly appeared in the middle of the Vienna winter.

In the following year, 1997, in co-operation with the Vienna Secession and its exhibition "Cities on the Move", there were two poster projects at the same time. As though to illustrate the title of the exhibition, both posters were concerned with increasing world-wide mobility and the subject of cultural exchange. Rudi Molacek worked with a photo which he had taken through the back window of a moving car in Shanghai. It shows a flow of traffic of people and machines beneath a futuristic flyover – everything appears to be ready for change.

The second poster from "Cities of the Move" was by Navin Rawanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Their contribution transferred the unusual aesthetics of hand-painted Asian cinema advertising to Vienna. In loud colours the poster depicted scenes from a non-existent film; a love story between East and West with a so-called "Tuk Tuk", a three-wheeled open taxi from Thailand, at the centre of the action. World-wide mobility and the subsequent natural migration of images was made stunningly apparent.

Cultural flotsam was also the subject of Jeremy Deller's poster project "Quotes". Totally different images such as a marathon race, a writing desk, screaming girls at a pop concert, a pin-board or a scene in a club were depicted with quotations from Goethe, Schiller, Musil and Shakespeare added. The posters snappily combined youth culture with English one-liners from old masters; what is supposedly highbrow culture suddenly found itself at the level of song lyrics.

In Martine Aballéa's contribution (1998/99) the theme of migration even appeared in the title: "Travelling Garden". The French artist selected four photographs from nature; two of water with trees, one of bushes and one of a path through a field. Tinted with a touch of pink and with the gold lettering "Jardin Voyageur" or "Travelling Garden", the posters created a stormy, infectious atmosphere. With this atmospheric distortion, the modularity and flexibility of the posters even awoke associations with a spreading virus.

Reviewing the "museum in progress" poster projects, it becomes very clear that it has been more important for the invited artists to open a "non-utilitarian" space rather than making use of it for agitation or ironic purposes. In view of the current state of information now being communicated in society, this could be seen as a cause for regret. However, from a more distanced viewpoint, the artistic strategy of at least symbolically questioning the capitalist logic of the use of resources by refusing to communicate an unambiguous message in an expensive advertising medium is perhaps even more relevant.

(October 1999)