Travelling Eye

A Mass Conduit to Information

Artistic interventions in the mass media are themselves already in a position to look back on a tradition originally founded in Concept Art. As far as photography is concerned, the most frequently quoted example in this context are the so-called "False Photos" by the American Happening artist Allan Kaprow which appeared in the German weekly "Die Zeit" in 1981. At an even earlier time, however, in the middle of the 60ies, the Concept artist Dan Graham, also an American, was already investigating a kind of art "unsuited to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum", "in printed form, reproduced on a massive scale, and acting as a mass conduit to information". In this, Graham, too, had photography foremost on his mind. He was definitely not referring to the depiction – in a paper, or a magazine – of works of art from a studio, exhibition, or collection context but, rather, to the production of photographic art aiming at the media as such. Instead of functioning as mediators for the kind of art destined for the gallery or museum environment, as we have come to expect of the coverage on cultural affairs and art criticism, papers and magazines are specifically intended to evolve into a frame, a backdrop, a site for art in their own right. In this manner, art situated here can take effect – to quote Graham once more – "as an element of the wider cultural background which also encompasses the magazine itself". In Graham's assertion we are confronted with the message of a period that strove to liberate art from the museum and to expose it to social reality – with little success. Graham himself experienced failure on a number of occasions. A planned photo series of houses in the suburbs of American cities was eventually cancelled by "Esquire" magazine, and the "Arts Magazine" only presented the work in a severely truncated fashion, focusing on the accompanying article and deleting some of the pictures entirely. Similarly, the happening of the "False Photos" in the "Zeit" only came about on the basis of a one-off surprise action. In its wake, the editorial staff had its work cut out to regain its former respectability. 
The concept underlying a project the artist Ernst Caramelle succeeded in carrying out in such Austrian papers and magazines as the "Kronen-Zeitung", "Kurier", "Falter", "profil", and the "Wiener", back in 1984, was also highly complex. Though the photographs of a New York intersection which appeared in all of these publications shared a considerable resemblance, each of them was accompanied by a completely different caption, suggesting a number of seemingly contradictory interpretations of the scene portrayed. This particular intervention, too, only came to be realised because it was a one-off event, because it took place in the context of the Arts section, and, finally, because it was labelled as a contribution to the Austrian art day which, at the time, went under the motto "Art and the Mass Media". Even so, the project was never completed as another publication, "Basta" magazine, apparently forgot to include the photograph in their issue.

The photo series "Travelling Eye" in the Austrian weekly "profil" – consisting of a total of 48 instalments, with 12 artists each producing 4 photographs to be included a double page at a time – differs from the photographic interventions in the printed media cited above in one crucial aspect. This difference lies in the actual management of the intervention. For the entity in charge of the project was the "museum in progress", a non-profit initiative of Kathrin Messner and Josef Ortner, that for the past five years has concentrated on affirming the presence of art in the public sphere of the media: on billboards, projection screens, in papers, magazines, and on television. Even the name "museum in progress" itself suggests an attitude towards the relationship between art and publicity – in the sense of "being public" – which represents a marked change from the approach prevalent in the 60ies and 70ies. Back then, artists regarded publicity as a liberating alternative to the museum – a promise of freedom that soon turned out to be deceptive. Even outside the museum art soon became dependent on subsidising agencies, the market, or sponsors. On the other hand, at least in the face of the current crisis, the museum continues to fulfil its (protective?) rôle of making art possible in the first place, though with a couple of important reservations: A distinct awareness of precisely those societal dependencies Context Art has pointed out to us, and, secondly, only in the comparatively loose sense which goes back to the artists of the 60ies. The museum in progress employs both these strategies: It sees itself as a clearing house offering art "temporary exhibition sites" in the sphere of the mass media. However, not in the subversive way practised by Concept or Happening Art, but in the form of a limited contract structured by straightforward agreements in regard to financing, logistics, as well as content. As far as the financial aspect is concerned "Travelling Eye" deviates significantly from the established mechanisms of market, subsidy, or sponsoring. From the beginning, the market was not an option, as the project did not represent a marketable article. In place of subsidies as such, public funds were made available via the curatorial programme of Stella Rollig, the Federal Curator appointed to this position by the Ministry for Science, Transport, and The Arts, who, together with the Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, developed the "Travelling Eye" project in the first place. The artists' fees were covered from the budget at her disposal. Nor can the financial contribution of the "profil" news magazine – in the form of 48 double pages – be readily compared to more common types of sponsorship. Here – much like "Austrian Airlines" did in another mip project, a poster project extending over the period of a year – the sponsoring company itself turns into a promoter of the exhibition or, as was the case with "profil" and the "Travelling Eye", becomes the actual exhibition site as such. Far more than the Concept Art of the 60ies and 70ies, it was the Context Art of the 90ies which brought us the realisation that art cannot escape being a part of the dominant socio-politic power structure. Logistically, "Travelling Eye", therefore, had to associate itself with the level of the decision makers. The underlying idea could not rely on the complicity between certain artists and the Arts editor being palmed off to some editor-in-chief only to find itself subordinated to such criteria as individual aesthetic sensibility, success, or something as basic as shortage of space. What was, in fact, needed was a clear, contractual agreement between the "museum in progress" clearing house on the one hand, and those in charge of the publishers and the editorial office on the other. At the time, the latter side was represented by the current managing vice-director of the "Wirtschafts-Trend Zeitschriftenverlags GesmbH", Peter Allmeyer-Beck and the editor-in-chief of the news magazine "profil", Hubertus Czernin. Though both men have to be considered art lovers, as well as keen supporters and collectors of art, they, nevertheless, found themselves confronted with an entirely new form of art, art mediation, and art discourse for which they were expected to assume full responsibility, particularly on an entrepreneurial and journalistic level. Since then, Czernin's and Allmeyer-Beck's courage in this regard has been amply rewarded by the international echo which "Travelling Eye" went on to cause.

Of course, this echo is equally due to Stella Rollig's and Hans-Ulrich Obrist's basic concept for this photo series. In a highly precise and subtle manner, it was tailored to suit the requirements of a media "exhibition site" such as a weekly magazine like "profil" represents, for example in the re-interpretation of the "Photograph of the Week" whose usual double page "Travelling Eye" took over. The "magic" of numbers – 4 photographs, 12 artists, 48 instalments – also reflects the peculiar periodic character of a weekly magazine. In a daily paper or a monthly magazine the rhythm would have had to be a completely different one. The fact that the project involved 12 artists kept the variation – both, in respect to technical as well as topical considerations – on a comprehensible level. Beyond that, one of the major attractions of this series lay in the succession of locally little known artists which such of international renown, and that each of them had exactly 4 instalments to elaborate on various aspects of a serial nature – repetition, development, contrast. And, finally, the 48 instalments themselves – just short of a year and well within the scope of the average memory – add up to a greater whole, a "yearbook" one might call it. Even an exhibition site in the media can never be better than the artists that fill it. This makes "Travelling Eye", perhaps the most complex project in the history of media art, the success of 12 very different artists who joined to create a singular work of art.

(October 1996)