Billboard 01

Visual Pleasure / Analysis. About „Plakat 01“ by Gerwald Rockenschaub

The question as to a functional connection of art which reacts to the conditions of its appearance does not arise only in progressive artistic practice but also in the financing, administration, and curatorship of its products. Hardly anyone today would indulge themselves in the nonchalant but inefficient irony with which Marcel Duchamp approached the problem of raising money when he suggested selling a magic, healing, and protective Dada amulet all over the world. Since then the sponsoring of art has shown itself to be a poor imitation of the achievements of art patrons in pre-Modern times. In spite of everything there was then enough openness for both the artist and the public to know who was letting himself be glorified and to what ends. Sponsoring, however, complies with the bourgeois desire for repression so that, "the market must not be visible in the field of culture, only the autonomous work" (Walter Grasskamp). This appearance of independence whose guarantor is the appeal to the tactfulness of the sponsors to place their company logos discretely, forfeits its credibility all the more quickly the more blatantly art serves publicity and the formation of corporate The illusion that art rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the market economy falls victim, like many other illusions in the bourgeois understanding of culture, not to anti-bourgeois subversion but to the momentum of business.

The projects of the Viennese museum in progress are an alternative attempt to set capital flowing between art and business. It is a new type of museum which does not preserve art and isolate it outside the course of historical events but places it in the midst of the socio-economic and cultural processes of the present. It aims to replace sponsoring with new forms of cooperation which free companies from the of the patron by making their function an open subject within the museum and also to offer artists the opportunity to show the public the conditions and potentialities of aesthetic production with the example of a concrete commission.

In a similar way to the previous project Medienfenster 01 (Media Window 01), the placing of artistic works in the print media under the curatorship of Helmut Draxler (see Parkett 1991/29), methods were also selected for Medienfenster 02 which took account of the character of the medium and the stipulations of the commission. The municipally-owned billboard company Gewista agreed to make 3,000 billboards available to the museum in progress at a cheap rate during the slack period between December and February (the rapid success of the project then led to an increase in the number of billboards available). The business partner of the museum in progress, Austrian Airlines, financed the project with the condition that their logo be integrated in the work.

Gerwald Rockenschaub, the artist chosen by museum in progress, used as his starting point the modular system of Gewista in which each poster is composed of up to 72 standard sheets. He had monochrome sheets printed in seven colours conforming to industrial norms. From these he produced forty designs which were posted in five places from September '91 and changed every two weeks. They were next to the Secession, the Museum of the Twentieth Century, the Museum of Modern Art, the Academy of Applied Art, and the Museum of Applied Art. This was how the project was first presented to the public. By mid-December '91 as the second phase began and the project was extended over the whole of Vienna it had gained enough momentum to proceed almost automatically. From now on the bill-posters chose segments from Rockenschaub's forty designs which they could vary as they liked according to the size of the billboards allocated to them. The only stipulation, apart from the prohibition of purely monochrome posters, was that the red sheet with the logo of Austrian Airlines should appear in the top right-hand corner.

It was not, of course, a question of the creativity of the billposters nor the autonomous values of composition, colour contrast, and whatever else posters which represent a version of "applied" geometrical abstraction may bring to mind. The freedom of choice of the bill-posters, the geometrical forms, the choice of colours and the project's time schedule were all strategic means resulting directly from the intention to try out a new form of aesthetic participation and reflection in public space by manipulating the preconditions of the media as precisely as possible.


One of the revolutionary impulses of the avant-garde lay in the attempt to dissolve the monadic character of the art work in the participation of its recipients. The various faces which it took on, from Cabaret Voltaire to Body Art, always designated, especially in Austria, a rituality which placed itself in opposition to the distancing hegemony of the eye. It tried to break this down and replace it with complete involvement to release suppressed powers of human corporeality. However, as soon as art stages rituals or imitates atavistic customs it gets near to becoming theatre which counteracts the fusion of art and life.

Rockenschaub, however, works on an aesthetic of participation which, although preserving ritual moments, engages in the very apology for visuality which, since Baudelaire, the Modern has defined as a renunciation of any kind of wholeness. For Rockenschaub ritual also never means staging or theatre. He is far more interested in those rituals which instantly determine a second nature for society. In his work for art spaces he therefore reacts to the social behaviour defined by the art scene. In public urban space, on the other hand, to that which is supported by the widest consensus; mass consumption, as propagated by billboard advertising.

These strategies depend on and consolidate that means of perception which characterises modern urban life: mobile visuality. Already at the beginning of the century Georg Simmel recognised that, "Large cities distinguish themselves by a pronounced predominance of the activity of the eye over that of the ear." Richard Senett described the historical development whose end is marked by the silence in the metropolis as the history of the decline of public life. It went hand in hand with the reduction of public experience to the act of seeing and the instrumentalisation of urban space in the name of mobility. Art in public space also owes its current distribution to the hope that the artist brings 'real" life into the anonymity of the city through the subjective self-expression demanded of him. If one follows Senett's thesis that it was precisely the psychologising of public life which accelerated its decline this hope proves itself to be not only delusive but even counterproductive.

As correct as Senett's diagnosis of the times seems to be, so little can one share his nostalgic basic assumption which sets back the criteria of urban culture to Paris and London of the eighteenth century or the ancient polis. Rockenschaub's poster project can be used as an example to discuss how the hegemony of visuality and mobility was able to be transformed into a solidifying of urban experience. It is not the exaltation of artistic individuality which creates excitement in public space but rather its dissolution in the anonymity of mass media communication. It is a long time, however, since this anonymity was the field of "the flaneur who goes botanizing on the asphalt" (Walter Benjamin). A curiosity which is a presupposition for the sense of loss and resignation of the flaneur has been replaced by a systematic looking-away whose protagonist is the passer-by. Its cause lies in the impoverishment of genuine means of public expression. Art fights this if it understands public space as a social force field which should neither be allowed to disappear nor be given up to nostalgia.

When the first five posters were put up in September '91 it appeared that the project was aimed only at art recipients. The locations near art the posters as "artist posters" which could be approached with the interpretational equipment of the insider to check composition, colour contrast and proportion for their aesthetic qualities and innovative power. In view of the (completely correct) impression of machine production the epigones of geometric abstraction could only suppose it to be a parody of their was only in mid-December when Rockenschaub's art machine was running at full throttle and was distributing posters throughout Vienna that the real purpose of the colourful geometry revealed itself. More efficiently than any other repertoire of shapes and colours, it allowed for a series of pictures to be generated in which basic pattern and variation, and difference were conspicuous to the same extent. Through this the colourful geometry acquires a dimension in time, it becomes an epidemic return of similarities and differences which, because they call for an interpretation, start a process of searching, discovery and deciphering. Moments of decadent visual pleasure, as embodied by Baudelaire's "Peintre de la vie moderne", are smuggled into the dynamics of the late-modern city. Whether walking in the city centre or sitting in suburban traffic the mobile urbanite sees signals everywhere which challenge him to create participation through distanced observation and subjectivity through anonymity.


From the point of view of its aesthetic reception, however, the concept could only be successful because the stipulation in the commission that the logo be integrated into the work led to a fusion of art and advertising. Although the project began on five billboards located near art, gradually, with the increasing distribution throughout Vienna these posters lost their definitive power over the growing majority of those whose function was only defined by the logo which also marked the culmination point of the colour pattern in the top right-hand comer. What some art lovers considered to be an economic necessity Rockenschaub and the museum in progress turned into a virtue for aesthetic reception. The functional connection to advertising set the project within a framework which can expect far more public participation than when art is placed in the foreground. When the poster presents itself as advertising the stigma of uselessness which clings to art in a space dominated by economic interests and objectives disappears. Since the demand of the '70s and '80s for site-specific art in public space is so consistently given a new interpretation art seems to flourish in a context which is foreign to it. Passers-by are confronted with aesthetic problems which cannot be approached with the usual reference to hermetically-sealed contemporary art. Nevertheless the posters pretended to participate in the collective perceptive context which is constituted by advertising and to be accessible to its specific, no less collective, habitual ways of seeing and its interpretational techniques. Jean Christophe Ammann's thesis that, "Art in public space is most effective when it is both artistically well handled and does not appear as art but rather settles below this perceptive threshold", here takes on unexpected topical relevance.

Rockenschaub's artistic intentions in no way contradicted the functional connection to advertising. To a far greater extent they increased its effectivity through a poster design which clearly differentiated itself from the mass of posters. Simultaneously however, since this design proved itself in the fight for the attention of passers-by, he called into question the dynamics of participation with an analysis of the poster as a medium of communication. The intellectual modification of visual pleasure was made possible by the explicit appropriation of the standard sheet system of the municipally-owned advertising firm Gewista.

Decades before the appearance of the electronic mass media, the distribution of the poster was a contributing factor to the development described by Senett. It transformed public space from a political and social field of interaction into a transit zone offering little experience which only intervenes between distinct private spheres. Opportunities for experience which transcend the instrumentality of this transit zone are only offered by the poster which, like an altar, presents the holy relics of the world of commodities. Already at the beginning of the century Karl Kraus stormed against the oft-mentioned loss of the sense of reality through the omnipresence of media pictures when he asked with polemical irony, "Is there life outside posters?".

One could however be equally justified in celebrating the forms of public experience created by the poster as agents of modem art. Rockenschaub's poster project does not take up a position in favour of either of these alternatives in this dilemma but rather for the dilemma as such. With the adaptation of the standard-sheet system posters are created which reveal their own construction. As the project extended throughout Vienna it mutated into a disclosure of the strategy responsible for the success of the advertising industry: the frequency is the message. In contrast to advertising posters whose parts are made up into complete pictures which then disappear again into the pictorial world of the urban environment Rockenschaub's posters, reduced to their component parts and appearing as variable geometric configurations, reveal the very structure which determines the efficiency of the medium, whether as a single picture or a poster campaign. Through this the seduction becomes an analysis of the means which make it effective. Just as visual pleasure spread throughout Vienna supplies the city's population with sensual energies in order to provoke them into participation, the metaphorical content which is inherent in the way in which the posters are constructed clarifies the communicative and social conditions which precede those sensual energies.

(Vienna, 1992)