Das Zwergenproblem — and how to solve it…

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What is the Zwergenproblem, or the problem of the gnome? Though this looks and sounds like one of those classic German words destined for import into the English of intellectuals (think of Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, or Fahrvergnügen…), you won’t find the term “Zwergenproblem” in any dictionary. And yet it’s a widely shared opinion in Germany (at least in left-leaning circles) that garden gnomes — themselves typically Deutsch — are somewhat (how should I say?) problematic creatures. Their nation-based typicality is one of the problems, and they are aligned with a range of conservative political values as symbols of a bourgeois Sesshaftigkeit that finds its natural expression in the carefully mowed lawn and Garten of the proud homeowner/Dorfbewohner. This is by no means to say that gnomeownership, any more than homeownership, is a clear indication of one’s politics. Still, the associations and stereotypes are there — so much so, in fact, that garden gnomes have come to embody a downright cliché for a certain sort of lifestyle. Of course, the existence of a cliché always invites ironic appropriation as a response, and so recent times have seen the appearance of black-leather biker-gnomes, pot-smoking gnomes, and gnomes doing gnaughty things. Trying to dissociate gnomes from notions and practices of bürgerliche Spießigkeit, these have been attempts to solve what I am calling the Zwergenproblem. But none of them, it seems to me, has yet provided an adequate response, one suited to the true gravity of the situation.

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Meanwhile, beyond and outside of Germany, the garden gnome has come to represent a mostly white, middle-class, suburban existence in a depoliticized any-space-whatever. Garden gnome liberationism has emerged in response — an international effort to free the gnomic proletariat from their servitude, to return gnomes to the wild, and more generally to draw attention to their plight. And yet the political edge wears thin when these efforts devolve into “pranks.” The travelling gnome prank — in which mostly white, middle-class, suburban kids steal their neighbors’ gnomes and take them on vacation, photographing them in front of famous tourist attractions — is all good fun, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really address the core of the Zwergenproblem. Clearly, this is because the prank is situated within the same space of possibility as the “straight” form of gnomeownership that it ostensibly questions: the space of material affluence, leisure, and the freedom to travel, where the suburban home materially anchors and spiritually secures the traveller’s foray “out into the world” like the warmth of Heidegger’s Hütte accompanied him along his Holzwege. Besides, any last drop of radical potential was drained when a major Internet travel company appropriated the prank for its marketing campaign, thus transforming the “liberated” garden gnome into a symbol for digitally enabled neo-liberal capital and the transnational flows of money, bits, and bodies. Behold: the neo-liberated gnome.

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This is where things get interesting, I think, and where a space for artistic intervention into the Zwergenproblem begins to disclose itself. The example of Internet-based travel, which of course depends on real money (hence real labor) and ideally gets real bodies to real places, places the garden gnome squarely in the realm of the so-called “new aesthetic” — which James Bridle describes as “a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our overlapping but distant realities,” especially as concerns the intersection of material and digital realms. The neo-liberated gnome embodies capital as it flows within the control society, and it both emulates and encourages the “participatory culture” of viral marketing, whereby the unpaid immaterial labor done on social networks is appropriated and a surplus value is extracted by algorithmic means. What better mascot than the neo-liberated gnome, which bears witness to the wonders of the world, makes us hungry for travel (and for good-natured pranks), and even tempts us to donate our labor by posting pictures to Facebook et al that will serve as further advertisement for that travel company with the funny garden gnome…

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The association with the “new aesthetic” is even clearer in the context of 3D printing and scanning technologies, where the garden gnome has become a symbol for that magical intersection of materially unique objects rendered digitally reproducible, as in MakerBot’s extensive use of the gnome to demonstrate their machines. There should be no doubt about it: 3D printing really does involve a revolutionary sort of realignment of the physical and the ideal, but why should the garden gnome become the symbol for this transformation? The answer, I think, has to do with the fact that before it became the mascot for the new aesthetic, the garden gnome was a mascot for a putatively “old aesthetic” that itself was secretly bound up in the appearance of industrial modernity and its “aesthetic of the new.” The garden gnome’s origins are in nineteenth-century Germany; accordingly, the creatures must be seen as an essentially modern phenomenon, and as a part of the popular culture that begins to emerge in Europe alongside industrial technologies of production and communication. And yet they feign resistance to that culture, pretending to belong to a romanticized folk culture that is pitted against the emerging commercial popular culture. The gnome, in other words, claims allegiance to the oral culture and local tradition that bequeaths to us the fairy-tale, and it aims to distinguish itself from the mass-produced industrial culture of the modern world — to which, nevertheless, it essentially and materially belongs! Now, with the advent of 3D printing and design, the possibility of digital reproduction calls the gnomes’ bluff, makes their mass and serialized nature apparent, and reveals that they have been subject from the start to the same iterative principles as the serial figures of popular culture. What’s more: the digital infrastructure democratizes the production process, putting the means of production in the hands of the many (or at least in the hands of the growing number who have access to the technology). The gnome becomes shareable across time and space, and subject to a serial process of modification. But again there is the danger that the material and immaterial labor of this “participatory culture” is subject to appropriation and exploitation.

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Besides, there’s nothing very subversive about printing born-digital gnomes in order to repeat the pranks of their more earthy forebears. If we’re really going to do something about the Zwergenproblem — i.e. if we are going to address the problematic politics of the garden gnome as it exists in our transitional moment — we will have to do so with a historical consciousness, one cognizant of the gnomes’ troubled history, their relation to modern production processes, material and immaterial labor, class consciousness, nationalism, popular and high-art cultural formations, and the role of seriality in all of these constellations.

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From an artistic perspective, no one is doing a better job of this at present, I think, than Karin Denson, with her “Krass People” series of gnomes, which are featured throughout this post. (Full disclosure: Karin is my wife. I’m biased. So what? No one’s got better gnomes than her!) Based on iconic figures from popular culture and modern art, her gnomes call into question the boundaries between industrial mass production, pre-modern handcraft, and modern and postmodern artistry. Half ready-made, half carefully crafted objects, the gnomes are collected from flea markets, outlet stores, garage sales, eBay, and wherever else they might be found, before they are hand painted and occasionally re-sculpted to resemble superheroes like Superman or Batman, creatures such as Nosferatu or Frankenstein’s monster, pop stars like Lady Gaga or David Bowie, figures from Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean, or re-imaginings of artworks by Duchamp, Miró, or Dalí. The result is a set of unique physical objects that retain strong conceptual and material links to the cultures of seriality that, since the nineteenth century, have increasingly and irrevocably problematized any notion of uniqueness or (artistic) authenticity. Finally, the objects are digitized and their images subjected to various further transformations: placed in Photoshop collages, set in motion in animated gifs, and displayed in a growing virtual gallery on tumblr. And that’s just the beginning: video, generative, and other works are in planning.

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So does this answer the Zwergenproblem? Perhaps not completely. After all, can there be a truly final answer to a problem that is so thoroughly serial in both its historical genesis and its structural formation? Any answer, it would seem, would itself have to be serial rather than static. And that’s precisely what we have here: an ongoing, serially unfolding, plurimedial and mixed-reality approach that may not answer, but which first succeeds in formulating or addressing, that central problem of the modern world: das Zwergenproblem.

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Finally, in case you’re interested: Karin’s gnomes are available for purchase, but there is only a very limited supply of these (problematically) unique and labor-intensive objects. Karin will be exhibiting and selling them this coming Sunday, November 3, 2013, at the Kunsthandwerkermarkt at the Kulturzentrum Faust (from 11am to 5 pm in the “Warenannahme”).

[UPDATE: There’s now an Etsy store where the gnomes can be purchased online: https://www.etsy.com/shop/KrassStuff]

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Not Yet Titled: Alles in Ordnung

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This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, which is currently showing an exhibit called “Adjusted,” comprising a range of works by the American “Pictures Generation” artist Louise Lawler, alongside an all new permanent exhibition called “Not Yet Titled: Neu und für immer im Museum Ludwig” [Not Yet Titled: New and Forever in Museum Ludwig]. Apparently, the latter is less a permanent exhibition in the traditional sense, and more a semi-permanent configuration of museum space whose contents are scheduled to change; accordingly, it is not so much the artworks on display at any moment that constitute the object of the exhibition but rather the museum itself, its spaces and practices of exhibition, so that “Not Yet Titled” seems to defer closure in the interest of staging a quasi-permanent exhibition of flux. That’s a fairly self-reflexive undertaking, as are many of the works on display, so it’s especially refreshing to see that the museum manages to combine all this heady cross- and self-referencing with a material lightness, an architectural and visceral deferral of (en)closure that is all too often lacking in exhibitions of postmodern and semiotically complex works.

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One of the exhibition’s centerpieces, Barbara Kruger’s large-scale untitled installation from 1994/1995, which you see at the top of this post (but which you also have to hear in order to appreciate fully), is a case in point: the dense commentary on our media culture, its reflexive irony and intertextuality, are embedded in a space that is at once overloaded and threatening and yet therapeutically soothing as well. The ecstatic sounds of a crowd cheering at the absurd acceptance speech for some unnamed award, where the awardee thanks his God and plays with dictatorial slogans, brainwashing tactics, sexist stereotypes and racist claims of superiority — all of these we register cognitively and appraise their political significance, but the applause enervates us directly, dangerously, on this open stage that seems as if it were designed to highlight the problematic political phenomenology of contemporary spaces: While immersed in the installation, we are able to feel the rich ambivalence of its space, which invites us both to recognize the coded nature of experience while also experiencing something that feels like a space for reflection; but the most surprising aspect of the space can only be grasped later, in a snapshot like mine above: Kruger’s installation, which positively begs to be remediated in the form of a photograph (while flaunting the fact that it can never be captured or encompassed in one), immediately collapses into a flat background, against which the human figure inevitably seems to have been added in later with Photoshop. (I swear, the picture above has not been retouched!)

Not only in Kruger’s installation, but throughout the permanent and temporary exhibitions, it was space that, for me, constituted the true attraction. Lawler’s highly self-reflexive photographs of other artists’ artworks (de- and re-contextualized to highlight the significance of exhibition practices and spatial orders) vacillated between a challenging semiotic complexity and a pleasant, almost banal decorative quality within the large open spaces of the Ludwig. Particularly refreshing was the newly commissioned Tracings series, which carries Lawler’s self-reflexive and intertextual tendencies further but abstracts them, reduces, and contributes to a clear open space. In this series, Lawler’s photos of other people’s art are reproduced again, but now in the simplified form of black contour lines upon a white background, thus transforming the high-resolution photographs and rendering the works more iconic and approachable. These oversized coloring-book pictures, which we survey upon exiting the smaller exhibition rooms in the wide monochromatic space in which we access the stairs, refer, of course, to the images we saw downstairs, but they also seem happy enough to slip into the background and assume a more functional, properly architectural role that does not force any sort of dialogue or commentary. Likewise, Lawler’s new Stretch images, which take Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo boxes as their “subject,” blown up to gigantic proportions to occupy two complete walls with anamorphically stretched photos, emphasize the space of the museum — both as an institution and as a material environment.

All in all, the current showings at the Museum Ludwig offer lots of food for thought — for reflection on the politics, history, and institution of contemporary art, for theoretically guided musings on the relations of art to mass media and our changing media of reproduction, and for thought about our own place within these configurations. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re sure to be happy here. These exhibitions do more, though, as well, and something that many museums fail to do as they aim for more “interactive” forms of engagement (while misunderstanding “interactive” as “overstuffed and preemptively overladen with information”): namely, Lawler’s “Adjusted” and the (quasi-)permanent “Not Yet Titled” grasp the space of their own staging, clear it out for our experience, and remind us that we are bodies moving through space and time. Architectural space becomes affective space, and this affective space collides ambiguously with the content of the artworks displayed. The latter may make us know, on a cognitive and political level, that everything is not OK, but even just registering that in this wonderful space imparts a (not unproblematic) feeling, a not yet titled affect: “Alles in Ordnung” (irgendwie, vielleicht)…

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Interview on Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives

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Over at his blog, Michael A. Chaney (professor of English and American Studies at Dartmouth College and director of the Illustration, Comics, and Animation conference there) has posted an interview he conducted with Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, and myself on the topic of comics and our edited collection Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives. Michael is a wonderful interviewer and an all-around great guy, and it was a lot of fun talking to him about our work. So take a look: here.

Post-Cinematic Perspectives

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On November 22-23, 2013, I will be participating in the conference “Post-Cinematic Perspectives,” which is being organized by Lisa Åkervall and Chris Tedjasukmana at the Freie Universität Berlin. There’s a great line-up, as you’ll see on the conference program above. I look forward to seeing Steven Shaviro again (and hearing his talk on Spring Breakers), and to meeting all the other speakers. My talk, on the morning of the 23rd, is entitled “Nonhuman Perspectives and Discorrelated Images in Post-Cinema.” The conference is open to the public, and attendance is free.

Now Open Access: Bildstörung / Image Interference

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After appearing one year ago in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 7, the article “Bildstörung: Serielle Figuren und der Fernseher” [roughly, Image Interference: Serial Figures and the Television Set], co-authored by myself and Ruth Mayer, has now gone into open access and can be downloaded freely at the publisher’s website: here. In addition, the rest of the articles in this special issue devoted to “The Series” are now freely available here. I am very happy to be a part of this great collection, and I applaud ZfM‘s commitment to making their journals open access after an initial one-year print-only period.