Hello, my name is Jens Haaning

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JENS HAANING : ILLEGAL WORKER (p. 102-105)
Nicolas Bourriaud

Style once used to be enough to define the identity of an artist. But in the contemporary world, identity is never much more than an access code, a logo (at best) or a sales pitch (at worst). Surveying a formal territory understood as a private property thus isn't the issue anymore. The work of many artists today is carried out in a succession of aesthetic "moves" apparently isolated from one another. These operators produce exhibitions which are often very disparate formally, since they only consider forms as a tool, rather than an end for their work. Among them, one could name Maurizio Cattelan or Gianni Motti, Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Kendell Geers, Matthieu Laurette, Christian Jankowsky, Wim Delvoye and finally, Jens Haaning. Neither can their practice be described as "experimental" (i.e. this is not what makes it particular) since it is not rooted in the image of a studiocum- laboratory. Rather than investigating a given issue (through a vertical, drilling process), this type of practice unfolds on a horizontal line where recurring elements end up defining a personal universe, in other words a specific toolbox designed to process a similarly specific mass of information.

With respect to this re-centering of aesthetics towards a mode where forms are instrumental, how can the quality of the works thus produced be measured? It is of course understood that the issue isn't only whether a work functions or not; a lot of art that "functions well" turns out to be disastrous, or simply boring. The concept of "accuracy" seems more convincing. What, for want of a better word, one often calls the "beauty" of an artwork is only in most cases the translation in everyday language of a feeling of accuracy which strikes us: the adequate form to convey a singular vision of the world, a precise handling of one's tools. Relevance in the current aesthetics debate, relevance in the period in which it arises. And potentially sustainable as well, if the various elements which "hold" it together persist in their association, which is not always the case, as the perusal of any catalogue from the ‘80s would easily demonstrate.

Jens Haaning's artworks function, in real time moreover. They demand our participation, not from a theoretical point of view (as the notion of "participation" implied in 50s happenings), but in order to verify the concrete hypothesis they materialize. The travel agency he set up at the Chouakri gallery in Berlin delivered real plane tickets; in his supermarket of imported goods in Fribourg, the public could really compare the prices and purchase the products (Super Discount, 1998). Far from an esthetic of the reconstitution (as with Guillaume Bijl, who transformed exhibition spaces into trompe-l'oeil figures), Haaning constructs structures whose functioning is the very object of his practice, beyond any consideration of the nature of art or the museum. This attitude towards the art system is actually typical of the art of today: while the exhibition space was a medium in itself for conceptual artists, an exemplary space from which one could start questioning society as a whole, today it has become a space like any other, an almost neutral space, since all social spaces have been homogenized by the neo-liberal economy. Why work specifically on the museum or the gallery since they are only elements in a chain of interdependent spaces? The issue is less to analyze or criticize this space than to define its site within wider systems of production, whose relations have to be established and codified by the artist himself. In short, it is the socius (the complex of channels distributing information, goods and human relations) which has become the real space of the exhibition for the artists of this generation. The art center or the gallery are particular cases which nonetheless belong to the totalizing whole one could describe as the "public place". This is for example the case with Untitled (de Appel — de Gelderse Roos), 2000, a work where Haaning installed a live transmission from an art center to a psychiatric hospital. This was no exploitative model of exchange, since the connection worked only one way, turning the exhibition space into a human zoo. Where one would have expected a commentary on the art institution, Haaning made us reflect on that of psychiatry.

Society, seen through the work of Jens Haaning, is a body divided into lobbies, quotas or communities. But it principally appears as a vast catalogue of narrative frameworks governed by the audiovisual model of editing. His work asks a question: is this edit in which we live the only one possible? From the same material (the everyday), it is always possible to produce different versions of reality. His work thus functions like an editing suite, reorganizing social forms by producing alternative scenarios. Haaning de-programs and re-programs, he suggests that other uses of collective space are possible. His pieces hint at these uses while materializing them.

One of his favorite models is the immigrant community. In any society, for an important part of the "national" population, immigration is seen as a kind of foreign body. This image is further reinforced in the collective imagination by the fact that immigrants are generally denied any positive representation, any space of inscription. Off-screen in relation to the social imagination, it is a "margin" without images which we generally only perceive through politically coded representations. In various works, Haaning has attempted to materialize these semi-invisible communities: for example, Turkish Jokes (1994) or Arabic Jokes (1996), where he injected a foreign language into the city's body, letting it bring together those who could speak it, thus for once excluding the "natives", leaving them without any ability to read the message. Turkish Jokes functions like those chemicals which, once inoculated into the patient's body, temporarily make the network of his veins visible under X-rays. To make visible: stickers on their cars reveal the nationality of taxi drivers (The Employees of Taxa + 4 x 35, 2000). Enabling all foreigners to go to the city pool for free is an inversion of regular privileges but also lets an image of their presence arise (Foreigners Free – Biel Swimming Pool, 2000). Haaning has repeated this gesture on various occasions, giving totally free access to immigrants in the museums and art centers where he has been invited, thus electing a "people" as the ideal spectator of his works: the alien victim of racism and misunderstanding, the economic nomad produced by ultra-liberalism and third-world poverty. More generally, Jens Haaning's work points out the way in which any artwork generates a certain type of behavior, but also a micro-community of viewers. Thus, for the Western spectator Ma'lesh (2000) will look like an elegant light-box in black and white, while those who read Arabic will also find a strange sign of complicity: "Who cares?"

Haaning's work enters the theoretical framework of relational aesthetics, since it first evolves in the inter-human field, producing social relations and negotiations before any other aesthetic considerations. But what is important is that Haaning never considers the universe of human relations as an innocent space. Far from some of the well-wishing social and cultural caricatures which are all too often associated with "relational" practices, Haaning takes the contradictions and the violence of social space into account. Sometimes he even stages them in unbearable situations, forming a team of workers to produce real weapons (Weapon Production, 1995), or, in a more subtle fashion, proposing to turn a bankrupt factory located next to the site of a concentration camp into a holiday resort (Das Faserstoff Project, 1998). Nazism, Taylorism, leisure industry: a similar root? Not every community is good.

Exchange, or rather substitution, is one of the principal figures of this practice founded on establishing forced connections: thus a neon tube from a Danish exhibition space ended up hanging on the ceiling of the Luther King food store in Houston, Texas (Copenhagen–Texas (Light Bulb Exchange), 1999). Or this chair from gallery Wallner which was exchanged with another from the Klub Diplomat, a space for foreigners in Copenhagen. The everyday objects thus displaced function like inverted readymades: the mass-produced object does not change status, but materializes a pairing; it links two places together and creates a space which is the very form of the work. This very particular form (a space in-between two places, a movement between two situations) also plays a very important role in many contemporary artworks: Rirkrit Tiravanija recreated the dimensions of his New York apartment at the Kunstverein in Cologne, Maurizio Cattelan exhibited the loot of a burglary committed a few meters away from the De Appel Foundation, Pierre Huyghe worked on the distance separating a lived experience from a Hollywood fiction… The art of today follows the tracks of a border zone, and Haaning is one of its most stubborn explorers. Matthieu Laurette, proposing to become a citizen of a tax haven, formulates a similar problem like in Haaning's piece, Danish Passport (1997). Composed of his passport placed under glass: both are premised on the idea that we live in a commodified space, where nationality is only one type of property amongst others and thus also has a price.

This tendency to insert humanity within abstract structures is certainly the central figure of Jens Haaning's activities. The space of exchange does of course constitute their place and form, but most of the time, what is at stake is an openly displayed substitution that in turn exposes normative codes (ethnic, social, aesthetics). Hence his Refugee Calendar is a calendar like any other which simply replaces the customary images of desire with those we refuse to face, pictures of the alien living a few blocks away from us, "in irregular situation", as one calls the illegal workers and immigrants, the families or individuals herded in refugee camps. The artist claims a similarly "irregular situation" for himself within the field of contemporary art–working in the cellars of aesthetics.

Translated from French by Mai-Thu Perret, Geneva.


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