The Ambivalent Visibility of Labour
Text by Andrej Mircev
Exposed to the optical unconsciousness of the camera, the choreography of still images developed in Transformance embodies the uncertain and fragile existence of both artists and workers in the age of biopolitical surveillance. The intricate relation between the seemingly passive gestus of the (female) performer and the hard working body of the male worker, is negotiated through an enduring action, in which the female body becomes the silent witness of the labour that will radically alter an old BVG public transport warehouse into Uferstudios, a contemporary dance center in Berlin. One of my first associations regarding Nina Kurtela's durational performance was the tradition of the so called Gastarbeiters, foreign/migrant workers coming from Yugoslavia or Turkey who, mainly in the 60s and 70s, used to work in West Germany, contributing to its economic miracle after the defeat in the Second World War. Yet the role of the Gastarbeiter (or maybe even ghostarbeiter?) is doubled: on the first level we really see workers on the construction site, while, on the other hand, we also follow Nina, as well as her "ghost performers", who, on the edge of visibility, enter our perception as subliminal, flickering images. The tension of these two regimes of visibility entails a process-oriented temporality, in which the real, material action of the workers is mirrored (and underscored) with Nina's immobilized choreography and the haunting performances of her absent friends.
Contrasting the material dimension of labour and the imaginary production of the art work the performance and video tend to displace the fixed borders between production and reproduction, presence and representation, document and fiction. For my argument, however, this media strategy is not relevant so much in terms of a performance protocol, but because of the economic and political consequences. In other words, I shall not be concerned with the apparatus of Nina's piece, but with its implicit political meaning and some of the ambivalences it generates. It might be argued that these two aspects of the piece are interrelated, yet for the sake of clarity I shall analyse just one dimension. Although there has seldom been a period in which artistic labour has had full financial support, in the last few years we are, again, confronted with a situation in which artists have been exposed to the imperative of either commercialsing their endeavours and entering the spectacular worlds of commodity or dwelling on the margins of economic activity. On the other hand, contemporary artistic practice is strategically used for uneven development and, thus, it often becomes a medium of gentrification. In the case of Transformance it is (in my opinion) precisely this undecided position that can serve as a springboard to reflect on the political dimension of the piece.
The twofold regime of visibility and division of labour can be considered the point in which Nina stages the condition of precarity by displaying working bodies. Setting up a stage on which she, the workers and her ghost performers will be surveilled by a static camera that resembles the technique of CCTV, Nina forces the viewer to find him/herself identifying with the controlling/inspecting gaze. Due to this procedure, the exposure of labour becomes the generating event in which the fragile posture of the dancer is brought to a level equal to that of the workers. It is this equidistributed discernibility that enables the attention to be shifted from the signifying economy of the mediatized performance to political and class-related issues. What both groups have in common is their presence on a construction site that soon will be transformed into a contemporary dance and performing arts venue and will thereby attract more people to the shabby working class Wedding neighbourhood, changing it into an area of expensive housing. Having that in mind one could claim that the art work itself is an uncanny operation, since we could accuse the artist of documenting, thus, implicitly participating in, the act of gentrification. A series of concluding, unsettling questions here may thus arise: What is the relation between capital, labour and art in Transformance? Can art transverse its alignment with the power structures of capital? Does the visibility of work and workers increase or decrease our awareness of the economic, cultural and semiotic transformation of the site? How is this piece to be seen in terms of class and production relations? Is it supporting class differences or can it be seen as an attempt to subvert them? What about the artist? Is she just using precarious work to underline her position as a Gastarbeiter in Germany and gain extra profit? Is she demonstrating a kind of solidarity with the workers or are her deeds oriented towards their symbolic exploitation? And finally: does this engender appropriation or emancipation?
Text by Jadwiga Zimpel
In the rise of the symbolic economy, cities start to reinvent their multiple industrial spaces, believing that such a strategy will help them to create a competitive self-image – attractive enough to appeal to various forms of capital: financial, human and cultural. One of the most popular strategies of culture-based revitalization is the conversion of former production sites into art-consumption venues. The transformation of the former BVG warehouse into Uferstudios, documented in Nina Kurtela’s work, serves as a perfect example.
Changing the function and perceived features of the industrial layer of a city fabric occurs in time. However the passage of time needed to reshape the space is much shorter than dure?e of its previous occupation. Such a disproportion makes the process of transformation almost invisible. While before and after win a new, different life – transformed by urban imagineers into marketable images of progress and nostalgia – the in-between “melts into air”. Kurtela’s Transformance, situated and unfolded inside the fragile in-between, saves it from such a destruction by representing its duration on video tape and recognizing it – both as a space for and metonymy of performance. The metonymic gesture of such a saving is important for cities not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of politics.
City space transformation is not merely a physical action. Informed by a neo-Marxist approach we already know that space does not function as a container for bodies and items.It is rather a product of social relations, a hybrid consisting of material and mental – of bricks and of memories. Thus transformation of physical and functional qualities of place leads also to reconfiguration of the feeling structure attached to it.
Kurtela’s medially expanded presence at the former BVG warehouse constructs a liminal, fluid space serving as a stage not only for the performer but also for loss – to perform its drama. Inhabiting the in-between can be thus interpreted in terms of mourning. The stability of the artist’s body in space recalls the figure of a witness, whose silent, attentive presence gives visibility to the process of transition from an industrial to a postindustrial state of mind. As we know, such a transit has its winners as well as its victims, its bright and its dark side. Dark here serves as the metaphor of time-based loss.
The political flavour of Kurtela’s work stems also from an aesthetized routine used as a structure for performance. The concept of performing in 8 hour cycles makes “going to perform” very similar to “going to work”. In this gesture Kurtela addresses the precarious condition of contemporary artists depending on elastic forms of employment, yet she surmounts it by establishing a work routine of her own. In addition, the artist’s repetitive appearances at a construction site not only validate the former uses of the BVG warehouse but also reconstruct the connection between artist and physical worker that inspired the early work of Walter Benjamin.
Don Mitchell in his informative book exploring the concepts of contemporary cultural geography draws a connection between the capitalist process of landscape production and the Marxist concept of fetishization. This means that landscapes for purposes such as art consumption venues hide the labour needed for their construction. In the light of Mitchell’s thought, Transformance can be read as bodily and media-supported criticism of the underlying logic of the processes in which urban space is reinvented in late capitalism.
Notes on Nina Kurtela’s Transformance: The Time Machine, Cubism, and some beginner’s Meta-Physics
By Kandis Williams of tanzCOLLECTED, Berlin 2013
In just the same way the thousands of successive positions of a runner are contracted into one sole symbolic attitude, which our eye perceives, which art reproduces, and which becomes for everyone the image of a man who runs.
Nina Kurtela’s work often deals with a primal confrontation between the various economic divisions of labor and artistic production. While I documented her 2012 ”Interiors” for the X – Choregrafen, Tanz Im August festival in Berlin, I was struck by the cleverness of her performance. While other performers and organizers of the Festival were rushing to correct budgets and produce performances, Kurtela’s performance marked a single flippant response to the urgency and narcissism of theatrical production. She slept in a free-standing display case on Kurfurstendamm. The piece was made up of re-actions, the choreographic score became the differences in the motivations of each viewer- some expecting to see a ‘dance’ and some expecting to see products and advertisings, all regarded the spot where she slept as a stage. This very simple action made transparent a single, pared-down role of the performer: that of being/object staged to be re-acted to by an audience.
Watching Transformance (2010), I was immediately cued in to the contrast between the clock-punching, bustling presence of construction workers and the more meandering occupation of the space by a few dancers and by Kurtela herself. When sitting down to write this essay I thought of focusing on this paradox, on the ways that these bodies are coded by their intended labors while moving within the frames captured by Kurtela’s cable release. While very much could be unpacked within the piece about the dancer’s Abhängigkeit on the stage, as well as the conventions of theater, and the impossibility of ephemerality in contemporary movement studies since Muybridge’s Human Figures in Motion, what I found more complicated was the present effectiveness of time lapse video as a form born out of movement and audience. As every first year video student or Discovery Channel viewer knows, it has much to do with the display of duration; as a popular format, whether it is used for documenting movement/activity or decay/collapse- the time lapse has something deeper to do with the reconciliation of sensations private and internal with the nature of sensation itself. The desire is there somehow to show all the states of an object at once. By creating a work of choreography through such means, Kurtela’s Transformance is more confrontational than its single-point-perspective shot would suggest. Calling to mind Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries and Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performances, the sweeping the fast-motion shots of the city in Geofrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, in Transformance the camera sees Kurtela moving in every dimension that she can control as one body while the time lapse photography simultaneously admits to the viewer that there is one dimension to which we are all beholden, the fourth dimension, time.
Re-watching George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), based on HG Wells’ 1895 novel of the same title. A sound bite that went something like, “Why is it that we normally ignore the 4th dimension? You see we can move in the other three; upwards, forwards, backwards, even sideways - but when it comes to time we are prisoners,” provided the lynchpin for the unpacking of Kurtela’s performance outside the discourse on spectatorship and contemporary dance. Transformance in its simplicity shows us the stage being built and the audience implied in the construction of the space: this physical work will amount to a spatial construction that will then be filled with people watching performers, all gives a logic to the mise-en-scène. The presence of the dancer in the absence of this audience is indeed also an admission of the dancer as a both a product of and a site for the potential of display. This is a quiet and elusive way of representing the dancer’s separation from the audience and the theater, of placing the dancer outside of spectatorship and convention; yet showing her resistant and persistently occupying a space where there is an unquestionable relationship that all bodies experience- the inescapability of ascent and descent inherited in age, atrophy, the directional movement within our own molecules towards death.
Transformance turns the theater into a hypercube of this experience, almost an equation of the square root of the mechanism of theater times or divided by the social construction of the places of spectacle by the physical dimension and structure of the stage itself. Within this hypercube, Kurtela creates a time machine in which to situate herself as a consequence of the theater, an objective within the fourth dimension. It is this sense of the dancer as an object that is static in time, of a form trained in it’s own mechanics, the dancer as the embodiment of the body that is relayed in Kurtela’s video. The flatness of the screen and its limitations in representing experience are also exploited through the painterly aspects of the time lapse.
Considering the 1956 short film "The Mystery of Picasso”, in which director Henri-Georges Clouzot filmed the painter making several pictures that were then burned after the filming; within this early time lapse we see a blurred but natural technological extension of Cubism. It is this simultaneity possessed in Cubism that Transformance uses to express the duality of the contemporary dancer’s position within the convention of theater. Through plotting out the construction of the stage at Uferstudios in Berlin over half a year, Transformance contains and illustrates the way the constant metaphysical properties of performance invoke the erection of physical spaces, charged and changing over time - time here can be eons or the half a year it takes to build a studio stage in Berlin, and the oscillation between these periods is made clear by the single performer as a testament and witness.
My mind drifted through the 7 minutes into the field that maybe was Uferstudios preconstruction and followed the dancer straight through the rabbit hole and into the many uses of such a space- that is into the multiple potentials of performance.
I took this from French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) who is credited with inspiring Cubism, from his book Creative Evolution 1907:
The universe endures. The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new...The same is even more obviously true of the objects cut out by our perception. The distinct outlines which we see in an object, and which give it its individuality, are only the design of a certain kind of influence that we might exert on a certain point of space: it is the plan of our eventual actions that is sent back to our eyes, as though by a mirror, when we see the surfaces and edges of things. Suppress this action, and with it consequently those main directions which by perception are traced out for it in the entanglement of the real, and the individuality of the body is re-absorbed in the universal interaction which, without doubt, is reality itself.
Kurtela’s work acts like a Cubist portrait of the dancer in its seamless rendering of the experience of Time and the conditions it imposes upon objects. She overlaps states of change and by letting the dancer move through these states unaffected, and holding the ability to create snapshots of transformation and to re-organize both time and space - she invokes the metaphysical elements of dance itself. Transformance points to an often neglected element of dance, the video illustrates through layering the absences and constructions between performer, audience, and theater; the collective collapse of all three within Time- ceaselessly changing.
Performance of Duration, Transformation and Change
Text by Branka Bencic
Transformance by Nina Kurtela is a documentation of a five months-long durational performance, structured as time-lapses out of hundreds of still photographs. The artist positions herself/her body in the center of the image that depicts an empty warehouse in the process of undergoing reconstruction, establishing the daily routine of witnessing transformations of the architectural space in Berlin. Everything is under construction. There are construction works in progress. The space is undergoing a transformation, a change. It is undergoing change of purpose, from being BVG Berlin’s public transport garage and workshop to a space for contemporary dance. In this way a change is both about a new architectural form and its new function, purpose, meaning and social context.
Having established the daily routine of being-in-the-space, Nina Kurtela witnesses the months-long process of the transformation and change of this architectural space.
Transformance poses questions on the possibilities of space and the production of meaning. In the transformation of the social and economic landscape, a new spatial context is establishing the role of art in detecting the time and space we live in.
Those months-long visits undertaken by Nina Kurtela and her presence in the time-lapse video Transformance can trigger different relations to articulate social and spatial phenomena, which are revealed as the meeting point of the subject and the transformations of the social and physical environment.
Models of representation of a space are constructed based on different fragments – layers of immediate environment, daily routines, everyday experiences, traces from the past, bits of culture and society, which establish perspectives on processes of thinking and perception. “Contemporary performance in the domain of culture”, points out Miško Šuvakovi?, “is a performative work of an artist that intervenes in the field of culture.” A performance as an art-related event presupposes performing in real time, in front of an audience, and is subsequently available by the way of documentation, while a video-performance is meant for the camera. Transformance is performed without an audience and it is mediated by a dense sequence consisting of hundreds of photographs structured into a time-lapse video. In this way documentation, structure and organization of an artistic action of limited duration such as a performance is shaped as a form of its representation that reflects and makes visible the process of development of an artwork. Transformance by Nina Kurtela in this way is not understood only as a documentation of a performative action, but also as a video-performance, a performance staged for and in front of the camera.
It has been said that the relationships between art, technology and identity have not been explored in any other artistic medium with such consistency and continuity as in the medium of video. Placing her own body, own figure and exploring technical and semantic possibilities of montage and manipulation, by interventions into the flow of time and the time-space complex, she leads us to witness an interest in social aspects and transformative processes in the immediate every day surroundings that are taking place on the edges of real and hybrid space and time, transcending and manipulating real, fixed and imaginary boundaries. Time that takes shape in such a time-space pastiche construction is a time of simulation, a hybrid time. As a result of a crisis of representation, reorganization and rearrangement of the feelings of time and space, possibilities of technical and digital manipulation can underscore the uncertain position of the subject, the isolation and unstable character of identity, drawing attention to concepts of transformation and change.
Although the protagonist is present, the main event is performed by the medium itself, underscoring the constructed character of media performance, making visible transformations in and changes to the surrounding environment, interior and mise-en-scene. In this way the basic artistic process has been made bare, and at the same time and at the same level the phases of construction of the artwork and the de/construction of interior architecture are revealed.
The construction of the scene is becoming the main narrative that emphasizes the montage – collage construction of the artwork, reveals the manipulation by the media and mediated, manipulated and constructed reality of the event, that the artist herself is continuously witnessing. The possibilities of digital technology and postproduction process are underscoring the constructed character of the event, condensing a five months long process of the artist inhabiting the space into a several minutes long performance video that even by jumps, cuts and glitches of the image stresses the continuity of the performance while we witness the construction and transformation of the event site, an interior environment under construction. The historical trajectory of techniques and manipulation in montage procedures from avant-garde cinema to contemporary computer animation has the goal of constituting a new temporal dimension and new spatial relations, making them bare and making process of transformation becoming visible and taking shape in front of our eyes.
Nina Kurtela: Autoshow - Car Show
Text by Suncica Ostojic
In the 18th century the concept of fetish referred to an object of adoration or supernatural powers among the primitive, as they were called, religions. At the end of the 19th century this sense of religious exaltation was resemanticised to cover sexual fixations, and fetishism began to mean a male sexual pattern in which a given inanimate object or indeed a part of the body became an object of arousal. In Freudian psychoanalytical theory it becomes a substitute for the mother’s want of a penis, by displacement from the mother-child-phallus sexual relation. The position of object of admiration or object of desire in the paradigms of the technological society can be ascribed to the cars. Ferrari, Lexus, Maybach, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce are all objects that confer power, sex appeal and identity on subjects. Some theories say that identity is not actually a property of a person as such but is set up outside. The subject is formed vis-à-vis others and vis-à-vis its own self, marking its economic, social, class and family position with objects. By surrounding ourselves with object-signifiers, we establish an identity that is an alienating position.
Desire, unlike need, can never be satisfied, claims Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, according to which desire is an attitude towards absence and not object, it is the “desire for the desire of the Other”, and it is this that Nina Kurtela embodies as the fetishisation of means of transportation in the project Car Show/Autoshow in the Croatian Artists Centre, HDLU. Cars quastatus symbols represent their owner, and so the artistic car-objects of Nina Kurtela represent her as artist. Hence the title turns into a pun: the real exhibition of cars and the auto-show as a self- showing, a self-exhibition.
At the opening, the host/compère unveiled to us the silhouette of an upmarket car in life size wrapped in silver silk, slowly turning on a metal stand.
Underneath the smooth silk, the upholstered shell of a real car in Neo- Pop Art aesthetics was revealed. In her painting and prints, this artist deals with the recycling of old materials, and in this case she has taken a diagrammatic floral ornament and uses it as a motif on her own paintings, as well as appliquéing it to the upholstery and glass, thus transforming a wreck of a car into a highly aestheticised objectification of painting, into a fancy designer’s object that generates the desire for possession. Nina Kurtela deprives the car of all functionality while turning it into a pointless object of desire that instead of lights has mirrors, and instead of the three-dimensional symbol on the bonnet has a glass on a base, filled with caviar. Caviar, another symbol of prestige and high society, is also part of the resounding name of the car itself, which as a whole goes: Cooper Caviar GTX.
Autoshow is not exhausted just in the star of the evening - the fetishised object under the spots. The whole project is also a happening. The performance features, which include the work of the compère of the show, responsible for the professional zip of the whole representation, the game show prizes like eating caviar with no hands, the stereotyped hostesses that make sure the visitors properly fill out their bingo cards (and pose sensually with the car), the waiters serving drinks, the TV cameras and the audience - in which there happened to be the stars of the domestic soap Forbidden Love Petra Kurtela (the artist’s sister) and Mario Valentic - turned round together with the car in a glamour entertainment the ludic element of which in the end managed to be unpretentious. All of these characters by their active participation and interaction constituted Kurtela’s social installation.
Using to the uttermost the patterns and strategies of showbiz the artist creates a show in which she presents the construction of status via a large mechanical appendix to or accompaniment of someone’s physical body, which many people in this society have to pay off in five year easy payment plans, however much some of them are hard put to make ends meet. This caricatured simulation shot through with wit is nevertheless not a moralising pamphlet discussing what can be termed true worth as against something that is classified as a false value. By creating a complete replica of an autoshow at the centre of which is an emasculated and non- functioning car, the artist generates in a social situation a dualism, appropriately meting out the irony, at several levels at that, and then again leaving enough room for humour, fun, kidding about, easy enjoyment, jolliness and looking on the bright side, which all comes from accumulating and identifying with objects. According to the logic of consumerism, while the show is still on, the car can be bought at a discount price of 169,000 kuna, while after the show is over it will end up in the small ads.
Party mood in the literal sense of the word, processuality and a relational attitude to the audience were what characterised the previous work of Nina Kurtela in the Krizic Roban Gallery, where she sidestepped the unease of having her first solo show by putting on a birthday party. But in the monumental Barrel Gallery of the Meštrovic Pavilion, Nina Kurtela to a still greater extent turns art into adventure, into spectacle that ostensibly ducks out of contemplation and generates an apparently a no-hang-ups social situation, however much below it all there is a carefully considered script. A project that is so financially and organisationally demanding, and which is also actually the dissertation of young Nina Kurtela, is with its ambition, high level of production, cogency and articulateness a phenomenon in the generation to which it belongs.
Nina Kurtela: Laundromat
Text by Olga Majcen Linn, curator
Doing the laundry is one of the most ordinary and profane activities in human life, on par with cleaning the apartment or servicing the car. However boring it may seem, someone has to do it. In most countries, laundromats are ubiquitous and there exists a certain culture developed around them. While doing laundry you can also have a coffee or a nice brunch on Saturday (washday), you can meet a friend or even some stranger and have a relaxing conversation. The laundromat is more connected to the youth/single culture, because „family people“ usually already own their own washers and dryers.
In Croatia there are no laundromats whatsoever. Actually there is one, close to the student's dormitory, where pricing is far from cheap. Why is that the case, and how would our life change if there was one in the center of Zagreb are the questions that artist Nina Kurtela is trying to answer by bringing laundromat in the form of art installation to the gallery space.
The art audience and everyone else are offered washing and drying machines, detergents, drying racks and irons so they can do their cleaning outside their home. From the beginning, the project was a success. A lot of people without a machine decided to use the gallery laundromat. There was a queue almost every day formed around the machines. There were also a few problems – gallery power was sometimes not strong enough to support the infrastructure; machines sometimes appeared to have a will of their own, and technically knowledgeable people from real laundromats would have been a great help to have there instead of the gallery crew.
The aesthetic dimension of the piece is there – the beauty of the machines is accompanied with brightly colored accessories (pegs, laundry baskets, drying racks). However the artistic concept puts this piece into a category of social sculpture. A lucid transformation occurs when the gallery space has a specific function besides being an art space and the gallery crew become maintainers of the laundromat. This taps into far more crucial and interesting questions. For example the question of the necessity of art contrasts to the social function of space. Can the art be transformed into necessity; can art provide the means of providing services for people?
An interesting artistic strategy employed by Nina Kurtela in most of her gallery projects is reinventing the space into something else outside of the art context, something connected to everyday life. For example, in Gallery Bacva she used for promotion of her artistic car - Cooper Caviar GTX, so the whole gallery was staged as a car salon, and the opening as the promotion of a new long expected car model. Gallery Krizic Roban was the space in which the artist used to celebrate her own birthday, crossing the line between private and public event and inviting everyone (art audience) to become part of her private life, and vice versa, inviting everyone from her private life (boyfriend, sister, friends, parents) to become part of her exhibition. The exhibition that happened was made of presents she received from her friends and polaroid photos taken at the birthday party. Gallery VN went through a dramatic transformation and also successfully became a place of happening, but this time the event lasted more then the opening day. With a mixed audience of launders and art patrons, „why is that art?“ became the most frequently asked question, being posed mostly by ordinary people outside art circles.
Some social conclusions concerning the project are connected to the economy of course. As we said in the beginning, laundromats are often associated with youth and single culture. Croatia, (like Italy for example) is one of those countries known for the fact that offsprings live much longer with their parents, something that has persisted since Socialism. Most live with parents while single, and sometimes even after marriage. That's why laundromats were not all that necessary. When young singles live with their parents, they don't need to find washing machines outside their apartment. Only recently did the social behavior of young people start to change, and this trend is to establish your own family later, and live by yourself by in the mean time. The audience at Nina Kurtela's experiment has shown that Zagreb needs at least one laundromat.