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<nettime> At Your Own Risk
Ryan Griffis on Thu, 16 Oct 2003 11:48:46 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> At Your Own Risk

>> Medrano says she doesn't know what kind of chemical
she splashed on her face, nor was she warned about the
product or its potential danger -- and such perilous
oversights are all too common in the industry.
Injuries related to chemical exposures such as
Medrano's range from skin irritation and burns to
allergic reactions in the lungs or on the skin. Other
hazards include lacerations from material such as
broken glass left in trash cans, lung problems from
removing mold, and nasty falls on slippery floors. "If
the elevator is broken, I have to drag heavy bags to
the basement using the stairs," says a Salvadoran
janitor who cleans dot-com offices.<<
- Michele Holcenberg, “Janitors and Custodians,”

>> If you become aware of an unusual and suspicious
release of an unknown substance nearby, it doesn't
hurt to protect yourself. Quickly get away.<<
- from the US Dept. of Homeland Security’s

A couple of years ago, I attended a presentation by an
artist who had worked with the web-based group RTMark
(www.rtmark.com), among other “politically-motivated”
arts groups, that was about political art after
September 11. During the question and answer session,
another attendee expressed her dislike for the work of
RTMark and questioned the political commitment of such
work in general. The problem was the seeming lack of
risk for the artists, which was translated as a lack
of genuine commitment. In other words, if the artists
really meant what they said, they would be on the
front lines of demonstrations risking injury, fines
and jail. Or at least they’d be politicians. I left
wondering what it means to consider art, or even
political action, in terms of heroic risk taking.

This anecdote has stuck with me, and I often come
across other situations and debates where similar
terms arise. On a recent trip to Germany, I was
fortunate enough to catch “At Your Own Risk,” an
exhibition at the Shirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, and
further consider the concept of “risk.” Curated by
Markus Heinzelmann and Martina Weinhart, works were
included by Christoph Büchel, Critical Art Ensemble
(with Beatriz da Costa and Shyh-shiun Shyu), Camilla
Dahl, gelatin, Jeppe Hein, Carsten Höller, Ann
Veronica Janssens, Sven Påhlsson, Henrik Plenge
Jakobsen, Julia Scher and Ann Maria Tavares. The
particular relationship to risk varied from work to
work, as was the aesthetic and conceptual strategies
used by each artist.

One possible way of reading conceptual differences
among the works is in how each creates a different
sense of time for the viewer. Simply put, there seem
to be differences in how each work positions the
relationship between risk and the exhibition’s
visitors. Some work, for example, creates the
experience of an “aftermath,” a risk in the past
tense. This is more significant than a simple
difference in narrative approach however. How we are
positioned/position ourselves in relation to our
understanding of risk says a lot about how we perceive
our ability to enact change in our own lives. Or as
Neils Werber discusses in the catalogue, whether we
are taking risks (making decisions about our own
future) or experiencing danger (living with the
choices of others).

The environmental/architectural installation by
Christph Büchel creates such an experience of a past,
a past where the outcome of taking a risk is now
known. Upon entering Büchel’s work, one finds herself
within a decomposing, yet not completely destroyed,
apartment. A radio and electric lights still function
amid the vacant rooms that include a collapsed kitchen
filling with dirt and a completely flooded, and eerily
still, bathroom. As a visitor, walking through with
other visitors, the feeling is voyeuristic, as if you
are part of a scientific team exploring an urban
ecosystem post catastrophe. It’s this feeling of being
an observer that provided me with the feeling of
temporal distance, along with the nostalgia provided
by my experiences with dated, post-apocalyptic films
like “Mad Max” and “The Omega Man.” Relating to
present trauma through the past is one way of making
sense of new experiences, as well as a way of using
traumatic experience in order to harness emotional
power – for good or bad.

Many of the works dealt with an abstract sense of the
present, offering the chance to make theatrical
choices within the confines of the work. Camilla
Dahl’s “Champaign Bar” dares viewers to suck champaign
from rubber nipples (on their knees, of course) as
it’s poured over a seductive, faux-porcelain
appliance. If you like taking blank pills for fun,
Carsten Höller’s “Placebo Tablet Tank,” a lotto-like
machine that spits placebo pills out of a large
aquarium, may help you out. Stepping into Ann Veronica
Janssens’s fog filled room (if you don’t have asthma),
it takes about five seconds before you have no idea
how you got in, as you wander through a mist that
changes colors from one spot to the next.

Only a couple of the works in the show dealt
specifically with technological risks/dangers, and
while not completely focused on an uncertain future,
there certainly is a sense of looking at risks that
are not, nor can be completely decided upon in the
moment. As Paul Virilio’s “Unknown Quantity” suggests
(http://www.onoci.net/virilio/index_uk.php), there is
the feeling (largely supported by contemporary
experience) of dangers/risks increasing exponentially
as the complexity and interconnectivity of technology

Julia Scher’s “Embedded” uses closed circuit
surveillance video within a seductive sculptural
installation of beds to relate an ongoing story that
makes each visitor a new character (Goldilocks
perhaps). The story involves a simultaneous past,
present and future, as visitors will see video images
of those that preceded them, making them aware of a
delay in the broadcast, while also aware that some
unknown future visitors will be looking at images of
them. While video surveillance is already ubiquitous
in contemporary public life, and anyone familiar with
the Web has probably seen private web cams of some
sort, the future direction of surveillance technology
and our understanding of “public” are not necessarily
certain. Scher provides an opportunity to question
both the social and personal aspects of voyeurism and
control, and points to some of the epistemological
problems with the public/private dichotomy in the
first place.

Biotechnology has become an increasingly contentious,
global topic, affecting philosophical, economic and
religious ideologies. With growing evidence of the
mobility of genetically modified (GM) material (GM
“polluted” crops like soy, corn and canola), there is
also growing resistance to the acceptance of this
unregulated genetic drift. Legal cases like Monsanto
vs. Percy Schmeiser, the battle for labeling
standards, the Mexican governments attempts to
preserve the integrity of its corn stock, and now the
EU’s effort to ban the importation of GM foods from
the US are some of the manifestations of this
resistance. Critical Art Ensemble's (with Beatriz da
Costa and Shyh-shiun Shyu) project, “Free Range
Grain,” takes the methods of risk analysis to the
audience, giving EU citizens an opportunity to see if
such a ban is proving successful in keeping GMOs out
of the food supply. For the exhibit, a portable lab
was set up in the Schirn where visitors could bring in
food products and test them for evidence of GM
material, demystifying both the subject of GMOs and
the science behind genetic research.

In the exhibition catalogue, Neils Werber makes the
argument that the dichotomy of risk/danger is
unavoidable, that “no round table discussion, however
broadly representative its participants, changes
anything about the fact that, time and again,
decisions involving high risks and lasting
consequences are imposed on others as dangers.” The
attempt to democratize decisions then, merely “shifts
their focus.” It is this concept that I’d like to
consider in conclusion and take us back to the opening
quotations that I’ve yet to mention.

One of the curatorial strategies employed in making a
cohesive, graphic statement with the exhibition was
the approach to labeling. Instead of the standard wall
tags, information was printed on those bright yellow
floor signs often used to warn of slippery floors (the
catalogues also had bright yellow covers with
singular, black symbols familiar as hazard warnings,
like those for fire or electric shock). Usually, the
institutional/curatorial hand is less visible and
therefore more difficult to consciously consider, so
this instance of institutional visualization provides
plenty for contemplation.

If as Werber suggests, risk (agency) comes at the
expense of danger (passivity), where does the transfer
of control occur here? We are told that we, as viewers
transformed into participants, are taking risks; that
the artists are taking risks by making participatory
work; that the curators are taking risks by organizing
such a show; and finally that the institution is
taking risks by hosting the exhibit. I certainly do
not mean to minimize these risks or the significance
of the acts involved, rather quite the opposite. But,
if these are risks, taken knowingly and with active
involvement, where is the site of danger? Well, this
is a complex question, for sure, but one worth

It’s possible that the signage, as insignificant as it
may seem, reveals something of a subconscious here,
almost like an institutional Freudian slip. The little
yellow sandwich boards, warning of a just mopped
floor, are institutional indicators themselves. They
are standardized, isotype bearing markers of a
seemingly benevolent power looking out for our
wellbeing, saying, “Be careful! Don’t slip.” We see
them in malls, shops, schools, hospitals, and museums
– those public spaces where you may visit, work, or
just pass through. So we slow down and move more
carefully, aware of the risk if we don’t. But behind
this institutional display of paternal caring are
those like Medrano and the Salvadoran worker quoted
above. Institutional risk creates personal danger for
those in service or considered expendable, whether
it’s one’s health or retirement savings. Of course, I
don’t mean to simplify the issue to one of worker
safety: institutions depend on many forms of power
transference in order to sustain the illusion of
control and the appearance of benevolence, whether
local or global in scope. And while the problem of
inequality in the risk/danger dichotomy may remain
problematic, shifting the focus might not be such a
bad idea. Maybe it’s who’s doing the shifting that matters.

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