lennaart on Thu, 16 Sep 2010 21:14:11 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> consored: UBS Lies, 2009

Dear all,

Over a week ago (2 Sept) a work by Bitnik Mediengruppe (UBS Lies, 2009) was taken down from its billboard site in North London under the threat of legal action. The billboard space was hired for a month in the context of an exhibition called 'Too Big Too Fail, Too Small Too Succeed' at [ space ] Gallery in Hackney, London, and themed around 'artist's responses to the financial crisis'. The following is an eyewitness account

I arrived late at the opening and found everybody spilling out into the street already, but then I realised they were all heading towards the billboard site next to the gallery. A small flatbed truck was parked by the billboard and there was some discussion going on with the driver of the truck who was wearing a hardhat and fluorescent vest.

The backlight on the billboard was switched off but I could still clearly see a photograph of a nondescript street scene in which a silver-haired man in a long black coat stands in front of a USB bank branch, holding up a white piece of cardboard that has the word 'LIES' handwritten on it. I realised that this must be the work of the Mediengruppe Bitnik, which is a homage and an update to the photograph of Peter Weibel from 1971, in which he stands in front an Austrian police station holding up a sign that reads 'LÃGT' under the 'POLIZEI' sign so that the image forms the temporary statement 'POLIZEI LÃGT' (police lies), meant as a protest against what Peter Weibel considered the abuse of state power. I had heard that Mediengruppe Bitnik had re-enacted this photograph in 2009 but I'd never actually seen it.

Pretty quickly it became clear to me that the man in the flatbed truck was here to take the photograph down, and that the artists and the curator were questioning him as to the reason - to which he had no reply: he had simply been instructed by the advertising company running the billboard to take the image down 'because there'd been a complaint'. The atmosphere was not relaxed, but I'd describe it more as baffled rather than tense. We're not used to seeing any kind of physical enforcement deployed against artwork anymore, and are not sure how to react.

Eventually one member of the Bitniks stepped on to a crate and asked the crowd 'don't harass the worker' because he was 'only doing his job'. He explained that they assumed there might have been a complaint from USB bank, but that there's no hard information at this point - clearly the gallery had not been informed of anything yet. He also explained the provenance of the photograph, and rather mysteriously, that the man holding up the sign is an 'unknown financier'.

The billboard worker then climbed into the billboard case and proceeded to take down the offending photograph, and then took a long time to put a grubby white tarpaulin sheet in its place. It looked like a genuine piece of performance art, watched by a group of artsy spectators who by now were joined by some of the local drinkers from the London Fields pub next door.  

All the buzz on the night was about how the image was now surely going to go viral, and surely the Bitniks and the gallery were going to get lots of attention from this, but in the following days I didn't hear or see anything.  Out of curiosity, I asked around people I'd met on the night and someone who didn't want to be named said that indeed the gallery had received a threatening letter from UBS and could not be seen to publicise the case pending possible legal action (presumably a libel case, in which of course both the gallery, which is a non-commercial space, and the artists would be 'too small to succeed'). The image was taken down from the [ space ] gallery website, but the german version can still be found on

I think the whole incident throws up some interesting questions about the limits of freedom of (visual) speech, freedom of art, the difference between making a controversial gesture in public space vs doing the same inside the sanitised, screened-off space of the art gallery, etc.

With its legal threats UBS is nicely illustrating what was the point of the work in the first place: in our time, it is corporate and financial entities that are 'too big to fail' that can use libel and copyright laws to repress freedom of speech, analogous to the way the police was used as a tool of state repression at the time of Peter Weibel's image from 1971.

All the best

Lennaart van Oldenborgh

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org