A Woodpecker’s Pecking Is Both Food Intake and Communication at the Same Time

Drawing and Agency in the Work of Thorsten Streichardt

There are few notions so tenaciously persistent in the German art debate as the term Arbeit, or labor. The popularity of the term in the realm of social debate is nothing new: the German, the establishment of the term for referring to art over the past few decades is indicated by the fact that for contemporary art productions are only rarely called “Werk,” “work” or “oeuvre,” but usually “Arbeit,” “work” or “labor.” In Art Gallery English, to a similar extent the term “piece” has come to replace “work,” which also reacts to a historicaldominant shift during the nineteenth century from the crafted “work” to the massproduced object of industrial provenance. The difference that surfaces between the two terms has in the meantime come to be amplified by something rumored especially in the realm of the creative industries – that artistic work is similar to other forms of increasingly divergent productivity in that it has increasingly “dematerialized” since the late 1950s, as confirmed by witnesses ranging from Lucy R. Lippard (Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, 1973) to Paolo Virno (A Grammar of the Multitude, 2004). The question of how “ordinary” labor differs from “artistic”labor again moves to the focus of attention, a question that is initially easily answered at least in the sense of art concepts where “autonomy” is understood as freedom from direct constraints of value production and simple determinations of purpose.
The terms “dematerialization” or “immateriality,” which for some time now have been eagerly used not only in art journals or humanities seminars, are currently so common that we need to remind ourselves in discussing the term that “material” labor still indeed exists, and in a drastic way, and that it is indeed surprising if someone, an artist, turns to the material side of artistic activity and production. Thorsten Streichardt can definitely claim to have done this, but not through emphasizing materiality in his production, in using valuable materials that are difficult to work with or engaging in a highly refined craftsmanship or mastery. Streichardt instead intersects the various coexistent work concepts, allowing them to charge and question one another, turning the screws on dimensions (Miniature / Monument; individual work / group work / social work; moment / longe durée) and meanings (especially the screw that can be turned 360 degrees, with the two upper and lower extremes of the sublime and the ridiculous) and makes the results explicable in experimental arrangements that often achieve a nervous energy of productivity. It is thus almost logical that his own statements can be read as a positioning between the dimensional extremes contained in the concept of labor, but also as part of a theory of artisticsociological experimentation: “The proverbial ‘unwritten page’ does not exist, and never has. Everything has already been marked, or belongs to some context that not only provides certain functions, not only promises certain benefits, but demands their fulfillment. It subjects me to its logic, according to which I have to operate. Everybody knows this form of quiet compulsion, for example, through the development of new standards in computer technology. As a user I make use of them. But I primarily find myself in a relationship of dependency under a normative pressure that I have learned



to allow to disappear behind the promise of gaining essential possibilities. As a participant observer, I work both with and against a dependency on conditions that, taken to be self evident, immediately become invisible.” “Quiet compulsion” and “normative pressure” as the marks of contemporary production processes (in art and elsewhere) – that is a diagnosis that suggests an attitude that is rooted in cultural critique and an interest in enlightenment. But by way of the logic of his installations, interventions, and performances, his images and machines, Thorsten Streichardt primarily engages with the mechanisms of the cultural technological subjection of the individual. They contain significant usages of things material that, usually in a strikingly simple way, capture the described systems of consumption in a way that is also comic or ironic, and makes us think of the notion of the “intractability” of the material. This perhaps happens most clearly in installationalperformative, well, works such as Wald in Progress, which in the title flirts with the recovery of culture by nature and uses this to polemicize and expose the entropic character of alienated labor. For an extended period, Streichardt undertook a growing construction made of dismantled office furniture, keeping strict daily work shifts in an empty shop locale in BerlinMitte. Using traditional carpentry tools, he hacked at the veneered chipboard, which in its repetitive gesture summons the brain shattering work of the woodpecker, or the negativity of the bird swarms set to attack “humanity” in Hitchcock. The “artistic” aspect consisted not only in the potential romanticism of natural associations that the title could promote, but also from the context of the Berlin galleries beginning to take off in the nearby vicinity, permanently looking for new locations to core them and reconstruct them as white cubes.

The image of an artist wearing a gray suit and tie drudging away and producing concentric hack and scratch patterns was something new, a sardonically morphic reverberation of the surrounding investment ruins around Checkpoint Charlie. That a network of murmuring coffee machines, emblematizing the principle of waste, was on view, along with ties marked with magic markers and sloppy origami birds, made it clear: this was no Michel Piccoli, the grunting barbarian “Themroc,” breaking out of the outer walls of his apartment, as the 1970s could best describe it, but also no Joseph Beuys or Anatol Herzfeld, who at the same time sought to launch concepts of work and production. Nor are profiteers of spectator reaction like Tino Sehgal or John Bock at work here, for whom the performative primarily means the magical work of an only highly forced material reference. Instead, a mix of different signs from different realms that can be read in their respective context without any loss of meaning, office / art action / craftsmanship, but nevertheless in their combination trip one another up when they unexpectedly find themselves too close to one another. Labor is artificially presented as an aporetic obstinancy, as something that happens as if automatically, very unvirtuosically and rich in losses of energy, without resulting in a common meaning, “Just like in the art world,” one is tempted to call out. Of course, Streichardt here used the not unfamiliar register of intervention – the kind of artistic act that ideally addresses and makes transparent in a single blow all orders in its area of influence – and then leaving the question of “What then?” painfully open. One of the many advantages of his work is that it always keeps such an interventive moment in mind, communicating it without blatant didactics. But if interventions are the issue: where



exactly is Thorsten Streichardt? For clearly, in all this he retains his orientation toward the art system. From this systemic perspective of the beholder, he succeeds in throwing open the windows onto other dimensions of labor, production, agency, creation. In any event, he constructs no illusory outside for himself or for us. He continues to refer to the difference between artistic production and practice, sometimes approaching the question from the media aspect, sometimes from the aspect of genre. For several years, he has been focusing on a special artistic technology and the work categories traditionally and currently associated with it from several perspectives. The analysis of the claim to power associated with drawing – in the midst of modernity and yet at the same time embodying historicity and the precision of the ingenious stroke become current – emerges in a familiar place in the oeuvre of Robert Rauschenberg. It can be heard to echo in Streichardt’s newer works, linked to drawing, especially in Eraserface (2006), the eraser wall drawing that has already in part rained down onto the bookshelf beneath it, but also as a selfportrait with the wide grin of the famous Cheshire Cat, the cat from Alice in Wonderland, an image, whose constituting particles of eraser remains seem to claw to the white wall surface. If there is a Rauschenberg allusion here in the air – Streichardt denies it, but you can never know – it would certainly be Rauschenberg’s long term hit of “drawing critique,” his Erased De Kooning from 1953, in which the artist – causing both storms of outrage and enthusiasm, stole a drawing of his colleague, then erased it, and placed it in a white cabinet matting in a gold, glazed frame. We only see the traces of the De Kooning drawing, and, of course, eraser rubbings on the paper, which has already begun to yellow.

In Thorsten Streichardt’s case, the gesture of obliteration, a brutal one, also in the word itself, is not the oedipal appropriation of a purportedly greater artist authority, as in the case of Rauschenberg – here the original drawing was an abstract concept that is at the same time present, because it can be seen in the eraser marks (nobody can tell me that they saw a grinning cat on the wall beforehand!) but also absent, because here the categories medium and content are filled in a disturbingly false fashion. Herein lies an unmistakable gesture of selfreflexivity, that of the artist subject as well as his technical means of proceeding. This gesture can be found in a highly altered form in other Streichardt ideas based on drawing, where he repeatedly allows the remains of the cultural critical options of “nature” and “technology“ to collide against one another. A key point here seems to lie in the act of obliteration – not always as literally as in Eraserface, but often in the sign of erasing the personal trace, his own signature, his character – an artistic selfdissolution that is reminiscent of similarly positioned traditions, not so much those of conceptualism, but rather the dandylike surrealism in the circle around Duchamp, Picabia, and VilaMatas. For some time, Thorsten Streichardt has been exploring the physical conditions of a more abstract form of drawing. What in some cases appears as the conventional form of a gestural abstraction and a “registration”of nervous energies is constantly relativized in a distantiated step back from the authenticity of the pictorial form. This can be a mini video cam linked to the drawing instrument, that virtually places us inside the drawing pencil, or the stubborn repetitive discipline of certain abstract traditions is made ungenuine by the overfulfillment of schematicism or the consciously inappropriate transfer to



the aesthetic of digital media. In the new works, a microphone records the sounds made by the act while drawing. On first glance, this makes the small drawings appear literally hammered onto photographic paper – street scenes, building, and interior – reminiscent of visual techniques like printing with screens or pixels, yet the sound components emphasize quite clearly a physical basic structure of world perception. But this in turn can strengthen the psychology of the perception situation by way of its “mechanical” subjection in drawing. Everything brought to consciousness in the artistic act evokes the thought of its opposite. In the 2007 300 dpm drawings, that are brought to approach the mechanical and hammered out with verve, something emerges from the sea of identical pointillisms that can be called “drawn.” They are “views” (whose thematic selection should not be too easily imagined), but at the latest the “dpm” of the title surrenders them to the media present. Recently, the reference to parameters of drawing that are not usually considered fundamental, above all the acoustic dimension, that direct our attention with a classical subversion technique from the retinarational aspect of “modern” drawing to the uncanny of the scratching, tacking, scraping, and grating of the act of drawing. While 300 dpm might also bring other predecessors to mind – Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), for example – but here the avantgarde artist’s subjectivist act of will is clearly undercut, if Streichardt’s installation generates a far more complex disparity with relatively simple means. In the Willingshausener Freilautzeichnungen in which he let others draw to his noise recordings, the aspect of selfeffacement steps further towards the foreground, at least if we concentrate on the artistic gesture of handing tasks over to “nonartists,” representing an important opening

within the exhibition concept. Different degrees of the immaterialization of artistic labor could be found here, but through the stubborn play on the reference variables of an “apparatus of drawing,” the entire possibility of artistic and “nonartistic” signs in their own contexts of signification, at issue is precisely the moderation of various approaches to action that only begin with the analysis of the influence exerted by the materiality of technology, but by no means end there. Thorsten Streichardt shows an important current task emerges in the critical translation of modern transgressions towards an artistic concept of action, not just analyzing one’s own means, but also actively differentiating. This includes a reliance on the possibilities of influencing processes in the gray area between artistic and not artistic labor that precisely demand a significant degree of communication and negotiation.

Clemens Krümmel (translated by Brian Currid)

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