“During a battle against Napoleon the Prussian officer reports home: ‚The situation is serious but not hopeless’ and his Austrian college reports from the same battle to Vienna: ‘The situation is hopeless but not at all serious.’”1
Brad Downey (1980, USA), a five-year resident of Berlin, creates his disorientating and provocative work in urban centers. In the cities of Europe and as far abroad as the USA and Dubai he takes ordinary and unimposing everyday objects and reclaims their potential to make the citizens of the city reconsider their surroundings.
The urban space is, so to speak, the studio of this artist. Public squares, streets, construction sites, the subway, and pavements both contain potential for his art work and supply the materials: paving stones, bollards, building façades, construction materials, road barriers, fences, monuments, telephone booths. Brad Downey’s raw material, for the average person in the street accepted as inevitable urban inventory, are put into the service of his “spontaneous sculptures.”
Thus paving stones are lifted up and the underlying sand used for the building of a sandcastle (Castles Beneath Cities fig.1, Amsterdam 2008) or paving stones removed and stacked perpendicular to their excavation site in a pattern that resembles their original placement (Beginning and The End fig.2, Hamburg 2010). Traffic lines on the pavement are pealed up and stuck down into patterns that seem to dance on the city’s skin (Tape Peel (Broken Bike Lane) fig.3, Berlin 2008). An abandoned role of insulating tape is pulled upwards into a tower (Tape Lift fig.4, Amsterdam 2008). Ashcans, shopping trolleys or park benches are diverted from their intended use and modified and arranged to create instant sculptures (Ashtray Column fig.5, Stockholm 2007).
The artist places the “Spontaneous Sculptures”2 amidst the hectic but routine pace of the urban life, on the routes of the business worker on their way to the office, in the shopping malls with their advertising and garish promotions, at pulsating traffic arteries. He places his interventions in the continuous stream of city life and criss-crosses well-trodden urban paths. His activities are in some cases more discreet (Bike Hang II (Perfect Throw III) fig.6, Essen 2010), whereas other interventions can hardly be missed (Booth Fill (La Somme de l’Oxygéne Dans une Cabine Teléphonique) fig.7, Paris 2008). But he also leaves his traces in the remote suburb amongst the seemingly peaceful idyll of at the fringes of the city (Broken Bench Prop fig.8, Bourges, France 2009). The length of time that these artistic interventions remain in place varies as well. They last from 10 seconds (Bottle Tie (Pissing) fig.9, Stavanger 2009) up to two years and more (Just Taking the Building to its Logical Conclusion fig.10, Berlin 2010).
Generally Brad Downey stays only a few days in the city in which he creates his works. Therefore he cannot even track the survival of some interventions, as in Amsterdam (Tie Pry (Gentrification) fig.11, 2008).
In his spontaneous sculptures Brad Downey performs a re-appropriation and thereby a re-definition of the cities’ furniture. Disrupting established areas, deconstructing familiar references and relationships, the interventions awaken an inspiring potential. They open up possibilities for the mutability of urban space: “I hope that my work has the potential to inspire people to change. It is my job, to show others, that it is ultimately possible, to change a city and to take an interest in the objects.”3
Eulenspiegel or “Forcing petrified conditions to dance”
Nonetheless the mission of Brad Downey is accompanied less by a wagging finger and more a good portion of humour. Behind each action peeps the rogue and his laughter is the echo of our distress. A bogey of the bourgeosie, who jibes at the habits we have become fond of, who reduces seemingly unshakeable rules to absurdity. A Till Eulenspiegel of the art world.
Bearing in mind that Eulenspiegel “[…][is seen], commonly as joker or rascal, who with rural, native cunning plays his, at times quite delicate, pranks on respectable people of noble decent or bourgeous upright citizens with their titles of master craftsmen and -degree […]” 4, we can recognize Brad Downey in the characterization of this very type, who messes things up for people; a rogue, whose folly is only the mask that gives him the freedom of the fool securing a jesters license.5
It was Bazon Brock who introduced to the concept of the affinity between the hero of the collection of comic tales – namely Till Eulenspiegel – and art. Under the heading “Eulenspiegel als Philosoph – Affirmation als Vermittlungsstrategie“ (“Eulenspiegel as philosopher – affirmation as strategy of mediation”) he defines the principle of affirmation as political strategy: “To use the term affirmation, is […] today infamous, because one understands everywhere, to mean with affirmation nothing but plain approval, consent with the conditions. I use the term differently“, that is to say in a sense, “that also comes through most clearly in the maxime of [Francis] Bacons’s ‘Natura non nisi parendo vincitur’ [Nature can only be defeated by obeying its laws] or in the aphorism of Karl Marx: “These petrified relations must be forced to dance, by singing to them their own tune.“6
Downey denounces socio-political relations by affirmation – his work subverts political correctness. The tricks of Till Eulenspiegel are a prime reference. Just as Till, the clownish hero of the folk tale, takes idioms or regulations literally7 or twists words and proverbs in a masterly manner 8, Brad Downey also “takes seriousness ironically at its word.”9 Light Smash (sHELL) fig.12, Atlanta 1999, allows in the German translation a tautological reading: the lettering “hell” (German: light, bright) glowing in the darkness. The much more incendiary reading lies in the English translation of “hell” (German: “Hölle”): The artist destroys the letter “s” and therefore eliminates the word “shell” and gives us “hell.” We are made to consider also a new meaning, in regards to the actions of the oil company, which regularly put humans and the environment in great peril.10
The work Paving Stone Shift (Swastika Street) fig.13, Lisbon 2010, modifies one of the flower-like paving stone patterns into a swastika and conjures up a dubious chapter of Portuguese history. With “Estado Novo”(“New State”) created by António de Oliveira Salazar in the beginning of the 1930s, an authoritarian political system with fascist tendencies remained in power over four decades. Only the Carnation Revolution in 1974 ended the “Estado Novo.”
Brad Downey brings not only “petrified” conditions to dance, such as concrete slabs, but also the straight lines on paths and on the pavement. In Tape Peel (Broken Bike Lane) fig.3, Berlin 2008, he loosens the rectilinear bicycle lane markings and replaces them on the pavement in geometrical patterns.
Norbert Krenzlin cites some stories of Till Eulenspiegel and shows parallels between pranks and the activities of modern artists; he comes to the conclusion, that Eulenspiegel – “referring to perception, thought and behavior and with the result of alienation, doubt and irritation, of disruption”11 creates situations of symbolical actionism and in this respect anticipates the strategies of modern art.”
Are all artists Eulenspiegel?
In a talk between the author of the play “Eulen:Spiegel”, Werner Fritsch, and the artistic director Konstanze Wolgast, the latter posed the question, whether Eulenspiegel still exists today. Fritsch replied: “All artists are also Eulenspiegel”. “You are thinking of whom?” “At the moment of all people that are Eulenspiegel not only in their art, but also in their existence: Joseph Beuys, Herbert Achternbusch, Allen Ginsberg… or Guy Debord! Perhaps Schlingensief is about to become an Eulenspiegel of our times…” “What distinguishes them?” “They are people, who – sure enough, free of the Mother Teresa syndrome – love humans. Who also want their piece of the action of the world: in love or in art; but who with a lot of charisma break the peak of the cruelty of life, who sneeringly pull off the mask of power, who bump off death with roars of laughter.”12
Are all artists present-day Eulenspiegels? With this statement Fritsch perhaps dares to go a bit too far, after all. However one can only outright agree with his naming of the artistic characters mentioned above. The Situationists under Guy Debord, especially, made use of these methods, ones that also Brad Downey has adopted: ones of the temporary nature and the experiment. That Downey, as well, is keen for his work to be completely absorbed in everyday life, was already proven by the examples mentioned above. In this point, too, one sees his affinity with the Situationists: “The aim of the Situationists is immediate participation at an abundance of the passions of life by the transformation of ephemeral moments, intentionally created. The success of these moments can only exist in their temporal impact. The Situationists imagine cultural activity […] as a method of the experimental construction of everyday life […].”13
Of course, Brad Downey’s work can invoke other predecessors. Significantly influenced by the Situationists, the art of Happenings was looking for solidarity and convergence between art and the reality of life. One of their pioneers Alan Kaprow explains: “The border between Happening and everyday life should be just as fluid as indefinable. The interdependence between the human action and the found is increased to its highest interdependence.”14
This kind of perfomance art shares with the Fluxus movements its Dadaist roots. Dadaism, originating from Zurich in 1916, on one hand understood “its cabaret-style engagement in terms of a necessarily sceptical-analytical thought process, that unmasks the dogmatic nonsense behind the seemingly well-regulated surroundings of civilisation, but on the other hand also as liberation of the subjective perspectives of thought from the ballast of cultural conventions and a key to new experiences.”15
The role model of Dadaism shows itself once again in Brad Downey’s interventions, that quarrel with the “dogmatic nonsense” in the urban environment and disrupt the “seemingly well regulated surroundings of civilisation”, thus advancing a “liberation of the subjective perspectives of thought from the ballast of cultural conventions.” Downey aims at the fact, that through sculptures “many people [...][can interact] potentially with the urban fabric, and then the city could be much more flexible and dynamic.”16
Strategies of success: humour
To face the serious side of life, one can take two alternate paths: one can confront it with stony-faced seriousness, or one can also meet it with humour. And especially in the 20th century artists and movements excelled at creating a breach by joking and jesting and nonsense. So the “cabaret engagement” of the Dadaists was also always mixed with a good portion of humour and Hugo Ball defined Dadaism accordingly as “a farce of nonsense, that answers all fundamental questions.”17 Elsewhere Ball specifies: “The Dadaist fights against the agony and the deadly delirium of time. Averse to any wise reservation, he cultivates the curiosity of those who feel an amused pleasure even in the most questionable form of earnest labour. He knows, that the world of systems has gone to pieces and that time, urging for cash payments, opened up a junk bargain-sale of un-deified philosophers. Where for the stall owners begins the terror and bad consciousness, begins for the Dadaist a light laughter and mild appeasement.”18 Against the background of the world wide financial crisis, which began around 2007, this ironic comment reads surprisingly up to date.
Many contemporary artists have also committed themselves to humour, like the Italian Mauricio Cattelan, the Austrian Erwin Wurm and Baldur Burwitz, who is based in Hamburg. “Part jester, part accuser of the contemporary art world, part thief, Cattelan also conveys a lonely desperation behind the humour and sarcasm in his unconventional works.”19
The bawdy artistic experiments of Erwin Wurm on one hand challenges the spectator to a direct confrontation while on the other provokes laughter: “His “One Minute Sculptures,” “Fat Cars and Fat Houses” and doubled humans; heroes and heroines tangled up in especially confusing interactions, as well as actors arranged in dangerous relation to objects– his works are imprinted immediately and overwhelmingly in memory and provoke, if not a hearty laughter, so at least a grin or smile.“20
Burwitz also sees the value in futility; he does not accept the status quo of this highly functional world and intervenes within apparently normal situations and opens us doors, behind which everything could also be very different.21
Not least of these is the artist Banksy, who finds his range and sphere of activity in the streets. The graffiti writer, presumably born in 1974 in Bristol, has for many years made a name for himself in the art world, and sells graffiti works for six figure sums. While Brad Downey evokes disorientation with his works and uses the urban space as a gallery of his creative modification, Banksy pursues, even if with the use of humorous graffiti, more a political and socially critical direction. “The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit. Which makes their opinion worthless. They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline of society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.”22
As diverse in forms as humour are, these few examples23 all illustrate the irony: “art is shaped by the playful experiment that often joins contrary occurrences. The outcome of this is two opposing observations that meet. One of the visions believes that to understand the statement as that what has been looked on that is which is associated with it, seem familiar, the other point of view is irritated because the expectation doesn’t correlate with the recognition. Insofar art is always accompanied by comic moments via such errors.”24
And the examples mentioned above demonstrate furthermore that the laughter of the Eulenspiegel-artist is “not the heroic laughter of despair, it is the gnomish laughter of hope, the laughter of the fool, who is in command of the art to make himself small in front of the great and play along with the masters of this world, this is the laughter of practiced irony of the world. It is the laughter about the stupidity of this world, which permits to act the fool, as wisdom demands. It is the ironic laughter of the Eulenspiegel-logy.25
The alternative: culture of doubt
In the view of Rudolf Lüthe, the enlightened human being, equipped with intellect, has no choice but to live with the irremovable doubt as his inevitable condition. That does not mean however that he has to accept it due to its inevitability.26 Making a virtue of necessity, recognizing the strength of doubt and taking advantage of it, he can cultivate doubt and transform it into artistic activities: “doubt in the context of ironic cultural philosophy is not understood any more in its closeness to despair – as it was still the case with Kierkegaard. Rather its closeness to play is the source of its cultivation. Doubt, play and art belong from the point of view of this cultural philosophy tightly together.”27
To play along with the masters of this world, laughing about the absurdity of this world – Brad Downey transforms the doubt about this world, as his contemporaries and like-minded people transform it, into irony and play. The ironist Brad Downey sees “in inexpugnable doubts a piece of intellectual freedom, that invites to play and which is imperative to celebrate.”28 Downey’s humourous attitude and his ironic conception of the world are ultimately an expression of a dolefulness, which converts the culture of doubt via clownish creativity into hope for the possibility of change and impetus to exercise influence. Insofar the situation is hopeless, but not at all serious…
Fußnoten / Footnotes
1 Rudolf Lüthe: Der Ernst der Ironie. Studien zur Grundlegung einer ironistischen Kulturphilosophie der Kunst, Würzburg 2002, p. 16.
2 Brad Downey: Spontaneous Sculptures, Berlin 2011
3 Brad Downey in: For me building or breaking is the same. Interview with Chiara Santini Parducci. In: Spontaneous Sculptures, pp. 90-91, p. 90.
4 Dieter Ahrendt: Eulenspiegel – ein Narrenspiegel der Gesellschaft, Stuttgart 1987, p. 132.
5 Ahrendt, p. 132.
6 Bazon Brock: „Ästhetik als Vermittlung“. Zitiert nach/Quoted from Norbert Krenzlin: Till Eulenspiegel als früher Aktionskünstler. In: Hans-Joachim Behr (Hg./Ed.):
Eulenspiegel-Jahrbuch 2003, Bd./Volume 43, 2003, p. 53-82, p. 60.
7 Ahrendt: Eulenspiegels Wortgehorsam oder Dienst nach Vorschrift, in: Eulenspiegel – ein Narrenspiegel der Gesellschaft, pp. 76-85.
8 „Er [Eulenspiegel] ist ein meisterliche Wortverdreher, plebejisches Gegenstück des Rechtsverdrehers. Von hierher erschließen sich die die vielen ‚Wortspielhistorien.‘“ / „He [Eulenspiegel] is a masterly twister of words, plebeian opposite of the pettifogger. From here develop the many histories of wordplay“ Krenzlin, p. 75.
9 Görres zitiert nach/quoted from Ahrendt, p. 77.
10 Allein seit der Durchführung der Aktion „Light Smash (sHELL)“ im Jahr 1999 sind im Jahr 2000 durch einen Störfall 500 Tonnen Erdöl in die Nordsee geströmt. Im Jahr 2011 war vor der schottischen Küste eine Förderplattform des Konzerns undicht und es liefen einige 100 Tonnen Erdöl ins Meer. 2012 wurde südlich in Wesseling bei Brühl ein Leck in einer Kerosin-Pipeline von Shell festgestellt: 846 Tonnen Flugbenzin (etwa 1,2 Millionen Liter) waren in Urfeld im Erdreich versickert. Anfang 2013 wurde Shell in Europa wegen Umweltschäden in der Dritten Welt zu Schadenersatz verurteilt. Durch Pipelinelecks in den Jahren 2005 bis 2007 hat Shell drei Dörfer im Südosten Nigerias verseucht und den Bewohnern die Lebensgrundlage entzogen./Many oil related incidents have occurred since Brad’s action „Light Smash (sHELL)“ in 1999. In 2000, 500 tons of crude oil accidently poured into the North Sea. In the year 2011 an oil production platform leaked on the Scottish shores and several 100 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea. In 2012 a leak in a kerosene pipeline of Shell was detected southward in Wesseling near Brühl where 846 tons of aviation petrol had drained into the soil in Urfeld. At the beginning of 2013 Shell was forced by Europe to pay compensation for damage caused to the environment in the third world. Additionally Shell had leakages in pipelines between 2005 and 2007, which contaminated three villages in Southeast Nigeria and deprived the inhabitants of their livelihood.
11 Krenzlin, p. 73.
12 Zitiert nach/quoted from Krenzlin p. 60f.
13 Guy Debord: Situationistische Internationale, Bd. 1, p. 25ff., zitiert nach/quoted from: Roberto Ohrt: Phantom Avantgarde. Eine Geschichte der Situationistischen Internationale und der modernen Kunst, 1. Aufl., Hamburg 1990, p. 176.
14 Zitiert nach/quoted from: Karin Thomas: Bis heute. Stilgeschichte der bildenden Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, Köln 2000, 11. Aufl./11th Edition, p. 244.
15 Thomas, p. 88f.
16 Get it and move on. Ein Gespräch zwischen Thomas Bratzke und Brad Downey. In: Brad Downey: Spontaneous Sculptures, pp. 92-94, p. 93.
17 Ders./Idem: Tagebuch, 12.6.1916, zitiert nach/quoted from: Anne-Marie Duguet: Smile Machines. In: Smile Machines. Humor, Kunst, Technologie. Katalog zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung in der Akademie der Künste/catalogue for the same-titled exhibition at Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 03.02.-19.03. 2006, pp. 6-24, p. 8.
18 Ders./Idem Zitiert in/quoted from: Charles Harrison, Paul Wood (Hg.): Kunsttheorie im 20. Jahrhundert. Künstlerschriften, Kunstkritik, Kunstphilosophie, Manifeste, Statements, Interviews. Für die deutsche Ausgabe ergänzt von Sebastian Zeidler, Band I, Ostfildern-Ruit 1998, p. 294.
19 Francesco Bonani, Nancy Spector, Barbara Vanderlinden, Massimiliano Gioni: Maurizio Cattelan, 2. Aufl./2nd edition, London 2003, Klappentext/inner sleeve text.
20 Robert Pfaller: Splendor and Secrets of the Evident. Psychoanalysis und Philosophy in the Work of Erwin Wurm. In: Erwin Wurm: The artist who swallowed the world. Katalog zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung im Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst/catalogue for the same-titled exhibition at Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, 23. Sept. 2006 – 26. Nov. 2006 u.a., Ostfildern, 2006, pp. 283-288, p. 283.
21 Uwe Lewitzky: Mehrwert des Sinnlosen, 2011, unveröffentlicht, o.S./w.p.
22 Banksy: Wall and Piece, London, 2006, p. 8. Die Meinung über die Wirksamkeit der Street Art sind geteilt; Christoph Rauen gibt zu bedenken: “Das Problem der Gegenkultur besteht darin, dass einfache Negation und Abweichung nicht mehr ausreichen, um die gewünschte Distanz zwischen Gegen- und Mehrheitskultur herzustellen.“/The opinions about the effectiveness of street art are divided; Christoph Rauen asks us to bear in mind: “The problem with the sub-culture is that simple negation and deviation is not sufficient anymore to create a desired distance between a subculture and the majority “. Ders./idem in: Oliver Zybok: Kein Ende der Ironie. In: Ders./idem und Ludwig Seyfarth (Hg./ed.) Ironie, Kunstforum International, Bd. 213, Ruppichteroth 2012, pp. 33-55, p. 43. Einen aktuellen Überblick über die weltweite Street Art- bzw. Urban Art-Szene gibt/an up to date overview of world wide street art that is urban art scene gives: Patrick Nguyen, Stuart Machenzie (Hg./Ed.): Beyond the Street, Berlin 2010.
23 Zum Thema Humor in der Kunst/more about humour in art: vgl./see: Jürgen Raap (Hg./Ed.): Kunst und Humor I, Kunstforum International, Bd./Volume 120, Ruppichteroth 1992, Jürgen Raap (Hg./Ed.): Kunst und Humor II, Kunstforum International, Bd./Volume 121, Ruppichteroth 1993 sowie Oliver Zybok und Ludwig Seyfarth (Hg./ed.) Ironie, Kunstforum International, Bd./volume 213, Ruppichteroth 2012.
Mehr Aufmerksamkeit verdient hätte auch das Valentin-Musäum./more attention would have deserved the Valentin-Musäum. Vgl./see: Michael Glasmeier: Neues zum Panoptikum des Karl Valentin. In: Ders./idem: Extreme 1-8. Vorträge zur Kunst, Köln 2001, pp. 185-204.
24 Oliver Zybok: Kein Ende der Ironie. In: Ders./idem, & Ludwig Seyfarth (Hg./ed.) Ironie, Kunstforum International, Bd./volume 213, Ruppichteroth 2012, pp. 33-55, p. 36f.
25 Ahrendt, p.167.
26 Lüthe verweist in diesem Zusammenhang auf Immanuel Kant: „Selbstverschuldet ist diese Unmündigkeit, wenn die Ursache derselben nicht am Mangel des Verstandes, sondern der Entschließung und des Muthes liegt, sich seiner ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Sapere aude! Habe Muth dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen! Ist also der Wahlsprach der Aufklärung.“/Lüthe refers in this context to Immanuel Kant: „Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one‘s intelligence without being guided by another. “Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment” Ders./Idem, p. 94.
27 Lüthe, p. 14.
28 Lüthe, p. 14.