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Symposium Report: Art and/or Politics

There is a moment during the video piece "Die Kleine Bushaltestelle (Gerüstbau)" (2007/2010) when Isa Genzken makes the observation that political artists, or as she describes them, “artists who want to show the miseries of the world”, often make art that is aesthetically miserable. The question of how much (if at all) artists should sacrifice formal concerns in the service of political activism has gained renewed importance of late and as a result conferences on art and politics seem to have been springing up in cities across the world. "ART and/or politics, or: How political may/must art be (today)?", a two-hour long panel discussion featuring Monica Bonvicini, Adam Broomberg, Thomas Demand, Peter Geimer, Philipp Ruch and Beat Wyss, started with moderator Michael Diers showing a number of slides of political art works: David Young’s highly aesthetic photographs of G-20 demonstrators being hit with water cannons, "Open Casket" (2016), Dana Schutz’s painting of murdered black teenager Emmett Till and Sam Durant’s "Scaffold" (2012), a sculpture which draws on the gallows used for the mass execution of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. The latter two works have been mired with controversy after protests erupted in response to their display at the Whitney Biennial and The Walker Art Centre respectively. The inclusion of these images didn’t just serve to give the six participants a common starting point for the discussion, but also added another focus beyond the question of artistic autonomy. Namely, do artists have the right to use the (tragic) histories of others in their own (political) work?

The artists Thomas Demand and Monica Bonvicini showed some sympathy for Schutz and Durant, with Bonvicini pointing out that Durant had been working consistently with these themes for over 10 years (such as in his 2005 exhibition "Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions", Washington D.C.) and Demand musing that: “You want to do justice to the original [Schutz’ painting is drawn from photographs of Till’s mutilated body]. Did she? You could argue that she did.” As talk turned away from these controversies to the panellist’s own practices, Demand, who is best known for his paper reconstructions of historically-relevant media images, stressed that the role of art is to communicate but insisted that it wasn’t compulsory to be political as an artist. Adding: “The bus driver doesn’t have to know our views on everything”. When asked by Diers whether his art was political, he seemed reluctant to view his works only through this lens and answered, “It’s a condition, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that.”

Monica Bonvicini also expressed frustrations about the expectations put on artists to be political. She spoke at length about the problems with the biennial format, where curators can expect artists to make a critical statement about the city or country after spending only a few days there. Her complaint that “You put out a banner and then you go home” was an especially interesting choice of words considering that another panellist, Philipp Ruch, had done just that during a political intervention in front of the German Chancellery recently. As a part of the Berlin-based art collective Zentrum für politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty), Ruch organised an installation featuring a black Mercedes next to a banner with the faces of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz, with the words “Do you want this car? Kill dictatorship.” The same week, the group also held a leaflet drop in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, where the text urged readers to “Defend the democracy. Fight against Racism. Bring the dictatorship down.” Ruch’s position ignited some criticism from the art historians Peter Geimer and Beat Wyss, with them objecting to his interest in actions that merge the categories of art and politics. While for Ruch, “That’s the most important thing… when art and politics come out of their boxes,” Geimer expressed his concern that art not only loses its specificity when viewed in this way, but that Ruch as an artist/politician operates from a ‘comfortable’ position, because he can hide behind either shield depending on the context.

With all of the participants bar Philipp Ruch remaining cagey (some might say realistic) about art’s potential for political change, Diers noted the rather downbeat tone of the discussions and asked towards the end of the afternoon, “Could it be that as artists, critics and art historians we’re not in the camp of wanting to change the world?” Perhaps determined to finish on a positive note, Adam Broomberg chose to tell the story of his art professor bringing his attention to sculptures that were being built by the communities in the townships across Apartheid-era South Africa. In order for the state to control these environments, they had built 120-foot lights in the townships and cleared of rocks and anything else that could be used as weapons, but these modernist-looking sculptures turned out to be armaments, “There was no concrete so people would just grab a brick and it was arms”. In this case art was a direct and unmediated tool for political change, which was desperately needed. An intervention that gave Broomberg “a kind of optimism that I’m still living with.” (Chloe Stead)

23 Fragen des Institutional Questionaire, grafisch umgesetzt von Ran Altamirano auf den Türgläsern der HFBK Hamburg zur Jahresausstellung 2021; photo: Charlotte Spiegelfeld


Who speaks? Who paints which motif? Who is shown, who is not? Questions of identity politics play an important role in art and thus also at the HFBK Hamburg. In the current issue, the university's own Lerchenfeld magazine highlights university structures as well as student initiatives that deal with diversity and identity.

Grafik: Tim Ballaschke

Start of semester

After three semesters of hybrid teaching under pandemic conditions, we are finally about to start another semester of presence. We welcome all new students and teachers at the HFBK Hamburg and cordially invite you to the opening of the academic year 2020/21, which this year will be accompanied by a guest lecture by ruangrupa.

Graphic design: Sam Kim, picture in the background: Sofia Mascate, photo: Marie-Theres Böhmker

Graduate Show 2021: All Good Things Come to an End

From September 24 to 26, the more than 150 Bachelor's and Master's graduates of the class of 2020/21 will present their final projects as part of the Graduate Show at the HFBK Hamburg. We would like to thank all visitors and participants.

photo: Klaus Frahm

Summer Break

The HFBK Hamburg is in the lecture-free period, many students and teachers are on summer vacation, art institutions have summer break. This is a good opportunity to read and see a variety of things:

ASA Open Studio 2019, Karolinenstraße 2a, Haus 5; photo: Matthew Muir

Live und in Farbe: die ASA Open Studios im Juni 2021

Since 2010, the HFBK has organised the international exchange programme Art School Alliance. It enables HFBK students to spend a semester abroad at renowned partner universities and, vice versa, invites international art students to the HFBK. At the end of their stay in Hamburg, the students exhibit their work in the Open Studios in Karolinenstraße, which are now open again to the art-interested public.

Studiengruppe Prof. Dr. Anja Steidinger, Was animiert uns?, 2021, Mediathek der HFBK Hamburg, Filmstill

Unlearning: Wartenau Assemblies

The art education professors Nora Sternfeld and Anja Steidinger initiated the format "Wartenau Assemblies". It oscillates between art, education, research and activism. Complementing this open space for action, there is now a dedicated website that accompanies the discourses, conversations and events.

Ausstellungsansicht "Schule der Folgenlosigkeit. Übungen für ein anderes Leben" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg; photo: Maximilian Schwarzmann

School of No Consequences

Everyone is talking about consequences: The consequences of climate change, the Corona pandemic or digitalization. Friedrich von Borries (professor of design theory), on the other hand, is dedicated to consequence-free design. In “School of No Consequences. Exercises for a New Life” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, he links collection objects with a "self-learning room" set up especially for the exhibition in such a way that a new perspective on "sustainability" emerges and supposedly universally valid ideas of a "proper life" are questioned.

Annual Exhibition 2021 at the HFBK

Annual exhibition a bit different: From February 12- 14, 2021 students at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, together with their professors, had developed a variety of presentations on different communication channels. The formats ranged from streamed live performances to video programs, radio broadcasts, a telephone hotline, online conferences, and a web store for editions. In addition, isolated interventions could be discovered in the outdoor space of the HFBK and in the city.

Public Information Day 2021

How do I become an art student? How does the application process work? Can I also study to become a teacher at the HFBK? These and other questions about studying art were answered by professors, students and staff at the HFBK during the Public Information Day on February 13, 2021. In addition, there will be an appointment specifically for English-speaking prospective students on February 23 at 2 pm.

Katja Pilipenko

Semestereröffnung und Hiscox-Preisverleihung 2020

On the evening of November 4, the HFBK celebrated the opening of the academic year 2020/21 as well as the awarding of the Hiscox Art Prize in a livestream - offline with enough distance and yet together online.

Exhibition Transparencies with works by Elena Crijnen, Annika Faescke, Svenja Frank, Francis Kussatz, Anne Meerpohl, Elisa Nessler, Julia Nordholz, Florentine Pahl, Cristina Rüesch, Janka Schubert, Wiebke Schwarzhans, Rosa Thiemer, Lea van Hall. Organized by Prof. Verena Issel and Fabian Hesse; photo: Screenshot

Teaching Art Online at the HFBK

How the university brings together its artistic interdisciplinary study structure with digital formats and their possibilities.

Alltagsrealität oder Klischee?; photo: Tim Albrecht

HFBK Graduate Survey

Studying art - and what comes next? The clichéd images stand their ground: Those who have studied art either become taxi drivers, work in a bar or marry rich. But only very few people could really live from art – especially in times of global crises. The HFBK Hamburg wanted to know more about this and commissioned the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg to conduct a broad-based survey of its graduates from the last 15 years.

Ausstellung Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Teilansicht; photo: MKG Hamburg

How political is Social Design?

Social Design, as its own claim is often formulated, wants to address social grievances and ideally change them. Therefore, it sees itself as critical of society – and at the same time optimizes the existing. So what is the political dimension of Social Design – is it a motor for change or does it contribute to stabilizing and normalizing existing injustices?