The stage is still raised. 
But it is no longer suspended over an unfathomable depth : 
it has become a podium.

Walter Benjamin on Bert Brecht

Philosophical platform

The city is the primary zone of the exercise of power. Subjugating procedures are at work everywhere inside it (on bodies, language and places). Spaces and functions are allotted, bodies are assigned to precise places, lifestyles are dictated. Inclusions and exclusions are regulated, conditions of visibility and invisibility of individual and collective histories are defined. Nevertheless, as Rancière notes, nothing is political, per se, just because it is a place of exercise of relationships of control. Nothing is political, per se, as long as the distribution remains as it is. But anything, as soon as it makes a perceptible shift away from that order, can be transformed into a political act.

The dialectic relationship between the production of space and the dominated space of the contemporary global city structures all the artistic research of Bert Theis. And it does so through a recurring urban sign: minimal, basic, elementary. Actually not even really a sign. More like the zero degree of a device, in substance, an elementary mechanism that permits the functioning of actions, exchanges, connections. And this device – public and temporary – is the platform. But what is a platform?

The “platform” is an amphibious subject. It is not only an architectural or formal typology but also a decisive technical term in the theoretical and operative strategy of Bert Theis. The platform, above all, has a paradigmatic character. Taking the form of a stage, a bench, a terrace, a ramp, a plateau, of stepped stands, a tricliniar bed, protected by a canopy or a pavilion, the platform of Bert Theis appears, each time, in its literal sense: that of a flat surface raised off the ground. Composed of a plane identified by a certain thickness, the platform is – invariably, and in its original sense – a structure designed to support something. Not just a surface that determines a place, but also the base on which to rest something, independent of the type of thing, because the thing – in relation to this base – is placed above. In other words, it achieves a position of privilege, taking on the required distance from the context.

Starting precisely with this semantic qualification, over the course of history the platform has assumed great symbolic value with respect to the forms of power: as the base for the exercise of sovereignty, of the vicariate of divinity, as the space of representation, a monumental pedestal. There is an entire morphology of the platform, ranging from the dais for orators to the pulpit for religious sermons, from the podium for political assemblies and sporting victories to the stage for theatrical performances, from the pedestal of statues to the stylobate as the base of temples. Behind each of these configurations there is always a different circumscription and qualification of space at work, a precise ranking of knowledge and power that is symbolized and made evident each time. This is a precise regime of visibility that displays schemes of submission, relationships between legislating powers on the one hand, and obedient subjects on the other. Bert Theis intervenes precisely in this gap, taking the platform from a transcendent condition for the conception of power to an immanent conception of it, radically reversing the role and function of the device itself.

What characterizes the platforms of Bert Theis is the fact that they define a field that is left empty: on them – by his rules – he places nothing, but anything can, if so desired, be placed on them. Perfectly white, they are always made of boards that have a total lack of signs and images, texts and actions. These structures, in themselves, represent nothing and everything at the same time. But they can become the stage of a potential theater of events, or of the widest range of different operations.

These operations introduce the indefinite, the uncertain and the provisional in the heart of the distribution, of the fully disciplined, determinate whole of the contemporary city. They open a space that eludes control, an area not qualified in advance, but defined moment by moment, through the initiatives of all the persons involved. They represent a collectively accessible space, available for ordinary practices and spontaneous dynamics, temporarily located in urban public space. These platforms have the same interstitial character as urban voids, residual and abandoned spaces, the terrains vagues that resist process of standardization, regulation, integration and homogenization of the city. Of course the scale differs: it is the reduced, symbolic scale of public sculptures, of models.

Direct heirs of the Situationist critiques of urbanism, the platforms of Bert Theis become possible spaces for a “theater of operations” within the everyday life in which one does not intend “showing” life to people, but bringing them to life. Like a well known sentence by Debord from 1961 states: “A revolutionary organization must always remember that its aim is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves”.

When in 1997, for Skulptur. Projekte in Münster, Bert Theis made the large white sculpture Philosophische Plattform on the lawn of the park behind the city’s late-baroque castle, the inhabitants used it for a wide range of different, unexpected events: jazz concerts, group photos for weddings, birthday parties, skateboard contests, dances, bicycles, ecstatic pauses to watch the sunset. The graphic scheme of the platform is a three-dimensional quotation of the fresco The School of Athens by Raphael, where Plato and Aristotle appear at the center, surrounded by (among others) Heraclitus, Euclid and Epicurus. But the platform in Münster is not a pedestal of philosophers, not a representation of knowledge: instead, it is the podium of contemporary “whatever singularity”, of the self-exhibition of unknown producers of everyday rituals, of an anonymous, silent majority that makes its presence known through singular and plural modes of usage of space, through the forms of its appropriation and the practices of adaptation to it.

While with Bert Theis platforms have lost their original function, they do conserve their transformative potential, their capacity to raise the status of a subject from an oblivious, passive passer-by to an author of a daily, unexpected creativity. In this sense, the platform should not be seen as a relational device, but as a machine with theoretical and philosophical virtues. In fact, as Theis says, it has an “epistemological function”, beyond its concrete practical value. Or, more precisely, it has a function precisely in relation to this practical character. It is a sort of enigma that captures the observer in the hermeneutic cycle of free interpretation of the use that can be made of that space, of the interests the observer may want to act on there, of the meaning he wants to attribute to it. The platform becomes a theoretical activator capable of leading spheres of values back to types of interest, objectivity to self-assertion, truth to justification, knowledge to opinion. The “meaning” is not the ultimate result of a natural epistemology, but the effect of social consensus. In this sense, the platform transforms, each time, its ordinary users into pragmatic philosophers. So, it is not a coincidence that the English phrase “Building Philosophy” painted on the wall and recently exhibited on several occasions is one of the last works of Bert Theis. This work quoting a famous phrase by Debord “Réalisation de la philosophie” at the same time becomes its own détournement, directly alluding to the neoliberal slogan of the Philosophy of Building.

Platform of inactivity

“There is no longer a shadow of a doubt: in paradise man is born lying down, nude, under a palm tree.” This ironic claim regarding primordial time (not a primitive time so much as a first, principal time) is used by Bert Theis to introduce his work Le dita della mano (Ten Fingers), installed at Volterra in 1998. Ten islands, painted white, each with the size of a double bed, are accompanied by Mediterranean palms that shade them, arrayed in the Fiumi park of Volterra, beside a prison. The 18th-century utopia par excellence, the desert island is the destination of travel, the promise of escape to new lands, new skies, new adventures; it is the space of elsewhere, outside. It is the reawakening after a shipwreck, the return, the nostos, to a state of nature, a primordial paradise.

Bert Theis continuously stages a parody of the island figure. In Volterra the platform is something that seems to be designed for rest and slumber. In Milan it is a platform for relaxation and isolation, with white cots, plants and tropical fish placed in the underground tunnel of a subway station (Enclave 1879, 1998). In Gwangju it is a terrace for temporary stays, an architectural prosthesis with sand, palm and banana trees, and large white benches (Russell Prosthesis 01, 2002). In Theis’s work the platform is not just a spatial but also a temporal interspace. Just as it interrupts the continuity of urban space, so it intends to suspend the flow of programmed, dominated time.

As Theis puts it: “In the neo-liberal stress-society, laziness for the time being is not a simple matter. It is, rather, a task that can only be fulfilled with very great effort”. Naturally the idea of laziness does not refer simply to separation from the world of work. Bert Theis knows that the new colonization of biocapitalism shifts the exercise of power from “work time” to “life time”. According to Maurizio Lazzarato: “Just as labor was the form of exploitation and surveillance of general subjectivity in capitalism before the movements of ’68, so communication, language, information are the forms of exploitation and control of the subjectivity of post-68 capitalism”. In this sense it is no longer possible to hypothesize a sociological extraneousness to capitalistic relationships as such.

Nor is it a coincidence that the very figure of the artist is put on trial by Theis, whose position in this sense reminds us of that of a radical artist like Mladen Stilinovic, when in In Praise of Laziness, a sort of anti-manifesto in 1993, he writes: “Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time – total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, nonactivity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, futile concentration. Those virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practiced and perfected. Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something… Their involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away from laziness, from art. Just as money is paper, so a gallery is a room. Artists from the East were lazy and poor because the entire system of insignificant factors did not exist. Therefore they had time enough to concentrate on art and laziness. Even when they did produce art, they knew it was in vain, it was nothing… Finally, to be lazy”. The conclusion: “There is no art without laziness”.

As an exponent of an island mindset, Bert Theis alludes to a form of general inactivity as a reserve of possibility, of unexplored potential, a form of antagonism to productivity. Once again attention returns to the behavior itself, conceived as a space of intervention according to the Situationist concept in which one can be an artist without “creating”, ratified by the motto of Debord “Ne Travaillez Jamais”. So, the aim is not to produce revolts or alternative worlds, but to pursue a strategy that does not emerge through its own products, but through the ways of using the products imposed by others. If it is no longer possible for a separate, uncontaminated outside to exist, the island can only exist inside the production process, here and now.

Platform as exodus

While the word exodus refers to a movement (of departure, flight, transit), the platform has a stable character. But “exodus” is used here in its sense as a key word of the post-Fordist vocabulary. From a classic category of Italian labor-movement thinking of the 1970s, it has now become a decisive tool to interpret any practice in the new global order: modes of production, techniques of communication, lifestyles. No longer and not only connected with the image of migration, exodus has been reduced, at this point, to an ordinary condition, and precisely as such it is capable of becoming a new space of politicization. For Paolo Virno the exodus, rather than exonerating from duties and responsibilities, is one of the most affirmative, productive figures of the contemporary world. Only abandonment (and therefore a negative action) would be capable of defining “pure belonging”, belonging as such, once it has been freed of all the classic collective identities, of all the specific “to whats”: roles, traditions, peoples, social classes, etc. So this is exodus not as the space of mere subtraction, but as the place of construction, time after time, as empirical, contingent result. Not a conflictual space (voice, Hirschman would say) but the place of an active defection.

Talking about out, the studio the artist Bert Theis founded in Milan in 2002 as a collective “service” on an urban scale, means coming to terms with this order of considerations. Perhaps starting with the name of the project itself. Three black letters in the ‘Arial’ font on a white background are the logo of the studio, and the acronym for Office for Urban Transformation. But “out” also means “exit”: if not a goal, at least a program. But what is the real scope of the proposal? With headquarters first in Milan, then since 2004 also in Mexico City, out is an experience of collective, flexible work that joins artists, architects, cultural and neighborhood associations, volunteers and social activists. Its date and place of birth are symptomatic of the emergency-oriented, situational character of the project, so much so that it should be observed away from a general context, inside a concrete, direct experience in the field. The headquarters of out was an occupied space inside an abandoned factory owned by the city of Milan and slated for demolition, in the neighborhood known as “Isola”, the “island”. A historic, central zone, beside one of the urban voids left unresolved for many years, which since the end of the 1990s has been threatened by radical urban transformation that calls for development of the leading sectors of the Milanese economy, such as the fashion industry (the project for the ‘City of Fashion’ dates back to 2001) and the insertion of new facilities of the public administration.

So out was created as a response to the decision of the administration to go ahead with this project, for the area designated as Garibaldi-Repubblica. Faced with a typical case of the urban planning approach of “big government”, that of “top-down” planning, out has tried to assert itself as an open platform of intervention capable of catalyzing social mobilizations, the demands of the neighborhood, imaginative “grassroots” forces, the traces of the industrial past, the new outsiders. In short: the real city.

Inserting himself in an already troubled situation, in one of those spaces Holston would have defined as “insurgent citizenship”, Bert Theis has developed a project in which the role of the artist is above all that of the activator, the coordinator, the person who manages to mediate among different interest groups that might otherwise find themselves on a collision course. But this role does not include mediation with the institutional powers, because the present forms of mobilization do not demand responses from others: they come up with their own answers. So this is an exodus away from the institution, of immediate repossession of productive forms, activation of constituent practices. In this sense, the strategies implemented by Bert Theis share the same operative horizon as the most radical part of the contemporary art scene, with figures like Maria Eichhorn, Superflex, Christoph Schäfer, atelier d’architecture autogérée, Marjetica Potrc and others. But in the case of out, as in many of the earlier experiences we have examined, Bert Theis creates an indeterminate, non-finite space whose management, organization and construction are left, above all, up to different processes of involvement of people. The artist, in substance, supplies a frame of reference.

One example of this is the production of images developed by out to support the struggle of the neighborhood associations. Or the collective project for the abandoned factory building, part of the attempt to save it, developed as the result of discussions with the inhabitants of the zone, with contributions by many well-known artists invited to make works inside the space and in the adjacent gardens on Via Confalonieri. Due to the need to gather these artistic interventions that had accumulated over the course of time, but also to respond to a chronic institutional lack of spaces for contemporary art in the Milan area, the three years of operation of out led to the founding, in 2005, of the Isola Art Center, a sort of art and community center. The participation of the inhabitants and of artists, intellectuals, technicians and the general art public makes it possible to concentrate the activity of the center around a reflection, in greater and greater depth, on the contemporary public sphere, public space, new urban planning modes, the city and power. As it produces the space of the city, Isola Art Center theorizes the conditions of possibility “directly in the field”: of existence, intervention, transformation. Exhibitions on the architecture of change, on the art scene in Canton, seminars on philosophy and urban planning, workshops with Carlos Garaicoa, Tomas Saraceno, atelier d’architecture autogérée, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, Park Fiction, alternate with political meetings, neighborhood assemblies, public encounters, forums with local committees of residents. Isola Art Center grants visibility and a voice to something that didn’t exist before, attempting to imagine itself, day by day, as a new urban device. But in 2007 the center was evicted, together with all the associations located in the old factory, which was then demolished.

For nine years the Isola neighborhood has been (and continues to be) a “political” spaces inside the city of Milan. Also thanks to the role played by Isola Art Center. In a short time this neighborhood has become a field of forces, tensions, resistance, of desires and hopes. Perhaps inheriting models from its own local past, the Isola has become a space that disturbs the established histories of the modern city: speculative projects, spatial discipline, gentrification. To counter the bad faith of the planners who have accused the neighborhood’s activism of being simple, backward immobilism, Isola Art Center can only point to a reality in transformation, a new multicultural social morphology, stories of progressive contextual adaptation, collective intentions, propositions based on self-organization. When accused of clinging to an ideological purity originating in its own community, Isola Art Center can only reply by insisting on the right to the city as a “radical” democratic need, re-asserting the need of groups and individuals to be able to actively control and plan their own life. Isola Art Center was formed and has operated, in these years, with the goal of catalyzing the mobilization of the neighborhood and the forces involved. Isola Art Center, in spite of everything, continues to focus on a possible model of an art and community center as a producer of urban quality, no longer concentrated in a single edifice, but scattered, camouflaged, distributed throughout the fabric of the neighborhood. In Isola Art Center Bert Theis’s original conception of the platform is transformed into a sort of collective podium for public discussions, which separate from any political representation intends to activate and support opportunities of self-empowerment of the city. For Isola Art Center, to say it with Rancière, “the logic of the demonstration has [always] also been, inevitably, an aesthetic of the manifestation”.

Marco Scotini  (2009)

Marco Scotini is Artistic Director of the FM Centre for Contemporary Art in Milan and, since 2004, Director of Visual Arts and Curatorial Studies Department at NABA – Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti –, also in Milan. Since 2014 he is Head of Exhibition Programs at PAV – Parco d’Arte Vivente in Turin and he was also one of the founding members of Isola Art Center.

Published in :

OperaViva Magazine, 2017 (it)


Judith Quentel, ed. Bert Theis. Building Philosophy, Chamarande: Domaine départemental de Chamarande, Centre d’art contemporain, 2010 (french/english/it)