Forget the Children, They Are Already Corrupted

The seminar series The New Model at Tensta Konsthall wants to discuss the future, but never succeeds in leaving Palle Nielsen’s seventies.

Palle Nielsen, The Model. A Model for a Qualitative Society, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1968. Photo: Time as Matter, MACBA Collection 2009.

In 1968 Palle Nielsen, a recently graduated Danish artist, as well as activist and graduate student in architecture, went to Moderna Museet in Stockholm and asked the director if he could put on “a pedagogical model exhibition” at the museum. Yes, why shouldn’t an artist in his mid-twenties be given the opportunity to exhibit in the museum’s biggest gallery hall, which at the time was perhaps the most important exhibition space in Western Europe? Pontus Hultén gave him the space for three weeks. The exhibition was called The Model. A Model for a Qualitative Society, and consisted of children playing on an adventure playground built inside the museum.

That work is now the starting point for the first project initiated by Maria Lind at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm under the name The New Model (Den nya modellen). In a series of seminars that will span the next two years, the questions raised in The Model will be transferred to our time, i.e. questions concerning the conditions for a radically different society. It is of course a fascinating project. As a critic, you do not want to just stand outside and criticize or applaud, but write with the future seminars in mind: to write for the future.

Lars Bang Larsen. Photo: Tensta Konsthall.

Much of the criticism that can be directed at this first seminar really concerns all the seminars I’ve taken part in at art institutions: no one talks about the question that’s been raised and everyone presents their own projects without making an effort to explain exactly what it is that makes them relevant in the context. For an outside audience, for example, one from the academy, this could be understood as arrogant. It’s easy to see how an audience member could become paranoid, feeling that everyone else seems to know what is meant by, for example, “a qualitative society” – the term that would be investigated this time – and that they probably understand the ways in which the different presentations are relevant to the question. The truth of the matter is that it is not so easy to say what Palle Nielsen himself meant by the term. In his book on Nielsen’s work, Lars Bang Larsen makes exactly this point, but unfortunately not during this seminar. His presentation of The Model quite simply ignored the question of the day, and was instead about the work’s urbanistic aspects and the role of children and play in the work and in art in general. It would have been much more rewarding for the seminar if he had mentioned the central ambiguity of the term’s meaning, and discussed his own answer, namely to replace “the qualitative society” with Agamben’s “the coming community”! (1) In his book this substitution functions as a turning point in the sense that it is thereby in Nielsen’s work we “may glimpse an outside to the present, […] we may see a future.”

Magnus Bärtås. Photo: Tensta Konsthall.

It is precisely this orientation towards the future that the seminar wanted to have, but it didn’t really try to realize it at all. Larsen’s presentation was strictly limited to historical considerations and Magnus Bärtås also turned to the same time period in his contribution. He presented, among other things, a project about Fältöversten, which today is an ordinary shopping mall, but when it was built in 1973, it was intended to be a social center in Stockholm’s wealthiest neighborhood. Bärtås wanted to recollect this idea of allowing underprivileged groups to live in the middle of overclass isolation, directly connected to a library, pharmacy, and healthcare center, thereby establishing a “Sweden in miniature.” None of the presentations transcended the threshold of the present towards a future. Why does the contemporary need to look backwards to be able to think about the future? My sense is that we have such low self-esteem that we need to reassure ourselves that the past has actually been different and that this is evidence things can be different in the future. We quite simply don’t dare to create our own future visions based on our desires, but are content to demonstrate the possibility of something else, and ask how it can be repeated in a different form.

The projects that didn’t turn towards the past at this seminar treated the present with a studious lack of fantasy: one goes out and asks people want they want (market research) and then makes it for them. The latter method is exemplified in an underwhelming manner in Dave Hullfish Bailey’s presentation of a project he did at Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark, Socle du Monde (2004). Correct me if I’m wrong: the museum paired him up with a construction company as a partner, then he went out and spoke to people in the area of the museum and learned that they were interested in birds and music. This led to the following incredibly coherent creation: a construction site on the grounds of the museum where one can both bird watch and listen to music… A new model for a qualitative society or an attempt to say, “the costumer is always right,” and still be a little bit creative? Judge for yourself.

Maria Lind (director, Tensta Konsthall) and Dave Hullfish Bailey. Photo: Tensta Konsthall.

Since Larsen didn’t address his own answer to the question of how the notion of the qualitative society should be understood, his lecture gave the impression that, via Nielsen’s work, it was in children and play that the future could be found. He contextualized The Model in an aesthetic tradition of play and other playground projects Nielsen had done just before and after. But I hope that the seminar series does not go down this road. Today childhood is politically and commercially over-invested (which is even suggested in the exhibition program). Since Nielsen’s time we have seen an institutionalization of children that is unparalleled in human history, and which probably also makes children unusable for art. Bärtås addressed preschool’s ability to introduce new values in society when he showed his one-minute film Anna, Where is Paulina Today? (1998). In the film adults sit in the kind of morning meeting they have at Waldorf preschools, where each participant picks up a “Waldorf doll” and sings a welcome song. According to the movement’s founder Rudolf Steiner, the doll is charged with a magical force when the child produces it, connecting the child to another form of spiritual living identity. Such an element of occultism has gone straight into the Swedish mainstream through the institutionalization of children. In fact, already in the time of The Model, politics had begun to lay claim to childhood as nurseries were meant to implement new, socially progressive values in society via children. The question for the seminar is whether art has the slightest chance at influencing or being influenced by beings who from an early age are formed by institutions, where today they are also expected to produce economic gains. Forget the children, you want to say, they are already corrupted.

Audience. Photo: Tensta Konsthall.

When you read what Nielsen wrote about The Model after his exhibition, it is clear that the most valuable moments were situations where the children didn’t live up to his expectations about play. Play is just another form of production (which is also understood by Larsen in his book) and people’s social problem consists precisely in being forced to live under the demands of production, and barely being able to envision life in terms other than effectiveness, constructiveness, and production. The valuable moments came when Nielsen reacted that the children were playing wrong, or not playing at all, like when for example they didn’t make clay figures, but added too much water to the clay, creating puddles on the floor. “An unsuccessful day,” says Nielsen – before he realizes that children don’t need to be creative since they are busy having experiences. It was not play, but experience that fell outside of expectations, understanding and art: “It hurts to have to confess that you [the artist] have created without experiencing […] that you may have completely forgotten how to experience the new.”(2)

To think the future and the new, Nielsen seems to suggest, is to make new experiences “in an experimental spirit.” It is not enough to depict people’s experiences, or even to recreate them. The artist, says Nielsen, must instead make new experiences, “live art,” in order to make a real contribution. Maybe this will be the direction the seminars will take. Maybe the seminar form will break down so completely that art can come in its stead. Apparently two artists will always be taking part in the seminars and, if I understand correctly, be creating art within this project. We can hope that experiences for the future come along with the new works, and that the seminar series prepares us for them: prepares us for that fact that an unsuccessful day can be the best.

Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle.

1) Lars Bang Larsen, Nielsen. The Model. A Model for a Quantitative Society (1968), p. 93-94, MACBA, 2010.

2) Palle Nielsen, “The social artist”, ibid. p. 137.