- Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.
Here, then, Gesamt does not mean «total», but together, in common. In fact, crowd sourcing really turns the entire idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk upside down. According to modernist mythmaking about the latter the masses do not create the Gesamtkunstwerk; rather, the masses are created through it. Crowd sourcing is about the opposite: it is about showing the masses as individuals.
Having launched Gesamt as a challenge for the crowd Trier then left the rest of the project in the hands of the young director Jenle Hallund. She was charged with the monumental task of selecting the best bits among the 501 contributions from all across the world, combining this selection to form a work that reflects her own vision. In just one month. It could all have gone horribly wrong, and indeed the whole thing had been disarmingly described as «an experiment». However, the project – which resulted in a four-track film entitled Disaster 501: What happened to man?, combining 142 out of the total of 501 contributions from 52 countries, shown simultaneously on four monitors – appears to have been in safe hands with her. She quite undoubtedly had the talent and fearlessness required to tackle so great a task.
As one sees the final result of Gesamt it might, however, appear that the relationship between the directors takes centre stage, overshadowing the people’s voice. Yes, Hallund has set out – as stated in the PR materials – to «honour the many emotions and moods» in the «touching» contributions received, but she has also ruthlessly smashed them and combined them to form something new. She states that for her, it was interesting that submitted materials mainly told stories about the decline in morals, about violence in the ever-lasting dance between the sexes, and about complex father-daughter relations. One really cannot help wonder whether this is actually Hallund’s own biased reading of the materials, seeing how they reflect her own struggle to measure up to a much-admired colleague, to seduce and dominate a man (and an audience), and simply make daddy happy. This should not be construed as patronising, nor is it pure speculation, for the issue is addressed throughout the film all the way to its epilogue. Hallund fearlessly let the film begin with a quite remarkable text about the relationship between the two directors as regards Trier’s canon of works.
One good thing about Hallund’s struggles with Trier is that they have imbued the film with tremendous energy and an idiosyncratic clarity that has, despite the great number of different contributions, prevented Disaster 501 from ending up as an insufferable cacophony of voices where everyone gets a say or as a piece of epigone, sinister Trier imitation. One is left behind with the impression that people are actually able to tell their own story and are not just keen to impress one of the greatest directors in the world. However, Hallund’s professional interests have a detrimental impact on other significant possibilities pertaining to the Gesamt idea. The weakest part of her film, Disaster 501, is undoubtedly the segment that addresses Albert Speer’s Nuremberg grandstand. It has become a predictable, distanced explosion of Nazi demonism, comedy, and nuclear bombs. Either this is due to the contributions themselves, or the director did not have the vision and overview to show us, once and for all, what makes Speer interesting apart from his own mythology and close relationship with the Führer. But of course Nazi aesthetics are interesting because monumentality and grand narratives are one of our greatest artistic (and political) taboos today. Our thinking is quite naturally affected by the creation of ever-more democratic and parliamentarian art that would rather paint people’s everyday lives up on the canvas than transcend those lives, elevating them to a very different scale so that art’s ideas and seductive qualities convey themselves to the audience.
Whether Disaster 501 is in fact as experimental as it is made out to be is difficult to determine. We can only conclude that crowd sourcing is not a particularly controversial method as such, but simply a contemporary art form that eliminates a number of conventions regarding the auteur, not always for the better. It is, however, rare to see the principle of crowd surfing reflected and brought to bear with such determination within the visual arts. That is why the Gesamt concept and Disaster 501 could have been the major highlight and attraction of the Copenhagen Art Festival. Especially if the project had been launched and presented a little better. On that score, however, the art scene is sadly sorely lagging behind the film industry.
It is less clear what Trier himself gets out of Gesamt. Perhaps he is making amends for the emotional manipulation he is always accused of subjecting his audiences to? To be fair, Trier has never hidden the fact that he manipulates people; rather, he has given people the opportunity to punish him by always foregrounding and exposing his own tricks. Now he even gives his audiences his basic recipe to see if they, too, can create good art with it. The gesture is both generous and perfidious – that is how «Good Taste» works. For preference, it is encircled by critical irony or teasing self-awareness, for the purely earnest and pathetic is fundamentally fascist in nature. Wit and self-criticism is what makes great art humanistic.
Some might regard crowd sourcing – or Wiki-art, as it is also known – as an outsourcing of the artist’s unique vision to a mass of amateurs, but this may not be Trier’s point. Rather, one person’s dumbing down may be another person’s invitation to greatness. There are even claims that participatory art makes people smarter because it is quite naturally driven more by concepts than craftsmanship, prompting it to speak more to our intellect. This may be absolute rubbish, but as a concept it could be regarded as a complicated counterattack against an anti-intellectual movement within arts and politics.
Whatever the case may be, other recent examples of user-generated art suggests that crowd sourcing requires a firm structure to prevent the results from becoming chaotic, mediocre, or trivial. Quite simply, crowd sourcing requires authorship in some form or another, even if that authorship is completely anonymous. This might place anti-authoritarian movements in a different light and prompt us to reconsider the relationship between copyright, copies, and imitation – and call to mind the old adage «Bad artists imitate, good artists steal.»