Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff

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Installation Views, Machine 2, Cabinet, London, 15 July – 10 September 2017 

 
 
Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff
 
One could argue that Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff’s practice is concerned with social relations in the widest sense, what constitutes or defines a community, however provisional or fictional it may be, and the social, economic and artistic exchanges that reproduce it. For the artists, social relations are relations between a user and site–an interface or a situation–be that a bar, a theatre, a flat, an office or a shared meal, where transactions, collaborations and connections are both raw material and product; they are a means and an end where production and consumption often align, as forms of cognitive, aesthetic and affective labour.
 
Henkel and Pitegoff use documentary photography as a medial and conceptual foundation to make these investigations where a series of images focuses on situations and infrastructures that enable exchange. These images portray people obliquely, in part or obscured, and often instead centre on the objects, spaces and ‘general relations’ or order of things surrounding them, apparatuses that capture the attention, desire and aspiration of the social subject – artist, professional and so on. Early works of note include the Dirty Plate Photos (2012), framed colour images of finished plates of food, the residue of a social event: the casual (business) meal;
 
Dirty Plate Photos, Miami Plate (1), 2013
Dirty Plate Photos, Miami Plate (1), 2013
 
Photography & Eating (2013), framed colour images of people working and eating at Berlin start-ups accompanied by a fictional text about them;
 
Photography & Eating, Spaetzle (6 Wunderkinder, SponsorPay), 2013
Photography & Eating, Spaetzle (6 Wunderkinder, SponsorPay), 2013
 
and the Receipt Photos (2013), framed colour images of their Berlin artist friends including Marlie Mul and Yngve Holen, pouring over tax receipts in their individual domestic settings.
 
Receipt Photos, Marlie, Berlin, Spring, 2013

Receipt Photos, Marlie, Berlin, Spring, 2013

 
In recent work the artists have engaged pointedly with architecture and space as a site of exchange and as a producer of value. Grids (Berlin Zurich Zurich Berlin Berlin Berlin Berlin London)(2015), is a series of b/w photographs arranged in ‘neutral’ grids on paper of empty flats for sale or rent in their respective cities shot during estate agency viewings. The often grainy or out-of-focus images depict different types of flats, some being renovated, some with occasional ‘viewers’ and estate agents, but mostly shots of walls, floors, windows and built-in kitchens and bathrooms. The work sets up a clear relationship between the spaces people view flats and art in and and the use and exchange values of real estate and works of art, a spectrum of their utility.
 
Grids (Berlin Zurich Zurich Berlin Berlin Berlin Berlin London), 2015
Grids (Berlin Zurich Zurich Berlin Berlin Berlin Berlin London), 2015
 
For the 9th Berlin Biennale, the artists showed Untitled (Interiors)(2016), a series of photographs, shot in rooms at the official residence of the US Ambassador in Berlin and lit by theatre lights (from New Theater), hung on mirror-tiled detached walls in the reception room at the Akademie der Künste. As a place of diplomacy and a private home, the house is both a site for staging politics and domestic life where even the artists are visually inscribed in this performance through their own reflections and shadows.
 
Untitled (Interiors), 2016 (Berlin Biennale)
Untitled (Interiors), 2016 (Berlin Biennale)
 
With Machine 2 (2017), the apparatus or interface is decoupled from an originary site or situation or at least it is decoded: the machine’s semi-autonomy lies in its ability as an artwork to become pure fiction, a pseudo-apparatus. A printing press that doesn’t print but endlessly loops upon itself, circulating images ‘unproductively’ but productively as art in its anti-nostalgic mimicry of Fordist production in an age of mass digital distribution. Henkel and Pitegoff describe the machine as having ‘a dumb functionality’,  that it presents itself as a ‘an easy metaphor for creating one’s own space or system for sharing content, narrative or image…The machine is this sort of blunt attempt at reanimating what has already passed, an endless retelling, something we’d always avoided trying to do in relation to our past performance work because we never found a format that felt strong enough to stand alone and that didn’t embalm the images with quasi-historical FOMO’.
 
The images on the belt depict scenes from the Irish bar at Berlin’s Shönefeld Airport on one side and the exteriors of US federal government buildings in Washington D.C. (Department of Justice, Energy, Commerce, etc.), shot on the weekend former CIA Director James Comey was sacked, on the other. The work is presented with a wooden viewing platform, where the viewer can see and be seen, as well as a group of framed colour images of people reading German newspapers at the Bierhaus Berlin (a pub that has been open continuously 24/7 for the past thirty years), cut from another belt and exhibited one at a time. For Machine 2, Henkel and Pitegoff refer to old Hollywood films where newspaper headlines spiral off a printing press delivering a kind of ‘daily truth’; they also refer to Victorian theatre stage sets where the background was changed via a hand-turned loop of painted images.
 
Machine 2, 2017
Machine 2, 2017
 
There is an interesting area of tension between the physical time-based performance and a picture. You can run all these performance projects, but you still end up with a photograph as a kind of biased archive that doesn’t exactly show anything and at the same time creates a new version of itself.
 
After their graduation from Cooper Union in New York, Henkel and Pitegoff moved to Berlin and opened Times bar (2011-12) with fellow American artist Lindsey Lawson. The bar was open for a year and became a popular, and subsequently mythic, watering hole for a largely twenty-something, social media-friendly, expat community of artists. Instead of documenting the project (they never released any images), the artists kept notes about the goings on – the punters, parties, performances and ‘hangings’– which would become the impetus for treatments for their plays produced later at New Theater. Equally, the bar itself, a simple rectilinear object built from wood and covered in a grid of white tiles, would return again at New Theatre as well as in future iterations as benches or walls, in different colours and sizes, to the extent that these social sculptures act as a kind of pivotal infrastructure for their work generally, a barrier and a threshold designating and engendering further exchanges, further relations.
 
New Theater Bench Prototype, 2013
New Theater Bench Prototype, 2013
 
Like Times, New Theater (2013-15) exists now only in memory or as free indirect discourse, with no official visual documentation from the artists except for its website and the unique posters made for each of its twenty productions by a large group of friends and colleagues, who often also acted in, co-wrote, scored and provided the sets, costumes and props, for the performances themselves. One could argue that for this ‘defiantly’ amateur theatre project in a rundown Kreuzberg shopfront as a whole, the artists were not so much interested in theatre as such, its history or even its reinvention by visual artists but rather as a tool or interface to produce ‘the social’, a community, or even a network wherein the productions were fictions that attempted to imagine new forms of sociality– ‘transient micro-communities of activity’ as well as a critique: ‘But it’s crucial to distinguish a network from the network, since, as Facebook has taught us, the network as a series of small, personal links is its best illusion, … the intra­personal as a back door to the cold machinations of a forceful, neoliberal techno-capitalism’. ‘Network fatigue’, writes their friend and co-conspirator Pablo Larios, ‘leads to a – perhaps illusionary – state of refuge outside that network, using community as solidarity and avoiding the authorial responsibility of representational legibility – be that to gallery, institution, or distribution format. These makeshift formations gain an unconventional grace when they frame personally and temporarily what seemed only expressible generally’.
 
Production poster for New Theater, 2013
Production poster for New Theater, 2013
 
Since their first institutional show in 2014 at Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen, where they transposed elements of Times and New Theatre into an institutional setting, to their current year-long residency at Berlin’s Volksbühne (2017-18), Henkel and Pitegoff have continued to investigate the possibilities of creating forms of community within an institution to ascertain the possibility of building ‘our own structures within a given context and then watch how they collapse or calcify’.