Catalog barbarasteppeportraits 2003
Otto Neurath. Since the last Documenta, this name has taken on a new meaning. Who was Otto Neurath? He was born in Vienna in 1882 and died in Oxford in 1945. He was an economist and an historian of economics and science and is considered the founder of modern image statistics.
Working closely together with visual artists such as Gerd Arntz, he set up the first Social and Economics Museum in Vienna and served as its director from 1925 until 1934. After emigrating, he and his wife Marie developed the ISOTYPE Institute (International System of Typographical Picture Education). The institute's goal was to relay knowledge using visual means such as publications and exhibitions in order to "minimize the divide between people and language groups."
In the Social and Economic Museum, he saw the place for the knowledge that "we can construct models of the human heart and demonstrate them in detail. But how can we show the functions within a social body, the variations in layers of class, the circulation of goods and money, the activities of banks, the correlation between birthrates and death? Models and graphics are also possible for these things. They demand however, a greater distance from reality, in other words, they make larger demands on those, who are supposed to devise them as well as the observer."
It almost looks as though Neurath's dream has come true. That there would be a large offer available to anyone who wishes to as it were, casually inform themselves about questions concerning sociological issues. Newspapers, weekly and illustrated magazines have become shaped by the statistics that cover their pages. The articles themselves, often seem little more than comments on the graphics.
Are the "functions within a social body" made any clearer this way? Do they make us feel more self-confident in our dealings with banks and insurance companies? Have they helped us to grasp the swing in stock market share prices or understand the "correlation between birthrates and death"? Hardly. As over-informed consumers we know that the ever-identical survey pies and towers of opinion polls that sometimes rise or fall are so useless as conveyors of knowledge that they cause even great and vibrant minds to stumble. That of course also goes for the beloved curve, which is still a main element in everyday image statistics. Neurath had every reason to curse the "nonsense of the curve". "Presentations in the shape of a curve have their significance in mathematical calculations of statistic figures. They often, however, feign a scientific character to those searching for something behind the curve that doesn't exist. Social reality knows no continuous transitions. The realistic view suffers under the image of the curve."
It was consequent of Neurath to engage the help of visual artists to create images and pictures from this view. Reversed however, his projects about illustrated thoughts were the cause of great fascination also for artists, who, as George Grosz once said, are interested in more than acting as simple "tailors of nothing".
Now as well, at a time of falling economy, rising unemployment and rapid impoverishment of the middle class, Neurath's work has gained fresh significance among a younger generation of artists, which could be confirmed by the rebirth of the realistic view.
Among these, besides Andreas Siekmann's Documenta project "Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung" ("Society with Limited Liability") which is dedicated to the memory of Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz, is Barbara Steppe's "Private Systems".
These systems seem to be late formation of the "form follows function" principle. The Neurath ideal of the first glance that can grasp the complexity of a political or economical process in an instant, is just as seldom really applicable, as Steppe's portraits, conceived from activity and passivity data collected from her interviewees, are quickly disclosed.
In addition, these portraits are visual objects reminiscent of Constructivism, which are individualized by the first name of the subject, just like the rickety, infamous Ikea shelf product "Billy".
Barbara Steppe's statistic transformations are not socio-graphics that classifies the portrait subject according to his or her age or occupation. The subject who mutates into color fields, furniture and architectural models have no past. Her images are collections of data that become dimensions of proportional shares and frameworks of subjective color assignment. This is different to the color analysis portrait method that Johannes Itten developed for his Bauhaus course, and which was bound to the individual appearance of the subject. Here, an empirical method is placed into the picture, which above all, is shaped by a desire for the systematic - whereby the name-titles seem to deliver instructions for observing and understanding.
Yet, what was presented as logical reductionism by Mondrian and his later compositions "London"(1940/42), "New York City"(1942), "Broadway Boogie-Woogie"(1942), can not be deciphered from the titles of Barbara Steppe's portraits.
How are "Jurgen", "Mathilde" or the persons 3, 4, 5, 6 assembled? Certainly not from the ingredients used by the vernacular to explain the difference between the sexes to children, namely: "what are little boys made of? Of edges and corners. Of mice and snails. And what are little girls made of? Raspberry and vanilla ice cream, candy and sweets."
Barbara Steppe's portrait subjects are already far beyond the Arcimboldos stage. They are grown up and ready for the embodiment of all types of measuring data that the survey-hungry protagonist and opinion pollster would happily feed on. In Barbara Steppe's objects and questionnaire tables, they appear as a substrate of the time used for sleeping, cooking, telephoning, ruminating, watching television or washing. Professional survey specialists would quickly figure out however, that this is undermining the credibility of their occupation, an occupation that, as Felix Keller remarked in his "Archäologie der Meinungsforschung" ("Archeology of the Public Opinion Survey"), cannot be understood as an enclosed system. Because it proves to be an "element of a broader socially-anchoring form of knowledge that does not reveal its center, but rather marks its edge. It is an impure edge, unpopular because of its inability to be methodically stringent. This edge points right through to a different order in which political philosophy, human sciences are perhaps searching for a broader common sense according to existent and speaking subject and not numbers."
This enumeration of Keller's is also meant to expand on an art that takes the active and speaking subject seriously and, in the desire to create realistic portraits, also makes use of new and analytical methods.
Barbara Steppe operates from this "impure edge" of which Keller speaks. However, she does not need to concern herself with the representational element that every public survey activity still requires.
She gathers her material in the role of a time gauging demograph but she switches into the role of a detective who produces an interim model of a crime. One has the impression that she employs the same artistic naivete suggested by the sociologist Ulrich Oevermann in his method of sequential analysis, developed for the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, as one of the most important undogmatic cognitive methods.
The profiles that Barbara Steppe creates with the help of this flexibility, and the experimental-fantasy so important for the methodology, makes the private sphere's sites of activity crystal clear. Brief characteristics, self-narratives and the chronological daily chores of her subjects in proportional shares are divided up here as well, and the proportional data taken from this used for the ground plans of her three dimensional models. Their external borders have the proportions of common furniture and living units. Their interior however, no longer depicts the perspective of the architects and designers, but of the residents and operators.
With this, she approaches the ideal of the correct way of living described in Otto Friedrich Bollnow's study "Mensch und Raum" ("Man and Space"), in which the residents "bring the individual rooms according to their accessibility and their inner correlation into a network of actual experienced relationships." The borders where the linking of such relationships takes place would not be set in Barbara Steppe's dwellings. According to the changes in activities, the residents could make room for their newly acquired conditions. With this possibility, they are reminded of the dream life that Bruno Taut wrote about in his "Die Auflösung der Städte oder die Erde eine gute Wohnung"("The Dissolution of the City, or the Earth as a Good Apartment(1920). "In principle, a box with a single room. Shape changes according to wind, sun and location. Homogenous wall segments always assembled differently. The house is as changeable as man, flexible and yet firm…"
The utopic merit of dreams of flexible living is what determines their beauty. But works like those collected in Barbara Steppe's "Private Systems" is what keeps them fresh.