The ultra contemporary art movement

Artists producing new work every day that contributes to the public debate – this is the ambition of the 2017 Ultra Contemporary Biennale

It’s the 2007 Istanbul Biennale, and I’m running down the central shopping street in a small group. The word ‘Biennalist’ is emblazoned in red on our white headbands, and as we jog, we debate whether the theme of this year’s biennale – optimism in a time of global war – is hypocritical, since the exhibition receives funding from corporations that contribute to global unrest.

That conversation was my first introduction to the work of the Colonel, aka Thierry Geoffroy, a French conceptual artist based in Copenhagen. Seated in the café of the Black Diamond library in central Copenhagen this February, he declares that it’s about time the contemporary art world got a wake up call.

“The problem with Fox News is that it makes people believe that what they are watching is news, when it is just propaganda. Contemporary art has the same problem. It pretends to care about things, but does the opposite. It supports the weapons industry and vodka. It pretends to be critical, but it isn’t. And pretending is bad for all of us.”

Ultra fast art
My jog through Istanbul was what Geoffroy likes to call a ‘Critical Run’, and it is one of several art formats he has invented. All tend to incorporate participation and reflection about the role of the artist in society.

But today he wants to tell me about a new idea: an Ultra Contemporary Biennale. Over the space of six weeks in Copenhagen in 2017, artists will create new work every day that addresses pressing social questions. The art will be created and presented in galleries, public spaces and institutions, and consist of everything from sculpture to performance art.

“The art world has abused the word contemporary. When you go to a contemporary art show, you are seeing antiques. The word has been stolen, so we need a new word: ultra contemporary. It’s about creating a city that debates in the present, a city that breathes at the same speed as the now.”

Ultra contemporary isn’t the first concept Geoffroy has introduced into art-speak. Along with the Critical Run, he is best known for his Emergency Rooms – spaces installed in galleries where artists and the public debate current social issues. The idea is to exercise what Geoffroy calls our ‘awareness muscle’, our ability to think critically about the world around us.

“I am fighting apathy,” he explains. “It’s like a gas that has been dropped on society and makes people start sleeping. People notice they can kill without anyone intervening, and politicians can be corrupt without anyone noticing. The whole system is gassed, and it’s my enemy. So now I’m trying to find a formula to create an antidote, a recipe to fight this apathy gas.”

Dysfunction detectors
Artists play an important role in society, in Geoffroy’s view. Not content to produce works of aesthetic beauty that are easily commodified by wealthy art collectors, he argues that artists are uniquely capable of detecting what he likes to call ‘dysfunctions’ in society.

It’s a view shared by his collaborator and curator Tijana Miskovic, who sits beside him today.

“Artists take things that people normally think of as separate and create new meanings by combining them,” she says. “Visual aesthetics through colour, shape and form should be brought into the daily debate. They add something to the written word.”

Miskovic also argues that artists tend to register changes in society long before they develop into actual issues. The problem is that while contemporary artists might claim to address political or sociological issues, the process of creating their work is too slow to contribute to the debate. The Ultra Contemporary movement, on the other hand, will give a platform for artists to communicate their ideas immediately.

“People who oppose the ultra contemporary will say, ‘art cannot be done fast’,” says Geoffroy. “But just because you have done something quickly doesn’t mean you haven’t been thinking about it for ten years. It’s like taking a snapshot, like what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’ – you can wait five hours, but when you take it, it happens very fast.”

Fast art will mean less-polished works, they admit, but this will simply shift our understanding of what a successful work is. Ultra contemporary works will be judged by their relevance and efficiency, and by their ability to address the issues of the day.

The role of the artist
Geoffroy adopted the name the Colonel as an homage to his father, a French military man who served in Algeria and South-East Asia. Geoffroy remembers overhearing his father speaking about military strategy with colleagues in their home, and has inherited his father’s systematic and strategic thinking.

“In order to exist, you need a strategy for living.  You can just exist, or you can make a manifesto, and by making a manifesto you design your life and give it shape. I write lots of lists for what I will do next week and in ten years’ time. I try to give shape to the future,” he explains.

Geoffroy is disappointed with the role of the artist in modern society, limited by static galleries and presenting ancient work as though it were relevant. And he is annoyed, because he knows that artists see things in a way many others cannot.

“The artists are capturing things. They have a capacity to integrate information and give birth to an artwork that is a synthesis of everything they feel. They can give us a real-time diagnosis and look ahead to what might come, so we must capture what they say and give it to the public as fast as possible!” he exclaims, before levelling his final rebuke at the contemporary art world.

“I want them to be ashamed of being antiques and of misusing the word contemporary!” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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