The gift of poison and bodies in affectful space. Iris Touliatou at Kunsthalle Basel.
Writ in white walls, a patter of characters warp and weep, all green and aglow, below a bright neoclassical skylight. Dabbled and auratic, these painterly figures amass with clerical precision, exposing, in turn, something of the ribs that uphold the architecture of their monumental surround. Iris Touliatou describes SCORE FOR COVERAGE (2023) as a fresco. I take this counterintuitive allusion seriously not only due to its formalities, as a painting tattooed into the skin of the very gallery’s white walls, but because it subtly alludes to the allegorical nature of her solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel (February 2 – May 7, 2023). Entitled Gift, the ‘scores,’ or conditions, which compose each of Touliatou’s minimal gestures here, not only expose the hidden bodies of the Kunsthalle Basel – itself the physical body representative of the associated Basler Kunstverein – but, by subverting the logic at play on the bodies that constitute this art system, she re-renders this space with the conditions that can allow these bodies, indeed this system, to work otherwise.
On a formal level, SCORE FOR COVERAGE is a tight wall text. Painted by hand and spanning two walls of the Kunsthalle Basel’s monumental exhibition hall, the text for this
painting comes from a Simple Annual Life Insurance contract entered into by the artist for the year 2023 (January 10 2023 to January 10 2024, to be exact). Metaphorically recalling classical frescos, which depict the metamorphosis of bodies into objects or other animals, this minimal text painting not only morphs Touliatou’s biopolitically defined legal body into an empirical object, a work of art (and) a contract, but exposes the associated body of the Baseler Kunstverein. Working within the Kunsthalle Basel’s own institutional parameters – such as the size of the wall and the budget allotted to the exhibition’s installation – the selected section of text relays, in Greek, English and German, the contractual tissues – the clauses and sub-clauses – that name the membership of the Basler Kunstverein (all 1,334 members) as the beneficiaries of Touliatou’s insurance policy. Should the artist die over the course of the twelve-month policy period, a cash sum of 100,000.00Euros will be paid out to the Basler Kunstverein’s associate body. As it happens, this overt example of capitalist biopolitics deems Touliatou’s body with a value almost equivalent to that which the Kunsthalle Basel puts aside each year to ensure it is able to uphold its architectural body.
This seemingly serendipitous correlation in values ties neatly into Touliatou’s often site and system specific approach. For example, her 2021 work untitled (lungs), part of her solo exhibition appendage at Grazer Kunstverein, was ‘simply composed’ of the conditions that all the entrances to the Kunstverein’s building should be permanently open and the entrance fee waived. In SCORE FOR COVERAGE, as well as naming the Basler Kunstverein as the policy’s beneficiaries, this site specificity materialised here in Touliatou’s choice of text colour: the mottled, Rhine river green of the sans serif script echos the oxidised green paint used to dress the Kunsthalle Basel’s iconic neoclassical roof. In this way, Touliatou not only pays homage to the crown that symbolises the material life of the Basler Kunstverein but uses her own symbolic presence to expose, like an x-ray, the vitality of bodies to this institutional system.
As with any contract or legal document, Touliatou’s Simple Annual Life Insurance policy comes with a series of exclusions – terms and conditions that would render the policy null and void. On the side of the policy’s beneficiaries, these are writ large, walled, in the fresco contract: “3.4 BENEFICIARY FOREITURE / The Beneficiaries shall forfeit their entitlement / if they intentionally capsule the death of the / Insured or attempt to cause the death of the / Insured.” Rather than being emblazoned on the Kunsthalle Basel’s walls, the terms and conditions which will effect Touliatou’s way of life over the policy period are printed, monospaced and all aesthetically aged, on the delicate white-skin receipts given out at the Kunsthalle Basel’s front desk and bookshop. As another of the scores that constitute Gift, SCORE FOR COVERAGE (EXCEPTIONS – EXCLUSIONS) (2023) is an almost unannounced gesture that simultaneously extends the exhibition’s reach and at the same time thickens the affective space between the bodies so ofter separated by institutional systems. Indeed, as receipts leak through the hands of those entering the Kunsthalle Basel, SCORE FOR COVERAGE (EXCEPTIONS – EXCLUSIONS) not only exposes Touliatou’s performance but establishes a space of ‘affinity’ between the artist and the Kunsthalle Basel’s audience. This emotional alliance – to think with the senses of affinity that Brian Dillon sets out in his recent book, Affinities – is one that is stronger than appreciation; as “a means of escaping the community at hand, [by] positing a community to come” (to quote Dillon), the new affinity established through this gesture transforms the position, indeed the agency, of the audience-body allowing them/us to become affective witnesses, each literally holding (perhaps even caring of) part of the artist’s body. In this way, much like the artist herself, SCORE FOR COVERAGE (EXCEPTIONS – EXCLUSIONS) exposes the consuming body within this art system, asking them/us, in turn, to be more aware of our bodily operations within (and indeed, value to) this system.
This delicate leaking of artistic presence suffuses Gift, patterning the exhibition’s atmosphere with a sense of both hope and disquiet: a sense felt through the ear. SCORE FOR HOLD TIME (2023), is a soft whirring soundscape. Played and emanating within the exhibition’s space from two smaller annexes to the main hall, the sound work’s melodic hum lulls out from seventeen ceiling speakers, relocated from Athenian public buildings – the city where Touliatou was born. Rather than being fixed to the Kunsthalle Basel’s ceiling, their usual placement, these speakers are positioned just below knee height, in a seemingly rhythmical run that wraps around the walls of these chambers. Read counterintuitively, as characters from a fresco, these circular chunks of greying-white plastic bring to mind the chubby moulding of baroque cherub smiles; their black electrical cabling billowing and blowing, like silk, around the perimeter of each small room. All achatter, with puffed cheeks, these speakers sing with a demi-bruit rattling. The sound is wholly abstract, painterly even, but with a subtle tingle that babbles in the background. This spritely undertone makes the soundscape waver, allowing it to swing between something angelic and something tormented; between the frivolity of youth and the ravages of age. What is actually playing from these twisted expressions is Alice Deejay’s 1999 club classic Better Off Alone; stretched from its original three minutes and thirty-four seconds (3’34”), to an ultra-slow, three-month-long, recording continuously playing over the exhibition’s run.
As well as being played within the exhibition’s space, the conditions constituting SCORE FOR HOLD TIME state that this inaudible classic will be played as the “telephone hold music on the Kunsthalle Basel’s office landline number + 41 61 206 99 00” (to quote the exhibition text). Perhaps as a riff of John Cage’s canonical 4’33” from 1952, SCORE FOR HOLD TIME accentuates the clerical monotony of the Kunsthalle Basel, affording the opportunity to attune to the institutional atmospheric that surrounds. Indeed, across both instances of its playing the score makes this surround haptic; a term used by Tina M. Campt in her 2017 book, Listening to Images, not only to describe the physicality of touch but to make sensorial “the link between touching and feeling, as well as the multiple mediations [constructed] to allow or prevent our access to those affective relations.” By tuning into the allegorical nature of this noise, and its feel, these diffuse vibrations allude to the ways in which infrastructural atmospherics isolate bodies, either by physically placing them on hold or by treating them as differently individuated cells slotted into an (inaffectual) system of exchange where they are stiped of both value and agancy. In transforming Alice Deejay’s melody and lyrics – “do you think you’re better off alone” – into a non-sensical feel, Touliatou overtly questions this logic of isolation; in turn, through this sonic subversion, establishing something of the affective conditions and intimacy needed in to allow that “community to come” to flourish.
This sense of intimacy is furthered through two gestures of displacement that Touliatou extends to the administrative staff of the Kunsthalle Basel. SCORE FOR REFUSE (2023) and SCORE FOR TONE CHANGE (2023) both invite the administrative staff of the Kunsthalle Basel to jettison the systemic veil of occlusion that renders their bodies unseen, allowing them to become both present and more affectful. With SCORE FOR REFUSE, Touliatou relocates the Kunsthalle Basel’s small grey paper shredder from its normal location in the institution’s administrative offices, placing this into one of the echoing annexes off the main exhibition hall. With this gesture, she invites the Kunsthalle Basel’s back-of-house staff to become visible and to perform their day-to-day labour in view of audience members. In this way, SCORE FOR REFUSE literally provides an opportunity for those that constitute the Kunsthalle Basel’s body to refuse the logic that makes their bodies, and value, to this system invisible.
SCORE FOR TONE CHANGE stretches the exhibition beyond the confines of the Kunsthalle Basel’s architectural body. With this score, Touliatou has altered the default English dictionary used across the Kunsthalle Basel’s commuter network, inserting into this operating system Cynthia Whissell’s Dictionary of Affect in Language. This gesture is intended to make the written communications, the very administrative voice, of the Kunsthalle Basel more compassionate, emotional, affectful. An example of this score’s effect is printed in Touliatou’s exhibition handout: “Someone might write a sentence that says: the wording of an exhibition handout should be precise. Through the artist’s score, and following its suggestions, the statement would become: the wording of an exhibition handout should be precious.” (It is of note that a reference to the effect of this score is written as a disclaimer and included at the bottom of each of the emails sent by the Kunsthalle Basel.) With this subtle change in wording, SCORE FOR TONE CHANGE infuses the authoritative clarity of the Kunsthalle Basel’s communication with a sense of the anomalous: the deviant, the exceptional, the rare; making it inviting, intimate even.
I must affirm, Gift is not some conceptual form of institutional critique; it is more like an institutional caress, an act of care. Rather than just exposing the bodies that constitute this art system, Touliatou’s painterly scores re-rhyme the logics that sets these bodies apart, making it, and indeed making us work otherwise through her careful acts of subversion. Further, as an allegorical rendering, this institutional caress, softly speaks beyond itself, alluding to the logic of reductive biopolitical individuation at play within wider capitalist systems; as Touliatou herself has stated in an interview with Quinn Latimer, “we live in systems that are failing, that are violent, that are oppressive. I think of the minimum amount of meaningful gesture that has no canon, no scale, but is persisting.” Gift is such an ethereal poison.
Iris Touliatou, Gift, Kunsthalle Basel – 7th May, 2023 kunsthallebasel.ch