rainer ganahl: by rosanne altstatt

Rainer Ganahl: Knowledge is Power Galerie Philomene Magers

Koln, Germany

“Mit dieser Ausstellung versuche ich, mehreren Wegen nachzugehen, wie Wissen und Macht sich sprachlich und technologisch vermitteln.” If you do not understand the above sentence, then you are an active part of Rainer Ganahl’s installation at Galerie Philomene Magers in Koln. The summer exhibition sets out to be an exploration of various ways knowledge and power are relayed through language and technology. This goal is met through the language perspective, but falls flat when trying to diagram the technological aspects of knowledge control.

It is the examination of foreign language study that makes the exhibit truly interesting. In one of the two back rooms, Ganahl installed video monitors and photographs showing him teach and be taught foreign languages. He first used the camera as a monitor for his own studies in order to improve his learning habits and later applied the “big brother” technique to the learning and teaching sessions on display. Ganahl not only shows the teacher control the student, but technology watching over the session, ultimately leaving the viewer of these long, obviously boring tapes in the monitoring position.

Within the teaching tapes and photographs an examination of power and language takes place. Those being taught are corrected, told what to do and set back into an almost child-like stage of learning to communicate–one aspect inherent to learning a foreign language. All methods of expression the student has adapted as his or her identity must succumb to the mannerisms of the new language and culture. The student stands outside the desired system, not only struggling with grammar, but with adapting to new cultural norms.

The photographs of men and women from various cultural backgrounds wearing t-shirts with the words “Bitte lehren Sie mich Deutsch” also underscore the imperialist aspect of being compelled to choose to learn foreign languages in order to achieve success in a world economically dominated by certain languages and cultures.

The installation reaches another dimension when you are aware that Ganahl sometimes has personal and professional ties to the participants. Does the teacher-student relationship stay within the boundaries of each teaching session? Once dominant and superior roles have been assigned, it must be difficult not to carry this over into a personal sphere.

The Austrian-born artist has always had a personal stake in the learning of foreign languages. Born in a small town where low German was spoken, Ganahl had to learn high German in order to move freely outside of his native culture. The continuation of foreign language study is displayed on the gallery walls in the form of notes Ganahl took while learning Korean, Russian, Japanese, and Modern Greek. His studies and travels have made language learning and teaching not just a project, but a lifestyle.

While the language section of the exhibit illuminates a complex situation regarding language and power, the first and largest room of the gallery (devoted to technological aspects of knowledge control) leaves the visitor in darkness. Here you are confronted with a large grid, ruler, index, footnotes, and computer commands blown up and painted directly on the gallery walls. This stylization of knowledge, art history, design and technology systems ends up creating an empty space. The one way to bring life to these vague references regarding hierarchy and structuralization of information is by plowing through complicated written explanations.

The text “BITTE LESEN” provides the solution to the meaning of each work on display, but you must have a very advanced knowledge of German to read it–a testimony to the fact that knowledge is power. Another text is an unbelievably and unnecessarily complex “discussion” between Ganahl and Michael Cohen. Brimming with literary, philosophical and art historical references, Ganahl and Cohen use some big words and intricate methods to explain simple ideas. This is also a testimonial to knowledge being power as the reader must be trained to wade through a lot of intellectual wanking in order to understand the ideas being expressed. If this was meant as an example of the current methods intellectualism pompously uses to reserve knowledge for the elite–it is brilliant.

Ganahl provides insight into the main components necessary to survive in the contemporary international marketplace. Understanding, power, and prestige are achieved only when you buy into the structure of the current value system of knowledge. This exhibit shows these ideas in a way always concurrent to the euro-centric hierarchy of art history. Ganahl never leaves the boundaries of the gallery space. The installation remains part of a critical tradition within the system that tries to comment on itself, always fortifying its ideals in the process. This is a pointed example of the corner intellectualism has backed itself into, revolving around the computer command Ganahl has stenciled onto the gallery wall-snap to grid.

Rosanne Altstatt

Koln, Germany

1995