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Manfred MIM: Technology as the Black Continent

Janar Ala (4/2013)

Janar Ala visited Manfred MIM's survey exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall.


I recently bought a new mobile phone. Had I not lost the old one, I would not have acquired a new one, but I had lost it and had to buy another. Shopping for it was an enjoyable and emotional activity, but my new mobile soon caused withdrawal symptoms and annoyance followed my initial joy. At first I felt contempt towards its new design, and other problems were quick to follow. The product developers at the technology company had done their work, making matters incomprehensible to me. "Technology is a Black Continent," once wrote the techno-philosopher Paul Virilio. Technology is like the river Congo that leads us into the heart of darkness in a famous novella.


It would be easy to write a travel tale about the exhibition "100 Years of the MIMproject: Manfred MIM's Life and Creation 1920–2020". The tale would speak of travel that has taken place both in time and space. The time is defined: 1920–2020. The space: Tallinn Art Hall plus the imaginary rooms created by the works on display. We should definitely start with doubts, as they appear at the beginning of every journey. Should I go there at all, maybe I will have to deal with considerable discomforts, or will I even manage to return? Such is a normal person's travel paranoia.

"The MIMproject is an association that depends on time, and its name was derived from the sentence Music is Movement is Image is Music. /…/ the MIMproject was created in 2005 to unite artists interested in points of contact between technology and different fields of art (theatre, applied art, music, new media). So far the MIMproject's main (but not only) field of activity has covered theatre, theatre space, potential stage art techniques and the relationship between those techniques and the space, the performer and the audience." This is how this group of artists describes themselves in the exhibition press release.

On entering the Art Hall and leaving behind all my doubts, my task was to face the machines and think about their function. However, "thinking" is not the correct word here, since functions are not to be thought about but participated in. Those apparatuses could also be tested. I could sit on a bicycle and produce visible energy by pedalling, I had the opportunity to shove my hands in a dubious-looking machine (the Black Continent) to find out if it worked and how, I could watch an abstract theatrical play, become acquainted with various readymade objects etcetera. In summary, it was a multimedia show that engaged all our senses and all media, wherein an ironic, self-nullifying element had an important part to play. There is reason to claim that the spectacle contained the effect of estrangement. The MIMproject's insight into technology embodied the notion of the Black Continent particularly well, as all of those machines were abstract and not meant to be understood. Science fiction writer William Gibson once created a character that said that a video artist works in the technological field of the avant-garde, creating models, some of which will work and some not. I am not sure, how the MIMproject relates to the future, progress and the rest – apparently all that is very complicated.

The MIMproject had created a fictional character for the exhibition named Manfred MIM, who has been present at various culturally historic key points like the old hipster from the song "Losing My Edge" (2002) by disbanded New York group LCD Soundsystem. While the hipster from "Losing My Edge" visited the first rehearsals by the bands Can and Suicide, and was the first one to play in Daft Punk at New York's famous CBGB club, Manfred MIM, back in his day, imitated Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Nam June Paik and other people connected with the Fluxus art movement; and on this turf, he is also known to have participated in reforming the Vanemuine theatre.

Such "hidden" history has been successfully practiced using different media. It is always pleasant to approach something at the grassroots level and see it from a new perspective thanks to fresh historic connections. Unless I am seriously mistaken, the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari laid the foundation for that kind of non-linear treatment of history with their book "A Thousand Plateaus" (1980), which has been regarded as an Urtext for all types of modern art discourses and tutorials (at least during the 2000s). Things like that have been done, but whether they are novel is a different matter. But perhaps it is somehow necessary to summarise the creations that have both common and different denominators for various artists in the MIMproject exhibition, and fiction seemed to be the most suitable method, adding human mystery to the machines.

"Presenting art in a white cube is a privilege where the cooperation between institution and artist quite often ends in a cul-de-sac. The institution and artist gain a well-established "white" relationship, where all parties are more or less satisfied. However, it is an entirely different matter if a man from a mechanic's workshop, a technician who has no contact with any art institutions, finds his way to the white cube with a survey exhibition." That is how they write about their contact with Tallinn Art Hall, which can be regarded as the most outstanding exhibition venue in Estonia. The man from the workshop was important for Deleuze and Guattari as well; for instance, they spoke of a blacksmith who transforms metals mined from the bowels of the Earth, of a blacksmith-alchemist. They also spoke of an engineer, or more precisely of an engineer of concepts – someone who creates something new out of various already familiar ideas. Helping such a blacksmith or engineer over the threshold into the Art Hall is extremely difficult, because the Art Hall immediately "enriches" the works of our blacksmith with the deepest significance – something simple might immediately turn into a symbol for Estonian independence. Some like it, some do not, but such is the nature of the Art Hall.

Two pixels formed the centre of the exhibition: two primary units and basic truths of the virtual world. One of them was a black, gigantic metal sculpture, and the other was tiny, almost non-existent, electric and virtual. The first of the two had to connect with the smallest exhibition room in the Art Hall, but the other with the largest and most imposing room. "Is it possible to create a point of intersection between a perfect circle and the noise of a condenser, which is held in balance by a single pixel," Manfred MIM once asked himself. We can say that both of the pixels managed to maintain the tension in the space at the Art Hall.

In summary, above everything else, the exhibition enriched the Art Hall with a vast field of data, about which one could write endlessly. There will always be room to take a detour. But that is a sign of danger that seems to prove the impossibility of getting hold of anything. It appears as if it is impossible to construct a summarizing meta-level. Still, the constant unravelling has its charms, since it resembles the pleasure of doing something pointless (or even irresponsible).


Technology continues to be a Black Continent.


Janar Ala is a cultural critic, who works as an editor at Postimees daily.



Exhibition view at Tallinn Art Hall
Photo by Andrus Laansalu
Courtesy of the artists

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