False Friend

Brit Barton on Iris Touliatou's Gift at Kunsthalle Basel

May 5, 2023

Iris Touliatou, SCORE FOR COVERAGE, 2023, detail

In the German-speaking world, the Kunstverein and the Kunsthalle are models of democratic, municipal art institutions. They are nonprofit and non-collecting and are typically supported by public funds and dues-paying members, who are often involved in the institution's governance. Frequently translated as art association, the Kunstverein has no real institutional counterpart in the Anglophosphere. From the US, with its thoroughly private, oligarchic, and corporate art institutions, its easy to idolize the spirit of the Kunstverein. Yet, like any institution, these member-oriented spaces are a product of a particular history that manifests in the bylaws and operations governing them. Recently, artists have taken the site, history, and bureaucracy of these institutions as their material, creating work that interrupts, amends, and challenges their promise—–see Bea Schlingelhoff’s intervention at Kunstverein München or Eva Barto’s at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, both in 2021. Greek artist Iris Touliatou's exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel is the latest of such critical engagements. Artist and writer Brit Barton reviews her exhibition here.

Iris Touliatou, Gift, Kunsthalle Basel, February 10–May 7, 2023.

To engage with the quaint Swiss city of Basel requires an understanding of the border politics that dominate it. However reductive or resistant, the city’s bureaucratic complexities and geopolitical predicament—straddling the Rhine River and nestled at the intersection of the European Union strongholds of Germany and France—loom large in its art institutions and their programming. For the Greek artist Iris Touliatou, the inner workings and unspoken conditions of the city and their permutation in the Kunsthalle Basel supplied a rich ground to probe the institution and its audience in her subtle exhibition Gift

Through a series of visible and invisible gestures, the artist analyzes the structural and financial aspects of the institution. Touliatou’s first move appears immediately, in the exhibition’s title, and plays with multiculturalism’s inevitable foibles via the slippery use of language and meaning. The title is its own riddle, a linguistic trap known as a “false friend.” Are we to read Gift as it is understood in English—meaning a present or a natural born talent—or in German, as one would in Switzerland, meaning poison? The initial interpretation of Gift sets the tone for the exhibition and implicitly situates visitors in relation to a city and country often defined by their nativism.

I encountered Gift as an immigrant and an English speaker. More often than not, I find that the solo exhibitions in the Kunsthalle’s upper-floor galleries are minimalist and polished installations. This time, though, the vaulted and skylighted ceilings underscored the fact that the room was completely empty save for an epic text painted on the wall. The fresco, as the artist calls it, is SCORE FOR COVERAGE (2023), the terms of an insurance policy that the artist has taken out on herself with the Greek insurance agency INTERAMERICAN. In three languages—Greek, English, and German—the legalese insures Touliatou’s life for the year 2023 and names the Kunsthalle Basel’s members (1,344 at the time of the exhibition) as the policy’s beneficiaries. 

Iris Touliatou, SCORE FOR COVERAGE, 2023, installation view

Iris Touliatou, SCORE FOR COVERAGE, 2023, installation view

The text’s greenish color was selected to resemble the patina of the Kunsthalle’s aged copper roof and the fresco spans two walls at a combined length of around 110 feet. It includes only the initial part of the policy, a limit determined by the labor required to paint the text: eight installers plus the artist over eight days—the entirety of the exhibition’s installation period. Accounting for the artist’s age and the occupational hazards of an artist’s precarious income, the policy begins with the blunt reality of assessing the value of human life: “Coverage of the amount of EUR 150,000.00 (one hundred and fifty thousand) is requested for Touliatou, Iris-Anastasia. Rejected. Coverage for the amount EUR 100,000.00 (one hundred thousand) is granted.” Thereafter, the policy details the quantifiable metrics of the artist’s life: her height, weight, and general health; direct family information and history; current social habits and country of residence. Each objective fact has been accounted for in determining Touliatou’s monetary worth at the time of installation and thus the financial remuneration the members would receive if she were to die in 2023.

While time and labor constraints meant that the policy’s full text could not be painted, enough of the introduction appears on the gallery’s walls to mention the most valuable of beneficiaries. Inevitably, the oligarchic nature of the art world is captured in the policy through the naming of the Kunsthalle’s association board, corporate members, and the familiar families that are so deeply intertwined with Swiss society. At this point, I engage with the exhibition as a resident of Switzerland and, specifically, one who has had to tip-toe around the varying gradations of a tight-knit and closed culture, all while navigating the Swiss German dialect and the pains of German-language bureaucracy. To interpret Gift here to mean poison can be taken to refer to the pervasive influence that wealth and power have over contemporary culture, not least in Basel, a city intrinsically linked to its identity as an art market destination or as a European hub for big pharma. As it’s often said in this country, “one hand washes the other.”

Rather than inviting visitors to linger on the dull or cynical aspects that could be extracted from this dry text, the artist swiftly plays her second hand in the much smaller and intimate rooms that follow. The faint sounds of SCORE FOR HOLD TIME (2023) can be heard playing from a group of seventeen public address ceiling speakers, which are mounted on the wall just slightly above the ground and emanate an enigmatic but harmonized hum. The artist has stretched the classic Europop trance hit Better Off Alone (1999) by Alice Deejay from its classic three-minute-and-thirty-ish-second pop structure to the duration of the three-month exhibition, creating a warped rendition that plays nonstop at a glacial tempo. Touliatou integrates the song further into the institution as the hold music for the Kunsthalle’s landline, creating a liminal but banal space between the public and the museum. 

Iris Touliatou, Gift, Kunsthalle Basel, 2023, exhibition view

Iris Touliatou, SCORE FOR HOLD TIME, 2023, detail

SCORE FOR HOLD TIME draws upon a collective recognition of a song from the turn of the twenty-first century that has been modified almost beyond recognition to a sound that is, at best, a meditative chant and, at worst, a drone. Another dimension and critical component of the installation becomes apparent when it’s revealed that the group of speakers were originally part of an Athens municipal building. The lyrics that repeat throughout the song, “Do you think you’re better off alone?” and “Talk to me,” take on new poignance when emanating from an apparatus sourced from the birthplace of democracy as well as the site of repeated financial crises over the last twenty years. When played in an exhibition situated in infamously neutral Switzerland, a country that remains firmly uninterested in European Union membership, the lyrics could imply a broader political indictment of neutrality during wartime in Europe or of the widespread anti-EU sentiment beyond Switzerland. But, returning to the crux of a public institution that must interface between audience, art members, and the voting commission that presides over them, the song’s question of independence via separation can be viewed through the ever-present politics of a museum’s role, responsibility, or even its ability to exist.

Though the fresco contains only the insurance policy’s introduction, the text continues, hiding in plain sight, in SCORE FOR COVERAGE (EXCEPTIONS - EXCLUSIONS) (2023), which appears printed on every purchase receipt from the Kunsthalle’s bookstore in German and English but not in Greek. As every policy would have it, a loophole breaks down the insurer’s non-responsibility in the event that Touliatou engages in risky behavior, including “her misconduct; […] participation in pro wrestling or amateur boxing […] war, civil war, revolution, rebellion, insurrection.” Though the legal language does not directly point to the artist’s profession or politics, these stipulations tug at the romanticized notions of an artist’s contribution to social change or opposition to the status quo. In taking out a life insurance policy to benefit the Kunsthalle members—above all the member’s leading commission—Touliatou effectively subdues her critical agency and places it and in direct contradiction to the financial value of her life. The gesture implicates the Kunsthalle’s members as invested in her pacification. At the same time, perhaps this insertion of a quotidian material is the artist’s gift to the audience—a Félix González-Torres–style souvenir—suggesting the ubiquity of ownership, consumerism, and complicity in art world commodification and transactional aspects of culture. 

Touliatou further intervenes in the institution’s operations through considerations of the administrative worker’s role in caring for and maintaining the art and institution during the exhibition. The two works SCORE FOR REFUSE and SCORE FOR TONAL CHANGE (both 2023) embed aspects of the Kunsthalle’s unseen day-to-day administration in the space of the exhibition, prompting further questions around who and what is implicated in their gestures. SCORE FOR REFUSE appropriates the institution’s document shredder, relocating it to the last room of the exhibition and positioning it next to the only window in the exhibition space that overlooks the Kunsthalle’s offices. The press text notes that during work hours, the shredder will be used by administrators to dispose of any sensitive or financial documents, interrupting the typical administrative disposal procedure while also constructing a visible performance. For the audience, the proximity to the shredded and presumably sensitive material that is accessible but indecipherable further reinforces the tension of institutional visibility or public accountability.

Iris Touliatou, SCORE FOR REFUSE, 2023, installation view

Iris Touliatou, SCORE FOR COVERAGE (EXPECTIONS – EXCLUSIONS), 2023, installation view

SCORE FOR TONAL CHANGE is the final and most abstract component of Gift. A computer software—akin to an autocorrect-style function and based on Cynthia Whissell’s Dictionary of Affect in Language—was downloaded across the institution’s devices to suggest softer or more pleasant syntax in the administration’s writing. Exclusive to the Kunsthalle’s English-language use, including the exhibition text, social media, and email correspondence, a disclaimer at the end of every communication reads like another clause in an insurance policy: “The institution's English-language communication tone is subject to change. Lexical diversity and/or intensity […] may occur [...]. The piece is part of the artist's solo exhibition, Gift, and is performed from February 9 until May 7, 2023, during office hours.” Importantly, the press text states that “free will is crucial to the artist,” indicating that the staff do have agency in selecting their final syntax. 

On the surface, I understand the intent of the work is to shift any overly formal, academic, or institutional tone into a more pathos-driven sentiment. Beneath that, there then exists a factor of inauthenticity or tone policing—the machine generating affect for the worker—though this could be interpreted as relieving the worker of performing emotional labor for the institution. At the same time, the institution’s workforce and audience are predominantly non-native English speakers, and the software can have a perhaps unintended effect of undermining the writer (the Kunsthalle worker) and destabilizing the reader (the public). The worker is at once relieved of the onus of expressing the intended tone and, potentially, made constantly aware of their shortcomings; the reader receives texts that may have been amended for “warmth” but may not adequately or clearly convey their point. In this institutional critique, the labor of both the worker and visitor are precariously placed within the artist’s intention toward an open affect, however contrived it might be.

While for Touliatou language is a central medium—deployed as an associative measure in the title, as a material concern on a receipt, or through software suggestions—the structural implication of her linguistic gestures often reinforces a false dichotomy of choice. Much like the insurance policy, which would predicate the value of the artist and thereby her calculated worth to the Kunsthalle’s members, the prominence of a hypothetical “should” underscores the exhibition—should the artist die; should the artist not be caught up in a rebellion; should the visitor be German speaker; should the visitor look at the receipt in the first place; etc. The resulting equivocality belies a true conclusion to the exhibition that mirrors the murkiness of contemporary institutional critique, while we—audience, Kunsthalle administrator or member—await the end of the year to see what Gift could potentially mean or change—if anything—not in the short-term, but in the long run.

Brit Barton is a Zurich-based artist and writer. She received her MFA from the University of Chicago.

All photos: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel