archive > I Rode a Gelatin Motorcycle
Anthony Auerbach

‘I Rode a Gelatin Motorcycle’ by Anthony Auerbach, in La Journal [sic], Paris: ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 29 February 2008, p. 25.

Gelatin and Anthony: Frieze Art Fair, 2003

“I Rode a Gelatin Motorcycle” is probably the ideal title for a dubious memoir and apt enough, since I’m unlikely to have another opportunity to use a headline of this genre. “I Was a Teenage Gelatin” has got potential, but, like “I Was a Male Gelatin Bride”, it isn’t a piece I could write. “I Was a Communist for Gelatin” is stretching it, but I could probably put my name to “I Was a Mouthpiece for the Gelatin Military” or “I Paid Gelatin”.

First the background. In 1999 there was a general election in Austria. Some months later (in 2000), after a lot of horse trading a new government was announced, a coalition between the ÖVP (People’s Party) and the FPÖ (Freedom Party). This was a novelty in so far as ever since the republic was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, national affairs had been dominated by the left-wing Socialist Party and the right-wing People’s Party, or a cosy arrangement between the two. The participation in government (based on 27% of the popular vote) of the misnamed Freedom party, led by the notorious “designer Fascist” Jörg Haider got Austria a lot of bad press abroad and upset many lazy left-wingers at home, especially artists who generally relied on the government for their livelihood. The state is the main financial supporter of so-called culture in Austria and had in recent years invested heavily in contemporary art. The aim of the policy is, in part, to deflect attention from the fact that the conditions that had made lively, modern(ist), avant-garde, even critical cultural production — such as is associated with Vienna circa 1900 and the names Freud, Kraus, Schoenberg, Loos, Wittgenstein, Kokoschka, Klimt, Schiele etc. — what had made it possible in (spite of) a basically conservative and anti-Semitic society had been completely and irrevocably destroyed by the Austrians during the Nazi period. Among the results of the recent policy of lavish support for artists and institutions were 1. a mildly sado-masochistic relationship between the artistic and political elites (who in any case belong to the same class), and 2. a tendency among artists to consider themselves public — even political — actors, while nonetheless claiming their privileges as rights supported by the supposedly universal mission of art (for example, as declared on the façade of the ridiculous Secession building in Vienna).

Consequently, when the new government was announced in 2000, including a party which was disliked but largely unopposed by Austrian liberals, and generally regarded as extreme in other parts of Europe, the self-styled artistic community was outspoken it its opposition. Opposition, that is, to the result of an election which they had done nothing to influence before the vote, for instance, by campaigning for the Socialists or attacking the populist (racist) right-wing campaign. Declarations were made. Websites were set up. Protests were called. A prominent curator called for a cultural boycott and proudly announced his self-imposed exile from Austria (conveniently, he already had a job abroad). The same curator did not explain publicly why he changed his mind when he recently accepted, from to all intents and purposes the same government he had earlier denounced, the position of state commissioner of the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Less eminent characters in the Austrian art world reacted to the new government like disgruntled civil servants concerned about a change in the superior levels of the administration (although, in fact, their immediate superiors did not change).

Around this time, I was sharing an apartment in New York with Wolfgang and Florian. Happily, I had some time off since I had just suspended the visual arts programme I had been organising for the Austrian Cultural Institute (ACI) in London. The programme had been launched in the Summer of 1999 (including Gelatin’s London debut — “Breakfast in Bed with Gelatin” followed by “The Gelatin Ship Paprika”, which would be another hair-raising story but would explain how we became friends). The programme for the ACI was meant to be independent and international, but this was impossible to demonstrate in the atmosphere produced by the media storm about new Austrian government. I had no intention of helping the Austrians out of their own diplomatic pickle or letting it compromise my work. The sudden loss of credibility of the host and sponsor of the programme was bad enough, but the solemn statements by Austrian artists were really embarrassing.

In New York, we heard that a group of expatriate Austrian artists (some on state-sponsored scholarships) had decided to stage a protest and had called a meeting to which Wolfgang and Florian were duly invited. I should explain, I was not invited because I’m not Austrian. A discussion erupted at our kitchen table because Wolfgang thought they should go and check it out and Florian was convinced (from prior knowledge of the people in question) that it wasn’t worth it. I was neutral, but had some fun discussing what the meeting could be about and what kind of protest would make sense anyway. It seemed to me one ought to find a form of action which was stupid enough for artists to do, but directed at the right people to drive the message home as quickly as possible. The gay “We love Haider” parade, the Vaseline on the door-knobs, the Superglue in the keyholes, the swastikas in the elevators of the ACI and the like would have the Austrian diplomats in New York complaining to their superiors that they just can’t stand it anymore.

The result of the discussion was that Florian was persuaded, reluctantly, to go to the meeting. So I said, “Bye, have a nice time.” To which Florian replied, “No. You’re coming with us.” On the way there, in an attempt to calm Florian’s irritation at being forced to reserve his judgement, I suggested, “We’ll know they are really full of shit if they are having a vote at this meeting.” When we finally arrived at the meeting, which had actually started some hours earlier than we thought, everybody had their hands in air voting on the draft press release about their protest and the slogans they should use on their placards. Apparently, someone had taken the initiative of asking the director of the Austrian Consulate in New York whether it was OK to hold a protest outside the building. He said it would be fine since nobody would be there on a Saturday.

The press release about to be endorsed by a consensus amounted to an exercise in ingratiating oneself with authority. Its content was pretty much the same as the declaration which the Austrian President had forced the party leaders Schüssel and Haider to sign when they got into bed together. Added by the artist-group to those banalities about human rights was special pleading for artists. It did not contain any news which could possibly be of interest to the press in New York. I won’t even mention the slogans. In the group discussion which continued a little bit, some of the suggestions from our kitchen table emerged into the room in Wolfgang’s most reasonable voice or accompanied by daddy-longlegs gesticulation from Florian’s corner of the room. This caused a little consternation, but the discussion soon ended because everything was already decided by a vote.

Someone must have noticed the astonished expression on my face and I was asked what I thought about the plan just decided. At first, I declined to answer, because this was really none of my business. However, I was pressed and I relented. I explained that if you are going do a press release, it has to contain news about an event worth reporting, or one that local people might want to go to. It has to be addressed accurately to the journalists you want to cover the event and through them to their readers. I must have spoken with some confidence, although this was still quite early in my career as a propagandist. The Summer’s events in London had more or less proved that a well-crafted press release and a well-organised campaign could get large numbers of people to do unlikely things, get yet more people to talk enthusiastically, and even get some to lie about their experience. More than a thousand people came to take a ride on a spaceship made by Gelatin out of clingfilm and waste cardboard, in a filthy, derelict, subterranean former railway goods yard off Brick Lane.

Many of the earlier-assembled Austrian artists had by this time regrouped to hear this explanation (others had gone off to make absurd placards). Wolfgang and Florian also elaborated somewhat on the kitchen-table suggestions. While the earlier phase of the meeting had been appalling, now it was alarming how quickly the group was won over by the suggestions we put forward. “Anthony, won’t you give us just a few lines for our press release,” they pleaded. I did not comply. A handful of people showed up with placards on the Saturday and they stuck with the original press release. E-mails started to circulate about subversive tendencies instigated by “Gelatin and Anthony”.

In 2001, when Gelatin appeared to represent Austria at the 49th Venice Biennial, I was called in by Gelatin to be their official press spokesman. By the time I arrived in Venice the Gelatins were not on speaking terms with the commissioner any more (not the same commissioner I mentioned above, this one was both less scrupulous and less hypocritical). So I had the pleasure of explaining to the Austrian and international press what looked like a complete disaster. Simple: take a small amount of a substance called Gelatin, just add water. I was asked if the swamp we were standing in (already colonised by plants, snails, frogs, fish and sloths) was some kind of political allegory. I don’t remember what I said in reply.


Gelatin is the substance, Gelitin is a brand.


Gelatin and Anthony: Frieze Art Fair, 2003, photograph: Vargas Organisation, London