Maia Damianovic / A Night’s Journey into Light / ISBN 3-85486-2

As part of The Invisible Touch exhibition held at the Kunstraum Innsbruck last year, Manfred and Elisabeth Grübl bypassed conventional forms of representation and chose, instead, to explore art in direct relation to the everyday reality of our urban environment. With their curious, idiosyncratic approach, Grübl’s works—a project titled Nightliner and two further events held in nightclubs—challenged the more familiar ways in which art is viewed or experienced and offered diverse audiences the opportunity to become actively involved with contemporary art.

Nightliner considered a social reality particular to Innsbruck: the widespread use of late night bus services by under-age clubbers. Manfred and Elisabeth Grübl illuminated the interior of three of these buses with a deep midnight blue light. Their seductive, luminous presence was so attractive that the city authorities decided to keep the customized vehicles in regular service. Seeming almost to float through the night, the illuminated buses provided spectacular doppelgangers to their regular counterparts, their charismatic appearance setting them apart from other vehicles. Flooding the buses and spilling out onto the surrounding streets, their soft blue glow lent them an enchanting, ethereal air in the midst of a ordinary nocturnal reality. Nightliner emphasized how an artwork can engage with its public. As its dazzling light was unleashed upon the inky blackness of night, something unique was created: function fused with fiction, reality with performance. The bus became a living, animated tableau.

Over the last few decades, ”interactive art” has been much vaunted. In practice, however, it has proved little more than a theoretical label, with a widening schism between contemporary theory and practice. Even today, a large number of artworks remain heavily influenced by the Modernist aesthetic and by conceptual presuppositions that leave little room for true interaction. By finding a concrete connection to a specific social situation in Innsbruck, however, Nightliner served as a testament to art’s ability to effectively communicate with its public through non-didactic reality. No isolated artwork, Nightliner, for all its curious, seductive presence, was simply a regular bus service for the people of Innsbruck.

Interaction was a key element of the Grübl’s work, but not the exclusive means of audience engagement. Furthermore, it was elicited rather than solicited: no didactic explanations as to the nature of the project were offered to travelers on the Nightliners and on encountering the piercing midnight blue that embraced the buses, people were often, quite simply, stunned. Employing the simplest of technical and material means (blue strip lights were installed in place of the customary plain white ones), Grübl’s work succeeded in implicating a broad spectrum of the population in a single creative scheme: people who would not ordinarily venture into a gallery, or consider themselves part of the art-viewing public, became participants in a citywide creative journey into the night.

Manfred Grübl developed two further projects in Innsbruck nightclubs, in which interaction relied, for the most part, on the initiative and individual personalities of the participants. The first project involved the distribution of 700 fluorescent yellow, rave-like armbands to the teenage revelers in the popular club Hafen. The variety of uses to which a simple, velcro-backed armband could be put was an amazing spectacle to see: many devised belts, headbands, or similar fashion accessories, while others simply waved their bands in the air, leaving myriad hallucinogenic streaks of light in the frenzied evening air. A normal club night was thus rendered an existential intermingling of identities. At a second club event, whose clientele were slightly older, the artist produced, and again handed out, forty limited edition fluorescent yellow T-shirts. Against the cavernous dark backdrop of the dance floor, the T-shirt clad dancers were transformed into a mobile work of body art, with each shimmering T-shirt leaving a pictorial trace of the dancer’s movements. The effect evoked certain elements found in the works of Brazilian Neoconcrete artists Helio Oiticica and Lygia Pape. The T-shirts harked back to the colorful capes worn by dancers in the Parangolé and to Oiticica’s understanding of the body as a sensuous living sculpture, while the act of involving groups of people in collective, playful creativity was reminiscent of Lygia Pape’s large punctured cloth works.

Although carefully stage-managed by the artist—whether performance, installation, or video, Grübl’s work has a distinct theatrical quality capable of provoking a tidal wave of public response—both Nightliner and the fluorescent clothing projects encourage a more flexible dialogue with art. In the process, these attractive, multi-faceted, and purely joyful works reach a far broader audience than merely the educated or ”initiated” art public.

Less interested in metaphor or narrative, or in the conveyance of some ”deeper meaning,” Grübl’s performance works aim to bring pro-active art into the broader social arena with sensitivity: they are a viable part of social reality, not simply objects created for public edification. His labors are at one with the new, post-conceptual creative practices that favor adventure and play as they invite us to sample the pleasures of art. Just as Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp wholeheartedly embraced a joyous, playful, and experimental art, so the latest generation of artists only reconfirms their conviction.

In a series of three projects, jointly titled Personal Installation, Grübl discarded stilted methods of presentation and display to lead the viewer into another creative dimension. Eight men, dressed in formal black eveningwear, stood motionless in various poses at large public receptions, which took place in the High Modernist settings of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Saatchi Gallery in London, and the lobby of Lincoln Center in New York. Personal Installation eclipsed stereotypical, ”institutionalized” aesthetic frameworks in favor of a more adventurous approach, in which the artist dared to substitute the usual with the exceptional.

Although advocating direct experiential engagement, Grübl simultaneously acknowledges the difficulties of conveyance—the communication of meaning. Conveyance is a pertinent topic of discussion not only in relation to art, but also to the broader social scene, as numerous aspects of everyday life—social, economic, political—become increasingly subject to manipulation and spin by all manner of interested parties. The reliable relaying of meaning—whether aesthetic, spiritual, or other—has thus become suspect. Contemporaneously, however, society’s yearning for explanations and meanings is escalating. Many aspects of life—from the delivery of information, to workplace ethics, to the making, promoting, and selling of products—have become subjected to a process of standardization that erodes the individual nuances of reality: such are the fruits of globalization.

Grübl’s projects address this contemporary crisis of conveyance by seeking to involve a broad section of the public who do not hail from a ”sheltered” art background, and by encouraging their highly individual responses. Initially, these innovative artworks may simply strike the viewer as odd or confusing, whimsical or charming. Yet, in an instant, they can seduce us to follow their nomadic creative meanderings, to reach our own keen reassessment of realism in contemporary art.