Le PingPong d’Amour: Collaborative Experiments in Materialising Idealism

Gil Leung

Reviews / 04.03.2008
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Collaboration is often seen as a critical platform for art practice. Its communal mode of production supposedly guards against any potential problems of self-interest or prejudice. However, it also exemplifies a seemingly paradoxical tendency in contemporary art: the system of production it adopts is based on a political ideal (that of the collective), while the work that results from it is grounded on an aesthetic notion (that of criticality). The specific relations that are established between the political and the aesthetic poles constitute what Jacques Rancière has termed the 'politics of aesthetics', and these are more than often of a conflictive nature.

The films of the German art collective TeamPingPong, which were screened at the Whitechapel, London in September 2007, explore art's ability to achieve political and aesthetic ideals.1 By critically situating their practice between subject (their collective organisation) and object (their films), and between imagined ideals and lived experience, TeamPingPong self-reflexively satirise both the impracticality of idealist aspirations and the futility of realist conformism.

TeamPingPong, Le PingPong d’Amour, 1997–2007, stills

The films, entitled Le PingPong d'Amour (1997-2007), take the form of an episodic miniseries in which members of the collective play a group of friends experimenting with living, loving and working communally. The films use the language and devices of soap opera, reality television, documentary and news broadcasting in order to parody both their own practice and the sensationalism of the culture industry. The three parts of the series, Le PingPong d'Amour I: style/work/money/love, Le PingPong d'Amour II: Ideological State Apparatus and Le PingPong d'Amour III: The Mission, are defined by different combinations of these stylistic and conceptual approaches.

In the four episodes of Le PingPong d'Amour I: style/work/money/love, the group experiments with the possibility of achieving ideals in lived experience. Immersing themselves in popular stereotypes of French intellectual culture, from drinking Ricard to quoting Louis Althusser, the group obsesses about the romance of revolutionary France in opposition to what they see as Germany's defeatist political and philosophical trajectory. By episode four, the group declares its aspirations during a game of boules:

Chance and happiness are a matter of concentration!
Happiness is a social category!
Happiness is a moral imperative!
Happiness happens, you only have to live in the moment!
Le boule cherche le bon joueur!2

With this notion of actualising happiness they set out for France in Le PingPong d'Amour II: Ideological State Apparatus. However, all does not go to plan and the fictional group disbands, only reforming when one of the ex-members, 'Orange De Malherbes', appears on television with 'Elodie Schneider', a conservative minister of culture for the French government. Discussing the failures of an interventionist model of state, both women put forward different solutions to the problem of art's relation to political change. For Schneider, who campaigns under the slogan 'Pour une Utopie Tradionelle' ('For a Traditional Utopia'), the state must remain in control and gradually move towards change whilst keeping the historical traditions alive. For De Malherbes, on the other hand: 'The state is gorgeous. It is us: the collective! The collective, as a matter of love.'3 Convinced of the political potential of the state as collective, De Malherbes suggests that the group move into the Rodin Museum in Paris as an artistic social experiment. With De Malherbes's financial backing and the political support of Schneider's 'Vital Heritage through Residence' initiative, the group reassembles and sets itself upon the task of building a political microcosm of collective society through the appropriation of the museum's aesthetic beauty.

If part one can be seen as a political satire on consumerist televisual culture and idealised communal living, part two is a darker examination of the relation between art and politics, and the contradictions of imposing structures to guarantee freedom. For De Malherbes, the problems of society in general can be addressed through the example provided by the group's appropriation of the museum. As she says, this will show 'that the happiness is a matter of will and organization … that it is possible to speak a common language… that openness and connectivity could be kept in balance… that there are relationships that can not be betrayed… that for idling away you don't have to pay. Things like that…and that you don't have to be afraid.'4 However, despite everyone's best intentions, the situation deteriorates and the group disintegrates into factions. No longer on an equal footing within the community, doubts start arising as to the purpose and method of the exercise.

In the midst of this, De Malherbes becomes increasingly attracted to the revolutionary zeal of a young, attractive sculptor called Camille. Having introduced Camille into the group, De Malherbes starts privileging her over the others, alienating and frustrating the original members. But rather than winning Camille's love, De Malherbes loses her respect through corruption and favouritism. Disgusted by De Malherbes's lack of revolutionary drive to change the microstate of the museum for the better, Camille disassociates herself from the group. She dismisses their failed attempts at materialising idealism in lived utopia:

If that is all you can imagine as liberation-then good night! The only thing that
might help would be to cut the things off from their fundaments! That would have
the force as opposed to your pathetic fatigue! This stuff will last longer than
you! It will outlive the actuality simply because the actuality does not exist in
this place. It's all already in your heads!5

While the others enjoy a surreal and incongruous boat trip, Camille takes matters into her own hands and creates havoc in the museum destroying the artworks and damaging the structure.

For Camille, the only way to actualise social and political emancipation is to destroy the past. In opposition to this, for Elodie Schneider the future can be changed through the preservation and administration of the past. De Malherbes and the group attempt, somewhat problematically, to live the paradox between the two, between the old and the new, between activity and passivity, between autonomous art and politics (or ethics). Because of the difficulties this entails, the group becomes disillusioned and argues over its failure to appropriate the museum. Evicted from the grounds and obliged to abandon its social experiment, the group disperses again and the members pursue separate projects in Le PingPong d'Amour III: The Mission.

The story and themes of Le PingPong d'Amour deal with how political ideals of emancipation can become conceptual or practical traps: If individuals cannot change themselves, the films ask, how can the members of the group change their own dynamic or that of humanity? On the other hand, TeamPingPong's real experiment could be seen as a reflection on art's ability to investigate the possibility of freedom within political and aesthetic utopias, rather than working towards its actual realisation.

From the Enlightenment to Modernity, the notion of aesthetic experience has presented a model for the political ideal of commonality and individuality within or outside the state. For example, for Friedrich Schiller, aesthetics, through a process of education, could lead to a non-coercive ideal community. For Baudelaire, it was the artist's production of art as the destructive 'shock of the new' that challenged the banality of the everyday. However, the new, because of its destructive nature, is a problematic model for the state. To be free from domination, or to create something new, seems inseparable from the idea of destroying what already exists, as exemplified by Camille's destruction of the Rodin Museum.

As Le PingPong d'Amour implies, after the perceived failure of political modernity, art's boundless freedom seems a perfect vehicle for non-coercive political change. However, a political agenda within art practice appears to limit the capability of art to stand in critical opposition to the political sphere. An agenda to move art into life puts at risk art's freedom by enmeshing it within the confinements of the political and social sphere in the same way that Althusser trapped action in ideology. In contrast, to conceive of art as an autonomous sphere allows the destructive force of the new to exist without being socially and politically actualized-it questions, but doesn't finalise. (However, as the films discuss, this also has its limitations, as autonomous art can be seen as exclusive, idealistic and removed from lived experience.)

The current difficulty for contemporary art practitioners is how to conduct oneself politically and ethically in artistic practice without compromising the freedom of the artwork. Le PingPong d'Amour deals with how this possibility of freedom that art reveals can be co-opted for political purposes, and the subsequent critical and ethical issues political engagement within artistic practice would face. In order to address the political without thereby becoming politics, the films adopt a comic criticism of the collaborative practice that produced them. They play on the drama of art becoming caught in a stalemate between its apparent freedom and its desire to better the world. Criticising both the aesthetic ideal of autonomy and the political ideal of heteronomy, Le PingPong d'Amour is an attempt to challenge contemporary conditions without collapsing into them.

- Gil Leung

Footnotes
  1. TeamPingPong is a collective of 24 artists and independent filmmakers that formed in Munich in 1997. They organise events at the b_books art bookshop in Berlin. The artists are Judith Hopf, Stephan Geene, Elfe Brandenburger, Nicolas Siepen, Mano Wittmann, Monika Rinck, Esther Buss, Stefan Rinck, Klaus Weber, Katja Eydel, Ute Marxreiter, Alessio Bonaccorsi, Dragan Asler, Regina Dold, Teodora Tabacki, Alvarez, Tara Herbst, Ines Johnson-Spain, Susanne Ofteringer, Katja Augustin, Florian Gass, Jochen Heilek, Ivan Boskovic and Clemens Krmmel. See http://www.teampingpong.org

  2. TeamPingPong, Le Ping Pong dAmour I: style/work/money/love, Episode 4: Love. The final French verse could be translated as 'The ball looks for the good player'.

  3. TeamPingPong, Le Ping Pong dAmour II: Ideological State Apparatus, Episode 5: The Arrival.

  4. TeamPingPong, Le Ping Pong dAmour II: Ideological State Apparatus, Episode 6: The Appropriation.

  5. TeamPingPong, Le Ping Pong dAmour II: Ideological State Apparatus, Episode 8: Break Up.