Virtual Reality // Democracy Contained: Christoph Büchel at Hamburger Bahnhof

Article by Nina Prader in Berlin // Friday, Feb. 10, 2017

It’s almost a joke: a storage unit as collector’s item. In this case, a two-story ‘Innovative Solution’s Space’ houses an all-American polling station, set in a primary school. Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s ‘Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy’—exhibited for the first time since 2007 at Hamburger Bahnhof, courtesy of Friedrich Christian Flick’s collection—is timely and prophetic. Opening just before the elections and ending shortly after the inauguration ceremony, the piece regained new meaning with the world outside the museum’s walls demonstrating and marching. An anachronistic time capsule for the past and future-present, this work symptomizes the ambivalent codes and triggers shaping an American citizen’s spirit.

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Christoph Büchel, ‘Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy’, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin // Courtesy the artist and Nationalgalerie, Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin / gift of the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection/DE © Christoph Büchel, Photo by Thomas Bruns

Like a lonely gas station set in middle-of-nowhere rural America, the polling station appears as a hyper-real landmark, a walk-in democratic oasis in the massive entrance hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof. “Vote Here,” a sign welcomes. From the sign, a hallmark balloon bobs its stars-and-stripes head. In the style of a prison-bouncer, a guard ushers the visitors one by one into the barbed wire fence artwork, prompting questions about who gets to see this work and who gets to vote.

On the narrow path to the container’s door, the environment is like an amalgamation of a garbage dump, fourth of July barbecue, kid’s birthday party, and yard-sale. From regalia to paraphernalia, all the capitalist and military kitsch you can imagine mushrooms up: tinsel in red, white and blue, Christmas lights and trees made from Pepsi and Coke cans, a balloon shaped like a missile, left-over Chinese styrofoam take-out and pizza boxes. On the side lines, stale mini chocolate chip cookies on a paper plate act as a “thank-you for voting” gesture next to a pile of flyers. On the fence, military uniforms for kids and moth-ridden sweaters of less fortunate children also call to mind the class issues in relation to accessing the ballot.

The junk collection forms a real natura morte still-life, made from American artifacts. As a whole, it narrates a portrait of how forms of patriotism mixed with consumerism birth a particular type of political and cultural poverty. The Big Brother vibe is further underlined by a sound-installation broadcast through speakers, juxtaposed with sneakers hanging from a tiny powerline. In some ways, simple actions like sneaker tossing can commemorate the power of the people.

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Christoph Büchel, ‘Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy’, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin // Courtesy the artist and Nationalgalerie, Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin / gift of the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection/DE © Christoph Büchel, Photo by Thomas Bruns

“Something happened here, something will happen, something is happening”, the walls seem to whisper. On a time continuum, Büchel’s training ground occupies a gerund, a verb turned into a noun. In the mode of becoming, this training ground is a site for an event. The interior of a classroom becomes the training ground that doubles itself as a voting station and is consistently re-written by political contexts. Originally, the work was created in the light of the Bush era’s voting scandal, yet the training ground gains new meaning against the backdrop of current events and those who will be most affected. Stepping into the container is like stepping into a time-machine of mutated childhood nostalgia. It becomes clear that even as children we are socialized with political and national identities and schools of thought. In the United States, most polling stations are in primary schools, for traditional and economic reasons. Down to the very last detail, Büchel replicates this site: on one hand making the intimacy of a voting situation palpable, on the other hand, visually illustrating the lack of voters. An image that rings particularly true in face of this year’s election participation. There are no actors or subjects on this set, only the connotative residue.

As if at a crime scene, the viewer is the detective, who has to piece the clues of the murder together, whose victim is the idea of democracy itself. On the chalkboard’s sill rests a purple candy, probably from the crummy pocket or sticky palm of one of the invisible kids, who usually learn, play or are brainwashed here.

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Christoph Büchel, ‘Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy’, 2007 Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin installation view 2016 // // Courtesy the artist and Nationalgalerie, Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin / gift of the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection/DE © Christoph Büchel, Photo by Thomas Bruns

Though education seems to be the antidote, it can also become a poison. Alphabet magnets hang out with loaded signifiers like Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus stuffed animals. Arts and crafts tools are on file too, the kind one associates with community centers: Elmer’s Glue, glitter, Crayola Crayons, Play Dough, plastic scissors, brushes in plastic crates. Gendered toys like Easy Bake ovens and Hot Wheel police cars clash. However, the innocence projected onto childhood is warped and undercut by nationalism and militarism. Look closely and patriotic Uncle Sam stickers, a poster with a bald eagle proclaiming “Liberty & Justice for all” come into focus. An exhibition of children’s drawings on the walls manifests the Twin Towers, flags and the moon landing and shows just how ideas of culture and country are mirrored, even in a child’s psyche. An old VHS in the corner tirelessly plays propaganda, reminding of the national fears and ideologies installed since 9/11. Among the mix of toys, tools and weapons, however, a flip chart promises some hope. Depicting a mind map in a child’s scrawl, it reads from the center bubble “things that grow”, among them hair, nails and plants, as well as “people”.

On the training ground, the notion of children as political signifiers is paramount. In his seminal texts, the noted academic Lee Edelman demystifies the emblematic status of the naive child and how it “invariably shapes the logic within which the political must be thought.” The child is established as an empty signifier for “reproductive futurism”. Herein, the space seems to be a kind of shelter for blossoming democratic ideas, but also an incubation space, in the worst case scenario, a bunker for rampant nationalism. Who are these voters? Who are these children? What is their social standing and economic background? Who will they become? What is their gender? Are they white or of color? Who can they become? Still in its cellophane packaging, a pack of award ribbons on the barred window seems to answer: over-achievers.

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Christoph Büchel, ‘Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy’, 2007 Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, installation view 2016 // Courtesy the artist and Nationalgalerie, Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin / gift of the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection/DE © Christoph Büchel, Photo by Thomas Bruns

In a sense, Büchel has created a real virtual reality by crystallizing American myths, histories and futures on democracy. A haptic, extended metaphor or a contemporary relic of the many facets America symbolizes, it might seem like this junkyard of Americana fashions a code of stereotypes. However, the possibility of intricate narrative layerings creates a palimpsest. A cultural battleground clumps into focus as a field of failure and reinvention. Where art manages to build bridges between illusion and reality, this installation would be sci-fi if it were not so close to home. As a take home image, a child’s bike rests against the fence to the artwork, weighed down by the trash of all-pervasive capitalism, from its handle bars hang white plastic bags, printed with corporate oil logos. Metaphorically, it becomes clear, America might consider itself young at heart, but its training wheels are off. It’s time to ride this one out, take responsibility and stand up for your rights in Trump’s America.

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