Fotograf Magazine

Céline Berger

A Normal Kind of Art

“We have developed about a third of the project, but the first results
are already on the table. I expect the first concrete feedback after the
presentation of the results. But I have a problem with the management.”
The project leader – the first character on the video – speaks straight
into the camera, describing the project development. He is standing
in the middle of a vast, slightly hilly plain where a soft wind is blowing.
He is accompanied by the HR officer and executive director, all three
dressed in high-quality outdoor clothing, walking, talking, sitting around,
discussing the presentation of the results of the running project they are
responsible for.

The scene comes from the Ballade video (2017) by Céline Berger,
a German artist born in France who has long lived and worked in Cologne.
In the first few sentences said by one of the characters – the head of
the project –, we can hear an austere, vague language, illustrated by the
video and reflected in its unchanging and minimalist visual aspect. There
is no music, just feeble background noise, when the protagonists talk
about the project we learn nothing specific about. “Just everyday office
talk”, one could say, this time situated somewhere in the grass with stones
(where the civilisation is nowhere to be seen). But when you listen to the
meaningless and starchy language, you suddenly find it suspicious.

“How did it go with the feedback? Shall we start with the client?” –
“Yes, let’s start with client.” –“So, the client… He seemed very energetic
during the conversation. He had no idea it could turn out so well; he felt
a lot of confidence and was very happy.” – “The coach was also very
sceptical about this method at the beginning since he assumed a rational
attitude. But you cannot describe the method in a rational way.” – “They
both had the same body language. They felt very good..”

It is just the psychologizing that is almost naturally creeping into the
utterances of the three protagonists, predetermined and inappropriate.
The talk about the project seamlessly leads to the assessment of the
psychological profiles of the colleagues and vice versa. The language does
not change; it is affected and inspired by manuals for business coaches,
but suddenly, strange rules the three characters seem to follow start
coming to the surface.

When I began to search for more information on business coaching and
theories of management to understand the order of the talks, I discovered
a vast world of motivational books, pseudopsychological tests, and advisory
websites for managers we usually know of but are not interested in if we do
not have to be. I wondered why this world is so attractive to contemporary
artists. What makes art burrow into the bowels of office buildings and watch
almost ritual codes of conduct for office workers? Will it help us better
understand what the current social and economic system is based on? Will
we be able to better understand the marketing trap?

For Céline Berger, it is not so simple. She has lived in this
environment – having worked as a project engineer in microelectronics
manufacturing companies for 11 years – and she has personal experience
with the language of managers and corporate businesses. This might
be the reason why her protagonists are not caricatures or hypertrophied
characters. They are kind of normal.

Berger did not start her artistic career until 2012, when she graduated
from the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Since then, she has been
creating image-minimalist videos to focus on management strategies in
companies. She often exposes the language of creative methods and
coaching focused on the relationship between the employees and the
management (e.g. in La ronde, 2013) or iconic gestures (figures in black
suits shaking hands in the Conference videoloop, 2012). The essential
elements are the office environment and the related props (an office desk,
a flipchart, a PowerPoint presentation).

Of course, the pragmatic world of coaching and its methods just did
not fall into the laps of managers and businessmen; it has developed on
the background of the changes and mutations of capitalism. In the end,
my online research was quite interesting. I learnt that in the course of the
20th century, the organization of workplaces and companies significantly
changed – from impersonal, strictly separated positions (a purely
mechanistic approach promoted by Frederic Taylor) to quasi sociable
collectives (developed mainly in Japan and the USA, creating the illusion of
a non-hierarchical working collective where roles are distributed according
to individual psychological profiles). Between these two approaches, there
is a whole range of theories that more or less parasite on the needs of the
worker’s individuality and personality.

The shift from the production object to the working individual was
promoted by Abraham Maslow, who published books dealing with the
so-called humanist psychology in the 1950s and 1960s. Humanist
psychology defines human needs and describes how an individual can
achieve happiness in self-realization. Some of Maslow’s conclusions may
not be relevant today, but he laid the foundations of the perverse designing
of job tasks according to the psychological profile of workers. It is also
worth mentioning that in his research, Maslow dealt mostly with successful
people who could realize their full potential – with white male Americans.

It is a strange world. Its rituals are repeatable; people are
expendable. The highest human need is self-realization. The world of
white collars is a bit boring – as you can probably imagine – and so are
the videos by Céline Berger. But let’s not be so negative! Her attitude
is an example of attention to the form. And the form and language are
topics of visual arts – for example, what role does context play in the
development of the artwork form? What is the role of funding? These
are the questions asked in Rare Birds in These Lands (2013), which is
the result of a workshop about the risks when investing in art, attended
by artists and businessmen. It took place in the Netherlands where
artists and businessmen co-operate increasingly often – while artists
look for new options for art financing, companies and their executives
are interested in artistic strategies as creative procedures that may be
beneficial for project development. Do these conditions allow artists
to keep their critical distance? Hardly. But these situations are exactly
the ones Céline Berger gently meddles in to highlight the fact that the
language used by artists in a seemingly original way can work in preset
formulas that lead rather to commodification than to subversion.

Anna Remešová