| In modern art, and in cultural theory, it is the city which
has become the subject area in which the most compelling social and economic
discourses now converge and overlap. In seeking to analyse the primitive
changes of the early 21st century, one focuses on the city: on the new Berlin,
on the Asian boom towns. The capital of our new century will almost certainly
be an Asian metropolis.
In general the lifestyle of the future lies in the city, this much is for sure, and can be predicted demographically. This could be the reason for the significant imbalance of attention shown by the economy and the media which favours urban over rural developments. The intense problematisation of the public arena predominantly relates to urban conglomerates. On their territories, the controversial must be united, irreconcilable elements must co-exist: strictly targeted profit maximisation must coincide with the right to individual quality of life, which - if not always, then at least frequently - runs directly counter to the capital realisation of the habitat. 'The ongoing struggle': between investors and their ideal of the city as the perfect profit machine, fed by various currents, from speculation profits to consumer gains, and the inhabitants, who, be it for idiosyncratic motives, or a lack of financial or social support - for instance of residential status - manoeuvre their way through zones which are controlled, and often "subject to duty", i.e. devoted entirely to consumption. The debate is conducted in the language of battle. On the side of the private investors and public corporations with their marketing mentality, "security" is therefore the verbal joker which gives the control machine their ability to come up trumps time and time again. In a nutshell: urban development and individuality are becoming increasingly incompatible terms.
In her series of photographs "urban grid - personal city", it is precisely this antagonism which Maria Theresia Litschauer addresses. "urban grid - personal city" is a compilation of image modules. Each element consists of three or four 30 x 40 cm large prints laminated onto aluminium plates. Although the 76 individual pictures are fixed as modules, they can also be rotated within the group and installed in new arrangements each time. Hence the work is both closed and open at the same time. Although the process of photographing may be complete, what we have here as an installation is a 'work in progress' which the artist can constantly reshape. Each module shows two or three images of the city and a shot of a person.
The city in question is easy to make out: New York City. Both with the choice of motif and with the pictorial aesthetic Litschauer is referring to the contemporary canon of New York iconography which makes the 'capital of the 20th century' so instantly recognisable. The representative is preferred over the esoteric, the unambiguous over the neutral. We see skyscrapers with mirrored facades, "street ravines", Park Avenue, the spiral of the Guggenheim. In this category of pictures there are no people - they are hidden behind windows or in cars. The people in Litschauer's system are each given their own picture, an individual medial space. The subjects who pose for the photographer are people she came across in New York. They are nearly always shown looking directly at her, at the camera, and so are observers too. There is nothing casual about it. The moment is consciously recorded, a second within the transitory. Like Litschauer, most of the subjects are passers-by in the street. Like Litschauer, most of them are artists, or work in a cultural sphere, or as freelancers. People who travel frequently, who probably have professional reasons for living in the cultural metropolis. People whose fashionable label as modern nomads in a frivolous way certainly compromises political or economic migrants. Frequent changes of location are at any rate a reality for many people who work in the arts, as is being caught up in a transnational network of contacts. This is true both for clients/customers/co-partners and for personal friendships, a differentiation which is hardly ever possible. The proliferation of exhibitions and projects of contemporary art, which clearly should be seen in connection with city marketing, has allowed a network of relations to become an increasingly important factor for careers - particularly since the commodities circulation of art objects is becoming increasingly replaced by the site-specific work of artists. American cultural academic and anthropologist Arjun Appadurai focuses his work on the foundation of new identity formations under the conditions of economic and medial globalisation and mass migration. (1) He is skeptical about the phrase 'globalisation as levelling', and has identified the various contradictory parameters which define identity following local and transnational influences. While the impact of local identification forces and resources is getting weaker, the catalogue of criteria according to whose factors one feels connected to an international community is growing. This can be ethnic trans-territories, however it is to a great extent a question of class and economics. The people Litschauer comes across in New York have more in common with her in terms of education and their degree of (economic) mobility and experience than the inhabitants of Favoriten, a working-class district of Vienna where Litschauer has had her studio for many years. The "personal city" , then, is not made up of architecture and infrastructure, but instead consists of the social network. In this respect for a member of the art-producing class today the "personal city" is not New York, Vienna or Paris, but can exist in any place as a virtual coordination system, where one meets like-minded people, i.e., to put it bluntly, fellow creatures who work within the context of elite society and whose personal positioning is socially and economically attractive.
New York was the capital of the 20th century. Isn't there a sense of melancholy, of nostalgia, when one looks at New York? Litschauer shows the elements which never change: the constant grid on which the city is based. The right angle between Houston Street and Second Avenue, between 54th and Madison, is unalterable, even if the infrastructure has assumed new functions within the space of a few years. In few "old" cities has capital realisation become so obvious as it has recently in New York. The corporatisation of Downtown Manhattan will be completed in the foreseeable future. Soho and the Village are occupied extensively by branches of textile groups and coffee shops which differ only in name; the Lower Eastside is quickly becoming the latest commercial zone. The decisions regarding the changing function of the city are made behind the mirrored facades of the "urban grid". The individuals in their "personal city" will live with the consequences. Some will fight them, some will suffer from them, some will contribute to the profits, some will enjoy them. So although no simple classifications exist, one thing is for sure: that urban development and individuality are becoming increasingly incompatible claims.
Maria Theresia Litschauer has for a long time now focused on the theme of the city. In her series "Wien, Mein" (Vienna, Mine) in the late eighties she obtained unusual and aesthetically appealing views of Vienna using a special processing of Polaroids which she then enlarged as cibacopies. Ten years later, the technical processing of her body of works "NY trespassing" likewise played not only a formal role, but was motivated by content. The pictures in this series are quite different from the ones here: Litschauer finds deserted docks, empty warehouses and dormant factories in the now mostly purposeless harbour zone. Using cross processing, i.e. a highly unorthodox colour treatment, she achieves the atmosphere of a post-urban heap of disasters. Un-places, non-places - these are also a theme of Litschauer's current work, "Untitled", in which she photographs desolate Vienna subways, for instance the run-down pedestrian underpasses on the dilapidated ring road. These photographs are also full of tension. Their 100 x 150cm size alludes to spatial demand and the assertion of the value of the panel painting which is bound up with it, but finally they offer the viewer only the exalted motif of the reverse side of a city, only the exalted experience of the visual. knockback or drifting into the desperate ugliness of the low exposed concrete of the passageways and the filthy tiled human sluices. "urban grid - personal city" is a work defined by its concept. It is obviously not based on the special quality of the individual photo - even though they could feasibly be well received purely as expert architectural pictures. Litschauer's aim centres far more on referring to the convention of reportage, producing images which anyone might consider as illustrations in a city prospectus or in a news magazine. The sort of material that a photo agency would deliver at the press of a button, with the abbreviation <NYC>. The portraits do not in any way carry the unique style of an individual artist. This conscious setting, this explicit use of the familiar goes back to the historical role of photography within conceptual art since the sixties. The undermining of the individual picture, its placement within a series, the attempted minimisation of style and aesthetic was devoted to the project of removing the panel as ideological leitmotif of (bourgeois) art. The result was the opposite, as the Canadian photographer and art theorist Jeff Wall argued in his renowned essay: "Through the failure of this attempt, photoconceptualism revolutionised our concept of the picture and round about 1974 created the necessary conditions for the reintroduction of this concept as a central category of contemporary art." (2)
This is another conflicting attitude in our reading which Maria Theresia Litschauer sounds out in her work.
(1) Arjun Appadurai: Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Public Worlds, V. 1) Paperback (November 1996) Univ. of Minnesota Press (2) Jeff Wall: "Marks of Indifference. Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art". Taken from: "Aufnahmen. Fotographische Recherchen in der Stadt", published by Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna 1999, page 69