Nouvelle Randonée at Cleopatra’s Berlin

Elvia Pyburn-Wilk

In a three-part exhibition this past month at Cleopatra’s Berlin and New York spaces, Alex Auriema, Morgan Belenguer, and Beny Wagner presented a multifaceted project that circulated around the meaning of choice. All three artists work together under collective title Nouvelle Randonnée, which translates roughly to “new excursion” (“randonner” is to hike or wander), appropriately connoting meandering movement for its own sake – movement that nonetheless necessitates a return. Such an excursion calls to mind the optimism and enthusiasm of a family hike in the woods, or the classic association between walking and contemplation à la Immanuel Kant on his daily walk.

After Apologies,” the project’s first iteration at Cleopatra’s Schöneberg space, revolved around the self-reflexive nature of apology, literally enacting the apology’s impotence while searching for possible apertures of honesty within the impossible act. The grand gesture of the show was a large, white cake with the word SORRY spelled out upon it; throughout the opening, co-director and curator Erin Somerville served slices of the SORRY cake to visitors, who gladly accepted – whose? – apology. Adding to the festivities in the cake room, a large party banner announced the words “Jamaican Me Crazy,” behind which was hung a perfect copy of a painting by the artist Julian Opie. In the room beyond, viewers encountered an armchair and a table that displayed an apologetic letter written to Mr. Opie by someone named Thomas. On the far wall hung a video monitor playing a split-screen video of Tiger Woods’ infamous apology speech alongside a slowed-down golf swing. 

Most viewers noted the protective plastic coating the Opie painting, as if it had been packed for transportation; some observed that the letter from Thomas was laminated; those paying close attention noticed that there was a condom slipped onto one foot of the armchair. These details outlined the show’s fundamental connection between self-protection and the politics of apology.

Any professed apology is retroactively defensive. It is necessarily supposed to be an afterthought, not a forethought, and it assumes closure, the tying of the knot, the end of the conversation. This time lapse of culpability is reflected in Tiger’s slowed-down golf swing, through which we understand the inevitability of the confession that must follow a hole-in-one. And, reading the letter from “Thomas,” in which he describes “a belligerent desire to pervert” Opie’s work, which he nonetheless has decided not to act upon, the apology cycles back to become the trangression itself. Thomas’ imagined behavior is adequately offensive (“I considered hiring prostitutes to sit with me on the gallery floor”) and the apology is indeed the only method by which they would ever be elucidated. Yet, as an act of offense, as apposed to defense, the apology cannot be criticized – it can always lay claim to sincerity.  Further, both the cake and Thomas’ confession remind us that the politics of the art world demand the opposite of accountability; every artist knows not to apologize for the artwork either before or after the show.

Beyond the point that teachers of kindergarten and driver’s ed have obviously failed to implant in us a feeling of deep ethical responsibility rather than an aversion to punishment, and beyond the fact that cultural “bad behavior” has become a sadomasochistic cycle of self-reward and penitence, the juxtaposition of Tiger Woods’ apology with Thomas’ points back at us, the accusers, who are entirely complicit in our demand for the performance of apologetic humiliation in order to externalize our own fears and suspicions. As Boris Groys writes: “With this disclosure, trust in the system is restored through a ritual of symbolic sacrifice and self-sacrifice, stabilizing the celebrity system by confirming the suspicion to which it is necessarily already subjected.” The spectacular nature of public apology allows us to moralize problems rather than examine the institutions that create them, which is far removed from what could be called an internal ethical code.

The second half of the show, “Deserve Water,” presented us with the corresponding part to the cycle of apology: the prequel to the “I’m sorry,” aka, “I feel like I deserve this reward (for all my hard work).” In two parallel events in NY and Berlin, “Deserve Water” displayed what appeared to be a warped elegy for Steve Jobs. This reference point gave way to what may be a broader lament for a life of value production that responds to the illusion of endless choice though ultimately remaining confined between only options.

At the show in Berlin, visitors were only able to see the exhibition through the Cleopatra’s storefront window. Inside, a camping lantern was balanced upon an upright copy of Steve Jobs’ autobiography. The lantern, whose flame had been replaced by an electric bulb, shed light on the empty gallery space and a large transparency hung on the far wall, from which were cut the words “DESERVE WATER.” At the exact same time in Cleopatra’s Greenpoint, Alex Auriema sat behind a curtain reading out loud from Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement speech, alternately biting from an apple and sipping water between readings. On the wall there were two copies of Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography, WE. Accompanying both shows was a booklet describing a pitch for an HBO television series in which a deranged insane asylum patient named Wolfgang organizes gallery shows and presents his artwork to his fellow patients and doctors – an analogous parable to the story of Thomas.

Though it is difficult to encompass concisely the strands of implication between all three events, Nouvelle Randonee’s project as a whole pinpoints the ethical problems at stake when the critical lantern is faced outward rather than in. “Deserve Water” suggests that everyone might have something bigger and more important to apologize for than, say, sleeping around– something so big that we can’t even conceive of formulating an apology. And, if we could hold back for a moment from instantly seizing upon opportunities of perceived choice (sex/no sex), which is the type of action that effectively slices the future into two binary and opposing options (apology/no apology), we could instead choose to twist the knife and disrupt the framework of possibilities altogether. Instead of choosing anything, we could instead wander the path that Steve Jobs describes for us “in his Stanford commencement speech”: “an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous.” If there is still time, we could choose not to choose, and instead go for a Randonnée.