Gesamt. Disaster 501 - What Happened to Man?

Jenle Hallund, Lars von Trier

Kunsthal Charlottenborg, København
12. oktober - 30. december 2012
Kritik 12.11.12

In the service of good taste

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.


From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring we are currently seeing a wealth of movements aimed at giving people more power over their civilian, collective destinies. As a result, one of the concepts undergoing the greatest amount of change today is the notion of «authority»: who has the right to decide what others should do? Some believe that this development is mirrored within the world of art. Here, authorial authority is under pressure from a continually expanding phenomenon: crowd sourcing – briefly put, the act of letting an undefined group of people contribute to a communal work of art where everyone works on an equal footing. Of course, the idea of abolishing the boundaries between artist and audience is not a new concept within the realm of art, but a new platform and technology for such endeavours has arisen: the Internet.

Within the context of art, then, the question facing us now is whether crowd surfing should be regarded as a genre or as an «anti-authoritarian» revolution? Does crowd sourcing herald the final «Death of the Author»? Or is it just a user-generated way of creating art that does away with any critical requirements about the quality of the end result because we can all join in anyway? Approximately one month ago the Copenhagen Art Fair offered a chance to see one of the first projects on Danish soil to address this complex issue in an inimitable, polemic way.


Lars von Trier, one of the last notorious auteurs in the world, was the instigator of a concept that revolved around inviting the entire world to contribute to a communal film piece: Everyone was welcome to submit their own footage and audio recordings. The recordings could have a duration of up to five minutes and should be inspired by quotes from six classic «masterpieces» chosen by Trier. This was no ironic gesture, but reflects how Trier often works himself: He will find a particularly noteworthy passage or point in an existing work and base his own work on that. The six works in question were Molly Bloom’s «Yes» monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922); a scene from August Strindberg’s The Father (1887); Albert Speer’s Zeppelin grandstand for the Nazi party rally (1934-37), Paul Gauguin’s self-proclaimed main work Doù Venons Nous? Que Somme Nous? Où Allons Nous from 1897, César Franck’s violin sonata in A minor (1886), and Sammy Davis Jr.’s satirical-equilibristic step act Choreography (1969).

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.

Trier chose the title «Gesamt» for this «challenge», thereby immediately giving the entire concept juicy totalitarian overtones that went beyond any cautious democratic expectations about communication, audience involvement, and «community»; the very things that the Copenhagen Art Festival aimed for. The mere suspicion that the Chosen One would strike back against the masses also prompted several media to give free rein to the by now rather tired and worn-down cult of genius surrounding Trier. The effect may have been carefully calculated, even though Trier himself states that geniuses mainly belong in Donald Duck comics and that he himself has not regarded himself as a genius since late puberty. All that he did, really, was to whisper «together» in German. No promises were made of a Utopian-revolutionary Gesammtkunstwerk with a Wagnerian double-m and heiling valkyries as the world seemed to expect. Not even though the overall idea was to let works representing all the art forms come together, synthesising them in a single filmic work of art in a manner reminiscent of Wagner’s Hellenist dreams of having song, music, and drama – divided into «genres» by industrial specialisation – be reunited in a hitherto unseen monumental, socially and spiritually cleaning revolutionary form of opera.

But if Gesamt was not a totalitarian project and Trier is not a genius, then what is happening here? If you think about it a little, Trier’s talent is hardly a product of German theories about a Herrenfolk, but of a rather different political-aesthetic ideology known as «Good Taste». Trier grew up in a now-lost period of the history of the welfare state where it was still thought that thinking man should govern working man and where Brahmins of the Danish Cultural Radicalism movement successfully convinced the general population that an artistic intelligentsia – not economists, bankers, and politicians – would create the society of the future. It would appear that Trier still believes that great art generates more great art that can elevate an entire people. This is not about brainwashing, but rather about prompting us to move beyond parliamentary mediocrity and getting us to think for ourselves. We should not overlook the fact that modern marketing with its pandering to the notorious “lowest common denominator” is no less of a totalitarian idea than more overt forms of political propaganda.

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.


Here, then, Gesamt does not mean «total», but together, in common. In fact, crowd sourcing really turns the entire idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk upside down. According to modernist mythmaking about the latter the masses do not create the Gesamtkunstwerk; rather, the masses are created through it. Crowd sourcing is about the opposite: it is about showing the masses as individuals.


Having launched Gesamt as a challenge for the crowd Trier then left the rest of the project in the hands of the young director Jenle Hallund. She was charged with the monumental task of selecting the best bits among the 501 contributions from all across the world, combining this selection to form a work that reflects her own vision. In just one month. It could all have gone horribly wrong, and indeed the whole thing had been disarmingly described as «an experiment». However, the project – which resulted in a four-track film entitled Disaster 501: What happened to man?, combining 142 out of the total of 501 contributions from 52 countries, shown simultaneously on four monitors – appears to have been in safe hands with her. She quite undoubtedly had the talent and fearlessness required to tackle so great a task.

As one sees the final result of Gesamt it might, however, appear that the relationship between the directors takes centre stage, overshadowing the people’s voice.  Yes, Hallund has set out – as stated in the PR materials – to «honour the many emotions and moods» in the «touching» contributions received, but she has also ruthlessly smashed them and combined them to form something new. She states that for her, it was interesting that submitted materials mainly told stories about the decline in morals, about violence in the ever-lasting dance between the sexes, and about complex father-daughter relations. One really cannot help wonder whether this is actually Hallund’s own biased reading of the materials, seeing how they reflect her own struggle to measure up to a much-admired colleague, to seduce and dominate a man (and an audience), and simply make daddy happy. This should not be construed as patronising, nor is it pure speculation, for the issue is addressed throughout the film all the way to its epilogue. Hallund fearlessly let the film begin with a quite remarkable text about the relationship between the two directors as regards Trier’s canon of works.

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.

One good thing about Hallund’s struggles with Trier is that they have imbued the film with tremendous energy and an idiosyncratic clarity that has, despite the great number of different contributions, prevented Disaster 501 from ending up as an insufferable cacophony of voices where everyone gets a say or as a piece of epigone, sinister Trier imitation. One is left behind with the impression that people are actually able to tell their own story and are not just keen to impress one of the greatest directors in the world. However, Hallund’s professional interests have a detrimental impact on other significant possibilities pertaining to the Gesamt idea. The weakest part of her film, Disaster 501, is undoubtedly the segment that addresses Albert Speer’s Nuremberg grandstand. It has become a predictable, distanced explosion of Nazi demonism, comedy, and nuclear bombs. Either this is due to the contributions themselves, or the director did not have the vision and overview to show us, once and for all, what makes Speer interesting apart from his own mythology and close relationship with the Führer. But of course Nazi aesthetics are interesting because monumentality and grand narratives are one of our greatest artistic (and political) taboos today. Our thinking is quite naturally affected by the creation of ever-more democratic and parliamentarian art that would rather paint people’s everyday lives up on the canvas than transcend those lives, elevating them to a very different scale so that art’s ideas and seductive qualities convey themselves to the audience.  

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.

Whether Disaster 501 is in fact as experimental as it is made out to be is difficult to determine. We can only conclude that crowd sourcing is not a particularly controversial method as such, but simply a contemporary art form that eliminates a number of conventions regarding the auteur, not always for the better. It is, however, rare to see the principle of crowd surfing reflected and brought to bear with such determination within the visual arts. That is why the Gesamt concept and Disaster 501 could have been the major highlight and attraction of the Copenhagen Art Festival. Especially if the project had been launched and presented a little better. On that score, however, the art scene is sadly sorely lagging behind the film industry.


It is less clear what Trier himself gets out of Gesamt. Perhaps he is making amends for the emotional manipulation he is always accused of subjecting his audiences to? To be fair, Trier has never hidden the fact that he manipulates people; rather, he has given people the opportunity to punish him by always foregrounding and exposing his own tricks.  Now he even gives his audiences his basic recipe to see if they, too, can create good art with it. The gesture is both generous and perfidious – that is how «Good Taste» works. For preference, it is encircled by critical irony or teasing self-awareness, for the purely earnest and pathetic is fundamentally fascist in nature. Wit and self-criticism is what makes great art humanistic.      

Some might regard crowd sourcing – or Wiki-art, as it is also known – as an outsourcing of the artist’s unique vision to a mass of amateurs, but this may not be Trier’s point.  Rather, one person’s dumbing down may be another person’s invitation to greatness.  There are even claims that participatory art makes people smarter because it is quite naturally driven more by concepts than craftsmanship, prompting it to speak more to our intellect. This may be absolute rubbish, but as a concept it could be regarded as a complicated counterattack against an anti-intellectual movement within arts and politics.

Gesamt. Disaster 501 – What Happened to Man?, 2012. Film still. Concept by Lars von Trier. Edited by Jenle Hallund.

Whatever the case may be, other recent examples of user-generated art suggests that crowd sourcing requires a firm structure to prevent the results from becoming chaotic, mediocre, or trivial. Quite simply, crowd sourcing requires authorship in some form or another, even if that authorship is completely anonymous. This might place anti-authoritarian movements in a different light and prompt us to reconsider the relationship between copyright, copies, and imitation – and call to mind the old adage  «Bad artists imitate, good artists steal.»

  1. Kommentar fra Maja Lagerdahl

    MA Degree Show 2013 Kunstakademiet i Oslo
    Jag har varit på MA Degree Show 2013 Kunstakademiet i Oslo, på Kunstnerernes hus. Utställningens olika verk utgör en riktning. Det handlar om det vida begreppet samhälle, och kultur.

    Människa och kultur
    Teckningen av Ida Madsen Følling, Birds of field & forest: Ostrich (blyerts och akvarell på papper) i rummet som kallas för Stairway (det utrymmet som den store trappen leder till och som är plasserat mellan de två stora utställningsrummen), föreställer en struts med dödskalle, som är grävd ner i jorden. Teckningen spelar på den folkliga myten om strutsen som gräver ned huvudet i sanden när den blir rädd. Men det stämmer inte, den gör inte det. Om den gjorde det, skulle den vara ett lätt byte för hungriga rovdjur, och arten skulle inte vara överlevnadsduktig, något som strutsens dödskalle i teckningen kan symbolisera. Jag erkänner härmed att jag har lärt mig något nytt om strutsar i dessa dagar, och naturvetenskapen triumferar över myten. Teckningen tar upp myten som tema, samtidig som den framställer något orealistisk; en struts i aktivitet men som har dödskalle.
    Människor kan köra ner huvudet i sanden. Det sägs att människor gör som strutsen för att slippa att uppleva något obehagligt. Liknelsen, som troligtvis är baserad på en myt finner man i diskusjoner på internet. Sök ”köra ner huvudet i sanden” om du är vidare intresserad. Naturvetenskap och myt blir med Madsen Føllings teckning två motparter. Med Birds of field & forest: Ostrich följer intressanta, viktiga teman. Flott också med Snorre Hvamens växter; Es gibt keinen Grund weiter mit den Toten zu sprechen (jord, jordbruksprodukter, 2013) i trappen som leder fram till teckningen. Kultur, natur.

    I det ljusa rummet är människosamhället starkt representerat. Och the lightroom, som rummet kallas, är onekligen ljust, också i västerländsk idéhistorisk mening – med demokrati, återvinning, dyrkning av jord, fest som teman.
    Ett visst avstånd därifrån ligger the Darkroom. Där visas film.

    Anna Tiainen, Regnet, Animasjon.
    De andra filmerna, två av samma student – som jag koncentrerade mig på var Anna Tiainens Regnet och Animasjon. Filmerna är satt upp vid sidan av varandra och förstärker ideen då de har samma tema och stil. Här är det fullt av referanser till västerländs subkultur. Filmen Animasjon har en meditativ effekt. Fiskar som simmar runt lugnt i ett akvarium som bakgrund till enkla vita streckteckningar. Som om filmskaparen säger till oss: Sitt nu. Slappna av. Bara se på vad jag vill berätta. Fiskarna kan också fungera som symboler; varelser som lever lågt, under…sub…subkultur. Det är finurligt gjort av konstnären med flernivå-greppet – en stilla bild av simmande fiskar kan verkar känslomässigt. Samtidigt som fiskarna fungerar som symboler. Animeringen föreställer aktiviteter som öldrickning och skateboarding. Subjekten får betraktaren att förstå att studenten berättar om ting som handlar om henne själv. Något som leder till individen och individens självinnsikt. Som om: Det här är mig, och mina.
    ”Regnet” är en titel som framstår som något dyster. Regnet som faller och gör oss våta, det kan vara trist helt enkelt. En människa kan skina som en sol, och gråta en flod, det är välkända uttryck.
    Associationerna jag får av filmerna och titlarna, får mig att tänka på begrepp som ungdom, förälskelse, vänskap, kultur. Jag tänker at det här är människor som har mer att möta i livet. Undertecknade vill inte bli stämplad som exentrisk, därför nämner jag i förbindelse med den här avsnittet att det till en viss grad är skriven på empiriskt grundlag.

    Gelawesh Waledkhani, My identity.Tusch på akvarellpapper, 2013. Democratic Nation, Common (Democratic) Homeland och Democratic Solution. Hår på akvarell papper, glas, trä och stål, 2013.
    Waledkhanis verk My Identity (tusch på akvarellpapper, 2013), representerar i innehåll det demokratiska samhället. Formellt består verket av en forhållandevis stor figurativ tuschteckning (mått inte uppgett) föreställande en leende man. Det är Abdullah Öcalan vars texter Prison Writings III: The Road Map of Negotiations, som konst studenten har framställt i hår på akvarellpapper. Texterna hänger på rad fristående mitt emot teckningen. Teckningen består av icke-kantiga sträck (utan skarpa kanter ), en teckningsmetod som framstår som egen/unik, som ger ett mjukt uttryck, och dessutom ett helhetligt tillsammans med texterna av hår och den avbildades leende.

    Den här analysen är i utgångspunkten fri från favorisering. Det är inte undertecknades intensjon att särbehandla. När det är sagt borde det inte vara någon chans för att någon blir upprörd. De nämnda utställarna blir här omtalade som avgångsstudenter eller studenter.
    Baadsvig Ørmens verk heter De store vite ( gips och metall, 2013). Det är skulpturer som för mig till återförbrukskulturen, det miljömedvetna samhället. Objekten under den vita ytan ser ut at vara rester från någon sorts industri.

    Samhälle; kulturellt samhälle, som jag återkommer till flera gånger i analysen: Intressant att så många tror att strutsen gräver ner huvudet i sanden. På internet hittar man många som säger att människor gör som strutsen när de kör ner huvudet i sanden. Men många säger att den inte gör det, att det är en myt. Det sista är riktigt. Jag sitter kvar med tankar om det olikartade samhället.

    Av Maja Lagerdahl. 27.06.2013.

  2. Kommentar fra lancel sac

    Its just well thought out and really fantastic to see someone who knows how to put these thoughts down so well

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