Johannes Grenzfurthner uses the legacy of Sun Breast Hammer to topple Capitalism and unfunny liberals.
(2010 Edited Version On Viceland.com)
From his humble beginnings making ‘zines in his room at in rural Austria, Johannes Grenzfurthner has in his 36 years of existence has managed to snub Google, Coca Cola and China. The Unholy Trinity. Via the unusual pit stops of cyberpunk, Guy Debord, copyright laws and fake assholes he has managed to distribute his unique pearls of sandbox anarchy to these generally rather unforgiving modern superpowers and get away unscathed. He has eaten black pudding made from his own blood and runs an annual sex and tech conference called Arse Elektronika. But what he and his group monochrom are best at is creating local in-jokes and using technology to make them grow exponentially into global fuck yous. And he manages to smile while he does it.
What was your base influence for starting monochrom?
Karl Sagan’s Cosmos taught me when I was 7 that I was too dumb to be a scientist, but that science is about the narration, how you put things together that make a point. I got really into cyberpunk, like Willard Gibson and John Branner, and through that, punk.
What did you think was their common bond?
The idea of wasted people living in this really shitty world that I didn’t want to be a part of. It made my political conscience grow at 13. I started getting interested in electronic communication too. The internet was hard to get back then, but it connected my ideas to the world.
Yet you found cyberpunk friends.
Pretty much. I had found new friends online on Fidonet. A lot of it was reactionary, conspiracy bullshit of course, but I discovered US fanzines. Fanzines in Germany and in Austria focused on punk but I was interested in crazy technology and cyberpunk. So in ‘93 I sent out an email saying that I wanted to start this fanzine called monochrom, asking if anyone would be interested. monochrom began two hours later.
Why the name?
Me and Franz Ablinger couldn’t afford anything other than Xerox! For 2 years we just did the ‘zine. The first monochrom issue had like 200 copies. People liked it so much they started making their own copies.
Well it was black and white. Did you have a manifesto?
Well, we were always interested in spreading philosophical, political, technological ideas and messages, from this very political left background. In monochrom we try to find philosophical, political, technological ideas, look for the best message distribution. We saw that counterculture can just as easily be a one minute short film as a 20 page essay.
“The medium is the message”.
Yeah! McLuhan’s amazing catchphrase. He was my favourite catholic!
Who was your second?
That Luddite Tolkien!
So how did monochrom become an art group from a ‘zine?
The public space art they always put on roundabouts or whatever is so lame, so we would do projects like street theatre, short films, music… And because we diversified we grew. The art scene became interested in us. And art is a perfect shield and a very tactical thing for us to be involved in. Calling yourself art is a good way of not getting arrested! This interesting micro-universe in art exists. The Thomann Project was us trying to tear that world apart.
How did you do that?
Well in 2002 we got a call inviting monochrom to be the official Austrian representatives at the art Biennial in Sao Paolo. There was no way we would represent Austria with all that racist bullshit from the Freedom Party going around at that time. So we asked if it was possible that someone else could go instead and they agreed. So we created this fictitious artist Georg Paul Thomann, 57 years old, whose work was always too early or too late. A very Austrian character: a real asshole. We wrote this large biography of Thomann, and put everything we thought about art, culture, technology and music, with references. That was going be the statement of our art for the Biennial.
The stupid journalists didn’t do their research and printed the press release; no one realised he was a fake! We couldn’t even believe it, but we figured if Austria didn’t get it, Brazil wouldn’t either. So the project went to the second level. We started focusing on pretending that Georg Paul Thomann really exists, and booked his hotel room at the Biennial.
So you got there…
It was just a cattle market for self-involved artists. The technical support teams are just ignored and no one was really talking to each other. It was kind of depressing.
It made life easier for you though, right?
That’s right. We set up this really ‘80s installation called ‘Self-portrait of Austria’s Art Mountain’. People actually came up to us, saying ’Oh this is so 1980s, I don’t like it’, like this fake art was clichéd, which was perfect! We said we were the technical support team for this crazy egotistic asshole Thomann. We told people he sits in his room watching porn while we sweat our asses off, and he doesn’t even know if we have even mounted the installation. We said, “If you want to interview him go ahead, but leave us alone”.
While hanging out with the other despondent tech teams, we told them about Thomann, and the whole project. They loved it and started spreading rumours, like Thomann fucked the main curator of the biennial! People were suddenly like, “Oh, I’ve heard the whole story, it’s so crazy, he’s great!” We didn’t even know which story they had heard.
But someone must have had suspicions at some point?
Not that we knew! All this was going on when we got a letter from the artist Chien-Chi Chang from Taiwan. He said that ‘Taiwan’ had been removed on his stall by security and replaced with ‘Taipei Museum of Fine Arts’.
We found out that China threatened massive diplomatic trouble because they believed Taiwan to be part of “One China”. We thought that was bullshit, so we collected the ‘T’ out of Austria, and Canada could do with one less ‘A’ anyway, right? We got enough letters together and put ‘Taiwan’ on his stall. Chien-Chi Chang and the tech teams were pleased, but security removed it again. So we put it up again. The cool thing is that the media newspapers had reported this all over Asia. The best headline was in the Taipei Times, where the headline was ‘Austrian Artist Georg Paul Thomann Saves Taiwan!’ So a non-existing artist saved a country that shouldn’t exist!
So is Thomann still ‘alive’?
No, we killed him off in 2005 and gave him an authentic Austrian funeral. On the side of his gravestone was the web address of the Thomann Project. Still, at least 2 major Austrian newspapers turned up and printed an official obituary! Journalists are so lazy!
Yep. Did life get lonely without him around?
We kept busy. Jorg Schlick got hold of us about that time. He was one of the founders of The Lord Jim Lodge, this art group that started as this drunken thing in the ‘80s. Martin Kippenberger, who since became one of the most famous German artists of all time, just threw down their logo on a coaster. They called it “Sun Breast Hammer”.
Like a Thailand business trip itinerary. What was their idea?
Their aim was to make “Sun Breast Hammer” more popular than the Coca Cola logo.
Did they have any luck?
Jorg Schlick was dying from cancer, so he left us the Lord Jim Lodge on the condition we “let it rock”. How do you make an art world in-joke rock?
Breasts and hammers are a start.
Our idea was to stage a hostile business takeover and to declare that this neo-liberal, very profit-oriented company monochrom is assimilating the Lord Jim Lodge and all its assets. We held a press conference, and explained that we get our hands on art groups of high symbolic value, but low in actual capital, and exploit it that value to get cash. Kippenberger used to paint the logo on his art, which had become worth millions in the meantime. So we sent out letters to all these institutions saying, ”Hey, you have a Kippenberger in your collection with the Sun Breast Hammer logo. We want 25% of the revenue of your pieces.” We didn’t think that these institutions would react but it was crazy. So many emailed us asking to settle out of court!
You would have thought Andy Warhol would ring a bell.
Yeah, he didn’t get fucked by Campbells! But we upheld the illusion with no intention of going through with it. If we did we would have gone to jail for major fraud after all. It was funny to see how much uproar you can cause in the art world by sending out a simple press release and a couple of letters.
But no mainstream media attention.
But then out of the blue we got an email from Coca Cola. They were starting a Coca Cola Light art award. And artists were being invited to create artworks to be printed on Coca Cola bottles. We sent a stamped Sun Breast Hammer logo on a piece of paper, and made sure to point out that it was related to Kippenberger. And we won! Thousands upon thousands of Coca Cola covered in the Sun Breast Hammer logo were printed and distributed.
It then became a statement about art and commodity. People see art with this sacred and divine aura, but art was always a commodity. Artists weren’t even considered artists back in the day; they were craftsmen who did a job. Bourgeois society got this idea that artists are suffering geniuses and all that crap.
The Rimbaud citing yawns of the last 50 years prove that still exists.
And how many people have really seen the Mona Lisa itself? People see images of the Mona Lisa in schoolbooks or magazines, but who has seen it for real? I haven’t. Corbis, who are owned by Microsoft, own the photographic rights of most of the major artworks on the planet. Nowadays it’s more about who owns the copyright of the photograph of images or paintings or artworks, but who don’t own the artwork itself. Reproductions are more valuable and more important than the original themselves. Who benefits from copyright? It’s certainly not artists. I want to address that.
The danger with all politically based art though, is that it is humourless, or even worse tries to be funny but with that whole “but seriously guys they’re fucking starving” zazz in it.
So many leftist guys have no sense of humour, and it’s no good for them. There’s an old German leftist slogan that goes, ‘Destroy what’s destroying you’. We always say, “Repair what’s trying to repair you”. I like that. If you take yourself too seriously, you are running in the wrong direction. I say, “I’m kind of an alcoholic, but you can count on me!” Think about what is in front of you. Calling Bush an asshole won’t achieve anything, but it might help making a joke out of the asshole next to you who’s talking anti-Semitic bullshit. And always use technology. It’s a weapon. Sometimes only 5 people see our projects, but it goes onto Youtube or something and millions of people see it. Creativity on a local level can still produce global feedback.
So who is your next victim?
Well, Google is the last existing superpower. Google controls how we think about the world in a certain way you know? And it’s a privately run company to make profit. I would like to see Sun Breast Hammer on the Google page.
I think we all would. So now do you consider yourself an artist?
It’s misappropriation. They don’t really understand how we work, and we don’t really understand how they work. We have a mutual misunderstanding I think.