I first met Jenny Brockmann in 2014 at the German Consulate in New York, where she was presenting a project that, in her usual elegant manner, limned the politics of space. The piece, installed as it was in a building devoted to a foreign government (“a place representing another place,” as she put it), was an exercise in dislocation. It was centered on an installation called “Window,” which used a spotlight to project on a wall what appeared to be the shadow of a window frame, which actually existed elsewhere in the building. She had prepared for the piece by speaking with staff in the building, making poetic inquiries: “Do you count clouds?” “How does rain smell?” Buildings, emotions, the weather: I could not have known then how fitting an introduction to Brockmann’s work this productive confusion would be. Throughout her many projects, the artist has continued to probe the relationship of politics to art and site specificity, with ambitious, inquisitive works that reformulate the relationship between observation and participation.
Many artists claim “research” as their modus operandi, eager to form metaphorical links between their subjective work and the hard sciences. Brockmann’s work, on the other hand, is striking for its literal proximity to the traditional disciplines of science: physics and biology are vital touchstones for her. Yet scientific processes are always construed in connection with social life. For Brockmann, research is not a passive endeavor; the territory each work explores activates relationships beyond the gallery walls.
Trained as an architect, Brockmann believes in the malleability of the built environment, and proposes that the most written-in-stone (or wood or concrete) aspects of our lives are adaptable. “Architecture is dynamic,” she argues, drawing an analogy to the notion that democracy must be continually negotiated in order to stay vital. Brockmann’s work pushes this idea further, though, than so much social practice work, in which the audience is rewarded with a sense of accomplishment for their participation. With Brockmann, sometimes they are frustrated, as with “Shy Room,” a space to which even the most earnest visitor can be denied entry; sometimes they are thrown off balance- literally- as with “Seat #12,” a kind of circular seesaw, where the entire group is affected by the coming or going of a single member. This work presents consensus agreement not as instantly gratifying entertainment, but as the nearly impossible dream that it can be in the real world. Each of these works presents “research” as a loaded word, one that implicates the viewer as much as the artist. Brockmann pushes the term out of the antiseptic confines of the laboratory and into the tumult of daily life. Her work reminds us that learning is a socio-political process; one cannot understand these works without experiencing them. In light of the current mass migrations of displaced people into Europe, Brockmann’s work can be read through an even more urgent political valence. Her practice is social research into the ways in which places are changed by, and also change, the people who reside in them. Even in times of great social upheaval, this happens in humble ways. “My research process is about how to approach life,” Brockmann says. “We get up, we go through the day. But nothing is set. It’s about changing perspectives in daily life.”
This internal/external duality carries through many of Brockmann’s projects. “Hug,” one of her most frequently-shown works, is an instructive example of the artist’s willingness to use the notion of research to harmonize the poetic and the empirical. The sculpture, which consists of an apparatus through which pneumatic pumps squeeze and release the participant gently but firmly, was inspired by the animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin. Grandin, who has autism, knew from her own experience that firm application of pressure to the body can be soothing for those with the disorder. She extended this knowledge into work with animals, revolutionizing industrial agriculture by changing notions of how animals can be humanely raised and slaughtered. Brockmann sees Grandin’s work as inspiring, because the latter has shifted popular attitudes about autism, as well as widely held assumptions about the physical aspect of social relations. When we think of a hug as providing measurable benefits to people and animals, the experience does not so much lose its sentimental value as it gains an empirical one. Each informs the other. Indeed, Brockmann’s work is deeply sympathetic and humane without veering into sentimentality: for her, knowledge and appreciation are intertwined strands of human experience.
Given that her works are so experiential, it is striking that the exhibition includes drawings, models and plans, which provide a more analytical view of Brockmann’s ideas. Brockmann explains that the drawings show alternate, unrealized possibilities for the work; they represent ideas that never came to fruition but nevertheless influenced the final result. If her finished works playfully demand participation of the visitor, with the occasional discomfort of awkward failures and pleasure of minor triumphs, the drawings permit a more circumspect position. This, again, is a striking approach to the notion of research: the tangents and side roads are presented as integral to the final piece. Alongside the finished projects, the drawings and plans are actively speculative, suggesting that what might have been is part of reality too.
In a recent conversation, I told Brockmann I wanted to ask her a basic but fundamental question. “Why call yourself an artist? Why call what you do, which comprises so many disciplines, art?” Her answer was equally simple: “I have to say I’m an artist, in order to work in such an abstract way. Otherwise people will not accept what I do.” She recognizes that her methodology presents a brazen challenge to orthodoxy within both science and the humanities. Questions are the goal rather than the starting point: What is identity? How is community formed by space? How do we question our assumptions about each other, and find new ways to live together? Research is merely the vehicle for inexhaustible exploration. “You begin with the idea that you are heading somewhere, but you don’t know where you’ll end up. It is research in which the result is the process.”