Andreas Broeckmann and Stefan Riekeles

Contemporary Neuralgia

The epoch we live in is riddled by the pressing urgency of a change which is imminent, yet for which we have no guidelines and few utopian visions. We experience the pains, the cynicisms and the helplessness of a globalized world, fully aware of its unsustainability.

The exhibition project Neuralgic raises the question of how to react to the need for change. Taking oil and the technical “nervous system” as its central metaphors and examples, Neuralgic investigates the vital infrastructure of contemporary societies and how this infrastructure affects the way in which we live, how we can translate our experiences into forms of expression and action.

Eight European artists have been invited to explore such “neuralgic areas” and their imaginary potentials.

Emergency Plans: 90 days to shake the world

The Port of Rotterdam holds one of the largest oil reserves in Europe. It plays a key part in the emergency plans of the International Energy Agency (IEA), whose member states have committed to keep a reserve of 90 days worth of oil imports, in case of an international crisis. This stock can be used in order to control the oil price on global markets (as happened recently, during the Iraq war in 2003), or as a final reserve in case of war or other serious crises. In this scenario, the 90-day period during which an emergency plan would kick into action can be taken as a symbol for the kind of radical change which is potentially imminent, undesirable yet expected, but would force us to replace our society's dependency on oil by some other model of sustenance.

Rotterdam and the infrastructure around it would, no doubt, play an important role in the ensuing scenario, given its strategic position and content. Yet, it might be argued that the city of Rotterdam proper would actually have no role in this, and that it is only the port which has such a neuralgic position for Europe's energy supplies. Thus, the city of Rotterdam, as it is experienced by its inhabitants, would be but a marginality in relation to the infrastructure of waterway, motorway, rail and information technologies that constitutes the port.

However, the project Neuralgic does not seek to indulge in apocalyptic horror scenarios. Rather, we want to take the neuralgic position of Rotterdam as a metaphor for the need to radically rethink the way in which we live. The oil in the Port of Rotterdam and the 90-day potential it holds is a strong, resonating image for the conflicts and potentials for change that we are challenged to imagine.

Neuralgia is "a disease, the chief symptom of which is a very acute pain, exacerbating or intermitting, which follows the course of a nervous branch, extends to its ramifications, and seems therefore to be seated in the nerve." (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1998) Neuralgic pain extends through the filiations of the nervous system. It seems to be difficult to locate and independent of any structural lesion, and in many cases there is no identifiable cause for it. By analogy, we use the term “neuralgic” as a metaphor for contemporary problems with cannot easily be pinned down and localized, but which evolve in relations, along trajectories, through distributive systems. These are not “unidentifiable,” UFO-style problems, but ones which need to be traced and tackled in the complex relational and conditional topologies of our contemporary world.

Neuralgic looks at the geopolitical, social and technical infrastructure, at contemporary modes of living and surviving, and at the possibilities for action and change. It takes Rotterdam both as an emblematic site of one of the 'neuralgias' of today, and as a place where the role of art can be tested in a concrete local and geo-political emvironment. The project departs from the belief that art holds a potential to imagine such a scenario not as one of catastrophy and apocalypse, but as one of optimism, humour, absurdity, or sadness, as a way of dramatizing the imaginable beyond the supposedly realistic, and without forgetting that there is a pressing reality that urges us to ask this hypothetical question.

Reformulations: Eight Projects

The artists who were invited to contribute projects to the Neuralgic exhibition did not take the conceptual framework as a scenario for illustration, but as a point of departure and a sounding board for their ongoing work.

Motorschip Noordereiland is a Rotterdam-based project that has been running for over a decade and that offered a response to the neuralgic question long before the latter was formulated. The MS Noordereiland is a ship, anchored in the River Maas right in the center of Rotterdam. Many mistake it for an island, but in fact the crew of the MS Noordereiland has taken great pains over recent years to prepare for the imminent departure of the ship. Like every person on board, and like the world itself, the MS Noordereiland is a vessel and a vehicle of our imagination, which makes it possible to project ourselves into ever new, ever different, ever more acceptable conditions.

Caspian Crude by the Swiss artist Ursula Biemann is part of a long-term investigation of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea oil industries and how they connect with the Western European economies and societies. On her journeys through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, all the way to the oil fields off Baku, Biemann traces the construction of the oil pipelines that are both physical evidence and metaphor for the way in which East and West are connected and interdependent in the survival game of exploiting the fossil resources of the Earth. Biemann's observations of people's lives along the pipeline, of workers, farmers and nomads, give a human face to the infrastructural project that is intended to feed the refineries and oil tanks in Rotterdam's port for years to come.

A highly alternative project to this infrastructural enterprise, Joost Conijn's Hout Auto (Wood Car) realizes the vision of being independent from fossil fuels: Conijn has constructed a car that is made of wood, and whose motor runs on wood. Wherever he meets people along the way, they marvel at his wondrous contraption. It is hardly surprising that the journey which Conijn's video documents takes him in the opposite direction to that of the oil flowing through the pipelines from Baku to Rotterdam: he travels through the Black Sea countries of southeastern Europe, and in the Romanian countryside he finds people for whom his car is as hopelessly obsolete and quaintly utopian as it is for his Dutch viewers.

Marnix de Nijs, based in Rotterdam, introduces an Oil Reservewhich stores an amount of oil that has been claimed for cultural and artistic activities in the case of a crisis as outlined in the 90-day scenario into the space of TENT.. This concrete reserve addresses the need for a protection of resources that is not guided by commercial interests or political goals, and positions a neuralgic spot right in heart of an art institution. The politics of oil supply and consumption are poised in a relationship of offense and defense, a relationship that the installation translates into a dramatic threat: on the occasion of an illegitimate abuse of its purpose it will violently self-destruct. The ignition mechanism itself is driven by electric power gained from an oil-fed flame.

EXPOSED, a work in progress by Austrian artist Heidrun Holzfeind, who is based in New York, is a film about a young woman who suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. This chronic condition caused by exposure to chemicals found in common products is a by-product of our modern, technologically advanced world. While critics still question its validity, for Katherine, the main character in the film, it is a debilitating everyday reality that forces her to live outside the norms of society. As Katherine puts it: "Chemical intolerance has changed my life – mostly spiritually – and also the way that I think about society and the status-quo mentality ....”

AGF aka antye greie is an artist and musician based in Berlin who over recent years has developed an artistic language, mainly through electronic music, in which she combines a highly personal poetics with a strong engagement with social and political issues concerning the world around her. Her project seeks to identify neuralgic dimensions of contemporary society, which she formulates in calligraphic paintings as well as in short sound pieces. It is a special quality of AGF's work that she conveys critical issues as emotionally charged and immediately touching aesthetic experiences – bringing us very close to where the general neuralgia can be felt as our own pain.

The project by the artists group Knowbotic Research (KRcF), currently working in Zurich and Cologne, forms part of a series of works that engages with the experience of total inclusion and with hypothetical scenarios for becoming able to act in a situation where independent action is systematically denied. naked bandit / here, not here / white sovereign is based on a technical scenario, represented through a software process, in which one “parent” process controls another, the “child” process. In analogy to Giorgio Agamben's analysis of homo sacer, the “nude bandit” is a figure caught up in a dependent relationship in which it has to report its continued presence (“here”), yet is prevented from acting or leaving (“not here”). By offering an interface for a basic intervention in this scenario, the exhibition’s visitors are confronted with their implicit involvement in situations where the modern state systematically prevents people on the margins of society from exercising their human and citizen rights.

Dick el Demasiado returns us to the initial scenario of the Neuralgic project and imagines the situation when the crisis kicks in: “Hoe vertel ik het het volk?” (“How do I tell the people?”) This prolific artist has recently embarked on a career as the instigator of “Cumbias Lunaticas,” a special sort of distorted Latin-American popular music which has become highly popular with people in Argentina and other countries. The Latin-American post-colonial experience, as well as the current economic and social crisis in Argentina, are an important subtext to his work. The announcement on the ATM money machine: “Het is op!” (“The money's finished!”), supported by one of his songs screeching from the small sound monitor, turns the tables on the normal experience of crisis in globalization: It exhibits the moment of drawing money “from the hole in the wall” – that exemplary instance of Western affluence and security – as the moment when the global drama will “hit home.” Without doubt, in the eyes of the non-Western artist, this event will hold some deeply ironic beauty.


Art cannot, of course, heal neuralgic pains. It can, at best, pinpoint the cultural filiations through which they resonate and propose hypothetical strategies for running through them, maybe even bending them. Neuralgic deals with some aspects of the contemporary geopolitical and social infrastructure, with exemplary survival strategies and with modes of agency. There is a complex interdependency between infrastructure, life and action, all of which mutually condition each other. Such conditional relations have to be looked at precisely and individually, in order to be able to use them effectively and determine whether the intended expressions and actions can unfold in the main branches of the infrastructure, or whether they have to be couched in niches or an imaginary outside. A recurring experience is that of the reliable instability of living and technical systems, an experience of temporary failures and permanent flaws.

(August 2004)

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