A conversation between Maarten Vanden Eynde and Katerina Gregos on Pinpointing Progress


18 June 2021


Katerina Gregos: Pinpointing Progress is a major installation that was commissioned by the 1st Riga Biennial in 2018. The work stacks all the modern technological wonders that were produced in Riga, Latvia (one of the USSR’s industrial powerhouses) 
and that were exported throughout the USSR, or even beyond. Following both size and usually production date, the objects become smaller and smaller, visualising the speed of evolution and the constant miniaturization of technology. A bus, car, moped, bike, computer, radio, telephone, camera and a transistor are pinned on a needle. Pinpointing Progress is a silent monument for both local production history and the speed of industrialised evolution. Can you describe how this work came about, particularly as it arose in response to a specific geography – that of Latvia at the time of its occupation by the Soviet Union – and industrial history more generally.

Maarten Vanden Eynde: The idea of preserving objects by sticking them on a spike, like insects in a museum, has been with me for a while. But it was only when I was asked to produce a new work for the 1st Riga Biennial and I found out how many vital and iconic objects were made in Riga during Soviet times, that everything came together. And on top of that I found out later when I was doing a site visit and saw the sculpture of the Bremen City Musicians, that Riga was also the sister city of Bremen, and that according to popular historical accounts Riga was founded by merchants from Bremen. After that I knew this was going to be perfect. In the original tale from the Brothers Grimm, four abused and exhausted animals, a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster, join forces to escape their miserable life. Climbing on top of each other, they create a monstrous figure, which frightens their owners and helps them regain their freedom. The analogy with Latvia breaking free from the occupation of the Soviet Union and at the same time it’s industrial history, made the work complete.

KG: Its also maybe worth mentioning, in the context of the Grimm tale that, that this new copy of the Riga sculpture was made by the Bremen based artist Krista Baumgaertel in 1990, during Gorbachev’s period of perestroika, which is also quite symbolic. As with many of your projects, so too with Pinpointing Progress, a considerable amount of research was conducted prior to the actual creation of your work. Can you give details about this process, where and how you researched, particularly as it was a context you were not familiar with. To what extent is the idea of local engagement important in your practice?

MVE: Yes that’s right. To begin with, I used the Internet and books, and when I was in Riga for a site visit and the research period that followed, I visited some old industrial sites and the Riga Motor Museum, which besides a huge collection of restored vehicles, including busses, cars, motorcycles and bikes, also had a very large collection of radios and telephones. The museum became an important partner in the end and advised, more than once, on ways to restore a certain item, find spares or what color code should be used. As the work was dealing with local history it was also very important that it was also supported and produced and completed locally. That is indeed something very pertinent in my practice and the result was that the work became a magnet for the local population over the summer. It created an incredible appropriation movement, with countless wedding pictures, video clips, performances and fashion shoots taking place in front of the work.

KG: Indeed a strange, but perhaps not altogether unexpected spin-off of the work, is this appropriation movement which resulted in thousands of performative Instagram posts, over 1000, if I remember correctly, mostly of women posing for the camera? You made an archive out of it (I don’t know if this will have some use for you in the future). I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between the materiality of industrial production and modernity, which the work references, and the immateriality of the digital economy, cognitive capitalism and biopolitics underlying this appropriation of the work, which became a by-product of the digital sphere? What are we to make of the semiotics of this? Have you thought about this bizarre afterlife the work created? I’m asking because I imagine the same might happen in Beaufort?

MVE: I started indeed to collect them, as it never happened to me before that a work became an Instagram hit but after a few months and over 1000 images I stopped. It was too much. Although the work was shown twice afterwards, first in front of the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany and after that in front of the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille, France, it did not generate the same kind of craziness. In Riga it was the combination I guess of nostalgia for a lot of people who recognized the car they once drove in or the moped or radio they had themselves when they were young, and the fact that the location in the harbor was a popular hang out for people in the summer. And once a critical mass is reach of people who saw the work and posted an image of themselves, or their dog, or their bike or skateboard in front of the work, the rest of the people felt urged to do the same thing. Some influencers joined the club with hundreds of thousands of followers, and then it went fast, super fast. In the end, I guess you are right, most of the pictures were of women, posing in fashionista style, but there were also entire families, climbing on top of each other to mimic the sculpture, of groups of bikers who met there and made memorable pictures. Even at night it was pretty lively. I doubt it will happen like that in Nieuwpoort, but I saw some great ones already, so who knows? And about the contrast you mentioned between the material and immaterial; I think that is also what the work is about, as the last item on the spike is a transistor, or a binary switch, a crucial element in the evolution of computers that mostly use integrated circuits now which are also disappearing as we speak. The next item on the spike may probably be so small, and maybe biological, like DNA, that it will not be visible anymore with our naked eye. Talking about intersection…

KG: The work itself deals with several issues at the same time: the demise of material-based production in the western world (and the resulting industrial decommissioning), the shrinking of technological components, the inevitable obsolescence of practically all technology which has speeded up exponentially and of course the ideological basis behind economic policies. Many of these phenomena are embedded in a narrative of progress and economic restructuring. Can you comment on the contentious ideologies that underpin this specific work and also say a few words about how you see in relation to other parts of your practice dealing with the demise of industry, such as the work Industrial Evolution (2007-2009), for example, a collection of items that come from the twenty remaining manufacturing companies in Eastside, Birmingham, some of the last vestiges of the manufacturing industry in a city that was once one of the frontrunners of the Industrial Revolution.

MVE: One the one hand Pinpointing Progress addresses our alienation with nature, and more importantly our problematic feeling of superiority over other animals. On the other hand, it alludes to our tendency to personalise everything, even objects and vehicles, giving them names and talking to them. This peculiar human animistic behaviour, or in extreme form, this ‘objectophilia’ results in people preferring objects over people, and sometimes even marriages (!) Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer married the Berlin Wall in 1979 and even took its name.  Aaron Chervenak got married with his smart phone and Joachim A. married a locomotive after ending his relationship with a Hammond organ. Carol Santa Fe married even an entire train station and Erika Eiffel got married with the Eiffel tower. But on a more serious note, the work talks about exponential growth, the Great Acceleration, and the shift from a manufacturing industry to a service industry that is build on the technological revolution, hence the transistor being all the way on top of the spike, the only object that is still being made in Riga at the moment. It is a work that brings to the fore the human era and our possible heritage for future generations. Before the industrial revolution, the physical impact of humankind on Earth was of a very different and less permanent nature than after the industrial evolution, and specifically after the so-called Great Acceleration in 1950s’. One can argue that the beginning of the Anthropocene took place when we settled down and the agricultural revolution took off, but these events did not result in the transformation of natural resources in such a way that they will now with the physical residue of industrial modernity, leaving material traces long after we are gone. It is also the introduction of artificial and synthetic materials, and by changing the inner core of matter, that we will leave a lasting legacy. The production of plastics and nuclear fission will also more likely leave traces in the future geological layers instead of mass-produced and even manipulated strains of rice or wheat. It is the banal and mass-produced throwaway leftovers that will become the ‘treasure trove’ for future archaeologists. Just this year researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science calculated that human-made materials now outweigh Earth’s entire biomass. I think that is without any doubt the most important ominous sign of our times. All of this also connects to earlier works of mine, like Industrial Evolution for which I collected pairs of objects that at that time were still being produced in the heart of the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, in Digbeth, Birmingham in the UK. They were photographed as ‘couples’ by a portrait photographer which gave them individuality, and in a way ‘animised’ them. The unexpected result was that it proved at the same time that is physically impossible to clone or reproduce an exact copy of an object, even a simple screw, and thus in a weird turn of events heralds the failure of the Industrial Revolution.

KG: Perhaps you can speak a little about each of the individual components that make up the work, starting from the bus, and their histories and uses, as well as how you obtained each piece. The bus, for example, I know was in a terrible state and you had to restore it.

MVE: The bus, oh, that was quite the adventure. I won’t talk about all the objects but the restoration of the bus was very special as we could only locate three left over busses of that type (RAF-251, the first bus of the famous Riga Autobus Factory) that were for sale in the entire country. They were all in extremely bad condition because the cover, the ‘shell’ was added later and is not part of the original design. The base, the chassis, is part of a 2.5 ton military Soviet truck (GAZ-51, nicknamed Gazon) that is built like a tank, meant to last forever, but the top, that was built afterwards in the 1950s, was used to transport people to the factories everyday. It was made with wood and thin metal sheets. That’s why they did not live very long, and only museums have restored copies for safekeeping and nostalgic display. We managed to buy two of them and it took a team of six people two months to make one bus out of the best items of both. It is a true beauty though, and probably the most valuable item of the whole stack. The other items were bought on auction sites or second hand shops around the country. The car is a classical RAF-2203 Latvija that was widely used in the USSR as fixed-run taxis (marshrutkas) and medical cars. The moped is a Riga-3 model from 1967. The bicycle is an Erenpreis from the famous Gustavs Ērenpreis Bicycle Factory that later became the Red Star Riga Bicycle Factory. The radio/record player combination is a VEF-65, from the Valsts elektrotehniskā fabrika (State Electrotechnical Factory) that after world war two became the leading communication technology producer in the Soviet Union. Also the portable radio Spidola-232, the telephone TA-60 and the Minox-35 camera were made by VEF. That latter was, for a very long time, the smallest camera in the world and because it was used by most secret service organisations, it was nicknamed the ‘spycam’. It appeared in James Bond’s On Her Majesty's Secret Service of 1969, for instance. The last item is hardly visible and is located on the top of the spike: a 725-HM transistor. This is part of the so-called second-generation transistors that are used on printed circuit boards of computers. You need a good camera with a telephoto lens to see the transistor and it symbolises the fast shrinking evolution of key ingredients of most electronic appliances and technologies, but also pollution like nano-plastics that are airborne. With our naked eye we cannot see such things anymore, we need a microscope to do so. But for how long can we maintain this evolution? When will we loose the ability to monitor it? When does believing become more important than seeing?  

KG: Above, you mentioned the Great Acceleration, as one of the phenomena of the twentieth century, but the work also references another acceleration: the shrinking of technology and electrical apparatus, and – indirectly - Moore’s Law, the digital extension of this shrinkage, and Planned Obsolescence, two pillars of capitalist production which recur as major issues in many of your other works as well.

MVE: Moore’s Law is a both a blessing and a curse. It is based on a forecast made by Intel founder Gordon E. Moore in 1965 who predicted that the number of transistors that can be fitted onto a microchip would double every 18 to 24 months, constantly increasing computer speed and efficiency. And it worked and it was great. But by now we have reached the material limit of silicon, the main ingredient in microchips, as it cannot get much smaller and sustain the doubling promise of Moore’s Law at the same time. So that is why the next generation computer, based on wetware, likely some kind of DNA/RNA computer, is waiting around the corner. It is a matter of either accepting this new evolution, for better or for worse, or having a standstill of technological progress. Planned Obsolescence, on the other hand is pure evil in my opinion. It is the fossil fuel of capitalist production. Without it the Great Acceleration would just be acceleration. By willingly making objects break down or fall apart within a certain time span (starting with the most famous example of them all, the light bulb but ending up being implemented in nearly any household item and even cars) an unprecedented run for natural resources was kicked in motion resulting in an unmanageable amount of garbage and human suffering. More stuff of lesser quality, that is, in short what Planned Obsolescence is all about, and it is beyond me really why most producers of any kind of stuff still use this principle up to today. Aided by concepts like ‘fashion’ and the installment of psychology in capitalism by Edward Bernays (the double uncle of Sigmund Freud, no really!) this is humanities poison cup, and we drink it willingly. Bottoms up!

Greek-born curator, writer, and art historian Katerina Gregos has been announced as the new artistic director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens. In 2006, she was appointed artistic director of Argos Centre for Audiovisual Arts in Brussels, and for the past four years she has served as the artistic director at Art Brussels while working as an independent curator. She has curated numerous international exhibitions, including the First Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, the Fifth Thessaloniki Biennial in Greece, the 2013 Göteborg Biennial in Sweden, and Manifesta 9. As well, she has curated three national pavilions at the Venice Biennale—those of Denmark, Belgium, and Croatia—and in 2016 was appointed curator of visual arts of the nonprofit Schwarz Foundation, based in Munich and Athens.

Pinpointing Progress by Maarten Vanden Eynde was originally commissioned for RIBOCA1, The 1st Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art (2018), Everything was Forever Until it was No More, curated by Katerina Gregos.