This is propaganda involves a gallery guard singing a short phrase every time a visitor enters the exhibition space in which they are stationed. As the visitor enters, the guard turns away from them and sings in a high and powerful voice: ‘This is propaganda, you know, you know; this is propaganda’ then slowly turns back to the visitor to sing the refrain ‘you know, you know’. Immediately after singing the guard announces verbally ‘Tino Sehgal, This is propaganda, 2002’, which serves to inform visitors of the artist’s name and the title and date of the work in the absence of a written label. The work, which Sehgal describes as a ‘constructed situation’, is performed by individuals working in shifts, and is enacted continuously for the duration of the gallery’s standard opening hours. The individuals who enact the work are not regular employees of the gallery – they are only dressed as gallery guards – but are trained by Sehgal as designated ‘interpreters’ of the work.
This is propaganda exemplifies Sehgal’s artistic production since the late 1990s, during which time he has explored the possibility of making art without producing a material object or trace. A conceptual requirement of Sehgal’s work is that it must not be documented in any material form, such as wall labels, photographs, films and written contracts. As such, the work can only be experienced in the immediate space of encounter. Sehgal has explained, ‘My works are defined precisely by their purely actional based character ... you simply arrive in the situation’ (quoted in Heiser 2005, p.102).
Sehgal, who trained originally in choreography and in political economy, enlists the bodies and the labour of his interpreters as raw materials. Working with living, breathing people – with the human voice, movement and dialogue – he creates interpersonal encounters as part of an ongoing commitment to a non-material aesthetic economy.
As a ‘constructed situation’ that disrupts the conventional gallery experience, This is propaganda calls attention to the context of its performance. In the statement ‘This is propaganda, you know, you know’, it is unclear what ‘this’ might refer to, though it seems to implicate the art on display in the gallery, the institutional environment in general, and the role art has historically played in shaping public opinion, as well as the nature of the statement itself. In relation to these potential meanings the refrain ‘you know, you know’ might be understood as a disavowal of ignorance or even as a call for consciousness.
In that it encourages visitors to consider the exhibition, consumption and influence of art, This is propaganda relates to work made since the 1970s by artists such as Hans Haake and Andrea Fraser who have sought to expose art’s relationship to institutional power (see, for example, Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk 1989, Tate T13715). With the final verbal affirmation of the work’s title and creator, This is propaganda also raises questions about Sehgal’s own status as the ‘author’ of the work, especially given that the central phrase, ‘This is propaganda, you know, you know’, is taken from the lyrics of a song by the Norwegian electro-pop band Briskeby.
Jörg Heiser, Funky Lessons, exhibition catalogue, BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary, Vienna 2005, pp.102–5.
Claire Bishop, ‘No Pictures, Please: Claire Bishop on the Art of Tino Sehgal’, Artforum, vol.43, no.9, May 2005, pp.215–17.
Dorothea von Hantelmann, How to Do Things with Art, Zurich 2010.