Books in the MCL: Various & Gould. Permanently Improvised

Permanently Improvised. Various & Gould, 2019

The word “improvised” may lead one to believe that street artists create without planning, hoping for a miracle. However, Various & Gould, a Berlin-based street art duo, have a whimsical spirit and embrace unexpected outcomes, but their 15-year body of work is characterized by extensive planning and purposeful consideration. They dedicate themselves to the scientific process of experimentation, discovery, and analysis, placing them in a category of their own among the many artists during this era of personal expression in public spaces.

The book “Permanently Improvised” offers an overview of eight major campaigns created by the duo from the mid-2000s to the late-2010s in various locations such as streets, parks, and hidden doorways. This comprehensive work is accompanied by analytical essays by urban/art intellectuals, activists, and experts, including Jan Kage, Steven P. Harrington, Toby Ashraf, Alison Young, Luis Müller Phillip-Sohn, Ilaria Hoppe, Anne Wizorek, Mohamed Amjahid, and an illuminating interview with the artists and Polina Soloveichik. In situ images are also included, allowing readers to experience the duo’s kooky-cryptic inner fantasy world and gain insight into their idiosyncratic approach – and the possibilities of hybrid thought in the future.

Various & Gould is an artistic duo that has been an integral part of Berlin’s urban art scene during the first two decades of the century. Their work is characterized by a socially conscious approach that tackles issues such as diversity, migration, technological innovation, gender roles, and the definition of work in an unconventional and playful manner. Their love for paper is evident even when it proves fragile in harsh city conditions. An electrically charged declaration of hope on polluted city walls, their hand-made beacons include multi-colored patchworks of collaged faces, halftone murals painted dot by dot, vivid paper castings of monuments, and large images of smashed smartphones used as intaglio plates.

The first monograph of Various & Gould’s work is a medium-sized hardcover book that features instructive and illustrative images of their works placed illegally in the streets, created in the studio, presented in galleries, and, in one case, Papier-mâchéd upon public sculptures of Marx and Engels. The work is delivered with sincere scholarship and humor, even during the process of creation, public interaction, and mid-degradation due to natural elements.

The campaigns on the street are formed with a knowledge of politics, history, and social commentary, providing viewers with a greater appreciation of the tribe-like mentality humans possess just beneath the veneer of civility – a dry timber poised to be sparked into flame. For example, the Wanted Witches campaign placed 13 portraits of modern pioneers in socio-political issues painted with phosphorus and encouraged viewers to light a match on them, taking public interaction beyond the realms with which we are familiar. The carefully planned and executed installation on city streets powerfully elevated the saint-like sacrifice of people who push ahead of us, sometimes burned at the stake as witches – whether literally or perhaps via a hostile media and politicized rhetoric.

At the root of much of V&G’s work is an examination of identity; its malleability, fluidity, and perceived relevance in societal strata. Many projects meditate on our flexible selves, as in Identikit, which interchanges personalities and keywords to present tensions and examine associations; St. Nimmerlein, which mocks the arbitrary power of declaring sainthood with fictional personas who surely don’t deserve it; and Face Time, a Dadaist study that combines the likenesses and features of many into implausible yet familiar glitch-humans. The early campaign Rabotniki mixes and matches bodies, parts, genders, classes, and identities in a handmade heart-conscious way.

Theirs is a unique cut-and-wheat paste approach; an improvisational technique that allows for discovery, insight, and humor. It translates well to their respected contemporary art practice. “Permanently Improvised” is a celebration of V&G’s unique approach to street art and their storied contribution to the Berlin street art scene and beyond.

Text: Steven P. Harrington and Jaime Rojo Fotos: Sebastian Kläbsch