In the midst of the global pandemic, museums have closed and biennales have been postponed. But have they done enough to support their communities through this time? And, pandemic aside, are art world institutions responding fast enough to our rapidly changing world?

Holding them accountable is Thierry Geoffroy, aka Colonel. The French-Danish, Copenhagen-based conceptual artist prides himself on being annoying, and pandemic or no pandemic, he is not letting curators, institutions and galleries off the hook. As a professional protagonist and art world rogue, his work encourages public expression and outrage.

Eschewing the limitations of traditional art, Geoffroy’s ‘art formats’ are universal, global and local, open-minded, non-specific, and flexible – their only absolute requirement is people. The formats are the result of his 1989 manifesto Stratégies d'existence, which sought to find an art form that did not rely on conventional art world structures, so it could always be open and reactive to change. It had to be prepared for anything – even a pandemic.

2020 Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Thierry Geoffroy – The awareness Muscle Training Centre

Each format is a different framework for a debate. The Critical Run format is a debate between groups of runners on the move. The Emergency Room debates competing stories on the news agenda. The Biennalist critiques the theme and curation of Biennales.

Within these formats, Geoffroy employs ‘tools’ for communicating; slogans to capture people’s attention; tents as canvases to start conversations; or exercise machines to energize people. He is on a mission to wake people up: “This is not a networking party. To encourage people to formulate what they think, the format has to be thought-provoking.”

2020 Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Thierry Geoffroy – The awareness Muscle Training Centre

His latest exhibition, The Awareness Muscle Training Centre at Villa Stuck in Munich, took the format of a fitness installation with exercise machines for visitors and provocative slogans in neon and colourful plexiglass. “Lift your responsibility,” one slogan reads, because instead of our bodies, it aims to give our critical thinking a workout.

Geoffroy fears that the way people think today is far too dependent on algorithms. “Instead of repeating opinions we see in the news or on Facebook, we must try to build opinions that are beyond the media channels and outside the chat rooms.” Another of his slogans reads: “So many opinions so little investigations.”

Thierry Geoffroy, Instagram feed, Villa Stuck

The opinions that he ‘extracts’ through the formats then in turn become part of his installations. At Villa Stuck a selection of videoed opinions from previous Critical Runs, which have taken place in cities in more than 30 different countries, are screened for visitors to watch.

“I’m not a scientist, but I make systems through which to extract and collect opinions, which are performative. At the end, I have a data pool, which can be interpreted by others, and then it becomes a sculpture.”

The Anatomy of Prejudice at the IKM museum Oslo is a five-year exhibition that seeks to discover how xenophobia circulates. Working in groups, people search their smartphones for evidence of xenophobia, and print it out on A4 sheets of paper, which are then hung up and debated.

Venice Biennale, courtesy of the artist

It is always important to Geoffroy that the formats are responsive to now – in contrast to many slow-moving institutions. He wasn’t surprised when the Venice Architecture Biennale was postponed, causing the inevitable postponement of the Art Biennale in turn, which he views as a failure.

“They could have done it in a different way, but they don’t have the capacity to adapt to the now and the emergency. Instead they collapse or postpone; they are not prepared.” In response, Geoffroy sent out an e-newsletter; a simple artwork with the words “Venice Biennale” (the Biennale struck through).

Biennales are the topic of the artist’s Biennalist format, which holds curators accountable to their curatorial theme. Geoffroy engages visitors with critical questions, seeking to expose any arrogance or hypocrisy, and find out if the theme can stand up to debate, or if it is merely a creative Tivoli for the art world: “We cannot keep on being entertained, there are issues to face,” he says.

Geoffroy sees the Venice Biennale as being part of a clunky contemporary art world system that is unable to change with the times: “The ‘contemporary’ has a routine of self-fulfilling mechanics, unquestioning of the outside world. They [The Biennale] want to talk about climate change, but in November 2019 the city was underwater, and the debate was non-existent.”

It’s the same with the pandemic. Institutions have closed their doors in order to wait until everything returns back to whatever you want to call normal. Yet Geoffroy challenges the art world to use this current emergency as an opportunity to shift their ways of thinking and adapt to a different world: “The emergency will replace the contemporary,” he says.

'Social Distancing', courtesy of the artist 'Wash your hands', courtesy of the artist

The artist has already adapted to living in a ‘state of emergency’. He handles it through taking a ‘triage’ approach to the world, tackling emergencies in priority order. One of his current slogans is “Can we be critical during a pandemic?” It recognizes the dilemma of accepting that other emergencies can still operate during a major global emergency.

Yet, what are the effects of this constant state of emergency? Geoffroy’s Apathy Lab format has detected growing levels of apathy across responses from other formats, such as the Emergency Room and the Awareness Muscle.

“We are so distracted all the time; we digest news, but we don’t react anymore. It’s a new phenomenon – we are so well informed, but the things that should outrage us, we already know. One of my slogans is: ‘Knowing what I know makes me a monster’.”

'Can a Democracy survice a Pandemic', courtesy of the artist 'Stay home if you have one', courtesy of the artist

Geoffroy is part of an upcoming exhibition at Copenhagen Contemporary titled the Art of Sport, which unpacks our complex relationships with exercise in all of its manifestations. Through his work, Geoffroy shows that perhaps our brain is not so different to other muscles – it too needs training, stretching and challenging to stay in good health.

Whether it is watching an Instagram Live of a Critical Run, or participating in one in Siberia at minus 22 degrees, “Even if we are stuck at home we can still do something, but it’s a question of energy, will and motivation,” says Geoffroy.

Art of Sport, Copenhagen Contemporary, 25 March – 24 October

Thierry Geoffroy’s retrospective book in collaboration with Villa Stuck will be published in September 2021

This article appeared in DAM78. Order your personal copy.