‘The Value of Freedom’


Zbynĕk Baladrán, Dara Birnbaum, Jordi Colomer, Carola Dertnig, Simon Dybbroe Møller, Harun Farocki, Karin Ferrari, Forensic Oceanography, John Gerrard, Johannes Gierlinger, Lola Gonzàlez, Johan Grimonprez, Igor Grubić, Eva Grubinger, Marlene Haring, Hiwa K, Leon Kahane, Šejla Kamerić, Alexander Kluge, Nina Könnemann, Laibach, Lars Laumann, Luiza Margan, Teresa Margolles, Isabella Celeste Maund, Anna Meyer, Aernout Mik, Matthias Noggler, Josip Novosel, Julian Oliver, Trevor Paglen, Christodoulos Panayiotou, Ivan Pardo, Oliver Ressler, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Ashley Hans Scheirl, Christoph Schlingensief, Andreas Siekmann, Eva Stefani, Superflex, Pilvi Takala, Philipp Timischl, Milica Tomić, Betty Tompkins, Amalia Ulman, Kostis Velonis, Kara Walker, Stephen Willats, Anna Witt, Hannes Zebedin, Center for Political Beauty, Tobias Zielony, Artur Żmijewski


Belvedere 21, Vienna

19 September 2018 – 10 February 2019


The Value of Freedom


The title of this exhibition portends to answer the question: what is the value of freedom? While suggesting that freedom is, fundamentally, of value, this rhetorical figure also unleashes a chain of further questions. After all, value is implicitly relational—but freedom in relation to what, exactly? And, quite apart from the evident difficulties involved in putting a value on freedom in the first place, there is no indication as to who is being addressed here. Is the question aimed at the individual, or at society as a whole? And what kind of “freedom” are we even talking about?
The very first questions to arise already provide us with some initial points of reference. For instance, it may be surmised that freedom is not a quantifiable entity, but a relational concept subject to constant change. It is thus an uncertain variable that takes on different meanings in different contexts, describing aspects of our existence at a psychological, social, cultural, religious, political or legislative level. So, in order to come anywhere close to reaching a contemporary understanding of the concept of freedom, it would seem fitting to shed a little light first of all on the historical background of its interrelations and intercontextualities.
The history of freedom can be traced back to the polis of Ancient Greece, where, from around the 8th century B.C., the body of citizens began to organise autonomously within city-states. Until the 2nd century A.D., these self-governing communities continued to prevail as democracies, with the power held directly by the people.[1] Plato held a critical view of this form of governance, maintaining that “A democracy is a state in which the poor, gaining the upper hand, kill some and banish others, and then divide the offices among the remaining citizens equally, usually by lot.“[2] What we can discern here is that, even back then, there was already a sense of dichotomy between rich and poor, freedom and equality, poltical freedom and economic servitude. Moreover, in the philosophy of classical antiquity, the concept of freedom was debated against a backdrop in which participation in the political process was not accessible to all. Certain troublesome groups were excluded from the body politic right from the start: women had no vote, nor had slaves. Based on these circumstances and issues, ancient Greek philosophy developed a concept of freedom that transferred such characteristics as autonomy and autarchy from the democratic body politic to the individual, irrespective of status or gender. The sovereignty of the individual was acknowledged, and freedom defined as having “control in life over things that concern oneself”[3]—albeit invariably within the framework of its interrelationship with the polis, which requires laws in order to assert and maintain its autonomy and, with that, the freedom of its citizens as well.
The Stoic philosophers ultimately distanced themselves from the notions of external and political freedom, shifting the focus instead to an inner freedom that could enable a meaningful way of life in spite of adverse external circumstances (even in the case of slaves, for instance) by using reason to counter one’s own desires and external temptations.
Even the Christian doctrine of salvation draws a clear line between the inner and the outer life. While the body is bound to a world full of temptation, the spirit and mind can experience freedom through faith in God. The individual’s own actions in the world are subject to self-discipline, though actions count for less than the true faith that underpins them. Freedom, in the era before the Enlightenment, was seen as something that could not be achieved through effort, but only through faith.[4] Nevertheless, the tenet of ora et labora (pray and work) held sway, for the aim was not only freedom of mind and spirit, but also of physical self-discipline, whether in a working environment or in interactions with others.
The Enlightenment brought yet another sea change, namely “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” as Kant put it.[5] Individuals, he urged, should think and judge for themselves, relying on their own powers of reason rather than on directions from others. Rationality became the order of the day, making knowledge and the control of knowledge the instrument of power that now replaced faith and enabled freedom. Body and mind could come closer together again, but now with external control taking the place of self-discipline.
From the 17th century onwards, democratic structures were able to take hold more firmly once again in Europe. In England, from 1689, parliamentary privilege granted immunity, financial sovereignty and the right of assembly, independently of the monarch. By this time, however, the political movement known as the Levellers had already long been agitating for all (male) citizens to be accorded equal rights and religious freedoms. The freedom they were demanding was one they perceived as the innate property of every individual—which the ruling elite of the time took as unsubstantiated egalitarianism, or “levelling.”
In 1748, building on the ideas of John Locke, Charles Montesquieu published his ideas on the separation of powers.[6] Legislative, executive and judicial powers should, in his view, be separated from one another in order to prevent despotism and to facilitate lasting freedom. It was from a combination of these ideas, including English parliamentarianism and the model of the Iroquois Confederacy, that, in 1787, the first modern democratic state was born: the United States of America. From the end of the early modern period, a number of upheavals occurred that further weakened absolutist rule, and so underpinned the rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century.
At the same time, the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society brought new social problems, at the core of which lay the status of the worker. With the end of serfdom and the demise of slavery, labour took on a new and different symbolic value from the nineteenth century onwards. Now, workers received money in exchange for selling their physical abilities or intellectual skills to an employer. And that money, in turn, could be used—insofar as it sufficed to cover everyday expenses— to pursue opportunities and, with that, freedoms. As the reins of both state and religious power loosened, the potential broadened for the introduction of a new power structure: the market economy.
With the rise of industrial capitalism, a model was launched that would both rationalize and optimize the world of labor. Its underlying tenet was to maximize profits for those who owned the means of production, and its nirvana was the unrestricted free market. The degree of economic abstraction increased apace as the financial market and the trade in stocks and shares flourished, until ever more frequent dissonances eventually culminated in the global economic crisis of 1929. In reaction to an unfettered market economy on the one hand and interventionist state policies on the other, Walter Eucken and the Freiburg School developed the concept of Ordoliberalism, which was intended to unite political and economic freedoms. Based on the experience of both the Nazi regime in Germany and Soviet communist rule, Ordoliberalism rejected complete state control of the economy, arguing that the suppression of economic freedom went hand in hand with the suppression of political freedom; and that the state should therefore provide certain regulatory frameworks, for instance to curb monopolization, without actually interfering in the economic process itself. A balance should therefore be struck between upholding social justice and supporting competition, as well as between state order and subsidiarity.[7] Ordoliberalism influenced the emergence of the social market economy as a concept which, by contrast, envisaged rather more robust forms of state-imposed control mechanisms. The social market economy that was rolled out in the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria in the 1950s aimed at cementing social security and justice, while limiting unfettered capitalism yet lending it stability at the same time. In 2009, the aim of promoting social progress through economic achievement was formalised by the European Union in the Treaty of Lisbon.
When the so-called Eastern Bloc evolved into a group of states with democratic structures from the late 1980s onwards, it seemed as though democracy and capitalism had prevailed worldwide as parallel and mutually beneficient systems. However, against the background of globalization and the new social tensions this fomented, the relationship between market economy and democracy began to be perceived as problematic.
Yet a new undercurrent seemed to be gaining momentum in the wake of democracy: neoliberalism. If it is viewed, as Wendy L. Brown puts it, as “much more than a set of economic policies, an ideology, or the resetting of the relations between the state and the economy” but rather as a process that “transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor according to a specific image of the economic”[8] and consequently as a restructuring of our very way of thinking, then it can indeed be regarded as a serious challenge to democracy.
When we, as individuals, subject ourselves to the logic of the market economy, measuring ourselves solely in relation to our efficiency in optimising productivity, and thus defining the individual in terms of human capital operating only as a self-contained enterprise looking to gain a competitive advantage, then the question arises as to whether and to what extent that view might actually prove detrimental to libertarian democracy. Will our lives become more free if the rules that govern our political cohabitation are dismantled for the benefit of the market economy? Colin Crouch, for one, subsumes, under the epithet “post-democracy,”[9] the phenomena that he believes indicate a trend towards “deliberate democracy”: whereas nation states may be relatively slow-moving entities, the market economy can respond flexibly to external influences and thus put pressure on governments. This increases the influence of the (business) elite on state decisions, while the participatory possibilities for citizens are increasingly restricted to the ballot box, with debates being staged only for a few select topics.
This brief historical outline of freedom highlights a concept shaped by alternating counterpoints. Even in classical antiquity, the polis was founded on a notion of freedom in relation to equality, and economic equality in relation to political equality. In religion, there was a split between body and mind/spirit, with physical self-discipline being the prerequisite for the only possible attainable form of freedom, namely spiritual freedom. The Enlightenment, in turn, placed logical thinking above spiritual faith, promoting knowledge as the prime instrument of emancipation from tutelage. Hand in hand with this evolution came the democratic tendencies that countered the freedom of the individual citizen by means of new state control mechanisms. The serf became the employee, and liberty became a commodity to be bartered: labour was henceforth provided in exchange for money, money in exchange for freedom, and vice versa. Striving for monetary gain bolstered the rise of capitalism, which, in turn, led to the state restricting the freedom of the economically active subject. The increasing complexity and abstraction of the economy due to financial and stock market speculation, combined with the erosion of state control mechanisms, culminated in the complete collapse of the global economy, resulting in more stringent and restrictive regulations and efforts to bring these into line with ideas of social justice. Whereas, in the 1990s, the overwhelming view was that there could be no viable alternative to democratic government in conjunction with the market economy, increasing globalisation led to an upsurge of friction between the two. From here on in, the idea of neoliberalism took hold as a new leitbild, dismantling many hard-won and by then unquestioningly accepted freedoms, and thus gradually undermining democracy.
It is against this backdrop that the exhibition addresses The Value of Freedom. Like the topic itself, the exhibition involves a complex field of interconnected and co-dependent relationships. By way of multiple overlapping areas and cross-referencing narratives, it seeks to approach the topic from a number of different angles.
One central part of the exhibition is devoted to the question of what freedom actually means. Is freedom a question of liberty straddling the threshold between nature and culture (Alexander Kluge in conversation with Christoph Menke), or is freedom merely a game that is made interesting due to the regulations and resistances it encounters (Simon Dybbroe Møller)? Can individuals cope with freedom by themselves or do they need rules to guide them (Artur Żmijewski)? Can constraints also be objects of desire (Lars Laumann)? Is the slave ever ultimately freed at all (Kara Walker)? What do monuments to liberty symbolize, how do we perceive them, and what effect do they have on us (Dara Birnbaum, Luiza Margan)?
Another part of the exhibition explores democracy and forms of state governance that determine the structures of our coexistence. It asks what democracy actually is and what it could be (Oliver Ressler), analyzes the choreography and construction of public life (Christodoulos Panayiotou), encourages public speech (Carola Dertnig) and calls for love to replace fear at the heart of politics (Johan Grimonprez). The public space, which is as much a mirror image of politics as it is of often disparate individual needs, is addressed in another series of works. By means of “defensive architecture”[10] and prohibitions, not only is unwanted usage impeded, but specific actions, and the groups associated with them, are also banned from the public eye (Šejla Kamerić, Nina Könnemann). At the same time, the public space is the arena of potential (Milica Tomić) and actual violence (Teresa Margolles) that allows subjective feelings of safety to become a determining factor in politics. In order to ensure public safety and order and maintain its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (“monopoly on violence”), the state has at its disposal a control system with a quality and quantity of tools that can be deployed as an expression of the relationship between state interests and individual needs. Crowds are controlled (Eva Grubinger), the individual is checked (Aernout Mik), communications are surveilled (Trevor Paglen, Julian Oliver) and content is censored (Betty Tompkins).
Today, control of information is a key factor in wielding power. Whoever knows what information is relevant to which publics and what channels are most pertinent to the distribution of information that can influence people’s views is also able to target and massage majority opinion in order to push a specific political agenda. So the statistical knowledge held by those who operate online search engines and social media platforms is now pitted against the confusion and lack of orientation experienced by their users, resulting in part through their alienation from established media (Karin Ferrari, John Gerrard, Anna Meyer). All the while, think-tanks lobby in the shadows for their own ideas and interests (Andreas Siekmann), leading to an increased collective sense of the asymmetrical distribution of information in the field of political decision-making. This feeling of exclusion from the political process, in turn, generates activism that questions public portrayals and produces public expressions of criticism (Forensic Oceanography, Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, Igor Grubić, Hiwa K, Laibach).
A wide range of other works further underlines the fact that freedom is a fragile commodity. Insecurity is fuelled by increasing complexity, contradictions, and ever more rapid change (The Centre for Postnormal Policy & Future Studies), prompting calls for a stronger state, with fear as a social leitmotif (Christoph Schlingensief). Corruption, on the other hand, leads to a gradual disintegration of democracy (Superflex). With the dissolution of the strength of the law, we find ourselves confronted by the law of the strongest (Lola Gonzàlez) or the prospect of absolute freedom (Hannes Zebedin), depending on viewpoint. That is contrasted by utopian drafts (Jordi Colomer, Eva Stefani, Anna Witt), an escape into the self, into a dreamlike reality (Johannes Gierlinger) or the quest for counter-worlds (Tobias Zielony).
Freedom is also an issue in processes of subjectification, in which the individual is allocated a position within a social structure and thereby becomes a subject. Such a process not only changes the perception of the self, but also defines the sphere of action available to the subject (Stephen Willats). Yet the individual also wants to be perceived as the subject with which he or she identifies (Zbyněk Baladrán, Kostis Velonis) not only in order to be represented appropriately within society, but also in order to be able to appropriate the sphere of action they wish to pursue for themselves. While heteronormative gender roles and identities are individually constructed (Matthias Noggler, Josip Novosel, Ashley Hans Scheirl, Philipp Timischl), there are also groups that are formed according to cultural, ethical, social and sexual denominators (Leon Kahane), which, in the struggle for social recognition and rights (Isabella Celeste Maund, Marlene Haring) sometimes not only exclude people to varying degrees from their own communities (if they do not fulfil certain characteristic expectations) but even deny them the right to speak up for the communities’ interests (Lili Reynaud-Dewar).
Aside from any sense of belonging in terms of gender, ethnicity and social demography, work is also a factor that bestows identity. In contrast to the Christian notion of physical self-discipline as opposed to freedom of spirit through faith, the body today is honed in the gym in a bid to enhance longevity while working time is sacrificed in order to acquire short-term freedoms in exchange for money. It seems reasonable to pursue a work/life balance when the rationalization of labor processes and the organization of human capital (Harun Farocki) are regarded as the benchmark by which our private lives are measured (Amalia Ulman). Just as our smartphones can calibrate each step of our daily walk to the office, so too is every facet of selfhood measured and compared in a competitive way. But what is to be gained from such competition? Is there a prize for individual efficiency? Or does society have to pay the price? At any rate, the maxim of productivity (Pilvi Takala) does not appear to be negotiable.
And so the exhibition weaves a tapestry of contrasting dependencies and interactions between individuals and society, democracy and economy, work and leisure, body and mind, nature and culture. Freedom, in essence, turns out to be a relational concept. Those who have more money than others also have more power and, with that, more freedom. But does freedom even exist at all without a distinction from the “other”?
The freedom of the individual begins, in any case, with the individual becoming a subject emancipated from natural drives and instincts. This is a process of parental upbringing “in which the emotional unity of freedom and control within the symbiotic relationship gradually evolves into an awareness of freedom and control.”[11] We spend our lives trying to regain this combination of freedom and control that we once experienced as an expression of love. But in order to regain it, we need opposite poles. The movement between these poles, the process of self-emancipation, is what we experience as freedom—in other words, it is a process rather than a state.
Our entire human existence is accompanied by the experience of shifting between the two poles of nature and culture.[12] It is only in the space between these two that we recognize the difference that leads us to grasp what it is that we determine as freedom at certain junctures in our lives.


[1] The word “democracy” derives from the Ancient Greek “dēmos” (people) combined with “kratós” (rule).
[2] Plato, “The Republic” [Politeia], Book VIII (557a)
[3] Pseudo-Plato, “Definitions”, 412 d 1.
[4] Markus Metz / Georg Seeßlen, “Freiheit und Kontrolle”, Berlin 2017 (e-book), chapter “Der Christenmensch und seine Freiheit”.
[5] Immanuel Kant, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, [German original: “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? ”], chapter 1, opening sentence.
[6] Charles Montesquieu, “The Spirit of the Laws”, [French original: “De l’esprit des lois”], Geneva 1748.
[7] The principle of subsidiarity is based on the premise that a central authority should have only a subsidiary function and that tasks should therefore be performed at the most local level, for instance by the individual. Only when problems cannot be solved at one level should there be any intervention from the next level above, which should provide support to the lower level in order that it might assist itself.
[8] Wendy Brown, “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution”, New York 2015, pp. 9–10.
[9] Colin Crouch, “Post-democracy”, Cambridge (UK) and Malden/MA (USA), 2004.
[10] Defensive architecture discourages certain uses of mostly public space, such as designing park benches so that they cannot be used to sleep on, or designing shop fronts to discourage loitering. This reduces the public visibility of unwanted groups such as the homeless or drug addicts.
[11] Metz/Seeßlen 2017 (see note 4, chapter “Ach, die Gefühle, oder Wie Freiheit zur Produktivkraft wird“).
[12] “It starts with us acquiring the ability, with the help of others, to free ourselves from base natural drives … . The world that has accorded us distance from these natural drives immediately enslaves us again … . By loitering on the threshold between first and second nature, we can form an analysis of this … . Emancipation only brings happiness the second time around.” Christoph Menke in conversation with Alexander Kluge, “Freiheit glückt beim zweiten Mal” [Freedom succeeds the second time around], in “10 vor 11”, dctp.tv, broadcast on 21.11.2016 (translated here from the German).


Exhibition catalogue:
The Value of Freedom
Edited by Stella Rollig and Severin Dünser
Including Texts by Severin Dünser, C Scott Jordan, Oliver Marchart, Elżbieta Matynia and Stella Rolling
Graphic design by grafisches Büro,, Vienna
Hardcover, 22 × 30.5 cm, 160 pages, 262 illustrations
Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna, 2018
ISBN 978-3-903114-63-0


Quick tour through the show (Video)