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shipwreck


Just Merit

Born 8 October 1963, died 22 January 2001 from kidney cancer

Just's attitude to biographies was somewhere between fictions and "es geht di' nichts an!" (approx translation, "get fucked!") but in order to reduce the chances of people getting it wrong, here are some basics. And some namedropping, because Just _always_ worked with other people.

Worked with the group "Assozierte Produzenten" based in Linz, their show "Strasse der Sehnsucht" (Street of Desire) at the Ars Electronica in 1986 was a compressed city. Breaking down the show Just was blown off a scaffolding trying to stop a sheet of aluminium landing on a colleague below him. Worked with Wolfgang Lehner, Istvan Nagy, Kurt Holzinger and Peter Donke.

Las Vegas, rehabilitation, random gigs singing Elvis Presley songs on street corners, passing out money from a cup to passers by, organising B-grade films, meeting Matt and a bunch of people who remained friends in San Francisco.

Krueppelschlag, 1989-1992, trash rock band and more. Band members included Gabi Kepplinger, Peter Donke, Horst and Petl. Several releases. Project "Gyroscope" at Ars Electronica 91, XXX Festival Amsterdam, several places in the USA, UK. Close involvement with STWST TV. 7inch12 record label with Fadi Dorninger.

Contained 1992-1996. Steel, machines, recycling, active relationship to the workers in the steelmill Voest Alpine. Projects Maschinenkampf, Wochenschau and Rearviewmirror stand out. Worked with Leo Schatzl, Martin Reiter, Matt Heckert, Franz Xaver, Rudi Heidebrecht, Tina Auer, Manuel Schilcher, Gordon W, Christian Staudinger, Chip Flynn, John Duncan, Chico McMurtrie, Laura Kikauka, Todd Blair, Linda Nilsson, Alex Zuljevic, Tom Teibler, Liz Young, Jim Whiting, Sam Auinger, Marc 9, Tatjana Didenko, Tim Boykett, Gordon Monahan, Attwenger, and who knows who else.

Time's Up 1996-. Crossing from media through haptic body work, environments that get people out of what they expect. Hyperfitness Studio, several CDs, books, videos. Last production SPIN, a literally immersive virtual reality / real virtuality experience. Worked with Lois Wohlmuther, Tina Auer, Alex Barth, Tim Boykett, Matt Heckert, Marc 9, David Moises, Andy Strauss, Bert Zettelmeyer, Gerd Trautner, Anatol Bogendorfer, Martin Greunz, Andy Mayrhofer as well as John Duncan, Triclops, Nic Baginsky, Staalplaat and many others.

Linzer Freies Szene 1999-. Main formulator and agitator with Gabi Kepplinger, Wolfgang Preisinger and Georg Ritter, working to ensure that the independent scene would not get ignored or swallowed up in the plans for the Linz cultural development plan.



Below are three public comments about Just. The shipwreck symbol is based upon Time's Up's maritime connection as well as Just's intense distrust of Catholic imagery.



Subject: just left

Just Merit is Dead.

Just Merit, the artist from Linz/Austria, died of cancer earlier this week. Just had been working as one of the pre-eminent international machine artists since the 1980's and was the driving force behind projects like Contained (in the Voest steel factory) and Time's Up (based in Linz harbour - www.timesup.org).

Just's creativity, energy and enthusiasm were an inspiration not only for the people who worked closely with him, but also to the visitors of the shows and art projects he participated in, as well as to the international electronic art community. Strange physical experiences, the limitations of the human body, the pleasure of working with machines and having fun with people - all these were characteristics of his rich artistic life.

The world is a poorer place without him. However, heaven will be a better place, and I am sure that Just is going to prepare a few wild machinations and biomechanical concoctions for those of us who join him.

Sad greetings to those who were closest to him.

Andreas Broeckmann



BLADE RUNNER

Just Merit, who died on January 22 from cancer-related complications, was the raffish, real-life embodiment of William Gibson's techno-bricoleurs-a wheelchair-bound machine artist (Just hated the term "artist"!) who reanimated the detritus of industrial culture to savagely funny, often subversive, effect.

An Ars Electronica 1996 catalogue bio (badly in need of linguistic debugging) described the Austrian artist's work as "fanning conceptual sparks" into philosophical firestorms. "Using tools of noise [with the group Krueppelschlag] and mechanical sculpture (Gyroscope)," the writer noted, "[Merit] attempts to track down the traces of human bio-mechanical dependencies." 

Located in Linz, Austria, in the moribund Voest Alpine steelworks (formerly the Hermann Goering Ironworks, a major producer of armaments for the Third Reich), Just's studio-cum-installation, Contained, was both work and workshop, a grungy memorial to the passing of the machine age and a delivery room for hopeful monsters-wondrous additions to the machinic phylum. In an online essay <timesup.servus.at/contained/Domsich.html>, the critic Johannes Domisch likens Just's "hodgepodge/museum" to "a replacement-parts depot of modernism, a genetic data bank of a post-constructivism never consistently carried out. 

[Merit] administers fragments whose charm lies in their lack of function..." In the artist's own words Contained was "a conglomeration of adventurous ideas, carved out with passionate obsession in the heart of a steelworks, mostly due to me but never borne forward by me alone. For 54 months, this construction of man and material (with considerable wear and tear on both) grew rampant like a malignant tumor at a location which I, bourgeois junior high school boy that I was, took to be at a maximum distance from my family home and my origins." In short, Contained was "the place where life could be felt most directly"-a one-line manifesto reminiscent, ironically, of the Viennese aktionists' desire to resurrect a pre-civilized kinship with the corporeal (blood, death, earth), or of Joseph Beuys' attempts to create an elemental language of fur, fat, and primal muck.

In the mid-'90s, Just moved his base of operations from the Voest ironworks to its current location on the Danube, near the Linz harbor. There, he, Tina Auer, and Tim Boykett founded Time's Up <www.timesup.org>, a "laboratory for the creation of experimental situations." The organization's modus operandi, pithily stated on its website, is the short, sharp shock, intended to spark "mindshaping discourse"; Time's Up makes no apologies for "charging the barriers of brain damage." Art as electroconvulsive therapy for unsuspecting bobos.

According to the artist John Duncan, the group will continue to administer corrective jolts to the docile and the dozing. "Only hours after the funeral, new plans were being made," he wrote, in a recent e-mail. "Ideas for new projects and practical suggestions of how to implement them were out on the table and under discussion. Which is probably exactly what Just would have wanted." Tim Boykett adds, "Although we will miss Just sorely, we have all learned so much from him that it would be a slap in the face for us to drop any part of the project. One of Just's ongoing concerns was assisting people in hammering their ideas out and helping them get their ideas happening. There [were] simply so many things that he was involved in, and continues to be involved in as he whispers in my ear. And he never forgot to (at least) nibble the hand that feeds."

I spent an inspiring evening with Just at Ars Electronica '96, in Linz. He, like Jim Whiting, Chip Flynn, Liz Young, and the rest of the all-star cast of amok tinkerers at that year's Ars, had been banished to the suitably gothic ruins of Voest---for fear, presumably, that their grease-monkey machine art would soil the Armaniwear of the artistocracy, not to mention the prospective corporate underwriters power-lunching at the festival's main hall. Lit by the welding torches of other artists working out the last-minute kinks in their contraptions, Just held forth from his wheelchair, effusing about the works-in-progress and surveying the infernal machines around him with something like paternal pride. Nearby, in the functional part of the steelworks, a colossal crane shuttled back and forth on tracks, a Jurassic Park survivor of the days when heavy industry ruled the earth. Soon, the blue-black stormclouds massing ominously overhead opened their bomb bay doors, sending everyone running for cover. Bit rot has gotten the best of my memories of that day, but I have a blurry (perhaps wishful?) image of Just wheeling himself to shelter, beatific in the midst of the downpour.

Just's contribution to Ars '96 (a collaboration with Sam Auinger and Rudolf Heidebrecht) was a propeller equipped with an electric motor and two antique loudspeakers. The motors' struggles against the wind spinning the propeller were converted into acoustic signals and transmitted through the old loudspeakers, artifacts of propaganda campaigns. Located on the site that was slated, in Hitler's dreams, for a future Museum of German Electrical Engineering, Just's installation was, in the words of the Ars catalogue, "a kind of anti-propaganda." It was also a gloriously noisy monument to the slacker hacker ethos---the post-industrial article of faith that work sucks, play rules, and what the world needs now is more pointless, profitless basement tinkering that flips an index finger at revenue streams and return-on-investment.

The San Francisco-based machine artist Matt Heckert, who participated in Ars '96, remembers, "I've never met anyone like Just. We first came into contact in 1988. He came over to my place [in San Francisco], we talked for a while, and the next day he asked me if I would make some aluminum wing/blades thatwould spring out from the wheels on his chair, 'Ya know, like the ones on the chariots in BEN HUR.' At that moment, I realized I was with a different sort of person."

Heckert made the blades, mounting them on spring hinges so that Just "could pull a lever and they would spring into position." In another, equally BLADE RUNNER customization, Heckert attached blades from a small hedge-trimmer toone side of Just's wheelchair and grafted a frame from an automatic pistol onto the other side. "He was very put off by people pushing his chair without asking him first, which frequently happened in public places such as airports," notes Heckert. "He wanted them to have to think about what they were doing." Wheelchair activists take heed: This is empowerment-with teeth. Just's visit to Heckert's workshop turned into a one-stop shopping spree. He rounded out his order with the purchase of one of Heckert's hand-held flame-throwers. "Why would anyone want a hand-held flame-thrower?," wonders Heckert. "I only asked him to assure me he wouldn't maim anyone with it and that that wasn't his intention. He did end up using it on stage when performing with Krueppelschlag."

A wry critic of our born-again faith in technology, Just celebrated breakdowns and runaways, uselessness and obsolescence. In so doing, he held a lit match to the overblown gas-bag of cyberhype, reminding us that even machines ail, fail, and ultimately grow old and die. Even so, he was no nihilist: His was an iconoclasm with heart---a kinder, gentler irony, in the spirit of Bruno Munari's useless gadgets or Jean Tinguely's suicidal devices. A poet of the Rust-Belt Sublime, he made us see that dead machines and decaying steelworks are the perfumed ruins of our age. He found his own uses for things.

- Mark Dery <markdery@mindspring.com> is a cultural critic.



Dear Mark,

Your eulogy of Just Merit was very much appreciated. His illness caught everyone by surprise, including his doctors. It was good to know that he didn't suffer very long. It was great to find out that Just's character had changed, from the cynicism that was always present as an undercurrent in his earlier work, into a genuine will to be alive, to get the most from each moment -- as well as to relax and accept things, let them develop at their own pace. According to everyone around him during these last months, Just had made peace with himself.

It was difficult to concentrate on a computer screen last Friday, or on much else for that matter, apart from trying to find roadsigns to the village where Just had grown up, in order to attend the catholic mass his father had insisted on. Pews crammed too tightly together. Church interior several degrees colder than the drizzling winter rain outside. If you understand German, then perhaps you'd have understood from his remarks that the priest had absolutely no idea of who Just had been or what he'd accomplished in such a remarkably short time. This entire ceremony, the procession on foot through the village behind local marching band, and the one later on in the cemetery (again with the band, who played three numbers before marching off to their next gig at the inauguration of a shoe store), couldn't have been more antithetical to Just's aesthetic -- with the welcome exception of a friend's tuba solo from the church choirloft, which was openly frowned upon by the church staff. 

At the cemetery I started thinking that somehow Just may well have had a hand in setting this up after all: playing an elaborately subtle joke on all of us, letting his father make these surreal gestures to his neighbors, bringing the rest of us out to get a taste of what he'd escaped from, smiling at us all standing in line waiting to toss a hand trowel full of garden soil down onto that wood box. Then the grounds crew took over, unceremoniously clearing off the ropes and planks, driving a small bobcat in to transfer the real soil -- gray clay -- back into the hole. Watching the operator's moves with the scoop arm brought back a sense of balance; easy to imagine that Just would have admired his skill.

It will be interesting to see how Time's Up will develop. It was impressive to see the range and number of projects that Time's Up has made happen in a frew short years. The publications, photos, documents and other detritus from them is everywhere, in boxes, on shelves, on the walls, under every computer mouse. At this point it's clear that everyone involved is prepared to give the energy and focus to continue. Only hours after the funeral new plans were being made, ideas for new projects and practical suggestions of how to implement them were out on the table and under discussion. Which is probably exactly what Just would have wanted to see happening.

Best wishes,

John Duncan