Responding to the double onslaught of the austerity measures forced upon Greece by the Troika (the European Commission, the ECB, and the IMF), and the invasion of the supreme European art institution, the German funded Documenta 14, equally learning and earning from Athens, the Athens Biennale of 2015–17 tried—in vain, as it turned out—to reform itself and its political forms and functions into what then curator Massimiliano Mollona termed an artless biennale, consisting not of artworks in an exhibition, but rather of discursive public events and community based workshops and projects. During one of these events, a discussion on the use value and politics of biennales themselves among various practitioners, including curators such as this author, a somewhat heated exchange ensued, when the renowned curator and theorist Nicolas Bourriaud categorically stated that “there cannot be and should not be any connection between biennales of art and social movements.” Rather than direct alignments with social and political movements, Bourriaud posited, paraphrasing Jean-Luc Godard, the politics of art as always being between one image and the next, and one sound and the next (neatly forgetting, though, that Godard also added that control over the apparatuses of film production and circulation was crucial for thinking film politically, hence his move to video from film in the 1970s).
Needless to say, this was a somewhat provocative statement in the context of a biennale that tried precisely to establish such connections between art and the social, and delivered by one of the biennale’s former curators, no less! Now, as is well known, Bourriaud’s writings on art—specifically his notion of relational aesthetics—have been highly criticized for their inherent neoliberal politics, so need not be reiterated here, rather my aim will be to understand the politics of curating as stated by an international star curator. It is a position to oppose, surely, but also one that is, in my view, actually untenable in the current cultural and political landscape, and how this conditions contemporary art. First of all, two things are indicated in this statement: if the politics of art only lies between images, one may want to ask from where these images originate if not in social production, and furthermore if they remain within an isolated circulation of art and its spaces? I would argue that the production of images does not only refer to other images, but also to ways of living with images, and thus social forms. And it deals with subjects and subject matter, both in terms of being producer through subjectivity and producing subjectivity. Images cannot be exclusive from their circulation, interpretation, and use, and are as such always already social; but of course, one can insist on exclusivity, and disregard how images circulate and produce identities.
Moreover, there is a demand made on the institution of art itself in Bourriaud’s comment, in terms of its conception of a public as a community and constituency, in the sense that it should not have any alignment with social movements. The question here is, then, which publics and subjects—politically as well as aesthetically—exhibitions of art are then addressing and/or representing? This is indeed a curatorial and political choice, and attests to a chasm among practitioners and curators, and in terms of our mode of address and political alignments, and is thus highly instructive in thinking about forms of resilience in contemporary cultural production, and what we are up against within the so-called art world as much as outside of it. Technically speaking, there is no public as such, but only something named as a public, brought into being, however fleetingly, by the mode of address itself, as Michael Warner has so brilliantly observed. As practitioners, we imagine and try to produce our pubic, and our aesthetic forms are thus also our political and social forms, both in terms of exhibition making and institution building. There is always an addressee, and our choices and attempts at alignments are: if we do not want to connect with social movements, whom are we addressing? Whom are we fighting for (if we are indeed putting up a fight, that is)?
I do agree with Bourriaud on one implication, which is that the 1 percent can probably not be designated a social movement, but maybe as an anti-social movement—which brings me to my second concern, which has to do with not just our disagreement, but also why this traditional notion of an exhibition such as the international biennale will not be sustainable in the future as well as in the present. Ironically, this is not about cultural politics or the politics of culture per se, but rather has to do with the culturalization of politics on a global scale, in terms of new nationalism, right-wing populism, and economic deglobalization. All across the globe, we are now witnessing a reaction to globalism in the form of rejection, xenophobia, and anti-internationalism in the form of the march and success of the populist right, and its preference for autocratic and toxic alpha-males (Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Duterte, Johnson, Modi, Netanyahu, Orbán, Putin, and Trump). What these leaders and their followers share, among other things, is a hostile takeover of the identity politics so long favored by the Left, and an outspoken disdain for the very liberal and humanist values of contemporary art and its permissiveness, preferring instead a political agenda of so-called illiberal democracy, to use Orbán’s truly bone-chilling term. It should also be noted that their policies are a response to the economic effects of neoliberal deregulation and global trade in favor of protectionism and neonationalism, which has systemic consequences for the international system of biennales and art fairs that can now be understood historically as the cultural logic of globalization, representing and advancing neoliberal globalization. How will the political changes, openly hostile to contemporary art and all its values as they are now, affect the production, distribution, and sustainability of the art world-system? One thing that is clear is that a centrist response, and an appeal to remain within neoliberal globalization and its uneven geographical development, will not be enough—the center cannot hold, and we thus need to consider more resilient practices and strategies, including our social and political alignments, and cultural producers and art workers. To turn a phrase, site-specificity is not enough: we must move towards fight specificity, as once suggested by the Isola Art Center in Milan in response to the relation between art, urban form, and gentrification. We need, then, to think not only of space as antagonistic, although this is crucial when thinking about art institutions and their public role, but also to think of our practice as involved in particular struggles: what we are fighting for as well as against.
...the gathering and self-organization of people, as a people, if not the people.
Now, let us draw a diagonal line across Europe, from crisis-prone Greece, to the fossil-fuel-subsidized welfare state of Norway and its western city, Bergen, where an experiment with triennial form, the Bergen Assembly, is now in its third edition. As the name indicates, this is an attempt to change the mode of address of the international biennial format, with its circulation of the contemporary, into something that is also a political form of gathering, mostly associated with grassroots politics, particularly after the rise and fall of the Occupy movement and its close relations to the cultural sphere, and especially cultural producers. This, in itself, creates an inbuilt contradiction: namely, how can an institution of art—established by government and renowned professionals from the art world—become an assembly, which is usually understood to be transient rather than solid and recurring, and, crucially, emerging from the ground up, from the gathering and self-organization of people, as a people, if not the people? As formulated by Judith Butler:
Popular assemblies form unexpectedly and dissolve under voluntary or involuntary conditions, and this transience is, I would suggest, bound up with their “critical” function. As much as collective expressions of the popular will can call into question the legitimacy of a government that claims to represent the people, they can also lose themselves in the forms of government that they support and institute.
..."conditions for acting together are devastated or falling away"...
Any institutional form that tries to facilitate such democratic forms, including institutions of art, could do well by carefully heeding these cautionary words. On the one hand, it is clear that any instituting from top down, and that deals in audiences and publics, cannot be assemblies proper, while, on the other hand, as Butler goes on to observe, the very “conditions for acting together are devastated or falling away,” so could perhaps the solid foundations of the art triennial offer precisely the kind of support structure popular assemblies need in our times of increasingly de-democratized democracies in the former West and beyond? If, strictly speaking, an art event is not yet an assembly, and maybe never can be, or never should be, depending on your politics of aesthetics, it can certainly implement a different encounter with the artwork, and with the ideas and methods of contemporary art and theory. Convened by Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler, we worked on a project about life, the right to life, and on voicing the muted, under the title Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead.One of the approaches was, simply, to have not just an exhibition and an adjacent public programme, but also to open a space, Belgin, in the middle of the city that would not only host various workshops, performances, and events, but also be open, free of hire, for social and political groups working in the city, as a way for the institution to contribute to the place rather than only detract content, context, and value from it, and instead offer a place for people to actually assemble. Belgin also hosted Paul B. Preciado and Victor Neumann’s ongoing performative and political platform, the Parliament of Bodies, originally founded during Documenta 14, in Athens, in response to the failings of representative democracy, and instead positing a parliament of living bodies for those who lack representation within the nation state and the normative body. In this way, several modes of address and encounters with art and its ideas can take place in parallel, in concert, and in conflict: the space of art can provide representation in multiple ways. To simplify, it offers a place to see, and thus imagine, and it offers a place to meet, and thus imagine.
The setting up of such a space also allowed for the experimentation with a curatorial method that could temporally and contextually switch the encounter with the artwork to a place and time before rather than only after and perhaps during the exhibition itself. This method was used across a number of new commissions, such as the Mycological Twist’s work with gaming and trolling, and the Capital Drawing Group’s close reading and drawings of chapters from Marx’s Capital. As processes, these new works were not social artworks in the sense of representing specific communities, but rather made in dialogue and in discussion with a variety of communities, in order to embed the work in the context and fabric of the city, but also in order to strengthen the works themselves, allowing for different comptencies and knowledges to influence each other, also when they do not end in resolution, consensus, and agreement. A work that is rarely received in any consensual way is Banu Cennetoğlu’s continuous collaboration with the anti-racist organization UNITED for Intercultural Action, The List, which uses the conceptual thinking in art and the resources of art’s institutions to produce and distribute an updated list of the many casualties of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants trying to cross the borders into Europe, and by naming, when possible, and listing cause of death, when possible, tries to counter the current necropolitics of Fortress Europe and its violent border regimes. The project has been disseminating in a number of cities, using billboards and newspapers, and thus the historical forms of the bourgeois public sphere. For the Bergen Assembly 2019, the list was published in the local tabloid newspaper Bergensavisen [Bergen’s paper], to a fairly muted response. What did gain a lot of publicity, though, was the Nordic Media Festival held in Bergen in May 2019, and organized by national television and a number of Bergen-based news media, such as the aforementioned daily. Despite the protestations of the Bergen Assembly and many practitioners in Norway demanding that the invitation to Bannon be withdrawn, the festival proudly promoted one Steve Bannon as one of its keynote speakers, and publicly celebrated how this would be the main draw…. It is hard to decide which is the greater injury—the cynical celebration of commercialism in media, or letting media be a complicit vehicle for the fake news of white supremacism, but this should remind us of not only the difficulties, but also the absolute need for art production and institutions to be, and become, much more resilient, and also responsible in terms of how we simultaneously address and represent. Representation is never full and always asymmetrical, but it does not simply show someone or something, it produces the horizon of the possible and the impossible, so our task is to decide not what we are fighting for, but also whom we are fighting for, with, and against.