occupy who?

alexander forbes on the 7th berlin biennale

Reviewing “Before the Law: Post-War Sculptures and Spaces of Contemporary Art” at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig in Artforum’s April issue, Diedrich Diederichsen asks, “What sorts of feelings or moods should political art, or even any sort of serious art, engage with today?” In the little over a week since the 7th Berlin Biennale opened, such a question seems ever more important to ask. But, one also must go further: by what token can politics be construed as art other than through rhetoric?

While the post-war and more recent artists in the Ludwig’s exhibition bring politics into conversation through eliciting an aesthetic response, what one sees at the Kunst Werke and the Biennale’s other sites, with certain few exceptions, is the abandoning of aesthetics in exchange for an “art exhibition” held on tables, more reminiscent of a community organising rally. In a post-studio world, such a statement may seem anachronistic at best. A master of such practices, Liam Gillick says in his essay, “The Good of Work”: “Art is not a zone of autonomy […] Art is a series of scenarios/presentations that creates new spaces for thought and critical speculation.” Clearly, Artur Zmijewski had something of this in mind in his curation of the Biennale.

What must be kept at the forefront of such efforts, however is, while art may not be autonomous whatsoever—a statement of which I’m not yet wholly convinced—that does not open any action to be codified as artistic. Go up to some protestors and rioters on May 1 and ask if their action is art; you’d likely not get a friendly response. So then, what makes the Biennale’s political actions any different? Is it that they’ve been put in a headlining exhibition? And, if yes, is not that very fact a simple “yuppyisation,” or perhaps worse, institutionalisation of protest? Has it been so long since mid-century theory that we’ve forgotten that the sanctioning of action and that action’s subversive potential are in polar inversion to one another?

Though a British journalist’s exclamation at the Biennale’s press conference, “I see a group of people being self indulgent… I don’t see these individuals as artists,” was cast down as something of a backwards view to the Occupy and other protest movements that made up the exhibition, he really has a point. Within an art context, and the context of a state funded institution, the exercise, and the individuals themselves, do come off as self indulgent. There is an elementary school science fair quality to the exhibition, an “Ooh, come look at my protest project that’s bigger and better than that other one sitting next to you.”

Leaving aside the biennale’s express presentations, as an institutionalised representation of Berlin it is further problematic. While protest and radical politics have important histories here with legacies still to unfold, this biennale’s orientation presents them in a way that looks and feels haphazard. At a time when Berlin is at somewhat of a tipping point, trying to teeter over and fall on the side of wide acceptance as a legitimate art capital the likes of New York, London, or Los Angeles, we have perpetuated stereotypes. Yes, there is a luxury of experimentation and non-traditional exhibition making in this city. But, that luxury is ever more being taken over by the reality of the city’s growth, to the point where this exhibition fails to even be representative of Berlin’s contemporary pulse.

When you hear more from the week’s international attendees about how incredibly well one can now eat in Berlin than about the exhibition they came to see, there is a problem. But perhaps that also demonstrates what was expected and what should have happened here last week. Maybe it’s time for the city to shake off the embarrassment of its new face—something that is wholly internally imposed—and put itself forward as it is. Rather than perpetuating its existence as a side discourse, marginally relevant and on the margins, the Biennale and the city at large need to accept that they have grown up and show off the work and various other facets that do indeed put them on a world scale.

In the end, it comes down to execution. The projects presented are worthy to be included in some capacity, of course some more than others. But, why, rather than giving the entirety of the Biennale over to such “works,” make them one side location within the Biennale’s network? Why not fill the KW with artworks, in a more traditional sense, that are also engaging with the themes presented in the expressly political projects? Perhaps then, those non-visual projects would also become more artistically received by creating an opposition of studio and post-studio contemplations on politics. That would be interesting. Why not have Voina—the much-hyped Russian art collective—enact their associate curatorship not just through absence but through action in spite of that absence? It comes off as lazy, something all too often said about the city itself.

by Alexander Forbes

[Image: Inside the 7th Berlin Biennale]