Dubbed “The Occupy Biennial,” the 7th Berlin Biennale (held between April and July of 2012 in Berlin, Germany) is perhaps the most important recent international art event devoted to activist art. It defied the existing format of the international biennale by featuring a functional encampment in the large open space on the ground floor of the main venue at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art. The curators invited Occupy activists from around the world to live in the space throughout the run of the exhibition and gave them support to work together, share ideas, utilize the official website, interact with local activists and intellectuals, and engage the public at large. Visitors walked through a space set up by the activists on their way to surveying the exhibited art in the floors above. In a provocative and unprecedented way, the curators merged political activists and political art in a high profile, “high art” biennial context to provoke the essential questions: “Does contemporary art have any visible social impact? Can the effects of an artist’s work be seen and verified? Does art have any political significance?”[i] The 7th Berlin Biennial, despite its imperfections and nullifications, succeeded in accomplishing an “essential disclosure” – a clearing, an unconcealment, a jutting out into the world (to use Heideggarian terminology)[ii] – that exposes not only the mechanisms of biennials, but also those of political and social activism in the age of Occupy.
To say that the 7th Berlin Biennale is worth considering as historically significant is not to overlook the fact that at first sight and on the ground level, the biennial was messy. After it opened in April 2012, German newspapers roundly panned it. They printed reviews using such phrases as “lukewarm cynicism,” “a disaster,” “deep seeded stupidity,” and “a spectacular failure in its attempt to empower the arts,” to describe the Occupy project.[iii] Art journals echoed this criticism. Even the Director of the Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, admitted: “there was not much to see.”[iv] In short, as far as its critical reception, the Berlin Biennial was a failure of aesthetics. What accounts for this? Is aesthetics even important to activist art? Even though the event was hard to decode upon initial inspection, it is interesting to consider whether or not it was a failure by design. I will argue that the failure of aesthetics at the 7th Berlin Biennale pushes for recognition of a new third space of artistic production—not in the traditional system of art, nor as a form of social critique but as a practical shaping of the world at large and a provocation to reconsider the potential for biennials.
In many ways, the decision to name Polish artist Artur Żmijewski as head curator already challenges the traditional role of aesthetics. Żmijewski represented Poland at the 51st Venice Biennale and is most famous for his controversial video projects that engage distasteful situations: the filming of naked adults playing tag in the dark basement of a former concentration camp, convincing a holocaust survivor to re-tattoo the fading number on his arm, recording a choir of deaf-mute teenagers singing Bach in church, and reenacting the Stanford prison experiment to name a few. Highly critical of the institutional practices that revolve around the administration of art objects, Żmijewski sees neo-liberal stakes for art as “purely symbolic.”[v] He questions long-held positions in aesthetics such as Theodor Adorno’s philosophical stance on commitment.[vi] He disdains the notion that the autonomous art object is “expected to perform the social and political work assigned to it, without human agency, without any work at convincing, without difference of opinion or conflict, and thus essentially without any politics.”[vii] In his manifesto Applied Social Arts, he calls for “the instrumentalization of autonomous art as a tool for obtaining and disseminating knowledge.”[viii] In the official biennial catalog, Forget Fear, the curators straightforwardly state how they want the Berlin Biennial to be different from others by stating “we present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed.”[ix] At the realized Berlin Biennale, if the autonomy of art was contested, it was not through the selection process as much as through the tension created by the exhibition itself.
Current “activist art” is temporally aligned with the recent spontaneous eruptions of popular protest movements around the world including the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of protests, demonstrations, and civil uprisings in the Arab world, Indignad@s’ protests for civil rights in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street in the U.S., holding demonstrations for economic rights, to name but a few, in over 1,000 cities around the globe. In contrast to the 2005 curator, Maurizio Cattelan, who visited 800 studios, the curators of this biennial scoured the media and used their networks to find leaders around the world engaged in “social-art-activism.” They put out an open call and received 7,500 submissions. These came from established and emerging artists, but also from activists with little or no experience in the art world. The curators no doubt were compelled to respond to Occupy, but with few of the artworks directly speaking to the worldwide financial crisis, the encampment itself became the biennial’s defining motif. More risks were taken with that radical transformation of the existing biennial format..
An example of how innovative and subversive the biennial was in its working form was at the initial press conference. All of the chairs in the room were arranged in a circle. Żmijewski gave a very short and cryptic introduction, ending with “now I turn it over to the activists.” The journalists were told that the seating arrangement was designed to eliminate hierarchies and audience members were instructed to use alternative hand signals to express agreement or disagreement or to ask to speak (common in protest culture). In a mood that was described as uncomfortable the journalists were invited to start the discussion. The young activists from Indignados and Occupy then took the floor and alternated the reading (in both German and English) of a statement of demands.[x] Art writers and reporters were puzzled about receiving these demands. It is no wonder that the initial response from the press was less than adulatory. Who is the receiver of Occupy demands out on the street? Theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have written about dematerialization of economic power in late capitalism (i.e., “there is no longer any castle to storm”),[xi] but in the context of Occupy, the “closed circle” press conference called into question the political relevance of the art world.
What if the entire biennial was a concealed performance of the ‘meeting of the worlds of politics and art?’ In my research, I found a review by Ken Johnson from the New York Times of a 2009 show of Żmijewski’s video work shown at the Museum of Modern Art in which the artist was described as “practicing a form of relational aesthetics in which ordinary people are invited to participate in artificially constructed situations as a way of revealing deep social problems.”[xii] This is an astute observation about Żmijewski’s project that helps put the Berlin Biennial in a larger context. While it is unfair to go as far as to say that the global activists were “used” since a real and not-to-be-belittled creative space was made possible, the occupiers eventually questioned their role, and even called the encampment a “human zoo.”[xiii] When I visited near the close of the exhibition, the space was nearly empty, perhaps also indicating fatigue, disinterest or even a kind of giving up.
The ground floor of the KW Institute, formally called “Global Square,” did resemble an art installation, mixing the authenticity of the protest camp that was a base of operations for many public demonstrations that happened out on the streets around the city. There was a radio station (99 percent), a newspaper, live streaming and blogging, and a packed calendar of events and workshops on topics like budgeting, financial markets, civil disobedience, sustainability, urbanism, and climate change. Graffiti, slogans, and a conglomeration of art and protest signs decorated the walls around the encampment and continued up the stairwells leading to the exhibition spaces above. Competing messages were everywhere – stop corporate greed, stop war, practice sustainability, exercise freedom. The activists felt they were “unrepresentable”:
“As people from many different countries and backgrounds, we are coming together as occupiers, indignad@s, outraged. Since the early moments of our movement, we decided to take responsibility for our lives and future. Thus, governments and corporations do not represent us. Politicians do not represent us. The media does not represent us. Individuals do not represent us. We are not representable. We believe in and practice horizontal, collaborative ways of working and developing our positions and actions.” [xiv]
As time went on, the activists tried to assert autonomy, even calling the curators “former curators.” These gestures show an awareness of the ambiguities of institutionalized protest.
But the biennial was more than temporary quarters for activists. Upstairs, and at other venues around Berlin, the biennial functioned in aesthetically traditional ways, where works created for public presentation in the context of an exhibition were shown. The architecture of the KW Institute was a limiting factor. Graffiti on the walls leading up the stairwells caused some adjoining works to lose their visual impact. The partitioned rooms on four floors prevented the kind of horizontal surveying of the different voices that was possible at the encampment. While the artworks echoed the cacophony of signs on the ground floor, their messages were different in important ways. The activist impulses on the first floor conveyed global concerns, most clearly signified by the dominant presence of Occupy as a response to the fall-out of the 2008 worldwide financial collapse. The aim was for consensus and mutual support. There was a sense that coming together would strengthen all causes. The artworks upstairs, however, as a whole, felt disjointed and strangely out of place, and rather than conveying a unifying message, their individual impact was neutralized by the juxtapositions. While the show in its entirety may be seen as a failure of aesthetics, the individual works were rewarding. The works chosen (as the curators had promised) were not simply “autonomous art objects,” but were participatory. In order to be complete, they needed social space.
Much of the work carried religious identifications or was strongly nationalistic, which gave the impression of competing interests. One artist, Miroslaw Patecki, turned a large section of the main exhibition room into a working studio where he sculpted a to-scale replica of his 2012 Christ the King statue he had just erected in a small town in Western Poland.[xv] This large head of Jesus was placed in the same space as other works that seemed disconnected. Israeli artist Yael Bartana showed the video installation …And Europe Will Be Stunned that appeared at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Here, a fictionalized Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP) has become a real entity, and the artist and others actively recruited new members at the Biennale and throughout Berlin to gain support for the movement. On the top floor of the KW Institute, there was an installation made of 320 birch seedlings taken from the Birkenau concentration camp that were to be planted around the city. However, the quiet installation was situated adjacent to Żmijewski’s Game of Tag, which called attention to curatorial choices. Other works included the Palestinian Key of Return, symbolizing the right of return for Palestinian refugees, placed in the entrance courtyard, Khaled Jarrar’s postage and passport stamps with the controversial text “State of Palestine” distributed throughout the biennial, and a large outdoor billboard by Public Movement, aimed at “rebranding European Muslims.” Also, the artistic and political organization New World Summit displayed a scale model installation in the form of flags encircling a room, calling for a proposed meeting of leading figures of terrorist organizations.[xvi]
While each of the works individually retained autonomy to provide meaningful experiences for participants, any real political agency promised seemed to be nullified in the context of the Biennale. An exhibition that is analogous to this idea is the 2011-2012 Maurizio Cattelan retrospective All at The Guggenheim in New York. The artist chose to suspend all of his work from the ceiling, making a giant mobile. That gesture effectively neutralized each work in the same way that the staging of the Berlin Biennial over the occupy encampment cancelled out the political efficacy of each piece in the face of universal activism.
As stated previously, the exhibition was far from coherent. But it began to coalesce with the juxtaposition of two video installations. The first, Breaking News, was put together by the curators and was closely related to Żmijewski’s well-known Democracy video from 2009. In a large, darkened room many screens were showing vintage video footage of protests and confrontations. The shouting and sound effects of all of the videos could be heard simultaneously, although the noise was unified with a low bandwidth whistling sound. It is the key to the entire biennale exhibition. The point, as Ken Johnson suggested, is to reveal the deep social contradictions, and this work in particular shows public protest in a light that problematizes the globalization of democratic impulses and calls into question the truth of democracy. What alternative can be developed?
The second video installation was an example of art operating in this “third space.” Sunray is a video put together by NRM, a punk/protest band from Belarus.[xvii] Because public demonstrations are severely restricted in Belarus, and open criticism of the government is very dangerous, the band led a movement for social change and brought together 150 “Sunray” participants who donned shiny gold suits and staged performances in the city, now archived on video. This type of art is a fundamentally transformed mode of protest, from direct confrontation to creative transformation.
The Berlin Biennale called for artists to “forget fear” and to make art that injects itself forcefully into society, not an easy task. It also illuminated a different kind of protest art – art that operates in the “third space” introduced at the beginning of the essay. It is aesthetic social art, and it is what I believe to be the most salient take-away aspect of the 7th Berlin Biennale.
The exhibition publication Forget Fear compiles interviews conducted in the year preceding the exhibition, before the concept of the biennial format was even known. Included, is an interview with a group of educators from Poland who led workshops all over the country (not in big cities like Warsaw, but in smaller places) in a concerted attempt to combat “facade culture.” If art works within a protected space, it may mirror what is happening outside, but without effectively implementing any visible change. In this case, there is a call for localized aesthetic engagement with a particular place. Similarly, in response to the financial crisis in Iceland, members of a punk band created “Best Party,” a new political faction that put together a platform. One of their leaders, Jón Gnarr even ran for public office and became the mayor of Reykjavík. Another example in the Biennale is a work by performance artist turned mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Antanas Mockus. He is also a philosopher and politician, whose approach to politics uses artistic strategies. He was invited to Berlin to create a work in response to the biennial where he chose the piece by Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles, whose wall of posters displayed a year’s worth of tabloid front-pages showing daily violence due to drug wars. Mockus installed a blood extraction machine for drug-users who were asked to take a blood oath not to take drugs or to lessen drug use during the run of the biennial as a sign of solidarity with victims of the drug wars elsewhere. It aims at changing the Mexican reality by asking people to see how drug consumption in Europe relates to the number of deaths in the narcotics-trafficking wars in Central America. Mockus, Gnarr, and other trained artists who apply their knowledge as makers to solve real-world problems represent a new type of artist. Their work is not limited to the realm of politics either. More and more artists are actively working in other fields – public health, environmental sustainability, science, and education. Art operating on this plane requires new philosophical considerations and new definitions in aesthetics. Therefore, if there is a failure of aesthetics at the Berlin Biennale, then it institutes something new, for (to return to Heidegger) “truth establishes itself in the work.”[xviii]
For a conclusion, I bring in the thoughts of two young Boston artists, Ian Deleon and Kara Stokowski, who traveled to Berlin this summer and had a chance to see the biennial in person. After Deleon looked at the press, he said, “I am always surprised at how negative it is. [. . .] When we came [away] from it that day, we felt like it was probably the most exciting show we had ever seen put on by an institution.” Stokowski added: “I think we both feel [that] as artists we have a responsibility to be relevant, and to be in touch with culture because we are creating culture.” Since both artists participated in the Boston Occupy movement, I asked if they thought the Berlin Biennale delivered the promise of making a real impact on society. Deleon felt it could go much further: “If it is going to be really radical enough, you almost have to take the artwork out of the institution completely.”[xix]
This may not be as far off as we think. While the next Berlin Biennial is not likely to extend Żmijewski’s and Johanna Warsza’s experiment, it may inspire new types of biennales devoted to pragmatic art that engages more directly with specific localities. We are a world filled with diversity and different interests and desires. We do not share the same opinions. However, maybe there will be new branches of art that can be developed more rigorously—in art schools and elsewhere. Aesthetics can be wielded as a tool to rebuild neighborhoods and community, encourage business growth, and create spaces for shared value. That may be the best offense we have.
Kate Farrington is a visual artist and writer based in Cambridge, MA. She holds an MFA from the Art Institute of Boston as well as a Master’s in Liberal Arts from Harvard University. Her most recent project, an outdoor public sculpture entitled Confronting the Towers (Not a Memorial), was installed at Fitchburg State University and Governor’s Island, New York in 2011 and 2012. Along with numerous catalog essays, her writing has appeared in Art New England and NY Arts Magazine. Currently, she is a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in Visual Arts.
[i] Artur Żmijewski, “Applied Social Arts,” published in “Krytyka Polityczna” no 11-12/2007, from Krytykapolityczna website: http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/English/Applied-Social-Arts/menu-id-113.html.
[ii] See Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings: from ‘Being and Time’ (1927) to ‘The Task of Thinking’ (1964), edited by David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 172-182.
[iii] Julia Michalska, “Berlin Biennale branded a disaster,” from Frieze New York daily edition, published online: 03 May 2012: http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Berlin+Biennale+branded+a+disaster/26447
[v] Artur Żmijewski and Johanna Warsza, editors, Forget Fear (Berlin: KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2012), 15.
[vi] See Theodor W. Adorno, “Commitment” in Art in Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 779-783.
[vii] Żmijewski and Warsza, Forget Fear, 11.
[viii] Żmijewski, “Applied Social Arts,” http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/English/Applied-Social-Arts/menu-id-113.html.
[ix] Christy Lange, “7th Berlin Bienniale,” from the website, “Frieze,” Link: http://www.frieze.com/issue/print_back/7th-berlin-biennale/ (accessed 12/26/12)
[xi] See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
[xii] Ken Johnson, “An Artist Turns People Into His Marionettes,” The New York Times, November 29, 2009, from website, The New York Times. Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/arts/design/30zmijewski.html?_r=0 (assessed 12/26/12)
[xiii] For a critical assessment of the Berlin Biennial by one of the activists, see: Niel, O.T.R.O., “Berlin Biennale & Occupy Wallstreet action against Deutsche Bank,” from website, Take the Square. Link: http://takethesquare.net/2012/06/10/berlin-biennale-occupy-wallstreet-action-against-deutsche-bank/ (accessed 12/26/12)
[xv] Images of the statue in Poland can be seen in Miroslaw Patecki, “Three pieces around the statue of “Christ the King,” from website: “A repository of art events.” Link: http://lookingwithoutbeingseen.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/three-pieces-around-christ-the-king-vv-aa-7th-berlin-biennale-kw-april-26th-2012/ (accessed 12/21/12)
[xvi] There were plans to stage an actual convocation of the first “New World Summit” of groups on the International Terrorist Watchlist, such as Hamas. Supposedly, there were negotiations through the Dutch Secret Service to bring members of these groups into the Berlin Biennale, but visas were not granted. This controversial inclusion, plus the naming of the Russian art collective Violna (whose members are also under warrant for arrest), raise questions about the curator’s motives to ignite more dangerous real mixing of art and politics.
[xviii] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 187.
[xix] Interview with Ian Deleon and Kara Stokowski and the author, December 20, 2012.