16 Tons
17 Tons: Memory as practice
17 Tons: Memory as practice
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News from the Graveyard: On the biennial as a migratory centre.

In the autumn of 2010, while reviewing the 23rd edition of the Sao Paulo Biennial, I was particularly struck by the implications of a work that had been censored and left as a mere carcass in the show: a massive installation titled, somewhat ironically, Bandeira Branca (White Flag) (2010) by Brazilian artist and writer Nuno Ramos. Placed right in the centre of the pavilion, Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa’s Palace of Industries (1954), it consisted of a number of tall structures interspersed between minimal sculptures, shipyard machinery and cliffs, which served as pedestals for several massive loudspeakers. This stage was meant to serve as a roost for half a dozen local vultures, or burubús, which were to be isolated from the audience by means of black netting. An installation intended to be both symbiotic with and parasitical to the biennial as a whole, it ironically fell prey to animal rights activists who claimed that the lack of sunlight would put the vultures at risk of contracting fungal diseases, to say nothing of the uncomfortable feelings that contemporary morality has toward using animals for anything other than their slaughter.

Although Nuno Ramos’s installation had been neutralised, its evocative powers remained intact. While looking at the sheer accumulation of videos, installations, projects and images congregated in the three levels in the main venue at the Biennial, I suddenly had the impression that the spectres of those absent vultures were circling above us, a hallucinatory symptom of what was ailing us exhibition-goers below.

For years now, visitors and participants to the world’s biennials have been complaining of a feeling of despair. Artists have the feeling that the specificity of their practices gets lost beneath the grand thematic and theoretical claims of the biennials’ organizers. Critics have the feeling that the tyrannical egos of the curators are given free rein. Audiences suspect that the proliferation of contemporary biennials around the world is contributing to a global cultural homogenisation, favouring a ‘usual suspects’ list of artists while perpetuating stereotypical representations of local or regional forms of practice. At best, biennials are regarded as a ‘necessary evil’, rather than as an institutional structure that is constitutive of the experience of art today.

Art biennials have become increasingly industrialised. With their lack of internal segmentation, hundreds of contemporary artists, and thousands of hours of videos, films, talks and actions, they demand days of hectic and frequently incomplete absorption from professional and amateur viewer alike. All this emphasis on geographical scale and extension overpowers the reflective capacity of any individual organism. Once upon a time, we imagine, a body could take it all in.

We are all familiar with the extended modern cultural trope that understands the Museum as a cultural graveyard. The most powerful rendition of the ambivalence of the modern toward its cultural ghost-houses came from Theodor Adorno, who claimed that the proximity of the words “museum” and “mausoleum” was not merely phonetic. “Museums are like the family sepulchres [Erbbegräbnisse] of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture” (1981:173). It is clear that Adorno’s dictum did not yearn for a tabula rasa. On the contrary, the idea that artworks would be incorporated into such a space of mourning was predicated by the fact that “their preservation [owed] more to historical respect than to the needs of the present” (ibid).

If the museum behaves as the family crypt of obsolete culture, at least it still provides a dignified service. It imposes an ordained narrative and spatiality, replete with all manner of consolation and mediation: rooms assigned to themes, epochs or civilisations; special emphasis given to certain niches and promontories; the careful maintenance of showcases, labels and stands; the interference of inscriptions laden with deep and technically precise thoughts; and the careful, melancholic placement of marble decorations, garlands and flowers. The contemporary art biennial, by contrast, calls to the mind an entirely different heterotopic apparatus, to borrow a concept from Michel Foucault. He identified “heterotopias” as “real spaces” in a given culture or civilisation that nonetheless remain symbolically outside or opposed to its territoriality (1998). The absent vultures hovering over Sao Paulo point us toward a different sort of depository of the dead: namely, mass graves, where bones and half rotten fragments of the unborn and the undead mingle promiscuously, relating everything that we vaguely define as “utopian” back to traces of the past. According to such a vision, biennials are the sites of vast congregations of mourners, come to honour the passing of an imaginary, bygone era when the world seemed to be organised in a stable, comprehensible way. It is as if, beneath the excitement around the biennial explosion of the end of the 20th-century, a parallel process of resistance and mourning is taking place, involving both the agents of cultural decentralisation along with the staunch defenders of the old cultural order. Even if we suffered from the exclusionary mechanisms of the modern-international era, we all miss the linearity of narratives and belongings.

Insofar as the respect we now accord our dead is dissipating like so much ash spewing from an overworked crematorium, the time may have come for a critical revision of the metaphors by which we understand the transformations occurring in our cultural institutions today. For there is definitely an analogy to be drawn between the way the spaces of the dead are vanishing from our cities, and the way information and knowledge are dematerialising through the extension of the Internet and the delegation to film and video of the task of witnessing historical events.

Considering these misgivings, why then assume the task of curating a biennial and – in deed as well as by word – why defend its existence and work towards its sustainability? Above all, because regardless of their specific agendas and programs, biennials are the arena for, a major agent in, and a symbol of an overarching geopolitical and cultural shift. In fact, it would not be too far-fetched to claim that the substantial energy, resources and hope invested in biennials come from their significance as agents of the cultural decentralisation that saw the end to the exclusionary tactics and geopolitics of modernity – a version of geopolitics that remains more or less intact in most other fields of cultural production and circulation.

More than one hundred biennials take place around the world each year, with all their demented, ephemeral accumulation of artistic production. This is both an outcome of and a monument to a 30-year-long struggle for cultural inclusion, as part of the reshaping of the geopolitics of contemporary art that took place in the final decades of the 20th century. This transformation was symbolically launched by the creation of the Havana Biennial in 1984, an event which aimed to invert the vectors of exclusion by attempting, for a few years, to establish an alternative circuit and to critically validate works and artists coming from the so-called periphery. Similar events quickly emerged in Istanbul (1987), Dakar (1990), Lyon (1991), Tijuana and San Diego (1991), Curitiba (1993), Sharjah (1993), Johannesburg (1995), Gwangju (1995) and Porto Alegre (1996). It was through the assault of alternative biennial centres like these that ‘the South’ (in the more general sense) broke the lines of defence protecting the ancièn regime of the ‘international’ modernist art world of the post-war era, which depended on the assumption that the most advanced art was created in and diffused outwardly from a number of cultural centres fixed, not by chance, in the NATO nations.

In a similar vein, the so-called periphery was conceived as a receding horizon, perpetually ancillary in artistic, political and cultural terms when compared to modernism’s metropolises. The transitional (transnational) ‘biennial’ ceased to designate an exclusive brand name, evolving into an indeterminate and multiplex genre of exhibitions. It transformed the preconceived symbolism of geography, training both audiences and practitioners to understand the contemporary as a process without a fixed location, as something that ought to occur through a planetary conversation, situated along shared routes where the different political and artistic interests of a number of locations would have to be renegotiated with each new iteration. In part, this was due to the programmatic stance some of those events took toward dismantling the geographical and cultural biases of earlier art history. This effect was also a direct result of the changes in representation and social function implied by artworks that had to interact with social settings, audiences and cultural genealogies different from those around which modernism’s narratives had been created. A great deal of the angst produced by contemporary biennials comes from the fact that they have made sure that nobody in any specific place can pretend to be the primary witness of the field of contemporary art. The more biennials there are, the more difficult it becomes to pretend to control knowledge or ownership of the logic, logistics and highlights of contemporary culture.

Independently of any given biennial’s specific points of interest, the dissemination of the general form of the biennial itself illuminates an entirely new scenario: the notion of a multiplicity of centres pregnant with instability and ephemerality. Each time a biennial is organised it gives expression to a similar geographical ritual: the idea of (and the need for) staging the so-called ‘contemporary’ as a cyclical ceremony that invests a provisional and symbolic geographical centre with visual, cultural and political narratives. Unlike in the past, these contemporary rituals mutate and evaporate as they migrate and traverse the six continents like some neo-gypsy caravan. In this light, the proliferation of biennials becomes critical in itself.

Biennials are one of the forms by which hypermodernity reflects and gives shape to its time and space, turning our grief at the (apparent) loss of cultural and geographical determinacy into a self-reflexive machine. If we refrain from lamenting the disorderly quality of biennials today, we might recognise that they also have a therapeutic value. That is, they hold the potential to reshape the art world into a space for making sense of the experience of political, critical and geographical complexity. From this perspective, their proliferation has become a secular ritual of the production and demolition of the plurality of cultural centres where the relevance of artistic practice is tested against different social and cultural settings and audiences. In that sense, the nomadic quality of Manifesta stands as an emblem of this quest to fashion the field of contemporary culture into an instrument of geopolitical transformation.

As a migratory centre of culture, the biennial still risks becoming another attempt to master a particular image of the world, by which the constant upheavals of global capitalism prevent stabilisation in any form other than as a cultural vortex. Thus the phantom of the mass grave might appear in a desperate attempt to monumentalise this time of constant trepidation, if not the chaos of its immense social energy. But maybe the feeling of order fostered by the ‘museum-mausoleum’ was already irretrievably lost, even before expectations of the genealogy of modernity had gone. In that case, contemporary art would be a form of culture that refuses us the solace of fantasising about a comprehensive mode of organisation. Maybe a transformation of institutions like biennials could help to deal with the loss of orientation that the process of geographical decentring and cultural dematerialisation have brought to our civilisation, without intending in vain to reintroduce identities based on a sense of geographical and social fixity rather than in terms of an informed understanding of historical and social processes.

It is no accident that the title of Manifesta 9: The Deep of the Modern insists on calling attention to the abyss of modernism’s temporality. Although modernisation and capitalism do indeed have a threatening and overpowering appearance, we, the curators, are not convinced that the best cultural strategy today is to mimic their monstrosity. In dispelling the recurring dream of a vulture’s-eye view of the contemporary, our exhibition aims to go to ground – and indeed, to dig beneath it. In so doing, it attempts to fulfil Manifesta’s implicit promise by excavating something of the complex history of industrial production that lies sedimented below Genk. In connecting contemporary art production to a specific modern art history and to the forms and practices of a particular cultural heritage, we have endeavoured to map the more general social, economic and political processes that have shaped the present landscape. Our hope is that this project will add a new, temporal dimension to contemporary biennials’ critical arsenal and thus contribute something to the collective transformation of contemporary culture.