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Art, Meet Politics. Politics, Meet Art. A Preview of the 7th Berlin Biennale

by Christy Lange

The Press Conference of the 7th Berlin Biennale, 25 April 2012

I’m still trying to find the right words to describe the mood surrounding the run-up to this year’s 7th Berlin Biennale…. sympathetic dread? Compassionate condescension? The general sense was that the curators’ attempt to engage more directly with politics and to look at the way art can foment real social change is worthy and worthwhile, but ultimately doomed to fail. Why is that? Because earnestness is art’s enemy? Or because impassioned and single-minded commitment to a cause makes for good politics, but not necessarily for good art? Or because, when we really examine it, the art world doesn’t thrive on democracy – perhaps because democracy doesn’t always acknowledge or embrace many of the same values as contemporary art (wilful failure, individuality, autonomy, radicalism, meritocracy, doubt and contingency, to name a few…).

The Biennale’s press conference, which took place on Wednesday morning at the Villa Elisabeth, was a good first indicator of the system of trial and error with which the projects in this biennial will most likely proceed.

The first attempt to shake things up was that the seats of the venue were arranged not in rows, but in a circle, with Curator Artur Zmijewski, Associate Curator Joanna Warsza and Director Gabriele Horn placed in the middle (the other Associate Curators, the Russian art collective Voina, were not present). After an introduction by Klaus Biesenbach in which he praised the curators’ senses of civil disobedience, which in his words, ‘is closely related to civil responsibility in Germany’, Warsza went on to outline some of the aims of the Biennial, and to finally reveal some of the names of its participants, who include both artists and non-artists, a few of which are mentioned here, though a comprehensive list is not yet available on the Biennale’s website.

Participants in ‘Draftsmen’s Congress’, a project initiated by Pawel Althamer at the St. Elisabeth-Kirche, Berlin.

Warsza described the curatorial team’s selection process as one that didn’t include multiple studio visits (in contrast to the hundreds of studio visits famously conducted by previous Berlin Biennale curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick), but rather: ‘Our studio visits happened by following the news’, and ‘We have looked for art in all spheres of society’. Their curatorial aim was to see how artists and curators have been responsive to political situations, and whether art can act as a tool for democratic purposes. She then explained some of the exhibition’s sub-themes, including ‘The Politics of Memory’, ‘Breaking the News’, and ‘Art Strike’. While some of these are clearly relate to specific artistic projects commissioned for the biennial or actions that will take place as part of it, others – such as ‘Engaged Intelligentsia’ and ‘Agonostic Curating’ – are more vague.

Poster for Public Movement’s project “Rebranding European Muslims” installed on the facade of Kule E.V., Auguststrasse 10.

Throughout Warsza’s speech, which briefly touched on certain projects but didn’t yield many concrete details, I couldn’t help but think that if the curators are striving for an exhibition that will be politically active, political activism requires, perhaps above all, not just passion and inclusiveness, but organization and clarity of message. If this presentation is any indication, the Biennial, so far, doesn’t have much of either.

An urban garden in the backyard of KW Berlin.

After Warsza’s statement, Zmijewski took the microphone to reiterate some of the points made in his impassioned press statement, though his spoken message was less dynamic than the written one. He spoke of looking for ‘artists and non-artists who are able to create something that can survive the Biennale itself.’ In conclusion he announced that he would turn over the press conference to the members of the Indignados / Occupy movements, who had been invited to take part in the Biennial, and who would be occupying the ground floor space of KW for the duration of the show. ‘They teach us how to perform politics because in the case of politics we fear that we are idiots,’ said Zmijewski.

Presentation by members of Indignados/Occupy at the Press Conference of the 7th Berlin Biennale, 25 April 2012

At this point the tone of the conference shifted, not least because the Occupiers decided to stand up to make their speeches, but also because they seemed to be speaking from a common platform. I started to scribble in my notes that ‘it might be interesting if this press conference would turn into a sort of protest or political forum, but we all have our “press hats on” so we continue to scribble our notes’. But, really, what would happen if we in the art world would mobilize in the service of a political goal? And at that moment, the speaker announced that he would now ask us to ‘participate’ in this discussion.

Indignados / Occupy Biennale on the ground floor of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

The response was a palpable sense of collective discomfort. When the leader of the forum asked anyone if they’d like to start things off, an agonizingly long silence followed. Shoes and chairs began to shuffle, as heads started to turn toward the exits. At that moment I felt like I was witnessing hearing and seeing the chasm between the world of art and that of political activism. And as a few journalists made their random disjointed statements, and the comments from the audience careened from English to German and from self-promotion of one journalist’s own magazine to another participant calling the Occupy speakers ‘naïve’, the gap only widened. You can track the full event on frieze d/e’s Twitter feed.

A sign posted as part of the Indignados / Occupy Biennale on the ground floor of KW

At that point the ‘talk circle’ was beginning to actively disassemble, and I left after about half of the audience had disappeared. If this experiment was any indication of the interaction between the art audience of the Biennale and participants themselves, it will be an uncomfortable, awkward slog – but hopefully one worth making.

About the author

  • Christy Lange's photo

    Christy Lange is associate editor of frieze and contributing editor of frieze d/e. She is based in Berlin.