The viral crisis is the beginning of a fictive retrospective story to be told. The narration could be one in which life is controlled and at the same time, biology controls economic, social, cultural, and political life. The virus, among other things, is the first manifestation in our time of forced deceleration, and it’s questioning our presence in the world. Two biennial projects produced in the last two years attempted to make new turns on solidarity, affectivity, and cultural agency. These are Bergen Assembly 2019, Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead, curated by Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ, and the 11th Berlin Biennale (2019-2020) curated by María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Lisette Lagnado, and Agustín Pérez Rubio. They share forms of engagement with narratives and living archives located beyond standard commitments of a community.
Since a growing internationalization and partial inversion of South-North/periphery–center relationships took place around 1989, the present seemed for many years to be characterized by the unusually exponential multiplication of biennials around the globe, the acceleration of exchanges on a worldwide level, and the relevance of the idea that one of the tools offered by art is that it helps us imagine different, better futures.
To speak now about these biennials implied in the past several trips to Norway and then several trips inside the city, which are impossible at the moment in many countries in the world. Therefore, the form this article should take would be the one of a topographical writing excerpt, a sample of punctual situations to be reproduced in a general and iconic way, attempting personal contact with their authors/curators. Topographical movements or topographical writing involve always diverse levels of interaction between places and the critical map emerging therefrom. Or they are formed by recent events and memories. The present and future conditions do not allow us to write a linear story, but maybe to make some notes on curatorial discourses, focusing on testimonies and impressions.
Bergen Assembly: Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead
Bergen is a city of 300,000 inhabitants, and it holds the record in rainy days per year. It is a relatively conservative city, in which social and interpersonal contact are eased by its geography: it’s not easy to ride a bike in the middle of the mountains, it’s easy to find always the little fishing harbor and see a monument to the Vikings in one pedestrian square. Its geographic position is peripheral and its position in the European landscape is constantly communicating from a sort of insular European perspective. The intention to produce a biennial in such an area presents challenges that are similar to other biennials in territories where hegemony is distant: “The biennial has become the art circuit’s proof that we too are part of the globalized world. Just like the nation-states needed their museums to signal cultural independence, the biennial today is used to indicate global agency (…)” asserted Anne Szefer Karlsen and Arne Skaug Olsen in the introductory chapter of LOKALISERT/LOCALISED, an edition of the minutes of the Bergen Biennial Conference that took place on September 2009 - “There are many ways to approach such a question, and the answers will mirror different positions within the Bergen art scene. To say that utility value is the pillar of Norwegian society is not an incorrect claim ”.
That was ten years ago. Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ engaged in this version in a project for exploring levels of the agency in the realm of the not living. The idea of a ghost, or living substance inside the material and elsewhere—like permanent fog or light rain, typical for the northern city—is absorbed in a circuit of connections between Bergen’s daily life: possible walks, discovering institutions. Dressler and Christ wanted to do teamwork and to let different processes expand and interweave. The strategy took the form of a CORE group (Conveners Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler in collaboration with Murat Deha Boduroğlu, Banu Cennetoğlu, María García, Hiwa K, Katia Krupennikova, Viktor Neumann, Paul B. Preciado, Pedro G. Romero, Simon Sheikh, and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa), and different levels of agency led contributors (around 60 artists and agents of different fields) and the Parliament of Bodies (conceived and led by Paul B. Preciado and Viktor Neumann): “a celebration of self-loss, ” as Christ asserts at Belgin, the venue for the Parliament and former storage wing of the KODE Museum now functioning as a sharing space.
Chilean/German artist Lorenza Böttner and her plastic and performative work in ‘80s West Germany challenging conventions on gender and capability get a central space at Bergen Kunsthall. Inside Ole Landmark’s functionalist building from 1935, histories and narratives of resistance, cultural and political negotiations take place in a bodily sub-text. Kurdish/German artist Hiwa K’s video Pre-Image (Porto), a one-channel video showing one of the versions of a performance led in Gdansk, Vienna, and Porto. In the performance, the artist balances on his forehead a bar on which motorbike mirrors are mounted. Austrian artist Ines Doujak and British writer John Barker work together on Cartographies of Desperation, an adhesive carpet showing a dystopian world represented through cellular shapes, the internal structure of the Earth and brain cells. On a higher floor-side-level of Bergen Kunsthall, we can find Asking Out: A Project Exploring the work of Muriel Pyrah by Ruth Ewan. Muriel Pyrah had led a class at Airedale School and achieved an incredible performance through a radical pedagogical approach for the emancipation of children of the postwar era. Ruth Ewan displays works made by the children, in which tensions and conflict zones in their lives can be observed.
At KODE 1 PERMANENTEN, the idea of an assembly and the museum as an institution are questioned, achieving a growing engagement with different forms of bodily experience. The exhibition is divided into SALON and CABINET, two forms of organization of knowledge at the construction of modern imaginaries of convivence and the political. The cabinet is approached in contributions such as Political Parties, a curatorial project by conveners Pedro G. Romero and María García: “Everything depended or ended up revolving around the possible selection of a series of Goya’s Disparates (Follies) which were available at the KODE Museum in Bergen. This arbitrary selection of Disparates has to some extent determined our selection, and it is listed below as a kind of index to explain the lines of work, selection, and structuring of the various works.”, say the authors at their publication called “General Assembly”.
Alexander Kluge is a relevant presence in the same space. The Assembler’s Wife (1986) is a touching video-interview in which several levels of translation take place: Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich speaks with German filmmaker Alexander Kluge with the help of Russian-German translator Rosemarie Tietze about the testimonies of the wife of an assembler at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant who in 1986 got extremely sick and affected by the famous explosion. The writer transfers with incredible depth the slow and terrifying process of irreversible change and destruction of his body, as well as a process of remaining convivence and love towards death in the Cold War context.
Hordaland Kunstsenter is a house on a hill, where in 1976 the first artist-run space in Norway was founded. It hosts Sick and Desiring, an ongoing curatorial research project by Nora Heidorn that asks: How can we politicize sickness and organize around shared vulnerabilities to experience the body as a space for resistance? It encompasses an exhibition, workshops, and screenings, with contributions by Sarah Browne, Juliana Cerqueira Leite and Zoë Claire Miller, Feminist Health Care Research Group (Julia Bonn and Inga Yimprich), Joscelyn Gardner, Paula Pin/BioTransLab. Bergen Kjøtt is a former slaughterhouse around 20 minutes away from downtown. With contributions by Alexander Kluge, like Conversation with Otto Schily (1978) about the autopsy of RAF members during the 1970s. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s In a very low voice, so then you’re sort of there deals with her research process on Bergen’s colonial past, specifically regarding the estate of the Bergen University Museum of Cultural History. Daniel García Andujar awakes the public with World’s Best Democracy (Political Slogans) (2019), a series of drawings executed by a robot that shows political slogans from all over the world. A precedent of our viral present could be seen in a way in the project developed by The Mycological Twist (Anne de Boer and Eloïse Bonneviot) at the project space Entreé, some blocks away from the central zone. The duo works as both a collective fungi garden “and as a nomadic project, infecting and spreading mycelium alike,” based in London, then Paris and then Berlin. Troll Swamp is the name of the multilevel board game with some elements of virtual reality, emulating the classical role game “Dungeons and Dragons”.
Bergen Assembly’s approach revealed 2019 issues related to several forms of crises at a global level, and looking for connections with other territories, felt or perceived as peripheral, marginal—as marginal as the North can be. Hans D. Christ asserts that “the character of Bergen Assembly in this version is determined strongly by the conformation of the CORE Group, which is a decision taken from the point of view of the political. Inside this temporary dispositive, we’re talking about different formations of solidarity. Or at least in terms of a formation based on reciprocal feedback.
Regarding the focus on the living and not living, Dressler adds:
If we take total distance from the reality of the living […] It’s a weird construction by itself: something that has happened marks and determines us. It is a rare construction, very strange in itself. That what happened marks and defines us. It is a somewhat constructed concern: to say, here is the living, here the dead and that there is an exchange, a dialog between both levels. What we want to see is what are the levels of responsibility to which we can come if we let ourselves be led by thinking about the dead and the undead. These dead are not those who aren’t here anymore, but those who don´t exist yet. The images that best show what are the ghosts of our colonial heritage and then we see an eternal recurrence of the repressed.
11th Berlin Biennale: Sustainable Relationships
There is something obvious about films, biennials, and other forms of cultural manifestations, namely their need for time and the processes involved to achieve one premiere, one exhibition, one version of the whole. In an interview with curator and sociologist María Berríos for Revista Artishock from Chile at the beginning of December 2020, I had the chance to get to know more about sustainability as a focus for a biennial, a concept that has been transferred from different social practices and in which affectivity is the level at which new challenges manifest.
“The epilogue will be the beautiful moment.” It was a sort of epical last sentence I heard from Berríos, a curator, writer, and sociologist from Chile at the end of an interview at Ex-Rotaprint, the former venue of a company for printing machines and nowadays a 10,000-square-meter space for different creative organizations. The process made the curators María Berríos (CL), Renata Cervetto (AR), Lisette Lagnado (BR), and Agustín Pérez Rubio (E) choose Rotaprint at a certain point as the central venue for a continuum of different experiences.
“Sustainable relationships” is one of the main tropes we can find in this situation and at this moment in time. María Berríos talks about a project that is also developed in a team of curators, looking for a form of extended processualism, in which exposing the whole life of a biennial and several cycles of curatorship should transform the way we relate to art inside the exhibition space and outside of it. The curators make a poetical statement in this regard when they open one prelude event, Housewarming (September 6, 2019):
“As incomers we consider our surroundings to be our learning environment—we are here to listen. We bring with us some baggage from our South, artistic alibis and stories, devices to help us navigate the metropolis and listen to its inhabitants. Gazing through the ground-level curtain-window onto a single street in the neighborhood of Wedding, we will begin by creating a scene setting for encounters, dialog, and exchange. We trust in the unforeseen outcome of mutual exposure, not a spectacle of process, but the effort of being present, open, and in proximity. We are aware that our time is limited, but we believe in developing sustainable relationships. Rumor is we have already begun.”
The cycle opened by this Latin American and Spanish team conceives the whole biennial as a process, involving three experiences until the “actual” exhibition is realized (formerly planned for June, now by the end of August 2020). Experience 1: The Bones of the World is based on the question “How do each of us bare ourselves to the world?” A travelogue written by Brazilian artist Flávio de Carvalho during his stay in Europe in the mid-‘30s entitled Os Ossos do Mondo (The Bones of the World) is used as a point of departure for the collective knowledge stratagem: “Not an obsession with the ruins, but an attempt to be attentive to what is made with the rubble.”
The Bones of the World took place between September 7 and November 9, 2019, at the ExRotaprint complex in the Wedding neighborhood; the second, Experience 2: Virginia de Medeiros—Feminist Health Care Research Group, continued at the same venue until February 8. Experience 3 consisted of contributions by human geographer Sinthujan Varatharajay and artist Osías Janov. His research-based display deals with the consequences of the Tamil genocide in the context of the Sri Lanka civil war, such as their seeking asylum in East Berlin, which was a possibility for many to emigrate afterward to the West. The third stage, now suspended because of the virus, began on February 22 and would have ended on May 2. The epilogue was supposed to begin on June 13 and to end on September 13 this year.
In a dialogue between Renata Cervetto and Lisette Lagnado for Arts of the Working Class, they ask themselves the question on how effective it could be to expand the idea of an “educational” biennial:
LL: We decided that the 11th Berlin Biennial of Contemporary Art would not have the structure of an "educational" one restricted to the exhibition period (June to September 2020). We are going to open the first venue in the Wedding district nine months earlier. This space will be for collective thinking, listening, discussing, and showing processes. To what extent does this form of "public program" allow a more concrete connection with the reality of a city that is unknown to us even in its language?
RC: Being present in a building in the ExRotaprint recovered by the artists Daniela Brahms and Les Schliesser since 2004 and currently inhabited by social, artistic, and educational enterprises, predisposes us to an active presence in the place, with the people and neighbors who share the space. I cannot think of our initiative only as a "public program," as it crosses other spheres of commitment. Inviting two Latin American artists (who, together with local agents and us, have experienced that space implies a "being here, present").
Berríos explains the curatorial decisions operating on the background:
“This whole bomb of names for biennials, spectacles, the ‘big thing’ […] In this sense, we proposed in several interviews that we as a team considered that Berlin has been devastated because of it. Not because of the biennial itself and only, but also because of the whole culture coming, installing, and then leaving: these international art projects, pop-up projects, etc. Even the impulses and inputs coming from people who pass by over here. And it’s worth to make the question to ourselves on how does that work and how does that relate to different processes of gentrification. This is evident even if we think about the biennial itself: ten years ago, the biennial could use an empty building and see how this has changed. So, I think that, from our point of view, the way of relating to the city has to be respectful, and it has to consider how to deal with that violence of throwing this ‘bomb’ of names and contexts and then withdrawing without further ado, which is normally what happens in biennials. There is a certain humility that is necessary to create an interrelationship and that I also believe has to do with our ways of working, which come from many different practices.” (…)
“Our way of working is a slow approach. How can we achieve that within the framework we are in, which is quite the opposite? A biennial is held every two years, but it's a super limited time. Doing biennials is crazy: run, install and leave. And the truth is that that work process is always a constant work process. All the biennials that are taking place and that are going to happen in two more years are taking place now. And the idea of starting with a first experience, a second experience, a third experience, and an epilogue consists in that: in finding a way to be able to inhabit that time, to build trust, to generate relationships. What we have sometimes called "sustainable relationships" not only has to do with the city, but also with the artists. And what we want is to achieve that space within the framework of what is a biennial or a global exhibition, which in general is not designed for that purpose, at all. I'm not saying that it is seen as a problem, it is something that our team does with very goodwill, but opening this process in this way creates difficulties for the existing institutional structures, for the way the biennial itself works, because working in a process becomes, in reality, defending that process which in one way or another is always going to take place. It is a question of trying to make this process of approaching, of research more permeable, through a curatorial methodology that consisted of the production of experiences. ”
It is December 2019. María Berríos walks around with me, showing me one of the histories moving them as a team, namely exp. 2, specifically the work of the Feminist Health Care Group in front of the entrance. We can see manuals of sexual education, hygiene, and health care achieved in a moment of the ‘70s and ‘80s in West Berlin through the alternative health care movement. María explains:
“This space, what we do at ExRotaprint is as relevant as what will happen this year. The idea is to start a dialogue and raise some concepts […] what is coming is a continuity. But the idea is not to reach a culmination or a climax, but we could even be talking about an anti-climax since by then everything will begin to end. We would then find ourselves in front of the corpse of the process, I mean a body that passes to another state, a death in a certain sense. But that death is not a fixed state, but a passage in which each of these pieces, practices, projects and people return to their social fabric, leaving behind our care—which will no longer be needed. The epilogue is the beautiful moment when the works begin to return to the world, to continue with their lives. ”.
Two Situations, One End
It’s autumn in Norway. We experience revolts in several places in the world, and I hear the news at a hotel in Bergen: the army is on the streets in Chile, state of emergency. The political seemed then to resemble the biological, and now the political seems to be overwhelmed by the biological, as life itself reacts with deceleration and even disappearance. I was in a hotel in Bergen in the frame of COAST Contemporary, a trip an encounter of artists and artist workers through the Norwegian fiords. I was having breakfast, sitting close to many people at round tables. It was one of several trips to the northern country, where I met Antonio Cataldo, curator of the Norwegian Pavilion in Venice in 2015 and nowadays director of Fotogalleriet Oslo. Trying to connect all the disperse pieces of these topographical notes, I asked him about models for the exhibitions and biennials in a harassed present and a harassed future: “What the current crisis brings forward […] is exactly how infectious capitalism has been on a global level, bringing back to imperial states its darkest face, with the enormous repercussions it continues to have on the rest of the planet. […] The game set by Western financial elites will hit even harder on the workers and lower parts of the population in the months to come. As in the 2008 crisis, there is little doubt about it. Borders have already closed, and we fear what will happen to migrants and other workers whose rights are asymmetrical.”
“Biennales are forms of assembly,” continues Cataldo:
“Not by chance Paul Preciado termed his public programs for documenta 14 the Parliament of Bodies. I think these forms of public address and finding a non-objectual form of coming together are still meaningful and possible, and the circulation of ideas cannot be stopped by autocratic regimes or regimental viruses. Judith Butler had spoken about the primacy of political representation as appearing, being seen: the body entering the visual and audible fields when accessibility is still based on the right of having rights—the need to rethink accessibility to the very democratic system we are so proud of. Before thinking about the post-pandemic, I think we should think that we have lived in a state of emergency, a state of crisis for decades now, and this is only one of the many waves we will have to go through under the predicament of capitalism. We have learned how to move in between these archives, but in this darkness (including the dark web), new possible futures may be possible, as well as reimagining real forms of democracy. I believe art is such a form allowing the very concept of democracy to gain meaning, and potentially such due openness. ”
Teobaldo Lagos Preller is a writer, researcher, and curator. His research and work deal with public space, urban heritage, and artistic practices expanding the idea of the public sphere towards cultural negotiation processes. He holds a Ph.D. in Contemporary Art History and Theory by the Universitat de Barcelona (funded by CONICYT-Chile), an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Latin American Studies by the Freie Universität Berlin and a B.A. in Communication Sciences (Semiotics) by UAM-X in Mexico City. His curatorial practice is research-based and deals with issues of bodily experiences, public spaces, histories, and memories and has been shown in Germany and abroad. As an author, he has published at journals and magazines in the fields of cultural studies and art studies and dealing with issues of globalization. He lives and works in Berlin.
1 A fictive retrospective is a narrative resource by which a fictional story is narrated in a fictional point in time in the future. Such a text aims to review the present as it would be overcome and to project onto another present contemporary conflicts, issues and themes. An example of this form of narrative is provided at the novel “Distant Star” by Roberto Bolaño (New York: Random House, 2014).
3 The definition of some “topographic writing” is approached by Nikos Papastergiadis: “There is a form of writing called topography that is conventionally understood as referring to either a system for mapping a landscape, or the contours and form of a place. I would like to extend this concept for rethinking the relationship between art and place. Art can never totally represent a specific place. Even the most comprehensive map cannot contain all the details of a territory. Art that has come from a place, and which refers to a place, must also acknowledge its own exile. It leaves, it does not remain left behind, but the success of its movement is bitter-sweet. The representation of place will always conceal more than it will reveal. It is not just the practical impossibility of everything from one place fitting into another, but also the different manners for response. Maps require at least two levels of reading, the topos and the tropos, for getting from one place to another.” (Nikos Papastergiadis, Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2010: 11.)
10 Teobaldo Lagos Preller, “El epílogo será el momento hermoso: María Berríos sobre la curaduría de la Bienal de Berlín,” in Revista Artishock, January 27, 2020, https://artishockrevista.com/2020/01/27/el-epilogo-es-el-momento-hermoso-maria-berrios-sobre-la-curaduria-de-la-bienal-de-berlin-2020/?fbclid=IwAR0V3G_XfUNeaPvp7Le5M0sC9FoeHmWc25kI9AVljcwjZx1AoPMv2PxgHGw.
12 Their biographies can be read at https://www.biennialfoundation.org/2018/10/curators-of-the-11th-berlin-biennale-announced/.
13 Berríos, María, Cervetto, Renata, Lagnado, Lisette, Pérez Rubio, Agustín: Housewarming, in https://11.berlinbiennale.de/event/exp-1-housewarming