The idea of enabling resistant narratives to neoliberalism through dialogical and participa- tory works, steadily informs the agenda of perennial large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art (biennials) around Europe and the world. Somewhat paradoxically, the proliferation of such shows since the early 1990s depends on this very neoliberal model that values culture for its measurable outcomes. By discussing such predicaments of the ‘‘biennial phenomenon,’’ this article lays out its ambivalences and potentials within the current political – economic context. Moreover, through looking at the case of the 7th Berlin Biennale (2012), a controversial exhibition that prioritized activism and the ‘‘real effects’’ of art in society, the article suggests that such biennial complexities could be better addressed through ethnographic methodologies.
Large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art are increasingly engaging in explicit extra-visual dialogues with and within the public sphere.1 Most evidently since the 2002 Documenta 112 took place across five different platforms around the world, the idea of enabling global and resistant ‘‘knowledge production’’ is steadily informing contemporary artistic and curatorial practices seeking to denounce self-referentiality while proposing a socially dialogical approach to art and exhibition-making (Day, Edwards, & Mabb, 2010; Hlavajova, 2010; Hoskote, 2010; O’Neill, 2007). At the same time it has been argued that the ‘‘biennial phenomenon,’’ that is, the proliferation of periodical large-scale exhibitions around the world since the early 1990s, ‘‘partakes of a capitalist production regime’’ (Dimitrakaki, 2011, p. 307), namely a post-Fordist production model, which, among other objectives, prioritizes intercity competition for attracting touristic flows via the co-optation and manipulation of esthetic regimes and cultural symbols. Furthermore, there is ongoing debate on how this model interpellates subjectivities that need to be virtuosic, entrepreneurial, communicative, networked, flexible, canny, and, indeed, career-wise ‘‘successful’’ (Berardi, 2009; Gielen, 2010; Mylonas, 2012; Virno, 2004). In this sense, as parts of a larger socioeconomic arrangement, biennials are ambivalently positioned in their claimed attempts to manufacture liberating ‘‘new worlds.’’3 One must necessarily begin by asking what kinds of worlds are these institutions capable of producing and more importantly for whom.
In the past 10 years a growing number of texts on individual ‘‘biennials’’ or ‘‘biennial’’ editions have appeared in art magazines or academic journals. These texts provide accounts of the ‘‘biennial phenomenon’’ bringing together knowledge from different disciplines ranging from art history, and curatorial studies to visual culture, sociology, and political theory. Recently, the editors of the book Biennial reader (2010) that included most of the major texts on biennials to date, proposed to construct a field of inquiry called ‘‘biennialogy’’ so as to treat ‘‘this contemporary phenomenon as a separate subject of study’’ (p. 16). The editors suggest that systematic studies on biennials are necessary today, for a contemporary demystification of the autonomy of the artwork and thus for helping us avoid overlooking the crucial ‘‘ideological and aesthetic impact of the context, dramaturgy, and discursive armatures that bring an artwork into public view’’ (p. 17). Taking on board this suggestion, this article discusses the predicaments of the ‘‘biennial phenomenon,’’ laying out its ambivalences and potentials within broader political–economic contexts. Through looking at the case of the 7th Berlin Biennale (2012), an exhibition that performs the above contradictions by operating both as a brand and a proclaimed site of resistance, the article emphasizes the need to problematize such complexities through the use of ethnographic methodologies.
The ‘‘contemporary art biennial’’
Mainly through the success of the Venice Biennale that started operating in 1895, the very word ‘‘biennale’’ has gradually imprinted itself upon the mental landscape of the artworld and its publics as the periodical site of art display. ‘‘Biennale’’ (or Biennial or Triennial) has been heterogeneously used by a range of periodical art exhibitions proliferating throughout the globe over the last 100 years. While up until the early 1990s no more than 10 contemporary biennials operated around the world, now more than 100 of them take place in regular or irregular intervals.4 The sheer number of these perennial large-scale exhibitions has literally skyrocketed in the past 20 years or so. Apart from the increase in their number, contemporary art biennials have arguably become one of the most notable and celebrated formats for the display, production, as well as for the generation of knowledge around contemporary art (Ferguson & Hoegsberg, 2010; Greenberg, Ferguson, & Nairne, 1996). In the past 2 decades, the most celebrated of these such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta have increasingly acted as art ‘‘hubs’’ for establishing the most prominent trends and discourses within contemporary art fields. At the level of formal display the temporary, ‘‘event-like’’ structure of the biennial makes it distinct from traditional art institutions such as the gallery and the museum, which usually tend to be associated with an immutable physical location and thus have the capacity to build more enduring ties with the places in which they occur. The biennial can change location between editions, can take up different formats of display, and can generally be more experimental and daring.
The contemporary biennial , though, can hardly be theorized as a homogenous phenomenon; it largely consists of heterogeneous projects, significantly varying in terms of funding, aims, visibility, politics, and economic and cultural contexts. However, there are some common attributes that these types of shows share. First, they are committed to a cosmopolitan perspective combined with a desire to articulate the artistic and cultural particularisms of their host cities, an attribute that turns them into agents of what has been termed as ‘‘glocalization’’ (De Duve, 2007). Second, in contrast to the ‘‘art fair,’’ which is the more commercial format of recurrent contemporary art shows, the biennial is financed by public or private sources that are usually not directly dependent on art investors (Basualdo, 2010). Therefore, the contemporary biennial has a more ‘‘public’’ character than the art fair and thus a greater potential to include formats of art display not exclusively destined to sell, such as large-scale installations, video installations, ephemeral art projects, and generally works of an interdisciplinary nature. Apart from this, the biennials in contrast to most art fairs are usually grounded upon a concept or an idea that is expected to be communicated by the curator(s). (Tang, 2011). Accordingly, biennials largely depend on the figure of the curator for delivering these ideas. The curator, who can even be seen as a ‘‘recent reincarnation of the model of the independent intellectual’’ (Basualdo, 2010), is regarded as the main ‘‘author’’ of the event. This time though, curators are not the authorial figures that possess ‘‘supposed authorial primacy’’ over the rest of the participants that take part in a show. The curator is primarily a ‘‘cultural mediator’’ pertaining to the ‘‘organization of emerging and open-ended cultural encounter, exchange and enactment’’ (O’ Neil & Wilson, 2010, p. 19).
Spaces of capital and hope?
When attached to a specific art show the word ‘‘biennial’’ promises a priori symbolic capital—primarily granted via the success of Venice Biennale—through which organizers gain the legitimacy needed to address sponsors, artists, volunteers, the public, and so on. In turn, each specific ‘‘biennial’’ or ‘‘triennial’’ is perceived by its organizers as a ‘‘brand’’ that cultivates its particular and differentiated brand identity, its particular ‘‘soul,’’ effect, trace, and signature, that have to be made more or less clearly recognizable to respective audiences or ‘‘niche markets’’ through the course of time. ‘‘Success’’ then is measured according to how successfully the individual biennial has positioned itself within the larger ‘‘biennial field,’’ that is to say into the cognition of artists, art critics, journalists, audiences, and so on. Funders are principally operating within the paradigm of ‘‘creative cities,’’ the more ‘‘successful’’ the festival becomes the more firmly it is expected to enable touristic flows to respective localities, make sponsoring firms look more ‘‘creative’’ and ‘‘caring,’’ boost the economic value of the local art’s scene and further integrate it in a global art circuit.
Nevertheless, as Simon Sheikh has recently noted, apart from ‘‘spaces of capital,’’ biennials are also ‘‘spaces of hope’’ (2010, p. 163). In the last decade several biennial editions aligned themselves with the most critical sides of the contemporary artworld (Day et al., 2010), embracing an attempt to ‘‘politicize culture’’ (Lafouente, 2009), engaging in a practice of exhibition-making that prioritizes critical educational and emancipatory practices (Rogoff, 2009). This takes place against a political background that as O’Neil and Wilson put it, is ‘‘increasingly dominated by rhetorics of culture- as service, knowledge production, the creative economy, immaterial labour and educational outcomes’’ (2010, p. 14). In this regard, several grandiose statements have been made regarding the emancipatory/political potential of such shows. Various curators and scholars have seen biennials as apparatuses capable of transforming in one way or another aspects of contemporary social life; capable for example of introducing ‘‘into the public debate political themes’’ (Marchant, 2010, p. 467), creating ‘‘new public formations that are not bound to the nation-state or the art-world’’ (Sheikh, 2010, p. 157), nurturing an ‘‘agonistic repoliticization of cultural labour’’ (Hlavajova, 2010, p. 293), or even being a ‘‘force for the breakdown of class distinctions’’ (Basualdo, 2010, p. 133).
The biennials as agents of critical discourses
Along these latter lines, curatorial practice and theory have recently prioritized the role of the contemporary art exhibition as a site where critical educational discourses can circulate, a process described by O’Neil and Wilson as the ‘‘educational turn’’ in contemporary art (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010).5 This turn understands the exhibition space not merely as a site for art display, but principally as a discursive space, where art display becomes part of a broader ‘‘knowledge production,’’ with lectures, seminars, publications, tour guides, and discussion platforms performing a central rather than supportive role in relation to the show (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010). Discussions, symposia, talks, extensive publications, and educational programs have become in the past decade the ‘‘main event’’ in exhibition practice (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010, 12). The recent leaning toward exhibiting works of art with a documentary, journalistic, or archival nature (Cramerotti, 2009) signifies such an endeavor to generate discursive meanings that expand into social reality. For example, the desire of 2012 Bucharest Biennale to become ‘‘a form of agency within the city’’6 is very characteristic in conceiving the exhibition space as an expanded discursive agent with an interventionist function in society.
Along with this tendency toward education, a parallel trend has also been made visible in contemporary art discourse since the end of the 1990s: a drive to discover a ‘‘new emancipatory potential’’ through the articulations of cultural producers, a potential capable of pointing toward new ontologies that aspire to decenter ‘‘the common capitalocentric vision’’ (von Osten, 2010, p. 7), or as Mark Fisher has recently put it the ‘‘business ontology’’ (Fisher, 2009), which largely informs the mental framework of neoliberalism.7 Such politicization was made evident in art’s alignment to a growing dissatisfaction as it was expressed in the antiglobalization movement with the postcommunist neoliberal consensus in Europe and to a neocommunist revival in political theory that was specifically felt in the artworld through the publication of Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire (2000).
In fact, the last decade has seen several editions of contemporary art biennials conceiving themselves as educational laboratories and sites where discursive and dialogical models come to be tightly connected with political utterances most usually articulated in opposition to the dominant neoliberal hegemonic orders. From Documenta 11 in 2002 that critically dealt with postcolonialism to the 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2009, which attempted to politically mobilize the process of exhibition- making, a range of biennials have combined the tendency toward discursivity with the instigation of political encounters, crystallizing within the field of contemporary art as Day et al. put it, ‘‘an anti-neoliberal structure of feeling’’ (Day et al., 2010, p. 148). This kind of militancy taking place in biennials is additionally vitalized within the context of the current financial crisis in Europe, where a sense of urgency for being politically relevant and not ‘‘neutral’’ seems to dominate their programmatic statements.
For instance, the third Athens Biennale wishes to ‘‘transform the biennale into a sit-in and a gathering of collectives, political organizations and citizens involved in the transformation of society, an invitation to create a political moment rather than stage a political spectacle.’’8 In turn, the curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale
Artur Zmijewski calls the invited artists to ‘‘identify their political positions’’ and describe what they are doing as artists ‘‘also in pure political terms.’’9 The 12th Istanbul Biennale seeks to ‘‘explore the relationship between art and politics, focusing on works that are both formally innovative and politically outspoken,’’10 while the 2012 Manifesta edition focuses ‘‘on aesthetic responses to the worldwide ‘economic restructuring’ of the productive system in the early 21st century.’’11
Yet, biennials and other cultural institutions are not only autonomous agents of various discourses, they have to come up with sustainable economic models, something that requires organizing their internal relations of production and finding ways to secure funding within the increasingly dominating neoliberal cultural policies that are employed across Europe and the world. This process most usually entails a respective ‘‘adjustment’’ of some of their statements or practices. Even when they pursue criticality, they also need to demonstrate their role as city promoters or as sites where networking and portfolio-career building are reproduced in order to somehow engage with the necessary capital flows. If not, they run the risk of losing parts of their economic support or go bankrupt. If they decide to operate as social critics, they usually have to bear in mind that their critique should not disturb or push the limits to the extreme.
As Dimitrakaki (2003) and Lesage (2007) have suggested Documenta 11, which is commonly regarded as the archetype of the politically engaged art show, in practice depended on an ‘‘availability of a surplus labour force for showcasing its critique’’ (Dimitrakaki, 2003, p. 154) and ‘‘did not result in a type of organization that matched its discursive counter-thoughts’’ (Lesage, 2007, p. 94). This type of conflicting attitude is crucial to highlight not only for biennials but also for a whole range of other contemporary cultural institutions and practices within creative economies that draw their legacy from or employ certain modes of critical discourse. It has been argued that practices that recourse to criticality but still engage with neoliberal economic models and procedures, provide the lifeblood of contemporary capitalism in that they neutralize and institutionalize a mode of critique that owes its legacy to May 68 and the countercultures of the ‘‘60’’ (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005 —see especially their criticism against ‘‘artistic critique’’ as a means for consolidating a ‘‘soft,’’ culturally sensitive capitalist ideology; Gielen, 2010; Hardt, 2011). On the other hand, critique has to unarguably engage in processes of instituting in order to transform existing patterns of thought and action.12 The question then to be answered for curators and critics is how this can be done, what tactics can be employed and questions be raised toward that direction, always within the given particular conditions and limitations of specific individual cases (Hlavajova, 2010).
Since the 1970s, according to Christian Marrazi (2011), the very concept of capital accumulation has been transformed within the productive paradigm of post-Fordism due to the incapacity of Fordism to drain surplus value from the ‘‘immediate living labour, the wage labour of the factory’’ (Marrazi, 2011, p. 248; see also Berardi, 2009). In Fordism, the extraction of surplus value was mainly circumscribed to the production site, while in post-Fordist processes of accumulation it becomes increasingly diffused in the sphere of circulation and reproduction of capital, that is, financial, touristic, and cultural sector. Since the displacement of traditional industrial units, the setting in motion of investments and the seeking of valorization in collective desire (Berardi, 2009; Pasquinelli, 2008) has been capital’s response to the problem of growth. From this point of view, the biennial proliferation can be seen as concomitant not only with the expansion of experience economies, the ongoing economization of creativity, the expansion of culture-driven regeneration projects, which have enormously increased the past 30 years, but also with the ever increasing mobility of capital, goods, people, and deterritorialized information and communication flows. In this sense, cultural festivals, exhibitions or fairs usually come to be regarded ‘‘as vehicles of economic generation or as ‘‘quick fix’’ solutions to city image problems’’ (Quinn, 2005, p. 927) for their funding bodies. Accordingly, cultural policies in Europe increasingly tend to focus on economic growth as a measure of artistic value and certain social and cultural issues related to these festivals are usually dropped from the agenda, such as participation, democracy, education, or the civic potential (Quinn, 2005). In this context, an art event bears the promise of adding symbolic capital to respective locales and of turning previously industrialized downtown zones to attractive business opportunities for retail investors and real-estate developers.
The operation of a biennial is usually understood by state and private sponsors within such frameworks.14 It has been demonstrated how such culture-led regen- eration schemes contribute to the gentrification of ‘‘deprived’’ areas, a process that involves the displacement of less privileged classes and the dislocation of traditional communities (Smith & LeFaivre, 1984; Tretter, 2009; Zukin, 1987; Zukin, 1988). The mobilization of cultural production for urban revitalization schemes are advanta- geous for real-estate developers and private investors who, as Gray puts it, transform ‘‘elements of cultural distinctiveness into ‘fixed capital’’’ (2010, p. 37). Thus, it is usually a process with strong class characteristics as it dispossesses poorer populations from their communities in order to open up ways for business. As it has been shown, artistic production has often inadvertently played a significant role and contributed in such procedures in different cities around the world with prominent examples New York, Berlin, and Barcelona (Ley, 2003; Deutsche and Ryan, 1984; Zukin, 1988).15
Biennials as workplaces
Unlike the much-debated subject of art and rent speculation discussed above, a largely neglected issue in debates on contemporary art and biennials is the condition of artistic and cultural labor.16 The status of artistic labor has been mainly tackled outside official institutions, by networked cultural worker collectives and activist cultural groups that have emerged in the last decade or so, such as the London-based ‘‘Carrotsworkers Collective’’ and ‘‘Precarious Workers Brigade,’’ the Paris-based ‘‘Coordination des intermittents et pre´caires,’’ and the New York based ‘‘W.A.G.E.’’ (Working Artists and the Greater Economy). The basic consensus in such groups is that, as Carrotsworkers Collective puts it, ‘‘free labour, internships, volunteer work’’ are not a separate sphere of activity but a necessary ‘‘condition of late capitalist cultural economy.’’17 Especially recently, as the ‘‘Occupy’’ movement has spread, the exploitative practices in the artworld is a main theme in the agenda of various collectives claiming to represent the majority of artists and creative workers, who struggle to make a living within the field, the largely invisible mass of cultural workers that provides the conditions of possibility of celebrated art to take place (Sholette, 2010).18 Groups such as the newly formed collective ‘‘ArtLeaks,’’ following the Wikileaks practice, call to draw attention to leaked abuses concerning artistic work, underscoring the precarious condition of cultural workers and the necessity for sustained protest against the appropriation of politically engaged art, culture and theory by institutions embedded in a tight mesh of capital and power.19
Such discussions are usually excluded in official biennial programs, as the majority of these events often rely on the voluntary or underpaid labor of the participants. Volunteerism in the official artworld is mostly career-oriented and is different than volunteerism in more horizontalized structures based on prefigurative politics and voluntary associations, where the participants have a potentially more equal relationship with each other. In large-scale spectacular events, it is usually the few who decide and maintain their authority, while on the other hand there is usually a mass of unpaid volunteers and interns who strive to enter the world of artistic recognition as a promise to ‘‘be part of the action.’’ Such logics tend to exclude in the long-term lower socioeconomic classes from art production, as creative producers with alternative sources of income will much easier pursue a career in the sector.20
As a matter of fact, contemporary biennials often use a language derived from a neoliberal vocabulary. Volunteering positions that reproduce a class-based career trajectory are often advertised as a ‘‘unique opportunity of interacting with established artists, professionals, local and international visitors,’’21 or a ‘‘fantastic opportunity to be part of a major international art event.’’22 This is often problematic for art institutions that aspire to a social and political relevance distinct from that of art market competition. One could also suggest that this type of language, based on the cult of the creative personality who despite personal turmoil eventually ‘‘makes it to the top,’’ impoverishes the collaborative potential that the word ‘‘volunteerism’’ implies. In fact as Lorey (2009, p. 197) notes, cultural producers, due to the belief of their own freedom and autonomy, are so prone to exploitation that they are almost presented by the state as ‘‘role models’’ or ‘‘model entrepreneurs,’’23 forecasting the ongoing process of casualization of all work that is currently becoming predominant all across Europe (Gielen, 2010; Ross, 2009).24
Engagement with activist politics: ‘‘Forget Fear’’ in 7th Berlin Biennale
Apart from theoretical and curatorial accounts that see biennials as stages for enabling radical politics, the complexities regarding their role are often addressed in dismissive terms. In their article, ‘‘Event and Counter-Event: The Political Economy of the Istanbul Biennial and Its Excesses’’ (Harutyunyan, Aras, & Goodfield, 2011) on the explicitly politicized 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009), Harutyunyan et al. argue that despite all the Brechtian rhetoric on liberation and emancipation that the curators of the show mobilized, the event remains a capitalist spectacle that serves to validate the specific interests of its sponsors, such as the multinational giants Koc¸ and Turkcell. Their view holds in short that effective political action must take place outside an event such as a biennial, as the latter due to the structural affinities with neoliberal modes of development, post-Fordist work paradigms and the institutionalized, conservative artworld is unable to weaken the system. For the authors, such contradictions between the ideological and economic conditions of the biennial, as well as the postideological paradigm in which the biennial functions ultimately hinder any convincing potential of emancipatory politics. For them, the streets and self-organized initiatives are the places where real ruptures in hegemonic order can be enacted as they are able to forge new social relations and practices from below.
However penetrating, such a view fosters a fatalistic conception of political and social relations that overlooks the particularities of social interaction. If we think of the constitution of the social as ontologically contingent, contradictory, and diverse (Mouffe, 1988), the encounter with or the participation in cultural manifestations of whatever kind is capable of enabling different significations for audiences and participants, the effects of which cannot be exhausted in the agendas of their sponsors. I argue here that from the perspective of social sciences these complexities could be better understood through thorough and enduring examinations of the relations between subjects and objects in the sites they appear and their conceptualizations within larger configurations of meaning. To manifest my point, I will discuss how such complexities could be better understood by addressing questions more familiar to ethnographic research (Siegenthaler, 2013) within a biennial setting that attempted to activate ‘‘the streets’’ within its actual space. Rather than arriving at definite conclusions about the ‘‘biennial phenomenon,’’ through this example, I wish to open up a series of enquires for informing future research in the field.
The 7th Berlin Biennale took place from April 29 to July 1, 2012. KW, its main venue and hosting institution, is located in Auguststrasse in Berlin Mitte, an area full of commercial art galleries, where processes of gentrification and rent speculation have been functioning smoothly since the unification of Germany. Presenting a hyper-politically engaged exhibition in such a privileged area seemed already a contradiction in terms.
Titled ‘‘Forget Fear,’’ the exhibition held an explicit political-activist agenda that stirred up public debate and controversies both in Berlin and abroad. The curatorial team avoided the usual practice of implementing an overloaded theoretical discourse for framing the artistic content, returning, as the cocurator Joanna Warsa puts it, to ‘‘action and non-knowledge.’’25 This was only partially true, as the educational program of the Berlin Biennial was in reality far from limited, with numerous panels, seminars, conferences, and symposia. The difference to other biennials was that instead of inviting world famous philosophers and social scientists, the curator Artur Zmijewski and cocurator Joanna Warsa chose to involve activists, activist artists, or groups active in a struggle for social change. The curators deliberately chose to include actors normally excluded from the institutionalized artworld , tackling the issue of artistic labor, institutional structures and symbolic fees, pointing out explicitly among other things that, ‘‘the biennale, whether we like it or not, is a form of artistic exploitation’’ (Zmijewski, 2012).26
In a nutshell, the main curatorial strategy can be described as follows: The curatorial team essentially attempted to use the anticipated possibility of noncen- sorship, freedom, and autonomy that the category of art enjoys in Western liberal societies, in order to offer visibility and material support to excluded or repressed individuals, collectives, and institutions. This included works and cases that have been either subordinated to state censorship, such as the censored exhibition ‘‘Ukrainian Body’’ in Kiev, state oppression such as the artist/activist groups Voina, and Pussy Riot in Russia, or are committed in one way or another to struggles for social change, such as the ‘‘Berlin Occupy’’ movement. Works exhibited in the Biennale range from direct agit-prop, such as Marina’s Naprushkina’s newspaper Self-Governing that opposes Luckashenko’s oppressive government in Belarus, to controversial pieces targeting official German history, such as Martin Zet’s Germany gets rid of it, where the artist calls Germans to get rid of Thilo Sarrazin’s infamous best-seller Germany Does Away with Itself . The curators chose also to give visibility to cases like the Palestinian struggle for statehood through the display of the ‘‘Palestinian Key of Return’’ that symbolizes freedom for Palestine, the ‘‘Jewish Renaissance Movement’’ that calls for a return of 3.3 million expatriated Jews to Poland and to the victims of the drug-wars in Mexico. In many occasions the interested groups were physically present in the Biennial space. In this sense the 7th Berlin Biennale expanded its scope beyond the traditional artworld to nonartistic actors, such as contemporary activist groups and marginalized communities.
A characteristic work that illuminates the curatorial practice was New World Summit by Jonas Staal. For the work, the artist and his collaborators invited for a 2-day summit various representatives and political spokesmen of organizations that are designated as terrorist by international terrorist lists so as to open up democratic debate and give visibility to the issue. During the summit, the speakers were surrounded by flags of so-called terrorist organizations, many of which were prohibited from public display in Germany. As a researcher who closely worked with the project informed me, it would be very difficult to realize such a meeting without the institutional support of Berlin Biennale. Despite the controversies, the work gave the physical stage and voice to an otherwise homogenized social group in public imagination, the so-called terrorist organizations. In a similar fashion, the curators decided to provide the main space of KW Institute to the recently evicted and disempowered ‘‘Occupy Berlin.’’ The goal on behalf of the curatorial team was to strengthen and position within the activist map the Berlin branch of the Occupy movement through its financing and visibility, as well as to create a space where the movement could exchange knowledge, skills and information with the Spanish ‘‘Indignados’’ and activists from all over the world. In this way, spectatorship was hoped to be turned into active participation. The presence of the Occupy Berlin in the Biennale space created rippling effects to the institution that organized the show. For example, with the initiative of the activists, assemblies were held with the exhibition workers and curators in order to negotiate working conditions in KW, wages and equality in decision making. Despite all the largely valid criticisms and complaints for the movement’s institutionalization and neutralization by the Biennale, most of the participants in the Occupy Berlin that I talked with, who were themselves actively involved throughout the duration of the Biennale, felt that the movement was indeed strengthened and reorganized.
In the last decades, contemporary art as a field of action has become significantly socialized and nontechnical so as to often merge or overlap with that of political activism. Here, this merging is expressed within Berlin Biennale, a dominant player in the configuration of trends and discourses in the global art world. The event demonstrates that the binary opposition that Harutyunyan et al set up between, on the one hand capitalist circuits and their overdetermining effects on exhibition’s meanings, and on the other hand ‘‘the streets’’ is a weak explanatory framework for examining these types of shows. An analysis of the often conflicting institutional logics present in the exhibition space such as in the case of the Berlin Biennale, i.e. of the curatorial team, the German Cultural Foundation and BMW as sponsors, Occupy Berlin, artists and the so-called terrorist groups demands a research method attentive to and able to account for the ways that such logics are transformed, contested, affirmed or compromised through their encounters. The decision of the German Cultural Foundation to threaten to stop funding during the preparation of the show in fear that it would be a ‘‘political catastrophe,’’ as a tour guide of the exhibition put it, is a good case in point for thinking through these conflicting logics.
In this sense, the curatorial approach and the relations it staged complicates a straightforward analysis of the show that will either dismiss it as a ‘‘‘capitalist spectacle’’’ or see it as a potential stage for radical politics. I would argue that its extremity and complicatedness raises questions as to how biennials and similar events should be approached from a scholarly perspective in general. Some questions that could illuminate the ambivalences and potentials of the biennial in relation to its condition as both a proclaimed site of resistance and a brand could be the following: How are the social values and scripts of contemporary art understood by those involved in these settings, the workers, the artists, the activists and the general public? How does the larger social context, whether physical or symbolic, interact and shape possibilities and expectations of public intervention? How do the discourses on social change, anti-capitalism and pedagogy inflict a specific mode of understanding and being within these settings? What kinds of new worlds are produced within such settings and for whom are these worlds potentially valuable? Through systematic engagements with their dynamic and transient modes of being, these questions can advance an understanding of biennials as translocal spheres of action (Nelund, 2013). As far as they account for the particularities of social interaction, ethnographic approaches on contemporary art institutions can shed light on constellations of discourses, practices and interpretations that largely remain obscured in prevalent art historical or theoretical narratives.
Panos Kompatsiaris is an assistant professor of art and media at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and academic supervisor of the master's program Critical Media Studies in the same university. He has published on art, culture and politics in journals and collective volumes and he is the author of The Politics of Contemporary Art Biennials: Spectacles of Critique, Art and Theory (Routledge, 2017). He is currently co-editing the volume The Industrialization of Creativity and its Limits (Springer, 2020) and a Special Issue for the Journal of Cultural Economy titled Crafting Values: Economies, Ethics and Aesthetics of Artistic Valuation.
1 ‘Extra visual’’ here refers to a practice of exhibition-making that does not principally focus on the visual qualities of the show, but moves beyond them to employ discussions, publications, guide tours, seminars, symposia, and so on.
2 Following Niemojewski (2010) ‘‘contemporary art biennial’’ here will signify the city or region-specific ‘‘large-scale international survey show of contemporary art that recurs at regular intervals but not necessarily biannually’’ (p. 92). Documenta, therefore, which occurs every 5 years, as well as triennials that occur every 3 years, are included under the umbrella name ‘‘biennial.’’
3 See Venice Biennale, 2009, ‘‘Making Worlds,’’ http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/archive/ exhibition/.
5 For more material on the educational turn and knowledge production in contemporary art and curating, see O’Neil and Wilson (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010), E-Flux Retrieved March 2010, from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/14.
7 As ‘‘knowledge economy’’ and ‘‘lifelong learning’’ demand more and more education, certain contemporary art institutions and projects, from the A.C.A.D.E.M.Y. project (2006) to the BAK institution in Utrecht and the ‘‘Copenhagen Free University,’’ responded to the call by attempting to radicalize the content of their educational practice (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010). The rationale goes that since knowledge and creativity are incorporated in the economic cycle of post-Fordism in the form of labor, they should at least be employed for producing critical discourses and militant resistance.
12 This is a recurrent tension that time and again appears in discussions concerning forms of critical cultural production and which in curatorial terms is very much addressed in what is known as ‘‘New Institutionalism.’’ ‘‘New Institutionalism’’ has been a popular buzzword during the 2000s in contemporary art curatorial discourse. It expresses a will to critically reengage with art institutions like biennials, art fairs and galleries, in order to transform them from within. According to Claire Doherty, New Institutionalism ‘‘classifies effectively a field of curatorial practice, institutional reform and critical debate concerned with the transformation of art institutions from New Institutionalism is characterized by the rhetoric of temporary / transient encounters, states of flux and open-endedness’’ (2004, p. 1).
13 See for instance, http://ec.europa.eu/culture/creative-europe/documents/pdf.
14 Murray Whyte, a Canadian newspaper visual arts writer, in his 2009 article ‘‘Why Kitchener-Waterloo Has a Biennial, but Toronto Does Not,’’ understands the need for a biennial for Toronto in similar way: From an economic development point of view, that’s the advantage of biennials: They’re on for extended periods of time, so you can really leverage them as tourist events ... just having a biennial is a flag firmly planted in the community that says, loud and clear: Art matters here.’’ http://www.thestar.com/ entertainment/article/686996
15 See, for example, David Ley’s article ‘‘Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification’’ (Ley, 2003) for the role of artists as agents in contributing to the gentrification of areas in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, also ‘‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’’ (1984) by Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan for the role of artists in gentrifying New York’s Lower Eastern Side, Sharon Zukin’s Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Zukin, 1988), as well as the manifesto from Hamburg ‘‘Jammin the Gentrification Machine’’ by Not In Our Name! http://www.signandsight. com/features/1961.html.
16 In the past 10 years there has seen a significant body of literature generated in the sociology of labor regarding the nature of cultural and creative work mostly in media industries (Beck, 2003; Hesmondhalgh & Baker, 2010; Huws, 2006 –2007; McRobbie, 2002, 2004; Ross, 2009). These accounts most usually describe cultural labor as self-fulfilling and self-rewarding, low-paid, nonunionized, and highly flexible. Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2010) have further identified cultural work as extremely competitive, with large amounts of young people willing to work for free.
18 See for instance the collective Occupy Art Basel: ‘‘We represent the people who can barely afford the entry fee to see the art at Art Basel, let alone make an offer on their favorite art piece. We are the 99% who can’t afford to buy this art. We are the people who install the art, transport the art, guard the art, dress up and sit behind a desk and try to sell the art for their bosses. We are the countless artists who haven’t made it into Art Basel, into the art commodity marketplace. We are the countless craftspeople who help make this art or exclusively produce this art on the instructions of the We are the countless art lovers who read about art, study art, appreciate art, need art around all the time, but don’t have the cash to own it.’’ http://www.occupyartbasel.com/about
19 See http://art-leaks.org/about/.
20 The consequences of the lack of social diversity in contemporary art has recently been noted in relation to art education after the pronounced cuts in public spending in the English higher education sector by the current British government that in the long term will mostly affect people from lower classes (Beagles, 2010; Bishop, 2011).
21 See, for example, Singapore Biennial http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2010/11/600- volunteers-and-interns-needed-for-singapore-biennale-2011/.
22 See, for example, Dublin Contemporary, http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2011/06/ dublin-contemporary-is-looking-for-volunteers/.
23 See ‘‘Organic Intellectual Work: Interview With Andrew Ross’’ (2009), http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/geert/interview-with-andrew-ross/.
24 In a recent talk Italy’s PM Mario Monti advised young people to forget about life-time jobs. http://schirachreport.com/index.php/2012/02/02/italian-prime-minister-monti- tells-young-people-to-be-flexible-and-forget-about-life-time-jobs-the-young-respond- that-they-want-job-security-risk-averse-italy-will-never-grow-fast/
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