In 2012 Artur Żmijewski curated (with associate curators: Joanna Warszaw and Voina group) The 7th Berlin Biennale, which was sometimes interpreted as the artist’s major individual exhibition. Żmijewski called for an exhibition, which resembles "the parliament rather than salon" involving individuals and communities that, for ideological reasons (e.g. due to clear religious qualities, 'smuggling' conspiracy theories or xenophobic views), are rarely allowed to speak out in the space of a museum or a gallery. Żmijewski sought to achieve a polyphony of voices and mutually exclusive opinions utilising the dynamics of a dispute and political conflict to create a review of artistic practices that "really work".
Artur Żmijewski - (born 1966 in Warsaw, where he continues to live and work) – sculptor by background, he mainly works in video. Also a publisher, publicist, editor of the Krytyka Polityczna periodical, curator of the 2012 Berlin Biennale. He believes that art may influence the shape and form of social life, language, and memory.
Berlin Biennale digital archives were made available to the Museum’s website visitors as of the day of the "As You Can See. Polish Art Today." exhibition opening.
Courtesy of KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Artur Żmijewski.
7th BERLIN BIENNALE FOR CONTEMPORARY POLITICS
Where we are today? Europe sees a wave of hostility towards foreigners. Politicians are eager to rekindle past resentment, harnessing it in the service of political agendas. Support for culture is being cut in the Netherlands, Greece, the UK, and in other countries—and it is also questioned quite prominently in Germany. In Russia, artists find themselves the target of witch hunts and some of them have been arrested, like members of the Pussy Riots group. In Russia there is also a tendency to drastically reduce educational services. Cuts in the cultural sector around Europe represent the wish of politicians who prefer a less educated society, which is easy to administer.
In such a situation it’s not enough—in my opinion—to have art that only fights to keep its position, which just makes claims on public funds and participates in sharing the economic profits which it creates. That’s fine; but it would also be useful to have art that is smart and creative enough to take part in transformative social processes.
The concept of the 7th Berlin Biennale is quite straightforward and can be condensed into a single sentence: we present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed. These works create political events—regardless of whether they deal with urgent problems in society or the long-term politics of memory. The key areas of our interest are: the political effectiveness of art, the activity of the engaged intelligentsia and the creative class (artists in particular), their reactions to important social issues, as well as the way art is employed to construct historical narratives. We have also worked with artists whose views are radically different from our own and who support political forces that some of us might even consider dangerous. What is at stake here is to present these positions and, if possible, to even influence their ideological agendas and goals, rather than keeping a safe and dignified distance.
We decided to present almost exclusively new works in this Berlin Biennale. Rather than adjusting existing projects to a theme, we invited artists to respond to questions we proposed. We hoped for a situation in which artists’ actions would become not only art, but could also reveal a political truth—something with the potential to change selected aspects of our shared reality, so that art would possess the power of politics but not its fear, opportunism, and cynicism. So that art would create its own political approach, while artists’ works would speak of society in a truly open way—and it would turn out that they are actually able to speak. It’s enough to refrain from reducing artistic statements to “velvet-glove criticism.” Artists will demonstrate their social empathy and the power of their critical positions in their entirety.
Did we succeed in playing this out with one of the first contributions to the Berlin Biennale—for example with the project of Martin Zet, launched three months before the official opening? The very moment it was announced, we were confronted with a media-fueled scandal that engulfed Zet’s proposal to collect 60,000 copies of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away with Itself or Germany Abolishes Itself), which were to be made into an installation. Zet and the Berlin Biennale were accused of wanting to organize book burnings and of harboring Nazi fantasies. Instead of a rational conversation, we stepped into the realm of fantasy—into the German imaginary, along with its props: ashes and flames. The fact that we didn’t seem to associate collecting books with burning them on the square in front of the Opera was met with local amazement. On occasion, it was perceived as naivety. The media attempted to reduce this serious political project by Zet to little more than an artistic scandal. It was labeled bad art—a convenient and frequently deployed strategy, as if by targeting the form, one needs not to be concerned about the message. Zet’s campaign was criticized for featuring expressions that made references to the language of the Third Reich. But does one really need to consider the fact that words and phrases such as “collect,” “collection point,” or “clear the atmosphere” could be associated with Nazi vocabulary? Perhaps those attacking Zet’s project just wanted to divert people’s attention from the contemporary vocabulary of racism, as presented in the book by Sarrazin, a Social Democrat. In Germany his book has sold over 1.3 million copies. Zet reminded us again that this vocabulary is a part of a secretly accepted language; under the cover of political correctness, hate speech grows. Paradoxically, he was blamed for executing an act of radical democracy with the use of Nazi assumptions.
The Berlin Biennale itself transformed into a method of conducting politics. Rather than illustrating social processes and examining them from a safe distance, we succeeded in bringing the Biennale into the field of political events. These actions vary in impact. Some slip out of hand, like Zet’s campaign. Others succeed in creating a collective voice in the political arena that concerns a specific issue. These include a project by Khaled Jarrar, whose concept of stamping passports with a “State of Palestine” stamp is a proclamation of the existence of a non-existent state, made from the position of an artist-citizen. It establishes an international community of “stamp bearers,” and this in turn contributes to a greater cause—the process of developing and defending claims for Palestinian statehood. A similar effect was achieved in the case of what is presumed to be the “world’s largest key.” The residents of Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank, where the key was made, have used its presentation in the Biennale as an opportunity to launch a press campaign and turn the world’s eyes towards the fate of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Instead of a desperate act of violence, they created a serious yet humorous art object—an object more effective than violence, because it’s able to seduce people.
Born in Berlin
One of the conditions of this Biennale’s efficacy is a shift away from the exotic. The artists addressed issues that are widely known, are seen as pressing by many, and are regularly found in the headlines. These include Sarrazin’s book; the controversial issue of the manipulation of memory, especially in relation to the question of German migration during and after the Second World War; or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, the artists play for shared, collective stakes rather than exoticizing reality or resorting to superficial playing around.
Each project required an enormous effort on the part of the artists. The same effort was required of the Berlin Biennale and KW Institute for Contemporary Art teams—to lobby, to convince, to meet the requirements of the city administration, and also not to fear while pursuing these projects. Some of the works refer to politics and memory and the way they are manipulated to serve as influential tools in the hands of political decision makers. For instance, the German politics of memory has become, to a certain extent, based on attempts to relativize German guilt and to stir up resentment that can be used to campaign for votes and to increase support for conservative politicians. In the context of Berlin—an exceptional “memory bank,” which is home to constellations of museums and monuments—we were interested in working not only to present facts, but also to reveal newly constructed narratives. This is one of the goals of the center for exhibitions, documentation, and information being created by the Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung (SFVV) (Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation), scheduled to open in 2016. Its building—Deutschlandhaus—serves as a venue for the Biennale, but also hosts a project prepared by the SFVV. The SFVV, whose mission is to testify to the Second World War and post-war fate of evacuated and moved Germans, presents a historical narrative that, in the opinion of many commentators, converts Germans into victims of organized violence. Discussions about the center emerged in the shadow of controversy, provoking accusations of revanchism and historical manipulation. We see it as an apparatus of the German state, tasked with psychologically preparing society to accept the status of a European hegemon—which, as it seems, is only prevented by a historical burden of guilt. Politicians try to invent a new, safer understanding of this dominance. On his visit to Berlin last year, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski said: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. (…) You may not fail to lead. Not dominate, but to lead in reform.”
As a citizen of Eastern Europe, my own attitude to Germany and Berlin itself is ambivalent. And I’m not the only one. It is an exceptionally open city, so ostentatiously liberal that it lures many, including a large international community of artists who chose to live and work here. One of them, Joanna Rajkowska, decided to deliver her baby not in London or Warsaw, where she usually resides, but in Berlin—as a form of a tribute to the city. The child was born two weeks overdue, as though Rosa refused to accept the decision of Joanna and her husband Andrew. A few months later, Rosa was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, retinoblastoma, a cancer that develops in the cells of the retina causing sight impairment. Could it be that Rosa refused to see the city she lives in, the one included on her birth certificate? What is the actual message in this “project”: Joanna’s decision, Rosa’s birth, or the disease affecting her eyes? When we sat down to work on the Berlin Biennale, we declared that we would propose questions instead of answers. Yet still, we are left with answers, as Rosa’s condition is a phenomenon that not only belongs to the regime of biology, or medicine, but also to the regime of culture. Why didn’t the doctor from the Berlin clinic check Rosa’s eyes properly, while the other one in Warsaw found the tumor there? Is it just a case of the ignorance of one pediatrician or an example of a wider, maybe even cultural, approach? West and East meet in Rosa’s eyes.
As I write this text a few weeks before the opening of the Berlin Biennale, I am still uncertain as to the final shape of the exhibition. Most works are currently in production. We will see the Biennale in its ultimate form no sooner than mid-April. I can say this: we succeeded at something I had only imagined before—we put all our eggs in one basket, and things will either “work” or “fail.” This risk is a way of escaping from the circle of the self-replicating art system that promotes the transport and installation of existing objects in order to avoid facing a changing reality that is difficult to predict. And if we want to confront and tackle this challenge called the Berlin Biennale, we cannot do it alone. This is why our questions and themes were taken up by allies who chose to support the idea of political art as an act of solidarity and to organize their own program of exhibitions and events. Our partners in these “Solidarity Actions” are: Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV), Dortmund; Istituto Svizzero di Roma (Swiss Institute in Rome); Kalmar konstmuseum, Kalmar; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; and steirischer herbst, Graz. For some institutions, solidarity with the Biennale is like a coming out—a declaration that art need not be dominated by empty gestures, and that the time has come for it to effectively deal with reality. Through the “Solidarity Actions” we also expand our knowledge of substantially political art, because our partners bring ideas to the table that we would not otherwise come up with. There are two more partners involved in the project Filtered by Eisenhüttenstadt—Artists-in-Berlin-Program/DAAD and me Collectors Room Berlin/Olbricht Foundation—who pursue their own cultural agendas in a small city in eastern Brandenburg.
Can art influence reality? Most likely yes, but not when it acts alone. It can only do so if it is one of the many forces at play that work towards change. For example, when institutions collaborate with each other, and artists work hand in hand with other actors. For change to take place today, the cultural field needs to build solidarity rather than competition. Europe is increasingly hostile to foreigners. The intelligentsia and people in the field of culture hold a considerable potential to influence social moods and shape the imagination of the future—they can change the course of events. Solidarity could be a way of tapping into this potential. While blending art and politics our partners, as well as ourselves, acknowledge the significance and appeal of each of these fields.
The Weak Conspiracy
We are still not sure about how the grand non-project of the Biennale—Indignados | Occupy Biennale—that is, the presence of members of Occupy, 15M, as well as other movements in the exhibition hall of KW will turn out. Their presence goes beyond the logic of the exhibition. It is a situation that we don’t curate, supervise, or assess. Out there, among the people discussing their participation in the Biennale, radical democracy, based on participation, is already taking place. And it will continue to take place between the activists and the visitors of the Biennale. Members of the various groups will simply be in KW, acting or not, adapting to the art world or rejecting it. But it’s none of the curators’ business. If we choose to, we can join them and work together—but only in a situation where our voice and their voices are of equal importance, where there is no hierarchy of power that would coerce others to act in a specific way. These exceptional social movements are important not only due to the fact that they are re-inventing democracy and politics, but also because they are “weak.” Many of us are fed up with looking at the archetypical leaders—tough and strong politicians—who are all too often incapable of responding to social shifts, not to mention relinquishing power. Isn’t it the case that what we need today is weakness rather than power? And that those social movements—weak, fragile, and prone to attacks as they are—have become essential precisely because of their weakness? Politics should not be founded on the concept of power, but on weakness. What else is art if not such a phenomenon? It is a weak discourse on which we could build if we want to avoid being endlessly raped by a merciless and cynical politics, and the brutal laws of the market, which leave no place for ideological naivety and softness.
In order to comprehend the 7th Berlin Biennale, one needs to understand the institutional context in which it emerged. The work on the exhibition involves more than a simple selection of artistic ideas and the decision to translate them into projects. It is essentially an everyday struggle with the logic of an art institution and the excessive regulations to which the Biennale is subject, which manifest themselves in an overwhelming number of bureaucratic procedures. It is also a struggle with German political correctness and the fear of breaching these rules. And it is furthermore a struggle against the expectation that “everything would be the same as always,” all the while hoping that this Biennale would be different from the others. After all, the “Berlin Biennale invents itself anew every two years.” Artists’ proposals are sifted through an institutional filter and confronted with the concerns of their potential consequences for the institution. This is what ultimately defines the exhibition. Artists are treated as producers who deliver exhibition components rather than human beings and political entities for whom the Biennale is a channel of expression and communication. Our work with the team was a collaboration with a group of enthusiasts, who understood the fact that they acted within a fragile social fabric, and were aware that by intervening in it they actually took part in politics. This awareness of the potential impact on society was also at times the source of a paralyzing anxiety. If we examine the consequences of the artistic contributions to the Biennale, it is evident that an art institution has a symbolic influence on reality. Put to work in the public sphere, as consistently implemented political activities, this influence could transform an art institution into a significant political actor—an actor able to influence social processes, or just be one of the mediators in such processes. The first process which could be influenced by an art institution is of course the internal process of art production. This is what I expect of an institution—to support rather than hamper initiatives. And to have the courage to exercise its influence, rather than show excessive anxiety. Around 30 percent of my time was consumed by the internal institutional struggle. It’s not a critique of the people, but it is a critique of the overly-strong structure and procedures, which put us into “only proper” places and actively shape our minds.
We curators, the organizers, and the artists have become painfully aware of the issue of the exhibition’s inadequate budget. Despite the fact that the funds for the production had been diminished so seriously that the development of works became questionable, the artists did not withdraw from the exhibition. Some found external sources of financial support on their own. We curators agreed that each artist in the Biennale would receive a fee of 1,000 Euros (unfortunately not all of them were paid as such). One of the participants, Marina Naprushkina, stated that to earn a living under these circumstances, she would need to take part in two biennials each month. It turned out that the Biennale, whether we like it or not, is a form of artistic exploitation, where the conditions are defined by me and the curatorial team. Quite possibly the artists we collaborated with have already faced the problem of limited budgets and symbolic fees. On one hand, their exceptional and significant artistic proposals have earned them an established position within the field; on the other, they are financially discriminated against as producers of art projects that are consumed by the institutionalized art circuit on a daily basis. But there are possible solutions to this situation: for example Polish artist Julita Wójcik recently proposed to the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Warsaw that she be employed there as an artist during the time she was preparing an exhibition and also for its duration. Let’s imagine a situation in which an artist works for an institution as an employee and has the same contract and receives all the same privileges (salary as well as social benefits) as others who work there.
And yet as curators, we have learned a lesson in how to conform to the existing structure, how to acquiesce to the institutional violence exerted over subjects that are essentially weaker—the artists. We knew how to haggle over production budgets, cutting the costs from 20,000 to 4,000 Euros. But at the same time, we worked with an institution, and in a climate of a fear of art that effectively criticizes the way democracy is being practiced. This odd and overwhelming anxiety led us to title this Berlin Biennale Forget Fear. The expression itself has a performative character; it’s a watchword that relieves one’s anxiety.
It’s Friday, the sun is setting, and it’s about time I finished this statement. The 7th Berlin Biennale is already underway, and soon all projects will be subject to public scrutiny. Some will find the exhibition interesting; some will see it as an abuse; while still others will accuse us of political ignorance. Whatever happens, we should not lose sight of our main goal: to open access to performative and effective politics that would equip we ordinary citizens with the tools of action and change. Art is one of these tools.
DOING THINGS WITH ART:
A VOCABULARY THAT HELPED TO BUILD THE STRUCTURE OF THE 7th BERLIN BIENNALE
Research That Follows the News
We followed the logic of journalism. We focused on political and social events and art’s response to them. We went to Hungary, monopolized by the right-wing party Fidesz; to Iceland, where a group of artists established a political party and won the election in the city council of Reykjavik in the aftermath of the financial crisis; to Russia, rocked by anti-Putin protests; to Madrid, the hotbed of the ¡Democracia Real YA! movement; to New York, where Occupy Wall Street continues its struggle; to Tunisia in the wake of the first free elections; and to Egypt in a time of post-revolutionary turmoil. This form of curatorial research does not involve deadlines, hunting for interesting portfolios, or studio visits. We searched for art in civil disobedience, in politics, in representative state art, in the politics of memory, in capitalist appropriation, or in educational activities seen as “bad art.” We examined how art disperses within society: how it exploits its potential for political action, and where, parallel to artists, there are people just making art.
Voina as Associated Curators
If you ask the St. Petersburg faction of the Voina group where art ends they will tell you: nowhere. Their practice happens on the ground, through riots or interventions into the field of state power. Leo, one of their members, recently set fire to a police truck meant for transporting convicts. Voina sees art as their tool and uses it for direct actions. Yet they don’t accept commissions or invitations to exhibit, neither are they interested in curatorial sessions in Berlin. They perform resistance to Russia’s pseudo-democracy, playing on hype, symbolic value, and media visibility. They live without money in St. Petersburg or Moscow, which are their battlefields for citizen rights. Such a radical posture serves the goal of social emancipation. Our curatorial alliance with Voina creates a situation in which the institutional tools of the Berlin Biennale—access to press coverage, legal representation, or funding—can serve Voina’s cause; through it they are legitimized as artists and their actions are deemed art.
A curator friend recently told me: “The art world doesn’t need another solo show by a star artist at the moment.” What does it need then, in a world with a few hundred biennials, many of which claim to reflect on the relationship between art and politics? In liminal moments throughout history, art has often taken some “time off,” abandoning the studios to practice dissent and action, and challenge the existing ideological or economic doctrines. Such moments gave birth to the founding of post-revolutionary Russian Productivism, the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers’ Council for Art) in 1918/1919 in Germany; the Art Workers’ Coalition established in 1969 in New York, or the art demonstrations in Armenia following the fall of the Soviet Union—to name just a few. Inspired by past and current examples, we also wrestle away from self-referential art and theory discourse, returning to action and non-knowledge. Making activism tap into art’s added value, we’re interested in examples where following a career can mean pursuing an idea, effectiveness need not be equal to dogmatism, and information on art doesn’t need promotion via an expensive mailing list.
Democracy becomes performative when it collectively expands its scope, developing new tools, and when decision-making processes are accessible for all, giving rise to new possible political practices and political awareness in a democratic carnival. We have searched for the actors of those shifts: we work with members of Indignados, ¡Democracia Real YA!, Occupy Berlin, Occupy Frankfurt, the 15M Movement, and the Artists in Occupy Amsterdam group, who abandoned their studios to pitch a tent in the camp in the very center of the city. We will also have a visit from Occupy Museums in New York, which explores the non-transparent connections between the world of finance and the art world. By inviting collectives who have been contributing to the recent ideological turn, and making the exhibition hall of KW Institute for Contemporary Art their "advocacy space," we attempt to stop business as usual—in order to examine ourselves and reflect on contemporary politics and our shared role in it. We deploy performativity as a vehicle, against the common belief that everything in the art space is per definition fake and pointless.
By “citizen art” we refer to the involvement of artists and cultural producers in social processes or economic transformations. We look beyond the categories of good or bad art, pursuing ideas, and forgetting fear or skepticism. We have supported or produced works by artists, curators, politicians, or collectives that clearly define themselves on the contemporary political map, touch the real base, and demand what other people also demand. In Cairo, we met the film collective Mosireen, which is monitoring protests, police abuses, illegal military trials, and creating a stream of information about the on-going revolution in post-Mubarak Egypt. In Brazil, we spoke to Pixadores, a group of urban taggers who fill the streets of São Paulo with a coded alphabet, spelling out the demands of the lower classes in a radical passage to social visibility and recognition. We also work with people from the field of theater, like Krétakör director Árpád Schilling, who abandoned bourgeois practice to react to the growing right-wing sentiment that thrives in Hungary, and the Russian documentary groups Joseph Beuys Theater and Teater.doc, who act as watchdogs of authoritarian politics.
Politics That Becomes Art
We understand politics as a symbolic space and a meeting point for contradictory opinions and social mediation. We searched for rare moments of “political beauty” in the current capitalist democracies, which are oriented toward the hegemony of the free market. We work with Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, who breaks with the politics of hostility, shows how to give back power, knows how to discredit his own position. His political practice draws inspiration from contemporary art and pedagogy and employs objects and symbols that he refers to as “sub-art.” We also work with the Berlin-based think tank of artists and political scientists from the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty), who trace and initiate liminal political experiences.
And we work with Olafur Eliasson, one of the pioneers of the Berlin art scene, who offered a six-month fellowship to a politician to study in the framework of his Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments). We invited Mirosław Patecki, a religious artist who, driven by belief, designed one of the largest statues of Jesus Christ in the world. The sculpture, to his surprise, became a visual confirmation of the hegemonic status of the Catholic Church in Poland, albeit under the cover of a pilgrimage attraction. The Biennale also presents a commercial ready-made, an advertising banner from the Egyptian communication company Mobinil. It was one of the networks that cut off mobile phone service in the country in January 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring, and now it exploits the image of revolutionary crowds for financial gain.
A number of artists in the Biennale initiate a “parallel politics” in a series of gatherings: Jonas Staal brings together representatives of groups, which, for various reasons, have been listed as terrorist organizations (in New World Summit), questioning the ideas of inclusion and exclusion in the democratic order. Yael Bartana organizes the First International Congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), AND EUROPE WILL BE STUNNED. She calls for the return of 3.3 million Jews to Poland and demands the opening of fortress Europe and the end of a politics based on guilt and Zionist doctrine. Paweł Althamer initiates a two-month long Draftsmen’s Congress, where the main vehicles for discussion and communication are drawings, signs, and symbols.
“Engaged intelligentsia” is an East-European term that refers to a group of people determined to disseminate culture, produce and distribute knowledge, and defend humanist and socialist values. In the Russian and Polish context, this notion was a constituent element in forming a class of intellectuals and practitioners involved in day-to-day activism. Whether operating in education, journalism, art, or science, the engaged intelligentsia understands its practice as a service for the common good. This has been at play throughout the 20th century, in the pre-war left-wing groups, and later in the anti-communist dissident movement in Central and Eastern Europe. This term defined the horizon of many of our collaborations with artists and curators, which linked to the local context and tackled issues that are repressed and absent from the tolerant aura of the Berlin Republic. Nada Prlja constructs a Peace Wall along Friedrichstrasse, which radicalizes the existing divisions, economic disparities, social tensions, and current gentrification processes in Berlin. Bernd Langer, an artist-activist connected with the Antifa movement and the author of a number of publications on political resistance, leads guided tours focusing on Berlin’s political history. And the Israeli group Public Movement, following a famous quote by Angela Merkel about the failure of multiculturalism, announces its campaign Rebranding European Muslims.
Politics of Memory
We have been interested in observing how, with the use of political means, facts and historical events are either commemorated or repressed. What is remembered and what is forgotten and why? How are historical narrations shaped by current politics and social agendas? Roma curator Tímea Junghaus highlights the problem of the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Murdered under the National Socialist Regime, which sits unfinished and abandoned in the very heart of the city, between Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag, organizing a meeting of The Roma Elders and lobbying for the completion of the memorial. Polish artist Łukasz Surowiec transfers 320 trees from the vicinity of Auschwitz-Birkenau, replanting them across Berlin and thereby creating a living and breathing memorial. One of the Biennale venues is Deutschlandhaus, the future home of a center for exhibitions, documentation, and information of the Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung (SFVV) (Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation), which we see as a reservoir of German memory. It is a mouthpiece for the official historical narrative stemming from the controversial question of commemorating Germans displaced during and after the Second World War. We confront this state-supported history with self-organized, subjective, popular reconstructions of historical events performed by Polish re-enactment groups. And we present what many Germans want to avoid seeing—a staging of the 1945 Battle of Berlin, complete with military uniforms and equipment.
If politics is a way for different groups in society to express their claims and interests and to find social methods of making collective decisions, we aimed at a situation where those different positions are present and not only criticized. The curator often resembles a policeman who enforces the official codes of art and has a misguided sense of his own authority. Like with a Midas touch, she/he usually plays a role in deciding the symbolic—and as a result economic—value of an artist’s work. We figured that if one claims to be a “political” curator, she or he should assume the responsibility of presenting various political stances within an art exhibition. We understood the role of the curator as a position that not only involves “taking care” but also one of inviting disagreement, confrontation, losing control over meaning, or of giving away space and means. This thinking also stands behind ArtWiki, which is the digital platform of the Berlin Biennale, developed in collaboration with network activist Pit Schultz in reaction to the immense response to the Biennale’s 2010 Open Call. ArtWiki is an example of a fully inclusive curatorial practice, one that abandons the “Salon des Refusés” for the sake of a network that includes all political stances and where no curatorial selection prevails.
Elimination of the Audience
In his 1966 essay Notes on the Elimination of the Audience Allan Kaprow sought an experience of daily life through art that would make viewers unaware of their own role, turning them into participants. The “elimination” in the title refers to a situation where audience members lose sight of their position as observers, turning their spectatorship into citizenship. We developed the Biennale so as to address multiple audiences—the Berlin and the international one. But we also had in mind those who might not even be aware of being “spectators” of art. Belarusian artist Marina Naprushkina clandestinely distributes newspapers in her homeland, which propose possible scenarios after Alexander Lukashenko’s downfall. Naprushkina’s work is essentially addressed not to the exhibition audience, but to people who find her newspapers hand-delivered to their mailboxes in Minsk. Or Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, who designed “State of Palestine” stamps and printed over 20,000 of them through Deutsche Post. These are currently in circulation, both in Germany and across the world. The real addressees of such actions might not have any interest in the Berlin Biennale, but support such gestures of creating "normality" and dispersing art into the real.
Free and Open to All
For the first time ever, entrance to the Biennale is free—a decision made by an institution that helps to establish a space of exchange and confrontation. The contents of the exhibition and on-going program will also be unfolding, changing, and evolving over time. The Biennale brings together diverse, ideologically varied projects that expose political oppositions and testify to the fact that the same disputes that take place in society also cut across the world of art. After all, art is not a solution: it is part of the problem.
STATEMENT BY OLEG VOROTNIKOV (VOINA)
We met Artur Żmijewski in St. Petersburg in the spring of 2011. That summer he invited us to become curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale. He told us he needed our help to transform art into politics. This doesn’t mean that as Biennale curators we are going to occupy ourselves with exhibition management, which in our opinion is rather useless: exhibitions harm contemporary art. All artists ever think about nowadays is what they can exhibit and where. Therefore the fewer art pieces the Biennale will have, the better. The basis of our curatorial activity in the Berlin Biennale is this: we work without any limitations, and the Berlin Biennale hasn’t mandated any kind of frame. We have a close exchange with Artur. He knows about the difficulties we face and how exhausting it is to live underground. Our work with the Berlin Biennale doesn’t mean that we are leaving our country for this. Our activities here in Russia make up part of our work for the Biennale. All our actions as curators have an official status; we act as associate curators of the Biennale, and the government has to accept this. Our most recent actions were radical.
The rulers don’t dare to bring charges against us; they will probably not arrest the entire Berlin Biennale.Trying to leave the country wouldn’t be such a hard thing at all, but to live in St. Petersburg—where the “Commission on Fighting Extremism,” the criminal police, and the Russian department of Interpol search for us, and where our mug shots are even posted in the porter’s lodges of the museums—to live under such conditions is much more dangerous than the kind of elegant adventure of crossing a border. In principle, my position is: I’m staying here. The Russian government is at war against its own people. Many Russians, particularly those with a good education, have already left Russia. Millions of people have never been able to realize their life goals.
This is the government’s fault. That’s why I can’t leave. My front line is in Russia. And this is also my aesthetic position: to stay in the most beautiful city in the world. In our opinion, it’s part of the ethics of an artist to resist against the ruling system and to make this goal accessible to the public as well. This is why we seek to make our aim shine in the best possible way. There is an anecdote or perhaps it’s just someone’s memory of Kazimir Malevich: after the revolution in Petrograd, armed with a pistol, he passed through artists’ studios asking who was still painting birches and demanded real art. Armed with a weapon. That is real art.
Aesthetics is the precondition of ethics. Today, ethics are much more important for art. Voina doesn’t tolerate cowardice nor greed—both are the source of betrayal which is the worst and most unforgivable thing for the art activist. I personally cannot deal with apathy or ineptitude. When both occur, moreover in combination with an inflated self-assessment, I become very unpleasant company.
We want to make a type of art that no longer inspires anyone to the idea of awarding us an art prize. But if the museums and institutions can’t let go and continue to suggest us for their idiotic competitions, they are going to regret it. It’s impossible to bribe revolutionary art, and playing games with geniuses is dangerous. It’s my friendly advice that one should take us very seriously. For us, art is not the measure of life. We create new life, new events, that one can refer to. Our rifles are charged and aimed at art so that it stays at a distance and will not spread its art stench over here. We hate PR. We are an underground group. Voina has become very popular. Books and films about us are everywhere, people copy our actions—and none of this has anything to do with us. It’s other people playing copycat. Lazy assholes that advertise for us… this does not have anything to do with our future.
In the Russian press hardly anything has been published about us that paints a true picture of reality. Here, the dishonest writing of lackeys has become the ideology of journalistic work. If one third of what they write is accurate, it’s already a big success. A typical example of this is how the press wrote serious articles about our participation in the corrupt Moscow Biennale in spite of our loud and public boycott. Since 2005 when we have existed as a group there has been a substantial flow of disinformation about us. But sometimes this also has positive aspects: when the police investigated about our action “Palace Revolution” they couldn’t find any evidence, except the wildly contradictory media rumors and artistic interpretations on blogs. Thus the whole thing collapsed in on itself.
Now it’s our aim to present the people with a convincing impression of decisive actions. Passive protest and symbolic actions—now when it is again about “big history”—are immoral. The events in Russia of December 2011 and February 2012 show us: both the government and the opposition (which humiliates itself in front of the government) make fools of the people by degrading protests to the level of consuming Internet memes. There is laughter and ironizing rather than arming ourselves for street fighting. We have taken Berlin. The next thing is the Russian revolution.