Staking the claim.
In his manifesto for the Berlin Biennale curator, Polish photo/film artist, activist Artur Żmijewski announces his intent that the Biennale becomes an active site for political and social activism. ‘art doesn’t act, and doesn’t work’ he announces in his meditation on the impotence of artistic practice, which he has come to realize through increasing disenchantment, is a source of creative ideas not acted upon, nor necessarily implementable. Art is, in Żmijewski’s mind, a redundancy, which he seeks to replace with radicalism, harnessing the mood of occupancy and protest. You can read his foreword here: http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/comments/forget-fear-a-foreword-by-artur-zmijewski-19528
True to his vision, the Berlin Biennale, version 7, manifests as a series of installations and projects awaiting action and response. Along the Auguststrasse (site of KW and the activated urbanism of the BB5) and at other locations the symbol of the Berlin Biennial, a figure 7 with 3 equation stripes, hauntingly reminiscent of fascist insignia, is paint-stenciled on windows and doors. Paint dribbles lend an impatient, furtive appearance to this official graffiti, which intentionally evokes the branding of Jewish households and businesses in Nazi-era Berlin, as well as underground movements and protest signage across millennia. The neater ‘official’ versions tend to confirm the coup has already taken place.
With this arresting branding the BB7 immediately capitulates to a propagandist stylization, somehow inescapably tilting towards the very branding, marketing, fashion-style and system Żmijewski decries. It tends (perhaps unintentionally) to prove his point that art has been sucked into an inescapable pact with cultural privatization. Is the hand-maiden of neo-liberalism.
It’s hard not to like his passionate, albeit somewhat nostalgic, unreconstructed Marxist, neo-situationist appeal for art to re-find its political and social imperative, even if sometimes he makes claims and statements with which we do not wholly agree. Like many manifestos the lack of veracity, and the tendency to generalisation that cannot be proven, is the casualty of haste and urgency.
Manifestos, as we have seen recently in Norway, tend towards the diatribe, the rhetoric is hectoring and often belligerent and aimed to suffocate opposition by the sheer intensity of its words, passion and thought mass. So it is with Żmijewski’s … his sign-off ..under the sub-heading OUR GOAL begins with the romantic vision of the sun setting and time running out. We have a mental picture of him siting alone, furiously typing, trying to get his message across, exhausted already from the effort of his uncertain outcome. In a footnote (after many thousands of words) we are told the use of the ‘we’ pronoun throughout acknowledges his collaborative curators Joanna Warsza, the Voina Group and Igor Stokfiszewski. Ah! Not alone after all … WE wonder if they too are sharing the same sunset.
Naturally, it’s hard not to agree with him in some of what he rails against. Those of us who work for art and it’s systems of making and dissemination feel more and more the pressures that come from lack of government funding, the endless, exhausting quest to produce income and raise private support to provide resources to enable the ideas of artists and attract the audiences to them. Most of us do this with a sense of positive cooperation even while experiencing exasperation, but at times we know this entails capitulation … WE KNOW!! … nevertheless, we hope for the better outcome for many. Żmijewski prefers confrontation to cooperation – it may be part of his self-described ‘masculinist’ approach as contrasted against the feminized tendency to find a negotiable path to growth.
To eliminate the audience is one of the BB7’s stated aims…riffing off Alan Kaprow’s desire to make art works that make viewers unaware of their own role, converting them into participants. It sounds a bit brutal this elimination but is well intended in a number of offsite, more or less clandestine operations and petitions auspiced by BB7. Nevertheless you can imagine the collective conniption in the BB marketing camp…what!!! no audience!!!
Much of the BB7’s activity will take place over a roll out of weeks as actions, congresses (Yael Bartana’s FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF THE JEWISH RENAISSANCE MOVEMENT IN POLAND (JRMIP) promises to be an excellent symposia of discussions and debates) occupations and protests. The re-enactment of the ‘Battle of Berlin’, advertised and seeking participants with a schmicko film trailer which reminds us of the Foreign Film Festival ads sponsored by Stella Artois strikes us, and many others we have spoken to, including BB participants, as curiously without purpose and outcome in view of Żmijewski’s proposition of action to effect.
Perhaps unfortunately for the ‘Battle of Berlin’ idea, we have just recently re-re-seen Jeremy Deller’s outstanding film doco-re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave – a complex and rich investigation of the actions and social and psychological reactions and outcome of the Miners’ confrontation between police and picketing miners at Orgreave, South Yorkshire in 1984. Whereas Deller’s re-enactment was rehearsed, and participants had access to psychologists and safety was high on the agenda and those effected by the original events were able to tell their stories as a form of cathartic progress, we are not aware of such preparations in the Berlin staging and wonder about its ultimate dénouement. There is a repeated lament in this Biennale concerning Berlin’s self-imposed, self-managed amnesia, a place that cannot bear its own history, but we still ask, for whom or which groups is such a cathartic ‘return’ enacted, and what holes does it open up, leave untended or re-plant?
Hopefully not the placenta buried in Berlin’s soil, by artist Joanna Rajkowska, documented in her film Born in Berlin, a personal, visual diary of the last days of pregnancy and (bloody, medicinally brutal) birth of her daughter Rosa, for whom the artist has chosen Berlin as her place of life starting. The audience for this film bare witness to the coming into life of little Rosa after days of journeying with her mother in the Berlin sunshine, on rooftops looking out across Mitte, on a diving board, jumping up and down, laughing with a rarely seen male partner, swimming and floating in pools and ponds. We hold our breath in the last moments of Joanna’s struggle to bring Rosa into the world and feel relief when the head, then body slithers and slips from the bloody mess of the vagina followed by said placenta.
Not for the faint this work, and several arghhhs are heard in the auditorium in the basement of the Akademie der Kunst. Joanna rushes Rosa to the balcony to show her Berlin, her starting place. Joanna’s has given Berlin the gift of her daughter as its own. The post-script to the film, in which we discover that Rosa has been diagnosed with eye cancer – both eyes- is a shared sadness. Oddly, and in a somewhat unfortunate and inaccurate idea of the Freudian unconscious, Żmijewski, in his written account, decides that Rosa has chosen not to see Berlin – has chosen blindness. Aghmmm. We’re not sure even Slavoj Zizek would go there!
This might be an indication as to the reason why, in the forward by Director, Gabrielle Horn it is written: ‘With this Biennale in which Artur Żmijewski acts without showing consideration for acceptance, feelings, vanity, political correctness, positive media coverage, or working together in a cordial way, the institution has taken a great risk’. Nevertheless they have backed their curator and gone on that journey. But the battle scares are no doubt evident.
The sun is coming up! (so to speak, and actually)…so more tomorrow