by Nada Prlja, September 2008 for ArtLink, Australia

Lack of concept

When the curators Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic were asked, in an interview for ArtReview , about whether or not there was a thematic framework for the 5th Berlin Biennial, Elena Filipovic’s answer was as follows:

‘...It is really indicative, I think, of the fact that we did not start with the title and we did not decide to find any singular theme. I mean, sure, we could pull out the main nucleus. But we definitely didn’t think in those terms. Rather, we were giving a lot of freedom to artists...’

There is a certain lack of clarity, on a conceptual level, in Filipovic’s proclamation. Szymczyk and Filipovic’s idea of nonlinear decision-making and provision of apparent freedom to the artists, is questionable. Even though it is an interesting idea, one must ask, on the other hand, whether the curators were fully aware of the influence this kind of approach could have on the European art scene. There are so many questions that arise from this approach of ‘refusal to establish specific meanings’, such as: Which criteria did the curators use as the conceptual basis for the Biennial? If there is no singular theme (or multiple themes), which criteria did the curators use in their selection of participating artists? Or simply, what have the curators wanted to say/convey with BB5, the 5th Berlin Biennial?
Adam and Elena have enabled (even dictated) the viewers the possibility of enjoying, in a sporadic manner, a selection of art projects, in most cases simply on the basis of being attracted to them on a visual level. This makes one wonder - is the visual/aesthetic relation between the various projects the main link between the works exhibited at BB5? Despite the fact that BB5 had a specific ‘aura’ of a free and effortlessly crafted exhibition, there is nevertheless a notion within the BB5, that puts the future of art in a danger zone. Does this situation, in reality, reflect the dictatorship of the curator rather than a ‘loose concept’, as the curators claimed? In this ‘grey area’, we are being asked to simply trust the curators’ choice; we must enjoy their aesthetic visualization, which does not allow us, as viewers, to create individual judgments by ourselves. Instead, it is all directed, prescribed, fully explained.

This comes as a surprise, if one considers Adams Szymczyk’s experience as a curator. Adam Szymczyk is a curator and writer born in 1970 in Poland. In 2003, he was appointed as director and chief curator of the Kunsthalle Basel. It is perhaps even more surprising, when considering Elena Filipovic’s background. Elena, who is an independent curator and writer born in 1972 in Los Angeles with a doctorate completed at Princeton University, was co-editor, with Barbara Vanderlinden, of ‘The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe’ - recently published by MIT Press. This highly recommended book has given Elena Filipovic an in-depth knowledge of various strategies of Art Biennials and the possibility to evaluate, academically, the position and success of numerous Biennials and their relation to the city, visitors, art public and so on.

As it not my intention to be purely negative and critical, it must be said that BB5 was an elegant, sophisticated, and refined low–key exhibition, which deserves appreciation. The 5th Berlin Biennial, entitled 'When Things Cast No Shadow', was held in Berlin between the 5th April and the 15th June, 2008. BB5 was an ambitious exhibition consisting of five elements: Day exhibitions in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Mies Van Der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, the Schinkel Pavillon, Skulpturenpark; and a series of Night events (mainly discussions and artists talks) held in various locations in Berlin. There were numerous art projects worth mentioning, such as Ahmet Ögüt’s ‘Ground Control’. Ahmet covered the floor of the central gallery space of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art with a layer of tarmack, referring to asphalt as an emblematic symbol of the governmental modernization projects in his native Turkey. The resulting effect was astonishing; as you entered the KW Institute there was a very familiar smell - the catalyst of a particular and individual reference in each visitors memory.

Image 1.
Folklore #1
by Patricia Esquivias
DVD, 15 min, color, sound, loop.
Courtesy by Patricia Esquivias

The notion of ‘looseness’ and expressive freedom was most evident in the work with video, which, in most cases appears unpolished, unrehearsed and unedited, in contrast with the perfect realisation of other installation and object based projects. This sense of effortlessness is, for instance, skillfully used by Patricia Esquivias in the video work entitled ‘Folklore #1’. ‘Folklore’ is an ongoing video series composed of two integral parts: a video image, created by a hand held camera, of a top-view of a table surface, onto which are juxtaposed photographs, cutouts and notes. These elements are kept in constant movement by the hand of a narrator, whose child-like voice is a very distinctive aspect of the video. Embedded in the magic of storytelling, the voice and image describe chosen moments of the history of 20th century Spain, a selective history modified and censored by personal memory.

Urban BB5 and Post Industrial Manifesta 7

Overall, the appearance of BB5 was extremely urban and modern, within what could be described as the most European City, Berlin. In contrast to this, the vision of Manifesta 7, held between 19th July and 2nd November, was to occupy the whole area of Trentino, South Tyrol in Italy. Manifesta 7 took place in locations of industrial archaeology existing in the Brenner axis, from Rovereto to Trento, from Bolzano to the fortress of Fortezza, spreading out in an area of over 100 square kilometers. In Rovereto, the curator was Adam Budak; in Trento, the exhibition was concieved by Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg, in Bolzano/Bozen the curators were ‘Raqs Media Collective’, while in Fortezza/Franzensfeste, the curators collectively curated an event entitled 'Scenarios'.

The distances between the cities was suitable for the euphoria of the opening events, as it allowed for chance meetings between art-goers on the train between the various destinations and the possibility of engaging in a decent conversation during the 40 minute travel between the cities. My disappointment with the exhibitions 'Rest of Now' in Trento and 'The Soul' was countered by my visit to Rovereto’s ‘Principle Hope’ at Manifattura Tabacchi, curated by Adam Budak, by which I was very much impressed.

Immediately upon entering the building of the Manifattura Tabacchi in Rovereto, the atmosphere was captivating, while the videos, installations and large-scale sculptures were appropriately positioned within the vast space of the building. The spaces were left ‘as found’, almost in the same condition in which they had been at the time of the industry’s closure; this gave the exhibition a sense of direct, unpolished appeal.

And then there was Hope…

Image 2.
Everything is going to be alright
by Guido van der Werve
16mm to HD video, color, sound, loop
Courtesy by Gallery Juliette Jongma Amsterdam, Monitor Gallery Rome, Gallery Marc Foxx Los Angeles.
Photo by Ben Geraerts.

The feeling of hope and a sense of utopia prevailed within the exhibition at Rovereto’s Manifattura Tabacchi, as exemplified by the beautiful (in the real sense of the word) video by Guido van der Werve, entitled 'Everything is Going to be Alright'. This video can be described by a single word - hope, as this notion adequately describes the visual matrix for the work: hope and belief in mankind, human nature, its strength and courage. The connection to the word 'hope' is not coincidental; the title of the exhibition is derived from the book 'The Principle of Hope' by the German neo-Marxist Ernst Bloch. The book’s content, encyclopedic research into mankind and its relation to nature, society and technological improvement, served as inspiration for Budak’s concept. Budak’s intention to relate the exhibition to the past, to the current situation as well as to the future, through the notion of ‘hope’, was very well conceived. He himself relates the concept of the exhibition to a few coincidental links that were found in the city of Rovereto, such as the book 'The Constitution of Social Justice' by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati and the Futurist Manifesto, 'How to Re-construct the Universe', by Fortunato Depero. This approach opened the possibility for artists’ engagement with and reflection upon the local environment, the social and historical context of Rovereto.

Image 3.
by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson
Video, 14, color, sound, loop
Installation view at Manifatura Tabbacci, Rovereto
Manifesta 7, Principle Hope, curated by Adam Budak
Copyright the Artist

The music-video 'Care-givers' by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson portrays two migrant care-givers from Ukraine and Romania and their (elderly) Italian clients, in the process of carrying out their daily activities in the area of Rovereto. The video itself is conceived as a music video, intertwined with documentary facts concerning immigration legislations and rules in Italy, regarding the influx of New Europeans to the country. The fascinating element of this video, is the power of the humanitarian aspect of the work. Although it describes the specific situation of immigrants in Italy, the video reflects the current situation in numerous countries in Europe. This video work is not embedded within a thick layer of historicism; instead, it reflects and comments on the present.

In the search for models of new curatorial methods, I asked Adam Budak to clarify his reasons for using the historical and social network of the city of Rovereto as the foundation of his project. His response was as follows:

‘My very first idea for Rovereto (and Trentino, Alto Adige) was based on an attempt to reconsider the early 80s (quite influential although somehow underestimated) concept of critical regionalism (theorized mainly by Kenneth Frampton) since Rovereto with its perverse Mart (the biggest museum of modern art in Italy, designed by one of the most significant representatives of critical regionalism, Mario Botta) and some other unexpected complexities (you rightly point to the "laboratory of principles" orchestrated by, amongst others, Depero and Rosmini) provokes to dream (or rather daydream) a region as a phantasm, imaginary and construct. Thus the task of daydreaming the region, and a daydream as a vehicle which carries both the hope as a militant emotion directed towards the future and critical regionalism as a perceptive agency and tool to uncover the perversities of the vernacular.

Rovereto provoked to this concentration on what is small and possibly insignificant, however very ambiguous in terms of its value and potential (it was also a very Blochian interest….). Without a dangerous fetishisation, we wanted in fact to pay a tribute to this town, that, at some point turned out to be quite self-sufficient with its real and imaginative (cultural, political and social) mind-blowing potential. Such has been, for example, the main drive behind the idea of turning ex-Peterlini into an active, critical space, a non-stop exhibition, a monograph of a site, a town and its local community and its recent social and political history. All these amazing paradoxes that we encountered in Rovereto made us consider this town as a certain model, a primary structure which provided many artists with incredible strength and energy.’

And let there be Historicism

Submerged in Historicism, the exhibition ‘THE SOUL’ was curated by Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg in Trento. Anselm Franke is the artistic director of Extra City Center for Contemporary Art in Antwerp; he was Director of Exhibitions at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin until 2006. He is currently completing a PhD at the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College in London, directed by
Eyal Weizman - who was represented in Franke’s exhibition. For Manifesta 7, Franke collaborated with Hila Peleg, a Tel Aviv born curator, now based in Berlin. They have previously co-organised the exhibition ‘Imaginary Number’ at KW Berlin (2005) and ‘Clinic – A Pathology of Gesture’ at HAU Berlin (2006). Peleg is also a PhD candidate in Curatorial Knowledge/Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, London.

Anselm and Hila made an interesting addition to the exhibition, by adding parallel displays entitled ‘The Museums’ (compilations of books, various documents, drawings, etc, displayed in beautifully made vitrines). ‘The Museums’ conceptually support the exhibition at Manifesta 7 in a similar way that BB5 supported the idea of looseness and incompleteness by including poems, various artists’ references, etc, within the exhibition catalogue. The most interesting of ‘The Museums’ was ‘The Museum of European Normality’ by Maria Thereza Alves, Jimmie Durham and Michael Tausig, which introduced the notion of the complexity of everyday life in European societies. This ‘museology’ points to the fact that, currently, art is in need of a strong factual base of references (from history, science, or medicine).

Image 4.
Assumptions and Presumptions
by Stephen Willats
Three-channel video installation 
Commissioned by Art on the Underground 2007
Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Copyright the Artist

It is not a coincidence, therefore, that there is a sudden ‘rebirth’ of Stephen Willats’s work (Willats participated in Budak’s Rovereto exhibition). Willats, an English artist born in 1943, has experimented with ‘scientific methods’ since the early ‘70's, by researching the social trajectory of communal living in the UK. The only difference between the methodologies applied by Willats and other, younger contemporary artists is that now, the facts are sourced from books and archives (mostly from history books, as exemplified by David Maljkovic’s work at BB5) without the need for the artists’ direct engagement with other segments of society. Therefore the information now used as references for artistic inspiration, are somehow safe and legitimate, but due to this they will remain somehow ‘buried’ within the past. Again the issue of ‘historicism’ is greater than it appears at first glance, if we ask the question - how does historicism exist within the contemporary social and political milieu of Europe – does art today have the possibility to effectively change and influence other segments of society?

‘...What else could Art possibly do? What else could Art possibly be?..’,

Writes Tim Griffin, in Artforum’s introduction to the issue 'The Art of Politics'. These kinds of issues, however, did not seem to be a concern for the curators of this year’s Manifesta and BB5. Perhaps Budek’s amalgamation of local symbolizations and the interpretation of these by international artists, could be seen as a model of curating, which aligns with the curatorial practices of WHW and Nicolas Bourriaud - curators in the limelight for 2009.

WHW (What, How & for Whom), the female curatorial collective from Croatia, have been chosen to curate the next Istanbul Biennale, in 2009. WHW are responsible for ‘creating’ and supporting a whole generation of new artists (mainly in South Eastern Europe, including the well established David Maljkovic) and making more visible the work of older generation of Croatian artists’, such as Mladen Stilinovic, etc. WHW have apprehended the importance of working locally, and the significance of applying the methodology of working locally, to their international projects.

My hope is that the most interesting manifestation in 2009 will be the Tate Triennial, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud which promises to secure this title with the series of debates around the themes: ‘Exile, Travelers, Borders and Altermodern’ (Bourriaud uses this term to describe the art that belongs to the global era and is a reaction against nationalism and standardization). Hot topics, which will again question our understanding of the local and the global, which, in this time of global movement, is a highly appropriate approach.

'The times seem propitious for the recomposition of a modernity in the present, reconfigured according to the specific context within which we live – crucially in the age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodernity. 
If twentieth-century modernism was above all a western cultural phenomenon, altermodernity arises out of planetary negotiations, discussions between agents from different cultures. Stripped of a centre, it can only be polyglot. Altermodernity is characterised by translation, unlike the modernism of the twentieth century which spoke the abstract language of the colonial west, and postmodernism, which encloses artistic phenomena in origins and identities. We are entering the era of universal subtitling, of generalised dubbing. Today's art cultural landscape saturated with signs, creating new passageways between multiple formats of expression and communication.'
The Tate Triennial 2009 presents itself as a collective discussion around this hypothesis of the end of postmodernism, and the emergence of a global altermodernity.'
Nicolas Bourriaud, 2008

Let us therefore hope that 2009 in Europe, will ‘cast a shadow’ over some of the curatorial decision-making that has been manifested in 2008.

Nada Prlja is a Macedonian artist, living and working in London.

ArtReview, 21, ‘This is Berlin, and it’s the center of the artworld – apparently’, Interview by Alex Lapp.
2 ArtForum, September 1, 2004, ‘The Art of Politics’ Tim Griffin.