Being Radical in the Age of Biennial Culture

The Gothenburg biennial wishes to recapture playing and the imagination in the name of political change, but is only partially successful.

Vernissage 6-8 September. Foto: Attila Urban.
From the opening of this year’s Gothenburg biennial. Photo: Attila Urban.

When you consider the themed headline – PLAY! Recapturing the Radical Imagination – this year’s Gothenburg biennial makes a strangely domesticated and subdued overall impression on the day that this reporter visited it; an ordinary Wednesday after the official opening weekend. Its presence in the urban space is certainly not imposing or dramatic; rather, it is discreet, almost anonymous. Apart from the banners flapping at the various venues it is not immediately apparent that anything radical is taking place in the city. Perhaps because the biennial is – as it would have to be – adapted to welfare society’s cultural logic and social order. It is well organised and safe rather than unruly and risky. It is more of an institutionalised product than Burning Man, Situationism, and Occupy (even if the latter two are explicitly referred to). Rather than challenging concepts about contemporary art – as a mode of expression, event, and repository of political potential – this is a well-meaning reproduction of an established ideal – or, if you will, formula – of a critical, socially committed biennial planned for circulation within the contemporary art economy. A horizontal and diversified curatorial structure has been applied, marginalised sites and stories in the urban space have been rediscovered, collaborations with existing institutions are in place, generic solutions are eschewed in favour of the site-specific and site-sensitive; classic museum media as well as interventionist and performative practices are both included; and the art historical canon is combined with hip contemporary art. It is difficult to disagree with these dispositions; they are exactly as they should be and present no surprises, since they are rather more about contemporary art’s discursive narratives than they are about play as a real, potentially liberating activity. Indeed, only a small handful of the biennial’s permanent works involve audience participation. Now that is surprising.

Tala Madani, Brown Christmas, 2012. Courtesy of the artist & Pilar Corrias.
Tala Madani, Brown Christmas, 2012. Courtesy of the artist & Pilar Corrias.

Compared to the Venice biennial’s presentation of eccentric and esoteric visions from the subconsciousness of modernism this Northern cousin seems to present a somewhat cool and chilly version of the human imagination. Whereas Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition was indirect and zany in its exploration of the imagination as a force for political otherness and new challenges, the brief issued by the artistic directors Edi Muka and Stina Edblom to the five curators – Katarina Gregos, Claire Tancons, Joanna Warsza, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Andjeas Ejiksson – seems to be associated with an activist and explicit political tradition – or discourse, if you will. To paraphrase the graffiti featured on the walls of Paris in May of 1968 it is about “Power to the Imagination” as an instrument for real political opposition and change.

The fact that Muka and Edblom speak about “the radical imagination” should, in this context, probably be regarded as marking a position that is different from neo-liberalism’s incorporation and exploitation of the imagination (and seems to continue along the lines laid down in the journal affinities’ 2010 issue on this very subject). The imagination as such is no longer the exclusive province of art, but constitutes a political point of contention, and in order to preserve a distinctive artistic imagination it is attributed a radical – in the sense of extreme, uncompromising, and transformative – nature that the neo-liberalist imagination is assumed not to have and to be incapable of handling. Radicalising the imagination allows us to escape the controlling mechanisms with which neo-liberalism, in its many guises, has infected our minds, and enables us to keep alive the idea – and possibility – of alternative social systems.

The biennial’s three main exhibitions and one performance project (which sadly only took place during the opening weekend and so was never seen by yours truly) act as autonomous entities with a more or less direct links to the overall theme.

With The Politics of Play at Röda Sten Konsthall Katarina Gregos has curated a generic political exhibition of contemporary art cut from the same cloth as her exhibition at the Danish pavilion in Venice two years ago. An eclectic mix of media, nationalities, and subjects that do not really merge to form a definite point, but rather chart different positions, each of which can be said to be political insofar as they imagine alternatives to the status quo. The exhibits include Guerilla Girls’ legendary protest posters, Nina Esber’s hack of the wording of Sharia law, Tala Madani’s humiliating portraits of middle-aged men, and Otobong Nkanga’s collage comment on women’s conditions in East Africa.  A strong, global, feminist core that could in itself have constituted a relevant, firmly pointed perspective on the biennial theme. The same can be said of the satirical track laid down by Pavel Pepperstein, Jorge Galindo & Santiago Sierra, Wooloo, Olav Westphalen, Qiu Zhijie, and Liv Strömquist. However, Gregos is a generalist and despite featuring several very good artworks The Politics of Play becomes a somewhat unclear or, if you will, murky statement about art as a particular form of political play.

WooLoo, We Need You Now More Than Ever, 2012. Courtesy of the artists.
WooLoo, We Need You Now More Than Ever, 2012. Courtesy of the artists.

Conversely, Claire Tancons’ AnarKrew: An Anti-Archives at Göteborg Konsthall and Hasselblad Center takes a very specific point of departure: Johan Heintz’ archived materials about the Gothenburg Carnival, which took place annually during the period 1982-1993, but which is now a largely forgotten chapter within the city’s annuals. This direct, tangible approach to the city as the biennial context is very well spotted on Tancons’ part – and on the part of Muka and Edblom, who invited Tancons due to her “specialisation” within carnivalesque culture. The material featured on the desks at the exhibition entrance testify to the fact that the carnival is ripe for rediscovery and possibly for a revival as an alternative to the conspicuous consumption taking place along the gentrified main high street of central Gothenburg. This fact is reflected in several of the works that have been directly inspired by the archive. Roberto Peyre and Jean-Louis Huhta have arranged carnivalesque performances in the urban space; Karol Radziszewski has applied make-up to Gothenburg citizens and taken their photographs; Sonia Boyce has created a video showing a young girl moving through the city while performing a dance that links up the history of the carnival with street riots in 2001; and The New Beauty Council & MYCKET have joined forces with designer Maja Gunn to cut, sow, and unleash a “queer” imagination in a wardrobe installation that also forms part of a performance in Esperantoplatsen, a square in front of the Kunsthall and a former locus for the carnival. These are the exhibition’s strongest works and are what makes it compelling. Taking the carnival as a critical trope they prompt a relevant and significant exchange between the art institution and the city as a space for creative and political activities. Compared to this Nicoline Van Harskamp’s installation on anarchism puts something of a discursive damper on the festivities with its word-heavy drama aesthetics, whereas Deimantas Narkevičius’ multimedia installation is simply a limp restaging of the illegal 1980s club scene it wishes to recreate.

Tania Bruguera, Self Sabotage, 2009. Photo by: Cesar Delgado Wixen.
Tania Bruguera, Self Sabotage, 2009. Photo by: Cesar Delgado Wixen.

The biennial’s most inventive exhibition concept is Joanna Warsza’s Art & Crime: Legally on the Edge in the harbour area around Lilla Bommen and Drömmarnas Kaj. Conceived as an abstract crime thriller the exhibition’s works have been placed to form an open-ended sequence around the somewhat remote maritime and industrial area which is in itself rife with material for several crime stories. She also had the artist Dorota Lukianska take photographs of the sites in which the artworks are placed as if they were crime scenes (Lukianska has acted as a crime scene photographer for the Swedish police) and asked the crime writer Åke Edwardson to write a kind of catalogue text. It is an eminently brilliant approach, and Edwardson’s contribution in particular stands out: a futuristic nightmare scenario in the tradition of Philip K. Dick that is quite simply one of the most original art texts this reporter has read in a long time and the biennial’s best contender for an example of “radical imagination”. And one of the best works at the biennial – full stop. Amongst the other artworks the juxtaposition of Tania Bruguera’s suicidal protest performance, which shows her playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun as the opening and conclusion to reading the text “Culture as a Strategy to Survive” with Mapa Teatro’s chaotic, theatrical documentary installation about the celebration of the Holy Innocents Day in southern Columbia works well. It creates a sense of something suspect having taken place, that the seemingly idyllic area with its cafés, sandwiches, and views of the water is haunted by dark impulses. Jill Magid’s similarly theatrical news report – consisting of found footage accompanied by a script – about a shooting incident she supposedly happened to witness in Austin, Texas, has been installed in the Ibis hotel on the quayside. With its ambiguous relationship between fact and fiction, experience and imagination it plays elegantly and humorously with the premises underpinning a sensationalist perception of reality, specifically in relation to the “terror culture” we are presented with in media and in much crime-themed entertainment. However, in spite of its excellent material Marion von Osten’s documentary video work about a shipwreck in the harbour is not much more than an art historically correct exercise in style, whereas Forensic Architecture & Füsun Türetken’s discursive presentation on a boat for homeless people becomes drowned out by for-those-in-the-know academic pretentions and a peculiar kind of institutional promotion. The public screening of Markus Öhrn’s more than 49-hour long collection of film clips censored out by the Swedish state was sadly called off; this is telling, but also sad evidence that the radical imagination remains shackled and certainly needs to be recaptured. Overall, Art & Crime is a somewhat uneven experience. Not least because several of the works are, in a very literal way, inaccessible. The lawn in front of Ävlsrummet where Maja Hammarén had provided directions for a perverse form of power play was entirely empty; it was impossible to find Sunshine Socialist Cinema’s solar-powered box-car cinema with self-generated local news clips (the next screening on the boat will not take place until some time in October), and Katarzyna Krakowiak’s sound installation requires an FM radio; something that this reporter did not have to hand at the time. Whether the person hired by Núria Güell to play hide-and-seek with people in the area was actually at work at the time is difficult to say, but he/she was certainly nowhere to be seen.

Obviously the Gothenburg biennial cannot be adequately assessed on the basis of one day. It is created to unfold over time, offering a wealth of activities that will presumably imbue the theme with greater gravitas and energy – Tancons’ programme looks particularly promising – but nevertheless you leave the biennial with the impression that it is marked by the schism between the kind of organisational control and cultural consensus required by a biennial and the rebellious impulses of the truly radical imagination.

Sunshine Socialist  Cinema, 2012. Photo by: the artists.
Sunshine Socialist Cinema, 2012. Photo by the artists.

Comments (3)