Contrived Communities

The introductory days of Bergen Assembly served as a reminder that art’s engagement with social issues does not necessarily translate into audience engagement.

Bergen Assembly 2019, introductory days. Photo: Johanne Karlsrud.

The artistic directors of the Bergen Assembly 2019, Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler, are deliberate in their adoption of the Bergen-based triennial’s project of self-scrutiny, and have headed straight to the core of its social design. To help them in this effort, they have initially invited ten artists, curators, educators, theorists, and activists. We were presented with this group and their plans, reflections, and collaborators during the triennial’s introductory days, which were set in the newly opened venue Belgin, in the glass wing on the first floor of Kode 2, just a stone’s throw from Bergen Kunsthall. The introduction took place on 5–6 April.

Ever since its first instalment in 2013, one of the leitmotifs of the Bergen triennial has been the question of what calling itself an ‘assembly’ means for an art institution. Dressler and Christ have let this issue take centre stage. During a brief lecture given on Friday afternoon, theorist Simon Sheikh noted that equating an assembly with an institution was a contradiction in terms. His observation seems intuitively true; the semi-permanent and predictable character of the institution is at odds with the idea of ​​spontaneous responses to political provocations, which is the meaning generally assigned to the concept of an assembly in current political thought.

The Bergen triennial’s emancipatory program invites the principle question of how the art institution can put itself to political use. Part of its task may be to lend the marginalised a voice. Dressler and Christ paraphrase the German author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge in the title of this year’s triennial: Actually, the Dead are Not Dead. By “the dead,” Dressler and Christ mean both the dead and the unborn – all those not “existing within the living political present.” Sheikh extended the definition to include the socially excluded, those whose voices are not heard. Sympathy with the excluded imposes certain requirements on how the institution interfaces with the public. This is partly about whether the ideas formed within the art field are disseminated to a broader public – a challenge that interested Sheikh – and partly about which voices the institution itself takes in and amplifies.

In the throes of mediation

A little over a year ago, I stated that Bergen Assembly 2019 pushed the self-critical biennial form to the brink of parody. Having attended the introductory days, I am more sympathetic. Parody still seems a plausible outcome, however; self-scrutiny invariably tends towards comedy. Socially committed art is not, in actual practice, as engaging as it imagines itself to be in its most self-congratulatory moments. Inclusion is often alienating, and enduring the artificial sociality produced by participatory art can be an ordeal. But, perhaps the value of these provisional communities is their invitation to labour, rather than their propensity to captivate or absorb.

The educators and the mediators were given ample time to speak. In their lecture on Saturday, cultural researchers Nora Landkammer and Karin Schneider suggested that disengaged or difficult teaching situations have to do with “processes of unlearning.” They were neither the first nor the last to use this term, imported from the Assembly’s obvious source of inspiration, documenta 14. Landkammer and Schneider’s theme was the teaching of contentious historical topics, particularly as they pertain to guided tours of ethnographic collections characterised by colonial power relations. Their discussion of the decolonial challenges of museum mediation also considered the potentially productive deviations from the ideal of flow, as in breakdowns in communication between the group and the mediator, or conflicts and misunderstandings among the students.

One example of such didactic dysfunction had already been demonstrated by the Spanish artist Daniel G. Andújar the evening before. Time decelerated to a crawl as we watched Andújar browse the web and scroll Wikipedia articles. In between, animations depicting swarms of algorithmic information cropped up on the screen. At one point, he wrote a formula prepared by the Belgian lawyer Victor D’Hondt in 1878, aimed at distributing seats at parliamentary elections, onto a brown sheet of paper taped to the wall. The lecture was topped off with a mashup of television programs explaining how various countries’ electoral systems work. The point – I think – was to demonstrate how little the average voter understands about the mathematical foundations of democracy, while also suggesting a parallel to the algorithms that govern behaviour in our increasingly digitised societies.

Bergen Assembly 2019, introductory days. Daniel G. Andújar: How to Understand the D’Hondt Method (Democracy). Photo: Thor Brødreskift

In what may be described as a symptomatic move, one item on Saturday’s programme was devoted to a presentation of the Bergen Assembly’s own mediation team. As we munched on home-made cakes, Daniela Ramos Arias, Stacy Brafield, and Andrea De Pascal elaborated on their plans to reach out to and involve the audience. Then, an icebreaker-like activity was arranged on the lawn outside. Divided into groups, we were tasked with arriving at a definition of “assembly,” which we wrote down on sheets of paper and threw on the ground. Each group picked up one of the other groups’ sheets and created a choreography to illustrate. The session was every bit as awkward as it sounds, and the experience taking place outdoors didn’t help. In some ways, being at the mercy of well-intentioned mediation is a telling experience: the emphasis on the social application of art often prompts an increased concern with its pedagogical utility.

Saturday continued to revolve around education. Artist Ruth Ewan’s project Asking Out aims to recreate the classroom of British teacher Muriel Pyrah, who was active in the 1960s and 1970s, in order to explore her progressive ideas about education. With their stoic intention to illustrate Marx’s Capital, the artists’ group Capital Drawing Group, comprising Andrew Cooper, Enda Deburka, Dean Kenning, and John Russell, take the notion of a socially-motivated art subordinated to didactics to its extreme. Sociologist Magdalena Freudenschuss and writer Laressa Dickey began collaborating after having their respective partners imprisoned when the Turkish police unexpectedly stormed a gallery in Istanbul and arrested everyone present. Freudenschuss and Dickey shared their stories and discussed strategies for preparing for and mastering the kind of experience they had endured, in both emotional and practical terms. Together, they work on an illustrated online fanzine, preparing4prison, which collects tips for activists at risk of ending up in similar situations.

Furniture on wheels

The Bergen triennial’s previous attempts to pull in and engage with a wider public have all shared one common trait: their clear curatedness. During the introductory days of the 2019 instalment, I sensed a radicalisation of this inclusive procedure. “De-curating” was a term used by Dressler. Their aim for political activation would prohibit them from instrumentalizing the audience as an aesthetic resource.

The inauguration of the venue Belgin was a central part of the programme. The name is an homage to the Turkish singer Belgin Sarılmışer (1958–89), who took the stage name, Bergen, after the Norwegian coastal town. Until recently, the space served as a storage facility and workshop for Kode. Even now, it is not an exhibition venue in the traditional sense. Dressler informed us that, in addition to serving as headquarters for the triennial, Belgin will be freely available to (almost) anyone who wants to use it for whatever purpose. Dressler and Christ have imported this loan model from the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, which they manage. Dressler showed some slides of the premises. Like Belgin, the Stuttgart space signals transparency and access with its elongated glass façade. All the furniture is on wheels, she explained. However, Belgin’s availability for local groups and initiatives will not be actively advertised, and when I spoke briefly with Christ on the matter, his hopes seemed modest. In Stuttgart, the practice works well, he emphasised, but they have spent years establishing it there.

Bergen Assembly 2019, introductory days. Artistic director Hans D. Christ. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Christ and Dressler’s experience as heads of a progressive institution make them heedful of the triennial’s institutional flexibility, as well as the many potentially generative ways in which the resources they oversee can be misplaced. As to highlight such self-destructive leanings, Christ quoted the French philosopher Jacques Derrida as saying that the nice thing about insitutions is that they can die. Their willingness to “misuse” the institution’s infrastructure, however, does not preclude them from also working with content in a more traditional sense. In a document they have called “extended concept text,” Christ and Dressler describe three strategies: parodying political institutions; exploring the use of art for resistance and liberation; and integrating those who are no longer among us, or not yet born – as captured in the title’s haunting intimation. The main form of expansion evoked by Bergen Assembly is thus neither primarily geographical nor demographic, but temporal, a stretching backwards and forwards in time.

Vulnerable bodies

Paul B. Preciados, the philosopher behind Parliament of Bodies, the event series that served as documenta 14’s public programme leading up to the opening in Athens, is also part of the Bergen Assembly’s core group. The presentation this weekend, however, was given by Preciados’s partner, curator and art historian Viktor Neumann. He described the project, which is still ongoing, as an effort to let the vulnerable body take centre stage. Dismantling the divide between audience and participants seems central to their method. Parliament of Bodies is not based on consensus, Neumann said, but instead seeks “epistemological diversity.” Neumann’s community of vulnerables resonates with Christ and Dressler’s ambitions for a truly inclusive institution. Although the introductory days were clearly aimed at an in-group – and therefore, could be said to consolidate the very social relations they seek to undo – there were also overtures to a practical dismantling of the divide between inside and outside. On Friday night, the chairs, which until then had all faced the same way, were arranged in a circle, and the audience urged to take a seat there with the core group. Predictably, those who did were far between; I counted one.

The two homeless people who took part in Julio Jara’s performance at Belgin on Saturday night also radiated some reservations. One of them wielded a flashlight (used as a sort of makeshift spotlight) while they shuffled along behind the artist as he crawled across the floor, singing hammily and gesturing with hands clutching a piece of charcoal, which he used to draw sensual lines on a white sheet rolled out in front of them. Jara’s performance parodied the distance between pitying art and the socially excluded groups it wishes to incorporate or succour, thereby pointing to the dual challenge of a politicised poetics. Informed by only the best intentions imaginable, such art risks aesthetic banality, and as social aid, it is often… well, ineffective.

Bergen Assembly 2019, introductory days. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.