If your ambition is to break with the temporalities of the art world it is not hard to envision a more bold experiment than Bergen Assembly’s all-year programme. Why use the term “triennial” at all, thereby indicating plans for a regular return? Why not simply allow each new version to run indefinitely, slowly building up a crescendo of concurrent Assemblies without any pre-announced end in sight? Yes, this would be difficult to carry out in practice, but more importantly: for an ambitious art event like the Bergen triennial it would be unheard-of not to play along with the conventions and cycles of the art world, and thereby risk invisibility.
Even though the 2016 Bergen Assembly has neither title nor theme and is signed by three curators or curator groups (or “artistic directors” in Bergen Assembly-speak) – Tarek Atoui, Praxes and freethought, all of them responsible for their own, independent projects scattered throughout the year in asynchronous sequences – the organizers nevertheless felt a need to create special focus by staging one month of greater intensity than the rest of the year, kicked off by what can only, in spite of the woolly description “launch of the September programme”, be seen as a traditional exhibition opening.
Bergen Assembly 2016 is the scene for a contest between different modes of operation within contemporary art: the aesthetic (Praxes), the social (Atoui) and the academic (freethought). However, one of the things that ties together the projects is the way in which they – in varied ways and to different extents – seek to integrate themselves in the local environment. Invited by Praxes (Rhea Dall and Kristine Siegel), British artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has developed a three-act group performance in co-operation with local octogenerians. Some of the sections of freethought’s six-part project Infrastructure also involve collaboration with local actors; for example, retired firemen contributed to The Museum of Burning Questions. Even so, the most diligent efforts to build ties to scenes outside the art world have undoubtedly been made by the musician and composer Tarek Atoui. Together with French curators Gregory Castéra and Sandra Terdjman (Council) he has directed the project Deaf experience and the transformation of hearing.
The trio have moved into the former swimming pool and baths of Bergen, a fitting choice of venue in both practical terms – it boasts a natural orchestra pit and tribune as well as walls clad in metal that is only too willing to reverberate – and metaphorically, as water is a medium that, at least to some extent, blurs the divide between the hearing and the deaf. Atoui and Council’s objective was to create a field of sonic experience that overlaps the worlds of the deaf and the hearing. The project comprises two parts. Atoui’s part bears the title Within and focuses on nine instruments that have been specially designed to be played and experienced by the deaf and the hearing alike. These are the results of a year-long process involving contributions from a range of different communities, professions and stakeholders. The instruments occupy the empty swimming pool, where a series of concerts featuring specially invited performers will be held over the course of the next weeks. The opening weekend included a concert where the ensemble BIT20 played the nine instruments while being conducted by a deaf man. A dry scratching produced by pulling a piece of wood across a textured board was gradually supplemented by a clattering rush made by a bunch of marbles swept up and dropped onto a drumskin. The instruments were designed so that the musicians’ gestures were clearly visible. Complex and unpredictable, the soundscape gradually reached an impressive volume and frequency range as the various instruments joined in. Musicianship – if we may call it that – of an expansive kind.
Divided up between the entrance area and the adjacent rooms, Council’s more conventional exhibition Infinite Ear aims for a similar bridging of the gap between the worlds of the deaf and the hearing. One room has been set aside for audio therapy, another houses a film screening programme curated on the theme of deafness. A bar setting called The White Cat serves wine in matched with picks from an exclusive selection of obscure and usually inaccessible sounds, such as the sound of a pool of water evaporating, or tadpoles gnawing on a microphone. Infinite Ear takes a more playful and noncommittal approach to the theme than Within, a light and frothy companion piece to the visionary experiment unfolding in Atoui’s orchestra pit.
The complex interplay between human perception and its surroundings forms the basis for a lot of contemporary art these days. A recent example would be the exhibition New Sensorium (2016) at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, which among others featured Atoui. Deaf Experience and the Transformation of Hearing stands out by virtue of its explicit commitment to (and from) the deaf community and its tangible work with institutions and professions outside the field of art. Like many participatory works, this places it in a kind of limbo, suspended somewhere between art and social work. Such ambivalence recurrs throughout Bergen Assembly; Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s demented sessions also have an element of “social work” about them.
The props used in Chetwynd’s performances were obviously not made to last. Even so, Praxes chose to furnish the artist-run venue Kunstgarasjen with a selection of these objects, titling the arrangement Champagne & Caviar. Scattered across a low podium in the centre of the room we find twenty shabby creations fashioned from painted textiles, papier-mâché, plastic and wood. Documentary video footage is projected along the walls. In A Walk to Dover (2006) Chetwynd and friends reconstruct David Copperfield’s walk from London to Dover. The documentary materials comprise a succession of snapshots from the journey and video clips where Chetwynd and friends pose in their nineteenth-century street urchin get-up while trying to keep a straight face. Despite their often festive and slightly manic aura, Chetwynd’s performances are in fact quite private sessions, closely akin to a kind of therapeutic roleplay.
The ambivalent status that you naturally feel as a spectator to such therapeutic sessions was palpable in the performance The Cell Group (Episode Two), which was presented twice this weekend. Here we were guided through a long shelter by Chetwynd and her cohorts. Two of them were carrying large foil structures on their backs, looking like crosses between a dream-catcher and peacock tails. Brief, loosely choreographed scenes were played out along the way – most memorably one where the fuzzy Star Wars character Chewbacca was making chocolate cake. Dancers wearing beige one-pieces were driving the procession on. After an energetic song, an oasis of confusion arose while some of the performers fetched a face-shaped portal, which was wheeled along to the exit. Then the crowd was ushered into the portal’s mouth one by one, in order to leave.
Under the common title On Screen, the artist-run venue Entrée shows three older video works by the American artist Lynda Benglis, who was also invited by Praxes. The works are sketch-like explorations of the medium. Female Sensuality consists of close-ups of the faces and hands of two women, similar to the point of being identical, as they explore each other sensuously with their lips, tongues and fingers. A similar haptic mode permeates the group exhibition Adhesive Products at Bergen Kunsthall. The central hub of this exhibition is a series of 1970s sculptures that Benglis created by pouring latex or polyurethane directly onto the floor or onto chicken-wire structures attached to the wall. These have been scattered throughout the first floor of Bergen Kunsthall, entering into dialogue with more recent works by other artists, all of them embodying a similar register.
Benglis’s objects have some of the same frayedness about them as Chetwynd’s papier-mâché figures – as if they have survived their alotted time, certainly in aesthetic terms, and now need to be legitimised by being placed in an echo chamber alongside more recent and “current” works. Praxes’ enthusiastic focus on individual artists’ non-current work ties in well with Bergen Assembly’s intentions to explore other temporalities than those usually endorsed within the art field, but at times it can also feel strained or forced.
At Bergen’s former main fire station we are presented with a selection of projects by the London-based research collective freethought (Irit Rogoff, Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Massimiliano Mollona, Nora Sternfeld, Louis Moreno). They all relate to the concept of infrastructure. Even though it also includes a number of more poetic contributions, freethought’s exhibition is mostly a cerebral and information-packed affair. Several of the displays work well on their own, such as A Utopian Stage: Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis, which presents us with rich historical materials associated with a performance festival arranged annually in the city of Shiraz in Iran between 1967 and 1977. But when room after room meld into a blur of sober video interviews, stencilled theory and display cases with newspaper cuttings in Farsi, accompanied by didactic prose reminiscent of funding applications, you unavoidably feel transported back to the heyday of self-satisfied discursive art. I catch myself wishing that more of these researcher-curators had endeavoured to transpose their research into a more performative and aesthetic register.
Aside from a few film and video works, Infrastructure of Feeling is the one project among all of freethought’s projects to most strongly constitute an autonomous and evocative work. It takes its starting point in an algorithm that buys books within categories associated with infrastructure, basing its purchases on analyses of the moods in selected pieces of Norwegian music. The music which governs these purchasing patterns is played aloud in the room, also affecting the colour and intensity of the light. The books are arranged in steel shelves in the middle of the room. Here we typically find titles that mix emotional and analytical vocabularies, such as Economic Evangelism and Human, All Too Human. Infrastructure of Feeling points towards a techno-cultural state where individuals outsource emotional processes to sophisticated software.
Bergen Assembly 2016 is not characterised by such timely, tongue-in-cheek techno-criticism, but rather by being anchored in its local setting and the current moment through a range of participatory projects. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that a triennial which takes a critical view of its own genre – a type of exhibition often criticised for its lack of local anchorage – should distinguish itself by fostering projects that aim for social integration. But few might have predicted that the one who took this social mandate the furthest – Atoui – would also be the most compelling. Leaving aside Atoui’s unfeigned enthusiasm and prodigious talent as an impresario, even though Bergen Assembly throws in with the locals, it is far from a “crowd-pleaser”.