CRITIQUE (OF EXHIBITIONISM)
Danila Mayer in collaboration with Muzaffer Hasaltay and Onur Serdar: KENTLERDE SANAT – ART IN CITIES. CONSIDERING ART BIENNIALS WHILE LOOKING AT THE 11th INTERNATIONAL ISTANBUL BIENNIAL
Cities as Hosts of Biennial Events
Processes connected to economic globalization also entail that nation-states become less important, even irrelevant, and are deep in debt.12 But cities and metropolises have lives of their own that also depend on their economic base: Industrial production using hinterland raw materials; cities of agriculture; or specialization in trade? Or the establishment and maintenance of international financial control? A cultural focus, tourism, and experience economy? Manual production, sweatshops, part of the global assembly line? Or all of it, with segregated spheres of high arts and low wages?
Cities, and concentrated metropolises, are the locations of “high culture”, and therefore of contemporary arts, the veterans being Paris, London and New York.13 Archaeology and urban anthropology find that cities, a form of human settlement for roughly 10 thousand years now (Jericho; and, later, Catal Hüyük in south central Anatolia14), came into existence by a shift in productivity15 – the “urban revolution,”,, in Gordon V. Childe’s term. A city is “the central arena on which the fateful drama of human wealth and inequality has been played” (Southall, 2000, p. 14). At present, the whole of human society is urbanized throughout due to late capitalism’s urbanization of the countryside (Southall, 2000, p. 7). More than half of humanity lives in cities. Robert Redfield, scholar of the Chicago School of Sociology, talks about Great and Little cultural traditions, the latter being located in rural areas, while towns and cities host the former (Redfield, 1956 ). “Great” traditions are interconnected from city to city, drawing from and influencing local and regional specificities.
People working in cities provide wealth and economic power, and the proliferation of biennials in the recent years shows the organizing cities’ potency as they provide options, space, infrastructure, personnel, advertising, and money for the event. Biennials offer work, options and opportunities for artists, curators and for the manifold (local?) enterprises catering to their needs (handicrafts, technology, food supply, organizing agencies). In the wake of the event, related local institutions thrive – galleries, print media, exhibitions – while the players in the arts world move from city to city16.
Empirical analysis of the decision processes at the city government levels still needs to be done. But we are certain that every biennial is before, during and after, intensely discussed not only by the artistic personnel and staff, the visitors, the participants, and the arts world in more or less intensity, but also in the departments of the city governments. These discussions are likely to be focused less on artistic, and more on economic and image, outcomes.
Conclusions: Mondialité and Thinking without the Other
So what we observe in the examples given (in the well-meaning utopia by Birnbaum for the Venice Biennale, in the protest-informed curatorial stance of the 2009 Istanbul biennial, in the programmatic publications of nation-states, and in curatorial and theoretical texts) is an orientation towards new worlds, with biennials either proposing or representing a new world order. Geo-politics make their appearance, the globe is envisioned anew.
But “geo-political” explanations draw new maps of the world. And maps of the earth always imply a possible handling of the planet, looking down from an Archimedes’ point. Proposing “new worlds” also means new divisions, new borders and haphazard or arbitrary continents, regions, areas. This “dimension of global designs” (Mignolo, 2000, p. 77) is called mondialisation by Edouard Glissant. As “an other thinking,” he proposes mondialité (Mignolo, 2000, p. 77), which is articulated in local histories of knowledge built also from the perspective of coloniality (ibid., p. 79). The “other thinking” is “based on the spatial confrontations between different concepts of history,”17 and while it is “a way of thinking without the Other” (ibid., p. 67), it is set apart from territorial thinking, “universally marginal, fragmentary, and unachieved.”18 We try to think from the borders and from dichotomous positions. Border thinking in Mignolo’s sense means critical reflection of knowledge production, thinking neither from assumed centers nor peripheries. Regarding the inside/outside border, as our experiences in Istanbul entail, it is possible to speak inside, but it becomes nullified by the context of sponsors, money, dependencies. Speaking outside is not heard. Speaking at the border, from the border, as the protests at the 11th International Istanbul Biennial opening did, puts its finger onto the very existence of a border, of a separating and segregating concept at work. A bit further, where the sculptors from the Academy of Fine Arts work on big slabs of stone, we sit with our breakfast and orta kahve19 from a kiosk. Looking over the water, the quick little boats on the Bogaz: it is the connection, not a divide.
Whatever curators’ efforts to tell each other stories,20 the financial situation of biennials and biennials’ pavilions will determine their fate, and the ups and downs of host cities and nations will be reflected in the event. Financing a biennial is at present an interplay between national and city governments and large private sponsors. And, of course, nations’, cities’, and private investors’ wealth is provided by the people who work, yet with differing modes of redistribution. Basic questions are: How do biennials operate; and under which conditions do they thrive or fail? How will the disintegration of some states, and the re-nationalization of others, be represented at biennial events? Additionally, and probably most important, the idea of “art” employed at biennials will have to be observed. The question is whether art continues to be seen as a system of its own, mythically dissected from society, like “economy” in Polanyi’s analysis. If biennials keep on operating in this mode, we suppose the “new” world might not be very different from the old!
Danila Mayer is an anthropologist, writer; she works occasionally with video. She publishes on cities urban youth, and questions of contemporary art.
Muzaffer Hasaltay is a video artist and a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Interested in philosophy and in exclusion mechanisms in arts and science.
Onur Serdar is an artist, a graphic designer, and a student at the Academy of Applied Arts, Vienna.
The three authors currently live in Vienna, Austria.
1 Tito’s Yugoslavia played a crucial role in the formation of the important non-alignment movement.
2 Istanbul Bogazi: Istanbul is not complete without the traditional and unforgettable boat excursion up the Bosporus, the winding strait that separates Europe and Asia.
3 See also Müller, Ariane (2005) on the reception of contemporary artists’ work, and Faroqhi, Suraiya (2005) on arts in the Ottoman Empire.
4 See also the other contributions in the special edition of Open, on “The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon,” which was an outcome of the scholars’ discussions in a program at the First Brussels Biennial.
5 The Werkleitz biennial, e.g., took place in a rural setting in its first years (see website). The Werkleitz Biennial was held in Tornitz/Werkleitz near Magdeburg (Sachsen-Anhalt), Germany.
6 The British pavilion, e.g., is curated by the British Council (Thornton, 2008), the Austrian by a curator (team), and the German by a commissioner. See also the relevant websites.
7 See Ögüt’s webpage www.ahmetogut.com
8 See also the video of Ragnar Kjartansson on YouTube (Vernissage TV) and at www.cia.is/venice.
9 I am grateful to Ariane Müller for this information.
10 In what ways taxpayers’ money must be justified to the public in different nations and cities cannot be dealt with here.
11 Other contributors to the Open 2009 biennial issue are M. Hardt, B. Holmes, C. Mouffe and C. Esche.
12 Nation-states’ financial conduct regarding support for contemporary arts, and which other demands for these must compete with, is another interesting realm for research.
13 London and New York are, together with Tokyo, the Global Cities, as Saskia Sassen analyzed in her seminal work (2001). In this metropolis, the control of the “global assembly line” is established and maintained.
14 Catal Hüyük is especially interesting, as “the earliest known urban representations of humans and animals” in “powerful and original artistic forms” were excavated from the densely built “rectangular buildings of sun dried brick, rising up the slope in serried rows, with entry only through apertures in their flat beam and rush roofs.” (Southall, 2000, starting from p. 25). See also the publications of archaeologist James Mellaart, 1967).
15 E.g., Irrigation; or a technological progress in energy use.
16 While national background might decrease in importance in artistic circles, the citizenship one holds determines if one can move globally or not, thus determining to some extent the options for participation in the international arts circuit.
17 An example for such a confrontation of concepts could have been the transplantation of Brecht’s Denn wovon lebt der Mensch – insan neyle yasar? into the context of Istanbul.
18 Mignolo (2000: p. 68) cites Khatibi 1983: p. 19.
19 Black Turkish coffee with medium sugar
20 … as WHW remark critically (2009: p. 95), referring to Boris Groys, Art Power, Cambridge 2008, p. 51.
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