A Toolbox from the 31st São Paulo Biennale
Art destroys, but only insidiously.
Art is truth, because it speaks of the truth of our world, and speaks of our world truthfully. In doing so, art can tell us the story of a failed world – ours – and its possible dissolution. It can tell us there is another world, and that it is in this one.
Tony Chakar [i]
Every new mode of existence is a result of a subjective mutation, a break with the dominant meanings. (…) Such moments, whether individual or collective (…), correspond to a subjective and collective mutation in the sense that the circumstances that were once experienced as inevitable suddenly appear as intolerable. That which was previously not even imaginable suddenly becomes thinkable, desirable. There is a paradigm shift of affection that redraws the boundary between what is desired and what is no longer tolerable.
Peter Pál Pelbart [ii]
The multiple contemporary environmental and economic crises inspire apocalyptic images, but also visions of new ways of living and their equivalent spatial organization. The 31st São Paulo Biennale was a collection of those visions, with the purpose of conjuring what still does not exist.
The curatorial endeavour was grounded on the belief in art’s ability to reflect and intervene in the on-going process of social change today. It did not only intend to recognize the art of the geopolitical periphery, but also proposed the inclusion of cultural and social practices alongside artistic practices, their majority, essentially activist. Meaning that they are not just a critique of the system, but they try to interfere, resist and undo its codes of representation and action.
Even though it might seem inevitable to tackle political issues in a Biennale cooked up in the heat of the several protests that stirred the world and especially Brazil. The social and political side of exhibitions like this still distresses the Brazilian cordial man.[iii]
Should we assume that it is art’s task to directly respond to events that are happening in the political sphere? As Boris Groys affirms, there is a certain intellectual tradition,[iv] that believes the aestheticization and spectacularization of politics, including political protest, are bad things because they divert attention from the practical goals of political protest and towards its aesthetic form. And this means that art cannot be used as a medium of a genuine political protest, because the use of art for political action necessarily aestheticizes this action, turning it into a spectacle and, thus, neutralizing its practical effect.[v]
But, what is happening all over the world, is not ‘just politics,’ it cannot be neatly confined in one plain. It ‘overflows’, contaminating everything that comes into contact with it.
It seems people have grown accustomed in labeling contemporary art or exhibitions as being political or not, socially engaged or not. Well, given the current situation, where there are no longer any agreed upon criteria for judging art production, there is a marked tendency to replace aesthetic judgments with moral ones, pretending that those moral judgments are also political ones. I regard all of these conceptions as ‘anti-political’ because they get stuck on the basis of good/bad dichotomy and ultimately fail to grasp the nature of the hegemonic political struggle.[vi]
Indeed, the relation between art and politics cannot be approached in terms of two separately constituted fields, art on one side and politics on the other. Instead, there is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art. So, the question is not then what can art do?, but rather, where does art position itself?, and, how does art position itself?[vii]
Whether they like it or not, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order, or in its challenging, and this is why they unavoidably have a political dimension. The political, for its part, concerns the symbolic ordering of social relations, and this is where its aesthetic dimension resides. Ultimately, it is not useful to make a distinction between political and non-political art. Instead, the crucial question concerns the possible forms of critical art.
It would be naïve to believe that artistic activism could, on its own, bring about the end of neo-liberal hegemony. Nevertheless, critical artistic practices, envisaged as counter-hegemonic interventions, can contribute to the creation of a multiplicity of sites where the dominant hegemony can be questioned. These practices ‘disarticulate’ the existing ‘common sense’ and disrupt the smooth image that corporate capitalism tries to spread, making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure, thereby bringing to the fore its repressive character, and instigating the development of a ‘counter-hegemony’.[viii]
I guess this was the physiognomy of ‘political’ the Biennale curators were looking for in the selected works. Indeed, The desire to give voice to certain unheard communities or individuals and to denounce certain problems, were at the basis of most of the artists’ projects. Indeed, several of them were almost journalistic in their immediacy. Works like A Fortaleza (from Yuri Firmeza), Apelo, (from Clara Ianni and Débora Maria da Silva), Martírio (from Thiago Martins de Melo) and Ymá Nhandehetama (from Armando Queiroz, Almires Martins and Marcelo Rodrigues), among many others, manifestly address important and pressing issues inside the Brazilian socio-political context, that are unequivocally fundamental to be understood and discussed. My only concern regards the way they articulated this self-imposed-‘task’. Putting the spectator in a position where the interpretation and discussion around the works is mainly brought by positivist positions, that is, by focusing on the demonstrable efficiency and impact of what they want to denounce.[ix] Which might easily lead to another misconception that consists in envisaging critical art in moralistic terms, seeing its role as one of moral condemnation.
And so we slide into a sociological discourse…
But, in the middle of all of this social urgency, what happened to aesthetics? Aesthetics as aesthesis: an autonomous regime of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality.
There were some other works in the biennial, which managed to arouse a conscience of social responsibility without compromising their aesthesis. One of the examples that does this operation very successfully is Imogen Stidworthy’s, Balayer – A Map of Sweeping. Taking as a starting point a very specific situation, from a very specific social context, these works nevertheless manage to transcend such particularities, building a dialogue between their ‘case-study’ and the experience of most humans, in a sense of transversal planetary existence. Other works such as; Jakob Jakobsen and María Berríos’, The Revolution Must be a School of Unfettered Thought; Chto Delat’s, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger; Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s, The Incidental Insurgents. Part 1 & Part 2 and Mapa Teatro’s, Los Incontados: un tríptico, just to cite a few, manage really well the balance between denouncing social issues and maintaining their intrinsic complexity as works of art, a complexity that goes beyond morality, touching our affects and subliminally reaching our intellect.
Indeed, It is not by giving people lessons about the state of the world that they will be moved to act. This is why the transformation of political identities can never result from a rationalist appeal to the true interest of the subject, but rather from his inscription in a set of practices that will mobilize his affects in a way that disarticulates the framework in which the dominant process of identification takes place. Moving people to act by creating in them a desire for change. We speak of desire, because desire obeys a different logic, then for instance ‘claims’ or ‘needs’. Desire tends to expand, spread, infect, proliferate, multiplying and reinventing itself as it connects with others.[x]
As catalysts of this counter-hegemonic desire, few projects are indisputably more rich, dense and inexhaustible than the majority of others. Nevertheless, I feel that this Biennale, more than being a group show, was an attempt to take a snapshot at our current state of affairs. So, I don’t want to stick to the critique of individual works and the motivations behind their artistic and curatorial choices.
The big underlying question is:
Can art still play a critical role within society while inserted into these systematized events, the biennales?
It is often argued that in late capitalism, aesthetics has triumphed in all realms, creating a hedonistic culture where art cannot provide a truly subversive experience anymore, because every critical gesture is quickly neutralized by the forces of capitalism.[xi] Indeed, what we are still witnessing today is what Antonio Gramsci called ‘hegemony through neutralization’ or ‘passive revolution’, a situation where forces which challenge the hegemonic order are engulfed by the existing structure so as to satisfy them in a way that neutralizes their subversive potential.[xii]
To imagine that the Biennale Foundation, in São Paulo, could provide an escape from this situation, and foster a clear site for uncontaminated, critical political intervention, is to be blind to the manifold forces, economic and political, which make its very existence possible. Nevertheless, to believe that existing institutions, such as this one, cannot become a terrain for contestation, is to ignore the tensions that always exist within a given structure of forces and the possibility of acting in a way that subverts their forms of articulation.
But, how effective can any criticality in form or content be, if it is absorbed by an exhibition structure that (to some extent) corroborates with what is being criticized? If any artwork in an exhibition is made serviceable to the core values of the dominant socio-economic formation, how can we speak of an autonomous production of meaning and experience at all?
The truth is, whichever type of cultural production striving towards a certain degree of autonomy, has to take into account its own inclusion in the aforementioned dominant value system. Only then, specific strategies can be developed to implode and restructure such institutions, in a constant search for a glimpse of autonomy: not of the artwork, but instead the political autonomy that begins to emerge when a collective self (autos) seeks to establish its own productive laws (nomos).
In the 31st São Paulo Biennale we can clearly see a curatorial attempt to ascertain its own nomos. But we can also see some signs of the friction between this attempt and the hegemonic structures it confronted. While the curators clearly adopted a Homeopathic attitude, defending that the ‘cure’ did not lie in the suppression, facilitation or dilution of the conflict, but rather in the intensification of the symptom so as to promote a bodily reaction that would cure it. The Institution’s approach was an allopathic one, promoting an edifying and benevolent discourse which appeased conflict and guaranteed the digestibility and palatability of the exhibition, ultimately seeking to assure the ‘consumer’s contentment’.[xiii] Demonstrating that it is a socially responsible entity, intervening in the unequal distribution of cultural capital and democratising access to what it has to offer. Therefore justifying the use of public money in the realisation of such an event.[xiv]
Some fragments of this friction were present even before the exhibition opened, with the infamous open letter from the participating artists calling on the organizers to return sponsorship funds accepted from the Israeli state and also requesting the removal of the Israeli consular logo from the board bearing the other sponsors, an attitude that was (rightly) backed up by the curators[xv]. Other fragments were visible inside the exhibition too. For example, in the partial censorship of the work ‘Espacio para abortar’, (by the collective Mujeres Creando), which talked about abortion, and was rated by the Biennale as ‘Inappropriate content for Children under eighteen’. A somewhat hypocrite attitude in a country where there is a high rate of teenage pregnancy. And in the site-specific intervention by artist Graziela Kunsch, that, after a lengthy negotiating with the institution, managed to clear the biennale’s entrance from the turnstiles that were usually there[xvi], only to find out later, that, without being informed, the organization had put some low barriers in front of the doors on the outside of the building, which people had to go around in order to access the Biennale. Therefore, completely contaminating the initial idea of Kunsch, of a natural, free and egalitarian flow from Ibirapuera Park towards the interior of the building and vice versa.
Then, there was the announcement that the Brazilian representation at the Venice Biennale in 2015, will be curated by someone who was not involved with the 31st São Paulo Biennial. Despite the representation in Venice being one of the contract items between the Foundation and the Biennale curators. This was a unilateral decision that was made without consulting the foreign curators of the 31st Biennial.[xvii]
From my point of view, all these residues of a friction are indicators that the curator’s actually did something right and useful. The 31st São Paulo Biennale has tried to show some ways of how art can be instrumentalized, emphasizing its ability to play a functional role within the structures of thought.[xviii] Making it useful to real societies by establishing a real relationship with the world, not only symbolic, but making actual proposals for change and producing results with effects outside of the art institutions.
Even though I still consider this exhibition as being quite moderate in its exploration of the viewer/work dynamics (that is mostly, still one of spectatorship), sometimes falling into a certain didactic posture. What should be highlighted from this Biennale is its ambition to start assembling a toolbox for how to implode institutions. From biopolitical institutions, all the way to macro-political ones.
I am absolutely sure that these tools, and others yet to come, will be vital in the looming years.
31st Bienal de São Paulo
6th Sept – 7th December, 2014
Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, São Paulo, Brazil
Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Pablo Lafuente, Luiza Proença, Oren Sagiv, and Benjamin Seroussi.
[i] CHAKAR, Tony. ‘On Seeking Incuriously’ in Catalogue 31st São Paulo Bienal – How to (…) things that don’t exist, ENGUITA MAYO, Nuria, & BELTRÁN, Erick, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2014, p.84
[ii] PÁL PELBART, Peter. ‘Towards an art of instauring modes of existence that ‘do not exist’’ in Catalogue 31st São Paulo Bienal – How to (…) things that don’t exist, ENGUITA MAYO, Nuria, & BELTRÁN, Erick, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2014, p.260
[iii] See Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s theory of the cordial man.
[iv] Rooted in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord.
[v] GROYS, Boris. On Art Activism’ in E-flux journal #56, source: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-art-activism/#_ftnref9
[vi] See MOUFFE, Chantal. Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, Verso, London, New York. 2013. And BISHOP, Claire. Artificial Hells. Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, 1st edition, Verso, London, New York, 2012.
[vii] CHAKAR, Tony. ‘On Seeking Incuriously’ in Catalogue 31st São Paulo Bienal – How to (…) things that don’t exist, ENGUITA MAYO, Nuria, & BELTRÁN, Erick, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2014, p.81
[viii] MOUFFE, Chantal. Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, Verso, London, New York. 2013, p.91
[ix] BISHOP, Claire. Artificial Hells. Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, 1st edition, Verso, London, New York, 2012, p.18 (The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. 1- Creativity and Cultural Policy)
[x] PÁL PELBART, Peter. ‘Towards an art of instauring modes of existence that ‘do not exist’’ in Catalogue 31st São Paulo Bienal – How to (…) things that don’t exist, ENGUITA MAYO, Nuria, & BELTRÁN, Erick, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2014, p.259, 260
[xi]MOUFFE, Chantal. Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, Verso, London, New York. 2013, p.85
[xii] The artistic paradox consists today in the wish to produce a world other – and yet from within a world which admits of no other world, other than the one which actually exists, and which knows that the ‘outside’ to be constructed can only be the other within an absolute insidedness. See NEGRI, Antonio. Art and Multitude. Nine letters on art, followed by Metamorphoses. Art and immaterial labour, P.108, 109
[xiii] “(…) The upshot is that idiosyncratic or controversial ideas are subdued and normalised in favour of a consensual behaviour upon whose irreproachable sensitivity we can all rationally agree. By contrast, I would argue that unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact. This is not to say that ethics are unimportant in a work of art, nor irrelevant to politics, only that they do not always have to be announced and performed in such a direct and saintly fashion (…). An over-solicitousness that judges in advance what people are capable of coping with can be just as insidious as intending to offend them. (…) participants are more than capable of dealing with artists who reject Aristotelian moderation in favour of providing a more complicated access to social truth, however eccentric, extreme or irrational this might be. If there is an ethical framework underpinning this book, then it concerns a Lacanian fidelity to the singularity of each project, paying attention to its symbolic ruptures, and the ideas and affects it generates for the participants and the viewers, rather than deferring to the social pressure of a pre-agreed tribunal in which a cautious, self-censoring pragmatism will always hold sway.” BISHOP, Claire. Artificial Hells. Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. 1st edition, Verso, London, New York, 2012, p.26 (The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. 2- The Ethical Turn)
[xiv] See Jorge Menna Barreto’s text ‘The survival of astonishment’ in ‘All it takes is for educators to question themselves’ in the Catalogue from the 31st São Paulo Bienal – How to (…) things that don’t exist, ENGUITA MAYO, Nuria, & BELTRÁN, Erick, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2014, p. 210
[xv] In the letter, the artists state that with the Israeli sponsorship, their exhibited work is “undermined and implicitly used for whitewashing Israel’s on-going aggressions and violation of international law and human rights.”
[xvi] Nevertheless, there were still some turnstiles further ahead, inside the Bienal Building. Only the ground floor, was made accessible to the public without these barriers.
[xvii] The exception to this rule occurred also in 2006, in the 27th edition of the Biennale curated by Lisette Lagnado. Eight years ago, Lagnado was not appointed for the Venice Biennale because of the conflicts that the curator and the presidency faced with the artist group Superflex, whose work was censored on the show.
[xviii] See Charles Esche interview with Vanessa Rato in Publico.pt (only in Portuguese) (source: http://www.publico.pt/culturaipsilon/noticia/instrumentalizar-a-arte-sim-diz-charles-esche-vivemos-tempos-assustadores-precisamos-de-conceitos-assustadores-1680141)