7TH BERLIN BIENNALE FOR CONTEMPORARY POLITICS
by ARTUR ŻMIJEWSKI
Where we are today? Europe sees a wave of hostility towards foreigners. Politicians are eager to rekindle past resentment, harnessing it in the service of political agendas. Support for culture is being cut in the Netherlands, Greece, the UK, and in other countries—and it is also questioned quite prominently in Germany. In Russia, artists find themselves the target of witch hunts and some of them have been arrested, like members of the Pussy Riots group. In Russia there is also a tendency to drastically reduce educational services. Cuts in the cultural sector around Europe represent the wish of politicians who prefer a less educated society, which is easy to administer.
In such a situation it’s not enough—in my opinion—to have art that only fights to keep its position, which just makes claims on public funds and participates in sharing the economic profits which it creates. That’s fine; but it would also be useful to have art that is smart and creative enough to take part in transformative social processes.
The concept of the 7th Berlin Biennale is quite straightforward and can be condensed into a single sentence: we  present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed. These works create political events—regardless of whether they deal with urgent problems in society or the long-term politics of memory. The key areas of our interest are: the political effectiveness of art, the activity of the engaged intelligentsia and the creative class (artists in particular), their reactions to important social issues, as well as the way art is employed to construct historical narratives. We have also worked with artists whose views are radically different from our own and who support political forces that some of us might even consider dangerous. What is at stake here is to present these positions and, if possible, to even influence their ideological agendas and goals, rather than keeping a safe and dignified distance.
We decided to present almost exclusively new works in this Berlin Biennale. Rather than adjusting existing projects to a theme, we invited artists to respond to questions we proposed. We hoped for a situation in which artists’ actions would become not only art, but could also reveal a political truth—something with the potential to change selected aspects of our shared reality, so that art would possess the power of politics but not its fear, opportunism, and cynicism. So that art would create its own political approach, while artists’ works would speak of society in a truly open way—and it would turn out that they are actually able to speak. It’s enough to refrain from reducing artistic statements to "velvet-glove criticism." Artists will demonstrate their social empathy and the power of their critical positions in their entirety.
Did we succeed in playing this out with one of the first contributions to the Berlin Biennale—for example with the project of Martin Zet, launched three months before the official opening? The very moment it was announced, we were confronted with a media-fueled scandal that engulfed Zet’s proposal to collect 60,000 copies of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away with Itself or Germany Abolishes Itself), which were to be made into an installation. Zet and the Berlin Biennale were accused of wanting to organize book burnings and of harboring Nazi fantasies. Instead of a rational conversation, we stepped into the realm of fantasy—into the German imaginary, along with its props: ashes and flames. The fact that we didn’t seem to associate collecting books with burning them on the square in front of the Opera was met with local amazement. On occasion, it was perceived as naivety. The media attempted to reduce this serious political project by Zet to little more than an artistic scandal. It was labeled bad art—a convenient and frequently deployed strategy, as if by targeting the form, one needs not to be concerned about the message. Zet’s campaign was criticized for featuring expressions that made references to the language of the Third Reich. But does one really need to consider the fact that words and phrases such as "collect," "collection point," or "clear the atmosphere" could be associated with Nazi vocabulary? Perhaps those attacking Zet’s project just wanted to divert people’s attention from the contemporary vocabulary of racism, as presented in the book by Sarrazin, a Social Democrat. In Germany his book has sold over 1.3 million copies. Zet reminded us again that this vocabulary is a part of a secretly accepted language; under the cover of political correctness, hate speech grows. Paradoxically, he was blamed for executing an act of radical democracy with the use of Nazi assumptions.
The Berlin Biennale itself transformed into a method of conducting politics. Rather than illustrating social processes and examining them from a safe distance, we succeeded in bringing the Biennale into the field of political events. These actions vary in impact. Some slip out of hand, like Zet’s campaign. Others succeed in creating a collective voice in the political arena that concerns a specific issue. These include a project by Khaled Jarrar, whose concept of stamping passports with a »State of Palestine« stamp is a proclamation of the existence of a non-existent state, made from the position of an artist-citizen. It establishes an international community of "stamp bearers," and this in turn contributes to a greater cause—the process of developing and defending claims for Palestinian statehood. A similar effect was achieved in the case of what is presumed to be the "world’s largest key." The residents of Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank, where the key was made, have used its presentation in the Biennale as an opportunity to launch a press campaign and turn the world’s eyes towards the fate of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Instead of a desperate act of violence, they created a serious yet humorous art object—an object more effective than violence, because it’s able to seduce people.
Born in Berlin
One of the conditions of this Biennale’s efficacy is a shift away from the exotic. The artists addressed issues that are widely known, are seen as pressing by many, and are regularly found in the headlines. These include Sarrazin’s book; the controversial issue of the manipulation of memory, especially in relation to the question of German migration during and after the Second World War; or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, the artists play for shared, collective stakes rather than exoticizing reality or resorting to superficial playing around.
Each project required an enormous effort on the part of the artists. The same effort was required of the Berlin Biennale and KW Institute for Contemporary Art teams—to lobby, to convince, to meet the requirements of the city administration, and also not to fear while pursuing these projects. Some of the works refer to politics and memory and the way they are manipulated to serve as influential tools in the hands of political decision makers. For instance, the German politics of memory has become, to a certain extent, based on attempts to relativize German guilt and to stir up resentment that can be used to campaign for votes and to increase support for conservative politicians. In the context of Berlin—an exceptional "memory bank," which is home to constellations of museums and monuments—we were interested in working not only to present facts, but also to reveal newly constructed narratives. This is one of the goals of the center for exhibitions, documentation, and information being created by the Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung (SFVV) (Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation), scheduled to open in 2016. Its building Deutschlandhaus—serves as a venue for the Biennale, but also hosts a project prepared by the SFVV. The SFV, whose mission is to testify to the Second World War and postwar fate of evacuated and moved Germans, presents a historical narrative that, in the opinion of many commentators, converts Germans into victims of organized violence. Discussions about the center emerged in the shadow of controversy, provoking accusations of revanchism and historical manipulation. We see it as an apparatus of the German state, tasked with psychologically preparing society to accept the status of a European hegemon—which, as it seems, is only prevented by a historical burden of guilt. Politicians try to invent a new, safer understanding of this dominance. On his visit to Berlin last year, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski said: "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. (…) You may not fail to lead. Not dominate, but to lead in reform."
As a citizen of Eastern Europe, my own attitude to Germany and Berlin itself is ambivalent. And I’m not the only one. It is an exceptionally open city, so ostentatiously liberal that it lures many, including a large international community of artists who chose to live and work here. One of them, Joanna Rajkowska, decided to deliver her baby not in London or Warsaw, where she usually resides, but in Berlin—as a form of a tribute to the city. The child was born two weeks overdue, as though Rosa refused to accept the decision of Joanna and her husband Andrew. A few months later, Rosa was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, retinoblastoma, a cancer that develops in the cells of the retina causing sight impairment. Could it be that Rosa refused to see the city she lives in, the one included on her birth certificate? What is the actual message in this "project": Joanna’s decision, Rosa’s birth, or the disease affecting her eyes? When we sat down to work on the Berlin Biennale, we declared that we would propose questions instead of answers. Yet still, we are left with answers, as Rosa’s condition is a phenomenon that not only belongs to the regime of biology, or medicine, but also to the regime of culture. Why didn’t the doctor from the Berlin clinic check Rosa’s eyes properly, while the other one in Warsaw found the tumor there? Is it just a case of the ignorance of one pediatrician or an example of a wider, maybe even cultural, approach? West and East meet in Rosa’s eyes.
As I write this text a few weeks before the opening of the Berlin Biennale, I am still uncertain as to the final shape of the exhibition. Most works are currently in production. We will see the Biennale in its ultimate form no sooner than mid-April. I can say this: we succeeded at something I had only imagined before—we put all our eggs in one basket, and things will either »work« or »fail.« This risk is a way of escaping from the circle of the self-replicating art system that promotes the transport and installation of existing objects in order to avoid facing a changing reality that is difficult to predict. And if we want to confront and tackle this challenge called the Berlin Biennale, we cannot do it alone. This is why our questions and themes were taken up by allies who chose to support the idea of political art as an act of solidarity and to organize their own program of exhibitions and events. Our partners in these »Solidarity Actions« are: Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV), Dortmund; Istituto Svizzero di Roma (Swiss Institute in Rome); Kalmar konstmuseum, Kalmar; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; and steirischer herbst, Graz. For some institutions, solidarity with the Biennale is like a coming out—a declaration that art need not be dominated by empty gestures, and that the time has come for it to effectively deal with reality. Through the »Solidarity Actions« we also expand our knowledge of substantially political art, because our partners bring ideas to the table that we would not otherwise come up with. There are two more partners involved in the project Filtered by Eisenhüttenstadt—Artists-in-Berlin-Program / D AAD and me Collectors Room Berlin / Olbricht Foundation—who pursue their own cultural agendas in a small city in eastern Brandenburg.
Can art influence reality? Most likely yes, but not when it acts alone. It can only do so if it is one of the many forces at play that work towards change. For example, when institutions collaborate with each other, and artists work hand in hand with other actors. For change to take place today, the cultural field needs to build solidarity rather than competition. Europe is increasingly hostile to foreigners. The intelligentsia and people in the field of culture hold a considerable potential to influence social moods and shape the imagination of the future—they can change the course of events. Solidarity could be a way of tapping into this potential. While blending art and politics our partners, as well as ourselves, acknowledge the significance and appeal of each of these fields.
The Weak Conspiracy
We are still not sure about how the grand non-project of the Biennale—Indignados | Occupy Biennale—that is, the presence of members of Occupy, 15M, as well as other movements in the exhibition hall of KW will turn out. Their presence goes beyond the logic of the exhibition. It is a situation that we don’t curate, supervise, or assess. Out there, among the people discussing their participation in the Biennale, radical democracy, based on participation, is already taking place. And it will continue to take place between the activists and the visitors of the Biennale. Members of the various groups will simply be in KW, acting or not, adapting to the art world or rejecting it. But it’s none of the curators’ business. If we choose to, we can join them and work together—but only in a situation where our voice and their voices are of equal importance, where there is no hierarchy of power that would coerce others to act in a specific way. These exceptional social movements are important not only due to the fact that they are re-inventing democracy and politics, but also because they are »weak.« Many of us are fed up with looking at the archetypical leaders—tough and strong politicians—who are all too often incapable of responding to social shifts, not to mention relinquishing power. Isn’t it the case that what we need today is weakness rather than power? And that those social movements—weak, fragile, and prone to attacks as they are—have become essential precisely because of their weakness? Politics should not be founded on the concept of power, but on weakness. What else is art if not such a phenomenon? It is a weak discourse on which we could build if we want to avoid being endlessly raped by a merciless and cynical politics, and the brutal laws of the market, which leave no place for ideological naivety and softness.
In order to comprehend the 7th Berlin Biennale, one needs to understand the institutional context in which it emerged. The work on the exhibition involves more than a simple selection of artistic ideas and the decision to translate them into projects. It is essentially an everyday struggle with the logic of an art institution and the excessive regulations to which the Biennale is subject, which manifest themselves in an overwhelming number of bureaucratic procedures. It is also a struggle with German political correctness and the fear of breaching these rules. And it is furthermore a struggle against the expectation that »everything would be the same as always,« all the while hoping that this Biennale would be different from the others. After all, the »Berlin Biennale invents itself anew every two years.« Artists’ proposals are sifted through an institutional filter and confronted with the concerns of their potential consequences for the institution. This is what ultimately defines the exhibition. Artists are treated as producers who deliver exhibition components rather than human beings and political entities for whom the Biennale is a channel of expression and communication. Our work with the team was a collaboration with a group of enthusiasts, who understood the fact that they acted within a fragile social fabric, and were aware that by intervening in it they actually took part in politics. This awareness of the potential impact on society was also at times the source of a paralyzing anxiety. If we examine the consequences of the artistic contributions to the Biennale, it is evident that an art institution has a symbolic influence on reality. Put to work in the public sphere, as consistently implemented political activities, this influence could transform an art institution into a significant political actor—an actor able to influence social processes, or just be one of the mediators in such processes. The first process which could be influenced by an art institution is of course the internal process of art production. This is what I expect of an institution—to support rather than hamper initiatives. And to have the courage to exercise its influence, rather than show excessive anxiety. Around 30 percent of my time was consumed by the internal institutional struggle. It’s not a critique of the people, but it is a critique of the overly-strong structure and procedures, which put us into "only proper" places and actively shape our minds.
We curators, the organizers, and the artists have become painfully aware of the issue of the exhibition’s inadequate budget. Despite the fact that the funds for the production had been diminished so seriously that the development of works became questionable, the artists did not withdraw from the exhibition. Some found external sources of financial support on their own. We curators agreed that each artist in the Biennale would receive a fee of 1,000 Euros (unfortunately not all of them were paid as such). One of the participants, Marina Naprushkina, stated that to earn a living under these circumstances, she would need to take part in two biennials each month. It turned out that the Biennale, whether we like it or not, is a form of artistic exploitation, where the conditions are defined by me and the curatorial team. Quite possibly the artists we collaborated with have already faced the problem of limited budgets and symbolic fees. On one hand, their exceptional and significant artistic proposals have earned them an established position within the field; on the other, they are financially discriminated against as producers of art projects that are consumed by the institutionalized art circuit on a daily basis. But there are possible solutions to this situation: for example Polish artist Julita Wójcik recently proposed to the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Warsaw that she be employed there as an artist during the time she was preparing an exhibition and also for its duration. Let’s imagine a situation in which an artist works for an institution as an employee and has the same contract and receives all the same privileges (salary as well as social benefits) as others who work there.
And yet as curators, we have learned a lesson in how to conform to the existing structure, how to acquiesce to the institutional violence exerted over subjects that are essentially weaker—the artists. We knew how to haggle over production budgets, cutting the costs from 20,000 to 4,000 Euro. But at the same time, we worked with an institution, and in a climate of a fear of art that effectively criticizes the way democracy is being practiced. This odd and overwhelming anxiety led us to title this Berlin Biennale Forget Fear. The expression itself has a performative character; it’s a watchword that relieves one’s anxiety.
It’s Friday, the sun is setting, and it’s about time I finished this statement. The 7th Berlin Biennale is already underway, and soon all projects will be subject to public scrutiny. Some will find the exhibition interesting; some will see it as an abuse; while still others will accuse us of political ignorance. Whatever happens, we should not lose sight of our main goal: to open access to performative and effective politics that would equip we ordinary citizens with the tools of action and change. Art is one of these tools.