Biennial Burnout

As the world lurches from one desperate crisis to the next, is it time to consider the real values of art?

By Joshua Decter

Charlotte Johannesson, Attack Attitude, 1977 (installation view, São Paulo Biennial, 2016), tapestry, 200 × 100 cm. Courtesy Malmö Konstmuseum

We live in times of political degradation; every day, we mourn a society that is being vitiated by sullied politicians and corrupted systems. And yet we are society; these conditions are not outside of us, they are our own human frailties writ large. We want our biopower – ie, how we might use our human sovereignty and individual agency as a form of power vis-à-vis state power – to do good, we know that there are better and worse uses of power, and yet we also understand that power is itself a Pandora’s box that can be as compromising as it is emancipating. The question, as always, is how art and its systems figure into this state of affairs, and there are no easy answers, even though certain exhibition press releases – and their occasionally outlandish claims – would have us believe otherwise.

What happens when art, culture and the creative classes end up reproducing the inequitable conditions that art was supposed to challenge and transform? 

There was a time when I believed that art (and as an atheist, I only believed in art) could provide a temporary respite from many of our problems, if only at the level of a kind of political imaginary: art as that which conjures alternative political realities through allegory, metaphor, representation, etc. And when I hungered for art to be a utilitarian problem solver, I found inspiration in certain examples of socially engaged art and ‘social practice’ art. And yet doubts linger, if only because we still need to think critically, dialectically, about the paradoxical intersections of art, the social, money, power, politics, the environment, etc. What happens when art, culture and the creative classes end up reproducing the inequitable conditions that art was supposed to challenge and transform? This is a dilemma for anyone concerned about social, economic, racial and other kinds of justice, and the civic responsibilities of art: how do we benefit the many, not only the few, and how do we make sure that we are solving more problems than we are creating? We need to be aware that the egalitarianism promised by some art – and its exhibitionary, market and discursive systems – may remain unfulfilled when that art (and its milieus) enters into and reproduces inegalitarian conditions. Do biennials – or for that matter any exhibition format – embody such contradictions? Are these sites of both freedom and unfreedom, unavoidably, because that’s also what it means to be human?

While I admire the commitment of curators who organise these large-scale exhibitions, there’s nevertheless a little voice inside my head saying: our world is drowning in biennials, triennials and other periodic large-scale exhibition platforms. I visited a mere two this summer: the Berlin Biennale (The Present in Drag), and the São Paulo Biennial (Live Uncertainty). Yet I’ll miss the Gwangju Biennale (The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?)), the Liverpool Biennial, the Shanghai Biennale (Why Not Ask Again?), the Busan Biennale (Hybridizing Earth, Discussing Multitude) and probably others that I’m not even aware exist. We may need a new biennial that simply creates more time for us... to see other biennials. Or perhaps we should just establish a new nation-state, Biennial, where everyone who organises biennials can live and work... and organise biennials. Over the decades, undoubtedly like others, I’ve developed a mild case of FOMB: Fear of Missing Biennials, and other big shows. Although in recent months this has been dwarfed by a more pernicious condition, FOATP: Fear of a Trump Presidency. But even if we miss a biennial here or a Manifesta there, we can always rely upon a continuous influx of emailed, tweeted and Facebooked press releases, up-to-the-minute ‘reports’ and instantaneous ‘reviews’, all so kindly reminding us about what we’re missing. Such inundation is exhausting for producers and receivers alike, and yet our exhibition culture industry keeps on growing, ironically, even as the so-called neoliberal ideology of unfettered economic growth comes under attack from some of the very same curators, artists, critics, theorists and others who generate these exhibition platforms. And when the critique of this exhibitionary logic is staged as the exhibition itself, or as a collateral element of the show, we’ve probably reached an era of postcontradiction (or did this happen decades ago?).

The performance of critique/self-critique, of nonconformist oppositionality, has always been a central mechanism of avant-garde consciousness; these are now restaged as post-(neo)avant-garde tropes... on the exhibition stage. The Enlightenment model of the exhibition sits comfortably alongside the post-Enlightenment notion of the exhibition. And yet the performance (and I’m not necessarily alluding to neo-performance art...) of art’s contradictions can be instructive for publics: biennials and large-scale exhibition platforms are educational, and capital investment in biennials is at the same time an investment in the pedagogical utility of art. One need only consider what may be the most successful – and perhaps least discussed – aspect of the São Paulo Biennial as an institution: a commitment to bringing in thousands of children for educational tours of the shows (and the hiring/training of educators for this purpose), thereby supplementing their general education. Such commitments to education within the context of large-scale exhibitions are an extension of Enlightenment ideas about the illuminating capacity of art and culture, even as certain artworks and exhibition themes may interrogate the less savoury aspects of Enlightenment thinking and history.

And yet I’ve always found it a bit odd to criticise unfettered hyper-capitalist growth (which I’m not defending by any means) and not see the proliferation of biennials and other exhibition platforms as participating at least to a certain extent in that model of growth; the increase of private/corporate/foundation funding for biennials where public/governmental funding is inadequate is evidence of this perhaps unavoidable situation. It has been argued that biennials and other exhibition events are attractors of capital for places lacking capital: the biennial as a kind of venture capital event to regrow local, regional and global economies. So regardless of the ideology or politics or theme of this or that biennial, there’s really no escaping the fact that biennials can really only happen today with massive inflows of capital from either private, corporate or public sources. The product of biennials is also more biennials. Biennials reproduce biennials, and so there is an economic logic there. But the lingering question at moments of deep economic crisis and uncertainty is: just how much investment in art culture should there be, if people lack basic services? How do we calibrate these trade-offs, on the micro, macro and every other nuanced human level? And when the theme of an art exhibition calls for us to imagine a postcapitalist economy, and alternative social, racial, gender, political and human relations, for instance, it’s not entirely clear how that exhibition would bring about such change to our operating systems, other than pointing to future possibilities... for future generations.

When a country is in the midst of a profound economic recession, with staggering levels of unemployment and a dysfunctional political system, where does art and culture fit into any process of rebuilding the economy and the crucial social systems that provide a public safety net for millions of people struggling due to the economic crisis?

As someone who travels frequently between the United States and Brazil, there appears to be no escape from our desultory state of political affairs in 2016, as both nations appear paralysed by various forms of ideological polarisation, deep economic inequities, systemic corruption, educational crises, a withering public sector, the nefarious influence of religion in secular politics, the uncertainty of the middle classes, rightwing demagoguery, leftwing ineffectuality, electoral shenanigans, etc. But given the sheer depth of the economic crisis in Brazil, I was thinking this summer – when there was so much debate about the value of the Rio Olympics – that in cities where basic public infrastructure for hospitals and other social services is critically lacking due to financial crises and corruption, perhaps public funding for art should not be a priority. In other words, as an arts professional deeply committed to art, I would nevertheless have no problem with art – and its institutions – taking a backseat, a pause, until essential human services are restored to a city. Now, realistically speaking, art never pauses, because artists are always making art, curators are always making shows and art may indeed be an essential human ‘service’. And although there should be no debate about whether art is crucial to society (art is society), it is still necessary to think carefully about how art’s ecosystems function in relation to other cultural, political and economic ecosystems, and if crisis requires us to make difficult choices – or to temporarily rearrange priorities – to help people whose very lives may be at stake. To consider recent political events in Brazil: one of interim president Michel Temer’s first ill-considered decisions was to fold the Ministry of Culture into the Ministry of Education, which only exacerbated anxiety in the art and cultural communities about their future following what some have called a ‘legal coup’ that enabled the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Bowing to protests, Temer relented and reinstated the Ministry of Culture as a standalone ministry in May 2016. Of course, many Brazilians don’t accept him as a legitimate president, so the question of the Ministry of Culture is just one of many challenges facing the country... a country to which I feel deeply connected. Temer has proposed a 20-year freeze on public spending (in real terms) for education and health, unbelievably enough. This would be a cruel form of austerity for a country wherein millions of people who managed to work their way out of poverty into something resembling the middle class are already back- sliding into unemployment and financial precariousness. It goes without saying that there needs to be funding and infrastructure for art and culture, and yet when a country is in the midst of a profound economic recession, with staggering levels of unemployment and a dysfunctional political system, where does art and culture fit into any process of rebuilding the economy and the crucial social systems that provide a public safety net for millions of people struggling due to the economic crisis? This is the dilemma regarding levels of public spending on art and culture, and it is exacerbated by the fact that we don’t want the private sector to take over the public sector’s – government’s – responsibility to support art. Governmental support for art sends a powerful political message. It would be unproductive – if not politically dangerous – under certain circumstances to suggest that art and culture don’t play a role in economic and social development, thereby giving ammunition to those who wish to defund the arts for purely ideological reasons. However, anywhere there are deep economic inequities, it is appropriate to ask how the economies of art help the greatest number of people, not only the privileged few. Based upon numerous studies conducted in the US, it is clear that art is an important component of early education for children (I’m a product of such an education), and so we need governmental policies that increase arts education in schools, and public funding for it (as well as smart public/private-sector partnerships) as a necessary societal infrastructure. The question however is whether centralised, large-scale exhibitions in major urban centres are always the best delivery systems in times of crisis, or whether cultural capital needs to be decentralised and redistributed. This is a fraught political issue that certain exhibitions have endeavoured to address by inviting socially engaged and social-practice artists to develop collaborative and participatory works with communities beyond the institutional frame, even though we also understand that the institutional frame operates beyond a museum or pavilion’s literal walls. The artist is also always an emissary of the institution of art, in any context.

Every biennial, every exhibition, understands itself to be a public sphere, a commons, a fluid discursive platform, a contextually responsive organism, a temporary autonomous zone, a disrupter...

Every biennial, every exhibition, advertises some notion of art politics, of art postpolitics, the utility of art, of accelerated art politics, of decelerated art politics, of nonart politics, of postart nonpolitics and so on; we are buried under an avalanche of claims. Every biennial, every exhibition, understands itself to be a public sphere, a commons, a fluid discursive platform, a contextually responsive organism, a temporary autonomous zone, a disrupter, etc. These exhibitions wish to operate at various speeds and temporalities simultaneously: slow and fast, past, present and future. But a pause in biennials and other periodic exhibitions would seem an impossibility: our exhibition-industrial complex feeds – and is in turn fed by – museums, galleries, alternative spaces, curatorial programmes (and other parts of academia), global private capital, local/national public capital and just about everything else. The world might come to a standstill if our exhibition systems broke down.

We’re the disease and the cure, the problem and the solution, the critique and the post-critique, and a thousand biennials may not cure us. This is perhaps what DIS – the curatorial collective responsible for this past summer’s Berlin Biennale 9 – may have been rather cheekily suggesting: if everything is in drag, then how can we know anything with any degree of certainty? When emerging conditions of identity, gender, politics, anti-politics, art or fashion become new normatives so quickly and fluidly? Some have accused DIS of offering a self-entitled vision of art and the world that lacks sensitivity to current problems of economic and racial justice, or the refugee crisis, for instance, and perhaps the exhibition was emblematic of a kind of return to a repressed neopostmodernist postpolitical politics that some disillusioned millennials may find to be seductive. But what is a politically responsible exhibition? And if a biennial is both the symptom and the critique of the symptom, is there an exit from this feedback loop? BB9 may have embodied, for better and/or worse, the argument that distinctions between art, subcultures and fashion/design/lifestyle/experience/popular cultures are accelerating into oblivion, and that the politics of biennials may be superseding the ability of biennials to be political... even though participants such as Trevor Paglen, Adrian Piper or Hito Steyerl (an artist also present at the São Paulo Biennial) might disagree.

We know that the biennial and exhibition system must be sustained by large amounts of capital (to reproduce itself as cultural capital, which is transformed back into capital, etc), and yet are these public, private and public–private expenditures always the best use of our capital when humanitarian crises proliferate around the globe? Are there times of emergency when art/ creative capital (so to speak) should be diverted to capital to enable human survival? Or, to the contrary, is capital for art and other creative endeavours in fact key to preserving human survival? And, for example, when defence and military budgets in many nations dwarf budgets for art and culture, are such questions ludicrous, particularly in relation to political regimes that place art and culture on the budgetary chopping block as part of austerity programmes? And let’s not forget, ISIS destroys art and artefacts (leading the Hague to define the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime), yet ISIS also preserves some artefacts to sell on the black markets. Weirdly ironic.

If artists, curators and writers claim that certain art practices, and certain arrangements of these practices within biennials and other exhibition platforms, promote progressive economic, social and other notions of human justice that are not only performed/ represented but also transmitted to publics in ways that eventually make their way into concrete policies, how do we trace these processes in a verifiable way without predicating art on metrics and outcomes whose results politicians could use against art (‘Either the biennial transforms society in some verifiable way or no more funding for your biennial!’)? While we must be wary of attempts by conservative forces to defund art and culture, we must also be wary of attempts to stifle debate within art and culture about the societal and human benefits of art and culture; open debate is what art demands from us. Can biennials and other large-scale art events function as drivers of progress on the redirecting of capital to where it is most needed? For places in the world in the midst of economic crisis and short-falls in public financing, should public support of art be temporarily deprioritised, in relation to other more pressing infrastructural needs, such as housing, health and education, even as some argue that art can function as an incubator of new ideas regarding affordable housing, economic and racial justice, accessible healthcare, among other basic social needs and challenges?

Is it because all politics and ideologies – and the media – seem to have failed us, that the desire for art to enable progressive transformation of the world has intensified? Have we converted our distrust of politics into a trust of art? And so has art been reinstrumentalised as a form of politics? Should we trust art and its institutions more than the institution of politics, even as we are anxious about talking candidly about politics and the power of the artworlds? We want biennials and other exhibitions to be transformative experiences for publics, but it’s not always clear if they are, or how they are. Shouldn’t we also talk about the ethical and political infrastructure of our exhibition platforms – how ethics and politics are enacted in these contexts – and not only about how ethics and politics appear to be represented (ie, exhibited), via artworks, to publics? In other words, so as to make progressive change in the world, perhaps we should start at home with ourselves and our systems of art. Or to put it another way still: be the biennial you want to see in the world. 

This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of ArtReview