Mike Watson on the state of political art in light of the 56th Venice Biennale and the Creative Time Summit

All The World's Futures was keenly anticipated as the 'Karl Marx biennial' as it centred around a marathon live reading of Das Kapital. But how did it live up to expectations?

By Mike Watson

Gulf Labor protesters outside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Photo: luciapizzani, via Instagram.

Writing now, as the 2015 Creative Time Summit on social art closes at the 56th Venice Biennale’s Arsenale location, it is possible to say that political art has emerged onto the world stage with a previously unseen level of visibility. Three days of talks around alternative education, with a broadly anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist focus, have bought political debate to the biggest event in the art world calendar. The summit, titled The Curriculum included politically-orientated contributions from, among others: Afghan president Ashraf Ghani; American historian Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts; artist Marinella Senatore; Dmitry Vilensky of Russian art activist group Chto Delat?; and Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson, who tirelessly emceed. The summit’s youngest speaker was the fifteen-year-old activist and founder of the group Scholarism from Hong Kong, Joshua Wong, who inspired the audience at the end of day two with his optimism, “we will claim the democracy which belongs to us, because time is on our side.” The three days of talks and symposiums emphasised that political art is a growing force.

Political art has emerged onto the world stage with a previously unseen level of visibility

For many observers of the Biennale – particularly those involved in the production, curation and critique of political and activist art – the hosting of the summit in Venice went some way to exonerate the Biennale's curator, Okwui Enwezor, following a lukewarm exhibition that failed to live up to expectations. The thematics of All the World's Futures had, after all, when unveiled in autumn 2014, been described by Enwezor as “a project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.” Further, this investigation was to be unfolded by a daily live reading of all three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital (which is by now, at the time of writing, in its second cycle). As Enwezor explained, “In All the World’s Futures, the aura, effects, affects, and spectres of capital will be felt in one of the most ambitious explorations of this concept and term.” Such an approach would always have to reckon with the contradictions that exist at the core of both the Venice Biennale and the wider contemporary artworld. Namely, the fact that art, despite all its lofty ambitions to the contrary, is of course inextricably entwined with capitalism. The Biennale itself is a private enterprise that sells its logo to exhibitors for tens of thousands of euros and has encouraged rent hikes across the city of Venice as official collateral events spend hundreds of thousands of euros on building hire. This comes along with the cost of hiring a national ‘commissioner’ who know the inner working of the Biennale and can arrange official event status, architects who must attest that projects don’t damage the buildings which host art events (as Venice is a UNESCO world heritage site), and a host of other service providers who charge inflated rates. Indeed, for many local residents and activists, the Biennale, while being crucial to the livelihood of Venetians, is part of the process by which Venice is becoming a theme park, sinking under the weight of tourist hordes and overshadowed by huge cruise liners.

Against this backdrop, Enwezor's Biennale was always going to have to go the extra mile to convince a sceptical public of its political credentials. This is even more the case in Italy, where a lively social art scene has in recent years operated across the peninsula from occupied spaces such as MACAO and the Isola Art Center in Milan, Cinema America Occupato, Palazzo Cinema and Teatro Valle in Rome, Teatro Coppola in Catania, and SaLe Docks in Venice itself. Such non-profit movements have by now long demonstrated that it is possible to program high quality cultural events, delivering culture as a common good, for free (as opposed to the €30 it cost to attend the Creative Time Summit, the price of a Biennale ticket).

The contradictions of discussing Das Kapital at the Biennale could’ve been tolerable if the resulting discussion advanced the cause of social art

But of course, I could perhaps have lived with these contradictions if they were made worthwhile. That is to say, the contradictions of discussing Das Kapital at the Biennale could’ve been tolerable if the resulting discussion advanced the cause of social art and the issues at the forefront of the minds of its practitioners. This, however, was always going to be a gamble. If the inherent contradictions of the artworld are seen as insurmountable, social art would instead very publicly become associated with the greed and hypocrisy of the wider art market. Enwezor’s Biennale risked dancing on the grave of Marx, while simultaneously coopting social art (which often isn’t explicitly Marxist) to the institutionalised and capitalist mission of the Biennale.

Okwui Enwezor’s Biennale risked dancing on the grave of Marx, while simultaneously coopting social art

Things did not start brilliantly for the artworld’s biggest champion of non-occidental (particularly African) art and culture and the Biennale’s first African-born chief curator, after the Kenyan Pavilion was cancelled days before the inauguration in May this year. This followed the revelation that its commissioner Paola Paponi had programmed a show of nearly exclusively Chinese artists with no link to Kenya, and just two Kenyans, one of which was born in Italy. The artists had paid to be involved in the event, as is often the case. Additionally, the Icelandic Pavilion – a project by Christoph Büchel that featured an operational mosque installed in a deconsecrated church – was closed by the police following fears over ‘security’. Disappointingly however, no official Biennale statement was made regarding either of these controversies.

Many observers, including myself, reserved judgment, knowing that the Creative Time Summit was approaching and that with this year’s host city being Venice it might provide an opportunity for the Biennale’s apparent contradictions to be discussed. The actual summit itself however was preceded on 9 August by a talk – part of the Biennale’s own programme of events held in the Giardini – given by Gulf Labor, alongside curator and activist Marco Baravalle and Enwezor himself. This follows perhaps the most incendiary political moment of the 56th Venice Biennale to date – and one out of the control of its curator – when, during the vernissage, a coalition of Gulf Labor Coalition, GULF (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction), Perpetuum Mobile, SaLE Docks and MACAO occupied the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation on Venice’s grand canal. Both the protest and the talk were hoped to highlight Gulf Labor’s principal area of focus as activists: the working conditions endured by immigrant workers involved in the construction of the Guggenheim, New York University campus, and Louvre in Abu Dhabi, as well as, what the activists claim as “one-hundred-and-twenty-years of underpayment” at the Venice Biennale. The talk additionally presented an ‘artist’s letter from Palestine’, signed by 20 prominent artists, academics and activists. The letter stated support for PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), opening a discussion on the issue. However, come the talk, Enwezor was absent from the stage, he had apparently quietly bowed out. 

Of course cancellations happen and could be for any number of reasons, but what I wanted to see from Enwezor – who was present later at various Creative Time Summit events – was a condemnation of the poor working conditions of impoverished people literally constructing major arts institutions in a bid to rise out of abject poverty. Enwezor did speak about Gulf Labor and why he invited them to participate in the Biennale in an interview with Amy Goodman, broadcast three days later on American syndicated radio show Democracy Now! Enwezor responded that the issues surrounding the poor treatment of workers in Abu Dhabi “makes for news”, going on immediately to say that, “for me it is not necessarily to say that I absolutely endorse everything that Gulf Labor does, but I am committed to what they represent as the question of active citizenship and this active citizenship needs to have a public platform.”

This not only feels shockingly lukewarm but further, his endorsement of the “active citizenship”, would appear to be a way of aligning with “activism” or “political involvement” without an endorsement of Gulf Labor’s actual aims. There is an issue of responsibility here: that of Enwezor, but also that of the rest of us who claim to speak of a political art form. Indeed, Enwezor did speak during his opening address of the “responsibility of an exhibition as a public forum.” Arguably, such responsibility doesn’t necessarily come naturally and can come at a price, but this is precisely why the badge of 'political' curator or artist must not be worn unless the practitioner of political art is 100 per cent committed to speaking out in the name of justice.

As Dmitry Vilensky said, speaking at the close of the second day of the 2015 Creative Time Summit: “There's a big difference between making a political exhibition and making an exhibition politically.” Political art must be seen to be genuinely political and that means demonstrating full respect both for artworld colleagues, from the cleaning staff to the museum director or collector and for the subjects we claim to represent.

“There's a big difference between making a political exhibition and making an exhibition politically” 

The question might be asked over whether it’s possible to make political art today given the class and economical composition of the artworld, together with the wider socio-political framework we inhabit. It has been a question that has been long asked, from Theodor Adorno in the 1960s onwards. Perhaps it is a question we need to leave behind as we push on to convincing political actions. The only other possibility is to stop making political claims altogether if they cannot be sustained.

As a course of action I would suggest that it is essential above all that the responsibility assumed by political art practitioners is seen to manifest itself in actions which mirror talk and gestures. As such, and to return to this particular issue, nothing short of a full boycott of the institutions associated with the claims of Gulf Labor is warranted, whilst, more generally, a concerted effort must be made by art institutions and businesses to pay all workers fairly and to establish meritocratic and open guidelines for recruitment. Additionally, the class makeup of the art world needs to be addressed, for social class is the elephant in the room within the art world. Finally day-to-day social art actions need to be directed towards real world political outcomes which take into account the individuals who are most affected by the issues we address, whether they be capitalism, ecology, urban gentrification, immigration, poverty, racism, sexism or homophobia. Above all, those who speak for political art must be seen to be 100 per cent committed to calling out injustice wherever it exists. Otherwise we fail ourselves as well as failing the oppressed we claim to speak for.

15 August 2015