How to rebuild reality and maybe get away with it

Art can be a tool to construct a common political front. The real challenge is what to do with that identity.

Lithuanian Pavilion

There’s an old joke in Italy, which goes something like this: “We are a country with 59.999.999 outstanding football coaches, with the exception for the actual trainer”. We tend to judge actions far more leniently than thoughts. Usually, or at least that’s my impression, we’re willing to discount what would otherwise be legitimate criticism, or even just a sound judgment, by underlining that looking at something is far easier than dirtying one’s hand with it. Being “active” at least holds the potential for positive change; being “passive” ultimately leaves one at the mercy of other forces. Active people wield the whip, passive people stand still as they’re struck.

Politically engaged arts arecaught in the tension between these two poles. With the doom and gloom dominating the public mind, it would be easy to conclude that artists are done with raising awareness on global issues. “We already know that nature is being turned into plastic and the world is literally going to hell and we’re all going to die!”, one might cry. What’s the point in going to exhibitiony, walking through crowds of sweaty, annoying selfie-takers, just to be reminded of what we already know? If anything, those same energies could be put to actual use. Like, revolting and stuff. Tear down the walls, usher in change, etc.

Supposing this, one might ask whether it still makes sense for political art to denounce, criticize and oppose. In a world of infinite information, shouldn’t artist pivot from stigmatizing what’s wrong with our world to transformative action? Is it even something doable? These are the questions at the heart of this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale International Exposition of Art, titled “May You Live in Interesting Times”. The descriptions given by curator Ralph Rugoff evokes the stale image of a leftist intellectual, gluing together incompatible puzzle pieces, talking about how art is “a bastard in the positive sense […] which by moving between fixed categorizations and conventions breaks them”[1]. Meanwhile, as the world outside is burning (climate change already makes Venetian summer unbearable, a complaint you’ll need to accept at face value given the liters of waters your truly had to drink to bring you this piece), there seems to be a clear contrast between what’s required from the viewer and what’s offered by the exposition: moving around the massive exposition space in the suffocating heat and expected humidity of a city built on water is exhausting, and all we’re given is a plastic cow roaming around a plastic garden (Nabuqi, Do real things happen in moments of rationality?, 2018).

Nabuqi, Do real things happen in moments of rationality? (2018)

However, one shouldn’t underestimate the humbly ambitious work Rugoff and his multinational gang carried out. Humble, because from the onset one can sense that there’s no grand plan after which the exhibition has been oriented. Compared to previous editions (one of which sought to recreate Marxist dialectics in art form, don’t even ask), the chosen artists seldom try to make some all-encompassing points outside of their intimate dimension. Rugoff often pointed to an understanding of art which is strictly multileveled and complex. But this pluralistic, somewhat non-judgmental approach doesn’t mean the Exhibition doesn’t have some grand objectives. It’s just that Rugoff’s gang of artists has a sound structural understanding of politics. Politics, after all, resemble a building of sorts, rooted in more-or-less stable cultural foundations, over which one can start adding levels of ideology, philosophy, policies and narrative. The most recent earthqakes require a deep intervention. What’s ironic is that these foundations have been dug in the unstable, marshy lands of the Venetian lagoon.

Cellar: Fixing the foundations

Let’s then step into the cellar of this makeshift construction and inspect its basis.

Politics, like arts, are a way for individuals to forge a “shared subjectivity” where assumptions and idea can flow freely and make communication possible [2]. They supply a common toolbox for mutual understanding. For example, we wouldn’t be able to exchange emails if we don’t both have the same set of letters on the keyboard (As an aside, this is a debatable position already held by St Augustine which we’ll accept at face value. Also, I know that ’em youngsters have stopped exchanging their memes found on the interweb by email a long time ago, but it’s just for the sake of metaphors).

What’s crucial is that by holding this shared subjectivity, meaning ideas about the world we all know are limited or partial, we also have access to the set of building blocks required to build something new and transform society for the better (one hopes).The idea seemingly put forward is that by putting these separate works of art together fulfills this premise, allowing for the creation of a common political ground from which to create a global response to injustice.

Slavs and Tatars. Tranny Tease (pour Marcel), 2009–16

Their works, plugged into the same context, will enable a sense of solidarity spanning across the world. For some, the testimony of their suffering is not only the necessary organization allowing political action; rather, it is political action. The collective Slavs and Tatars, for example, ridicule the idea of a East-West divide by pointing out the hybridization and deep ties connecting the space “between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China”.

Neïl Beloufa’s “Global Agreement” (2018) allows the viewer to listen through testimonies of various soldiers around the world by forcing the onlooker to literally adapt themselves by sitting at the same height and in a given position to look at the narrator in the eyes. Avery Singer’s self-portraits are translated into the real world using regular painting techniques, but using a 3D render as a model, merging tangible and digital existence.

Neil Beloufa, GLOBAL AGREEMENT (2018)

Ground floor: Building on what we have

Leaving the foundations and stepping up the stairs to the ground floor, we enter a small room, furnished with a generic fake-leather sofa and dominated by a double TV monitor. A gigantic photo of black nuns and promotional posters for a tv channel frame the images of everyday lifes of Afroamericans taken from social media and other digital sources, with anchors speaking from the bordering monitor. Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS is one of the better known-works exposed in Venice, and perfectly encapsulates the challenge posed by the progressive fragmentation of perceived reality. The attempt to reconnect individual, digital experiences into a larger narrative about race is something that can be appreciated and emulated even beyond black America. The reorganization of political and ethnic communities essentially stems from a passive observation of other’s actions.

Otobong Nkanga. Social Consequences I: Crisis, 2008

Indeed, if you have been paying attention in the last few years, you may have realized that passivity has become as disruptive as “doing stuff”. Trump, Brexit, climate change denial, the rise of the far right: these phenomena have been enabled by a technological and social system which puts a premium on decisive rhetorics and spectacular, eye-catching performance, regardless of how true or desirable the ensuing policies actually are. We’ve seen the rise of “political entrepeneurs”, a word which comes from the French “entreprendre”, which means undertake. After all, we’re living on borrowed time. The impending climate doom hanging over our heads forces us to go all-in, to scramble for immediate action, even if that something is to deny that the end is nigh (It’s no coincidence, I think, that the far right has developed a bizarre and hilariously misplaced obsession for calling out its enemy-of-the-day “a cuck”. Fascism has always glorified the superiority of mindless violence over reflection). The rush to “do something” has been pulling our understanding of the world in every direction, the way strong tidal currents create whirlpools, and complicating the necessary political alliance between groups with different priorities. BLKNWS is the kind of work, like others at the Biennale, trying to order and label the voices straddled under the umbrella of “Afroamerican experience”. Other artists are also interested in disentangling the elements whose intermingling have given birth to the chaotic Internet culture. Alex da Corte’s Robber Pencil Devil (2018) tries to deconstruct the TV that shaped his childhood. Otobong Nkanga abstracts violent processes of land redistribution and agricultural planning into neat images, revealing the aseptic detachment of policy programs. The most evident form of personal testimony is that by Teresa Margolles, who literally brought elements of Ciudad Juarez’s urban landscape to attest the violence of narcoviolence. On a certain level, the informed public is well-aware of the systemic violence brought forward by these works. However, the impact of their physical presence in the same exposition is significant. The implicit message, so it would seem, is that suffering from illness, racism, poverty or climate disasters are all the same, insofar that their testimonies are just different perspectives on the same systemic injustices.

First floor and beyond: Building a future

Teresa Margolles. Muro Ciudad Juárez, 2010

“A state of things is a possibility of substance”[3], or in other words: if we recognize a block of solid cement as being a concrete brick, that mix of uninteresting materials can be used to build house, as well as to crash someone’s car window. The Biennale does a great deal to forge the brick in question into being. In fact, it tries its hand at forging a whole set of building blocks. What remains is a gap between personal experiences (the effects of global issues) and a deeper understanding of the issues themselves. The difference may seem arcane, but it really isn’t. It’s like trying to look at a ripple expecting to decipher whether someone threw a rock or a gun into the lake. Art is of course not supposed to formulate policy proposals (unless you’re Augusto Boal), but trying to identify transnational issues with subjective, individual stings can be very analytically frustrating (Economists beware). It’s no coincidence that the more out-of-place elements of this Biennale are the national pavilions, as always used as tools to create distinguished rhetorics for the paying country (this is especially evident in the literally labyrinthine Italian pavilion and its Russian counterpart, a mix of traditionalist apology and Old Testament escatology). There’s an ironic tension at play here. On one hand, we have the theme of “May You Live in Interesting Times”, a fake Chinese curse made up by a British diplomat, which seems to suggest that rather than look for great narratives, the visitor should humbly navigate the personal suffering and perspectives proposed. On the other, we the winning pavilion is the Lithuanian one, which is literally an Opera where a choir of intentionally stereotypical charachters denounces climate change and sings the doom of our planet. Great Plays seem to have prevailed over the placid collection of ideas. Can a moltitude of ideas, precise but dispersed, compete against unified narrations, strong but not interested in regular lifes? Can individual fights be tied together to create a vaster political struggle shared by African union workers, digital paranoids and feminists? These questions are enough to make one endure the unforgiving climate of the Venetian marshes. I can only hope that in this new world of plurality, where every voice matters to build up a global choir, art catalogues won’t all weigh five kilos and cost 90€.

  1. Das Spiel vom offenen Denken, Kunstforum International Bd 261
  2. Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, La faiblesse du vrai, 2018 p.111
  3. Alain Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, p.47