For the curator of the seventh Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Polish-artist Artur Żmijewski, the concept of the Biennale is simple – presenting art that has a transformative impact on society, that opens a space where politics can be performed. Subtitled Forget Fear, the Biennale takes place against a backdrop of hostility; citing the decline of support for culture in Europe (namely the Netherlands, Greece and the UK) and the arrests of Russian feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot as a driving force. There are key themes of course, ranging from the political effectiveness of art to the way art is employed to construct historical narratives, but there’s something more significant at stake here – a drive to influence political and ideological agendas and goals.
Forget Fear is all about stepping into the fire. Working in collaboration with associate curators Voina and Joanna Warsza, Żmijewski has chosen to present almost exclusively new works in the Biennale as opposed to adjusting existing projects to a theme. The Biennale takes place in various venues in Berlin, including public spaces. There will also be temporary projects and events as well as “Solidarity Actions” in Germany and further afield.
In 2011, Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza spoke with Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA PS1 and the Founding Director of KW Institute for Contemporary Art about their aims for the Biennale and the idea of art as a societal force in relation to the current contemporary landscape.
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: What do you expect from art? Not from the Biennale per se, but in general?
Klaus Biesenbach: I expect a certain disruption. Over ten years ago I did a series of exhibitions in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. I showed Teresa Margolles and Santiago Sierra. Margolles brought a container of liposuction liquid with her. Just imagine: rich ladies in Mexico City want to be skinny, while all other people do not have enough to eat. So their fat is being sucked out of their bodies, and Teresa got some of it and she made a Jackson Pollock-like painting out of the material, a big, golden, shiny dripping painting on the large wall in the main exhibition hall. You always think art has to be utopian and has to draw an idea of a better world, more eternal, more true. And all of a sudden, artists like Sierra and Margolles appear and became a part of what they criticize. Margolles by the very material she was using. And in Sierra’s case by the contracts he always made. You basically sign a contract and obviously you are exploiting someone. So you are not just showing “beautiful art” and making the world better. You somehow exploit the same system that you criticize, and you are a part of it.
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: Should art take part in the current moment? Or should we keep a distance to reality?
Klaus Biesenbach: I think art has to prove that is has a certain amount of courage. Art has to be unafraid. Art anticipates developments, hopefully in a fearless way. The request to the artist should be, “Be responsible and be unafraid.”
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: What should artists be responsible for?
Klaus Biesenbach: That they are citizens, that they are human and political beings, that they are free in this given moment in time, knowing about what has happened, and understanding that their actions will be looked at. They could understand that there is a certain responsibility that they could influence something that is going to happen.
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: Through the rise of neoliberalism art was transformed into never ending competition between artists. This is capitalistic logic—different parts of society fight each other for profit. Artists became an army of individuals, who are not aware that they could create collective power and be stronger.
Klaus Biesenbach: When I came to Berlin in 1989, when the Wall fell, that was kind of a capitulation of socialism. The utopian idea of capitalism and the utopian idea of socialism is a dichotomy and part of the “bloc mentality” that I grew up with. As a child I never thought that one was right or one was wrong—it was just a reality that both existed. But after the Wall we first saw the capitulation of socialism as an idea, and now we are in the very moment of what seems to be the capitulation of democratic capitalism as an idea. So what is going to happen? Is it a vacuum? We know that if we look at the twentieth century, there are all these ideas of coming together, of solidarity amongst equals, solidarity with having a leader or not. To use a current example, many people commented that Occupy Wall Street did not have a leader, or did not have a “face.” And then when the camp [in Zuccotti Park] was dissolved people said, “Oh no, they don’t even have a face. They don’t have a person who could carry on without the park.” But the absence of one designated leader was part of what made Occupy Wall Street effective. They created a new deal. We should also be aware of what we do in the art field as they are aware of what they do in the field of politics or economy. You are part of a deal. And when it comes to the Berlin Biennale, I don’t know how you would deal with this. With public money, you are a part of a system, of a country. You are in the position of claiming to be independent, responsible and unafraid and I do not know how you achieve it without selling out, being on someone’s team, carrying someone’s brand, or taking private or public money. I never understood how to escape this logic.
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: But we never wanted to escape from this dilemma. We have never fetishised independence. Independence from society and the freedom of the artist are illusions. And if you have these illusions as an artist, it is very easy to be manipulated. We see many artists who are going down this path. They are manipulated and don’t even know that they are being manipulated. So, it is important to start to be aware and transform ourselves, or yourself, into political subjects. That’s why we asked artists: “What is your political stand? What are you dependent on? What community do you represent?”
Klaus Biesenbach: What about your decision to name Voina as associate curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale? I’ve learned more about Voina recently, and I am so impressed by what they do. They are so unafraid. Either they are crazy or unafraid, or both. But it’s very impressive. I am in Russia quite often; it’s an unbelievably brutal country. Sometimes as an artist or curator or art person, when you go to some of these places it’s a little bit like being journalist in a war zone; in a war situation you can say: I’m a journalist, don’t shoot me. It’s the same as: I’m an artist, don’t shoot me. Sometimes you have this stupid idea you cannot get shot, but of course you can get shot. It’s the same bullets, the same material.
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: Exactly because they don’t feel fear—they are not driven by it. Voina want to be responsible. They don’t want to be treated like protected artists, like people who are untouchable. They take a certain responsibility and they take action.
Klaus Biesenbach: Do they know who they are?
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: Politicians. Hopefully one day, they will declare it. It is part of strategy, to accept that you can really treat yourself seriously as a political entity and as somebody who can influence political processes. I’m thinking here about some other artists as well. They are using a kind of camouflage, but one day, there should make coming out. Do you know any such artists?
Klaus Biesenbach: Abbie Hoffman did this. Also Joseph Beuys, Christoph Schlingensief. Who else is on the way?
Artur Żmijewski & Joanna Warsza: Marina Naprushkina from Belarus. And, I would say, others who are part of the 7th Berlin Biennale project. They started politicizing art in a very substantial way. They reversed the process of de-politicizing art. It started years ago and somehow the exhibition based in Berlin was evidence of it—we saw fully de-politicized art. But at the same point there are people who are smart enough to use art for political reasons. Unfortunately usually these people are not artists.
Klaus Biesenbach: Earlier in 2011 I watched TV and there was the Arab Spring in Bahrain, the first dead people, the first people killed. You look at China and you know that something is going to happen; you look at Russia and you know that something is happening right now; you look at Mexico and think, “God, that got out of control.” In some areas of Greece there is 25 percent unemployment, what can people there do? You see the images from riots in Libya or Egypt. Something is happening, imploding or exploding, also in New York where I live. But now I am sitting in Berlin, and I feel strange calmness here. The idea of democratic capitalism simply doesn’t work anymore today in many economically succesful regions in the world! At the same time in Berlin you have this ongoing art festival. You are surrounded by artists, exhibitions, and galleries. Every day in Berlin is like the opening week of the Venice Biennale or a day in Kassel during Documenta. One has the impression that everything here revolves around art, all day, every day.
The 7th Berlin Biennale: Forget Fear, 27/04/2012 – 01/07/2012. www.berlinbiennale.de
Copyright Tomas Rafa