When Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities in 1982, he was seeking to upset the idea we take for granted, of the nation-state as an inevitable and natural community. Anderson defines a natural community as one based on the everyday, face-to-face interactions of its members. By contrast, he claims that members of the nation state must imagine their affinity with one another. A nation requires an immense psychic investment on the part of its members to imagine an entity that is finite, circumscribed by geographic boundaries, and sovereign, governed by autonomous rule. Anderson chronicles the development of inspirational symbols like the anthem and the flag that gave rise to such psychic investment, encouraging people to come together in spite of traditional ethnic divisions. He also charts the invention of technologies of control, such as passports and visas, which harshly affirm the authority of these constructed territories. Rather than see the nation as a fixed and necessary entity inscribed in space, Anderson describes the nation as a temporal entity, arising out of the various political contests and philosophical debates of the Enlightenment. Perhaps the most pressing question Anderson asks is why are people willing to die for this fantasy.
“Forget Fear!” was the title of the 7th iteration of the Berlin biennial (27 April–1 July, 2012) sponsored by KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Under that slogan, the curator, Polish artist Artur Żmijewski, made it clear that his was to be a show that would seek to measure artistic vitality in terms of political efficacy. Żmijewski also stated that he was not out to ask questions—a common claim for art exhibitions—but to proffer answers. As to what makes effective political art today, Żmijewski proposed that artists, using their gifts of persuasion in partnership with non-artists and activists, could stage a resistance to the increasing xenophobia in developed countries, especially Europe. The exhibition, organized along with assistant curator Joanna Warsza and the Russian art collective Voina, flowed outward from this thesis.
Among the works that Żmijewski selected to bring art into the field of politics was the "world’s largest key,” made by residents of the Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank to draw attention to the Palestinian fight for statehood. Another provocation, by the Czech artist Martin Zet turned into a media storm when Zet proposed to gather and dispose of copies of Thilo Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany does away with itself), a book published in 2010 that called for Germany to eliminate all Muslim immigration. Zet, instead, called for Germany to eliminate Sarrazin’s book. But words like elimination, removal, and disposal don’t go over well in Germany and reaction to the project hit a fever pitch well before the biennial was under way. Żmijewski relished the incident as an example of an artwork that could rouse public response, while scoffing at the fact that Germans could condemn Zet’s project for its fascist overtures, but make a bestseller out of Sarrazin’s book. In another controversial move, Macedonian artist Nada Prlja erected a “peace wall” to highlight the division between a very rich and very poor neighborhood in central Berlin. Due to intense public outrage—often by people misreading the work as a reference to the historical Berlin Wall rather than to the current social segregation in the community— the city forced biennial organizer’s to dismantle the wall two weeks early.
The Key of Return, a collaborative project by members of the Aida Youth Center of the Aida Refugee Camp
As a further attempt to blur the lines between art and activism, Żmijewski opened the first floor of the KW to indignados from Spain and activists from Occupy Wall Street as well as Berlin’s own Occupy offshoot, brought in to lend additional credibility to the biennial’s claim of merging art and politics. Although the activists were promised that their participation would not be programmed or scripted by the curators, upon their arrival they were ushered into a fishbowl-like space, prepared for them in advance with subversive slogans and anti-capitalist posters. Already, the choice of whether or not to take part in the biennial had divided many of the activists groups, but being put on display in such an over-determined environment further eroded any remaining hope that this experiment would prove successful. By the end of the exhibition’s first month, activists had scrawled the words “Human Zoo” in large letters across the wall of the exhibition hall and set up a makeshift barricade of signs and banners to obscure their activities from visitors.
In 2007, Żmijewski coined the term Applied Social Arts to refer to his particular version of social practice, one that he hoped would legitimize art as a social activity, raising it once again to the level of public importance held by politics, religion, and science. Using the so-called autonomy of art as cover for his provocative gestures, Żmijewski often compels people to do almost unthinkable things. For his work 80 064, the artist convinced a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor to “refresh” his prison tattoo. In another work, Żmijewski re-staged the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a two-week investigation in which 24 male students were randomly assigned the role of either prisoner or guards in a mock jail. Żmijewski’s aim is to shock, to wake people from their complacency, which means that reactions of bewilderment and outrage can be taken as a sign of a work’s success.
At the outset, critics berated Żmijewski for his hubris, but mid-way through the exhibition, many were questioning his sanity. Artists in the exhibition had enflamed ethnic hatreds and damaged historic buildings while biennial activists staged protests at banks, museums, and other prominent political institutions around Berlin, often times without the support of local activist groups. The exhibition was deemed a disaster. Those familiar with Żmijewski’s work, however, offered a different take. Critic Ana Texeira Pinto aptly compared the biennial to a scene in the movie Being John Malkovich in which everyone looks like John Malkovich. Looking around the biennial, despite the dozens of artists involved, Pinto saw only one thing: Żmijewski.
In one room on the third floor of the KW, short documentaries and activist videos showed scenes from various uprisings that have taken place in the wake of the Arab Spring. The display resembled a Żmijewski work from 2009, Democracies, short videosof demonstrations, parades, re-enactments, and other public gatherings from around Europe. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Żmijewski inserted his own work, Berek (1999), a video that documents a group of naked adults playing a gleeful game of tag in side a former gas chamber. In taking on the role of curator, Żmijewski assumed the role of evangelist against what he saw as a corrupt art establishment, one that keeps artists subdued and isolated, unable to engage concrete problems or foment real action. Casting himself in the role of savior, he made the exhibition his pulpit. But while his analysis of the artist’s impotence within the current art system may be more or less accurate, his proposed remedies for art’s socio-political engagement must be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. More troubling than Żmijewski’s maniacal zeal or his tendency to confuse the task of exhibition making with his own art, is his conception of community. Rather than seeking out new sites for political agency and action, the works Żmijewski selected for the Biennial provided little challenge to the idea of the pure nation and when they did, it was only to replace that idea with the equally problematic construction of a pure ethnic identity.
Last month, I wrote about dOCUMENTA (13), which also examined the current state of politics and the applicability of art. Seeing these exhibitions back to back compelled me to question how two exhibitions forged in the same time period, in the same country, and wrestling with many of the same political and historical events, could present such wildly different aesthetics as well as conclusions about art’s relationship to politics and the social sphere. I also wondered how, despite being less activist in its stance, dOCUMENTA left me with much greater confidence in art’s agency, about the possibility of social change, and the importance of art to the world.
Ontology is the philosophical study of being. It questions what exists or can be said to exist, and how such entities that can be said to exist could be grouped together, related by hierarchies, or sorted according to similarities and differences. Realist ontology proposes that anything that can be said to exist does exist, apriori, as a pure Form. A Realist political ontology, such as the one put forth by the Berlin Biennial, supposes the existence of entities like nation-states or ethnic communities to be fixed and natural. Within this framework, politics can only be conceived as the struggle for power between competing interests. There will always be a clear winner and a clear loser. But a pure community, whether conceived as a nation or as an exhibition, is a myth. The nation persists today largely as a terrain that renders some people Illegal and others illegal, but is still an imagined community; ethnic communities are no less striated or dynamic, especially within the growing, permanent underclass who move from continent to continent in search of sustenance or work.
For the Berlin Biennial, Artur Żmijewski so desperately wanted art that could inspire real politics, that could provide answers. The kind of engagement put forth by dOCUMENTA, on the other hand, expressed a remarkably different view of agency, one that did not seek answers but courted what we might call radical love, a persistent, unending desire to up new possibilities for living even while acknowledging the aborted attempts of the past. In his Affectivist Manifesto, Brian Holmes articulates what might be a role for art within a politics of radical love:
When a territory of political possibility emerges, it changes the social map, just as a flood or earthquake inexorably alter the geographic landscape... There is no use defending such territories, and even believing in them is only the barest beginning. What they urgently need is to be developed, with forms, rhythms, inventions, discourses, practices, styles, technologies – in short, with cultural codes. An emergent territory is only as good as the codes that sustain it. Every social movement, every shift in the geography of the heart and revolution in the balance of the senses needs its aesthetics, its grammar, its science and its legalisms.
Insisting on art’s relevance is no small task in our turbulent, hi-speed, information-filled times, and this is what both exhibitions, the Berlin Biennial and dOCUMENTA (13), attempted to do. Art’s role is not to create political situations, but to see beyond the limited horizon of win-lose, binary options that mark the typical ways we render conflict sensible. What we seek in art is not a chess match or a football game, a contest of winners and losers, but the promise of living differently. Art can provide the cultural codes that can help us enact other possibilities even if we don’t yet understand them. Żmijewski’s conception of social art missed this opportunity to examine the dominant social order and, instead, uncritically reinforced it. Instead of opening up new horizons, expanding our vision of the world or allowing us to better appreciate its complexity, the Berlin Biennial reduced the available territory to an endgame of unlimited antagonisms and discontent, a landscape of simple questions and even more simplistic answers. In the early 20th Century, and in the wake of two World Wars, European Modernists claimed autonomy for art against an alternative of art as the handmaiden of nationalist or fascist propaganda. Now, even as we acknowledge the need to re-evaluate art’s role in the world and whether we might once again reconfigure the intellectual zones that delineate art from politics, philosophy, craft, religion, society, or any other category, we must not forget why some artists insisted on a break from these categories in the first place.