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The Spectacle of Art’s Reproduction

On the Venice Biennale 2015

When entering the bookstore of the 56th Venice Biennale of Art, you may think that having Marx’s Capital, Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, and the official catalog of the Milan Expo 2015 displayed next to each other is just a fortuitous — and not particularly happy — coincidence. Expo 2015 cost 14 billion euros, utilized thousands of people who worked for free or low wages and in precarious conditions, caused major environmental damage to a large suburban area, and became famous for its many corruption scandals. What could its official catalog possibly have to do with Marx and Benjamin? Upon closer inspection, the bookstore’s display, rather than being fortuitous, seems akin to a Freudian lapse, providing a glimpse into the unconscious of this year’s Biennale. The recent announcement of the future cooperation between this year’s Biennale — scheduled to close on November 22 — and the Google Cultural Institute appears to confirm this diagnosis.

But let’s start from the beginning. After the ideological and artistic conformism of the 2013 Biennale of Art and of the 2014 Biennale of Architecture, the organizers had no choice but to nominate Okwui Enwezor as curator for this year’s exhibition. Enwezor represents an ideal point of connection among artists, gallery owners, critics, media, and cultural enterprise business: basically all the constituents of what is called contemporary art. Choosing Enwezor as curator also had the aim of exploiting the image of a famous art critic with an interest in dissent, social and public engagement, and the contestation of the international artistic media circus. Enwezor is the ideal figure to connect Chelsea galleries in Manhattan with the precarious art installations from neighborhoods and suburbs in metropolitan areas. After the social struggles that have shaken various parts of the world in recent years, ranging from the Arab revolutions of 2011 to the Occupy movement, the Indignados, and the Turkish revolt, his nomination as curator was meant to adjust the orientation of this year’s exhibition in contrast to the cultural and ideological conformism of both the 2013 Biennale of Art and the following year’s Biennale of Architecture. No one else could fulfill this task better than Enwezor, who had directed Kassel Documenta XI in 2002 — a complicated year, after the mobilizations in Seattle, Washington; the protests against the G8 summit in Genoa; the attacks against the Twin Towers in New York; and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

As Enwezor writes in the introduction to the exhibition’s program, the 56th Biennale “is informed by a layer of three intersecting Filters,” the goal of which is “to describe both the current state of things and the appearance of things.” Marx and Benjamin can, then, be included among the “filters” adopted to select the possible interpretations of contemporary capitalism. Under one condition, though: that we do not transform the present from the perspective of the future. Here, indeed, lies the ambiguity of All the World’s Futures, the title of this year’s Biennale, which, in spite of its declared intent, looks at possible futures through the eyes of the past, without being able to address and question the reproduction of the present. Whereas Documenta XI’s attempt to think about the connection between art and social transformation was only partially successful, the Venice exhibition is nothing but the spectacle of the representation of that connection. Whereas in Kassel artistic “platforms” discussed unfulfilled democracy and the contradiction between capitalism and democracy, in Venice the spectator can hear only whispers about the overlapping filters, which describe the current state of affairs and its appearance.

These three filters are called “Liveness: On Epic Duration”(perhaps suggesting a supposed liveness of art), a generic “Garden of Disorder” (perhaps of artistic styles), and “Capital: A Live Reading.” Whereas the first two filters are strongly influenced by the promotional and marketing discourses always present in any international art exhibition, the third could have opened a space of interesting reflection on the nature of “things” and their phenomenal manifestation. This theme is extremely difficult to address through the language of art, communication, and video installation. In fact, this program entirely misses its target. The heart of this filter is a public reading of Marx’s Capital. As the Biennale website explains,

“A core part of this program of live readings, is ‘Das Kapital’ a massive meticulously researched bibliographic project, conceived by the artistic director in the Central Pavilion. This program, occurring everyday for nearly seven months, without stop, will commence with a live reading of the four volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital and gradually expand into recitals of work songs, librettos, readings of scripts, discussions, plenaries, and film screenings devoted to diverse theories and explorations of Capital. Over the course of the 56th Art Biennale, theater ensembles, actors, intellectuals, students, and members of the public will be invited to contribute to the program of readings that will flood and suffuse surrounding galleries with voices in an epic display of orality.”

The problem with this reading, however, as well as with its counterpoint represented by an interview with David Harvey that took place in another room or with Pasolini’s voice — welcoming visitors to the Central Pavilion by explaining what fascism is — is that these voices are weakened and neutralized by the surrounding context. Indeed, one of the main ideas of the organizers was to reconceive this Biennale as a sort of “parliament of forms” that — as with every parliament — includes dissent, but institutionalizes it too.

As sometimes happens, once a “parliamentary democracy” is in place, space opens for those who want to radicalize it, by overcoming the distance between the rulers and the ruled, the representatives and the represented. Something, indeed, has managed to escape the ambiguity of this Venetian kermis, which, on the one hand, displays art as a commodity and, on the other, shows the conditions under which art comes to acquire a social, symbolic, and economic value. Not everything is subsumed by the disposition of the exhibition. At the German pavilion, Fabrik, the installations by artists Tobias Zielony (Citizens) and Hito Steyerl (Factory of the Sun) manage to subvert common sense around the themes of citizenship, Fortress Europe, modalities of communication, and the contemporary exploitation of living labor. Thanks to their greater performative character, they manage to avoid the trap of a mere description of reality or of a dubious identification between “socially engaged art” and politics.

But the real surprise is the Canadian pavilion, titled Canadassimo, by the artistic collective BGL operating in Quebec. Instead of either reading aloud or whispering Marx’s Capital, Canadassimo spatially and temporally displays its subject matter. To achieve this effect, it deconstructs and reconstructs the pavilion’s space through tortuous paths and superfetations suggesting that capitalism can survive only by continuously revolutionizing itself. The entrance to the pavilion is an old-style grocery store, the sphere of distribution and commodity consumption, with the commodities’ surfaces going out of focus as soon as one approaches them — as though to remind us of the fetish character of these opaque “social hieroglyphs.” After traversing the sphere of commodity circulation and consumption, the visitor enters the realm of the circulation of money capital, where coins roll through metallic guides arranged like a roller coaster. The visitor’s journey ends in the secret abode of production that she accesses by descending two flights of stairs. Entirely opaque when seen from outside, the installation gradually becomes intelligible when walking through it. BLG appears to have understood perfectly Jacques Rancière’s lesson in Malaise dans l’esthétique, according to which art is not political because of the messages it communicates or of the way it represents the conflicts and structures of society: it is political by virtue of the distance it establishes between itself and these functions, through the way in which it delimits and populates a type of space and a type of time. By exasperating the representation of the capitalist spectacle through the adoption and combination of a variety of languages and types of communication, Canadassimo manages to display the fundamental mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production. Such rupture, unfortunately, the rest of the 56th Biennale of Art fails to accomplish.

This appears more clearly if we take a look at the details of the recently announced collaboration between the Biennale and the Google Cultural Institute. This joint venture will not only provide a web archive of a selection of the works, after the conclusion of the official exhibition. Through Google+ and the Hangouts integrated on the website, it will also allow interested customers to discuss their preferred works in video chats. Via “My Galleries,” images of works and installations may be selected to build a personal private gallery. Side by side comparison of two works will also be possible. As Amit Sood, Director of the Google Cultural Institute, argues,

“The Internet is a powerful tool for the democratization of art and culture, a force that helps cultural institutions to extend their impact. It empowers cultural institutions to make their artworks and treasures accessible to a greater number of people in the world and preserve them for the future.”

Though the possibility of having access to the Biennale through the Internet is here presented as a powerful tool for the democratization of art and culture, what remains undisclosed are the criteria for the selection of the works that will be included in the web platform as well as the nature of the algorithms employed by the search engines. Moreover, it remains unproblematized the impact the technologies employed may have on the very notion of art, which thereby risks being reduced to a spectacle of its own reproduction. Rancière has famously argued that we are witnessing the progressive affirmation of an “aesthetic regime” where a factory of the sensible is at work. What if the Venice Biennale on the Google Cultural Institute’s web platform were one of the forms of this factory of the sensible?

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Felice Mometti

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