The official inauguration ceremony of the Universal Exposition took place on Saturday morning 1st May in Milan. In the afternoon of the same day, again in Milan, the event once known as Labour Day celebrations was held which, over the years, has revolved around job insecurity, with its patron St Precarious, and this year expressed dissent with regard to Expo. As the hours went by the situation exploded and ignited the city, the victims being cars and shop windows. The media reacted and – as one might expect – faced with the mayhem the dissent dissolved.
Two weeks later, over and above the poetry of the brass bands that led the procession, we recall the dressing and undressing of some of the destructive protesters who left unequivocal signs of their passage. The ritual mise-en scène was the well known guerrilla warfare move where once again gestures and appurtenances traced a sort of bleak urban choreography: smoke bombs thrown, creating a fog to mask them as they dress for the opening of the ball, making themselves unrecognisable; more smoke bombs and fog hides them as they abandon their costumes on the battlefield/stage – away with the crash helmets, clubs, gasmasks, black windcheaters. We recall the city under shock, the media condemning violent action.
We recall the quick reaction: a spontaneous committee of citizens was formed which organised, for 3rd May, a public demonstration to clean up the traces of the black bloc, with the slogan “Nobody Touches Milan”. The mayor was there in person and the city took part, more than 20.000 making their individual contribution.
Predictably the question became diametrically polarised, but over and above material damages the devastation neutralised the marginalized voices of those who expressed their dissent peacefully.
The following day, Wednesday 4th May, the 56th Venice Biennale opened, brought forward by about a month from its usual date to accommodate the Expo time schedules.
This decision makes it legitimate to consider not only the heart of the two events but also the fringes, the edges, the outskirts where the climate gets hotter.
A live reading of Marx, Capital in its entirety. In the Arena that Okwui Enwezor envisioned for this year’s Biennale. Is it rhetoric? Is it a misplaced initiative? Inappropriate? Is it wrong because the “real” discourses are made by others elsewhere? Yet if Marx’s Capital was topical when it was written it is even more so today. To hear these words in this place is not amusing, but no one ever thought it might be; it is an act and a fact. Pausing for the required time in the space where it takes place daily becomes a sort of ritual. It isn’t like sitting in a café, the place invites concentrated listening. Whether it is the reading from Marx’s writings or the alternating contributions from artists who in turn present works chiefly involving song and word.
It is amazing to hear the question raised, even among insiders, as to whether it is appropriate or coherent or necessary that art (and artists) should deal with political matters, and to make this attitude coincide with Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial choices, as if it were a style, his own style. As if it were possible to distinguish aesthetics from politics, and therefore not consider the implicit political position of this as of every exhibition, as of any public action whatever.
After which it is obvious that the task of the Venice Art Biennale curator is a “mission impossible” – if the task be to trace out a complete map of today’s art – but there are different ways of “failing”. This year’s show could be attacked for the presence of certain artists rather than others, for the large number of artists included, for the quotas in relation to nationality, for the presence of too many African artists (!!!), for the works of dead or already very well known artists, for unknowns whose reasons for not remaining so are unclear, for the lack of explanations of the works, for the length of the exhibition itinerary, for the length of the documentaries and for the time and commitment required to see it all.
But if these are the questions, they function as smoke bombs: confounding our ideas, they move nothing, and they nail us down to well- trodden paths. Other questions should be raised.
In the chain of facts summarily reported above, given the circumstances, local happenings evoke global matters. In the space of just a few days we took part in and/or saw a series of events and “grand events” involving the participation of several tens of thousands, here and there in Milan and Venice, which over the next six months became five hundred thousand for the Biennale and millions for Expo.
These events were all made precisely to measure for (and sometimes with) the public, that is, for (and sometimes with) “us”, and each one of them has produced and continues to produce (and implicitly to demand) a specific mode of participation. In other words each event has its public or, more accurately, each event builds up its public , its participants, and gives form to positions of assent, dissent, indifference.
In actual fact this is the effect produced by an experience economy. It is not a novelty of our own times: if anything we are living its pervasiveness today and, faced with the evidence, my own difficulty also consists in the effort to acknowledge that the “art world” as a whole is not an elsewhere, and in order to grasp this difference some excavation is necessary.
Marx and Debord were indubitably farsighted.
And if we were to think of ourselves and begin to ask ourselves what these expected behaviours are and how “we” effectively enter into relationship with these and other analogous situations? In other words, we can of course continue to be convinced that the guaranteed “failure” concerns first and foremost those who have planned the situations, confirming our position as passive observers, all too accustomed to seeing the TV News, skipping from one “disaster” to the next for about half an hour twice a day. At least, in agreement with what Hal Foster 1 writes, precisely as an observer with the traumatized repetition of images, Andy Warhol found his own way of restoring the incapacity to sympathize with the pain of others.
And can we emerge from screens and schemes and recover a position of listening with regard to what takes place on one side and the other in a perspective capable of going beyond commonplaces and definitions?
How can we transform our role?
Meanwhile both Expo and Biennale still have several months of life ahead of them.
10th May 2015
Months have passed since these notes were written. The events introduced then have come to a close today, both with a positive result, both enjoying a very high number of visitors, positive reviews for the Biennale, infinite attention paid to Expo. The Expo effect captivated the city. Milan showed itself to be open, and the feared invasion of aliens was transformed into a permanent popular festival, except that instead of typical local cuisine the “typical” from all over the world was available. An apparently banal decision like offering a ticket at only 5 euros for admission at aperitif time meant that the Milanese could consider Expo a practicable place, a part of the city shifted there for the summer months. An unexceptionable decision, inclusive, it would be crazy to think otherwise. But if it is true that these are ideal conditions for meeting up, for socialising, for discussion and so forth, it is also true that similar considerations have emerged in the past concerning shopping malls.
What is meant by public space remains an open question, as well as what behaviours are admissible or forbidden; how many prohibitions are effectively necessary for the care and liveability of a place and how often it happens that they become effective forms of a wider control of behaviours that have nothing to do with care and liveability.
Perhaps we also need to reconsider this distinction and, in the case of shopping malls as in the case of theme parks, ask whether there is any sense in speaking of places open to the public inasmuch as they apply behavioural restrictions or no admission in connection with certain categories of people.
Expo too, to all effects a temporary city, comes under this heading. When you’re there it seems like the whole world is close by and everything is available… and that’s how it is effectively, at least as far as food goes, but I don’t believe beggars have ever been seen in this city.
And once more to return to the framework of the Biennale. Apart from the opening or possible scandals, the exhibition is covered mainly in specialised magazines. Yet this year one such scandal did in fact take place, triggering polemics, debate and above all decisions.
Is the presence of conflict a sign marking a difference? I think so. Those who suffered the deepest damage from the clashes were not the guerrillas but the civil protesters, people legitimately expressing dissent.
The destroyers played out the conflict in their superficial performativity; they played it out and exhausted it in just a few hours. The protesters lost the power of speech, and the disappearance of dissent, the growth of a single line of thought, is dangerous.
I am certainly not the first to say it. From Oskar Negt, who with Alexander Kluge published Public Sphere and Experience (1979) and at this year’s Biennale showed a shorter version of his nine hour documentary Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike: Marx/Eisenstein/Capital – Notizie dall’antichità ideologica, setting out from a never realised project by Eisenstein, to Chantal Mouffe, and to Claire Bishop’s most recent considerations. This is not a possibility but a necessary condition, from intimate to public relationships, a place that must exist in order that different points of view be manifested.
This year’s scandal erupted over Christoph Büchel’s mosque-installation. Created for the Icelandic Pavilion, the mosque immediately aroused polemic to such an extent that after ten days it was closed by the Prefecture and has not been reopened. For the prosecution the space of the former church, transformed into a mosque by the artist, was used for purposes other than those of an exhibition; for the artist, who defined the project in collaboration with the Muslim community, including definition of liturgical requirements and a series of educational and cultural meetings, that place was certainly not designed for contemplation, and in effect the faithful had begun to frequent it.
The urban context is a container difficult to contain, but at a certain point the dramatic concentration of facts linked to the fate of the refugees burst in: in cities, in Italy and abroad, at the stations, in the newspapers and on the TV news. The events are recent and well known, the incessant rhythm of facts, tragedies included, the human reactions in all directions and at all levels, the political choices, new walls and openings, not excluding solidarity. The evidence of what was happening first of all – can anyone forget the photograph of the child found dead on the beach? do we still remember his name? – like a wave, already aware that the risk in our day is that news passes quickly, is eaten up if we don’t look after it, just like its accompanying images. I know that we are living, and not just since yesterday, a progressive erosion of experience, and what I am sure of is that it will not be the multiplication of user instructions, of procedures, of the reduction of the unforeseen to save us from the radical risk to which we as human beings are subject.
Participation and impotence, openings and closures, and us,? What can we do? It is certainly not a case of drawing up lists of desiderata regarding what others should do, and us with them, but we always have the possibility of keeping continually in mind, of rendering once more topical the “setting out from self” historically introduced by the feminist movement.
The philosopher Roberto Esposito2 (Immunitas, 2002) identifies our possible salvation in the throwing into crisis of the paradigm of immunity: vaccines function with the introduction of antibodies of the disease. Reference to the etymology of the word community bears out this association: in Latin cum munus means with commitment, and also by this avenue we return inexorably to personal responsibility. In the case in point, it cannot be translated into attributing tasks to art and artists and similarly to spectators. We may wish it, work in this direction, but more in general I do not believe, given the premises, that there are solutions capable of ensuring a result. I acknowledge the existence of the contagion and the risk implied by this twofold exposure.
In these turbulences, which seem to be endless, an important contribution is made by artists who work against amnesia. Returning for a moment to the Biennale, Steve McQueen’s installation was also this. Ashes (2105) is the reconstruction of the life of a young fisherman friend of his in Grenada, the island where the artist’s parents were born, a film shot in 2002. Years later McQueen returned there to shoot a documentary but discovered that the young man had been killed. The work includes that first footage and the building of the tomb that the artist commissioned to give him a dignified resting place, removing his body from the mass grave. In the background, the voices of his friends talk about his life. On the occasion of being awarded a W.E.B. Du Bois prize Steve McQueen said: “The only dogma I follow as an artist is to prevent the dust of the past from settling”.
Of course this is one example, an individual contribution. A work which grew out of an encounter, of several encounters, from a dramatic fact, from a return that generated the need to tell, from collaboration with others… How many relationships are present? How much listening was needed to transform this event into what we have seen? Pointing out personal responsibility, setting out from self, does not mean affirming the absolute value of individual efforts; no single person is enough…. It is rather the faith that even sparks may trigger great changes.
1st November 2015
Emanuela De Cecco
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|1.||↑||Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1996, pp. 130-136.|
|2.||↑||Roberto Esposito, Immunitas. Protezione e negazione della vita, Torino, Einaudi, 2002, pp.3-24.|