Contemporary art Germany

Biting the hand that feeds them

Activists turn “human zoo” into Occupy-style working group

Activists became an exhibit at the biennial, while curators became “former curators”

What initially began as a disagreement over the curator Artur Zmijewski’s decision to put global activists on display during the 7th Berlin Biennale blossomed into an out-and-out political revolt, just before the closing of the international exhibition on 1 July.

Reacting to what members of Occupy and M15 (the Spanish protest movement) characterised as a curatorial framework that penned them into “a human zoo with a viewing platform where viewers watch[ed] activists eat, assemble, fight and sleep,” the activists issued the biennial’s authorities with a set of ultimatums. These demands included, among others, dismantling “the hierarchical structure of the biennial” and replacing it with an Occupy-style “working group”. These radical proposals were accepted by Zmijewski and the associate curator, Joanna Warsza, Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and the biennial’s funders, the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

According to a statement posted on the biennial’s website, “the invited global movements have challenged the hierarchical structure of the biennial” to “loosen the assumptions of cul­tural, institutional, and economic hierarchy and bring the 7th Berlin Biennale into line with the stated claims to ‘present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed’”. The recent “decentring of power” that took place at the biennial meant that all curatorial, administrative, communications and budgetary decisions were made collectively at bi-weekly assemblies. Additionally, the curators were no longer called curators but “former curators”.

Zmijewski, a curator and artist known for commenting on the institutionalisation of art, first raised suspicions among key activists for making curatorial choices they said tended to “anthropologise and humiliate global movements”. A month into the two-month-long exhibition, speculation was rampant as to whether the artist/curator might be using the protest movements as part of his own meta-work of art. According to the Occupy Wall Street member Noah Singer, the activists risked becoming “the butt of jokes all over Berlin and maybe Europe”.

“Activists were on display in a pit, with spectators looking over them on a platform,” says Singer. “It was an exhibition of human beings involved in activist behaviour. Our situation necessitated calling out the curators and making a counterproposal, where we voted to change the biennial structure.”

According to Zmijewski, the biennial’s intention behind involving activists had little to do with aesthetics. “I didn’t invite them as artists, I invited them as important political actors of our time to come together and use a cultural institution. Maybe the ‘human zoo’ was good, because they reacted, and it started a process,” he says. Asked, if he had to do it over again, whether he would invite the activists to participate in the biennial, the audibly exasperated “former curator” responds: “Yes, I think so.”

Florian Malzacher, the co-programmer of Steirischer Herbst, an arts festival in Graz that promises “a 24/7 marathon camp on political strategies in art and artistic strategies in politics” for its September 2012 edition, is sceptical of the recent events in Berlin. “For me that sounds just like an symbolic action and a bit naive by the Occupiers,” he says. “The relationship between art and labour is complicated. I’m more interested in challenging our own institution in a more complex way and perhaps changing it long-term,” he adds.

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