After The Future owes its title to Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s book, published a year ago. Indeed, the Italian theorist and activist has been invited to Limerick as part of eva International to give a keynote address. Bifo recently wrote that
artists no longer search the way to a rupture, and how could they? They seek a path that leads to a state of equilibrium between irony and cynicism that allows them to suspend the execution, at least for the moment.’ (‘(T)error and Poetry’, 2008)
Bifo’s book title ‘frames’ this first biennial eva; but unless you are an autonomist follower of Toni Negri or John Holloway, it is unlikely that you will have heard of him, so it might come as a surprise that his outlook has been chosen to make sense of the chaos of a biennial. Biennals tend to be sprawling, over-ambitious, institutionalised encampments, such as the excessive Dublin Contemporary, and they find it hard to compete with the creativity of the recent Occupy movement and the ‘back to the real’ attitude of the 99%, from 15 Mayo in Madrid to Tahrir Square. Then again, perhaps you have been following the end-game permutations of bankrupt postmodernism in academic circles and witnessed the anxiety of out-of-touch intellectuals looking for a place for art in our troubled times.
The rest of Bifo’s eva line reads: ‘we will sing to the infinity of the present and abandon the illusion of a future’. Really? In our contemporary context, how are we to understand this? It helps to know that Bifo was once at the cultural epicentre of the Movimento del Settantasette – ‘a strange movement of strange students’ – as the April issue of Ombre Rosse (1977) called it. During that second wave of Italian protest Bifo’s independent Radio Alice tempered the seriousness of ’68 with the playfulness of creative protest. Bakhtin would have loved Italian indiani metropolitan: waves of clever student marches masquerading in Red Indians’ headgear and war paint that captured the imaginations of exhausted new left socialists, feminists and all those too young to identify with the extraparliamentary left. This was before the riflusso, the inward-looking retreat from the street into privatized space and the witch hunts of the 1980s.
So, thirty years on, such internationalist ‘framing’ of eva 2012 is more than a thought-provoking gesture. Bifo’s A/traverso – the magazine he founded – anticipated Punk design with its wry humour presented in strong neo-Dada typography. ‘Don’t worry about your future’, it told the student readers of Bologna, ‘you don’t have one’. A witty remark which rings just as true today in the harsh world of contemporary Ireland, with its Thatcherite policies at any cost, as it did for Italian undergraduates and graduates with no hope of finding a job back then. Unlike the autonomists who splintered away from Potere Operaio to join Rosso, Senza Tregua or the new social centres, Bifo left for a more creative rebellion. So it is amusing that validation should be sought from the same person who had the nerve to claim in June 1977, ‘the revolution is over we have won’. I suspect that it is because, like so many other 1970s anarchist libertarians, being a follower of Deleuze and Guattari’s inspiring Anti Oedipus (1972), Bifo has meantime succumbed to the vitalist charm of Deleuze. In Logics of Worlds Alain Badiou concludes that what matters most for Deleuze is the immanent intensification of a limitless becoming (a Bergsonian synthesis of past and future) and the pure becoming of sense (which of course takes us back to the eva slogan). Badiou masterfully improves upon Deleuze’s aphorism (‘there are only bodies and languages’) by reasserting the materialist dialectic, understood as ‘the critique of every critique’, thus: ‘there are bodies and languages, except there are also truths’ (Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 2010). He ‘overturns’ Deleze, in other words, by understanding truth as an exception to what there is. Now isn’t art a part of that exception?
Eva is mostly housed in LCGA, the Belltable, what looks like a NAMA unfinished building from Ireland’s speculative property bubble era on O’Connell Street, and the top floor of Riverpoint where José Carlos Martinat’s Vandalized Monuments: Power Abstraction 4 (2012) invites you to add marks with a paint brush to his large sculptural work. Grouped together as ‘fringe’, are the art galleries and associations which have cropped up in Limerick thanks to Lisanne Sheehan who works for the much-maligned public sector. Among these, Aaron Lawless, Marie Connole and Caelan Bristow of Faber Studios were selected for Re-possession (2012), a work in progress in Faber. No sign of art-speak. Their studio looked more like a friendly charity shop than a high art gallery or the formal eva exhibition. Marie explained in just a few words: their two-way project records people’s private stories of loss, collecting objects sourced from lost and found departments, and imagining a new purpose for them. Faber has been turned into a workshop, challenging the pernicious principle of surplus value by replacing it with a humane one of practical use, and suggesting, paradoxically, that art, intended as the exercise of the imagination, can also have a purchase on the way we live.
The new international version of eva emulates the recent practice of ‘platforms’ with additional events, such as Bifo’s keynote lecture, off-site projects and seminars. It took me two visits to get a sense of things, the first with Brendan, a Dublin museum curator. We went to LCGA and to the first of three exhibitions in the Belltable, showcasing work belonging to The Israeli Centre for Digital Art, Holon Video Archive, including one by Yael Bartana, sadly, not the brilliant Summer Camp (a replica of the State of Israel’s 1940s assembly hall, complete with Jewish songs about the desire to construct a homeland, accompanying a documentation of the work of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). Her Belltable sequence – wrapped in ambiguity, a dream-like documentation of motorists stopped while cruising down a coastal road intercut with sounds of shooting and ominous loudspeakers – was the best. The worst was the ghastly ‘intervention’ worthy of Murdoch’s Sun, inviting Israelis in the street to record a message for after their death at the hands of terrorists. The sensitively filmed piece, inviting you to think of barriers and ghettos, with young Orthodox Jews putting up road barriers in the city on the Sabbath, brought to mind the words of filmmaker Elias Suleiman commenting on the opening sequence of Simone Bitton’s Wall (2004) (‘the weight of the cement. The weight of time’); the real wall segregating Arabs from Jews in the Palestinian territories; the new concrete barrier forcibly dividing the land and increasing division between Israelis and Palestinians; its ontological and symbolic denial of space.
Provided you have learned ‘how we speak about the political in art’, you might enjoy Sarah Pierce’s work on one of the other sites: It’s time, man. It feels imminent, 24 minutes of sound interviews from academic symposia with Mary Kelly, Dave Beech, Liam Gillick and Adrian Rifkin. Intriguing, but the ‘we’ is definitely an artworld ‘we’, tragically and poststructurally only for viewers familiar with the theory. For Bifo’s sake (perhaps), we are reassured the title ‘does not signify an organization’, since Pierce’s cultural work is ‘characterised as a way to play with shared neuroses of place’. I almost forgot to mention the parcel paper stencilled posters with old slogans in the white cube.
‘That’s Alexander Sokurov’, said Padraig the student, pointing to a talking head on a TV set on the floor. Famously, Sokurov made Russian Ark (2002) the longest single sequence of ninety minutes, an entire film without a single cut, a first in film history. His interview was part of Fergus Daly’s and Katherine Waugh’s A Laboratory of Perpetual Flux (2012), a piece scattered around the NAMA gallery and LCGA, comprising interviews with Vito Acconci and others. It was lacking some level of mediation with the raw material other than its atomised display in a gallery setting and at first came across as an alienating Babylon-effect of overlapping babble. Nothing could be more different than Gavin Murphy’s Something New Under The Sun (2012), a beautifully installed and photographed architectural documentary about an Irish Modernist building narrated by a Dublin 4 Voice-of-God. It didn’t come across as didactic as Zanny Begg’s and Oliver Ressler’s The Bull Laid Bear (2012). Strangely, both works recall the legacy of traditional Grierson-style British documentary; yet both also add to that sense of a new engagement or passion for the real, as the most exciting emerging feature of the contemporary. But I found The Bull Laid Bear visually captivating with its combination of animation, charts, graphs and filmed interviews, explaining very clearly neoliberal capitalism’s new wave of attacks against living standards since the failure of its policies.
Søren Thilo Funder’s Disastrous Dialogue (2010-2011) is part of an on-going project to integrate critical theory and the cinematic image for a critical perspective on today’s world. Does Funder succeed in portraying ‘a collective dimension of being or what it might mean to be or become a subject’? Could a viewer get a sense of how power works, through eight characters telling stories? And how might ‘counter-memory’ really be involved? Eight non-professional actors in Cairo appear in close-up and full frontal static shots in empty interiors, only for a few seconds at a time. An elderly man begins: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we all knew this day would come. But never imagined it would come this soon’. ‘The world as we know it is coming to an end’, says a man in a corridor. Cut to CGI-style disaster-movie apocalyptic devastation. Words borrowed from the screenplay of a Hollywood genre film, uttered in a deadpan voice by an Egyptian: ‘we lost communication with the White House, sir’. ‘You predicted it would happen’. ‘Yes, but not in our lifetime,’ replies a lady in a bhurka.
Funder’s combined moving image/text narrative borrows the much-exploited escapist spectacle of catastrophe, to suggest that we are living through a real one. It brings to mind the clean break of the Danish Dogme 95 Manifesto calling for a rejection of the spectacle with a return to the real in filmmaking. There is something shocking about the real of these people in HD. Perhaps it had something to do with the unspoken beyond the rehearsed and constructed disaster text, with the Arab Spring, perhaps: I saw their serious looks, I could imagine their lives and memories, despite the sublime of Funder’s script.
The clash pits make-believe disaster movie against real Egyptian witnesses, between the ‘there’ of Empire and the ‘here’ of real Middle Eastern locations and bodies, the indexical proximity of lived lives that are out of synch with their words and appropriated image. Real people in a borrowed narrative somehow resist the role, retaining expressions, dignity, posture, Muslim veil. The work proves less didactic than its wordy label.
Looking back, previous editions of eva were already international in scope; the noticeable difference with 2012 seems to be the presence of what this Biennial edition calls ‘the fringe’. Would integrating the fringe within the main project be more desirable, I wonder? Could its local presence be part of curation and display, thus acknowledging this new production of space? Secondly, ‘the separate platforms’ scheduled for different periods are unwittingly exclusive; the assumption being that viewers are local. Finally, I felt that the strongest theme to emerge was connected to the social dimension. Both in terms of national and international work, what was most striking was the work of visual artists exploring the potential of the moving image in different ways, beyond canonical video installations (what you might as well call ‘painting’), towards an overlap with experimental, engaged, alternative and documentary filmmaking, with the critical real emerging more strongly now than the postmodernist virtual.
eva International was on view, 19 May-12 August 2012.