Eva international 2014: Agitationism

Limerick City

Daniel Birnbaum, then curator of the Yokohama Triennale, presented a paper in 2007 in which he discussed the ‘exhaustion of the biennial’, under which rubric he included not only biannual exhibitions but various cyclical shows: triennials, surveys made every five years, etc. His conclusion was that this spectacularly successful model was showing distinct signs of fatigue – for one thing, a great deal of the excitement, energy and sense of innovation that had been associated with the biennial had migrated to the art fair. Birnbaum’s article (the same argument can be found in a Birnbaum essay closing Hans Ulrich Obrist’s A Brief History of Curating [2008]) did not end, however, on a pessimistic note – the biennial model might have been forged and nurtured in Europe, but it could be reforged among the dozens of new biennial sites far from the Berlins, Venices and Parises that had nurtured the old guard of biennial curators: East Asia, indeed, might prove to be the source of a new concept.

Birnbaum’s argument turned on a clearly defined sense of the biennial as more than a mere cyclical art exhibition, and this definition came across in his comparison of the condition of the biennial to that of a literary form, the novel. In other words, the biennial was also a kind of cultural ‘form’, comprising various genres perhaps: it was practiced in a self-conscious way; it had a history; it developed over time; it had certain essential characteristics. So what is a biennial in these terms? We can safely say that it has a prehistory leading back to Venice’s grand old mother of biennials, which prehistory is inflected by enterprises from the Cold War years like Documenta and the Bienal de São Paulo, but that it really got underway in the nineties, with flagship events like Manifesta and the Berlin Biennial (both associated with the aforementioned Swiss-born curator Obrist, who left his finger-prints all over the period) sparking off an astonishing spread of biennials across the planet: over a hundred and fifty if one goes by the list offered by the Biennial Foundation (see biennialfoundation. org), although a third of these probably do not conform to the ‘biennial form’ as we are describing it. Very roughly, the essential characteristics of this form as it developed were: it was of-the-moment – there was a sense of the unprecedented about the show; it was city-based, and in some way drew attention to the city; it was large-scale, and often utilised industrial-scale exhibition spaces; it generated the two Ds, discourse and discussion – for every biennial there were innumerable photographs or video clips of artists, curators and theorists sitting behind a microphone- and water-bottle-topped table – and from every biennial a stream of texts flowed, to be collected in a catalogue of some kind. Finally, it was committed to social ‘transformation’, and it was from the interaction of this last element with the others that the vitality and problematic nature of the biennial issued.

The historic moment of the ‘biennial boom’ was also that of post-Berlin Wall Europe: in other words, after the collapse of the model of existent European socialism. The biennial, in some respects, was instituted on this no man’s land of left-wing political thought, an occasion for new models and manifestations of the counter-capitalist tradition. The artistic neo-avant-garde seemed to provide an environment for such a ‘reimagination’. Early on (2001’s Berlin Biennial, for example, curated by Saskia Bos, who incidentally acted as outside curator for Eva in 1990) the idea of ‘sociable’ or ‘relational’ art, independent of production (Rikrit Tiravanija’s ‘meals’ were highly influential in this regard), seemed to suggest the way forward; by the 2000s the biennials hosted the meeting of art and politics in terms of ‘utopianism’ (e.g. Obrist, Birnbaum and Molly Nesbit’s Utopia Stations at Venice in 2003). These curatorial themes (and criteria for the promotion of particular artists, artistic tendencies and analogous theoretical discourse), however, though the most articulate and explicit dimension of the biennial, remained only part of a greater set of cultural operations. The biennial was to interact with the city – and it was from the city that most of the considerable funding came – in such a way as to make that city internationally apparent: as someplace on the map, ‘the map’ now being increasingly global and polycentric. In a simple way the biennial as spectacle (historians often point out the continuity between the biennial and the old ‘world’s fair’) achieved this aim: the city looked different while a biennial was in town, and the crowds of visitors, media coverage and giant, startling public sculptures (Luc Deleu’s Construction X, originally hosted by Eva in 1994 and reconstructed in the first Eva international in 2012, is typical) offered a temporary vision of the city transformed, if not politically, at least economically – the terms in which such events are pitched to prospective municipal funders.

That a city should see itself in need of transformation connects to that question of ‘scale’, and to the use of industrial-sized exhibition spaces. Biennials generally occur where there is an industrial deficit of some kind, linked to a city’s status as part of a major, international economic network. Venice provides the model: the Arsenale has been described (by Lewis Mumford in The City in History [1961]) as the first modern factory site – its giant, assembly line-like shipbuilding facility was certainly the centre for European trade with the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia for centuries. The temptation here is to talk in terms of ‘post-industrialism’, but the fact is that venues like Guangzhou are, if anything, ‘protoindustrial’, fast-growing centres of mammoth new economic networks whose biennial announces their expanded mercantile and industrial ambitions and global arrival. The left-wing conceptualities of the biennial sit even less easily in such contexts, but for a while at least it seemed that the wave of globalisation, and the consequent bringing together of cosmopolitan creative professionals from different social systems, retained a certain promise of transformative enclaves scattered across the increasingly urban world.

In 2012 Limerick’s 35-year-old exhibition joined this world of the international biennial, and now proclaims its status as ‘Ireland’s biennial’ (a title that hints at the perceived failure of 2011’s Dublin Contemporary, and suggests that Ireland can be treated as a single city-state, perhaps as it operated economically in the boom period, a Singapore or Hong Kong off the west of Europe). This year, with the Egyptian curator Bassam El Baroni at the helm, that sense of approximation to the transportable international model felt particularly strong. Much of the reason for this was the inclusion of a new exhibition site: the former Golden Vale Milk Plant across the Shannon from the town centre. An abandoned industrial zone, with buildings going back to the 19th century, it allowed for the presentation of large-scale works in even larger-scale, raw spaces that is a trademark of the contemporary cyclical exhibition (Eva’s director, Woodrow Kernohan, even referred in the press to the Arsenale, along with Tate’s Turbine Hall). The works presented there, and at Limerick’s City Gallery (and to a lesser extent at three other sites), were emphatically ‘international’: in line with the tendency since 2000 to present the contemporary art world as one no longer centred in the old ‘First World’, there were representatives of contemporary artistic cultures from across the globe (with the exception of East Asia and Oceania), with as many artists associated with the Eastern Mediterranean as with Ireland. The old biennial core, the European cities associated with the first ‘curators’ in the modern sense, nevertheless furnished about half the participants. The reduced proportion of Irish artists was a sharp break with Eva tradition, but like the first biennial edition, and in line with the tendency of Eva’s tradition of ‘colloquies’, the two Ds were well represented, with texts being issued to tease out the concept of ‘agitationism’ and major seminars under the banner of ‘Artistic Justice’ being held in Limerick, Dublin and Marrakech respectively. Eva formally aimed at being a model biennial and, in so far as this was the purpose of the show, Eva 2014 was a success.

Problems arose, however, with the actual effect of that formal success, that is, in coming to terms with the experience of viewing the assembled artworks. The late Patrick Jolley’s This Monkey (2009), a large digital video projection shown to great effect in a concrete industrial space in the Golden Vale complex, encapsulated a pervasive spirit. Shot on 16mm film in New Delhi the seven-minute piece followed a rhesus monkey from a sandy wasteland into empty, claustrophobic backstreets and even more claustrophobic interiors. All the time the sense of the animal’s close relation to us humans grew – the interior shots suggested psychological states, in which human fabrications placed alien restrictions on a natural, sympathetic subject. This growing identification led to the piece’s final shock: returning to the wasteland, the focus of the piece is joined by other monkeys to feast on what turns out to be human carcasses. This economic, grim metaphor for human entrapment moved through sequences that echoed wildlife documentaries, indie music videos, especially from the eighties, and eventually the opening sequence of Kubrick’s 2001, but without the sci-fi film’s transcendental dimension; in other words, it aggressively combined isolated subjectivity with matters of identity at the level of the species. It was hard not to feel that an historic sense of disillusionment had been focused, through a neo-Darwinian lens, into a statement of existential pessimism. Which is to say, in the context of the model of the biennial, it presented a vision of human affairs beyond hope of real transformation by human actors.

El Baroni’s introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue presented his curatorial thinking in terms of a resistance to the temptation, in the face of a constant ‘flow of agitations’ – social and political upheavals, for instance – to give in to ‘romanticisms, utopias, ideologies and nostalgias’ – social emotions and conceptualities, in other words, that remove our sense of agitation by subsuming it within a complete and satisfying scheme, or by escaping from the present and its demands on us. But the etymological root of the word ‘agitation’, shared by the word ‘action’, points to a sense of disappointment and loss behind this conceptual positioning. Political upheavals would not be mere agitations if they brought about the political transformation for which they had ‘agitated’. This understandable gloom, generated by recent revolutionary failures, like that of El Baroni’s own Egypt – now back under an authoritarian government, one possibly worse than that of Mubarak against which the Tahrir Square occupiers had demonstrated – seems to underlie the sense of upheaval and change as agitation, and pervades the exhibition. The pessimistic fatalism of Jolley’s This Monkey was echoed in Doa Aly’s disturbing H.C.F. (2014), which turned the fearful, pro-authoritarian crowd that gathered at Tahrir Square to celebrate the third anniversary of the original uprising, into a choir of young women calmly chanting a murderous excerpt from De Sade. This making explicit of the spirit of the occasion may have been intended as a bringing of the ‘Hysterical Choir of the Frightened’ in some way to account, but the actual experience was one of disillusioned youth (women specifically) demonically relinquishing moral responsibility, and somehow becoming empowered in the process – a truly dark image. Amanda Beech’s almost psychedelic video installation Final Machine (2013) inter-cut 1960s Marxist political theory with the discourse of espionage and counter-espionage, images of the desert and violent sonic interruptions, to generate a sense of paranoid, impossible quest for political resolution in conditions where reality is patently unreal. Michael Patterson-Carver’s disarmingly simple and direct depictions of political dissent in the US promised to slice through the involuted and highly reflexive working of art like Beech’s, to a plain account of direct action, but his naive and obsessive drawings had an automatic distancing effect (which I assumed was not intentional – this work had a certain ‘found art’ quality), placing the political action depicted within a psychological and behaviouristic frame. Where political ideals did appear they were often in the form of archives and memorials – Nicoline Van Harskamp’s archive of the Dutch anarchist Karl Max Kreuger; Per-Oskar Leu’s riffing on Bertolt Brecht’s testimony before the Un- American Activities Committee in 1947 – or strangely echoed the aesthetics and accessories of jihadist terrorism (Metahaven’s Black Transparency).

In terms of medium there was a predominance of video-work, which set the artistic subject-matter and pervasive mood in a particular frame. Even with non-screen based works – e.g. with Sophie Loscher’s Waiting in the Wings (2013), Pauline M’Barek’s Showcase (2012) and Trophy Stands (2011), and Raqs Media Collective with Iswanto Hartono’s 5 Principle No-s, For a New Pancasila (2012-2013) – what might be termed a ‘screen aesthetics’ operated. All involved light and mirror effects, dependent upon the viewer’s position and playing with the limits of ocular perception, the very bases of our capacity to read and view into the two dimensional electronic or coloured light-reflecting screen of the digital world. The result was that the exhibition environment seemed to mimic that most obvious change in our social environment of the last decade: the growing ubiquity of screens – handheld, domestic, commercial and public. Just as the experience of an average day may be factually described in terms of a navigation through and between digital screens, so too our experience of the biennial was a matter of screen-defined perception.

This merging of the physical environment with that of electronic communications, reproduced by the exhibition’s dominant media, resonated with Zacahary Formwalt’s video installation based around images of a soon-to-be-activated stock exchange in Shenzen, China. In Light of the Arc (2013) engaged with a central technological mediation of reality – the screen of a stock exchange, manipulating the processes of economically bound life through its flickering matrix of abstract valuations. Formwalt’s installation pinned the image to a real, material basis – the construction, materials, engineering, machinery and unfinished interiors of the located, physical exchange-building – in a gesture that recalled old Marxist ideas of the ‘material base’ beneath the cultural ‘superstructure’. But the gesture simultaneously conveyed the sense that the same site threatened, once the switches were thrown, to withdraw from physical terms into a purely symbolic realm, its communications with us mediated by algorithms and abstract economic terms. This treatment of the most essential of electronic screens pointed to the Janus character of the display screen in general – including that carrying Formwalt’s images – as a material site of ‘pinning’, a final tension between a non-human symbolic and the most basic human environment – positioned, physical occupancy of space – a ‘skin of light’, as it were, between the symbolic and the material. The screen is both the last hold of the ancien régime of materiality, to which we are physically bound, and the site and emblem of the apparent withdrawal of the technologically determined motors of control from our grasp.

This is a far cry from the rhetoric of technology, of social technology in particular, propagated during the optimistic days of the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. Then, new digital communications and networking were a means to empowerment the disempowered: technological advance seemed almost capable, by and in itself, of bringing about democratic social transformation. But already there was a sense in which digital technology’s simple instrumentality was exceeded: it was a driver of a social ‘evolution’ – the invention of the instrument and its enabling apps preceded, indeed determined, the emergence of the revolutionary actions. All that was needed for the change from optimism to fatalism was the failure of this secondary social behaviour. The consequent supplement to the fatalistic mood of Agitationism provided by the hegemony of the screen was a sense of the evacuation of time, as a dimension responsive to human action – its reduction to a technological change as inscrutable as the raw nature to which Jolley’s monkey returns. Transformation and revolution give way to evolution and adaptation to an endlessly agitating environment.

There is a disturbing passivity about all of this, which makes it very hard to judge Agitationism a success, despite the ticking of all the biennial boxes. El Baroni, or the artworks selected, however, should not be singled out in this regard: Rem Koolhaas’ current Venice Architectural Biennale, for instance, is premised on the similarly pessimistic grounds of the impotence of the architect. It is a perfectly understandable attitude that seems to be seeping into much of the socially engaged artworld. (My own first experience of this new attitude came at Terminal Convention in Cork in 2011, when curator and museum director Charles Esche proclaimed the end of the avant-garde: advanced capitalism was simply way ahead of art when it came to innovation and radical change.) And it is possible that I am dwelling too exclusively on one, albeit highly significant, aspect of Eva 2014. I have had little to say about the semiotic sophistication of much of the work (but then, a certain kind of semiotic sophistication seems to be inextricably linked with the withdrawal or deferral of the possibility of action); or, for that matter, the amped-up, return-to-punk and DIY feel of the graphic work, like Garret Phelan’s, that sought to celebrate an ‘agitated’ life. But the question remains: what is the point of a biennial model without any commitment to transformation? If we ignore, for the moment, ‘boosts for the economy’, ‘urban branding’ and the like, we have to agree with Birnbaum that the biennial is showing distinct signs of (dispirited) fatigue – that too much has happened since the nineties for the format to absorb and incorporate successfully. But what of Birnbaum’s conclusion, that the format may yet be re-forged, away from the old centres; perhaps even in an uneasy city on the west coast of Ireland?

The new exhibition site, the Golden Vale Milk Plant, is hardly a place conducive to feelings of hope and new beginnings. The absence of industry and employment is palpable – it felt like the machinery had been removed and the workers had departed only days before the exhibition had been installed (Golden Vale’s new owners, the multinational Kerry Group, had sold on the milk supply rights, but not the buildings, to another multinational of Irish origin, Glanbia, in 2011). A little investigation paints an even bleaker picture: around 1900 there were close to 2000 locals employed here (the headquarters of the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland Ltd.) by the Canadian Cleeve family, of toffee fame. If the closure of this original giant dairy processing plant can be excused on the grounds of early twentieth century historical upheaval, the loss of hundreds of jobs (documented in the proceedings of the dismal 1970s Dáil debates over the privatisation of the semi-state Dairy Disposal Company, that had employed over 500 workers at the site) was inexcusable, its mechanics depressing. But at least we are in the realm of politics and human decisions, and not some impassive, technologically driven ‘evolution’. Much of what happened to what was originally known as the Landsdowne site was a matter of over-exposure to international economic scale, showing little consideration for the local or regional conditions. The kind of economics, driven more by expansion through acquisitions than any ‘organic growth’, as it is termed, that devastated Landsdowne (and a large part of Limerick’s workforce), made the Kerry Group, a former dairy co-operative, into a global player in the food industry, with offices in forty-three countries and manufacturing facilities in twenty-three. Here is the very site where the conflicts of such economic policy were played out, and corporate empires were maintained. There is much for an art of social transformation, and resistance for that matter, to get its teeth into. And if one wants an image of possibility associated with the same site, one already involved in public display, why not resurrect the banner placed over a Cleeve-owned rural dairy during the short-lived Limerick soviet: ‘We Make Butter Not Profits’?

The word ‘dystopia’ has its origins in Ireland, coined in the British parliament by statesman and philosopher John Stuart Mill to describe the policies of colonial landlords in post-Famine Ireland (he contrasted their activities with the supposed ‘utopianism’ of the policies of his faction, which included granting reclaimed lands to peasant proprietors). Ireland might be the right place for breaking out of the dystopianism cultivated by the current biennial model, and for the renewal of the transformative (if not necessarily utopian) thinking of the biennials of twenty years ago. To achieve that, a way of simultaneously being ‘eva international’ and ‘Ireland’s biennial’ would have to be found.