In a recent interview, Slavoj Zizek declared that if he were a terrorist he would bomb "Kassel and the Venice Biennale." Among the reasons for this are the hypocrisy between discourse and action that have only become starker in the context of the last few weeks of fully endorsed genocidal war. The topics that the art world chooses to address seem to have an inverse relation to global societal tendencies. The elites and governments who fund artistic initiatives are funding discourses diametrically opposed to their intentions and beliefs.
Museum programs around the world have recently dedicated their artistic commissions to tackling racism and colonialism. This has not yielded results. Rather, the opposite is coming to pass, statistics emerge detailing the rise in racist and homophobic attacks around the world as Western countries increasingly engage in extractivism and colonial wars. The more exhibitions about ecology are produced, the further beyond climate tipping points we go. The same governments that fund ecological projects refuse to curb emissions. Ten years ago, the housing crisis was a central theme of exhibitions across London – a city in which this problem has only gotten more out-of-control. Despite the discourse against neoliberalism and the communist fervor with which artists and theorists produce, the infrastructure of the art world is becoming a franchise – with the same curatorial texts produced for a circulating carousel of similar artists shipped around the world. The "chorus of voices" that curators have championed is getting smaller as independent spaces are priced out of their neighborhoods and grants are focalized onto the largest corporate museums rather than on small initiatives.
How can we help this trend to turn around? Like the urban street, individuality and choice comes from small and independent store-fronts rather than streets lined with chains all offering the same products. In art there is also the need to wean off of museum franchises and mega-galleries and support independent initiatives and local gallery scene. While artist can do this by choosing carefully where to exhibition, writers can also dedicate space to small initiatives, and collectors can choose to support a local scene.
NO GRANDI NAVI
For over a decade, the activist group "No Grandi Navi" gathered citizens of Venice to fight off the mass tourism that plagues the lagoon in the form of multi-story cruise ships. These bring in waves of tourists and destroy the delicate ecological balance of the water. Over the years, the campaign was able to partially achieve its goals by limiting the size of the boats docking in the city, but other things still go on that similarly jet in people from all over the world at the same time of year. What if the biggest cruise ship of all is an ephemeral displacement of people who just saw each other at Frieze, Paris, and Basel and now Venice. This is a group of people who know how to dematerialize and deterritorialize an object.
The Venice Biennale’s history has often been criticized as upholding the values of the nation state and retaining grave inequalities between the West and the Global South. It is also the arena where "soft power" is easily enforced through privatized pavilions, sponsors, and the exchange of untraceable money. Over the years, the amount of private palazzos dedicated to exhibitions has increased creating international exhibitions for a dispersed and temporary public. Ending or boycotting the biennale is not the intention of this proposal, but rather to understand the format as a problematic and antithetical structure to the values that artists claim to uphold.
EXPATS AND DIGITAL NOMADS
One of the values argued for the continuation of biennials in art is the potential tourism that it can encourage. This at least is one of the attractions in the bid for the host city of Manifesta, Europe’s nomadic biennial. While the art world is told that the cities are chosen based on social and geopolitical conflict, the move in recent years has been towards the highest bidder in terms of budget for the biennial’s pockets. This couldn’t be more clearly illustrated than the total absence of any mention of Catalonia’s recent regional political experience in the upcoming Barcelona edition.
Instead, with the repetitive theme of ecological sustainability, a concept which could be applied anywhere in the world, the biennial flies out of Amsterdam to settle down in Barcelona for a two-year period like any digital nomad working for a startup before packing up and moving on to the next place. Unlike the artistic-touristic gaze that arrives in the city open to pick up local insights and untold stories, the theme is pre-established and chosen according to its non-controversial nature. An opportunity to excavate the Catalan context about frustrations of protest and the relationship between citizens and their government could have been a relevant topic for 2024 in a world which will undoubtedly still be reeling from our collective frustration of being unable to rein in Europe’s support for genocide. Yet, the biennial intends to keep things irrelevant and calm with neutral topics that don’t invite criticism or discussion.
The Spanish context has already hosted several of these biennials in Murcia and in the Basque country, and we know that no traces remain, especially in the underfunded region of the South. The concept of the biennial differs starkly with the annual budgets for visual arts within these regions and demonstrates that a one-time investment that is well above what the region can regularly afford only produced a single mega-event that has no lasting effect on the culture of the region. Instead, we should focus on home-grown production and locally-centered development of discourse rather than the homogeneous import of already existing and already passé global trends.
Manifesta’s main offices are in the northern city of Amsterdam, a place I also happen to call home. This wealthy city has no excuse for stingy behaviors that drive independent spaces out of the city, but that reality displays the Dutch system’s advanced state of decay. Advancing neoliberal policy in the post-Rutte realm have witnessed how cultural budget cuts have hacked away at the art ecosystem and continues to position unique spaces on a precarious ledge. The announcement of a recent funding decisions revealed that several spaces were given positive marks but did not receive the funding necessary to run their proposed programs. Rather than distributing the funds among all of the qualifying applications, the funds are given to some and not others, endangering the diversity of the art system through possible permanent closures, burnt-out staff, and other threats caused by reduced funding.
What little funding (comparatively) is left, always goes to the larger, more prestigious, and safer spaces like any market analyst would advise. Yet, cutting out smaller centers of experimentation significantly reduces the possibility for artists who are not yet established and who have less funds to support their art practice. This failure of artistic thinking to be implemented into the design of biennials and art funding constricts the artistic environment into less space, less ideas, less opinions, and less windows to grow. This system destroys the possibility of diversity.
AGAINST MUSEUM EXPANSION
The last example that displays our acquiescence of the double-standards between discourse and practice are both the ongoing local and international plans for museum expansions. New exhibition halls are an investment opportunity for housing corporations and big landlords who see this as a gentrification vehicle that will raise the value of the surrounding neighborhood. The existing MACBA in the center of Barcelona was originally planned with this precise idea in the 1990’s in an attempt to clean up the immigrant neighborhood of the Raval. New plans to expand this museum, which began long before the appointment of the current director, have been met with a fierce rejection by activist groups from the area. What happened to the institutional discourse of listening to local dialogue, and why does this have no effect on such important decisions?
The more the museum pretends to listen to its local community, the more the authority of its funders becomes visible. At a time when prices are increasing and annual working budgets and salaries are in dire need of increases, investors prefer a lump sum payment for architects and construction companies to appropriate public space. Rather than a glitzy project, we should learn to value the sustainability of programming, increasing wages of staff members, needed maintenance, and expanding the collection. It would be important to know if the expansion will be accompanied by an increase in budget for the extra labor, production, and resources needed to program a new wing.
The art world is inconsistent and hypocritical. As cultural workers we need to campaign to make more significant projects with less resources, and to say no to million-euro production budgets for single exhibitions. We need to say no to the prices demanded by blue-chip galleries. Reducing and reusing should become part of the ethos of exhibition design, along with proper payment of workers as well as dedicated salaries and time for thinking, researching, and experimenting. It is urgent that we adapt to an ecologically and geopolitically changing world in which nothing will ever be the same again. Just as billionaires should not exist – neither should the bombastic mega-event and mega-museum.