Off the Record

Off the Record
title: Off the Record
year: 2003
language: english
author(s): Luchezar Boyadjiev
source: Manifesta Journal, # 2, Winter 2003 / Spring 2004, IFM, Amsterdam-Ljubljana.

Do you know why in the last World Football (soccer) Championship in 2002 Turkey came out in 3rd place whereas Korea was only 4th? Do you know what I suspect is the motivation behind organizing three large scale exhibitions of contemporary art from the Balkans, all in Europe and within only one year (2002 - “In Search of Balkania”, Graz, curators Peter Weibel, Eda Cufer, Roger Conover; 2003 - “Blood and Honey. Future’s in the Balkans”, Klosterneuburg/Vienna, curator Harald Szeemann; “In the Gorges of the Balkans”, Kassel, curator Rene Block)? Do you know why they may have decided to have the Documenta exhibitions every five and not every four years? Well, it’s all rather obvious to me… The answer to question 1 is: because the Istanbul Biennial is older then the Gwangju Biennial and that accounts for more self-confidence. The answer to question 2 is: because in the last three World Football (soccer) Championships there was always one Balkan country in the first four – in 1994 in the USA it was Bulgaria (4th place), in 1998 in France it was Croatia (3rd place, I think…), in 2002 in South Korea/Japan it was Turkey and all of that shows an escalation of energy that has to be accounted for. The answer to question 3 is: thus the D-show will not coincide with the Olympic Games and so the organizers thought they would avoid the danger of attention being diverted away… On the other hand, it did not help them one bit last year in June when just after the opening days of D 11 there were few visitors, maybe because it was the World football Championship going on at full speed… D 12 in 2007, or shall we say, the Double 007 Documenta will be fine on this account.

There are other possible parallels between sports and art to be made… For instance, at every championship in World (or European for that matter) Track and Field events several records are usually beaten – maybe the 800 m hurdles for women or the 3000 m steeplechase for man, but it never happens that every single record is beaten at every single event. Often world records are beaten at national or local championships, as long as there is supervision by the world sports authorities that make sure the rules are being upheld. Similarly, at every Biennial, at every Documenta, Manifesta or ARCO there is only a handful of really good and important works that remain in memory over the next editions of the same and/or other such events. Or still better, a handful of really good and important artists… Yet, it seems that such art events persist, which makes me think that the origin of all regularly organized events, be those as they may sports, art or trade events, is in the Olympic Games. Let’s not forget the national pavilions, selections, participations, and so on where it is not quite clear who is representing whom and for what reason. On the other side, one might think of the competition between biennials. Somewhere here my old idea about the Grand Slam of artists’ participation comes in – a Grand Slam for an artist would be if in let’s say 2007 one artist takes part in all of Documenta 11, Venice Biennial, Istanbul Biennial, Munster Sculpture Project, what else?  

However, unlike in sports, the selection process for the large biennial events seems to be more conceptually subjective. It’s also based on achievement but the algorithm for selection is different. In art events - many of us are researched, few of us are curated, while the selector/curator is concerned to have a unique event where as many “records” are beaten as possible, including the all over “track record” or whatever term we may wish to use to indicate the stuff once referred to as Art History. Nonetheless, the sheer number of events as well as of participating artists and works makes that impossible. BUT, there is always hope on the part of both curators and artists. Audience as well, possibly… As a consequence the attitude of artists, including myself, is that when there is the invitation for a Biennial participation (regardless of how many one has already done…) it’s better to participate then not to. And that’s another parallel to the Olympic Games where the overriding motivation is that it is more important to participate then “to beat the record” or just win the gold medal… I am tempted to quote here, off the record, Sean Snyder from a recent private conversation, that it is somehow better to be “in second place” most of the time because the one in first place seems to be changing all the time with each new race. (A dialogue one might have: “Who’s on first? No, Hou’s on second…”)

In sports the sheer number of events/athletes does not automatically lead to avalanches of new records. In sports however, there is a high entertainment value of an event by default. So nobody is complaining. In art entertainment is a suspect, although I think there is certainly such a trend, thank God! But the level of complaint about the number and the quality of biennials is growing in linear progression to the number of biennials. It seems however, that the complaint does not come from the audiences of such events that are scattered all over the world. The audience is disunited and can rarely revolt (unless it is located in a city/country with high saturation of events and art infrastructure). For instance, the audience in Gwangju does not complain about the Venice Biennial, nor does the Sydney Biennial audience complain about Documenta… The complaint comes mainly from the professional field and that’s quite surprising considering the status of the habitat we are occupying as related (how exactly?) to the big, real world and the masses of overexploited, overworked, underprivileged, isolated, marginalized art viewers who do not have the privilege of living in London, Berlin, Paris or Venice (New York being on the verge of marginality at the moment for a lack of a major international art event, Moscow just about to get out of this sorry status). In one word, can we afford to complain about the growing number of Biennials? Isn’t it better to concentrate on the “what, where, when, why, and who” of those events and basically on the “how and for whom” do they fit in within the local context? The expectations of such large-scale events are often unrealistically high, plus there is the hint of confusion – do we want an entertaining event that can engage the audience as well as the professionals; or do we want events that “beat the record” on top of that? Or do we want both and how is this to be achieved? The “record” here is meant to signify “history”…

As it stands now one of the main functions, in my opinion, of a large international biennial event seems to be in crisis, hence the complaints from professionals, or the debate if you wish… I think biennials are there at least partly because they function to prove to the art world itself, as well as to the world at large, that it exists, that there is indeed such a thing as an international art world, and while working it is capable of providing a product that can engage the attention of the rest of the world. The preview and opening days of a Documenta, Venice or a Manifesta are the time and place where the art world is observable in action. The art world there and then is represented by those of us in the art profession, in its many guises, who happen to be there for whatever reason. That’s a very important function because there is no profession that can survive without a sense and demonstration of a public identity. Thus, it is strange that the professionals are complaining about biennials because that implies a move countering the identity of the profession, cutting off the branch one is sitting on, etc. Which I do not think is on the agenda. The other option is that this particular function of biennials is in crisis. The question is why?

I think the reason is that the art world is not quite sure of its own status and function within the globalized world. Not only that, but also it is not yet clear if there is already a discourse of biennials that overrides each single event. I suspect there is. Maybe the feeling of unease comes with the realization that all these biennials might turn out to be just a marginal side effect of globalization, a symptom, or worse, one of its main tools in the field of culture. I think that if there is an answer to be found it has to do with thinking about space. Well, not just any particular space nor space as a philosophical construct. Rather the space in between the art world and the rest of the world, or the space populated/occupied by the art world in the real world, etc., the fittings, the linkages, the tensions and frictions, the mediators, the metaphors, and so on. That however, is a field of thought where I do not feel so comfortable, so instead I will concentrate on a kind of space that is more palpable for me. That’s a kind of space, which I can describe best by going through approximations and that’s precisely the space that needs to be reconsidered.

On first thought I would say that there is a distinct parallel between, on one hand, the space between the various biennials and, on the second hand, the space between the art world and the world at large. But that’s too generalized a concept to defend. On second thought, the better approximation is the space in between the art works in a given biennial or any large international group exhibition of that sort. This is precisely the space where the art world (artists, curators, etc.) and the real world (visitors, audience) meet face to face. This is the concrete space shared between all of us. So far this space has been made “visible” through curatorial concepts, catalogues and publications, artists’ statements and so on. It is a space similar to the kind of space located between various art events, biennials or not. And that’s the space whose articulation by the art world (profession) seems to be in a crisis, maybe because the sense of identity of the art world is in crisis. I do not mean the physical aspects of this space but rather the aspects of what I would call “cross referencing” - dialogues between works, between works and visitor, between this particular combination of works in this particular place in the world and all other possible combinations and places, and so on, and on. The art events, big or small, are usually characterized by the fact that after the opening the audience rarely has the chance to meet either the curators or the artists. It can rarely encounter the curator outside of the formal press conference, a lecture or two, and a number of interviews given to the local press. As for meeting the artists, well, I have noticed that if I hang around the office on the day after the opening to check e-mail before leaving, for instance, I tend to get a lot of these startled “double takes” telling me “Oh, you are still here…” The organizers of an event usually feel uncomfortable with artists who have not left on the “morning after”. The audience is a different matter. To substitute for the missing curator and artists, the audience has also the press release which is too short and brief; the catalogue which is either too demanding to read or there are too many pictures without a context and so on. Thus, after the opening the space in between the works in a show is voided and the local audience might not always be in a position to fill it up on its own. 

At this point there is a break in the pattern of space continuity and the alienation of the art world from the real world is manifested. The professionals go home and/or to the next sight of action whereas the local audience is probably left with the frustrating feeling that the globalized world (art) was here indeed but just left to manifest itself elsewhere. The desire for concrete globalization (to have the world at home) is triggered but it is never actually consumed (home as part of the world) and the educated local art consumer keeps on guessing (while musing on the mobility of curators and artists as opposed to his/her own static situation) where the next global appearance will take place (the penis envy of globalization). Globalization is performed as symbolic exchange and in this perspective a biennial functions as a tool for insemination, culture vs. nature, male vs. female, etc. At the same time, it is also possible, although I cannot provide evidence at this point, that an identical feeling of frustration overcomes the art professionals who rarely have the chance to enjoy the benefits of a locally successful art manifestation – I would sometimes get press clippings but most of the time I have no idea who actually goes to see my work, what do they think of it, how does it relate to them, how does it fit in with the whole show for them, at the end – how does it fit in (or not) with their own perception of the world. This is particularly valid when the artist, as is my case, comes from a smaller art scene that is itself a playground of globalization effects. The feeling of frustration is reinforced because what I do away from home is not known here and I am not sure it is understood there, while what I do at home is always a suspect because the local audience suspects the work is part of a much larger discourse active on the global scene, and it has no way of knowing anything about it. I think this is a problem of the kind of “global art production vs. local art consumption”.

I am not sure there is an effective way to fill in these gaps and voided spaces. However, my latest experiences tell me that a catalogue, or any sort of publication, is not enough to fill up the voided space in between the works in a show for the benefit of the visitors. Much less is it capable to fill up the void between the many biennials, whatever and wherever they might be, let alone the void between the art world and the real world. What I tried to do recently was to stay for as long as possible within the show as a “living, talking and walking sculpture” providing “guided tours” around a certain show. The show was “In the Gorges of the Balkans” in the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel and out of the 12 weeks of the run of the show, I was there for 5 ½ weeks or more. Every day between 11 am and 6 pm, the working hours of the museum, I was there and anybody who wanted to could get a free tour of a kind (my kind) around the more then 120 works by 88 artists in the show. I have to admit that my tours were not easy on the visitors… A full (more or less full, for I could never pretend to “know it all”…) “Schadenfreude Guided Tour” (as was the title of the project) lasted about four and a half hours or more. Part of the reason for that was that the other artists were not there to talk on their own behalf, so I was free to say anything I wanted to… For obvious reasons the curator of the show could not be there most of the time either... I worked with the entire physical space of the show, the building and its exterior, jumping from work to work, artist to artist and country to country, connecting them all within the layers of references to the Balkan context that only an informed insider could provide. I think of this project as one huge performance lasting day after day, which depended as much on insider’s knowledge and penetration as on the flow of adrenaline, and the eyes of the visitors shining with enthusiasm, interest, sometimes – exhaustion… I worked with the inner space and logic of the show and tried to make it visible and almost physically perceptible for the visitors, to give flesh and blood to the lived reality, culture, history, concepts, visual language, and so on ingrained in the works. Of course, the curator staged it all but I think without me it would have been a less interactive one. The visitors seemed to like that and a good part of them were people from Kassel who may not have a Documenta in their front yard every day but do have a distinct sense of audience pride. Imagine talking about a complete unknown youngster from Kosova to somebody who is fast to remind you that “Yes, we have debated such issues with Beyus in the 6th Documenta, or was it the 7th?” 

Theoretically, an art work speaks for itself, right? In practice it does not really work this way even when it is a sound piece of talking... At least not for the visitors and even if it does work, it is never satisfactory for visitors want to see who is there behind the works with all the things that might come out of such an encounter. Theoretically, a biennial should speak for itself... It happens but only up to a point. In sports it is much clearer – they run faster or jump higher because they are testing the limits of human abilities. There are many other reasons, of course, economy or entertainment being some of them. In sports they also get to see who is running or jumping. But in art? In a biennial? How is it possible to reconcile mobility with staying presence? To put the record straight – I think that the white cube is no longer the seemingly neutral container of works. Now it is rather the voided space in between the works in a show, or the voided space between art events. To reconsider this void is of critical importance for the future and here sports, or maybe even fashion (?) could be a useful example to take a look at. Imagine having on the air something like the Fashion TV cable channel? With so many art events all over the world and nothing to connect these in the eyes of the viewers, maybe it would not be so outrageous to think about an ART TV cable channel that shows footage of openings and shows from all over the world round the clock. Or still better a cross between Fashion TV and CNN dedicated to contemporary art with such top of the hour stories like - the New Line of Venice, Spring Art in Beijing, A Post-Documenta Diary of a Curator, Youngsters on the move in Pristina, Fundrising Party in Moscow, Curators’ fight for Viewers in Paris, Artists on the day before the Opening of..., etc. 


November 2003, Kassel, Germany

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