Can one make exhibitions which are not exhibitions? – Few methodological notes on exhibition making

When we think to exhibitions we expect to find ourselves in a space, whether delimited or not, surrounded by works of art, may they be immaterial or ephemeral but always somehow embodied by something defined as a work of art. Rivers of ink has flowed to find how to call this situation (and these works), but what we would like to pursue here is the format of such experience.
We would like to point out four cases along with few remarks about these examples of event-exhibition that could shape our methodological approach and maybe help us in defining our final intervention. The four example here considered are: the XI Lyon Biennale by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Stephanie Moisdon (2008), the XXIIX Sao Paulo Biennale by Ivo Mesquita and Ana Paula Cohen (2008), the I Bergen Biennale by Øvstebø, Filipovic and Van Hal (2007) and the Madrid Trial at ARCO Madrid (2007) organized by Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr.

Let’s start from the last and oldest of the example: the Madrid Trial, which is not an exhibition but a panel held during an art fair in Madrid, it has been selected for its peculiar format and original approach to the debate they wanted to produce.
Here the director of e-flux invited the Berlin-based curator Tirdad Zolghadr to join him in a fake process where they were charged of collaborationism with bourgeoisie neoliberalism, of wasting art potentiality and “capitalizing on the art fair erotic of commodity fetishism” according to the two prosecutors. The task was inquiring whether there is still an outside where ideological opposition can still take place and eventually recognizing that a certain degree of separation has arose between criticality and creativity in much of the contemporary artistic production. Vidokle drew inspiration from fake trials held by André Breton and Dada and mixed it with the format of the lecture and the fake television trials in a blend of art critic language and legal jargon, mixing a “Your Honour” with institutional critiquesque assertions. Actors of the trial were: Jan Verwoert as the judge, Chus Martinez and Vasif Kortun as the prosecutors, Charles Esche was the defence attorney plus expert witnesses such as Maria Lind, Anselm Franke and Liam Gillick. In this way a format such as the panel has been rethought and transformed in a performative and event-based action leading a lively and sometimes hilarious exchange of lines debating bourgeoisie commissioners and the ideological space still existing even within private funding. Eventually Vidokle and Zolghadr were acquitted on most of the charges lodged against them by the prosecutors since no victims showed up and there were no clear charge to accuse them, even if it was patent that all of the partakers were “bourgeois” and that a certain intellectual vacuum had arose in the art field.
This mix of performance, panel and event presents an interesting format since it allows different level of reading and different approach besides a shift of roles where everyone plays a part different from the usual one, from the more ironic tagline to a more critical loaded assertion. A video reports the entire trial “A Crime Against Art” and can be seen here.

img.1 Still from ?A Crime Against Art? ( 2007) Courtesy
Still from A Crime Against Art (2007). Courtesy


The second example is the first edition of the Bergen Biennale in 2009 in Bergen, Norway, where curator Solveig Øvstebø, Elena Filipovic and Marieke Van Hal decided to not exhibiting nor showing works of art, organising instead a series of conferences and panels about biennials and the phenomenon of “biennialization” who saw in the last decade a blossoming of such exhibition in many major cities across the world. Here talks and receptions replaced art in the galleries. In this occasion 33 curators and other professionals involved in biennale organization gathered in Bergen to discuss about the spreading of large-scale artistic manifestations. They issued a call for paper about “biennial knowledge” in order to form a core from where to depart in organizing the conferences. The final outcome has been two volumes collecting all the written essays who took stock of biennales studies so far, collecting all the most important interventions on this subject. This Biennale not-Biennale has been the occasion to pursue a series of questions and modalities of exhibiting in the context of a Biennale, producing a systematic corpus of knowledge on this matter.
This almost scientific approach could be the perfect way to take stock of the crisis in PIIGS countries.

The third case is the XXIIXX Sao Paulo Biennale “In Living Contact” (2008). After budgetary cuts, the two curators, Ivo Mesquita and Ana Paula Cohen, decided to devote this edition to a reflection on the specificity of Sao Paulo Biennale as art event in a peripheral country, to query its specificities and its artistic heritage in Brazilian art scene since Sao Paulo biennale is the second oldest biennale after Venice. This 28th edition saw the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion by Oscar Niemeyer transformed to host an open space on the ground floor: a place designed for meetings and performances, conceived with the intention to establish a new relationship with the neighbourhood, plus a video lounge where display historical performance or lecture. On the first floor the exhibition space was left empty as a radical gesture of rupture. On the second floor a big library with a catalogue of almost all the biennale of the world and many related publication (here, as in the first Bergen Biennale, there was exposed the Archive Wanda Svevo, the most comprehensive historical collection of publications about biennials), with an archive and meeting rooms, this part was thought as a provider of knowledge for the conferences.
The assumption of not showing art were nonetheless betrayed because more than 40 artists were displayed, either with videos or performances or through more physical media as installations, with works who dealt with the history of the Sao Paulo Biennale.
This edition tried to take stock of its relationship with its history as local expression of artistic practice, how does it relate to globalization with cultural assets produced outside its context and what political and cultural tensions are unleashed in such a confront.
The model here proposed could be interesting for its attitude and intention to highlight the context; starting from its title, harking back to the subtitle of the catalogue of the first edition of Sao Paulo Biennial, which explained the aim of the Biennale as that to place Brazilian art in living contact with the art of the world and to posit Sao Paulo as art world city.

IMG2 “The Void” at The São Paulo Bienal, 2008. Photo by Royce W. ?
The Void at San Paulo Biennal, 2008. Photo by Royce W.

The last example is the XI Lyon Biennale (2008) curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Stephanie Moisdon where they asked to other 40 curators to select an artist or a work of art that according to their judgment was vital for the first decade of XXI century plus 20 practitioners whom were asked to present their work or present further artistic works. They tried by way of delegating, and so amplifying the authoriality, to produce an archaeology of the present by means of distinguishing the current from the present; also reconsidering the notion of “list”, the essential instrument when designing a biennale, replacing the list of artists with a list of curators. The ensuing exhibition is therefore the factual image of these intersections with unexpected itineraries where chance changes the exhibiting space, and for this reason the exhibition seemed chaotic and dispersive to many visitors. The itineraries were also across the city because the biennale was located in different places and also in immaterial venues such as internet sites and community. What is working here is a device, as the curators said referring back to Agamben’s definition: a network of elements including virtually everything (discourses, buildings, philosophical systems, aesthetic propositions, etc. etc.) in-between knowledge and power.
What they tried to inquire in this edition is, besides the art produced in the first decade of 2000, the very function of a biennale: how can an institution as a Biennale be a critical stance in the constant stream of production and consumption of art? Through a series of polarities the curators and artists involved analysed globality and globalization, history and intrigue, present and anticipation, polyphony and actuality. Obrist and Moisdon articulated a complex machine, relying on collaboration, and diffusion of competencies using the device of game to create a space (both to play and to exhibit) where history could multiply through accumulation of information and polyphony of voices.

We gathered here different examples of how to discuss, exhibit, think and produce knowledge on the border of the exhibitionary format; our exhibition-event should take the freedom to disrupt such logic as in the Madrid Trial, should take a de-authorized, open and dispersed approach as in Lyon Biennale, should develop a meta-reflection on how is to produce art in PIIGS countries like in the Bergen symposia and engage in a historiographical reflection with a public aspect as tackled in Sao Paulo Biennale.

Mattia Solari

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