October 29, 2008

Seville Biennial

Just back from Spain where I managed to see the Seville Biennial http://www.fundacionbiacs.com/biacs3/index.php in the Monasterio de la Cartuja de Santa María de las Cuevas. I thought as I entered that it is a brave curator who has “Miraculous Moments” written over the entrance. I have a number of responses to the show: the actual experience of individual works; the fairly clear but fragmented curatorial concept and then the catalogue. Luckily I didn’t read the latter until after I had seen the show. Particular highlights for me were
Tamás Waliczky’s ‘Landscape’ -
http://on1.zkm.de/zkm/stories/storyReader$5790
Rafael lozano-hemmer’s ‘Tercera persona’ http://www.lozano-hemmer.com/eproyecto.html
Austrian Ruth Schnell’s ‘Retinal Scripts’ were a striking effect installed at various locations around the site. At first glance these appeared to be simple lines of small lights but as the website says “hologram-like words that are generated by transmitting high frequency light impulses to light diodes ... Grasping these words requires an agile viewer and an intentionless gaze. Thus, the eye that scans the light horizontally itself becomes the support of the image. This phenomenon effective here is the so-called after-image.” Lights actually writing on your retinal.

Anyway, I walked through part of it then took a wrong turn and ended up in what looked like an architecture MA degree show. But having tracked back and tried again from another direction I realised that this was still part of the Biennial, just not very interesting part. After a while it was much of a muchness; and it surprised me when I got to the end of the circled tour and that was it; maybe it’s me, but with the linear layout of the exhibition, I would have finished it with some set-piece or conclusion.

Giving the curators the benefit of the double, I turned to the catalogue to see if I had missed the subtlety of their conception. The director Peter Weibel writes that the biennale’s artistic risk is to take on the role of technology, science and media in art, architecture and ambience. This premise may well be the problem, since I don’t see that that is that much of a risk. Weibel’s essay then sets out the reasons for taking the risk. These are:
A call for emancipation: epistemé and techné
This argument is that dating back to the Ancient Greeks who mad the distinction between higher forms of knowledge (mathematics, geometry, etc) and lower forms (painting, architecture, music, etc), aesthetic organisation mirrors social (class) organisation. “The emancipation of the artes mechanicae is one of the conditions of the emancipation of the slaves in the name of democracy. To emancipate the slaves means to emancipate their form of knowledge and practice…To abolish class separation it seems necessary also to abolish the separation between the arts…The dissolution of class society implies also a dissolution of the separation of the arts.” I don’t believe that this is the interrelation of the arts to democracy.

A plea for democratization: Technics, Science and Culture
“Still today technology is under suspicion to be the opposite of culture, a manual but mindless practice or competence.” I think that the project to engage with science and technology is timely but Weibel does the possibilities that this throws up a disservice. The evidence that is advance here comes from sources dating from periods between 1925 and 1966, clumsily out-of-date the analysis misses the real excitement that artists should and are engaged in through dialogue with the truly miraculous moments of recent scientific discoveries. Having identified the false dichotomy in types of knowledge in his call for emancipation he reinstalls the split in an analysis that talks of “technology as a humanising tool that can create a new equation between the masses and art”, to the point where he declares that “who is against technics is in fact against culture, but not only this, he is also following an inhuman impulse”. Who exactly is this? “To be against the alliance of technique, science and art means to be against democracy, the masses and human progress”. But who seriously is?
“It is so important that we change this separation and make the so-called passive consumer an active producer by means of interactive art that unites intellectual and manual labour and abolishes the separation of labour and therefore the separation of classes.” This begins a frequently reference but totally illusory notion that interactivity somehow represents free action. “Media activated and experienced by the public, the observer, the viewer, the user is the true democratic and human use of media”. This reminds me of a current TV advertisement that more and more people are joining the revolution…with their use of the Braun electric toothbrush.

You_niverse: Interactive Art and the participatory Universe
This illusion of interaction as free action is carried further in this concept of You_niverse. Taking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – the act of observation at the quantum level changing the state/location of the observed particle – as a model for the universe as fundamentally participatory. Putting aside the Science, which says that the uncertainty principle only applies at quantum level, this is a shoehorning argument to get to an ontology which skips Materialism in favour of the desperate magic canker of participation. As Dave Beech recently wrote in his excellent Arts Monthly article “Include me out!”: … “There is a temptation, within the earnest tradition of participation, to treat it as a solution to the problems endemic to the whole range of established forms of cultural engagement, from the elitism of the aesthete to the passivity of the spectator, and from the compliance of the observer to the distance of the onlooker.” And specifically relevant to the Biennial’s claim that interactivity art is somehow empowering, “the participant typically is not cast as an agent of critique or subversion but rather as one who is invited to accept the parameters of the art project”.
The essay concludes with a key point: “the Biennial’s goal is the participation of the public. There will be a democratisation of art. The audience is the star, not the artists. The emancipation of the masses through technology: art not for the masses, but by the masses.” Speaking as one of the audience, I can say without self-deprecation that I was not a star of the show, and looking at my fellow visitors, sharing the serial ontology of progression, they certainly sparkled no more than me. “The encounter with art at the biennial of Seville will make people euphoric” – it didn’t do that for me either.

The essay by the co-curator Won-il Rhee was even less realistic. I haven’t really got time to critique it fully but a flavour of it can come from the putative questions that the works on display provoke: “Will I throw aside the new and undeniable digital reality when faced with the analog reality?” I couldn’t help remembering the scene from Under Siege 2
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_Siege_2:_Dark_Territory when Steven Seagal has fought his way to the mad scientist who has password locked a computer controlling a deadly satellite. The baddie declares Seagal is too late; the computer can not be stopped, whereupon the hero shots the scientist through the computer. Rhee’s following question: “Should I still cast aspersions on the imagination?” made me laugh out loud. And so did the next: “Should I accelerate your [sic] exploration into the extended time and space, while enjoying a risky tightrope walk on the border between reality and imagination?”

Returning to the reason for linking science and art. I think that there is a much better reason than the old arguments put forward by the curators, and it is the opposite of the privileging of the audience, the opposite of all these notions of the active viewer, the radical reader (from the poetry world); The most important thing about science is not the discoveries but the method. The act of investigation, the attempt to hypothesise, the primacy of rigour. The most important process in art is driven by the same requirement.

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