General Assembly

Domenick Ammirati at the Bergen Assembly 2019

Darcy Lange and Maria Snijders, Aire del Mar. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

THE BERGEN ASSEMBLY marked my first trip to Scandinavia, and as a Henry James fan I hope I may be forgiven if I play a bit of the wide-eyed American abroad, marveling at the tall Nordics with their precise beards and high-tech outerwear. Meanwhile, I had brought no umbrella to literally the rainiest city in Europe and shivered constantly under a dampening white denim jacket. It was also, for me, a rare trip to an international biennial, which (Venice notwithstanding) tends to come in different flavors than our American festival exhibitions—more discursive, more searching, more ragged, more academic. In a word, nerdier, and a welcome contrast to the Fashion Week/season-opening content pulsing off my feeds on the few, unhappy occasions I opened Instagram or Twitter.

This year’s edition of the Assembly, organized by Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler with a team of ten collaborators, takes as its title “Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead.” With that toothy, argumentative “Actually” setting the tone, the show’s attention to the past comes in the form of recovering lost genealogies and processing historical struggles—those of the Sámi people in Norway and neighboring countries, exploited workers in South Korea and Turkey, the Roma, queer and crip communities internationally. With more than a hundred participants, the exhibition explodes any predigested notion of hauntology one might have expected—Derrida and Mark Fisher only make cameos—and rather spins the concept outward in a million shards.

The Assembly opened with a dense schedule of programming: an operatic performance by M. Lamar in the ballroom of an old hotel, with racially charged video backdrops redolent of Kenneth Anger or Bruce LaBruce; a workshop conducted by the Feminist Health Care Research Group; and gigs by the Chicago Boys, a musical ensemble–cum–study group organized by Hiwa K that performs and discusses songs from the 1970s—a decade of consequence, per the artist, not for giving us Steely Dan but rather for its crucial role in the consolidation of neoliberalism. Some of the weekend’s talks involved the explication of the chewier research-based artworks on view. Nina Støttrup Larsen, for example, presented Mercurial Relations, 2016–19, which elaborates how the pegging of the CFA franc, the currency used in fourteen former French colonies in Africa, to the franc and, later, the euro has resulted in its manipulation by French neocolonialist interests.

A significant chunk of the exhibition is dedicated to that most Nordic of art forms: flamenco. Inside Bergen’s Renaissance Revival KODE 1 museum—one floor up from an Edvard Munch retrospective—María García and Pedro G. Romero have curated an impressive historical exhibition within the exhibition that includes Goya etchings; nineteenth-century pornographic watercolors by a duo known as SEM/EN; satirical 1920s sketches by Los Putrefactos, whose number included the young Buñuel, Dalí, and Lorca; and 1960s Situationist collages using pinups to mouth invectives against Franco. Perhaps the single best work in the exhibition was a live restaging of Aire del Mar_, _1988–94, by the late New Zealand video artist and photographer Darcy Lange, who was also a serious student of flamenco and an accomplished guitarist. True to the artist’s diverse concerns, the work takes up, on one hand, the effects of French nuclear testing on the indigenous inhabitants of Polynesia, and, on the other, flamenco as a complex symbol of Spanish and Roma cultural heritage and a vehicle of protest.

On the Assembly’s opening night, a crowd crammed into a side gallery in KODE 1 for what Lange called a “multimedia opera.” A flamenco trio performed in front of projections of mushroom clouds, toy bulls in Iberian landscapes, stock-photo flamingos, and fridge-magnet letters spelling out words and phrases such as AOTEAROA, ESPAÑA, and LOVE MOTHER EARTH—the bluntness of their messaging complicated by their juxtaposition with the kitschy imagery. Lange’s work draws out the tension between the urgent need for earnestness and the inevitable ironizing of living in a mass-mediated age—the balance residing somewhere in how the flesh-and-blood performers cradled these dual possibilities inside their very bodies as they practiced an old art, knowingly but unironically shredding their way through songs of mourning and joy.

Ines Doujak, Sing Along!, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

A New Yorker, of course, can only take so much exhilaration. The foot-stomping flamenco made me worry for both the museum’s marble floors and the Munchs hanging downstairs. Yes, I socialized and caught up with old friends, spent time with video works by Imogen Stidworthy and Jan Peter Hammer, groused about the weather, and was informed by curator and theory juggernaut Paul B. Preciado of a Norwegian aphorism, “There is no bad weather, only bad equipment.” Over the next couple days, I spent more time alone. I became convinced that my laptop was administering subtle electrical shocks from faulty voltage conversion and developed oral sores from lack of sleep. I even tried to go to church, albeit the thousand-year-old one outside Bergen torched by that black-metal Satanist in the 1990s. When I arrived, I was turned away: Allegedly, a wedding was taking place, but for all I know that’s what they tell tourists when they’re conducting a Norwegian Midsommar.

The following night served up the opening weekend’s apex: a Parliament of Bodies, organized by Preciado and curator Viktor Neumann. The roving intellectual carnival, which began in 2017 at documenta 14, periodically convenes to conduct a rich variety of talks, screenings, and performances. I could never state the Parliament’s purpose as well as Preciado and Neumann do: “The PoB calls disenfranchised bodies and subaltern organs to gather in joyful assemblies commending somatic dissidence, transfeminist critique, the celebration of the vulnerable body, and affective belongings beyond identity politics.” The Parliament’s mode is not pedagogic but ecstatic, no matter how serious the subject. One of its most powerful tools is exhaustion: This edition was slated to run from 5 PM to 2 AM, but, as Preciado gleefully pointed out in his preamble, “the Parliament is always running late.”

Despite the buckets of coffee brewed for the occasion—and I counted some sixteen pounds of dark roast being brought in when we started—the evening was destined to get sloppy as it went on. The large contingent of students from the local university didn’t help matters: We weren’t exactly sober in aggregate, but they were drunk. Then, sometime after midnight, something unnerving occurred. The performer Daniel Mariblanca and another dancer were setting up, laying out plastic sheeting and hefting huge pails of crimson paint. They were naked, wearing only bondage masks, one outfitted with a large dildo and the other with a head of broccoli. Before they could begin, a reedy, glassy-eyed young white man began shouting at Mariblanca from back in the crowd. I couldn’t tell what language he was speaking. Mariblanca began shouting back, equally unintelligible from behind the mask. Initially, a lot of us thought it was part of the performance. As the man began approaching the stage, we realized it wasn’t. A skillful intervention by a couple of artists in the Assembly and a security guard got him muted and peacefully conducted outside; whether he was a raging transphobe, a confused guy on acid, or both, remained unclear.

The night moved on, its tides washing over the disruption. Mariblanca’s splattering, comic performance, which was by design cathartic, took on an extra intensity. But the tense moment preceding it underscored that, for all the Parliament’s ability to manifest joy out of rigorous intellection, the concerns at its core are far from academic.

71BODIES, In First Person Research. Work-in-process presentation, 2019. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

*Eva Egermann’s performance “An Outcast Night.” Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Jeremy Wade’s performance Technologies of Impossible Repair, 2019. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Eva Egermann’s performance “An Outcast Night.” Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Ines Doujak, Sing Along!, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Chicago Boys performance, initiated by Hiwa K, in collaboration with Alwynne Pritchard and Vegard Bolstad. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Andrea Angelidakis, LOGOS, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Series of posters by Capital Drawing Group, 2011—, with Alexander Kluge, Gespräch mit Otto Schily (Conversation with Otto Schily), 1978. Thor Brødreskift.

Magdalena Freudenschuss and Peter Steudtner
, re:assembling solidarity, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Visitor at John Barker and Ines Doujak’s Economies of Desperation, 2018. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Bergen Assembly Opening Days at Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Julie Andersland (City of Bergen, Commissioner for climate, cultural affairs and business development): Welcome. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Daniel G. Andújar, Battle Cry, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

“Bergen Kjøtt.” Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Banu Cennetoğlu, 
07.06.2019, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.