Curricula Vitae

Kate Sutton at the Creative Time Summit in Venice

Left: Political philosopher Antonio Negri. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton) Right: Creative Time president Anne Pasternak and Okwui Enwezor. (Photo: Isabella Balena)

IN 1974, the Venice Biennale was effectively canceled in a unilateral statement protesting the US-backed coup that put Chilean general Augusto Pinochet in power. That year, there were no themed exhibitions and no national pavilions. Instead, the Giardini served as a site for theater performances, mural paintings, and public conversations. “Can you imagine such a massive act of political solidarity and refusal happening in any biennale today?” artist Emily Jacir wondered onstage last Tuesday at the Arsenale’s Teatro alle Tese, home to one of two Creative Time Summits this year. (A second is slated for Bed-Stuy, New York, in November.)

Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of this year’s biennial, name-checked the 1974 edition as the inspiration for his lineup of live events—Summit included—but it turns out the curator didn’t need special programming to keep the Giardini lively. In mid-July, German-pavilion artists draped a Greek flag branded GERMONEY over their exhibition’s entrance. Around the same time, Izolyatsia, Donetsk’s art center in exile, was busy passing out camouflage windbreakers that read #ONVACATION—a reference to official explanations for the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil—and urging attendees to take selfies in the jackets at the pavilions of “occupying powers of their choice.” (“We wanted to be open enough to accommodate any number of axes to grind,” project representative Mykhailo Glubokyi only half-joked.) Just last week, G.U.L.F.—Global Ultra Luxury Faction, aka those people who keep dropping flyers into the Guggenheim’s rotunda—launched an hour-long occupation of the Israeli pavilion, after the group’s members tagged the Gulf Labor Coalition banner in the Arsenale with a stencil of Handala, the cartoon face of Palestinian struggle.

Left: Activist Joshua Wong with curator Defne Ayas. Right: Writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

While these were certainly all causes worth campaigning for, the hijinksesque character of these actions seemed less Giardini and more Camp Anawanna. The sleepaway vibes were particularly strong last Monday night, when Creative Time curator Nato Thompson took to the makeshift stage at the Serra dei Giardini to welcoming this year’s summiteers: “Hey y’all, there’s bug spray!”

The Creative Time Summit convenes “artists, activists, curators, scholars, and policymakers from all around the globe,” though this year, generous funding from Toronto’s Power Plant meant “globe” was mostly code for “Canada.” At Enwezor’s behest, the theme—“The Curriculum”—challenged speakers to reflect on the mechanisms behind how we come to know what we think we know. (That is, except for political philosopher Antonio Negri, who didn’t get the memo and spent the first half of his keynote discussing how to compose a résumé.) Fellow keynote speaker Achille Mbembe was a no-show—“I called that one,” an experienced conference organizer shrugged—but the program was still packed with powerful presentations from president of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani; Joshua Wong, the face of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement; writers Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Teju Cole; and a host of artists, including Jacir, Jolene Rickard, Marwa Arsanios, Charles Gaines, and Naeem Mohaiemen. The real kicker for most attendees (or at least their parents) was the opening speech by Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, the grassroots independent news program that broadcast live from the Arsenale all week.

The funny thing about meeting one’s heroes is that sometimes you end up seeing their makeup tables. Goodman may operate the kind of visibility machine exhibitions dream of becoming, but she maintained a staunchly outsider perspective on the Biennale and art’s ability to act politically. If the pronunciation of Enwezor’s name was something of a shibboleth among presenters (amplified by whether or not that pronunciation was preceded by “African curator”), then it was telling to watch Goodman struggle not only with the word “Biennale” but also with the concept behind it. In her interviews with summiteers, she requested fifteen-second answers to the kinds of questions that have spawned (and sunk) entire MFA programs. “So many conflicts in the world today and here we are in Venice at an art exhibition. How did that happen?” she asked one artist. With another, she was more direct: “Why would the president of Afghanistan talk about art?”

Left: Artist Simone Leigh. (Photo: Isabella Balena) Right: Artist Jeremy Deller, Creative Time's Nato Thompson, Meredith Johnson, and artist Charles Gaines. (Photo: Creative Time)

“The making of art is bound to the making of meaning,” Enwezor argued in his introduction Tuesday morning. “The world is hungry for meaning. Regardless of where in the world one lives, every waking hour is saturated with terrible news from a far off elsewhere.” The curator went on to describe the “interminable insomnia of rulers” and the “vigil” kept by protesters, inducing a drowsying state of alert wherein “language becomes guttural, tongues turn to stone, while in the burgeoning art system contemporary art turns cold in a repose of formalist rigor mortis.”

“Art and artists cannot be dispossessed of the power to speak about the present moment, of the capacity to reflect social conditions under which art itself is made, traded, and positioned. I’m not an evangelist for art, but nevertheless I think it’s important that—” and here Enwezor was interrupted by the Summit’s sound artist, Francesco Bol Gibaldi, whose arsenal of homemade instruments were a reminder that even the mighty must eventually yield to the time limits demanded by the LiveStream.

Goodman’s keynote began with the launch of Pacifica Radio and built a case for the urgency of independent media. “Media could be the greatest force for peace on earth, and instead it’s wielded as a weapon,” she lamented. “Those who care are not a fringe minority, or even a silent majority, but a silenced majority, silenced by the corporations that control media.” Before ceding the stage, she relayed her experience of the Indonesian pavilion next door, where Heri Dono’s tank-like Trokomod—half Trojan horse, half Komodo dragon—had triggered memories of a fateful visit to occupied East Timor, where Goodman witnessed a massacre at a cemetery during a memorial for slain activist Sebastião Gomes. As Goodman set the scene, poignantly describing how individual mourners met the Indonesian army’s firing lines, the room was absolutely rapt, perfectly still but for the one Creative Time staffer just offstage who was busy gesticulating at poor Gibaldi to cut Goodman off. The sound artist looked pained, passing over his squeaky pig and bicycle trumpet until he eventually found a suitably woeful sounding flute, fashioned from a crutch. He blew. LiveStream: 2; Human Dignity: 0.

Left: Artist Deanna Bowen. Right: ruangrupa's farid rakun, Platohedro's Lina Mejía Álvarez, and Raw Material's Koyo Kouoh.

After a brief break, Rhodes-Pitts introduced a series on “The Curriculum’s Contents” with a citation from Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved”—which quotes the internal classification system of the Rodney King–era LAPD—before decrying media’s general resistance toward reevaluating knowledge it holds to be true, which, the speaker posited, is why headlines scream of a “migrant crisis” and not a “rape, pillage, and plunder crisis.” Circling back to Wynter, Rhodes-Pitts concluded that any crisis is “inevitable fallout from the massive robbing of resources and people from certain parts of the planet because they were not considered ‘human.’ And now, so many years later, people are following the paths of those resources.”

After lunch, President Ghani dialed in via Skype to speak with his daughter, artist Marjam Ghani, about the opposite experience, in which exiles return to Afghanistan to find they must reconcile the vastly different lived experiences among generations. The tone was polite and professional, with President Ghani thanking his daughter for each question. Moments of intimacy did sneak through, however, such as when the artist was asked to have the former anthropology professor tone down his hand gestures. “Remember at Hopkins when they used to call you Professor—” and she busted out some hand-vogueing. When the artist’s own arms starting fluttering later, her father chided: “You seem to have inherited my moves!”

Ghani wasn’t the only world leader on the stage that day; that afternoon, eighteen-year-old Wong—currently facing trial as an instigator of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (umbrellas offering peaceful but practical protection from police pepper spray)—ticked off the list of protest movements, hunger strikes, and social activism groups he has founded, starting with “when I was fourteen” up until “when I was eighteen,” a list that ended with “maybe I will also go to jail.” Wong seemed shockingly nonchalant about this possibility, clicking calmly to a statement that read: Remind the ruling class: Today you are depriving us of our future, but the day will come when we decide your future. No matter what happens to the protest movement, we will reclaim the democracy that belongs to us, because time is on our side. “We cannot win this battle,” Wong reasoned. “But we can win this war.”

Left: Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani and artist Mariam Ghani. Right: Artists Hakan Topal, Emily Jacir, and Naeem Mohaiemen.

As part of the student uprisings of 1968, Michelangelo Pistoletto proposed turning the Giardini into a dormitory where artists would sleep all day and work all night so that each morning the city would wake up to fresh art. The Visible Awards revived this idea with “The Night Art Made the Future Visible,” a program of performances and screenings on Tuesday evening. Crowd favorite Marinella Senatore kicked things off with The School of Narrative Dance, a parade that recruited visitors and locals alike as it shimmied down Garibaldi Street. Buoyant young things in ponytails and retro-chic dresses sewn by the inmates of the Giudecca women’s prison bounced amid Ukrainian folksingers, readings of banned children’s books, Industrial Revolution–era ballads, and aerial dancers, all powered by the catchy rhythms (and Rage Against the Machine covers) of the Funkasin Street Band. Everything collided at the Serra dei Giardini, where, after participants had had a chance to spritz up—both Aperol and bug spray—the Visible Awards unveiled their shortlist for 2015, which included the collective Abounaddara, Conflict Kitchen, and Adelita Husni-Bey. The night rounded off with performances by Nástio Mosquito and Ahmet Ögüt with his band Fino Blendax, though a truly hard-core contingent managed to track down Funkasin. (To be honest, they hadn’t made it very far.)

The next day featured presentations by #YoSoy132 spokesman Sandino Bucio Dovali, Teju Cole, and Gulf Labor’s Greg Sholette, but the real intensity came in the final panel, “Knowledge as Collective Experience.” Moderated by Eduardo Maura—cultural coordinator for the Spanish leftist insurgent political party Podemos—it brought together ruangrupa’s farid rakun, hacker and Nordic Larp enthusiast Eleanor Saitta, artist Simone Leigh, and Mujeres Creando’s Maria Gallindo, who arrived in a cage holding up a sign reading WE DO NOT WANT RIGHTS WITHIN THE NEOLIBERAL HELL. WE WANT ALL PARADISE. If Leigh dropped some bombs—“I am an artist, not a nurse, but I do believe that one of the main killers of black women is obedience”—Galindo did not bother with politesse. “We are not a group of social activists! We are not a women’s group! We are not a group of artists! We are a social movement!” she bellowed, dragging her cage with her across the stage. “We are not making art. We are not making political art. We are making politics, just politics!”

When it came time for a question, Maura—think Paul from The Wonder Years—tepidly wondered if a “radical outside” wasn’t, by necessity, built from within. “I am very tired to hear again and again and again that you have to get into the state to change things. We don’t want to be customers!” Gallindo yelped. “We are a movement of rebellion. Rebellion means to go outside all you are commanded to be.” Gallindo paused, giving Maura a once-over. “Maybe because you are a man, you cannot understand this, but as women, we really need to begin from the beginning.”

Left: Artist Jolene Rickard with activist Mina Setra. Right: Mujeres Creando's Maria Galindo.

Left: Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman with artist David Birkin. Right: Gugulective's Athi Mongezeleli Joja.

Left: Kadist's Sandra Terdjman with artist Ahmet Ögüt and curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy. Right: Curator Eungie Joo and architect Kunlé Adeyemi.