PRINT September 2001

Daniel Soutif

THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY, WHICH SPANS MORE THAN a hundred years, the Venice Biennale has been saddled with many titles, from the pretentious to the banal to the simply cumbersome. Now, in its forty-ninth edition, it can lay claim to the most confusing to date: “Plateau of Humankind.” From the original Italian version—Platea dell'umanità—the title was weirdly translated into both English and German with the French word “plateau” (“Plateau of Humankind,” “Plateau der Menschheit”), as though there were no equivalent for it in the languages of Shakespeare and Goethe.

To listen to Harald Szeemann, the word refers to “a raised level, basis and foundation, it means a stage: a large space which people look at and from, it is subject and object at once, a place of passive action and active passion.” Beyond the fact that in French “plateau” designates above all a flat tray used to carry cups and plates and metaphorically denotes a certain geographical configuration, whlle the Italian “plateau” (platea) signifies the orchestra seats in a theater, Szeemann's lexicological commentary misses one of the most frequent usages of this term in French today: the one contained in the expression “plateau de télévision”—the set where a TV show is shot.

The omission is somewhat surprising on the part of the curator of a Biennale stuffed with video images to the point of indigestion: football players in business suits (Ingeborg Lüscher); a suicidal young girl who goes from reading to hanging herself (Ene-Liis Semper); an indigent reclining on a pew and struggling—unsuccessfully—against sleep (Anri Sala); an executive trying incessantly (and again unsuccessfully) to organize his desk (John Pilson); circus games involving an army of lame men trying to escape a wall of fire (Magnus Wallin); an absurd exercise in coordination—standing up in a pool while wearing inflated spheres attached to each limb—for a TV game show (Lars Siltberg); a guy playing with a lasso in his living room (Salla Tykkä); a parade of young people who seem to be participating in a casting call for the next Big Brother (João Onofre), etc., etc. As if art no longer has any destiny other than mimicking a terrifying global television network that would do away with language and reduce images to their lowest common denominator, video has taken on the appearance of not a humanitarian wave but a totalitarian one breaking in the lagoon. Projected on a screen in the uncomfortable black boxes that seem to have momentarily replaced the white cube, floods of pixels of every quality have made visiting the Corderie for the most part a trying procession, and even the reward at the end of the struggle, the perfectly contradictory presence of large sculptures by Richard Serra, cannot compensate for it.

More than a space, the television plateau—the reality of the Szeemannian plateau of humankind—is a time, as clearly captured in that specifically televisual phrase “prime time.” Like TV, what video wants from you (at least in its standard form, unfortunately omnipresent in Venice) is, in effect, a bit of your time. But unlike television, which nails you to your seat, video must inscribe itself onto your perambulations. To do so, it loops a fragment of the length of time it hopes to take the viewer in and serves it up as if this loop were sufficient to miraculously transform frozen time into space. Instead of the freedom of the gaze and the movement of the body before the work, video entails an authoritarian program that intends to fix both in a totally passive position. The smartest users of the medium try to avoid this pitfall by attempting an impossible video-painting, either by minimizing the loop-Gary Hill smashing himself against a wall every two seconds in a sort of post-Pollock sonorous splash; Urs Lüthi jogging endlessly on a treadmill—or by stretching it out, as Bill Viola attempts in a work miming the Italian mannerism of the cinquecento that is as boring as it is pretentious.

If there is a good use of video, it is to be sought from those artists who integrate the medium into a more complex way of thinking, both on the formal level and in relation to narrativity. Pierre Huyghe and Janet Cardiff (teamed with George Bures Miller), taking very different paths, certainly constitute the best examples. In Huyghe's large French pavilion installation, the video image is inscribed in a spatial and conceptual arrangement that restores the viewer's freedom of gaze and thought while simultaneously pointing out the almost unsettling presence of the computer controlling the entire setup. In Cardiff and Miller's Canadian pavilion contribution, the meticulous (almost overly so) consideration of the conditions of cinematic narrative restores a true fictional power to the screen and gives the viewer his or her share: that of the imaginary.

In the “plateau” served by Szeemann, cases like this stand out thanks to their scarcity, so much so that in the Corderie, marching from black box to black box, jumping from program to program even more impatiently than one does in front of a TV set, overcome by boredom and fatigue, one had the feeling of bearing witness to the sinister apotheosis of the remote control. Duchamp said that it is the viewers who make the paintings. What the first Biennale of the milennium may have taught us is that by refusing the abduction of their time and according but a few seconds of attention to the little pensums that would have claimed ten times more, the same viewers who make paintings unmake videos. . .

Daniel Soutif, a Paris-based critic and curator, is co-organizing “Continued Arte in Toscana 1945–2000,” a Tuscany-wide show of postwar and contemporary art opening in January 2002

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.