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PRINT February 2006

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Globalism and the Venice Biennale

FOR FOUR DAYS in December 2005, art-world luminaries, city officials, and academics gathered in Venice at the stunning Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, just off the Ponte dell’Accademia on the Grand Canal. Mission: to debate the future of large-scale international exhibitions in general (and, by implication, the Venice Biennale in particular). Art historian and critic Robert Storr, next curator of what Italians call, simply, la Biennale, had been charged by the institution’s leadership to organize the event, which he attempted to democratize by opening each session to discussion with the audience. But with a tight registration policy, eagle-eyed badge checkers, row after row of riservato seats, streaming media broadcast behind the panelists (input, creepily, from Palazzo surveillance cameras), and microphones handed preferentially to those in the riservato section, the event was never going to be as Storr might have hoped. Indeed, it served as an inherently nondemocratic emblem of biennials themselves. Based on some kind of selection process, and consisting of delicate loans, artist contracts, deals with gallerists, and last-minute curatorial coups, the global exhibition relies on stealth, tact, and a heavily vascularized art world. The symposium could only mimic the pseudo-egalitarianism that is the art world’s favorite scam, masking the much larger geopolitical structures that are actually at play, which routinely demonstrate (pace Clausewitz) that biennials are global politics by other means.

“Where Art Worlds Meet: Multiple Modernities and the Global Salon” felt crowded with some four hundred attendees (of whom about thirty were speakers): Biennale officials in dark suits, artists in black jeans, curators in funky furs, historians and critics in scarves or tieless button-downs (apart from one notable exception in Prada taffeta). Did we accomplish anything? Certainly the topics covered (among them “Culture as Event,” the role of criticism; how local conditions “Prompt and Shape the Spread of the Global Salon”; and not insignificantly, “What’s In It for Artists . . .”) have never been more pressing. Naturally, it was curators and critics who were most in touch with current anxieties. The underlying question was unstated, but everywhere: Has the Venice Biennale (the “mother of all biennials” according to symposium literature) become obsolete?

The first day’s “Official Welcome” crackled with tension, as various more or less articulate, passionate, and pin-striped officials either defended the Biennale or—more surprisingly—articulated their dissatisfaction with “business as usual” (a business in which the same visitors were counted three times to get an attendance stat of 900,000: once at the Arsenale and Giardini [265,000], once again at off-site pavilions [370,000], and another time at “collateral” events [280,000]). The Biennale audience is dwindling, defeating its purpose since the massive international exhibition was invented in 1895 to produce a secure and returning public for the Lido-based tourist industry. The real pressure on the Biennale, of course, is not the weight of this 111-year history (which counts as one of its few remaining advantages). Rather, it is the slew of startlingly vital bantamweight challenger exhibitions that is rocking the gondola—such as the sprightly Istanbul Biennial, or the openly alternative Manifesta Foundation that intentionally decoupled itself from nation-states and is now promising to abandon even the exhibition form to become an experimental art school.

Storr is exquisitely aware of such pressures, as evidenced by panels designed to reveal to the Venetian power brokers a broader postcolonial scene and brave new worlds beyond the borders of “old Europe.” Discussions included younger movers and shakers such as curators Carlos Basualdo (Documenta 11) and Vasif Kortun (9th International Istanbul Biennial), artist Steve McQueen, as well as New Delhi–based curator Geeta Kapur and former Havana organizer Gerardo Mosquera. But all of this brilliance offered few solutions to the Biennale’s malaise. Notably, although more than one participant had come directly from Art Basel Miami Beach to bring feverish speculations that the market had supplanted discerning galleries and dealers (to say nothing of biennials themselves), no one had the nerve to confront this central anxiety (a fear named “Miami”): the art world’s phobia of being swallowed by a ravenous system of global capital.

The one exception was a man no one seemed prepared to listen to—the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. Familiar to Italians but obscure to most foreigners, this multiple-term public official, in the best tradition of the Biennale’s founding mayor-poet, Riccardo Selvatico, is not only a committed Leftist and former student of Manfredo Tafuri, but also a philosopher of urbanism and the author of an acclaimed book of theory, Architecture and Nihilism (trans. Yale University Press, 1993). Cacciari made an unlikely prophet, with a suit tailored for meetings and a beard born for anarchy. It was all the more impressive, then, when this mysterious functionary took the podium on the first day to fulminate against Hegel, asserting that art is not “a leisure activity that allows us to forget the grim activity of thinking” but is “thought itself—the way that Truth concretely manifests itself in images.” If the T-word caused many in the audience to press the mute button on their simultaneous-translation headsets, we should all have tuned in to his next point. More openly than any subsequent speaker, Cacciari named our naked fear of the market and located the current malaise of the Venice Biennale deep within it. “We must avoid becoming too abstract,” he cautioned. “We must be within things, we must live within the logic of the market. The Biennale comes from this—and if the Biennale can understand this, it will remain unique.”

Cacciari’s framing makes historical sense. (As well as reminds us of what we like to forget: that there is a Newtonian physics between an artist’s inclusion in a major biennial and the corresponding market uptick, or between an incipient market and its legitimizing biennial. Would there be competing Chinese biennials without the superheated market for exportable Chinese art?) The inspired Venetians who founded the Biennale saw a way to mimic the money machine of a world’s fair, but to do it on a smaller scale, repeatable every two years with the portable, perpetually renewable objects of contemporary art. In addition to jazzing up the city of the doges, the Biennale was meant to reinvent the global leadership Venice had enjoyed during the Renaissance. When the Biennale was founded, Venice offered itself to the king and queen of a new nation (“Italy”) as a portal to the world, arranging that world to reflect similar units of European national identity among which Italy could optimistically position itself as primus inter pares. Although the national pavilions per se began only in 1907, the concept was implied from the earliest organizational moment, and it’s still a winning formula. Elevate the cosmopolitan tourist destination above the undistinguished mass of a backward nation, while turning the coin over to offer that nation an apparently international cultural role.

How Cacciari’s “logic of the market” might function today is still to be imagined. Storr’s title for the symposium revealed his own inclination toward a “Global Salon,” and he insisted that he wanted the generative moment of Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, not the hopeless pompiers furnishing state buildings in the late nineteenth century. But the French salon of the eighteenth century is not the best analogy for the Venice Biennale, because Venice had neither a national academy nor a centralized national patronage system like the Parisian apparatus. No, the signature achievement of the Biennale came when it fused world’s fair–style national pavilions with the dynamism of an expanding art market (commissions on sales from works of art were a standard part of the Biennale’s funding until student protests in ’68 closed off that option, contributing to the event’s subsequently starved budgets). That first poet-mayor’s stroke of genius ensured Europe’s continuing competitive interests in Venetian real estate (both figuratively and literally). But those interests have almost comically waned, with recent embarrassments such as the US government’s “abandonment” of its pavilion under the Bush administration. Why?

Cacciari was right that amnesia about the Biennale’s commercial roots is part of the reason for its inertia. Could “recovered memory” alone do anything to restore the Biennale’s once-urgent purpose? The scholars, theorists, artists, and critics on Storr’s roster were positioned within this “crisis” to represent varying constituencies and many of the panelists were genuinely brilliant, stimulated by Storr’s prompting to stage useful alternatives to the old debates. On the afternoon of the conference’s first day, Hong Kong University cultural theorist Ackbar Abbas succeeded in deploying Western philosophical theories of the “event” to open conceptual space for cultural action in contemporary China. Poised between the burdens of post-Tiananmen history (with its failed model of public action) and the equally distorting pressures of socialist capitalism (with its bullying pragmatism and demand for results), Abbas’s “event” was structurally constituted to hold off past and future expectations in favor of unpredictably “constructive rather than subversive” culture. Could Venice access such utopian possibilities? Or have the seductively productive aspects of globalization passed the city by, mired as it is in tchotchkes and heritage properties emptied of actual Venetians with actual lives? As audience member Rafal Niemojewski put it, the new, reflexively urbanistic biennials such as Istanbul may offer a better example for Venice’s restructuring than, for instance, a new pavilion for China in the Giardini.

We will have to wait for Storr’s response to these possibilities—but he was clearly eager for Biennale officials to hear them as the symposium surged on. Artists too were put onstage (at the exhausted end of day three) to air their complaints: too few preparators, not enough curatorial time, no one to talk to, no parties. . . . One began to feel sorry for the Biennale staff—particularly when an Italian former curator began moaning about the inflexibility of the national pavilions, crying “Statuti! The laws forbid us to change the pavilions . . . the only one we own is la Francia!” to which Mosquera offered this riposte: “You should give France’s pavilion to Palestine!” This got a good laugh, since the French had been trading on their imperial bona fides for days, insisting on speaking their native tongue and forcing Italian translators to scramble. Particularly arrogant was that state institution on legs, Daniel Buren, who acted as if his Parisian patois were a revolutionary act (presenting the opportunity for another laugh, as Abbas asked if he could go ahead and speak Mandarin).

The motley accumulation of these polemics contributed to a symposium that had history but little memory. When all the third- and second-world curators of biennials (Mosquera for Havana, Kortun for Istanbul, Paulo Herkenhoff for São Paolo) were mapping the virtues that are now taken to be exemplary—such as specific interrogations of urban sites, penetrating relations with history, and strong interactions with local educational systems—no one got up to defend the recent exempla in Venice itself. I’m thinking here of Fred Wilson’s unjustly abjured 2003 US pavilion and Antoni Muntadas’s 2005 Spanish one. Wilson was more or less pilloried for his investigation of Moorish Venetians (surely in part a backlash against anything American in the wake of Bush’s war), and Muntadas’s incredibly thorough political history of the Giardini (the permanent site of Venice’s national pavilions) went largely unremarked, apparently too cerebral to garner much critical attention outside the Spanish (and German) press.

Yet these kinds of artist interventions may offer some of the best means for Venice to get out of its perceived slough—turning Biennale visitors back toward Venice itself, with its complex model of bounded cosmopolitanism (don’t forget the ghetto started here). Not that tourists can save the shrinking city (not sinking, shrinking)—but then not all visitors to the Biennale are tourists. What’s needed to “save Venice” is a reciprocal cultural gaze in which the city is not merely a museal backdrop for the contemporary art world but part of our ongoing conversation. In this model, the “global salon” is not an echo of the academy but a resurrection of those Enlightenment living rooms (brilliant women hosting Goethe or parrying with Julien Offray de la Mettrie) where radical freedoms could be imagined. Not platforms for pronouncements, but spaces of possibility for newly invented selves.

Caroline A. Jones is associate professor of the history of art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.