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A swansong. Death in Venice, reenacted

Barbara Basting, 07.07.2017

Dear Paolo Baratta, President of the Venice Biennale,

 

I have rarely left the Biennale so dissatisfied and tired as this year. No, it wasn’t the endless kilometers I had to cover in order to see the Giardini, Arsenale, Corderie. It was the art I was presented with along them.
“Viva arte viva”—the catchphrase of the main exhibition of this year’s Biennale should have already aroused my suspicions. Not that anyone pays much attention to such phrases; those of the last few shows turned out to be pretty hollow. But after this year’s visit it’s entirely clear that the clunky silliness of “Viva arte viva” hides a collapse, conceals the implosion of the idea of a somehow meaningful overview of contemporary art. A swansong. Death in Venice, reenacted.
It can’t be said, though, that none of the exhibited works are capable of speaking to us any longer or have anything more to say. It’s just that the main show is absolutely incapable of fulfilling the original idea of painting some kind of coherent picture of contemporary art, with the whole greater than the sum of its parts, as a supplement to the necessarily chaotic variety of the national pavilions. No one perhaps better anticipated this collapse than Harald Szeemann with his last Biennale, in 2001, for which he chose the main idea (or was it a crackpot idea?) of “Plateau de l’humanité” (translated either by “humankind” or “humanity”). The exhibition architecture symbolized this human plateau with a sloping floor, of all things, in the main pavilion. Now was this visionary or ironic? And what hasn’t been slipping and sliding since then!
But the collapse, the implosion of the Biennale before our very eyes doesn’t only have to do with this year’s particularly bad main show; it’s also a result of its expansion and explosion primarily in the past two decades—more exactly, of an overextension of its surface area and a soar in the number of visitors due to international interest. You can, as president, chalk this all up as a success. At any rate as the kind of success loved by number-fixated politicians and most sponsors, upon which the Biennale depends. It’s not only this success that has made you into an esteemed cultural impresario; you have accomplished a great deal, saving the Biennale from being completely junked in the Berlusconi years, for example. But your success comes at a price. It consists of all manner of compromise—with the galleries, for example, without which the Biennale couldn’t be financed, or at least not as it is at the moment.
And now this success disguises the fact that the barge-like Art Biennale urgently needs a makeover. It also prevents it from shaking off its shackles. Hasn’t the time come, for example, to take leave at last of a substantial part of the Biennale legacy, the unfortunate and increasingly impossible bracketing together of nations, achievements, and trends? How about an upfront admission that the epoch of hastily cobbled-together art narratives like “Viva arte viva” is coming to an end, because even the most mediocre art works don’t deserve them?  
Wouldn’t it also be in order to address real questions to art once again, not just to burden them with rhetorically polished slogans? Questions that may well hurt, because what’s going on in the world rather brutally devalues an art that primarily serves to distract and assuage. Questions about the current varieties of censorship and the monopolization of art. Or about the condition of the art world’s foundations, which were laid in the early modern era and likewise appear to be in need of a complete overhaul. Rem Koolhaas’s Architecture Biennale in 2014, which opened up a new horizon under its title of Fundamentals, was an exemplary step in this direction.
The Venice Biennale should once again become more than just the scantily disguised visage of the economic power relations of the art world. Isn’t it time to open its doors more spiritedly to new participants, from Africa, for instance? And why not have a go at swapping around the national pavilions in a big way? Why not, for example, encourage the countries formerly involved in colonialism and the slave trade to make their pavilions available (naturally with the necessary exhibition budget) to countries from whose exploitation they once profited, and often still do?
Of course this overloaded barge of the Biennale is no streamlined super-collector yacht like the ones anchored off the Giardini for the preview (am I mistaken in thinking that we have seen more impressive models in previous years?). It’s as difficult to steer as are those gigantic cruise ships towed almost daily through the Giudecca Canal, contributing similarly to the Biennale, with the masses of tourists they bring, to both the preservation and destruction of Venice. But one can’t and shouldn’t change tack abruptly in the face of such dangers. Still, I’d like to be really challenged again by the Biennale. I wish it the courage to make its thematic focuses trenchant, oblique, inquisitive, experimental, and anyway to go more for quality than quantity.
I don’t delude myself, as the Biennale is also just part of a wider picture. How often, for example, have people observed that it suffers from cementing a past world order and cultural hierarchy with its pavilions. This is unchanged by the fact that under your presidency new pavilions and countries have regularly been added. For it is becoming increasingly clear that this Biennalesque world order, along with the patterns of categorization and interpretation derived from it, is as obsolete as its associated catalogue of artistic evaluation criteria—that now stuttering sorting machine. For a long time it was said that art was supposed to unsettle us in our conventional everyday certainties. Today we are less unsettled by art, which has become quite predictable, than by much that is otherwise happening in the world. Not least for this reason does the cry of “Viva arte viva,” with its attendant exhibition, seem so naive and trivial that it is deeply disturbing.
Of course there’s always the possibility that you intend the whole thing to be secretly subversive. In this case I apologize for the misunderstanding.

 

Yours sincerely,
Barbara Basting

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Rudolf Steiner, Pleasant Valley

Fatal Conjunctions

Everything is connected to everything else, says Lenin, as do the finance gurus, and the more it breaks down, the better it works, says Deleuze, as do the winners of the ­“crisis.” It’s many strokes that make up the big picture, and nets are made up of knots. It’s equations that found exclusions and force us into regimes: it’s small words that make the difference. The form and direction of movement is articulated at the joints; the shared, the collective, any talk of “we,” is upheld or torn apart by bands and bonds.
 
Communism as the “free association of free individuals”? Now, when ­dividuals— a mobile army of codes, images, data, relations, technologically ­collected, ideologically filtered, transferred, and made legible—appear to states and corporations to be identifiable and controllable? The ­individuals are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are, as Nietzsche would say.
 
Fatal conjunctions: loose attempts. ­Associating in and with gaps. Making small incisions into the big ­picture. Following the vanishing lines over the border. “Believing in the world.” From the double bind to the missing links. An incon­spicuous gliding and diverging, nomadic consciousnesses, in the plural, and if in doubt, out of line. But what can be linked to this?

A swansong. Death in Venice, reenacted
By Barbara Basting

07.07.2017

A Questionnaire: Tom Kummer

Tom Kummer, 29.06.2017

 

Was war heute Ihr erster Gedanke?
Aufstehen? Oder liegenbleiben? Wahnsinn oder Genie? An was will ich überhaupt noch glauben? Brauchen wir Glauben? Und wieso sehe ich in Bern nie tote Vögel auf der Straße? In Los Angeles war das anders. Da gab es Road Kill überall!

 

Are you serious?
Very serious … to the point that people think I am lying or making fun of them.

 

Los Angeles oder Berlin?
Ich liebe L.A., weil die Stadtwüste und ihre Menschen immer noch so teuflisch schwierig zu »lesen« sind. Berlin ist mir zu soft geworden. Vielleicht fehlen dort die wirklich kranken Köpfe.

 

John McEnroe or Martina Navratilova?
Borg was my guy. But then I realized that McEnroe was the smart one. And Borgʼs image of the iceman
was just a sign of dullness. That was very disappointing. When I was 16, I thought Navratilova really looked hot. But I was afraid to tell that to anyone.

 

A question to which “yes” is always your answer?
Want to play some basketball, one-on-one?

 

Fahren oder Schwimmen?
Fahren. Der Blick durch die Windschutzscheibe bedeutet Kino, ein Raum, in dem fantastische Ideen zu Realitäten werden. Mit Nina hatte ich immer die schönsten Gespräche beim Fahren. Es floss einfach so aus uns heraus, und es gab kein Entkommen im Wagen.

 

What is the problem with solutions?
Everybody seems to be happy with solutions. Not me. I love chaos. My belief system tells me: only conflicts, disfunctionality, troublemakers like me, scandals, and more drive us forward, create progress …

 

Was macht Sie verrückt?
Stress. Zeitdruck. Arbeiten.

 

Blind or deaf?
Deaf … but nothing against blindness!

 

Welche Götter?
Film-Regisseure waren für mich Götter. Jedenfalls jene Autorenfilmer, wie man sie damals noch nannte, die an einer neuen Filmsprache arbeiteten.

 

Is it true?
No idea.

 

Wann werden Sie rot?
Wenn ich gelobt werde, für gute Eigenschaften, die ich eigentlich auf gar keinen Fall preisgeben wollte.

 

Your favorite image?
That scene in Stranger than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch when John Lurie and his friends stand at an empty beach, all is grey around them, and they reach a point of existential boredom. I like that human condition, and I think the deeper you can sink into nothingness the deeper you can dig into great ideas …

 

Vor was fürchten Sie sich?
Abgründe. Ich habe schreckliche Höhenangst. Dabei bin ich ein waghalsiger Skifahrer. Sobald ich auf
Ski stehe, bin ich mutig und wage mich an die brutalsten Steilhänge. Aber ich kann nicht von Hochhäusern runterschauen.

 

Please complete the following sentence:
As he looked at her…
… she hesitated for a moment. But it was crystal clear that they belonged together … forever.
 

Where is your center of gravity?
Kreativität.

 

Wer schützt Sie vor sich selbst?
Manchmal Freunde. Aber in erster Linie das zweite »Ich«, das man sich erhalten hat.

 

What does “home” mean?
Eine Wüste.

 

In die Zukunft schauend, was sehen Sie?
Mehr Autoverfolgungsfahrten. Mehr Selbsthilfegruppen für UFO-Entführungsopfer.
Eine Ehrenmedaille für meine literarischen Leistungen als Pionier im Zeitalter der alternativen Fakten.
Noch mehr Menschen, die in der Porno-Industrie arbeiten. Mehr streunende Tiere auf deutschen Straßen.

 

Remembering, what do you hear?
Beach Boys, Pet Sounds.
Die Stimme meines Vaters, der mir erklärt hat, dass man sich nicht neu erfinden könne. Niemals.
Man bleibe immer derjenige, als der man geboren wurde. Und wer was anderes erzählt, lügt.

 

Apfel oder Zitrone?
Pink Lady.

 

What should happen after death?
I want to be pulled into a vortex of...

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