Can one curate a political movement — a grass-roots response to a set of political, economic and social circumstances — and exhibit it as artistic gesture? This is the question provoked by the 2012 Berlin Biennial, which Artur Żmijewski curated in collaboration with Joanna Warsza and Voina, and their invitation to Occupy Berlin and other Occupy movements to set up camp on the lower floor of Kunst-Werke, the main institution involved with the biennial. Judging by the reaction of its initial audiences over the first few weeks of the show, the presentation of Occupy appears neither an artistic work, even in the most fluid sense, nor an uncompromising political statement (the biennial is funded by public money) and for many simply clouds the already misty line between art and politics.
The collaboration between Kunst-Werke, an institution that has sidestepped much of the changes in programme and ways of working brought in by New Institutionalism in the 1990s, and the anarchic, internet-assisted movement of Occupy suggests that the question of community engagement, which has been so crucial for both artistic and institutional practice over the past forty years, is still shifting, and largely in tune with changes outside of the art world. The terms of New Institutionalism varied theoretically and practically, but took as a starting point that the programme of an institution after Institutional Critique needed dialogical engagement with a community (which, though again variously defined, was taken as a de-individualised group of people).1 The meeting of Żmijewski, Kunst-Werke and Occupy implies, instead, a privileging of individual voices: the towering figure of Żmijewski, whose artistic reputation was understood by the selection committee to translate into curatorial nous; the programme of Kunst- Werke, which has tilted towards traditional exhibition forms; and the Occupy movement, whose radically democratic meeting style — where in many cases no decision will go through unless all members agree — means it is often unable to form consensus on its main goals. Rather than presenting Occupy as a logical extreme of a dispersed, socially and politically engaged practice, Kunst-Werke’s hosting of Occupy seems, so far, to stymie participation — should one join? Critique? Walk by? The undetermined means of participation is surprising, not only because ‘engagement with the local’ has become core to biennial programming, but also because the Berlin Biennial, based in an artist-heavy city, has so successfully addressed the subject in the past, both in the 2002 biennial that drew on the history of the city, and in the subsequent biennial, which had a long-term event programme especially conceived for local residents. However, the biennial’s difficulty in articulating its political relation to its public should translate not into crowing about failure but rather suggest a continuing need to look at New Internationalism and its different legacies.
Indeed with this issue of Afterall we are seeking to look in detail at how different types of institutions, from artists’ initiatives to curatorial and research organisations, might engage with the ‘local’ and ‘social’ — using test cases to determine the extent to which institutions have allowed local engagement to affect their programming ethos and methodology. How has the discourse of the participatory changed the curatorial landscape? How are artists taking on board today the relationship to the ‘local’ that those ‘new institutions' brought to the fore? How has the discourse of the participatory changed the curatorial landscape? And finally, how does the current discussion around forms of artistic labour and the valuation of artistic production change the way we think about the artwork made by the artist in association with the institution?
To attempt to answer these admittedly large questions we look at a range of institutional and artistic practices: from the collective ruangrupa, whose artistic practice absorbs curatorial strategies in events and networks the members put together across the Indonesian archipelago, to the artist Eduardo Molinari, who makes work and political actions under the umbrella of Archivo Caminante, or the ‘walking archive’, which exists in a liminal state between bona fide historical archive and fictional artistic project. We look at Theaster Gates and his urban regeneration programmes in Chicago — a city with a long history of public art interventions — and Yael Bartana’s attention to the relationship between people and state in her call for Jews of the diaspora to return to Poland, where many of them lived before World War II. Alberto López Cuenca, meanwhile, puts the current discourse on artistic labour in a historical context.
We also examine different institutional strategies: from the commissioning and residency centre Grizedale Arts, which is seeking to revitalise John Ruskin’s political legacy in the North of England, to a programme run by the Seville-based UNIA arteypensiamento group on the relationship between capital and territory, which became particularly urgent in the context of southern Spain during the housing boom and subsequent bust of the early 2000s. We also consider, in a more lateral way, the New York exhibition space The Artist’s Institute and its sequential, accumulative programme. At the Institute an artist’s work is seen as a catalyst for an unfolding series of events and smaller exhibitions, which is signalled in this issue of Afterall by the reproduction of the wall texts generated by the Institute’s show with Jimmie Durham. Does bringing in the audience and others into programming decisions build a different relationship with the audience of a show? And, if so, how does it affect the work that is exhibited and its experience? Durham is an artist whose relationship to site has relentlessly showed that place is a complex and ineradicable matrix of history, power, politics and racial contestation — that there is a long history to be read in each building, each brick, each stone around us.
Much of the discussion around New Institutionalism, which began as a reaction to the artistic practice of Institutional Critique, seems to have migrated back to the figure of the artist him- or herself. A number of the practitioners discussed in this issue negotiate fluidly between classical modes of art-making — exhibiting resonant or narrative objects in a space — and that of post-studio practice, and its mainly discursive and organisational parameters. This is perhaps the result of a new financial situation: New Institutionalism was made possible by considerable state budgets and social democratic policies; today, when those are very rarely the case, are artists again the ones taking on the risk of putting forward such initiatives and questions?