Towards a Critique of the Biennale Circuit

November 3, 2009

‘Just when the class structure is being rigidified and polarized, when the hypermobility of capital gives the transnational bourgeoisie an unprecedented capacity for domination, when the governing elites of all the great powers dismantle in concert the social safety nets set up in the course of a century of labor struggles, and when forms of poverty reminiscent of the nineteenth century resurge and spread, they converse on the “fragmented society,” “ethnicity,” “conviviality,” and “difference.” Where one would need an unflinching historical and materialist analysis, they offer us a soft culturalism wholly absorbed by the narcissistic preoccupations of the moment.’ – Loïc Waquant

Last week saw the first of the General Theory Forum lectures at Chelsea. After introducing students to the formal stuff, I did a small presentation about ‘Theory’ and ‘Criticality’. One of the set texts for this presentation was Loïc Wacquant’s essay ‘Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa’ which gives a useful overview of the current state of critical thought in Anglo-American educational institutions. Wacquant’s essay introduces the two major traditions informing contemporary critical thought in a clear and comprehensible fashion. The first, derived from the work of Kant, is concerned with the validity and value of knowledge categories and faculties. He calls this type of critique epistemological. The second he associates with the Marxian tradition of critical thought which ‘trains the weapons of reason at socio-historical reality and sets itself the task of bringing to light the hidden forms of domination and exploitation which shape it’. This tradition he calls social.

It is a useful and straightforward distinction that has helped me address my troubled thoughts on the notion of a ‘Critique of the Biennale Circuit’. But before I expand upon these ideas I think we need to add a third type of critique, perhaps not so familiar or relevant for colleagues working in the social sciences and humanities, but one which we spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about in art schools. That is aesthetic critique.

Aesthetic critique exists in an intermediary place between the epistemological and the social. On the one hand art and design practices are at times assumed to be engaged in the production and disputation of knowledge and truth (familiar to anyone involved in postgraduate art education in the UK and its struggle to legitimate artistic practices as ‘Research’) and at other times they are approached as practices with a clear social value and function (familiar for those arguing for socially engaged and politically conscious art and design practices). Between these two critical positions there are the questions of taste, beauty and the autonomy-ontology of Art (with a capital ‘A’) associated with aesthetics.

Never having been to a biennale I’m in no legitimate position to critique the circuit. So what I have to offer here are more practical suggestions and observations about critique in general and its relationship to the arts in a globalized cultural context.

The three types of critique defined above are often inter-related, particularly in the context of contemporary art criticism. A ‘Critique of the Biennale Circuit’ would benefit from being precise about what kind of critiques are being applied to it. Before we can effectively criticize a thing we need to agree on what it is and what it does. So we need to be precise about what is meant by the ‘Biennale Circuit’, what kind of ‘object’ it is, its temporal and spatial parameters, how it came into being and what it is intended to do. Consensus about such things is rare in the world of contemporary art where values and views are often conflicted and divergent. But for critique to have any practical value (i.e. to have the intention of improving the thing criticized) then agreements on definitions of objects and terms is essential.

As we will see this affirmation of the generally practical nature of critique is more difficult to maintain when addressing a work of art than it is when addressing something like a government policy. This has a lot to do with the deeply formative 18th century philosophical tradition of approaching Fine Art as something beyond Reason and without practical purpose (what Kant referred to as the ‘disinterest’ of the aesthetic attitude) and it can lead us into some very tangled conceptual territories, as we will see. One of the difficulties I see in advance in a critique of the Biennale circuit is how to distinguish between what a Biennale should do and what the art that constitutes it should do? How are these two things related? Do we need different evaluative criteria for these two types of things?

In order to explore the inter-relationship of the different critiques, to begin a discussion about of what is meant by the ‘Biennale Circuit’ and to situate some of the theoretical issues we are likely to encounter in this context, I’d like to briefly discuss an artwork currently on display at the Iniva gallery in London: an installation called ‘Nations’ by NS Harsha.

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'Nations' - NS Harsha

Although this exhibition is not formerly part of a biennale, the work was first shown at the Sharjah Bienniale in the United Arab Emirates in 2008. The same year Harsha was awarded the £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize, an international arts prize funded by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. I also felt that the work has relevance for two of the projects which will be part of the Ghetto Biennale: Hanna Rose Shell’ film about the second hand (Pepe) clothes industry in Haiti and Carole Frances Lung’s ‘Made in Haiti’ project.

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The Iniva Gallery, Shoreditch

The Iniva building in which ‘Nations’ is installed is situated in the epicentre of a particularly fashionable part of London that my good friends disdainfully refer to as Hoxditch (a combination of Hoxton and Shoreditch). The area became very fashionable in the early 1990’s largely as a consequence of the presence of YBA (Young British Artists) who had moved in to the area because of the cheap studio space there.  Despite predictions the area continues to be regarded as one of the most culturally hip and ‘cutting-edge’ in London. ‘Nations’ is installed in a glass-fronted gallery that faces onto Rivington Place, a relatively quiet connecting road between two major Hoxditch arteries. If you didn’t know it was a gallery you could easily mistake it for one of the retro-fashion or furniture emporiums in the area (or, perhaps, a fixed-wheel bicycle shop).

I mention this simply to underline the fact that where art takes place can be subject to critique as much as the work itself and that one of the simplest ways to move from a purely formal level of aesthetic critique to a social one is to take in to account the context in which the art takes place. In my experience the tendency to approach artworks as hermetically sealed aesthetic objects, ‘properly’ evaluated in purely formal terms, usually functions to deny the obvious class, cultural and economic operations that put the work in place. In this sense aesthetic formalism is the most common alibi for the de-politicization and de-historicization of critique. It is also often the alibi for the mysteriously inflated market value of some contemporary art, where it serves a similar function.

The recent history of Hoxditch is exemplary of the ways in which contemporary art, if we want to approach it from a critical social perspective, should not be separated from the broader economic and political contexts in which it occurs. In terms of the changing patterns of gentrification in the modern world-city, the culture of contemporary art is often at the vanguard of ‘urban development’ or ‘cultural regeneration’ programs and artists, in their quest for cheap living and studio spaces, operate as property pioneers in the cultural renaissance of poor and under-valued areas of the city. This is something we should think about in terms of the Grand Rue area of Port-au-Prince. Why this location? What is the cultural and social history of this area? Why has it generated a local art movement? What do we expect the Ghetto Biennale to effect in this location? How different is this location from the kinds of places Biennales ordinarily take place?

Before giving an aesthetic evaluation of ‘Nations’ itself I think it’s important to note that the general, default setting of much everyday art criticism tends to adopt a ‘personal’ orientation. I think this has allowed ‘political correctness’ to function in the art world as a cloak for liberal, bourgeois normativity. In these contexts it often operates to protect the work from effective social and political criticism. It is as if the 19th Century fantasy of a pure aesthetic realm of critique, some ‘higher level’ of taste and sensibility peculiar to the refined individual, has assimilated ‘identity politics’ which now functions to protect the art, artist and their administrators  from the ‘personal attacks’ that a broader socio-cultural critique might ‘inappropriately’ implicate them in.

I wrote in the last post about a certain dominant cultural ambience that pervades academic and art events in London, so I don’t want to talk too much about it here. But I do think it is important to extend critique not only to the situated context in which art and theory take place, but also the habitual patterns, behaviours and cultural mores according to which it is administered. In terms of academic traditions we could define this area of analysis as one where classical aesthetic theory (concerned primarily with the work of art in its institutionally defined sense) coincides with cultural studies (concerned with culture in the wider sense). I have written elsewhere and spoken at length in my lectures about the need to extend aesthetic awareness and critique beyond the perimeters of the traditional art object and deep into the fabric of everyday culture and behaviours in order to demystify the socially obfuscating myth of the ‘sacred’ art object and to demonstrate the subjectively embodied nature of aesthetics in order to implicate that critique in everyday ethical practice. Contemporary art is administered in very particular ways, and these modes of administration have distinct aesthetic and political qualities in themselves. The sense of ritual politeness that characterizes inter-personal behaviour in established, institutional art worlds is an aesthetic object in itself and should be as open to critique as the works themselves.

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‘Nations’ is made up of 192 sewing machines, installed in such a way as to the give the impression of a multi-tiered sweatshop. Each sewing machine is accompanied by a printed flag representing a member state of the United Nations. The tangled threads from each machine binds the network of machines together and fragments of multi-coloured cloth litter the floor around the machines like confetti. Walking around it made me feel like I was in a showroom and I thought, as I often do in such places, about the similarity of a contemporary art experience and a contemporary shopping experience. On closer inspection I was struck by the fact that the flags were printed rather than sewn. This seemed to jar with the general message about the ‘inter-wovenness’ of the global ‘rag trade’ that the worked seemed speaking about in a rather literal way. If I understood the intention of the work correctly, machine-sewing the flags together would have made it a more aesthetically interesting and impressive work. I suspected that it was probably too technically difficult to do this and that printing the flags was a straightforwardly expedient creative decision. Then again, perhaps the printed nature of the flags was intended to be allegorical of a deeper level of national ‘disconnection’ amongst the ostensibly ‘united’ nations. But that idea seemed a bit naff, whether it was my interpretation or Harshas’ intention.

For me the work in the end is rather over-blown and uninspiring. Its proportion was too excessive and grandiose for the simple, self-evident message it seemed, ultimately, to be communicating. And there was little about its formal aesthetic construction that intrigued, surprised or excited me. It looked like a typical piece of contemporary installation art that one regularly encounters in galleries and museums of a certain form, scale and stature.

What interested me most were the household sewing machines themselves, their pristine uniformity, their English name, their antiquated appearance and their place of origin. (The ‘Butterfly’ sewing machines are made in Vietnam for the Chinese company Jinyun Shenma). I was reminded of the art historical legacy of the found-object and how this might be re-thought in the context of multiple-asynchronous ‘modernities’ and widespread (global) awareness of the integrated nature of the contemporary capitalist production processes. I thought of Sadie Plant’s Zero’s and Ones: Digital Women and The New Technoculture and how superficial the piece seemed to me in light of this kind of cultural history and theory; of the absence of any reference to the gender or class character of sweatshop labour; or the machinic geneology of sewing machines and computers which have fashioned the digital integration of the network society. And somewhere in the back of my mind I saw an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.

I’m no art critic, and have no intention of becoming one. No doubt my sensitivities towards the work might be more refined if I took art criticism as my vocation. What interests me more is how the work communicates in its broader cultural context, how it is ‘discoursed’ within the wider network of theory and politics and the contradictions that abound around it.

Information about ‘Nations’ on the Iniva website informs us that the artist –  who ordinarily works in traditional Indian miniatures – was inspired to make the work after the shock of visiting a small-scale textile factory in his native country (I was later told that he had visited the factory in order to make studies for a painting). We read how he “personally experienced the realities of ‘human labour’” which brought to his attention the fact that “hierarchies and exploitation are part of today’s global economic order” (Iniva website)

I suppose if one had never been in a factory before then the installation might evoke similar feelings of claustrophobia and an awareness of the exploitative indifference of mass manufacturing processes that Harsha himself claims to  have experienced. Perhaps the similarities between art galleries and fashion emporiums were being intentionally evoked here, in order to draw our attention to the interconnectedness of these two fields of contemporary cultural activity. But I wonder who, whether they have visited a factory or not, would be unaware of the global inequalities of labour which underpin the contemporary retail fashion system? And why would we need contemporary art to tell us about this? I find it hard to imagine that people who are sufficiently cultured to visit a contemporary art gallery in London’s East End could be unaware that industrial manufacturing processes can be oppressive and dehumanizing and that first world consumerism is paid for at the expense of exploited third world labour. And I find it even harder to believe that a 21st century contemporary artist, especially one whose work is deemed worthy of a significant international prize, could not have known about the working conditions of sweat-shop labour before visiting a factory. The work, Harsha claims, “engages with these socio-political complexities and cultural entanglements.” But how so? And what is the nature of this engagement?

In order to find out if I was missing a deeper level of epistemological, social or aesthetic significance I went along to a discussion that the gallery had organized called ‘Unstitched: in Conversation’ at which two high-profile art-textile-culture theorists were speaking about the work: Janis Jeffries and Angela McRobbie.

The talk was introduced Christine Checinska (a resident artist and curator at Iniva) who presented us with a brief description and history of the work and reflected upon the work’s relevance in terms of global cultural and economic issues. I won’t discuss the presentations in great depth here. Suffice to say that there were several references in Checinska’s introduction to the ‘theoretical entanglement’ of politics and art that the work allegedly engages. Valuable references were made to academic works of relevance to these complex relations – (Wendy Chapkis and Cynthia Enloes Of Common Cloth: Women in the Global Textiles Industry (1983) and Andrew Ross’s No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers (1997) for example) –  and the speakers were all very well-qualified to reflect upon the issues. Janis Jeffries rehearsed her specialist understanding of the relationship between textiles, textuality and history with reference to some of her own artworks, those of Kim Soo Ja and the writings of Sarat Maharaj (who was incidentally one of the curators of the 2008 Guangzhou Triennial (China) which was organized according to the curatorial theme of “Farewell to Post-Colonialism”). Angela McRobbie discussed her own research into recent patterns of independent fashion production on the local area in the context of the larger global fashion and textiles industries, making reference to the Behind the Label Movement and other forms of creative collectivism such as those proposed by Paulo Virno.

I couldn’t help wondering who these presentations were intended for and what purpose they could serve outside of the obvious pedagogical one. That the relationship between politics and art, economics and culture, first and the third world societies is complex one seemed pretty self-evident and I found hard to ascertain what was being said ulitimately, other than that theory, in various ways, addresses this complexity, as does the artwork, but differently.

What the talks made me feel most was that ‘theory’ often functions contemporary art world contexts to give ‘academic’ and ‘critical credibility’ to works of art that don’t really warrant it and that ‘theory-in-the-service-of-contemporary-art’ closely resembles the cloak of political correctness that masks the residual culture of bourgeois normativity in the art world. On a positive note – and this is something that McRobbie alluded to in her talk – we might see the culture of contemporary art, with its aspirations towards critical social value, as a vehicle from bringing the bigger social and political issues (and awareness of the need for active, social participation them) to a wider audience.

‘Nations’ as a ‘work-in-context’ shows how the three types of critique introduced above do become entangled the evaluation of works of art, especially those which pertain to social significance beyond the purely aesthetic realm. How do we understand the aesthetic value of a work of art alongside its’ social or epistemological value? And how do we assess these different kinds of values?

‘Nations’ is significant for the Ghetto Biennale project because it is a work which is intended to have both aesthetic and social significance and one which has already operated ‘successfully’ on the international Biennale circuit. It helps us ask what we expect the Ghetto Biennale and the work shown in Haiti to do? Is this the kind of success we are aiming for?

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