How to Gather? The Urgency of the 6th Moscow Biennale

For the duration of 10 days, the 6th Moscow Biennale aspires to be a think-in involving all participants and visitors present, hosting art and cultural workers to provide a means for artistic and critical reflection to be exchanged through thinking in action. Driven by the questions of how to gather, how to live together and how to activate new capacities for the future, in collaboration with more than 70 Russian and international artists and thinkers on site, the program aims to re-articulate current dimensions of art presentation. This is the curatorial statement of Bart De Baere, Defne Ayas, Nicolaus Schafhausen.

In circumstances that are for several reasons not obvious, the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art has decided to go ahead in a way that is geared toward possible futures. Refusing to be defined for its choices or to critically articulate a specific future, and with aspirations that are rather humble, it wants to raise a set of questions and embed them within a space of praxis.

The central theme of the Biennale is the question of how we can gather. The focus on this register seems as urgent today as at any other time in history. In a certain way, it is the weakest pole in contemporary globalized society, even if it is the one that may best lead to new beginnings. It is certainly potentially valid to exercise criticism or to antagonize in other ways, by revolt or by exodus. The complementary pole to that attitude, however, is the praxis of gathering with the other, of coming together, of finding modes of conviviality. This may happen in a modus that goes all the way from negotiations and finding minimum points of accord up to friendship and identity politics.

One of its expressions in the Russian tradition is the notion of the ‘soviet’, which means ‘council’ and ‘assembly’, but also ‘advice’, ‘harmony’, and ‘concord’. Etymologically it is derived from the notions ‘together’ and ‘counsel’, and its ultimate keyword is the Proto-Slavic verbal stem ‘větiti’, meaning ‘to talk, speak’. How do we speak together? We are not particularly good at that. The sixth edition of the Biennale frames its key question even more radically: How can we live together? This is an even more ambitious aim than speaking together, and yet also a more basic one, a necessary prerequisite. People who do not find modes of living together cannot speak together.

Opportunism and neoliberal managerialism have become a key propelling force in the post-1989 world order, as they allow for critique and antagonism at the expense of gathering and concord. The cynical, ‘naturalistic’ worldview born out of this duo is devoid of any of the aspirations that used to bind humankind, and consequently also of the possibility of an orientation toward a joint future. Managerialism may thus be considered an ultimate anti-ideology. It is therefore understandable that people are harking back to different traditional veins of ideology, be they nationalism, Marxism, or fundamentalist religion. This is not the only way forward, however. Today, one might even ask whether the clear definition of future horizons does not merely continue the status quo. At least in principle, it may also be possible to take tentative steps in the desired direction without the totalizing solution of a clear project with guaranteed outputs, such as managerialism wants us to have. Hannah Arendt gave us an image of how the light of the public sphere may give way to dark times, and how hard it is then to find direction.

One of the most striking features of historical Eurasianist thinking is that it does not define identity based on a common origin, but rather from having lived together for a long time in a common setting. If the space darkens, one may try to repair the light system, one may combat darkness, or, alternatively, one may try to find anew the basic possibilities for making light in Arendt’s metaphorical sense. The last choice entails a search for the origins and basic operations of public space.

This is what art enables in a particularly poignant way, its apparent weakness—being embedded in specifics—thereby becoming its strength. One might even see art as a testing device for public space. It offers the possibility to gather, the possibility to cease being one, to become two, and perhaps more. In its ultimate examples—Jan Van Eyck, Piero della Francesca, Andrei Rublev, Edvard Munch, Kazimir Malevich, Louise Bourgeois—it transcends the interpersonal sphere into a veritable soviet. Yet it arises always—counter to culture—out of immediate interpersonal experience, between the offer and the participant. Could we see the space of art as a public space rather than as an exhibition place?

The Biennale as a low-current possibility

If so, what form might such a space take, counter to the form of an exhibition hall, expressed as it is through the bourgeois tradition and its modernist outcomes?

We don’t know how such a public space for art might look, mesmerized as we have been by the exhibition space. In any case, it obviously has different features: It may have seating capacity as well as the expectation of walking slowly, in a restrained way. It may allow for a greater variety of movement. It will certainly allow for the possibility of ‘větiti’, the stem of the soviet.

If we want to tentatively try to test this different space for art, a biennale may optimally allow for that. Many of the things a biennale can do, a traditional exhibition in a traditional museum may do as well or better. If a biennale is truly successful, it is for other reasons. A biennale is a bit like art; its main force is in its weakness, its fragility, and the precarious character through which it comes about. In the best cases, biennales—such as the ‘anthropophagic’ 24th São Paulo Biennale or the early Havana biennales—came about in a complex net of unresolved questions. They enabled a meeting between people and art, a meeting of very different perspectives that shed light upon one another in true events—the unpredictable moments which a French philosopher once labeled as ‘heterotopia’, a space in which small events make an unpredictable difference.

In this vein, the 6th Moscow Biennale aims to be a beginning (unlike so many projects over the past decades, which have aimed to be an end in themselves). It can therefore be seen both as the preparative, productive space of a standard exhibition, and alternatively as merely ten days of opening—but it is none of neither; it is merely a beginning. It doesn’t aim to have results—an output that should follow immediately after; rather, it aims for a potential continuation, which may happen several days or several years later. It wants to happen in the moment of becoming, a space of ‘permanent creation’, as the French artist Robert Filliou called it.

This space of beginning will unavoidably fail to meet some expectations from different perspectives. It is unable to establish the absolute intimacy of the informal gatherings of Moscow, which aimed for a public space by being secluded. It is also unable to give the grand response a state system feels most comfortable with. It will be—and wants to be—in between. That is its very position. It is government funded, so it is not only public, but also state driven. On the other hand, it is geared toward contemporary art, which is by its very nature nonconsensual—the appearance of possibilities for the future that still have to be discussed. It is therefore a precarious and problematic space, on the fringes of the consensus-driven official system, and also on the fringes of the bottom-up energy of the multitude. It is there only as a space of conceivable consensus and potential encounter. As such, however, it is a unique opportunity to find sparks of what does not yet exist.

It can be seen as a micro-appearance of one of the urgent problems of today: that of societies with an empty political center. The center is empty because attempts to redefine its core are precarious, because the state system—which Europe identifies with representative democracy to a larger extent than Asia does—is having a hard time engaging with the bottom-up energy that has become a visible characteristic of today’s politics. State efforts to recuperate the lost power of governance are challenged by religious and other fundamentalisms, by the opportunism of special-interest groups, and by a broad disengagement of individuals in relation to formal politics. The bottom-up forces, on the other hand, fail dramatically in theorizing a center of gravity for society. Neoliberalism and its counterpart in the ‘Occupy’ movement are both anti-state, which lead the English theorist Mark Fisher to call them “two versions of the same ideology”. Where the world at large is failing, a biennale cannot be expected to succeed. But it may try to fail in an interesting way, by aiming for low-current sparks.

How to go about it

The Biennale is titled: “How to Gather? Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia”. Organized by the Moscow Biennale Foundation, this iteration is taking a turn towards a 10-day event focused on the inner creation of art, embracing real time, but also intimacy and intuition. Lasting from September 22 until October 1, this edition is curated by Bart De Baere, Director of MUHKA, Antwerp; Defne Ayas, Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; and Nicolaus Schafhausen, Director of Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna.

Questions that will be explored include:

— How can we live together?

— What may art want to happen?

— What are the fundamentals of a better life?

— What are the grounds on which we can reformulate a constituency?

— Who are we (people, city, nation, empire, space)?

Designed as a “Think-In” with a set of appointments and dispositifs that uphold an open space geared toward capacity building, the biennial uses the host venue for divergent proposals to find a setting: works in progress, keynotes, live works, presentations, workshops, and more. As the proposals become public moments in the form of reflective keynote addresses by ambassadors and politicians to philosophers and economists or of workshops—with limited groups of people, with a specific topic, and with outcomes that are publicly presented afterwards, the edition will attempt to refuse to be part of a pattern of consumption. Intended for a location of one’s own reflective trajectory, the edition will hopefully not be about delivering a proposal, but about being enriched and catalyzed by meetings and experiences.

An artist can say a lot by offering a simple one-channel video, but may just as well take charge of part of the setup itself. Art may be ‘a painting’, but it might just as well be ‘painting’. Some artists will therefore offer merely a single image, literally that; others will work on a project or a work over the whole ten days. These may also be very different — everything from artists working with photography and offering the unfolding of their perspective to a sculpture taking form. Staged performances will go along with more intimate, ephemeral, and sometimes even unplanned gestures. And all of these artistic proposals will intertwine with talks and discussions. During these ten days, art will be seen as part of the sphere of thinking-in-action.

This thinking—both visual and verbal—happens, and at the same time, it will also be recorded and edited, so that its documentation can be presented. The editing will happen during these ten days. The outcomes of this will be a spatial dispositive (an exhibition of all of the outcomes, which can be visited until November 1) as well as a web dispositive (website), and perhaps also a film, e-magazine, and/or e-book. The Biennale (as an event in the true sense, with its capacity to make a difference) will therefore be not only an immaterial sphere but also a media machine, rendering its back office infrastructure visible. The Biennale is interested in human capacity rather than transportation and insurance, and it will demonstrate this by focusing on that potential, the media machine being part of this attention.

The location

Why Moscow now? We are convinced that Moscow is a place in which many truths about the state of things in our world are made apparent. Moscow is no more in a state of exception, transformation, or uncertainty than other places in the world, but it is certainly a place of intensity, which may therefore be thought provoking.

At the same time, Moscow has the potential to become a meeting place for people and ideas from all over Europe and Asia. Therefore it cannot afford a shrinking of its vital space of thinking and action. It may be rewarding to enact a social space as a signal of this capacity. Such a space arises out of highly specific perspectives, which artists and other thinkers can offer. It is a space that stimulates a shared consciousness, an openness, and a sense of wonder about experiences. It may become a testing ground for fertile encounters.

The venue of the Biennale will be the Central Pavilion of VDNKh (Pavilion No 1). VDNKh is a site that was used to house a permanent fair in many pavilions for more than half a century, dedicated to the “successes of the USSR”. Since Perestroika, these pavilions have become derelict, with only the amusement park and restaurants on the site remaining as an attraction. Over a year ago, the Moscow city government began a vigorous renovation program for this hugely popular park, aiming at a future cultural use in the vein of the success of Gorky Park. Now a more in-depth phase of renovation has started, in which the main pavilions will be turned into exhibition and museum spaces. VDNKh’s surface area is larger than that of Monaco. The setup of VDNKh was a representation of the Soviet Union in terms of state organization and industrial capacity. It is highly symbolic, from the entrance arch to the space pavilion.

The 9,400 square meter Central Pavilion, Pavilion No. 1 was dedicated to new achievements that would build a future. It will now host the 6th Moscow Biennale, which will examine our future possibilities.

In this venue, with its pantheon-like dome and immense spaces, situated between the Lenin sculpture at the front and the famous fountain with gilded figures representing the different republics of the Soviet Union at the back, a contemporary encounter will take place, one of people and their individual visions, aiming at a question that should occupy us all: What are the achievements that may offer us a future? How can we live together?