When Politics Becomes Form. The Venice Biennale, 2015

On Karl Marx’s birthday this year, a six-month public reading of Das Kapital was iniated not far from a video-installation documenting the thoughts of two leading Marxists of our time – Stuart Hall and David Harvey. On the same day, the same artist who initiated these politically-charged projects launched a preview of a new film. It features a Spirit of Ecstasy Rolls-Royce car and was commissioned by this luxury brand whose eponymous sister corporation was recently the 16th largest defense contractor in the world. 1 Welcome to the Venice Biennale where, as the wisdom of Leonard Cohen has it, “everybody knows.” Even critical reviews register paradoxes such as these with rarely more than a passing remark.

But, halt! – even if only for the fashionistas. Wasn’t Cohen’s bon-mot passé long ago – a relic of fin-de-siècle “po-mo”? 2 This laissez-faire cynicism does not do justice to a new generation of re-engaged art and politics of the moment. Why is Okwui Enwezor, who as its curator has filled this year’s Biennale chocker-block with political art, so “tone deaf” as one journalist put it, as not to feel even the slightest burning in the ears at such blatant contradictions? 3

In 1969, shortly after the uprisings of 1968, Harald Szeemann curated his (in)famous “When Attitude Becomes Form”. Its radical attitude created such an artistic rupture of form, and an equally horrified reaction from the establishment, that after-shocks were felt for years to come. The exhibition was shut down, despite its sponsorship by Philip Morris Cigarettes, and Szeemann resigned. Drawing parallels, Okwui Enwezor has curated what is slated as a highly political show in the midst of uprisings which stretch from Tahrir Square to Thessaloniki. Contrary to Szeemann, however, Enwezor is the darling of the establishment. The direction is reversed: politics seems on its way to becoming mere form.

For some at the Venice preview, that was not enough. When radical art and political theory can be hyper-commodified – as the fetishistic facsimile of near forty-pages of Das Kapital in the Biennale’s €85 catalogue amply demonstrates – direct action seems one of the last possible ways, in such “spectacular” contexts, to make uncompromisingly clear this difference between politics and its mere form. At least this was the rational of Perpetuum Mobile, the curatorial vehicle run by Marita Muukkonen and myself.

Although having come to Venice not to work, but to observe for the first time in many years, we were fast drawn into the heart of an operation initiated by friends and colleagues from the Gulf Labor Coalition based in New York and the local activist space S.a.L.E. Docks, along with many friends and fellow-travelers.

The task: occupy the Venice Guggenheim. Hashtag: #GuggOccupied.

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The use of what amounts to bonded labour in building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is at the core of the concerns of Gulf Labor, a growing coalition of engaged artists, researchers and activists with links to international art and labour associations. Its origins overlap and were inspired by the “Who’s Building NYU Abu Dhabi?” campaign, initiated by professors and students of New York University. The new NYU campus – as well as a new branch of the Louvre, among many other infrastructure projects in the UAE and the wider region – is being built under the same exploitative labour regime, which often goes under the name of the “Kafala System”. 4

In the US, awareness of the harsh abuses of the labour regime in the UAE date back to at least 2006, when a Human Rights Watch report on the topic was published. 5 This report was given wide distribution by initiators of the NYU campaign, such as such as the sociologist Andrew Ross, gradually leading to a wider movement. 6 The issues raised centre on working conditions and the manner in which migrant labourers are tricked into a system whereby their first years in Abu Dhabi amount to forced and nearly unpaid labour. With the cost of travel to the UAE covered by the building companies up-front, the workers are usually deprived of their passports and hence the ability to travel, until it has been repaid. This can take more than two years, with hardly anything gained by those trapped in the system. Kept in sub-human factory-town conditions, workers live in slum dwellings with multiple persons crammed into prison-cell like rooms. Predominantly male, they are commonly de facto forbidden/unable to see their wives, girlfriends or partners for extended months or years. Comparison to slavery is hard to avoid. Labour conditions are appalling, with laws against working on high-rise scaffolding at temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius regularly flaunted. Deaths on-site are a feature of everyday life. Wages are abysmally low.

With the inception of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, awareness of the responsibility and complicity of the art world in these abuses became evident in the US. Like the NYU campaign in the case of education, art practitioners believed they could have some degree of real leverage through activism in their own professional field. Headed by artists such as Walid Raad, a new group under the name of Gulf Labor brought the issue to the attention of the art world around 2010-11. 7 Since then, a variety of strategies and tactics have been tried and developed – from letter-writing campaigns, to developing fake Guggenheim websites to occupations of the NY museum. It also involved art itself, with a weekly series of art works circulated, criticizing the harsh labour regime and the Guggenheim in particular.

In recent years, the Guggenheim Foundation has done much to discredit its remarkable collection and history. The flagship of the neoliberal agenda, it stands at the forefront of turning art collections into corporate franchises. As a Helsinki and Berlin based organization, Perpetuum Mobile had already been witness to its deleterious business strategies in the Finnish capital at first hand. In a procedure in preparation behind closed doors since 2010, the Guggenheim Foundation received 1.2 million in tax-payers’ money, topped up by corporate-friendly Finnish foundations to almost 2 million euros. This slush-fund was offered to the corporation to finance a “feasibility study” for new Helsinki Guggenheim. In a clear conflict of interest, this study was carried out under the auspices of the Guggenheim Foundation itself. 8 It didn’t take long for the millionaire-studded working committee to respond with a self-serving “yes” to its own idea. 9

The methods of the “feasibility study” were also dubious. From the point of view of the local art scene and administrators, the public face of this operation was a handful of young college graduates – just out of elite business schools, judging by their age and designer suits. Personal reports describe their research as consisting of highly superficial interviews with local art officials, lasting no more than 20 minutes in some cases. Deeper discussion was off limits. When the issue of financing the new Guggenheim franchise was raised, the young men were clearly under orders: “We don’t talk about that.” 10

Alongside the neoliberal Helsinki mayor, an elite clutch of Finnish museum circuit operators formed the core supporters. The director of the public City Art Museum, Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén was so enthusiastic as to offer shutting down his own museum, proposing to merge it with the New York corporation’s enterprise. (When this was rejected, he soon found himself with a consolation prize as the director of a museum in Buffalo, upstate New York.)

Given the size of the City budget, let alone art budgets, the feasibility study’s figures were staggering. The new jewel-box building was slated at 130-140 million euros, excluding another 30 million in VAT. Starchitects were set on alert. The costs of the planning and founding phase were set at 11.2 million and the annual operating costs put at 14.5 million. The Guggenheim thus would create a “funding gap” of 6.8 million a year, with its expenditure comprising 7/8 of the Helsinki City art museum’s budget. Best of all, the project would charge a “licensing fee” for the Guggenheim brand of 30 million dollars over 20 years – that is, 1.5 million a year for the Guggenheim’s logo. 11 It comes as no surprise then, that the “study” proposed that almost the entirety of the financing for this corporate enterprise was to come from the public purse.

Projections were made in all seriousness for closing down primary schools to foot the bill. Artists were dumbfounded by the figures, and rightfully came to expect that their still half-decent Nordic-style funding system would soon be put to the axe. Asked about their appreciation of the Finnish art scene and its place in the new building, the Guggenheim’s directors offered that, in fact, they had a taste for Finnish architecture and design. While the local tax payer was set to pay for the lions share of the museum, the Guggenheim intended to reserve for itself the right to organize its program as it pleased – at least for the first three years. The board composition was to be approximately half-half.

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Back in Venice, shortly after Karl Marx’s birthday, things were gearing up for an eventful day. A press-conference was scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Cafe Paradiso in front of the Giardini. News was spread by work of mouth – for fear the police would catch wind of the action and intervene immediately, stopping the flotilla of boats from disembarking. The plan was to float with fanfare and protest-banners out into the Laguna and down the Grand Canal, to land at the Peggy Guggenheim’s grand water-side entrance and to occupy the museum.

The day before the occupation a series of talks were held under the name “Abstrike – Let’s Strike! Towards an inter-continental platform for art and cultural workers.” 12 The presentations at S.a.L.E. Docks included many of the upcoming action’s participants. Among them were Marco Baravalle (S.a.L.E. Docks), Andrew Ross, Nitasha Dhillon, Amin Husain, Noah Fischer and Gregory Sholette (G.U.L.F – Gulf Labor), Luigi Galimberti (European Alternatives/Transnational Dialogues), Roberto Ciccarelli (Il Manifesto – La Furia dei cervelli), Cooperativa Crater Invertido and Art Collaboratory, Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya) and Anna Bitkina (TOK Curator), Emanuele Braga (MACAO) and Ivor Stodolsky and Marita Muukkonen (Perpetuum Mobile).

The planned occupation was not publicly announced, but an expectant enthusiasm was in the air. The artist Joulia Strauss worked tirelessly throughout the proceedings on a large banner in the adjacent space. Yet that night, at an assembly with members of the Gulf Labor Coalition, S.a.L.E. Docks and Perpetuum Mobile, it became clear that the proposed plan was flawed. Under a law which forbids protests on the Laguna and Grand Canal, the police could stop and easily detain the flotilla before it reached the Guggenheim, given the long distance to be covered. So a new two-pronged strategy was developed. The press conference was to be held parallel to the occupation, which would be launched directly from S.a.L.E. We at Perpetuum Mobile took on a special task: to enter the museum early in the morning, to survey the landing-dock and security arrangements prior to the flotilla landing – that is, to occupy the museum from within.

Aside from a knee injury – incurred as a guard smashed the wrought-iron gates we tried to hold open as our fellow activist-occupiers disembarked from their boats – the occupation went surprisingly smoothly. Indeed, having noticed a party on the roof-terrace before opening time, we found a way upstairs to this breakfast-bonanza organized by Christie’s auction house. Fresh-pressed orange juice aside, it made for nice shots of the Grand Canal landing-dock to be occupied. The conversations, however, were appalling. As if straight out of a 19th century novel, elegant breakfast guests were overheard averring that, “if you give the workers a finger, they’ll take your arm!” More up-to-date chit-chat included, “Diamonds are on the down, I am investing in contemporary art…”

The plan to occupy the Venice Guggenheim was initiated by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction), the Coalition’s activist section. A few days earlier, on 1st of May, G.U.L.F. had occupied the rotunda of the Guggenheim’s famed spiraling Frank Lloyd Wright building in New York, demanding direct talks with the corporate leadership. Their demand was refused and the museum was closed instead. As the sociologist-activist Andrew Ross, a senior member of the Gulf Labor Coalition explained, the occupation of the Venice Guggenheim on the 5th May was a follow-up on these unmet demands for direct talks.

S.a.L.E. Docks and a variety of local and international groups played an indispensable role in planning and carrying out the action initiated by the New Yorkers. Nevertheless, because the Gulf Labor Coalition was officially invited to Venice by Okwui Enwezor to participate in the Biennale with a large banner-work in the Arsenale, a certain sense lingered of the occupation being part of an artistic, rather than a distinctly political process. Perhaps this is what lead some in G.U.L.F. to take on the role of primus inter pares – a “verticalization” of organization which marks a change in approach for those of them who had advocated a far more horizontal structure as part of the Occupy movement.

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This shift from the principles of assembly-based decision-making to a more “democratic centralist” approach was not reflected on in public, although it deserves separate analysis and discussion. Only a few general issues can be raised in the scope of this article. On the other hand, to what extent can or should one effectively counter a 1% corporate oligarchy with a not-dissimilar elite organizational structure? Considering the specificity of the field of art, to what extent is this structure inherited from the traditional artistic model in which the “artist” has the final word on the (in this case, political) “work”? In other words, can the political message and impetus be effective through or despite an elite institutional form?

On the other hand, considering mass roots-level democracy, there is no doubt that Occupy’s forms of consensus-oriented decision-making processes have proved problematic. Not only are such procedures at times difficult and cumbersome in practice, but many have criticized the form of the assembly for masking and reproducing multiple hierarchies while claiming roots-democratic legitimacy. In the first place, participation itself requires the privileged position of having the resources of time, money, health and the institutional knowledge and positioning to be present. Furthermore, many social inequalities and power relations are inevitably imported into the assembly form itself. 13 Without such self-critique – and while paradoxically rejecting the traditional democratic practice of representation outright – many assemblies’ claims to represent “the 99%” were highly problematic. 14 However, one should bear in mind that these very issues also apply to organizational forms which do not claim or strive for equality or consensus, such as elite institutions or operational groups.

A different, semi-traditional form was taken by the movement against the Helsinki Guggenheim: the art-workers association. What came to be known as “Checkpoint Helsinki” started as a movement of artists, curator and art-workers against the use of tax money for building the corporate museum, mobilized by a few active voices and joined by hundreds of others. It resulted in well-attended public assemblies which added to the debate in civil society and the mainstream media. As a voice of art-workers against the proposed art museum, this “anti-Guggenheim movement” played a visible role in turning the tide against the Guggenheim Helsinki. Due to a combination of factors, the City Council of Helsinki voted against the project in May 2012 by a margin of one vote.

Although Checkpoint Helsinki’s assemblies dwindled significantly following this victory in 2012, they maintained a public profile. Proposing alternatives to the Guggenheim project, they argued that a city which seriously considered spending 180-200 million on a corporation should have some funds to spare for locally-organized, smaller-scale alternatives. After considerable delays, they were funded with a modest budget of 200-300 thousand per annum for an initial three years. In this process, the “anti-Guggenheim movement” was transformed into a regular institution with a degree of oversight by the City funders, loosing some of its political edge. Nevertheless, it commissioned critical and radical art projects, including Back To Square 1 and To The Square 2, with revolutionary artists from Cairo to Moscow, curated by Perpetuum Mobile – to provide disclosure of my own involvement. 15

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. Not very long after the Guggenheim Helsinki’s defeat, it was found out that despite the City Council’s decision, the Conservative Party major was preparing an architectural competition for a new building behind the scenes. No clear financial model was presented, but somehow a new urban space for the revived Helsinki Guggenheim project was allocated in December 2013. A privately financed architectural competition was officially revealed in 2014, and the results have been recently announced in 2015.

Due to the current politics of austerity and harsh cuts to all social and cultural sectors, the odds seem against the project being realized any time soon. However, the once strong anti-Guggenheim movement is not its former self. Checkpoint Helsinki is, for the moment at least, taking a quiet wait-and-see approach, unwilling to be affiliated with a protest at the opening of the architectural competition. 16 However, they have been part of co-sponsoring a playful counter-competition for the redevelopment of Helsinki’s public space under the title “Next Helsinki”. 17 In any case, institutionalization always brings with it a certain degree of constraint, especially when the City funding model is up for renewal.

Creating new models of association and sustainable livelihoods is perhaps the crucial issue of our times. Older forms, such as unionization, cooperatives and collectives – long in decline – are in the process of being re-imagined and wedded with new conceptual frameworks, such as the project for a “commons transition”. 18 Experimental new forms are in evidence across the world. The case of the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), an “integral collective” which brings together hundreds of highly diverse groups, gives hope to ambitious plans for interconnecting the plurality of different forms. Based on these multiple experiences, combining the proliferating technologies of liquid democracy (such as Loomio or Wezer) and the development of the non-speculative ethical economic ecologies (such as the blockchain currency FairCoin) projects like FairCoop are emerging. These ambitious yet realistic, bottom-up democratic movements are taking their first pre-mondial steps.

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New parties which have grown out of the protest movements of 2011, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, are crucial tests for how the question of political form can be answered on the level of grand politics. Podemos, of course, is the new Spanish party which grew out of the 15-M Movement – whose practices, as many know, provided models for Occupy. An important in-between stage to forming the political party, after the 15-M demonstrations lost their force, were the so-called Mareas – “the ‘tides’ or ‘waves’ of spontaneous organization against the Eurozone austerity measures: the anti-eviction movement, the hospital workers, the teachers and so on” – that is social movements, many of whose leadership figures became prominent members of Podemos. 19 Although the issue of leadership has been hotly debated, the public leader of Podemos Pablo Iglias argues that: “If anything has made us strong, it is that we haven’t allowed militant nuclei to isolate us from the wishes of society, to hijack an organization that is—over and above the identities of its political leaders, cadres and militants—an instrument for political change in Spain.” 20

The development of Podemos is certainly worth more detailed study, and its action when in power will be the true test of the party as a political form in our time. The case of Syriza, so courageous and full of hope, yet now seemingly having betrayed its entire program in a shocking capitulation, is a stark warning.

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Returning to Venice once more, one can see that, as in all politics, good timing is of the essence. Once the Venice occupation had closed not only the canal-side grand entrance, but also the entrance by land, the Guggenheim’s leadership was in a trap. Not only were they forced to close the museum, but the US’s Venice Pavilion’s party – the highpoint of the Biennale for the Guggenheim, scheduled for that evening inside the museum – was on the point of being cancelled. The pressure was on. Desperate to avoid a police intervention and the ensuing violence and scandal, an immediate meeting with the occupants was accepted. A small delegation was issued into the halls of power. Here they met senior members of the board, as they had demanded, and quickly received assurances that recently published studies reporting on the dire situation in Abu Dhabi would be read and responded to.

Exiting like victors through the wrought iron gates, the delegation declared the mission accomplished. As the remaining occupiers were informed, the delegation had reached the conclusion to clear the occupation. Their grounds were, on the one hand, that the delegation had achieved its ends of meeting the directors; on the other, that a violent confrontation with security forces would harm the delicate unspoken memorandum of understanding local activist partners had with the police – a balance which they needed to preserve for another direct action scheduled for the next day. Within less than two hours of being shut down, the Guggenheim was open for business again. It is hard to say, but an hour longer of occupation may have put the action on the front page.

The effectiveness of #GuggOccupied remains to be seen. Since May 2015, Ashok Sukumaran, Walid Raad and Andrew Ross of the Gulf Labor Coalition have been denied entry into the UEA. This shows the Guggenheim and its partners are willing to harden the battle lines, regardless of the stringent criticism drawn from leading figures in the international artistic establishment. 21 Whether or not the public-relations strategy of naming, shaming and occupying it again and again provides a big enough threat to the Guggenheim to force it to change its malign practices is an open question.

PR strategies have their political limits. The ambitious but compromised political statement of the Venice Biennale, mentioned at the beginning of this article, have made a show of this truth. To institute genuine change, the structural and financial underpinnings is where to look, not the rhetoric. And this requires far wider socio-political transformation.

If one thing is clear, one cannot imagine a wider political sea-change without new political forms. These are fully possible as is evidenced by the rise of Syriza and Podemos, as well as the ambitious experiments for integrating the legions of self-organized cooperative associations into self-sustaining social ecologies. If art can contribute on this historical level, it is in imagining the presently unfeasible. For it is through acts of the imagination that forms that are truly impossible under the corrupt old paradigm, are made imaginable on the pre-mondial horizon.

This text was presented at the Jan Van Eyck Academy Conference (Berlin, July 2015) and was first published in the ArtLeaks Gazette #3.

Notes:

  1. See http://www.myartguides.com/venice-art-biennale-2015/events/item/5073-isaac-julien-stones-against-diamonds and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolls-Royce_Holdings.
  2. “Po-mo” was a favourite short-hand for “postmodernism” used by the renowned anti-Thatcherite sociologist Paul Hirst.
  3. http://www.vulture.com/2015/05/why-is-the-2015-venice-biennale-so-out-of-date.html
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kafala_system
  5. http://www.hrw.org/report/2006/11/11/building-towers-cheating-workers/exploitation-migrant-construction-workers-united
  6. https://fairlabornyu.wordpress.com/faqs/
  7. See http://gulflabor.org.
  8. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 1.12.2014 Nr. 279, p. 15.
  9. Headed by Richard Armstrong, whose annual salary is well over half a million dollars according to the activist-architect office Aibeo (http://www.aibeo.com/#!no-guggenheim-in-helsinki/c18dj).
  10. Cited by Marita Muukkonen, who was Curator at Helsinki International Artist Programme at the time.
  11. http://www.hel.fi/hel2/kanslia/guggenheim/ps/economic_summary.pdf
  12. For video documentation see “Ab-Strike: II° Panel ‘Scioperiamo! Verso Una Piattaforma Intercontinentale per I Lavoratori Dell’arte E Della Cultura.’” Global Project. Accessed July 27, 2015. http://www.globalproject.info/it/produzioni/ab-strike-ii-panel-scioperiamo-verso-una-piattaforma-intercontinentale-per-i-lavoratori-dellarte-e-della-cultura/19120.
  13. As an example of many such critical comments from within the Occupy movement at the time see, “ ‘Consensus’ and Its Discontents.” Libcom.org. Accessed July 27, 2015. http://libcom.org/library/consensus-its-discontents. See also Chapter 6 of Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon. London; New York: Verso, 2012. Thanks to Andrea Liu and Vladan Jeremic, respectively, for the suggestions.
  14. For more on the debate surrounding representation, see Teivo Teivainen and Ivor Stodolsky, “Reclaiming Democracy Through the Square” in THE SQUARE Issue #1, p. 11 (http://issuu.com/ivorstodolsky/docs/tsq2_newspaper_hr) and the forthcoming contribution of Teivo Teivainen “A State of Pre-, An anthology of art and theory from the Re-Aligned Project” (http://www.re-aligned.net/state-pre/?lang=en/&lang=en). See Dmitry Vilensky’s article in The Moscow Art Journal 2008/2014 (English Digest) for an unforgiving critique of Occupy (found in Russian here: http://permm.ru/menu/xzh/arxiv/xudozhestvennyij-zhurnal-%E2%84%9685.-nashe-novoe-budushhee.-chast-2/okkupaj,-kotorogo-vse-tak-davno-zhdali.html).
  15. See http://www.re-aligned.net/programme-b2square1/ and http://www.re-aligned.net/tsq2-concept-programme
  16. http://www.aibeo.com/#!no-guggenheim-in-helsinki/c18dj
  17. http://www.checkpointhelsinki.org/en/projects/the-next-helsinki
  18. See the highly interesting work of Michel Bauwens, the P2P Foundation and many other on this and similar concepts, first developed as a large-scale commission for the government of Ecuador: http://commonstransition.org/
  19. Iglesias, Pablo. “Spain On Edge”. New Left Review, II, no. 93 (June 2015): 23–42.
  20. Iglesias, Pablo. “Understanding Podemos”. New Left Review, II, no. 93 (June 2015): 7–22.
  21. http://gulflabor.org/2015/letter-from-sixty-curators-critics-and-museum-directors-to-uae-art-institutions-and-their-affiliates/
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