This is the 11th International İstanbul Biennial curators’ text


What, How & for Whom / WHW

Recipe for success in writing for films: you have to write as well as you can, and that has got to be bad enough.
Bertolt Brecht, Journals 1934 – 1955, entry for October 12, 1943, Los Angeles

Brecht’s assessment of wartime Hollywood seems to fit all too well in the cutthroat battle for audience numbers that increasingly rules the art world today: ‘The assumption is that the actors can’t act and the public can’t think.’ 01 In a world colonized by service and consumption, where culture has imploded into capitalism 02, biennial contemporary-art exhibitions are widely seen as high-end branding tools for promoting cultural tourism in metropolitan cities, market-driven ‘events’ designed to ensure a more seamless integration of art and capital through constant generational and geographical expansion, with negligible beneficial impact on local art scenes. And yet –or perhaps precisely for that reason– biennials continue to proliferate exponentially 03, and there are scant signs of any move by cultural workers or audiences to boycott them. Indeed, considerable effort is made to find ways to underscore their dignity as exhibitions where ‘instead of narrating the canon of art history, independent curators are beginning to tell each other their own contradictory stories.’ 04 However, when the WHW collective accepted this opportunity for a big career move 05 and decided to put together a biennial informed by a full-fledged political program that is also completely aesthetic, our aspiration was anything but about exchanging competing stories with our fellow ‘independent curators.’ Was it not somehow possible, we asked ourselves, to give the public some form of ‘agency,’ making choices that would boost their capacity for action.

The title of the 11th Istanbul Biennial –’What Keeps Mankind Alive?’– is the English translation of the song ‘Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?’ from The Threepenny Opera, written in 1928 by Bertol Brecht, in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmannu and Kurt Weill. The Threepenny Opera thematises the process of the redistribution of ownership within bourgeois society and casts an unforgiving light on a wide range of elements of capitalist ideology. Brecht’s assertion in the play that ‘a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal’ remains as resonant and as true as ever, and the parallels between the burgeoning liberal economy’s capacity to erode a hitherto existing social consensus in 1928 and the present are striking.

The Biennial’s title, ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ evokes two main subjects, politics and economics, which have grown indistinguishably similar as they have connected and networked all around the globe. At a moment when the ongoing financial crisis has dealt a considerable blow to the legitimacy of that ‘new world order’ in which we have all been living for the past several decades, undermining its seemingly unquestionable neo-liberal premises, ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ seeks to rethink the biennial as a meta-device with the potential to facilitate the renewal of critical thinking by extracting thought from the immediate artistic and political context where it takes place. In other words, ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ does not seek to take local specifics as some sort of prism to read the global, an especially tempting solution in a city such as Istanbul, with its wealth of historical, literary and pop-cultural references. Nor does the exhibition strive to reveal to cultural tourists yet another aspect of this fascinating ‘metaphor city’, bridge between Asia and Europe, nostalgic symbol of an Ottoman empire troubled by its unyielding determination to modernize, now an ambitious global metropolis, and of course a trauma spot for European identity and the multicultural politics of the European Union. Rather it addresses both local and international audiences head-on with questions about the contemporary world in the throes of the current economic crisis, whose effects are everywhere.

• • •

Because things are the way they are,
things will not stay the way they are.

Bertolt Brecht

Brecht wrote his The Threepenny Opera at the heyday of the Weimar Republic, at a time of global economic crisis, as Hitler continued to build his power base and prepared his accession to power. Today, as then, one of the consequences of the economic crisis has been the massive rightward shift of the (European) electoral body. Symptomatic of the present political constellation are a number of resolutions by various bodies of the European Union equating Nazism and communism under the catch-all label of totalitarianism. 06 Their real ideological goal is not restricted to their revisionism that denies the worth of the basic values of the communist project –social equality, solidarity, social justice– but may be seen as a preemptive strike against any response to the present crisis based on fundamental social change. Politics must break with this hegemonic logic of capitalism whose servant it continues to be; and if its abolishment does not appear to be on the immediate agenda, capitalism must be socially, economically and ecologically brought into check. Of course no one knows how this endemic crisis will unfold, if only because solutions are not pre-determined but depend on the actions of its actors. On our activities. Or passivities.
In his song ‘To Those Born Later’ Brecht writes: What times are these, in which/ A conversation about trees is almost a crime/ For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing! 07 In times like these, like ours, art can –and should– involve itself as one of the very few places where unfettered analysis and the eclosion of new concepts, where criticism, education, and even agitation, are possible. Art is arguably not the best place to plan, for instance, the future of Palestine. But it may well be the only one.
The collective does exactly that. Using a series of architectural proposals to open an ‘arena of speculation’ on possible futures for Palestine, the group seeks to think beyond the debilitating mainstream deadlock and treating the ethno-nationalist consensus for the blackmail it is. Zones of Palestine that have been or will be liberated from direct Israeli military presence provide a laboratory to study the multiple ways in which one might imagine the re-use, re-habitation or recycling of the architecture of Israeli occupation. By contemplating the transformative re-appropriation of Israeli settlements and military bases, the project holds forth the prospect of making sustainable plans for the future after occupation in a situation where life as a whole is governed by inscrutable changes inflicted by the globally dominant geo-political will.
Is it not possible, today, to think of art the way Brecht understood theater –that is, as a mode of ‘collective historical elucidation’ 08, an apparatus for constructing truth rather than what amounts to a viewing feast for the bourgeoisie? Reading the political potential of art against the backdrop of the concrete political context of its day does not mean that art has to be marshaled into the service of politics or play a partisan role in power politics –though the merits of such art are amply worth investigating if one is to grasp the turbulent relations between art and politics, which since the historical avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, have been an integral part of visual culture as a whole. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the collection of political posters produced by the different factions, political parties and movements involved in the Lebanese wars between 1975 and 1990, presented as ‘Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War’ by Zeina Maasri, Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut. Dominant understanding, based on a dubious interpretation of high-modernist ideology, construes political commitment as essentially extraneous to art, liable to hijack art for extrinsic political purposes. Hence, any desire on the part of exhibition makers to conceive the audience as a thinking, even active political body –indeed as anything more than a statistic at the turnstiles and in project applications– is dismissed out of hand as stemming from an unwitting totalitarianism that if allowed to proceed will soon be bureaucratically organizing art as propaganda for a regime. The irony, of course, is that the art of today is in the service of politics –but politics cheapened to the production of consensus, that is, to the reaffirmation of the status quo, invariably clad in the garments of ‘democracy’. Consensus, as Jacques Rancière has written, is not about people finding agreement between one another, but about the sense we make of something being in agreement with the senses, ‘the agreement between a sense-based regime of presenting things and a mode of interpreting their meaning’ 09 –and it is precisely for this reason that would-be politically neutral art is more accurately seen as a means of policing the art world. In point of fact, high-modernist art was by no means politically consensual: prior to World War Two, American abstract artists were largely left-leaning, often radically so; it was only during post-war reconstruction that the idea of abstraction underwent a revisionist metamorphosis and ended up redefined and codified as artistic autonomy. When the field of art is construed as a dichotomy between ‘autonomy’ and ‘political engagement’, the latter cancels the former and reduces art to a mere illustration of a problem better dealt with by society elsewhere. But if that ‘illustration’ appears as it does in Yüksel Arslan’s paintings and sketches from his 1970s series ‘Capital’ based on Marx’s classic study, fusing a pedagogical potential with a highly-individualistic, classification-defying artistic approach, so much the better! It is perhaps this ‘illustrative’ approach, so much maligned by contemporary art cognoscenti, that prompted Arslan to call his works not paintings, but instead to coin the term arture, combining art and peinture.
Prompting the audience to think about the necessity and means of social change does not entail canceling out art’s need to problematise and disclose its own procedures, any more than paying heed to direct audience impact and the exhibition’s educational potential is more propagandistic than market-driven and media-hyped exhibitions that equate the value of art with its commercial success. Art can show that changes are not unworkable and socially baneful, that the superiority of the rich is not the self-evident price to pay for freedom, that the consensus governing us is a power machine from which escape is vital and possible… As such, ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ as a conceptual framework and simply as a question is indeed geared toward political will formation. Since when is politically proactive exhibition-making to be shunned as short-sighted and tendentious? Why is it not seen as the appropriately forward-looking strategy in a world of vacuous infotainment and the obscenely cynical spectacle of political grandstanding? Political engagement has never deprived the presented works of their ‘autonomy’, for autonomy is not something given as an essence of artistic procedure, but a construction, a space of negotiation; autonomy, if it means anything, refers to acknowledging and maintaining the tension between the specificity of the artistic and the conditions and limits of each situation.
As an exhibition, ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ provides a prism for viewing the works, a context in which they can be read in explicit reference to Brecht’s conscious political engagement and methods. The works presented are not necessarily ‘Brechtian’ per se; indeed few refer directly to Brecht’s oeuvre. They subscribe, on the one hand, to Brecht’s belief in political engagement in art and seek to make that potential meaningful; on the other hand, they share something of the spirit of Brecht’s song. ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ points a way forward beyond the merely existent, delineating possible directions and new readings. Yet the exhibition as a whole is only one of the perspectives on the individual works; separately the pieces involve a whole series of singular preoccupations and clusters of reference.
That means that in the exhibition ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ there is no hedging on options. When in Deimantas Narkevičius’ ‘The Role of a Lifetime’ (2003), Peter Watkins states: ‘I don’t believe or I’m not interested in the idea of a neutral artist, even if there were such a thing, I don’t think it interesting very much, frankly,’ the desire is plainly that Watkins’ statement be heard, taking priority over other layers present in the work. The video consists of the interview with Watkins, a pioneer of docudrama whose politically engaged films changed the understanding of the documentary genre, juxtaposed with drawings by Lithuanian artist Mindaugas Lukošaitis and amateur Super-8 clips of people gallivanting about in Brighton, taken from British film archives. We hear only Watkins’s answers, out of which questions about the need for critical and self-critical thinking in art emerge and multiply. With Narkevičius’ specific style of documentary psycho-geography regarding the fate of Soviet modernism, on the one hand, and on the other, Watkins’ monologue on questions of realism and fiction, the construction and recreation of reality, and his interest in film-making not only for creative, but for political and social reasons, the work’s overall effect is that of a dual manifesto. The work both evokes and embodies artistic visions of social transformation where art plays a central role in influencing perception and thus affecting social processes in the spirit of ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood’, that mainstream consensus contrives to write off as ideological and socially irrelevant banter, championing instead a critique of modernity that ‘elevates pessimism to permanent despair’ and ‘offers past in order to forget the present.’ 10

• • •

The proof of the pudding lies in the eating

The exhibition brings together 70 artists: 30 women, 32 men, 3 collaborative projects, 5 collectives. The youngest artist is 27 years old, the oldest 76. There are 5 dead artists. The oldest work dates from 1965. There are 25 new productions. The artists come from 40 countries. The highest GDP of these countries is $ 4,002,739 Billion US (per capita $ 45,550 US) in the United States; the lowest is $ 11,798 Billion US (per capita $ 2,197 US) in the Kyrgyz Republic. 20 artists reside outside of their home countries. 22 are represented by commercial galleries, of which 9 are based outside of the artist’s country of residence. The percentage of total budget allocated to the artists’ costs is as follows: 8.29 % for production costs, 6.09 % for travel and accommodation, 8.53 % for transport of the works. Artists receive no fee. Curatorial fees amount to 1.21 % of the total budget of the Biennial. Curatorial research accounts for 1.95 % of the total budget, and the curators’ travel and living costs in Istanbul amounts to 2.53 %. As of 20 August 2009, the planned budget of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial is 2,050,299 Euros.

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ So wrote Adam Smith, ‘the father of modern economics’, whose economic theory known as the ‘invisible hand principle’ advocates a market economy based on self-interested actions, supposed to result in the growth of general welfare. The quotation is taken up by Zanny Begg in ‘Treat (or Trick)’ (2008), a work that combines animations and drawings in an installation commenting on commodity fetishism and fictions, the omnipresent nature of capital and its spectacular performative acts in the quest for maximizing profits. The mask of the White Hare, the iconic character featured in the film, is a metaphor for the tricks and illusions of capitalism, and the main character of the narrative is the illusionist Mr Invisible Hands –incarnating the capitalist system itself. Though his audience is larger than ever, Mr Invisible Hands is in big trouble, for ‘he has run out of new tricks’ –a clear allusion to the long-term consequences of the pervading global economic policies that have spawned the current financial crisis.
One of Brecht’s best known principles, which he called the Verfremdungseffekt –incisively described by Alain Badiou as ‘the fictionalization of the very power of fiction, in other words, the fact of regarding the efficacy of semblance as real’ 11– is inscribed in the very concept of the exhibition, where it manifests itself as a surplus of propaganda, direct interpretative ‘manipulation’ that presents the works in a resoundingly political key. Though it shows many different things, the exhibition explicitly states what it desires to ‘show’: that a just world order and distribution of economic goods and services is viable and absolutely vital –and that communism is still the only name for that desirable project. It is an exhibition keenly aware that its conditions of possibility are certainly not regulated by any utopian or emancipatory –let alone revolutionary– horizon, but rather by the immanent logic and consequences of ‘spectacle’. Yet it wagers on the dialectical tension between its strong political claims (art as a means of political education, a way of deframing the apparently self-evident, as Brecht would have it) and the confining framework of the biennial and the contemporary internationalism of art, which is liable to make a mockery of those very claims. The fact that the ‘white cube’ has today become a somewhat nostalgic concept only confirms how impure the situation is, but this very impurity is somehow exacerbated in the case of the biennial. For if it could be argued that the museum has lost out to Sotheby’s and the shopping malls, it has also been trumped by the biennial circuit and the cultural tourism that it promotes, where the average time spent watching video pieces is under 30 seconds. Yet because the very system that spectacularizes media also regards biennials as ‘important,’ it is unlikely to ignore them completely and may inadvertently offer an avenue to highlight questions that in a museum would remain in the shadows.
With some exceptions, the art shown in ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ remains largely within the conventions of autonomous production and individual authorship, according priority to formal aesthetic considerations. Here, too, the exhibition seeks to productively exacerbate the dialectical tension between its overt political thrust and the conventions with which it negotiates, including a hierarchy and production style incommensurately further from the ideals of self-organization than any institution Robert Smithson could have ever imagined in 1972, when, in his essay ‘Cultural Confinement’ he described museums as prisons and curators as their wardens. 12 To do an exhibition in such circumstances, and in full awareness of such constraints, is at once to dispassionately take stock of the objective state of exhibition-making today, and to take a position regarding the potential of the exhibition as cultural form and political forum. In the ‘polyphony’ of its voices, as Mikhail Bakhtin might have put it, ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ as an exhibition –not as something objectively given, but in the ways it is subjectivated, in its immanent prescriptions and the meaning it has for its actors– is a political program and campaign that has deemed it high time to do away with the much cherished ‘artistic ambivalence’ that has led us into the clutches of all-out cynicism, and to find a way for fragmentary and pluralistic threads of ‘artistic critique’ 13 to become a collective expression of a desire for emancipatory social change. Against both the transformation of the productive status of artists in the context of the ‘biennalization’ of art, and the instrumentalization of exhibitions as gentrification tools, we cultural workers need to step up and play a part in the collective production of meaning that turns consumers into producers. The challenge is to avoid merely displacing the site of ambivalence from the artworks to the curatorial conceit, avoiding in other words that the dialectical tension that makes for compelling exhibition making in an era of legitimate suspicions about the political agency of exhibitions themselves become a new site of ambivalence. To avoid this, we might start by redefining professionalism to include practicing self-governed politics. ‘And if you think this is utopian, please think why is it such’ (Brecht).
Today, as our education systems prepare people for (more or less) successful servitude within the established order through opportunism, competition, deceit, and highly structured rules of conduct –a doctrine taken to its extreme in the illustrated booklet ‘Postgraduate Education’ (2009) by Siniša Labrović, which reads like a sort of DIY guide to criminal malfeasance as a recipe for commercial and social success– the exhibition as a whole takes on the role of being pedagogical and illustrative, leaving individual works to negotiate a finer balance between critical intervention and formal aesthetic concerns. That does not mean that the exhibition seeks to draw up some sort of moral checklist of all the wrong doings that plague the world today. It rather follows Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s straightforward imperative ‘Don’t Complain’ (2007) – the title of his prominently displayed installation at the entrance to the main exhibition venue. Yet it does take an active and – why not?– agitational position, revealing in the process its own inextricable complicity in the situation it seeks to critique and change. The curatorial view is not objective in the sense of some alleged impartiality, whereby equal distancing would enable an accurate point of view. Exactly the contrary, it holds that the real, objective point of view is one that emphasizes its position and the ways of its own involvement in the situation. Partisanship in curatorship is unquestionable. Be it in politics, economics or arts, it is no longer sustainable to use the same rules for the unequal, and loaded rules for the equal.

• • •

Geometry for the poor. Cabbage. Broccoli. Potato. Bean. Leek.
Corn. Cakes. Name. I bite myself. I devour myself. Eat yourself.
Bite yourself. Charge, cakes!

Mladen Stilinović, ‘Works with Food’, 1978 – 2009

‘Geometry for the poor’, the title of the work by Mladen Stilinović, could stand as a metaphor for the politics and ideology that pushed modern art to the ‘outskirts’ of the European modernist project, to places forever reconfiguring their status as semi-peripheries. 14 The status of these geographies is exemplified in Oraib Toukan’s installation ‘The Equity is in the Circle’ (2007–09), in which the artist elicits the enthusiastic help of a group of ‘professionals’ to try and calculate just how much a 100-year lease of the Middle East region would cost and how the plan could best be implemented. Similarly, Doa Aly’s video ‘The Girl Splendid in Walking’ (2009) is a story about obsessions and unrequited love, longing and desire, frustration and sensuality, the desire to communicate that ends up being mimetic of the other, all of which reads as a metaphor of the geo-political historical present and the inescapable hegemony of the West.
‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ is the outcome of a series of piecemeal encounters with the lived experiences of a multiplicity of modernisms posited not as examples of ‘another modernity’, but as an ‘integral part of modernization per se.’ 15 The exhibition focuses not on some promise of a virgin soil whose dynamism, vitality and ‘authentic’ life might save and redeem vapid Western consumerism and its decadent art world, but hopes to point to some exit strategy from the whole false dichotomy of centre and periphery. Of course, neoliberal globalization is also undermining that model, which shifts the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion to class relations, making it indispensable to invent new modes of transnational solidarity. These cannot but draw upon the resources of more time-tried forms of being together, requiring us to work through multiple temporalities and their potentialities, bringing out latencies within the past and tracing specific histories as something living, productive and open to future developments and critical reworking.
The global expansion of modernism during the Cold War is subject of the installations ‘U.S. Army and Father’ (2002–09) and ‘Amazing Father’ (2005) by Haejun Jo and Donghwan Jo, the son and the father, where drawings and stories based on the father’s account of his experiences in the Korean War, as well as his first encounters with modernist art from the West, testify to the importance of transfers and counter-transfers in the transmission of knowledge. In her hologram collages from the series ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ (2009), Jinoos Taghizadeh uses Iranian newspapers from the time of the Islamic revolution and the days and weeks preceding it. She juxtaposes the newspapers with paradigmatic paintings from Western art history, alluding both to the covert influence of these powers on the political reality of Iran, and to the ambivalent stance of the Iranian government towards its international relations, wavering between a desire for recognition and introspection. Anna Boghiguian’s series of drawings based on the poems by ‘poet-historian’ Constantine P. Cavafy (1863 – 1933), a cosmopolitan educated in England, who spent much of his life in Alexandria, adapts Cavafy’s poetics of investing history with desire to express a fragile balance of insight and empathy for the ephemeral and temporal nature of all power. In ‘Parabasis’ (2009) Simon Wachsmuth raises a number of questions about European and Turkish self-understanding, employing an archival and pseudo-archeological approach to blind spots in research and to situations where there is a basic lack of information –and sometimes unforeseen epilogues– in the grand art-historical narratives. Lidia Blinova’s series of photographs, ‘Hand Ornament’ (1995), shows the artist’s own hands forming ornaments. Her hands almost seem to speak some sort of sign language just beckoning to be deciphered –a language of the future-past that might prove a viable substitute for the imposed (and now internalized) perception of the abstract decoration supposedly ‘typical’ of art in Central Asia, and the ‘decorative’ approach to life in our post-Soviet era. One might be forgiven for mistaking Marina Naprushkina’s ‘The President’s Platform’ (2007) for a modernist minimalist sculpture. In fact, it is a replica of the platform used by Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. The absurdity of this lonely red pedestal draws its power from the inflationary use of the term ‘platform’ as an imaginary underpinning for dialogue and free speech, while this same freedom of speech is curbed in most ‘democratic’ societies in one way or other, be it through ‘market mechanisms’ as with the Murdoch empire, by force as in Belarus, or through legislation such as with the controversial section 301 in Turkey’s penal code. 16
The routine cultural logic of post-Communism celebrates the fall of Communism as ‘the final victory of modern democracy over its totalitarian enemies’, and understands post-socialism as ‘a cultural reconquest, the re-westernization of Eastern Europe.’ 17 Many works in the exhibition, however, argue differently. David Maljković’s collages, videos and installations stem from the legacy of socialist modernism, where the avant-garde is understood not as an exhausted ideological force, but as an active principle. In circumstances where the legacy of socialist modernism is scarcely present, and every attempt at cognitive and critical engagement with it is thwarted by the very impossibility of reconciling art and collective social experience, Maljković’s works appear as hesitant encounters with relatively unknown objects, treating the past as pregnant with all the unrealized commitments to experimentation and collectivism beyond any particular case, making the present fundamentally open to the risk of new meaning, even when immediate social and political conditions impede its coming to be. In the work of Chto delat / What is to be done?, whose very form of collective organization and self-understanding reflects the Russian avant-garde legacy, the accent is on the political project of socialist emancipation and collectivism, refuting ideological clichés about communism being a conservative reaction against modernity, and challenging tendencies to fixate on Western Cold War ideals of artistic autonomy with its self-assigned and falsely apolitical task of protecting ‘avant-garde’, ‘progressive’, ‘abstract’, ‘modern’ art from ideological cooptation. Highly political aspects of Western conceptions of modernism stemming from the Cold War era are brought to light in Museum of American Art that opened in 2004 in Berlin (Stalinallee 91), as an educational institution dedicated to the exploration of often overlooked aspects of postwar reconstruction and modernization. The museum focuses on the political role of exhibitions of American modern art, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that toured through different European cities in the Cold War years, gradually shifting the centre of gravity from separate national art scenes to the now hegemonic, international art world. The collection ‘Modern Art in the USA’ thematizes the reception of American exhibitions of modern art in socialist Yugoslavia. The strategy of using ‘amateurish’ copies of masterpieces of (American) hegemonic artistic production from the mid-twentieth century produces an estrangement effect that sets the whole context of modern art exhibitions in a new light. These are works without authors, or perhaps collectively authored works, where authorship ceases to be an individual fact of artist genius and becomes a collective endeavour, where reception and interpretation are no less important than the act of material production itself in the constitution of the object. Directly introducing confusion into the art-market system, these works deal with the political economy of art –not only of art as a means of ideological manipulation and political propaganda during the Cold War (the cultural-diplomatic promotion of abstract expressionist painting in Europe was carried out by the ‘United States Information Service’, a governmental agency)– but speak to the deeply political-economical and ideological nature of all art, regardless of its content or its author’s claims.

• • •

What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?
Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children

The works by artist, writer and philosopher Vyacheslav Akhunov, whose oeuvre comprises collages, painting, installations, performances, actions and video, as well as numerous essays and novels, complicate questions about the status of ‘dissident’ art under real socialism. From perspectives of anti-communist resentment, nationalism and the triumphal liberal capitalism, it is invariably reinterpreted as unilaterally rebellious to the official ideology. Yet for ‘dissident’ art practices, rebellion against the unrealized potential and bureaucratization of the revolutionary project was more important, and the ironic criticism of socialist society sought to invigorate stale socialist discourse. From a peripheral position in Tashkent, where for decades he was virtually the only active conceptual artist, Akhunov has set out to rework the experiences of Moscow conceptualism from the 1970s and the pioneering happenings and actions of the 1980s. Between 1974 and 1987, Akhunov worked on a series of collages using typical socialist propaganda iconography. ‘Lenin’s plan of Monumental Propaganda’ (1975–85), ‘Leniniana’ (1977–82) and ‘The Doubts’ (1976) are all dedicated to revolution leader V. I. Lenin. From today’s perspective, Vyacheslav Akhunov’s works, pushing the aesthetics of Soviet political propaganda beyond its overuse of signs, raise a number of questions that go beyond the strictly ironic subversion of the ideological apparatus. What are these works’ relationship to communism? Are they critical? Critical of what? Of the utopian ideals of the communist project? Of the betrayal of communist ideals by the ruling nomenklatura? Of the ideological manipulation of the masses’ belief in utopian ideals? Or are they nostalgic? But nostalgic for what? No matter what Akhunov’s actual intentions might be, fascination with Lenin is a symptom of a deep interpenetration between subjectivity and the ideological maneuvers it opposes. These works today form a kind of archive whose relation to the past is established outside any domains of revisionism or nostalgia. Symbols of the socialist project prove tenacious and resist the empty landscapes where the author places them, holding out as stark metaphors for the infertile soil of capitalism, implicitly evoking that ‘fine word ‘communism’’18 as the name for a project of the emancipation of the masses, today abandoned to chaos. Akhunov’s works are shown in several places, like ‘specters of communism’ haunting the exhibition. In the context of more recent works, they point to a basic dichotomy that cuts to the quick of post-socialist societies, inhibiting them from settling accounts: it is a past with which it is no longer possible to live, but also a past which is impossible to shirk off.
The motif of food – ‘food is the first thing, morals follow on’ as Brecht had it – comes up in more than a few works in the exhibition. These works do not address the politics of food distribution, but – like Mladen Stilinović – use food solely as an artistic gesture ‘laid bare.’ In his many works dealing with food, Stilinović juxtaposes references to Constructivism and Suprematism with bread or inexpensive cakes, forcing a double take on the vicious circle of poverty, food, labour, art, ideology and power. By using cheap and easily accessible materials such as basic foodstuffs, and employing clumsy, uneven handwriting, he underscores the existential fragility, the vulnerability of being itself. ‘Bread’ (2008) by Hans-Peter Feldmann consists of a simple slice of bread whose soft middle has been eaten, leaving the crust to frame the emptiness within. The crust is shown on a white museum pedestal as a sculpture. Bread, writes Roland Barthes, ‘as a moral object must be despised. (…) It is a means of blackmail: tyrants subjugate people by threatening to leave them without bread; in this respect, bread is a symbol of oppression.’ 19 Modest in size, Feldman’s work possesses a paradoxical monumentality. The video ‘Pomegranate’ (2005) by Palestinian artist Jumana Emil Abboud shows female hands meticulously and obsessively inserting the seeds of a pomegranate back into the shell. This laborious and seemingly senseless performance is a gesture that obsessively tries to annul the results of violent displacement. In her video ‘Fountain’ (2000), Canan Şenol paraphrases Marcel Duchamp’s famous ‘Fountain,’ as well as Bruce Nauman’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Fountain,’ while inverting these statements from a gender perspective and an ostensibly peripheral geographical context. The video consists of a close-up on a magnificent pair of tumescent female breasts hanging down against a black cloth, hung as a kind of improvised stage set. The breasts lactate slowly but incessantly, and the only sound heard is that of the milk drops dripping. Larissa Sansour’s video ‘Soup over Bethlehem’ (2006) shows the artist’s family chatting around a dinner table on which ‘mloukhieh’ –a national Palestinian dish– is being served. The mundane everyday themes discussed by those at the table run counter to clichés of victimization, stereotyped debates over identity, and the whole trade this identity is subjected to in Palestine, where problems related to food and politics have become inseparable. ‘I’m so occupied these days,’ says one of the people at the table. Someone replies, laughing: ‘Aren’t we all.’

• • •

So many reports.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht, Questions From A Worker Who Reads

Experimental geographer and artist Trevor Paglen explores the landscape that military and intelligence insiders call the ‘black world’ –a world of state secrets, covert budgets, military industrial complexes, clandestine military bases, false identities, disappeared people. Paglen shows how the ‘black world’ gives rise to a peculiar visual, aesthetic, and epistemological grammar with which to think about the contemporary moment. His ongoing project, ‘The Other Night Sky,’ has over the past few years involved observing, tracking, and photographing orbiting US reconnaissance and military-surveillance satellites. Largely situated over the Middle East, Asia and Russia, their positions, orbital characteristics, and even their very existence, are secret. The multimedia work ‘Celestial Objects (İstanbul)’ (2009) uses observational data gathered from a loosely knit network of amateur ‘satellite spotters’ around the world. The work consists of photographs produced in collaboration with the Astronomy Department of İstanbul University; while depicting a spectacular and seemingly ‘innocent’ night sky above Turkey, the photographs also map military satellites and spacecraft. Though their presence is unacknowledged, seen in these images it becomes indisputable; though denied, it becomes undeniable. It is as if nothing were really concealed, as if all the information were out there somewhere, but in a form so fragmented and systematically distorted as to appear invisible. Does art have nothing to say about this? Given the proper medium or decryption tools, things cease to appear ‘natural’ and unchangeable, and these acts of systematic distortion themselves become visible for what they are and for what they serve: naked exploitation and the ruination of resources and peoples.
Rena Effendi’s photographic series, ‘Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives along the Pipeline’ (2002–07), follows the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, examining the effects of the oil industry on people’s lives. The 1,700-kilometer crude-oil pipeline exerts tremendous geopolitical influence, particularly on the three countries through which it passes (and the fourth country, Armenia, which it strategically bypasses). Effendi’s photos, taken over the five-year period of its construction, show the devastation brought on by this grand maneuver of international capitalism, along with everyday forms of resistance to its ‘side-effects’ and vague promises of progress fueled by petrodollars. In a world that shrouds in ‘invisibility’ the violence of social relations, by means of an imaginary montage where economic decisions are portrayed as inevitable, art is able to bring a radical heterogeneity to bear on the given coordinates of the situation. As an experimental agent of perception in a society dominated by systematic blindness to anything outside economic circulation, art may have a key role to play if used as a mode of knowledge formation and transmission –for reflexively experimenting with what cognition is and might be.
Drawing on the procedures of the Soviet ‘factography’ movement – one of the radical yet now largely overlooked art and political experiments from the 1920s – Karen Andreassian’s documentary work extends well beyond the exhibition space and pulls pedagogy out of the classroom. In ‘Ontological Walkscapes’ (2009), the artist together with his students in the Department of Art History and Theory at Yerevan State University has researched the post-Soviet transformation of collectivism and its orchestrated demise into individual drives and consumption. Of course, religion has been crucial in replacing ideas of Soviet collectivism, as suggested by the series of photographs by Alimjan Jorobaev, ‘Men Praying on the Central Square in Bishkek’ (1982–2005). Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the statue of Lenin was removed from Bishkek’s central square and Friday prayers replaced military parades. For their ‘Ministry of Architecture: Culture States’ (2008–09), Société Réaliste has sought to visualize contemporary ideological and geographical borders in terms of age-old fortifications still used to build and sunder nations.
María Ruido’s documentary video, ‘Amphibious Fictions’ (2005), recounts the transformation of the textile industry in one area of Barcelona. The video traces the wider impact of the changes brought on by industrial dislocation and the ‘optimization’ of trans-national capital, resulting in poorer working conditions within the European Union and beyond. It shows the deterioration of labour practices as a conscious economic measure related to increased production, suggesting that the informal economies of the textile sector (i.e. illegal sweatshops) are not a consequence of the recent arrival of immigrants, but result from the re-structuring of the sector in the 1980s, when many factories closed down and production was outsourced to people’s homes: workers were de-unionised and at the same time literally and figuratively ‘domesticated’. The pattern that emerges can be seen in many other places, including Turkey. Aydan Murtezaoğlu’s and Bülent Şangar’s installation ‘Unemployed Employees – I found you a new job!’ (2009) is an attempt to insert the entirety of their practice into the complex system of labour relations and conditions of production, to question, in their own words, ‘the defeat created by capitalism through the transition process from proletariat to precariat, the becoming-pariah via identification.’ Margaret Harrison’s ‘Homeworkers’ (1977–78) looks into the lives of non-unionized women doing manufacturing work from home, juxtaposing case studies of homeworkers with newspaper clippings and data on the labour movement. At a time when ‘outsourcing’ and the ‘mobility of capital’ was just beginning to be used as a means of manipulating workers and subduing the labor movement, Harrison was advocating political action as the only effective means of fighting for workers’ and women’s rights. ‘Turkish Report 09’ (2009) by Sanja Iveković consists of papers reproducing the key points from the Turkish NGOs’ report on the status of women in Turkey. The red sheets of paper on which the report has been printed are scattered about the exhibition space – treated by the artist like useless waste paper, as is so often the fate of the output of mastodon bureaucracies, while at the same time transforming the report into an agitation leaflet. The papers contaminate the space like a virus, irritating the body of the museum, endangering the self-sufficiency and aesthetic unity of art with feminist propaganda.

• • •

Many things that cannot be said in Germany about Germany can be said about Austria.
Bertolt Brecht, ‘Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties’

The information glut in contemporary Western democracies tends to undermine the possibility of grasping the whole. It creates, in Heiner Müller’s words, ‘thick layers of murmur.’ 20 Through their fantastically complex mapping projects, Bureau d’études investigate and expose the rhizomic structures of the new global powers, pointing to parallels between different systems of oppression and manipulation, in the media, science, military and industry, bringing to light the unexpected yet telling collusions between them. Even a brief perusal of their mind-bogglingly detailed maps gives us some purchase on how all the disparate bits and pieces come together in the giant puzzle of power struggles and influence peddling that shapes our everyday reality. Their project ‘Administration of Terror’ (2009), laying bare the structure and operations of ‘deep state’ organizations, may be seen as a probe for getting beyond the surface of the ‘Ergenekon’ case that is currently unraveling in Turkey. 21
In ‘Ideal Media’ (2008–09), Lado Darakhvelidze examines the media reception of the Olympic games in China and the Russia-Georgia war in the summer of 2008, with a particular eye to those mechanisms that make it possible for wars around the world to be seen as local conflicts that need to be kept at bay and at a distance, rather than as signs of a world at war. The installation consists of interventions on school furnishings – blackboards and benches – found in the classroom of an abandoned Greek school in Feriköy, one of the exhibition venues, implicitly raising such questions as: Why is the school abandoned? Where are the pupils?
The project ‘East Side Story’ (2006–08) by Igor Grubić refers to a series of violent assaults on citizens that plagued the early Gay Pride celebrations in Belgrade (2001) and Zagreb (2002). ‘East Side Story’ consists of two video projections shown in parallel: the documentary footage of the violence during Gay Pride and the reinterpretation of the same events performed in Zagreb by contemporary dancers, who re-enact the gestures in the actual urban areas where they originally took place. These unusual ‘choreographies’ estrange the everyday surroundings of Zagreb’s seemingly peaceful streets. The violence against sexual minorities in the postwar Yugoslav context appears to function as a substitute for repressed nationalistic hatred of ethnic minorities. Normalized post-transition everydayness equates imaginary principles of liberal democratic public space with neoliberal market economics – culminating in violence.
The transformation of urban and social spaces into consumerist landscapes makes the desire to consume the apparently spontaneous mode for partaking in what society has on offer. The flipside is the spectacular aesthetization of politics, stripped bare in Hrair Sarkissian’s series of photos ‘Execution Squares’ (2008), which show benign-looking city squares in Damascus, Allepo and Lattakia where public executions are held. In ‘Unwritten’ and ‘Seized Letters’, two works by Cengiz Çekil from the 1970s dealing with censorship, the depoliticization of the media and society’s double morality may be seen as an eerie premonition of the 1980 military coup. More usually, though, the transformative potential of the public sphere is blunted by ideological and economic interests, intent upon upholding existent power relations, but making use of formal democratic procedures. From political decision-making processes on every scale to transnational organizations governed by corporative interests, and to the exclusion of migrants from political participation while integrating their suitably precarious labour power into the production apparatus, the very existence of the public everywhere is in crisis. It is not enough to deplore the under-represented ‘media’ presence of marginalized social contents in dominant public discourse; the very possibility of social experience on which a renewed political subjectivity could be built has been blocked. Many of the works in the exhibition deal with this problem of constituting a public, characterized by a deep-seated ambivalence between its ideal notion and real perversion. Artur Żmijewski’s ‘Democracies’ (2009) is an archive of video footage shot at various public demonstrations around the world, including a funeral of the ultra-right-wing Austrian politician Jörg Haider in Vienna, anti-NATO demonstrations in Strasbourg, Irish Protestants on a Loyalist march in Belfast, Palestinian demonstrators against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Israeli counter-protests… By showing the rhetoric, visual identity and representational language of social antagonisms from different ends of the political spectrum, the site of representational politics is shown up for its chronic paucity of political imagination.
Sharon Hayes’ work ‘I Didn’t Know I Loved You’ (2009) is informed by the artist’s continuous mappings of public speech acts and examines expressions of gender and political desire in a social context of enforced hetero-normativity and political repression. Though ‘demonstrations’ as forms of political action may well penetrate existent media and institutional structures, the question remains as to whether they are able to open new political spaces of articulation. In ‘Errorist Kabaret’ (2009) by the Argentine collective Etcétera…, ‘error’ is celebrated as an active principle. A theatre stage is surrounded by various life-size characters called gente armada – meaning both ‘armed’ and ‘constructed’ people. The initial idea for the gente was born in the streets in the midst of the national uprising and massive demonstrations in Argentina in 2001 and 2002, following the collapse of the country’s economy. In ‘Errorist Kabaret’ paper figures stand for diverse members of the ‘International Errorista’ movement – a worldwide political and philosophical movement that affirms the pursuit of error, not of truth, as a vital force – first initiated by Etcétera… for a protest against the presence of George W. Bush at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata in 2005. For the film ‘Mahogany’ (2009), Jesse Jones has re-scripted the final scene of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1927 opera ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’. But whereas Brecht intended Mahagonny as a criticism of the false freedoms of the Weimar Republic, Jesse Jones tests the marginality of political gesture in contemporary society in the absence of any utopian horizon.
Today, as the individualism of liberal capitalist society reduces everything to personal performance, while in the broader political field ‘charismatic leaders’ with their populist rhetoric are imposed as stop-gap solutions, Brecht’s message that ‘it is the masses who make history, not ‘heroes’’ is best understood in relation to the real impossibility of representing certain social relations and ways of being, where new political subjects and spheres of action are being constituted beyond representation.

• • •

Help and force from a single whole
And this whole must be altered.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent’, Act 4, from Das Badener Lehrstuck von Einverstandnis, Act 4 /
The denial of help, the song read by Multitude

Avi Mograbi’s documentary film ‘Z32’ (2008) takes its name from the operation in which Palestinian policemen were killed in retaliation for the murder of several Israeli soldiers. The film’s main character is a young man and former member of an elite Israeli military unit who participated in the action. The core of the film revolves around his confession and the issue of personal and collective guilt that is inextricable from a desire for forgiveness. Throughout the film, digital masks cover the faces of the two main protagonists, the soldier and his girlfriend. Their expressionless demeanor prompts an almost violent desire to peek behind the masks and see the face that eludes our gaze. But that is exactly what would be wrong: the naked real is what can only be shown through a mask –the invisible ‘truth’ dwells in the mask itself. Mograbi’s own face, however, features prominently in the film, suggesting that ‘Z32’ is not only about the incriminated Other, but about personal involvement and the author’s uncomfortable complicity. Author and camera are not ‘flies-on-the-wall’, merely recording, observing an intangible reality, but more precisely ‘flies-in-the-soup.’ 22
In the ‘Isola Bella’ project (2007–08) by Danica Dakić, residents of the Home for Protection of Children and Youth in Pazarić, near Sarajevo, wear the masks of animals, typical theatrical characters, and figures from popular culture. The artist brought her piano, props and scenery to the Home, and the script of the film follows from her intensive collaboration with the residents, who are both the audience and the performers in the video. The background of the work is the nineteenth-century wallpaper design of the same name that evokes an ideal uninhabited island or Garden of Eden. ‘Isola Bella’ becomes the stage, in contrast to the social reality and isolation of the residents. Although the primary function of the home is to accommodate the needs of children and young adults, most of the residents are survivors of the 1992 – 96 war – that is, older people who have spent their entire lives within the confines of the institution. ‘My wish is that when I leave the Home for the Protection of Children and Young People in Pazarić, I shall work for the UN in New York as a legal expert,’ says one of the masked characters in the film.
Using the fictional spaces of theatre and film, these works employ masks as the image of the ‘relationship between the passion for the real and the necessity of semblance’ 23, to hide and to become visible. In Michel Journiac’s photo serial ‘24 Hours in the Life of an Ordinary Woman’ (1974 – 94), gender is shown as performed beneath the ‘mask’ of drag. In the video ‘Origin’ (2008) by Erkan Özgen, an artist working in Diyarbakır, a city in southeastern Turkey with a predominantly Kurdish population, skin color takes the function of the mask in performing identity. The video, which was filmed in Spain, follows a group of African male illegal immigrants, marching in a park, chanting the same slogan: ‘How fortunate is the one who says I am Turkish’. The quote is from the Turkish national pledge of allegiance, ‘Our Oath’, which, since the 1920s, has been repeated as part of the daily routine in all Turkish educational institutions. As Slavoj Žižek said, ‘the mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.’ 24 Relations between violence and the mask, guilt and jouissance, economic exploitation and charity, and the question as to our complicity in what Brecht tirelessly exposed in his endeavor to arrive at the ‘truth of our situation’, are central for works as diverse as ‘Instruction’ (2009), a video installation by Wendelien van Oldenborgh dealing with the unresolved Dutch colonial past in Indonesia, or ‘Territory 1995’ (2006 – 09), an installation by Marko Peljhan in which the 1995 Srebrenica genocide is shown for what it really was: namely, a state-of-the-art war operation and not some anomaly of Balkan tribes engulfed in primordial ethnic hatred. In Işıl Eğrikavuk’s video ‘Gül’ (2007) voyeuristic enjoyment at hearing the confessions of an abused woman is subverted by a narrative that lapses into fiction, revealing the deep connections of fiction to politics in real life. The normalization and domestication of the state of exception is the subject of Darinka Pop-Mitić’s installation ‘Landscapes’ (2004) that consists of landscape paintings in the setting of a nondescript bourgeois salon. However, the titles of the painted localities, reveal the landscapes to be the locations of massacres committed during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. In Rabih Mroué’s video ‘I, the undersigned’ (2007) the artist simply admits his guilt. But as Lacanian psychoanalysis has taught us, admission of guilt is always a strategic manoeuvre to lure out the Other, in order to mask real guilt and hence be able to continue to ignore the truth of the guilt. Thus, it is by no means some ironic or absurd gesture on the artist’s part that he takes guilt upon himself; nor is it linked to any shamanic aspirations at redeeming society’s moral debt. It is a gesture that performs the destructive dialectic of the law and guilt in a society whose social mechanisms of dealing with guilt and responsibility as a political fact have failed miserably.

• • •

The truth of the situation is war.
Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy

Mounira Al Solh’s installation ‘The Sea is a Stereo’ (2006 – 09) introduces us to a group of men in Beirut, who, each and every day, rain or shine, swim in the Mediterranean. Their obsessive practice no matter what appears as a form of stubborn resistance against crumbling of the ‘privilege’ of being able to lead an ‘ordinary life.’ Every war is accompanied by stories of arbitrary cruelty and suffering, merging with such stories of struggles for normality. This struggle for normality takes a sudden twist when the artist quite literally speaks for the men. As they laugh and talk about their swimming in a soft young female voice, their macho stance mellows and is eventually effaced altogether by this strange gender bend. But the artist does not ridicule the men and their swimming. She uses her voice both to prevent any easy identification and empathy and to expose the vulnerability of the men’s practice. It is a shortcut for showing the fiction of ‘normality’.
The oppressiveness of normality and simple everyday actions takes a kind of anti-humanist gravity in ‘Itch’ or ‘Head’, films by Hamlet Hovsepian, produced in 1975 in his native village close to Yerevan. In Marwan’s paintings and watercolours, produced over a career of several decades, existentialist undertones find pictorial expression in brutally disfigured humans and the obsessively repetitive motive of the human head. Yet one would be hard pressed to assert any easy identification with ‘humanism’. (At some point in the 1960s Marwan shared a studio in Berlin with Baselitz. Tellingly, Marwan became ‘one the most important Arab painters of his generation’, as he is often described in art-critical parlance, while Baselitz is universally recognized as one of the artists who sells best.) In Tamás St. Auby’s 16 mm black and white film, ‘Centaur’ (1973 – 75), produced by the state-funded Béla Balázs Studio (only to be immediately banned by the censorship committee), the gravity of official ideology in everyday life is surpassed only by the revelation of the ways in which subjects enjoy their subjection to the law. In Mohammed Ossama’s graduation film ‘Step by Step’ (1977), what at first appears as a poetic celebration of the unspoiled beauty of the Syrian countryside, becomes an account of how society ‘normalizes’ and justifies violence in the name of modernization, transforming peasants into citizen-soldiers. In Nevin Aladağ’s installation ‘City Language’ (2009), a documentary approach takes a poetic route in capturing elusive norms and performances of urbanity. Nam June Paik’s work ‘Life’ (1974 – 83), a series of Life magazine cover pages on which the artist intervened by inserting a bubble with his personal, often art-related comments (‘Fluxus will start in Wiesbaden in one week’) disturbs any ‘objective’ perception of the magazine.
The question as to how people might exercise agency and establish a meaningful relationship with the real conditions of their existence is crucial in dominant political discourses where ‘normality’ functions as a kind of democratic daydream and ideological fantasy of the capitalist liberal-democratic order, multi-party parliamentary system with free elections, a free market, rule of law, and downplays as minor ‘side effects’ symptoms such as unemployment, poverty, crime, the widening of class differences, the decline of social and health security, the conservative backlash, or the rise of ethnic, racial and sexual intolerance. The concept of ‘normality’ is also central for the ideology of ‘everyday life’, which, though not necessarily a system of articulated doctrines, has its patterns, sets of images, symbols and concepts about morality, models of gender and sexuality, categories of language, and discourses on ethnic identity. In the ideology of ‘everyday life’ –which cannot be overlooked inasmuch as it is an indispensable medium for the production of human subjects– all these unspoken rules and embedded bodies of knowledge, which, from the inner sanctum of the psyche, make their claims about how the social world is and ought to be, get taken apart in a number of works and see their self-evidence challenged in their inter-relations within the exhibition. Something of this kind informs the work of Zofia Kulik, who revisits the project ‘Activities with Dombromierz’, realized together with Przemyslaw Kwiek as part of their collaboration from 1971 to 1987 under the name ‘KwieKulik’. The two worked together on ‘Activities with Dombromierz’ from the time of their son’s birth in 1972 until 1974; the project was both archival and performative in nature. The actions resulted from meticulously planned research based on the analysis of different fields of logic, the linguistic theory of signs, praxeology and mathematical calculations, all of which form an important theoretical aspect of their work. Their research became a blueprint in which the child and various household objects became part of strange and often uneasy constellations. Dobromierz is transformed by his parents into a child-object, which, in today’s context of a return to pro-family values, puritan children’s rights, pedophilia paranoia and normative parenthood, is a powerful expression of trauma within conscribed social roles and social normality. By reinterpreting the ‘Activities with Dombromierz’ archive, Zofia Kulik also draws attention to feminist positions in Eastern Europe at a time when the nominal equality of men and women had dulled the need for a progressive and articulated women’s movement, but turned the space of the home into an ambivalent place for resistance and social experimentation.
Routine institutional practices of classification and spatialization, along with systematic sanctions, repetitive exercises, control over deviations, and the taming of bodies is what constitutes the ‘normal’ –a designation that conceals its disciplinary and technological character. In Nilbar Güreş’s collages and photo works, ‘Unknown Sports’ (2008 – 09), everyday enforcement of femininity and its demand for well-mannered adherence to a set of structured behavioural rules and beautification procedures is expressed with phantasmagoric vividness. During the 1970s, KP Brehmer (1938 – 98) created a specific method for critically interpreting contemporary social and political developments by visualizing statistics and data. For example, ‘Soul and Feelings of a Worker’ (1978 – 80) takes up a study by psychologist and researcher Rex Ford B. Hersey on the worker’s state of mind during the production process. By using a specific colour for each different state of mind, the artist established a chart composition that shows both the passage of time over a period of one year and the scale of mood shifts, reflecting indirectly on the basic conditions of labor beyond the efficiency of pure capitalist logic. Ioana Nemes’ project ‘Monthly Evaluations’ (2009) is a complex system that auto-reflexively records the states the artist experiences on a daily basis, describing generic experiences related to work, ambition, progress and happiness. But instead of a static definition, it provides a variety of ways to negotiate and codify reality. Institutional practices of classification, calculation, mapping and control of deviant products and practices in Vlatka Horvat’s work is explored in relation to the (female) body, in spatial surroundings and social systems that inevitably generalise, transform and fragment the image of the body and its functions. İnci Furni observes stereotypes and models of gender identity in contemporary culture. Her use of pictures of the crescent moon and star, of popular women with and without scarves, provocative illustrations of political issues, legends and advertisement, all connected with the deconstruction of the ideal Turkish woman, break up society’s normative rhetoric, and by exaggerating religious, patriarchal and heterosexist clichés, opens up a space of symbolic disorder. The intermingling of sexual intimacy and state violence is exposed to a cold clinical look in the video ‘Beyond Guilt #2’ (2004) by Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir. The video consists of unapologetic shots of explicit dialogues and intimate contact between strangers; but the seemingly erotic conversations often take an unexpected turn, and the conflict erupts where we least expect it, disclosing the overpowering influence of militarism and omnipresent war.
War is the dark underside of a normality that takes for granted that the vast majority of people in the world are deprived of what Brecht called with disarming simplicity the ‘good life’: ‘living in a house, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving, working, thinking, all the great pleasures.’ 25 In life under the regime of war, in the life-atrophying conjunction of occupation and geo-political struggle, notions of ‘normality’ set in motion a social imagination and the performance of identities that can in some cases become a form of resistance. Take Wafa Hourani’s installation ‘Qalandia 2087’ (2009), the third in a series of future projections of the Qalandia military checkpoint and refugee camp. The year 2087 referred to in the title marks the hundred-year anniversary of the first Intifada. Qalandia refugee camp, established in 1949, is home to over 10.000 Palestinian refugees, and Qalandia checkpoint, one of the largest Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, is located between the Palestinian towns of Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority, and ar-Ram. To reach southern Palestinian towns or Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, residents of Ramallah have to go through Qalandia, and when the Israel military closes the checkpoint (which over the years has grown into a high-tech border crossing), they can neither leave nor enter the town. In Hourani’s projection of 2087 there is no checkpoint and wall in Qualandia any more. With its minute details of daily life in the city that has in the meantime grown out of the refugee camp, the work shows the way that the camp and the checkpoint become integrated into people’s perceptions. Yet it also dares to project itself into the future, and create a new imaginary that goes beyond perpetuating the grim reality of today.But to be sure to avoid getting carried away with projections, the banality and humiliating brutality of crossing the checkpoints themselves is underscored in the video ‘Smuggling Lemons’ (2006) by Jumana Emil Abboud.
Because the war is the engine of the capitalist economy, under capitalism it never ceases. Of course, a mere fraction of global military spending would immensely alleviate the poverty and the ecological dangers that threaten the world today. 26 But weaponry is such a special kind of commodity, enabling profit margins unattainable in peacetime economies that capitalism simply cannot give it up. There are dozens of wars –civil wars, low intensity conflicts, smaller-scale armed conflicts– being waged all over the world right now, and if we observe history, we may conclude that the present economic crisis will not be overcome without their escalation, entailing immense military expenses while generating of course enormous profits. But even in these times of crisis, Fredric Jameson’s assertion that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism still holds true. The permanent state of war on the verge of escalation into a vast open conflict is the background of Vangelis Vlahos project ‘Grey Zones’ (2009) that recalls the 1970s disputes over zones of influence in the Aegean sea, or of Lisi Raskin’s commitment to investigating the fears and the paranoia of Cold War rhetoric in Reagan-era American politics and their relationships toward the architecture of war, nuclear power and land use. Perhaps the image that best condenses today’s threat and exhaustingly permanent suspension of war is Shahab Fotouhi’s installation ‘Study for Nuclear Bomb Shelter (No.137)’ (2009): above the metal cage containing the rainbow-colored ladders leading up to ‘heaven’ sits a big cartoon-like mushroom – sinister, threatening, and simply crazy.

• • •

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy, Waiting For The Barbarians

Are there any grounds for hoping that the times of neoliberal globalization, with its ‘new world order’ and end-of-history mindset, is now coming to their end? Pessimists and other well-informed optimists think that deep systemic changes are unlikely and that the political and economic powers-that-be will manage to patch over the cracks opened by the crisis and move on to another crisis –a structural feature of capitalism itself. Optimists believe that the neo-liberal model itself must be changed, and indeed that some sacred cows of neoliberalism (like fantasies of the self-regulating nature of the market, or perceptions of state interventions as absolute evil) have already begun to shift. The real question therefore is not whether there will be changes, but what they will look like. Carefully nurtured post-1989 myths about the almost organic relationship between capitalism and democracy seems to be shattered, as the ‘Eastern tigers’ –and also many of the post-socialist countries that emerged in the place of Soviet block– have managed to conjugate unrestrained capitalism with authoritarianism. Capitalism has no need for democracy. To see the schizophrenia of such a reality, one need merely watch Natalya Dyu’s video ‘Happystan’ (2007), in which documentary shots of the pale depression of daily life are shown against the sound background of clichéd words of a song written by Andrey and Aliya Belyayev, one of the richest couples in Kazakhstan, and performed by famous Kazakh singer.
It’s an ugly fact, but the broader picture of political developments in Europe shows that the wish for security (economic, physical, psychological) has basically trumped the desire for freedom. The post-89 conservative backlash, the dismantling of the welfare state, rampant anti-terror legislation and the black world of ‘security’ agencies are all slowly eroding what was built up over two centuries of emancipatory struggles. And the crisis shows that in the lack of political imagination and the organization to channel its energies, between political freedoms and security, for the European masses, as Brecht noted, ‘food is the first thing…’
In a diary entry from September 1945, Brecht wrote: ‘We hear that The Threepenny Opera has been performed to packed houses in Berlin, but then had to be taken off, at the instigation of the Russians. The BBC reported that the ballad Food is the first thing, morals follow on was the reason for the protest. Personally, I would not have permitted the production. In the absence of any revolutionary movement, the play’s message is pure anarchism.’ 27 This statement has to be understood in the political context in the immediate wake of World War Two. But the fact is that today it is not possible to detect any broad revolutionary movement either. Indeed, reality itself has become ‘Brechtian’ – one need merely observe the characters ruling European politics to be convinced. 28 In Brecht’s day, the conflict was unambiguous: in the face of fascism there was no third way. Today, the language of politics is effectively depoliticized. Wars have become humanitarian interventions, mass killings are called ethnic ‘cleansing’, all political powers advance beneath a rhetoric of peace, democracy and human rights, and militants deprived of other means of struggle are labeled as ‘terrorists’. Even contemporary theory shies away from political antagonism, arguing instead for ‘agonistic’ politics, which could easily turn out to be politics without the political, along the lines of alcohol-free beer, cigarettes without smoke, decaffeinated coffee… In present class society, politics without antagonism is illusory. The culturalization of politics, promoted by neo-liberal ‘diversity’ which allows for the euphoric celebration of a range of marketable differences (usually touted as ‘pluralism’) must be replaced by the politicization of culture. Today when the dilemma ‘barbarity or socialism’ 29 is more real than ever and the future of the world appears divided between pauperized war zones and the stable fascistoid systems of the rich zones, this is our task.

01 Bertolt Brecht, Journals 1934 – 1955 (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 254.

02 Fredric Jameson has argued that ‘the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life –from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself– can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and yet untheorised sense.’ Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991). Available online:

03 It would be fastidious to tally up all the biennials, big and small, which have emerged over the past decade, but it has been estimated that there are now more than 300 worldwide. See Steven Rand, ‘An Unexamined Life’, in On Cultural Influence (New York: apexart, 2006), p. 13.

04 Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), p. 51.

05 Curating the İstanbul Biennial is gravely complicated by the fact that it has no secure budget of any kind to fall back on, making it a deviant hybrid. The situation is further complicated by the fact that WHW is a collective of four curators, but it does not produce for four: instead of four biennials, it produces only one. Still, WHW eats and generally consumes for four persons, and even more (even in its material base, a group is not just the sum of its parts, but a ‘third person’, as Jon Hendricks, member of Guerrilla Art Action Group, once noted). This fact presents an additional financial burden to be taken into account.

06 One of the latest such anti-communist resolutions adopted at the regular Parliamentary Assembly session of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 3 July 2009 is entitled ‘Divided Europe Reunited’. Another worth mentioning is draft resolution 1481 entitled ‘Need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes,’ adopted on 14 December 2005, by the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

07 Bertolt Brecht, ‘An die Nachgeborenen,’ first published in Svendborger Gedichte (1939) in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 722-25 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1967), Eng. trans. by Scott Horton, Harpers Magazine (

08 Alain Badiou, The Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 42.

09 Jaques Rancière, Chroniques des temps consensuels (Paris: Seuil, 2005), p. 8.

10 Ulrich Beck, Understanding the Real Europe,

11 Alain Badiou, The Century, p. 49.

12 Robert Smithson, ‘Cultural Confinement’ (1972), in The Collected Writings (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 154 – 56. ‘The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of the society… Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffectual, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise. Innovations are allowed only if they support this kind of confinement.’

13 Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006).

14 Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays by Immanuel Wallerstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

15 Viktor Misiano, ‘We and the Others’, in Continuing Dialogues, A Tribute to Igor Zabel (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2008), p. 103.

16 Section 301 of Turkey’s penal code makes ‘insulting Turkishness, the Republic or the National Assembly’ punishable by a prison sentence of between six months and three years.

17 Boris Buden, ‘It is About a Society Which Mistook Culture for Politics’, in What, How & for Whom, on the occasion of 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (Zagreb: Arkzin/WHW, 2003), pp. 39 – 40.

18 Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy (London: Verso, 2008), p. 91.

19 Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971), quoted in Mladen Stilinović, ‘Hatred towards bread’, in the installation ‘Works with food’ (1978 – 2009).

20 Heiner Müller, Germania, trans. Bernard Schütze & Caroline Schütze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990), p. 60.

21 In reference to the trial that opened in 2008 against the illegal ultra-nationalist organization ‘Ergenekon’, accused of fomenting disorder, planning coups d’états and organizing politically motivated assassinations.

22 Mitchell Miller, ‘Voices within the Siege: Avi Mograbi and the Rules of Absolute Engagement’, Cineaste, Vol. 32, No. 3.

23 Alain Badiou, The Century, p. 47.

24 Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 28.

26 According to David Leonhardt’s sober estimate in The New York Times, the war in Iraq alone ‘is costing about $200 billion a year. Treating heart disease and diabetes, by contrast, would probably cost about $50 billion a year. The remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations –held up in Congress partly because of their cost– might cost somewhat less. Universal preschool would be $35 billion. In Afghanistan, $10 billion could make a real difference. At the National Cancer Institute, annual budget is about $6 billion.’ See also and

27 Bertolt Brecht, Journals 1934 – 1955, p. 355.

28 Is Berlusconi not the very incarnation of the British-sitcom style ‘new statesman,’ who comes to the stage and proclaims –as if acting in a Brecht play– ‘I am a corrupt politician’? In the recent scandal regarding his use of prostitutes, his comment was a laconic ‘I am no saint.’ For his cabinet, he chooses young women on the merit of their appearance alone and makes sexist jokes in political speeches. He is at once a political leader and a filthy rich media mogul, which enables him to openly blackmail the ‘independent press.’ In Berlusconi’s Italy, ‘democracy’ is a hollow spectacle, where democratic procedure is seen as an obstacle to a smoothly running business, and therefore to be bypassed.

29 ‘We stand today… before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.’ Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet, 1915.

WHAT, HOW & FOR WHOM/WHW is a curatorial collective formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb, Croatia. Its members are Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović, and designer and publicist Dejan Kršić. WHW organises a range of production, exhibition and publishing projects and directs Gallery Nova in Zagreb. “What”, “how” and “for whom”, the three basic questions of every economic organization, concern the planning, concept and realization of exhibitions as well as the production and distribution of artworks and the artist’s position in the labor market. These questions formed the title of WHW’s first project dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, in 2000 in Zagreb, and became the motto of WHW’s work and the title of the collective.

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