Biennale of Sydney: The World (may be) Fantastic
15 May - 14 July 2002
Biennale of Sydney, 43-51 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo NSW - Australia
The Biennale of Sydney has always tried to distinguish itself from the myriad of biennales that have sprung up like weeds in the past ten years or so. Yet despite the Biennale's long history, beginning with its inauguration in 1973, it has never really managed to find its niche, unlike the critical dumpfest that has characterized the Whitney Biennale, the Miss Universe—like pageantry and competitiveness of Venice, or even the mammoth scale of Sao Paolo. Too many times, it has piggy—backed off the findings of other curators, appearing bland and even overtly derivative. This year's artistic director, Australian-based artist Richard Grayson, along with advisors Janos Sugar, Susan Hiller and Ralph Rugoff, overhauled the Biennale in favor of a more expansive and flexible one and a great number of the 57 artists invited were not the usual panoply of biennale regulars. The result was an exhibition that was quirky, refreshing and thankfully broke free from the opinions, obsessions and standards of the rest of the art world. Put simply, this particular incarnation of the Biennale of Sydney was a joyful and riotous meeting of the mad. I Despite this year's suspiciously whimsical theme of "(The World May Be) Fantastic," with all of its suggestions of frothy, insubstantial anarchy, a surprising number of the works succeeded in making a convincing rejoinder to the idea that contemporary art must necessarily toe the didactic line to be considered serious. Without the straitjacket comprised by the interference of too many ideological posturings, the organizers of the Biennale were able to stage a show that was pleasantly open- ended and inclusive of aspects missed in other large-scale exhibitions such as humor, imagination and an unwavering belief in the potential of the mundane. One might even argue that this year's Biennale was the antithesis of other biennales (the "anti- Documenta") as it confirmed that levity has not lost its value, despite a global discourse that insists upon the necessity of having a solemn agenda to validate one's claim for existence.
To be sure, this Biennale, as with any large group exhibition, was predictably uneven and in many respects was a cross between an overloaded buffet and an unsatisfying sampling. In some cases, works that were originally conceived as part of a series appeared in bits and dribbles, which frequently made for a half-baked presentation. Series that fell short due to curatorial editing included Cang Xin's photographs, depicting the artist as he licks various objects, like Great Wall, Beijing, China (2000), and the brilliantly apocalyptic saga of paintings by the late Henry Darger, entitled "The Story of the Vivian Girls," of which only a few panels were shown. More problematically, a number of works seemed forced within the parameters of the exhibition theme, or not sufficiently thought out to invoke a convincing sense of the fantastic. There was a plethora of strategies that were decidedly pedestrian as the notion of the fantastic was often misconstrued as synonymous with the look of hyperrealism, the occult or the spectacle. Many works, particularly those relying on their ability to simulate the real or those that made excessive use of technological aids, came across as gimmicks that were entertaining but eminently forgettable. Olaf Nicolai's Portrait ot the Artist As a Weeping Narcissus (2000), in which the artist rendered a true-to-life vision of himself apparently weeping into a pond, was a latter-day take on George Segal's mimesis of actuality but without the understated pathos. Patricia Piccini's lifelike girl, playing with what appeared to be pieces of human flesh shaped like fecal matter in Still Life with Stem Celia (2002), seemed to be vying with Jeffrey Vallance's conspiracy theories, including a work about images of clowns "found" on the Shroud of Turin titled The Clowns ol Turin Found on the Holy Shroud (1998), for the dubious honor of being "weirdest of show."
Similar to these hyperreal or sci-fi works, but somewhat more engaging, were works that attempted to fake the actual; such as the confounding imitations of well-known art objects and paintings from seminal exhibitions in the early twentieth century made by Salon de Fleurus, an anonymous group. Others were more inventive to the extent that they involved deft execution; e.g. the remarkable flying contraptions of Panamarenko, like Bernoulli I (1995), which had some of the spark of the mad scientist. Many works, however, began with a high "wow" factor, but ended with the viewer's initial, reflexive response. Even the cleverest of works, such as Aleksandra Mir's chain of photographs Hello (2000) linking the famous, the infamous and non-famous, was but an exclamatory fragment; the collection of photographs in which a figure in one photograph appears in the next, thus forming a visual depiction of the six-degrees-of-separation cliche, is astounding in scope, but one sensed a missing premise behind the readymade (and pallid) explanation of "connectivity" being offered.
Far more interesting were those works that shied away from registering the "wow" or the "weirdness" factor at all. These included Vibeke Tandberg's series of photographs "Dad #1-6," (2000) in which the artist took pictures of herself dressed up in her father's shirt and pants. The clothes are obviously oversized for Tandberg, but the dwarfing of her female form is less the point than the facial expressions in each of the photographs. The face she presents is not her own, but a composite of features mixing her own with those of friends and family. Consequently, the face changes dramatically from frame to frame. In one, she resembles a gamine, androgynous youth, in another, a stem master of the house, and in yet another, she wears the resigned expression of a harried housewife. These multiple personalities beg comparison with Marcel Duchamp, Cindy Sherman and many others, including several in the Biennale itself, such as Eleanor Antin's masquerade as her prima donna alter ego Eleanora Antinova in Loves of a Ballerina (1986), and Vasco Aranjos's disguise as an opera singer in La Stupenda (2001). Tandberg, however, did not appear to be courting multiplicity for its own sake. These drastic differences of expression, all achieved by the subtle manipulation of a few features, point to a rupture in the conception of ordinariness. It is something familiar, but disturbing. Bringing this potential of what is presumed as ordinary to another level was Katarzyna Jozefowicz's Carpet (1997-2000), which is comprised of hundreds of rows of celebrity faces cut out from various magazines. A concept too low-tech so as to trigger disbelief in viewers accustomed to the symbiotic relationship between technology and technique, the accumulation of these thousands of faces combined to form a vast metropolis of sorts. One could even sense the passage of time, as one walked beside this carpet, teeming with bright-white smiles, toothy grins and sullen artiste-scowls. The light shining from the ceiling became a metaphor for the sun, illuminating each row in turn. It was remarkable to see how easily these celebrity photographs could be transformed into something beyond their inherent function as signage-cheaply reproduced to satisfy the whetted appetite of the city for the eminently consumable.
If Jozefowicz's stunning installation expanded the metropolis to a sea of cutout faces, Shirley Tse's Polymathicstyrene (1999-2000) reduced it to a series of geometric inscriptions in perhaps the most emblematic of city refuse, that of Styrofoam. These inscriptions and patterns included conical imprints whose duplicative quality insinuated the instant gratification and subsequent disposal that affects most cities. Another prominent pattern was the intermittent and insistently wayward zigzag lines seemingly representative of streets and avenues refusing to conform to the gridded set of perpendicularities imposed by city planners. There was nothing breathtaking or shocking about the images that Jozefowicz and Tse produced other than their ability to transform the effluvium of everyday life without fanfare, technological wizardry or dense theoretical platforms. Notwithstanding it takes a good deal of thought to achieve such a transformation, and it is an ability purportedly in demand but sadly lacking in supply within the circus- act framework of most biennales.
In other parts of the Biennale, the banal became transformed to dimensions no short of breathtaking. Loosely reminiscent of the optical illusions of M. C. Escher, Paul Noble's Public Toilet (1999) was an uninhibited glorification of the banal. Here the toilet is re- envisioned as a tower from a Bosch painting, piercing a coronet of clouds in all of its unassailable and deeply ironic majesty. These epic drawings were materializations of the absurd, which is the excess of fantasy. And it was this excess that made these drawings fantastic, because they refused to confirm what is an enduring skepticism about the possibilities of the unreasonable or the irrational. The works of Noble, along with the more compelling works of the show, seemed to take leave of the realm of the skeptic and that of reason by means of their sheer accumulation of embellishment, and of excess that refuses to stop.
This Biennale posed the disconcerting question that is made so by the fact that it wreaks havoc upon the neat and almost clinically elegant structure of crystallized categories. It could be argued that the absurdity of many works constituted a kind of post-Dada mentality, but Dada suggests reaction or resistance, which implicitly elevates the target of reaction to a position of privileged centeredness. The star of Joao Penalva's Mister (1999) a talking shoe, cared nothing for this, or any other kind of resistance. Surrounded by garish colored lights in a darkened room and encased in a tent resembling a booth for a revivalist meeting, a worn oxford shoe preaches relentlessly for about half an hour. Beginning with the unlikely opening of "I was born a woman...," the shoe narrates the grim tale of its owner whose body was destroyed or amputated bit by bit until nothing but the shoe remains. This pathetic tale, which is related by the talking shoe in a strong Irish accent, is the perfect carnival freak-show. It is mildly repulsive in its crude vulgarity, but strangely and inexplicably alluring.
If any metaphor, implied by this disjuncture between the allure of a work and its level of grotesqueness, could accordingly be applied to the Biennale, it is that of the tunnel, hollowness, or of the hole. Such metaphors indicate the non sequitur nature of the works which conveniently elude the usual paradigms of resistance or subversion but are misleadingly used to explain away absurdity. In Miwa Yanagi's "Grandmothers" (2000-2001) series of photographs, where silver-haired women seemingly in their 70s and 80s are lushly photographed in various surreal scenarios reflective of the imaginings of young women interviewed by the artist. The instant reading applicable to the works would be one that resists the preconceptions concerning the elderly or eternal youth. Yet the surreal effect of some of the most striking in this series, such as a supermodel with the face and wrinkles of an octogenerian but the body of a twentysomething mincing upon a catwalk that is actually her own grave, is sheer make-believe. There are narratives accompanying each photograph that relate the story of each of the grandmothers, but the lyrical, axiomatic quality of these texts only serve to emphasize the otherworldly aspect of the visceral photographs.
The "hole," or the gap, and oddly enough, the depth, of these photographs is that the make-believe is transparent. There is no other layer that is duplicitously embedded in the blend of guilelessness and sophisticated execution that is Yanagi's fantasy world. We must take it at face value for there is no torment beyond the exuberant grins, coy smirks or contemplative musings of any of the grandmothers. The proclamation of fantasy, uninhibited by any awareness of issues, agendas and other real-world concerns, is the sole point. It is possibly this proclamation that is also the point of this year's Biennale of Sydney: that sensation can take precedence over explanation. Reworded, it is perhaps the case that what we serendipitously evoke from the vast well of our unconscious, reflexive imaginary is far more fantastic than anything we might conjure from the conventions of logic and deliberate thought.
GEERT LOVINK is a Dutch media theorist and Internet critic, based in Sydney, Australia. He is co-founder of numerous Internet projects, amongst them the community server The Digital City and the nettime mailinglist. In 2002 the MIT Press will publish Dark Fiber, his collected essays on Internet culture, and Uncanny Network, interviews with media theorists and artists.
To what extent has the "tech wreck" and following scandals affected our understanding of new media? Critical new media practices have been slow to respond to both the rise and fall of dot-com mania: the world of IT firms and their volatile valuations on the world's stock markets seemed light years away from the new media arts galaxy. The speculative heydays of new media culture were the early to midnineties, before the rise of the World Wide Web. Theorists and artists jumped with great anticipation on the not yet existing and inaccessible technologies such as virtual reality; cyberspace generated a rich collection of mythologies; issues of embodiment and identity were fiercely debated. Only five years later, while Internet stocks were going through the roof, not much was left of the initial excitement in intellectual and artistic circles. Experimental techno culture missed out on the funny money. Over the last few years there has been a steady stagnation of new media cultures, both in terms of concepts and funding. With hundreds of millions of new users flocking onto the Net, the arts could no longer keep up and withdrew into its little world of festivals, mailing lists and workshops.
Whereas new media arts institutions, begging for goodwill, still portray artists as working at the forefront of technological developments, collaborating with state of the science, the reality is a different one. Multidisciplinary goodwill is at an all time low. At best, pointedly "artistic" new media products are "demo design" as described by Peter Lunenfeld in his book Snap to Grid. Often they do not even reach that level. New media arts, as defined by its few institutions, rarely reach audiences outside of its own subculture. What in positive terms could be described as the heroic fight for the establishment of a self-referential "new media arts system" through a frantic differentiation of works, concepts and traditions, may as well be classified as a dead end street. The acceptance of new media by leading museums and collectors will simply not happen. Why wait a few decades anyway? The majority of the new media art works on display at ZKM, the Ars Electronica Center, [CC or Cinemedia is hopeless in its innocence, being neither critical nor radically utopian in its approach. It is for that reason that the new media arts sector, despite its steady growth, is getting increasingly isolated, incapable of addressing the issues of today's globalized world. It is therefore understandable that the contemporary (visual) arts world is continuing its decade-old boycott of (interactive) new media works in galleries, biennales and blockbuster shows such as Documenta.
A critical reassessment of the role of arts and culture within today's network society seems necessary. Let's go beyond the "tactical" intentions of the players involved. This is not a blame game. The artist-engineer, tinkering with alternative human-machine interfaces, social software, digital aesthetics and more has effectively been operating in a self-imposed vacuum. Over the last few decades both science and business have successfully ignored the creative community. Even worse, artists have actively been sidelined in the name of "usability." The backlash movement against Web design, lead by IT-guru Jakob Nielsen, is a good example of this trend. Other contributing factors may have been the corporate dominance of AOL and Microsoft. Lawrence Lessig argues that innovation of the Internet as such is in danger. Meanwhile the younger generation is turning its back on the new media arts questions and operates as anti-corporate activists, if at all involved. After the dot-com crash the Internet has rapidly lost its imaginative attraction. File swapping and cell phones can only temporarily fill up the vacuum. New media have lost their magic spell. Bit by bit they are becoming part of boring everyday life. This long-term tendency, now in a phase of acceleration, seriously undermines the very notion of new media altogether.
Another issue is generationalism. With video and interactive installations being the domain of the 68 baby boomers, the generation of 89 has embraced the free Internet-ignored by the establishment, assisted by even younger geeks. The Internet turned out to be a trap. Whereas real assets, positions and power remains in the hands of the aging baby boomers, the gamble of its predecessors on the rise of new media did not materialize. The slow working bureaucracies within the educational sector have not yet grasped this new reality. Universities are still in the process of establishing new media departments. But that will also come to a halt at some point The fifty something chairs and vice-chancellors must feel good about their persistent sabotage. What's new about new media anyway? Technology was hype after all, promoted by the criminals of Enron and WorldCom. It is sufficient for students to do a bit of email and Web surfing, safeguarded within a filtered and controlled intranet. It is for this cynical reasoning that we urgently need to analyze the ideology of the greedy nineties and its techno-libertarianism. If we don't disassociate new media quickly from the previous decade, and if we continue with the same rhetoric, the isolation of the new media sector will sooner or later result in its death.
MARK POSTER is Director of the Film Studies Program and Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His recent books include What's the Matter with the Internet (2001) and The Second Media Age (1995).
One of the novelties of new media is the rapidity of changes in attitude toward it. In the mid-nineties one heard strident complaints that only young, white geeks used the Net, that women were exclu\ded from it. Critiques were voiced with stridency and utter conviction. Yet a couple of years later, when women users equaled men users, such condemnations of the masculine nature of the Net disappeared. Similarly but slightly later than the aforementioned complaint, the Net was characterized, with the same unflinching certainty, as American imperialism, English domination. But again a few years later there were more Web sites available from non-American sources than from American sources. The Internet was suddenly, in its nature, no longer American. In another example, when the stock market and entrepreneurs more generally discovered the Internet and behaved as if they came upon a gold mine, opinion quickly followed that the Internet was inherently capitalist and, for many, therefore, evil. Still again, with the dot.com bubble burst of early 2001, those who were quick to assert the nature of the Internet as an economic miracle became silent.
A similar problem damages Geert Lovink's contribution here. He is too quick to conclude that the Web, as a locus for and medium of art, is a failure. He laments the disappearance of the "magic" of the Internet, its sudden ordinariness, all due in good part to Microsoft and its ilk I think a different approach is required, one that acknowledges efforts by existing institutions, practices and groups-be they artists or capitalists-to turn the Net to their own uses ae defined in practices exiating prior to the Net, One could well anticipate that creative adaptations of Net structures would be slow in coming. The easy way out is always to respond to new circumstances by chane in one's thinking and action as little as possible. I One such creative adaptation that actually deploys Internet facilities, but which Lovink too quickly dismisses, is MP3 file transfers. Speed of transmission, accuracy of duplication, peer-to-peer software, and gigantic networked userbases-all substantial novelties of the Internet as a cultural medium-are exemplified in the Mid phenomenon. Moreover, this form of file transfer challenges practices of cultural reproduction that date back to the origins of copyright in the early eighteenth century. In addition, MP3 transfers have befuddled the strenuous efforts of big capital in the media industry, first in music and now in film (with DVD anti-copy protection programs) and television (with TiVo and ReplayTV devices). One cannot find a more radical challenge to capitalist practices either in the world of art or elsewhere. Yet critics like Lovink easily dismiss this practice as inconsequential.
Another domain of culture in which the Net has afforded practices that challenge the established order is in my own domain of higher education. I refer not to student violations known as "plagiarism" (as an aside, it may be suggested that the time has come to rethink this issue), but to student use of the Web as a research resource. When a teacher assigns a writing task and assumes that students will go to the library to complete it, he or she finds, with some consternation, that students turn to the Google search engine. The students, in the teacher's mind, are uncritical of the results and ignorant of all sources unavailable in this digital form. In many cases, it might be said, the instructor is not aware of the resources that are available on the Net.
How then might higher education creatively adapt to the new circumstances afforded by the Internet? Are the old protocols of cultural transmission and creative thinking still appropriate when texts, images and sounds are digitally encoded and available, often without cost, on a global network? These I believe are productive questions to pursue in the contexts of new media. We need to give up our obsession with what capitalist "dot-commers" are up to, look to areas like MP3 transfers and Web research practices for politically sensitive points of resistance, and develop strategies that contest efforts to preserve existing forms of domination.
ANDREAS BROECKMANN lives and works in Berlin where, since 2000, he has been the Artistic Director of the international media art festival, transmediale. He worked with the V2_Organization in Rotterdam from 1995-2000 and has published and lectured internationally on network culture and the "machinic" aesthetics of media art.
When evaluating the state of media culture today, it is important to distinguish between different areas that each follow their own, at times related, dynamics and trajectories, whether in global activism, media theory, net criticism, cyberfeminism or under any other heading. Assuming a strictly parallel development of technological, economic and socio-cultural practices imposes an all too rigid analytical grid, which is unable to grasp the differentiations that exist between these fields.
Thus, for example, art made with digital media and the first generation of interactive installation art experienced a highpoint of excitement and attention around 1996-97 when the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, the ICC in Tokyo, Japan, and the Ars Electronics Center in Linz, Austria, all opened within the span of 12 months and seemed to announce the institutional victory of a new art form. The ensuing institutional compromises meant that, in no time, a whole generation of young and fast artists took the next avant-garde of media art onto the Net and into clubs that made those centers look like dinosaurs, out of touch with an evolution that, only a moment ago, they seemed to hegemonize. Instead, the new institutions of media art have with varying success striven to define and claim their respective, locally or regionally determined, cultural territories. In contrast, media activism has remained a constantly morphing animal, adapting to new political and technological environments, struggling with the anti-technological factions of political activism and inventing striking couplings of old and new media Some political causes have remained the same, some media tactics have improved due to network interfaces, software developments, or the availability of satellite connections, and a lot of this work has, throughout the last ten years, been strongly dependent on and steered by the politics of the NGO movement and their benefactors as well as political beneficiaries.
Through the media critique of people like Peter Lamborn Wilson, the Krokers and ADIl.KNO, of Armand Mattelard, Paul Virilio, and then a whole league of media and net critics Oust look at the participants in the 1995 Ars Electronica symposium on The Wired World, the January 1996 Next 5 Minutes 2 conference in Amsterdam, or the 5h Cyberconference in Madrid in 1996), there evolved a critical language of the politics, the economics and the symbolic dimension of the new media hype-remember that we had the powerful concept of the "Californian Ideology," described by Barbrook and Cameron as early as the summer of 1995. A whole generation of students is now feeding on the fallout from these fruitful and ongoing debates.
At the same time, one should of course not overestimate the power of critical discourse in the face of a global, multibillion dollar game. To return to the question of art: it does not make sense to expect artists in general to formulate adequate or even successful critical and aesthetic responses to an economic or political crisis. As a field of creative practice, art is very diverse and will produce as many affirmative, critical, nihilistic or sarcastic positions as any other domain of society. When around 1996 some artists and theorists were advocating the most ludicrous and esoteric belief in a transcendental cyberspace, others were engaging the social and political reality of the emerging media society in an explicitly critical vein-the Critical Art Ensemble, Marko Peljhan, Etoy, RTMark, Knowbotic Research and the Bureau of Inverse Technology among them. Remember that it was an artist, Paul Garrin, who in 1996 alerted many people to the impending name-space crisis around what has become the escalating ICANN fiasco.
It is a matter of perspective whether one sees media culture in crisis, or whether the last ten years are seen as a success story, which is now experiencing a consolidation of its structures. Unlike Geert, I see a whole new cultural sector that has opened up and that employs thousands of people: university and art school departments, gallevies, media centers and media labs, magazines, book publication series, online journals and portals, independent Internet providers, digital art and software development companies that are inspired more by creative work than by making money-let's call them companies without a business plan. Many artists are active in this sector, which of course is partly dependent on the general social climate, and is through that affected by the slump in the new markets, But as much as the academic sector was, in general, too slow for the new media hype of the mid-90s, it is now affected by the crisis of the media industry at a much slower pace.
Of course, there is a continued necessity for a critical attitude toward the role of digital media and their contemporary applications. In a way, the political and ideological challenges have shifted and have come into much clearer focus over the last decade. Among a large group of media-savvy intellectuals worldwide, knowhow about the technical infrastructure has broadened; the understanding of software politics, the legal system, the interlocking of different global strata of the media field and the coordinate grid of the digital media vectors is today much better understood than a few years ago. Thanks to online and print channels like Nettime, Slashdot, Telepolis, Mute, c't, and others, issues such as copyright, surveillance systems, digital rights management, media education or the culrural and social role of computer games can today be discussed in public and on an informed and differentiatedlevel.
I am a strategic optimist. I share Geert's skepticism about the epistemic significance of file sharing that Mark points to. Although new structures of exchange and cooperation have indeed emerged, and the practice is delivering a strong blow to the established system of copyright, it is just another twist of the labyrinthine media ecology through which we are stumbling, one that will certainly lose its shine and which, in a more long-term perspective, uses only a slightly more upbeat technology than Gopher and WAIS. At the same time, I believe that it is necessary to affirm the achievements of cultural and artistic practice for a critical understanding of media (achievements in which theoretical and practical work like Geert's continues to have a significant share). A sense of differentiation, attention to details, and a good memory, are effective tools when it comes to fostering strategies for a media culture that is not driven by technological fads or the hope for short-term gains, but by the long-term desire for a socio-political field in which human agency and passion are the main driving forces.
Voiceover features the interaction and integration of three texts. Contributions can be read from left to right in the order they were written. The talking point in this issue examines the promises of cyberspace in relation to the realities of the Internet.
Voiceover herewith retires to the network.
JOAN KEE is a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Globalization and Culture at the University of Hong Kong.
Copyright Visual Studies Workshop, Inc. Sep/Oct 2002