1.3 / Binaries

A Conversation about “What Keeps Mankind Alive”

By Patricia Maloney November 19, 2009
Nilbar Gureş. Unknown Sports, 2008-09; photograph (detail). Photo courtesy of the Artist.

At the Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practices event held last month at the New York Public Library, I had the chance to sit down with Ana Dević and Sabina Sabolović, two of the four members from the collective What, How, and For Whom (WHW) who curated the 11th International Biennial. Serendipitously, a draft of Anthony’s critique was in hand, as I had spent the morning editing it, and I took this opportunity to ask of them some of the questions he posed in his essay. What follows is a summary of that conversation.

My most pressing question was their choice to implement Brecht’s techniques as a  framework for this biennial. They acknowledged the desire to have a strong starting point and recognized that the title “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” could be perceived as either grandiose or urgent. They were invested in the question's urgency, posing it to instigate awareness, not only of the current dire economic conditions, but also of the complacency with which we consider those conditions.

Sabina noted that they were not interested in a canonical resurrection of Brecht. Instead, they wanted to investigate what relevance direct didacticism—or propaganda— has within the conditions of a biennial exhibition, itself a form of cultural tourism. Asking her if the choice to employ this strategy might be seen as a disavowal that art can be entertaining, or pleasurable, she turned the question back to me: “What if you take education as pleasure?”

Essentially, in bringing back Brecht, their objective was to reinvigorate the revolutionary role of art, to emphasize that art has a strong influence on the politics of perception, and has the potential to enact a reevaluation of our everyday practices. The prevailing conflict that the biennial exhibition model highlights seems to be one in which global positioning competes with local or national identities. Overlooked are the very real conflicts that arise from wealth distribution and political autonomy.

Equally relevant to their concept was the biennial’s highly performative nature and the social spectacle it produces.

Ana mentioned that their goal was to splice apart these performative aspects—even to the point of staging the presentation of the curatorial concept, which was done by 4 actors—to speak to the truth of our contemporary political and economic situations, to name things as they are. This played out in two ways: by rendering visible the backstage of the exhibition and by creating a very precise curatorial standpoint.

By their admission, the result was a classically presented exhibition, one that was strict and orderly. But they saw tension arising between this orderliness and the questions that the works provoked, individually or in relation to each other. Sabina described that at each point in the installation, there were unexpected dialogues happening, that they had given “the work room to outsmart us.”

She cited Trevor Paglen’s 2009 Celestial Objects (İstanbul) as an example. (And this is where the conversation took a surreal turn as Trevor sat down to join us shortly thereafter.) The images are both seductive and embedded with awareness of covert military activities. What are we really looking at in these images? And does raising that question generate more pertinent ones of why this activity is taking place? Can these images initiate engagement?

WHW’s desire to connect Brecht to our contemporary position arises from what they perceive as the need for a new proposal. They questioned if one could even claim a true left political position in contemporary society. In the dominant neoliberal perspective, social engagement is separate from economic conditions; our pursuit of pleasure as a distraction from reality is the current form of repression. Promoting didactic strategies for contemporary art is to reinvigorate the call for political action and the choice for political options.

Brecht’s insistence on utopian potential puts the lack of contemporary options in stark relief. According to the curators, Brecht’s approaches have been replaced with nothing. And here is where Anthony’s analysis comes strongly into play. He not only questions the use of didactic strategies, he points up the fact that Brecht was a product of his particular time, and whatever the resemblances to our contemporary moment, methods for creating open political engagement won’t arise from a previously failed political project. The language may remain the same, but the tools must be different. To this last point, he argues that there is an active political process at work that has replaced the propaganda-driven strategies that Brecht promotes: teaching and learning without distance. Case in point: throughout a day filled with notable speakers delivering their messages from a raised podium to a seated audience, the most illuminating and powerful moment for me was this one, in which curatorial, artistic, and critical positions collapsed together into the space of a conversation.

An extended essay about WHW’s conceptual framework for the 11th International Istanbul Biennial can be found at the exhibition's website.

Reviews of “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” can be found at Frieze and The Brooklyn Rail. 

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