Invitations turned down to businessman's new biennial
by Michel Chevalier
In 2002, Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen Art Center hosted the Art & Economy show, curated by Zdenek Felix. This really horrible, Siemens-sponsored exhibition (in which a quarter of the "art" space was devoted to the completely unreflected presentation of corporate sponsorship promotional material) was made doubly hard to bear because of the complete absence of critical press and/or debates in its wake. The German-language "critique" organs (Springerin/Texte zur Kunst) kept their heads in the sand, as usual. The situation is otherwise in France, currently, in response to what aims to be the "first biennial devoted to the relations between art and entreprise / art and economy." The brainchild of French businessman Bruno Caron, the first Biennale de Rennes opened May 16 and runs through July 20. Several artists and cultural producers have publicly refused invitations to this event.
What follows are some of their statements, originally posted (in French) on email lists or made available to me directly.
They belie the notion (currently hegemonic in the art field) that good art can lend itself to appropriation by anyone, that every audience is worth reaching, that the best subversion is to take the money and run, "like the Sex Pistols."
Of course, recent art-history offers us other famous boycotts and refusals.
Some post-war milestones:
-Paris/Liège/Brussels, March-April, 1955: The Galerie Dutilleul invites the Internationale Lettriste to exhibit Metagraphic Propaganda in April-May of that year. In vain, the gallerist tries to dissuade the IL from producing a poster attacking Le Corbusier. The IL refuse to exhibit and publish the entire correspondence with the gallerist under the title "Les distances à garder" (Potlach #19, April 1955)
-Buenos Aires, Mai 1968: after police cordon off Roberto Plate’s work at EXPERIENCIAS 68, several participating artists destroy their own works and throw the remains in the street.
-Venice, Summer 1968: the Venice Art Academy is occupied by protesting students, and there is talk of occupying the Biennale di Venezia. Police are mobilzed; tracts are distributed calling for the reform of the Biennale. When news is out that the Biennale is under "police protection" Sweden closes its pavillion in protest. Demonstrators at St. Mark's square carry the sign "Sweden says no to Police-Biennale." Leif Nylen chronicles the events in his article "Suddenly last Summer" (Art and Artists, London, August 1969)
-New York 1969-1971: The Art Worker's Coalition conduct several actions against Rockefeller family influence at MoMA.
-New York/Düsseldorf, September-October 1972: following the censorship of a Hans Haacke piece at the Guggenheim's Amsterdam Paris Düsseldorf show, and its subsequent boycott by several artists, one of the these, Marcel Broodthaers, has his "Open Letter to Wagner" published in the Rheinische Post. Its target is a loudly "political" artist who nevertheless didn't join the boycott: Joseph Beuys.
-Cologne, May-September 1981. The Westkunst exhibition, organized by Kasper Koenig and Laszlo Glozer, opens in Cologne. With a budget larger than that of the documenta (and architecture by Oswald M. Ungers) the show purports to showcase "contemporary art since 1939"—yet fails to include any work from the previous decade (the '70s), or even media such as photography and film. The exhibition curators' selection criteria becomes the issue of a public debate; Gustav Metzger, Cordula Frowein and Klaus Staeck even mount a counter-exhibition, Passiv-Explosiv, at the BBK building in Cologne. Their exhibition includes a campaign against a Westkunst/WDR film produced by Wiebke von Bonin.
In the last decade, the HEIL DICH DOCH SELBST anti-Flick Collection campaign has got the most publicity in the German-language art scene, yet it stands out, to me, as the most hypocritical of all art-institution boycotts in that so many of the signatories, unlike the artists mentioned above, have no problem working with, publishing, or being sponsored by "normal" (i.e. non-nazi) capitalists and corporations.
Some mention should be made of the fact that Biennale de Rennes personnel did some "scouting" at the Biennale de Paris in October, 2006. The Biennale de Paris, in contrast to Rennes, is not sponsored by any "grand patron," its brochures and catalogue feature no corporate logos. It is a clever re-launch effected in 2004 by artists and art-thinkers in view of being the "only biennial in the world that is conceived on the basis of artistic realities and not on the basis of political or economic decisions."
Some Biennale de Paris groups and individuals did participate at Rennes—what follows are statements by those who didn't, and it is a pleasure to make their statements available on THE THING Hamburg.
The accompanying images are from an incredibly condescending handbook Bruno Caron had printed and distributed to all his employees: "Aimer l'art contemporain" ("Getting to like contemporary art").
(press < > to see more pictures:)
Letter from Jan-m (Bourse du Travail Parallele) to Raphaële Jeune (Biennale de Rennes)
I've just realized that it's Bruno Caron who is financing a major part of the Biennale de Rennes. I now realize that my proposals (factory gestures, in-progress and unauthorized use of equipment [French: perruque]) would be totally inappropriate. I thought that the exhibition (a supposed terrain of "reports" on experiences and artistic work) was "neutral," that is, financed by public money, and not by the head of an agro-food group such as Norac. I was surprised by the way that Bruno Caron presents his project (interview on BFM radio, articles in business publications: Challenges, Les Echos...) as revolving around the creation of value between art and corporations, and the added-value corporations can thereby gain. His comments never refer to the staff of his companies (Le Ster, Whaou!, La Boulangère, Clément, les Sandwichs Daunat, …), and the working-conditions they are subjected to. The account of one former Daunat employee sent shivers up my spine: "50 hours a week on the assembly line, it's worse than hell, man, your life has no meaning. I prefer robbing a bank than putting in 50h/week for the likes of Daunat (I did 35 and that was hot enough)."
You guaranteed me conditions favorable for critique, but what can possibly be criticized when the person financing the project could be an object of critique? My contributions are based on mutual trust, and on a minimum of agreement with the participants that one is critical of – and not complacent towards – the head of the company. Michel Foucault said "Let the spoken-to speak!" and I don't believe that this context offers employees a chance to say anything whatsoever about what they are experiencing within the companies of the Norac group. I would thereby not like to see my work associated with a corporate CEO like Bruno Caron. From my point of view, an essential question is: where is one speaking from? From what position? I harbor no prejudices against him as a person, but it seems we are in a bit of a minefield here, because we don't seem to be speaking from the same position. Our interests can only be at odds, and my position – he knows it already – is on the side of the 2500 workers and employees at his companies. He won't give up what he's got, and I won't give in on my demand for equitable income distribution, the fruits of everyone's labor. I like the idea of artists having a word to say, but not in a biased context where all relations are subordinated to the benevolent gaze of the CEO. It would feel too much like exhibiting my practice and the fruit of my labor to my boss. And that's not the artistic territory I'm after.
I was touched by your solicitude and hope you won't hold a grudge. As Julien Prévieux once said
"I see myself under the obligation to refuse your offer."
Letter from Frédéric Lordon (economist invited to work with the Biennale de Rennes) to Jan-mDear Jan-m,
Your letter shows me almost exactly what I must have told Raphaële Jeune at the time, while adding elements which document my categorical but strong suspicions I mentioned to her. A project of artistic or intellectual creation shepherded by a patron, that is to say private financier, immediately loses its real liberty and nourishes cooptations of all sorts ("the company, friend of the arts"), and also exposes those involved to those forms of censorship most perfectly insidious because they are imperceptible. I must say that "corporate residencies" left me especially dismayed. As if it were possible to criticize anything at all while being housed by a company and in the explicit framework of what is a-priori a peace project... I still get staggered by this petty-humanism's inability to realize that there is no critique without conflict (and that's why it's so prone to liberal cooptation)... I'd like to add that I am really in tune with your argument about decontextualization-recontextualization. That's without a doubt one of the most unbearable things about this project.
Very cordially yours,
Letter from Nicolas Ledoux (Ultralab) to Jan-m and friends
A new biennial will see the day next month: http://www.lesateliersderennes.fr/
You will note that its homepage has some uncanny ressemblances to that of the Biennale de Paris, which goes to show that you can recycle anything (...) it offers artists a (paid) residency in a company, then a "high caliber" exhibition, as well as a catalogue... colloquiums, conferences... the whole package! and however thin the presentation may be as yet, I'm sure it will give you something to chew on.
"We consider our In-company Research and Creation Sojourns, or SouRCEs, to be in-vivo interventions which make it possible for gatherings around work to be sites of mutual experience and discovery between artists and members of a company – in our era in which the dematerialization of art and the dematerialization of hyperindustrial production strongly reflect each other within the context of cultural and cognitive capitalism." What gall... at the head, we have a collector/CEO... who has gone a little further than his colleagues and taken the step... now it's a done deal: the entrepreneur-as-artist and the artist-entrepreneur have met each other and can love each other in the light of day... they run into each other on the TGV, visit exhibitions and cutting rooms in the same way, organize cocktail parties and openings, share a good dining table together, so many more affinities... In the old days, they had fun in the intimacy of ateliers, or did each other favors: you like me, I'll lend you my bulldozer; you give me your drawing, I'll lend you my house by the sea... I collect, you work... oh, sweet years in which this was all shut away behind metal blinds and curtains... nostalgia, my friends, nostalgia. I won't be there Saturday... but I already regret it.
Best wishes to you all,
Bourse du Travail Parallele (http://barthe.free.fr//btp/btp.html) and Ultralab are participants of the XV Biennale de Paris.
Frédéric Lordon is Research Director at the Bureau d'Économie Théorique et Appliquée (Strasbourg), frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique, and editor of the recent Conflicts et pouvoirs dans les institutions du capitalisme (Paris: Presses de Sciences-Po, 2008).