A dedication to “the work of the future and the future of work,” the exhibition looks at labour, the human body and its relationship to an increasingly robotic workplace. Asking questions about efficiency, discipline, control and the pillars of consumerism, the artists respond to the system of optimization and “what happens to the bodies that resist and escape?”**
The 2017 Vienna Biennale is taking place at venues across the city opening June 21 and running to October 1.
Curated by Amelie Klein of Vitra Design Museum and Marlies Wirth of MAK, this year’s theme Robots. Work. Our Future brings together architecture, art and design to explore an “environmentally and socially sustainable concept of the digital age that is also committed to a new humanism.” The ambitious four month event, which you can download an app for here, sounds optimistic in its approach to technology, with a strong focus on potential and creating open spaces for “contemplating meaningful living” to bring about positive change. The program is also keen on bringing the fields of art into a wider audience for more interdisciplinary conversation.
“Since there is no equivocal definition of life, most current definitions are descriptive,” reads Hannah Black‘s ‘Beginning, End, None’ three-channel film installation, a triptych of audio-video collage exploring what it means to be alive through the ambivalent idea of the ‘cell.’ The word can “denote both a biological and a prison cell,” points out the press release for the Berlin- and New York-based artist’s most recent Small Room solo exhibition, running at Vienna’s mumok from March 16 to June 18.
The pronouncement lends itself to the questionable tendency by many to draw parallels between biology and sociology, constructing systems of thought and creating categories with the precision of a taxonomist: “One of the major problems that has happened in the past is that people have been too quick to draw political conclusions from biological ideas,” says a disembodied voice in ‘Beginning, End, None (Beginning).’
Accompanying the show — strewn with floating latex sculptures resembling human skin and dominated by the ghostly video work — is a book called Life, written in collaboration with artist Juliana Huxtable and designed by Soraya Lutangu. In it, two risk assessment analysts and former lovers called Hannah and Juliana, write to each other about their relationship and the meaning of life against the backdrop of the end of the world: “No one is getting out of life alive, and you can’t handle it.”
The text was written via email, the two artists responding to each other between Berlin, New York and in transit as if they were the characters they represented. “I imagined a love story,” says Black via email about the approach to writing Life with Huxtable, “she pushed back on that, and then I tried to charm her. All that happened as a writing process and in the narrative too, where her character starts out a little contemptuous of me and then softens, I think, though that might be a partisan reading.” Partisanship, or at least interpreting information with a certain bias is where a book like Life, and also the themes of the Small Room exhibition, ultimately linger. Analogy as an ideological claim (in comparing the natural state of a cell to the manufactured assertion of the factory, for example) and the ambiguity of defining a thing called ‘life’ (biological cells are alive but they do not have a heartbeat) converge at a point of perplexity.
**The press release talks a little about your work “interweaving the personal into these theoretical ideas,” there’s a dialogue between yourself and Juliana from two locations, Berlin and New York, two places you are/have been based. Is that dialogue informed by those two experiences?
Hannah Black: We were both travelling a lot of the time, which is part of professional art life, but I have an idea that Juliana handles it better. For me, it makes me feel like the stricken man in Arthur Miller’s drama classroom classic The Death of a Salesman. You can see in the text that it is partly written in transit, I think, sometimes explicitly and sometimes as a matter of tone, a certain breathlessness, like someone running, and the characters are moving too: they pass through cities and airports, they move towards the edge of the end of the world. I wrote one passage, the part where my character encounters Mike Precipiz, on a plane and in the taxi home in a kind of trance. I’m so proud of it, but as if it’s something unexpectedly valuable I picked up in the street, like it’s not quite mine, which might be the reward of working with someone else, or might just be a thing about writing.
The opening part of the book, where I describe my character as kind of retired in Berlin, washed up in Berlin, does reflect something of how I feel sometimes, when I’m there. The parties and the familiar people can feel like lights glowing in fog, the fog of some kind of city-specific loneliness, and also the literal darkness and silence of the streets contributes to this feeling of everything being swallowed. My impression of the city is that it’s like a throat, and I’m writing to you now from New York, where things move up into the mouth, but I understand that when we talk about cities we’re only talking about ourselves there. I think Juliana would feel differently about these places, and I can’t speak for her. Or, on a bigger level, maybe the sense of Germany as the last remnant of an era of social democratic confidence and unity contributes to this island feeling.
**There appears some sort of discussion in Life about history + its ultimate disavowal of its existence, is that something Small Room also tackles?
HB: My friend Tiona McClodden recently curated a retrospective of Julius Eastman’s work in Philadelphia, and she told me about how hard it was to assemble all the material. Some of his scores have just gone missing completely. For one composition, the only extant copy of the score was found in a magazine that happened to use it as a kind of textural design thing superimposed on an image. I think what this story made me think about is that history is an accident as much as life is, an accident shaped by both malign and loving intentions.
**I say this, particularly in relation to the book, which takes its title from the Wikipedia entry. On reading its crowdsourced description on what constitutes ‘life,’ it becomes harder to grasp, like some kind of blackboxing effect. Is this something that drew you to this title in the first place?
HB: Yes! I find in a concept like ‘life’ a really attractive combination of abstraction and concretion. The theorist Yve Lomax, who taught on my MFA at Goldsmiths, was really interested in the idea of the example: she writes that the example “stretches the distinction between the universal and the particular, the general and the individual; it is, characteristically, neither one nor the other.” A living person, you, or me, or anyone, is an example of what life can be, but our exemplary being is mostly irrelevant to the question of what life is.
Black box is an interesting term that you used here, because a black box is something that records a disaster, and I guess that was the impulse of the book, which is part of a kind of feeling, both grandiose and sad, that we all might be in the process of recording the end of a world.
I want to also say that I love Wikipedia, or at least I did until someone made me a Wikipedia entry and I experienced with terrible directness the many problems of common knowledge, for example that it’s often untrue.
**InDark Pool Party(and maybeNot You), there’s this idea of the “abolition of the analogy.” As a writer that’s a difficult mandate to uphold. Maybe this doesn’t relate so much to this exhibition but I’m curious to know what you mean by analogy, and how you either do or don’t enforce it in your own work…
HB: This was an idea I got from what some people call ‘Twitter university,’ i.e. the ongoing political education happening online in the form of arguments and discussion and so on, and also from black theorists such as Frank Wilderson, who I started reading very fervently towards the end of my MFA in 2013. I was staying at my friend Anna Zett’s magical place near Leipzig with a bunch of people and we were stoned and lying on the grass in the sunshine and joking about “reparations for childhood.” As the only person with phone signal, I was detailed to tweet this thought, which seemed important under the hazy conditions, but I stopped myself halfway through, and someone said, kind of mockingly, something about me having momentarily forgotten my audience. And I was stung, because I often get it twisted and think that performativity is a form of lying, and I said something like, ‘It’s not that, it’s just that in the countryside you forget the war on analogy!’
This needs context: the thing is, reparations are presently primarily attached to the question of the working-through of transatlantic slavery and its aftermath, this is very well known, so the concept can’t be lifted away from this question and reapplied to another category, that of children, without considering what this does. This often comes up in relation to slavery, which gets used as an analogy a lot. This occurs often in critiques of white feminism: people notice that white feminists were somehow able to conceive of wives as in the situation of slaves, without thinking about the factual existence of enslaved women. If you begin with an incoherent or thoughtless position like this, of course you have trouble further along the line, or you’re confused when people that you see as an example of your category, as women just like you, kind of reject or escape the category. Antipathy to careless political uses of analogy often gets interpreted kind of his-terically within a white bourgeois or white masculinist perspective as a ban on thought, but it’s a prompt to thought, an offer to thought.
Of course, completely avoiding analogy is impossible, but it’s interesting to see what happens when you expose political comparison to a kind of mathematical rigour. I think that’s also what Wilderson is trying to do with his work on solidarity, which insists that you can’t start by assuming class cohesion between different race/gender positions, especially if cohesion is part of what you’re fighting for.
**…I’m also interested in how that translates, if at all, to Small Room and Life because both seem laden with analogy, correct me if I’m wrong…
HB: The show continues my attempt to think critically about analogy. It was originally inspired by an analogy that is common in high school biology teaching, or popular science: the biological cell as a factory. I wanted to look at this skeptically, as it compares a historical and social entity — the factory — with a transhistorical, natural one — the cell. In doing so, it makes an ideological claim: naturalises the factory, commodifies the cell. The word cell gives the exhibition its title; of course it’s the same word as the prison cell. In the end I couldn’t do much with the analogy apart from notice it. The video kind of hovers in between factory, prison and highly technologically mediated images of cells. Maybe it’s true that the violence of capitalism is echoed even at the structural level of our cells, and certainly it now reaches into the cellular structure of the world through pollution, but I prefer to believe in something else: perhaps that the cells are closer to how they seem in the unannotated lab images, spectral entities, uninterpretable without the right insight. This is the material we are all working with.
Formally, the installation is structured around an analogy between surfaces. There is a mirroring effect across the space of the gallery, with the three latex works called ‘Membrane 1, 2, and 3’ facing the three screens of the video installation. The phrase that the latex pieces take up from the video is from a biology textbook: “No life without a membrane of some kind is known.” Then on the floor towards the ad display at the back of the room there’s a work called ‘Temporary,’ which is a scratched-up mess of temporary tattoos stuck on the floor, so that the floor is also proposed as a kind of membrane or skin. As part of the process of making the show, I talked to people with scientific expertise to help me understand the material I was working with — Adriel Arsenault and Shay Akil McLean — and I learned some extremely basic facts that I had never grasped at school and was kind of amazed by, for example the structure of the cell membrane, this very thin layer between life and nothing. I have in my notes something helpful that Adriel said: “It seems very magical and designed and like that it ‘knows’ how to be a skin, but it’s just this very basic automatic response.”
I wanted to maybe complicate the simplicity of a question of difference that stays on the surface of what Fanon calls epidermalization, that stays in a biological concept of difference, and think about how difference and universality co-constitute each other. In a way, the animalized or biologized other, whether that’s an idea of blackness or femininity or whatever, is seen as belonging more to the abstract category ‘Life’ than to the singularity that could exemplify life. We can be life, but we can’t be an example of it: this is just from one perhaps too-abstract point of view. But I don’t know how to do anything; the work is just this very basic automatic response. I made the exhibition in a kind of frenzied period of my life, a lot of falling and getting over, a lot of happy and unhappy accidents, a time when I understood some uncomfortable things about myself. A series of titles in the video say, “I did so much wrong / And can’t forgive myself / But.” Living is its own imperative, no matter how I feel about that. A membrane reveals and shields, limits and makes possible. The presence of the ad display work, with its very clumsy title — ‘Movement trajectories of kinesin-cargo complexes can be seen as white paths’ — was also meant to indicate how all this is being worked out and through under conditions of commodification, which produces all sorts of difficult universalities, difficult differences. I guess this is all an analogy but after all this time I’m still not really sure how an artwork relates to analogy. I think an artwork’s saving grace, if it has one, is that it’s also just dumbly and materially itself, and kind of resists becoming either an analogy or an example of anything.**
The Whitney Biennial is supposed to be a definitive survey of contemporary American Art. Every two years, the curators travel the globe in order to create an exhibition that best depicts the role of art in the world today. As such, its reviews carry more weight than those of individual shows, since they speak beyond the specific works in question, and implicitly and explicitly comment on how art should be. Though any individual critique can be brushed aside as personal taste, studying a broad set allows one to establish patterns among authors and their opinions, and in so doing, discern the assumptions and value criteria that define the always-elusive question of what it means for contemporary art to be good.
With this in mind, I gathered together 32 reviews of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Though the exhibition has certainly produced much more writing, I narrowed my focus to include only those that attempt to speak in-depth about, and categorize, the show as a whole. This eliminated pieces that primarily show images, writing in the format of a ‘Top __’ list, and articles that focus on only one or two artworks. The problem then, was how to accurately assess the set as a whole. As a quantitative counterpart to close readings of each individual piece, I generated word frequency counts, which help to determine the prominent themes. The more important an artist or idea is considered to be, the more it is mentioned. The frequency counts are calculated by compiling all the text from every article, including image captions, into a plain text file and then running the file through several simple Python commands. These commands, as well as a full list of the reviews studied, can be found in the Data Appendix. Taken as a whole, the reviews present an overwhelmingly positive opinion of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and center ‘Good Art’ around three major themes: Painting, Politics, and Violence.
Though these certainly entwine, irreparably entangled, it is simplest to parse them out slowly, one at a time, beginning with painting. Mentioned the most of the three, painting’s dominant presence is one of the main narratives of the reviews. Given its prominent place in the ensuing discourse, however, it’s odd that only around 12 of the 63 featured artists are painters. Why then, has such a disproportionate amount of critical attention been devoted to them? There are two main reasons: The first is practical: many reviews were based on the press preview of the biennial, which lasted only a few hours. As Ben Davis remarked, such a short viewing time simply doesn’t allow for fully watching the videos, or engaging some of the more in-depth pieces, like Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s hypertext games. It’s hard to write convincingly about work you’ve never seen, and as a result static mediums are prioritized.
The second reason leads to the next major theme: the political. As many reviews note, this is the first Whitney Biennial since 1997 where the preparations took place during an election year. Accordingly, the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump and his far-right populism looms large. As Chris Sharp notes in Art Agenda, ‘It’s hard to imagine a biennial being under more pressure to signify, to mean, to produce meaning, to attempt to offer some special and tangible insight into our current moment.’ This desire for signification results in a visual favoritism that reduces political action to the representational sphere. Such an emphasis leads to the dominance of figuration, especially in paintings. Henry Taylor andDana Schutz, for example, are two of the three most mentioned artists, while conceptual artists like Cameron Rowland receive only cursory attention. Despite its sidelining in the reviews, Rowland’s ‘Public Money’ engages the political sphere more directly than any other piece in the exhibition. By having the Whitney purchase a Social Impact Bond—a financial commitment to pay for projects that are seen to have a positive social effect—Rowland creates clear economic and material change.
Through their preference for the optic and distaste for the material, the reviewers imply that the best art can do, is show and reflect, hopefully affecting the viewer and altering their subjectivity. Unfortunately, unlike the contract of a Social Impact Bond, the affective connection between art and subjectivity is not so easily established. As theorists like Susan Sontag (Regarding the Pain of Others) and David Joselit (‘Material Witness: Visual Evidence and the Case of Eric Garner’) have shown, there is rarely a clear, dependable link between visual representation and its effect on the viewer.
The overdependence on representation ultimately results in violence, third theme. For the majority of writers, its depiction in figurative works, no matter how visceral, is justified if it can be understood. As Jennifer Samet makes clear in her Hyperallergic piece, for example, the use of violence is valorized as long as it contributes to ‘a unified, synthetic visual statement.’ This attitude is further revealed in the near universal dislike for Jordan Wolfson’s VR film ‘Real Violence.’ Wolfson is the second most mentioned artist, but all the commentary in the 32 reviews analysed on his work has a negative tone. It is seen as graphic and grotesque, not simply because it is violent, but because it is inexplicably so. No reason is given for the horrific scene that occurs in front of the viewer, and this makes it, for the biennial reviewers, senseless and awful.
The tendencies of the reviewers come even more into focus when ‘Real Violence’ is contrasted with Dana Schutz’s ‘Open Casket.’ The painting depicts the mutilated body of Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955 after Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, falsely accused him of flirting with her. The work and its inclusion in the biennial has become a source of controversy largely because—as Hannah Black, Aria Dean, and many others have convincingly argued—Schutz, a white woman, co-opted Black pain and suffering, treating it as a raw material for her artistic practice. The discussion around the piece has even expanded beyond the borders of the art world, with Whoopi Goldberg discussing it on the daytime talk show, The View.
While ‘Real Violence’ is loathed, ‘Open Casket’ is adored. Though the work goes beyond the depiction of violence, and indeed embodies it through Schutz’s painterly re-enactment of the lynching of Emmett Till, it is nevertheless seen to be a force for good, because, as curator Mia Locks says, it has “tremendous emotional resonance.” Such a statement seems, at best, incredibly naive. And yet, the characterization of Good Art propagated by the majority of the reviewers necessitates this reading. Its complicity in a history of white supremacy becomes irrelevant, since its visual content is legible. Any ensuing or embodied violence of the work doesn’t matter, since the painting might have use as a message. It is here that the reviewers’ conception of Good Art reaches its breaking point. Violence can never be sublimated into utility.
Instead, as Jean-Luc Nancy writes in The Ground of the Image, “Violence does not participate in any order of reasons, nor any set of forces oriented toward results… Violence does not transform what it assaults; rather, it takes away its form and meaning. It makes it into nothing other than a sign of its own rage, an assaulted or violated thing or being.” By creating a framework in which the best art, like ‘Open Coffin,’ is a figurative painting depicting the violence of today’s politics, the reviews of the Whitney Biennial illustrate the gap between art and the world, a space that requires a reconceptualization of art’s role if it is ever to be bridged.**
London’s Frieze Art Fair 2016 is opening October 6 and running to October 9. The event will be host to a range of curated exhibitions, talks, performances and events, with a keynote presentation by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
303 Gallery, New York
47 Canal, New York
Antenna Space, Shanghai
The Approach, London
Arcadia Missa, London
The Breeder, Athens
Gavin Brown’s enterprise, Birmingham
Callicoon Fine Arts, New York
C L E A R I N G, New York
Pilar Corrias Gallery, London,
Greene Naftali Gallery, New York
Herald St, London
High Art, Paris
Ibid Gallery, London + Los Angeles
Jan Kaps, Cologne
König Galerie, London
Koppe Astner, Glasgow
Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna
Martos Gallery, New York
Galerie Neu, Berlin
Night Gallery, Los Angeles
P.P.O.W, New York
Peres Projects, Berlin
Galeria Plan B, Berlin
Sprüth Magers, London
The Sunday Painter, London
Supportico Lopez, Berlin
Truth and Consequences, Geneva
David Zwirner, London.**
Header Image: Liz Magic Laser, ‘Primal Speech’ (2016). Single-channel video installation. Courtesy the artist + VSF
Presented as a part of their Artist’s Film Club series, the event is based upon the life of a character called Anxietina, by day, and ANXIETINA at night, who when darkness comes is transformed from a life of “anyone—working for money, caring for self and others, difficult circumstances, friends, social media, bank cards” into a “force for simultaneous good and evil, the vanishing-into-irrelevance and the emerging-into-history of human action and interaction.”
Black presents ‘Anxietina’, a new work, through text, textiles and music into a cumulative performance that echoes her past work which has employed latex, fabric, and processes or investigations of connective layering. Bonaventure, a sound project by Soraya Lutangu, uses music as “an identity research tool” to connect her African and European roots.
Berlin Community Radio (BCR) is taking part in Boat Rage #4 at Berlin’s Blue-Star sightseeing boat at Märkisches Ufer 34 on July 2.
The event, happening as part of the 9th Berlin Biennale (BB9) programme, will feature artists from the Berlin-based broadcaster’s recent BCR Incubator programme, supporting Berlin-based “emerging electronic music talents with a special focus on underrepresentedd and marginalised voices”.
The Being There group exhibition will be on at Vilma Gold, opening June 30 and running July 30.
Alongside a simultaneous solo show by artist Brian Griffiths called Bill & Vilma at Vilma Gold, curator Matt Williams has brought together several artists for what promises to be a strong and bold mix of material and political practices that mostly seem to deal with structures and their building or unbuilding.
As is often the case with the East London space, there is little by way of information prior to the exhibition opening itself save for a photo of someone tuning a TV that is broadcasting a moment between Sesame Street’s Big Bird and a young woman.
See the Vilma Gold website for (limited) details.**
Episode #02 of quarterly podcast Status Effect is now streaming on Soundcloud, as part of a programme commissioning new long form audio pieces by artists, curators, arts writers and arts workers, running from November, 2015 to late 2016.
Produced by Andrew Varano, the series explores how social and collective environments are composed and navigated through topics surrounding “subjectivity, reprioritising, diplomatic protocol, social anxiety, visibility and the possibility for care and empathy”.
In episode two, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black speaks about the potential for the freedom of children and Sophie Cassar writes on illness and the visibility of sick girls, and women online and in popular culture. Amy Hickman discusses the loss of the future and the spectrality of the present moment as characterised by photography and digital practices, while Tim Woodward takes a recent Skype interview as a departure point to explore the standardised, yet awkward and disembodied exchanges which the video chat and voice call service produces.
This will be the US debut of the new video work by the Berlin-based artist, which addresses “notions of debt across layered historical contexts” in an imagined landscape of speculative wilderness set against a backdrop of “contemporary creditor and debtor relationships”.
Taking the medieval practice of shaming through public humiliation as a starting point, Black explores race and class as interconnected modes of oppression enforced through public social life and debt. A potential escape narrative is depicted via “hazy digital hallucinations” of Doggerland, a now-sunken land mass connecting Great Britain to mainland Europe 10,000 years ago, and “a place where creditors cannot access their debtors”.
Black’s Dark PoolParty book, co-published by Martine Syms’ Dominica Publishing and London’s Arcadia Missa, was recently launched along with Sarah M Harrison’s All The Thingsat Lisa Cooley in February.