Biting the hand that feeds them
Activists turn “human zoo” into Occupy-style working group
By Christian Viveros-Fauné. News, Issue 237, July-August 2012
Published online: 04 July 2012
What initially began as a disagreement over the curator Artur Zmijewski’s decision to put global activists on display during the 7th Berlin Biennale blossomed into an out-and-out political revolt, just before the closing of the international exhibition on 1 July.
Reacting to what members of Occupy and M15 (the Spanish protest movement) characterised as a curatorial framework that penned them into “a human zoo with a viewing platform where viewers watch[ed] activists eat, assemble, fight and sleep,” the activists issued the biennial’s authorities with a set of ultimatums. These demands included, among others, dismantling “the hierarchical structure of the biennial” and replacing it with an Occupy-style “working group”. These radical proposals were accepted by Zmijewski and the associate curator, Joanna Warsza,
’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art,
and the biennial’s funders, the German Federal Cultural Foundation. Berlin
According to a statement posted on the biennial’s website, “the invited global movements have challenged the hierarchical structure of the biennial” to “loosen the assumptions of cultural, institutional, and economic hierarchy and bring the 7th Berlin Biennale into line with the stated claims to ‘present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed’”. The recent “decentring of power” that took place at the biennial meant that all curatorial, administrative, communications and budgetary decisions were made collectively at bi-weekly assemblies. Additionally, the curators were no longer called curators but “former curators”.
Zmijewski, a curator and artist known for commenting on the institutionalisation of art, first raised suspicions among key activists for making curatorial choices they said tended to “anthropologise and humiliate global movements”. A month into the two-month-long exhibition, speculation was rampant as to whether the artist/curator might be using the protest movements as part of his own meta-work of art. According to the Occupy Wall Street member Noah Singer, the activists risked becoming “the butt of jokes all over
and maybe Europe”.