Héctor Huerga | 7th Berlin Biennale, an experimental approach to public art institutions.
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7th Berlin Biennale, an experimental approach to public art institutions.

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Can contemporary art shape the future of politics?


The seventh edition of the Berlin Biennale took place between April and June 2012. The question that heads this text was the premise with which this event began. The idea that the Polish curators Artur Żmijewski and his associate Joanna Warsza had was not new. An example is the participation of the German artist Joseph Beuys at Documenta in Kassel, whose work focused on an organization bureau for direct democracy through popular voting in 1972. On the other hand, in 1974, the exhibition of works at the Venice Biennale was suspended due to protests by young people against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

 Here, in the Spanish state, when politics in the 1970s began to talk of consensus, culture continued to talk of rupture. After the death of Franco, there were ateneos, occupations, strikes, and counterculture groups. In this period, people did not wait for democracy to be designed for them, but made democracy in a continuous, transversal, supra-partisan, and creative way. This heterogeneous multitude was called Hidra Democrática. It was thanks to their actions that, in the heart of the Transition, hegemonic routes between the political, social, and cultural spheres were broken.


Between these historical examples and the question posed by the curators of the Berlin Biennale, there was a popular uprising in the Arab world, another in southern Europe, and the most mediatized uprising resulting from the occupation of the New York Stock Exchange, also known as the Occupy movements.


Culture in the squares


At the end of 2011, the curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale have proposed to the Culture Commissions from Madrid and Barcelona to participate in one of the most important art exhibitions in Europe. In that year, Artur Żmijewski was collaborating with one of the most important networks of art, politics, and thought in Eastern Europe: the Polish organization Krytyka Politiczna (in English, Political Criticism). One of his collaborators, Igor Stokfiszewski, who had followed the Puerta del Sol encampment in Madrid on site, contacted members of the international working groups that had been established in the squares of Madrid and Barcelona. There were other international working commissions in Valencia, Santander, and Seville, however, the bond that the two major cities of the Spanish state had with each other and with the rest of the world favored such a contact.


Similar to the transversality that emerged in Spain in the 1970s, through the aforementioned Hidra Democrática, the organization in the squares cut across each participant according to their motivations. In my case, I was part of the international working group in Barcelona from the beginning, and from time to time I escaped to the assemblies of the Culture Commission. At a personal level, those cultural assemblies left an indelible mark on me. On the one hand, I came from a very comforting process of self-esteem with the publication a few months earlier of my first novel. Imagine, the creator and his work were on the street, my thoughts were looking for ideas to devour for my next projects and my work served as a calling card. However, the interaction in the cultural assemblies showed me that a great work is not a great work until it is shaped by the people. Perhaps this was one of the questions Artur Żmijewski was asking himself when he decided to open the Biennale to the awakening of the street. My awakening was immediate: seeing a 12-year-old girl talking about art with more coherence than an old local poet made me understand the reasons why, in some way, art also had to be rescued from its own bubble. And from this rich and extensive interaction between people and artists, some minimum demands were created to recover culture.


The model of culture agreed upon in the Plaça de Catalunya for two months became a document of principles and proposals that were debated. However, it was always made very clear that it would be a permanently open and ongoing document. The failures in the cultural world that were detected in those assemblies can be summarized in the eight points of the declaration:


  • Cultural policy is not culture.
  • Public institutions do not make culture.
  • Public institutions manage public resources for culture.
  • Culture is a common good and a constantly transforming process that reflects social dynamics, the result of which does not have to be necessarily a work or a commercial product.
  • Culture must be free and plural, and cultural policies must reflect, promote, and guarantee this freedom and this plurality.
  • Cultural policy must provide resources for research, production, exhibition, dissemination, and cultural education, from a sustainable perspective and based on its social value.
  • Cultural policy cannot be oriented towards a mere pursuit of economic benefits.
  • Long-term, inclusive, participatory, sustainable, and exploratory cultural models must be developed.


Based on these axes, proposals were developed around a social redefinition of cultural policies, a new model for managing public resources, a free culture model, transparent cultural policies, providing the necessary resources for education for cultural awareness, and, as a communicative vessel, a political redefinition of public space is proposed (and in this section, although of a local nature, some answers are given to the question that heads this presentation, and in a certain way, it responds subjectively to the big question posed by the curators of the Berlin Biennale).


The end of municipal policies of privatization of public space is requested. To put a stop to the favorization by the public administration of those manifestations in the public space linked exclusively to private and commercial initiatives. The repeal of the Barcelona Municipal Civic Ordinance is requested and the rewriting of the cultural uses of the public space with the aim of promoting plural and inclusive cultural practices, particularly those not supervised by the administrations. Emphasis is placed on the need to modify the legislation on the design of public spaces and urban furniture to favor the social recovery of the uses of public space. Finally, the modification of the management and the model of ownership of the public radio-electric space is requested. Opening of channels of free production and access, both on television and on the radio.


The international working groups of the squares in Madrid and Barcelona communicated to their networks the possibility of participating in the Seventh Berlin Biennale. Among the requirements for participation, it was made clear that projects were prioritized according to social criteria. This meant that self-management had to be taken into account, as well as the flexibility of the shared space.The first reaction of the collectives and associations invited to this Biennale was a bit lukewarm. It didn’t get a great reception, but they didn’t oppose the participation of the squares either. Among the most common reservations was the idea of participating in a public institution of the German government. This is understandable if you’ve been spending months educating yourself about how the financial dictatorship in the European Union works. The resistance in the squares was still fresh in people’s minds, and in a way, the invitation could be seen as a naive gesture.

I can’t speak for everyone who decided to accept the invitation, but if there’s one thing that describes my confirmation of attendance at the Biennale, it was the possibility I saw to change something from within. As the saying goes, to «put the finger on the sore spot.» On this occasion, through another axis that is also touched by the system, such as art. In more precise words: I was interested in knowing what direction art was taking through the public institution, and how those months of uprising in the squares of the Spanish state could be translated or put into practice in such a different environment, but at the same time enriched, by the local and international resistance groups that would be part of the Seventh edition of the Biennale.


The never-ending centre-periphery divide


The use of the Kunstwerke as the venue for the biennale was a political gesture in itself. The building, built in 1926, was the headquarters of the Ministry of Labour during the Third Reich. In the 1960s, it became the home of the defense of the memory of the German territories (both East and West). Inside the former Deutschlandhaus, the decoration of the building itself was included as part of the biennale’s discourse. Although the archive remained closed, visitors to the Biennale could appreciate the stained glass windows with the coats of arms of the different German regions by Ludwig Peter Kowalsi, as well as a sculpture in commemoration of the exiles of the Third Reich by Hermann Joachim Pagels. In the center was a courtyard, and at the back was the main building of the Biennale, which was divided into 3 floors and a huge basement of an area equivalent to the rest of the floors, but with the addition of a small garden in the back.


The initial idea of the curators of the Berlin Biennale was for visitors to find the basement taken over by the activities that spontaneously took place in the squares the previous year. As Żmijewski said: «An area that we will not curate, supervise or evaluate.» And in the formation of this self-managed space, we were involved for half the biennale.


The remaining group of activists from occupy Berlin were organizing the space provided by the Biennale through local assemblies. These assemblies had been established as a rigid entity where decisions were made, in this case, to the space for the emerging movements of 2011. There was a series of contacts from occupy Berlin to the outside world, basically informing of the decisions being made. Among those decisions, it was agreed to distribute the modest budget and the design of what many journalists would later call the human zoo.


Let me stop here for a moment because it was a major issue in the first half of the Biennale. In other words, for those of us who came from the Spanish state, the idea that an assembly was an end in itself seemed somewhat misleading. It is important to clarify that for us, it represented one more tool, important because it was where the proposals of the working groups converged and were improved, but in no case could it become a royal decree. If the declarations of minimum demands of the occupied squares always closed with «an open and ongoing document,» it is clear that on the one hand they defined the open nature of the movement, and on the other hand they established what I mentioned earlier, «a great work is not great until it is shaped by the people.»So I asked myself, what could have led the movements that emerged after occupy Wall Street to understand that the assembly is an end? Perhaps the overly superficial mediatization of a protest that was swallowed up by the mass media in a savage way, or perhaps it was that, trying to take the best that inspires an organization, there would be a thread of hope, unfortunately filtered through the lenses of those who opposed it.And if that hope was that an assembly where one voice permeated the rest constituted a possibility of giving a voice to the voiceless?I repeat, as a means, it works adequately, as an end, I consider that it falls somewhat short because, as I have written, assemblies are nothing more than one more tool, neither more nor less.


When I arrived in Berlin, I found an open space for visitors that had been divided into temporary structures for assemblies, screenings, and art installations. In adjacent rooms, a kitchen, a dormitory for activists, and a small space for radio broadcasts were being completed. These last rooms were closed to Biennale visitors. There was no internet, and the budget was practically allocated.


With this picture, you can imagine why half of the time of the Biennale was spent redesigning an alternative plan. Others simply thought of hacking it, and some others gave up any attempt to reformulate the decisions that had been made in the assemblies of Occupy Berlin. For a month, we worked on reconfiguring the work pre-designed by local activists. Incidentally, there were not many of them, and the local call had been received with indifference by the vast majority of Berlin collectives because of the supposed institutional contamination. During these four weeks, we analyzed the possibilities of a new relationship between activists, collectives, and the state institution. We organized different meetings and internal assemblies with a clear transformative will. We chose or raised topics, problems, and ways of doing things that connected with the perspective of responding with criteria and legitimacy, but without falling into a pure experimentation, already known, that only sought to improve communication, empathy, or synergies between the triangle institution, activists, and society.


And at this point, we managed to gather the local activists in an assembly that served as a turning point for the rest of the Biennale. The topic of the day was a single, clear question: Why are we here? The debate dragged on for hours, days. For some, the importance of being present at the Biennale strengthened the idea of surviving as an organization. It was a matter of reaching broad sections of the population to change things. For others, social transformation was only possible from outside institutions. Being inside implied reinforcing those institutions, legitimizing their way of doing things, a way of doing things that, according to them, was losing its capacity for real transformation. In any case, it is clear that outside of institutions, internal contradictions decrease, but it is also true that the capacity for impact and dissemination of ideas and messages can be significantly reduced. The question was also whether it was possible to work at the intersection of these different alternatives, pressuring and straining the institution to influence it and achieve that it substantially modified its way of operating. After hours of intense debate, the local activists decided to rethink the moment and meet again in a second assembly. A week later, the number of attendees at the new assembly fell to less than half, and that process buried the local group in its own contradictions.


Disobedience is the way


In the face of this state of ungovernability, a series of acts of disobedience began. These acts were not aimed at reorganizing the internal order, but rather at questioning the role of the public art institution vis-à-vis activists and society. The goal was to push the institution to its limits to see where its commitment truly lay.


The first target was the curators of the Biennale. To this end, several works on display with the names and surnames of the curators were intervened. A red and black flag was hung at the entrance of the building, a Belarusian artist’s installation was overwritten with more radical messages pointing to the beginning of a battle against the curators. However, the most significant act of disobedience, due to its scale and subsequent impact, was the enormous graffiti that two members of the Barcelona encampment made on one of the most visible works to visitors: «Rise Up» in deep red on a white background, hanging from the windows of the Biennale’s management offices. That day, the director, secretary, treasurer, and most of the workers who passed by the offices found themselves face to face with an enormous graffiti covering their windows with just six letters: RISE UP.


As we can see, the process of change in the public art institution had begun with disobedience. First, questioning the local group, then the curators, and now the management of the Kunstwerke: the representative arm of the German state at the seventh Berlin Biennale.


That morning, a nervous Artur Żmijewski asked me to mediate with the members of the Barcelona graphics commission who had made the graffiti. We sat down in the courtyard of the Kunstwerke and began to talk. Żmijewski was worried because the management of the institution had expressed great concern about that act of disobedience, but Żmijewski did not want his first question to be that, instead he asked the graffiti artists if they considered it fair to have intervened in the work of another author. The graffiti artists responded by saying that that intervention was their work, they asked Żmijewski if he could understand the meaning of their work. Then Żmijewski replied that it was likely that the repainting would not be covered by the insurance policy contracted by the Biennale, and that in this case he would have to put public institution budget to repaint it. In a masterful move by the graffiti artists, they said that they could go from the fine brush to the fat brush, they could take charge of repainting the walls splashed with graffiti in exchange for a budget lower than that charged by the insurer. If this last proposal does not synthesize the power relationship in the contemporary art world today, I would not be going into the details of this conversation.


Beyond the agreement reached that morning between the curator and the graffiti artists (which never came to fruition), it was clear that an example of transformation of the public art institution had been established, in this case, through the figure of its curator, who from that moment on found one more reason to side with change. A first necessary step to answer his initial question of whether art can change politics.


Horizontality in Process


Occupy Museums arrived at the Berlin Biennale a few days after these incidents. They came with a large group compared to the other delegations that were at the Biennale. They had been working on public art institutions in New York. This background had been considered of interest by curator Joanna Warsza, Żmijewski’s deputy. They had their homework done from home. Their main goal was to build a transnational action network in the field of art, although they found it somewhat strange to coexist in the middle of an exhibition. Their plan was composed of 3 basic points: first, they wanted to explore the power relations between the curators and the public institution. Secondly, and very much in line with the occupy movements, they conspired to ignore the exhibition, organizing actions against specific targets in Berlin (banks and museums mainly). And finally, they were motivated to create a kind of Trojan horse that would infect the collective of the art world, with the spirit of implementing a style of direct democracy. As they themselves defined it, «to change the purpose of the Biennale, that is, what we have understood as a propagator of neoliberal political normality into a useful place for our movement.»


After some preliminary actions that served as workshops to merge the ideas of Occupy Museums together with the activists from Spain, Germany, and Russia who were already there, a collective statement called «You can’t curate a movement» was drafted. The text urged the curators to cede their position to the assembly, that is, that from now on «all decisions will be made by the assembly, which includes and encompasses former curators, directors, workers, and the entire Kunstwerke community.» The document also proposed that «all decisions relating to funding from the German government must be fully transparent,» and when all was mentioned, this included from the beginning of the Biennale to the end. «Therefore, it was proposed to bring the Biennale to the logic of a movement,» instead of simply being composed of a specific area for activism, another for invited artists, and another for the institution.

Generally, a proposal of this type is usually met with silence, or it is channeled through a bureaucratic process to slow down a response to the point of nonexistence. The fact that the curators agreed to continue the process of horizontalization of the Biennale, instead of protecting the institution, gave continuity to a path that began through disobedience and, on the other hand, opened the possibility of building an experiment that could go down in history.


Once accepted, the proposal was brought to a general assembly formed by everyone who lived in the Kunstwerke: from the director to the cleaning workers, through all the staff members, the guards, some artists, the curators, and the activists. That practice of direct democracy with people who were exercising it for the first time was a historical event. The biggest difference I noticed between the previous assemblies with occupy Berlin and this one was that a hierarchy was being broken down. The speaking turns were short and at times condescending to the power organs of the institution. The greater experience of the activists in these types of meetings tried to break down the verticality with which the workers of the Kunstwerke understood that exercise of democracy. With a relatively low number of interventions, the bulk of the assembly agreed to accept the proposal for horizontalization of the Biennale, some workers looked at the director out of the corner of their eye as they timidly raised their hand.


The next step was to form different working groups between Kunstwerke workers, artists, and activists. These working groups opened up the functioning of the public institution to participation. Some groups worked better than others, in particular, the groups with administrative tasks were more opaque than those where the shared activity represented a relief in the workload. However, some achievements were made from this experience, for example, moving from indignation to action and from protest to proposal. As a result of this new step, we drafted a guide called «How to Build Horizontality.» A document fed by the different experiences in the social movements that emerged in 2011 and that lists in a simple way how to work in a team without dying trying.These first dynamics of collectivization were followed by other general assemblies. At this point, the assembly began to make more sense insofar as the results of this transformation flowed into this space. However, the Kunstwerke staff claimed lack of time to be able to attend both the assemblies and certain working groups. The meeting times were tried to be adjusted as best as possible to the activities that each person had to develop at the Biennale.


If I remember correctly, it was the third general assembly of that experiment when one of the interventions of a gallery worker gave a twist to the process of horizontalization of the German public institution, the gallery worker commented that her salary, around €6.50 per hour, did not return any benefit to her work due to the rigidity of the schedule, transportation prices, etc. With her voice, other eyes rose. Most of them around the treasurer and the director. After an intense session where the activists tried to mediate between the emerging problems and possible solutions, the Kunstwerke management agreed to incorporate a 30% increase in the salary of the gallery workers for the next Biennale. This translated to earning €8.50 per hour instead of the €6.50 that was being paid.




That subtle change in power within the Biennale was simply produced through this act of gathering and proposing new forms of participation between curators, artists, activists, and the museum workers. A small victory that signaled the fact that the Biennale had become a politicized event. Seen from the point of view of activism, we had recovered a little dignity through a small step together with the institution’s staff. However, the event was coming to an end. And one of our biggest concerns was the continuity that was going to be given to the entire experiment. We sensed that the experience of having formed working groups could have an impact on a hopeful future. The path was open. The documents prepared on horizontality served to give continuity to the process, although it was time for everyone to return home and the workers of the Kunstwerke would be left alone.


Already from Barcelona, I learned that part of the Kunstwerke staff retired after the horizontalization experiment. As curator Zmijewski described it: «The political reality is brutal, after this experience, the Kunstwerke returned to its old form quite quickly. However, some of the permanent employees of the Kunstwerke decided to quit their jobs. After the experience they had during the Biennale, they were unable to continue working in the same conditions.»


Within the logic of the temporality that the Berlin Biennale allowed, it can be said that the process of horizontalization was a successful experiment. Born of disobedience, as any claim that falls within the vertex of resistance, a small gesture began to question the role of the public institution in the art world. In addition, the graffiti carried a very visionary message: RISE UP.


If we add to this component the commitment of a group of activists with dissident proposals, such as the Occupy Museums initiative with activists from Spain, Germany, and Russia, it can be said that this second stage represented the perfect continuation of disobedience. In a nutshell, we went from protest to proposal. It was shown that a little support from the institution was necessary to go from an alternative idea to putting it into practice in an incidental way, that is, to impact power structures. In the first place, we achieved this through group work dynamics and the increase in salary for gallery workers. Subsequently, the layoff of some permanent workers of the Biennale reinforced our questioning of the modus operandi of public art institutions. We would have liked this experiment to mark the beginning of a process of empowerment where the public institution and the public work hand in hand to achieve common goals. Will it be a matter of time? Institutional will? Both, probably.


Since this process was not conceived within the codes of the art world, where work crystallizes in exhibitions with aesthetic or conceptual frameworks, the democratizing experience showed us that political processes within art institutions are theoretically impossible. However, direct democracy and interior occupation do not depend on the great visibility that one of the most important art exhibitions in Europe, as the Berlin Biennale is said to be, can provide. Perhaps the success of that experiment also occurred behind the back of the visibility that the art world currently provides. What if this were the zoo they were talking about?


Héctor Huerga

Barcelona, February 2016.


Photo: Ania Do

Kunstwerke, Berlin Biennale, 2012.

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