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A Whole New World? On the 53rd Venice Biennale

By Ceci Moss

Image: Aleksandra Mir, VENEZIA (all places contain all others), 2009

“Making Worlds”, the theme for this year’s 53rd International Art Exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum, argues that art should be seen as a form of “world making” and taken seriously as such. His accompanying essay in the catalog holds a distinctively transcendent ring to it, one that calls out for a universal solidarity through art, in stating, “Perhaps art can be one way out of a world ruled by leveling impulses and dull sameness. Can each artwork be a principle of hope and an intriguing plan for escape? Behind the immediate surface we are many - together and individually, through the multiplicity of imaginative worlds we hold within.” Given the very real worlds of national and political ambitions on the table in the Biennale’s pavilions, not to mention the surreal economic and class component to these sorts of events, Birnbaum’s curatorial statement, which suggests that art is autonomous from these factors, seemed like floral hyperbole in comparison. Why would the U.S. Pavilion be the only country to extend their Bruce Nauman exhibition to three locations across the city? And why would the United Arab Emirates Pavilion feature numerous models of large-scale cultural projects proposed for Abu Dhabi? The world’s fair mentality is here for the long run, that is to be sure. The strongest projects I viewed, in both the main exhibition and the pavilions, were able to eek out a space, certainly not a “world”, with a degree of critical distance and integrity away from the Biennale circus.

Venice is one of the few cities in the world to completely rely on boats for delivery, transportation, garbage disposal, and every other municipal need you can think of. The upkeep of the city is expensive due to this fact, thus the only economy to quite literally keep the town afloat is tourism. Judging from the multiple skyscraper-sized cruise boats I saw pull in daily, and the hundreds upon hundreds of tourists who packed the city’s narrow passageways, it seems that this industry is alive and well. Two art works in the main exhibition dealt directly with Venice’s transition from an historic city to a Las Vegas-style destination with a sense of humor. For VENEZIA (all places contain all others) (2009), Aleksandra Mir printed a million postcards featuring the typical design and typeface found on a Venetian postcard except the artist switched out the images for other locales around the world near bodies of water, therefore VENEZIA is emblazed across picturesque images of white water rafting or an iced-over lake in the forest. Visitors were encouraged to take the deceptive postcards and use them, further circulating these fake mementos. The segment of the title, “all places contain all others” emphasizes the interchangeability of the Kodak moment, implying perhaps that the authenticity of these images is not so important after all. Miranda July’s Eleven Heavy Things (2009) in the sculpture park of the Arsenale similarly played with the snapshot or memento, where viewers were invited to take pictures with her eleven sculptures installed on small grassy knolls. Words were inscribed on the sheeny white fiberglass blocks in July’s signature handwriting with statements such as, “We don’t know each other, we’re hugging for the picture, when we’re done I’ll walk away quickly. It’s almost over.” in Eleven Heavy Things - Pedestal for Strangers or “This is my little girl. She is brave and clever and funny. She will have none of the problems that I have. Her heart will never be broken. She will never be humiliated. Self-doubt will not devour her dreams” in Eleven Heavy Things - Pedestal for a Daughter. Cartoonish wig-like shapes with cut out silhouettes for posing lightened up these candid declarations, and most of the visitors opted to snap photos with the whimsical blobs. Both VENEZIA (all places contain all others) and Eleven Heavy Things acknowledged the spectacle that is the Biennale and its relationship to the larger visual ecosystem of the city’s tourist industry, and folded this into their conceptual framework. Far from an attempt to forge a new world or new reality, Mir and July responded to their immediate environs with wit and candor.

Image: Miranda July, Eleven Heavy Things, 2009

I jokingly described the Venice Biennale as the art world’s Epcot Center recently, but the comparison is in actuality quite accurate, as the pavilion organizational structure is not all that different from the “World Showcase”. With this in mind, artists who dealt with the challenges of the countries they were asked to represent sans a national agenda or the obligatory pomp and circumstance were a reprieve from the barrage of buzzwords and meaningless press release-ready calls for criticality, new visions, new conversations, redefinitions, etc. Teresa Margolles, whose exhibition at the Mexican Pavilion What Else Could We Talk About? (2009) was one such example. For the last two decades, the artist has brought to light the bureaucracy and protocol that has arisen in order to process the dead in Mexico City’s morgues, many of whom are casualties of police corruption, gang violence, drug wars, and poverty. Her work is an attempt to create a memorial and a space of contemplation for the cyclical violence that has prematurely ended these lives by using the material traces left behind- the water used to wash corpses, the blood stained rags from the clean up of a scene of an execution, and the shards of glass embedded in the skin of a victim of a drive-by shooting. The exhibition was staged in the crumbling, dilapidated sixteenth century Palazzo Rota Ivancich in the Castello district, whose uneven floorboards, peeling baroque wallpaper, and rusted light fixtures recalled an aristocracy that had long since vacated the premises. The interior was left exactly as is, and each day the floors were washed with water containing blood from damp rags used to mop up crime scenes after the official forensic work was complete. These same rags were hung up and hydrated on the ground floor of the building, and the pools of water collected underneath were then used in the next day’s cleaning. The interdependence between Mexico’s drug wars and a globalized economy were brought to the fore by the artist’s intervention in the Giardini grounds a week before the opening. Margolles hung fabric infused with the blood of executed people from drug-related crimes in the northern border of Mexico on the entrance of the United States Pavilion, signaling the U.S.’s inextricable ties to the Mexican drug trade and resulting violence. Zoran Todorović’s WARMTH (2009) in the Serbian Pavilion also derives material from the human body in an effort to call attention to the institutional and societal regulations which have become inscribed on the body. Mats woven from human hair, collected from army barracks and hair salons, were piled up around the gallery space, and videos depicting their assemblage were projected on the wall above. The title - WARMTH - evokes the instinctive need that is negotiated when hair is taken and given away, either for aesthetic or regulatory reasons. Margolles and Todorovic’s investigations of the fate of the human body vis-à-vis biopolitical control underscore the fact that artists often do not have the privilege to make worlds, but must create in the worlds made for them.

Image: Teresa Margolles, What Else Could We Talk About?, 2009.

The consequences of economic and political pressures come up again in the themes of dislocation and migration found in the work of Katarina Zdjelar, shown alongside Todorović in the Serbian Pavilion, and Krzysztof Wodiczko's Goście/Guests (2009) at the Polish Pavilion. Zdjelar, who immigrated to the Netherlands a few years ago, deals with the inconsistencies and difficulties in translation and language acquisition. Her single channel video The Perfect Sound (2009) follows a speech therapist and a client, as the client attempts to eliminate his accent and pronounce “perfect” English. The words register as nonsense after the student struggles through multiple rounds of repetition. This attempt to learn a language correctly illustrates the painstaking efforts made toward assimilation, which is assumed to open up more opportunity. Krzysztof Wodiczko's Goście/Guests also touches on the experience of immigrants. The full room video installation presents the illusion that the spectator is viewing a scene on the other side of a misted window. In these vignettes, the face and details of the characters remain obscured as they discuss their problems with residency status or visas on cell phones or in casual conversation. Just as the identity of the subjects remains hidden from the viewer, the spectator feels as if they are indiscernible from the subjects, secretly eavesdropping on their conversations. This two-way partition highlights the in-between spaces occupied by illegal or somewhat legal immigrants as they attempt to work and make their lives in foreign countries.

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Image: Katarina Zdjelar, The Perfect Sound, 2009 (Still)

Image: Krzysztof Wodiczko, Goście/Guests, 2009 (Courtesy of the artist, Profile Foundation and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw)

While the “Making Worlds” theme clearly had some problem areas, the Internet Pavilion, a collateral event to the Biennale this year, was also guilty of making its own sweeping statements. Organized by Miltos Manetas, artist and co-founder of Neen, and curated by Jan Aman, the pavilion was housed in the S.A.L.E docks space on Dorsoduro and included both online and offline projects by a host of artists, such as Petra Cortright, Martijn Hendriks, Harm van den Dorpel, Sinem Erkas, Elna Frederick, Parker Ito, Oliver Laric, Guthrie Lonergan, Pascual Sisto, Aleksandra Domanovic, Scott Kildall, Nathaniel Stern, Christian Wassmann, Miltos Manetas, Rafael Rozendaal, and AIDS 3-D. Claiming that the Internet, “…is a different territory from the existing pavilions” and “…is not defined by physical or geographical borders, nationalities, or a specific language” the pavilion was intended as a location to spotlight a new development. The language used in the press release, to me, recalled the utopian rhetoric of the early days of artistic experimentation online. It struck me as naïve to view the internet as an independent, borderless entity entirely separate from our divided world. Further, I found it odd to frame the internet as a territory, when it’s clearly a tool and a medium. The installation itself was a disappointment, especially for those artists in the “New Wave” portion of the exhibition. Christian Wassmann’s sculpture Pages was the first thing visible to outsiders coming into the space, and from the entryway, it was difficult to see the four screens set up to project “New Wave” in the far back. Once situated in front of the screens, the works were projected without titling, or the ability for viewers to scroll to a main menu, thus there was no way to read the artist names, titles or dates for the works, so they remained anonymous. Given that these artists are doing some of the most compelling work in the field today, this was an enormous letdown. More attention, care and thought could’ve been devoted to the presentation of each artist’s project. The other pavilions provided printed materials and wall text to accompany their exhibitions, whereas the Internet Pavilion gave no further information on the artists, only a quick chance to write down the url, which wasn’t enough to take away. Moreover, I wondered if there should even be an Internet Pavilion at all. It reminded me of the New Media Lounges that popped up at various institutions in the late 1990s, and I don’t see the need now for this separation. Judging from various conversations I had throughout the week, the general consensus was that “Making Worlds” featured more electronic and video work than any previous biennale, and no doubt, this tendency will continue as even more artists utilize these mediums.

Image: Christian Wassmann, Pages, 2009 (Installation at the Internet Pavilion)

Image: Guthrie Lonergan, Floor Warp 2, 2008 (at the Internet Pavilion)

Both the curatorial premises for “Making Worlds” and the Internet Pavilion trumpeted new worlds and new ground, when they should have focused more squarely on the worlds we already inhabit. Perhaps this rhetoric, better suited for an exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum, is a result of the formality of the Venice Biennale and the aforementioned Epcot Center approach. These limitations would surely prevent a curator from staging an event as malleable as Manifesta, which has had the license to change location, adapt and experiment with different formats. That said, Birnbaum did succeed in presenting an extremely wide-ranging group of artists, and practically every medium for artistic expression had a place in the exhibition. Maybe that’s the best hope for something as entrenched as the Venice Biennale? Maybe so.

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asdasd 6 years, 5 months agoReply

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Domenico Quaranta 6 years, 5 months agoReply

Hi Ceci,

thank you for the nice and long review. It was a pity not to meet in Venice…

I agree with most of the things you say, but I have some concerns about your position regarding the Internet Pavilion. You say:

> Further, I found it odd to frame the internet as a territory, when it’s clearly a tool and a medium.

This is quite surprising if said by a Rhizome editor :-) The Internet is definitely something more than a tool and a medium, and that's what makes it more interesting than any other medium. Video is a tool and a medium. The Internet is a tool, a medium, a place, a space, a society, a meeting point for cultures, subcultures, aesthetics, philosophies and the place where new cultures, subcultures, aesthetics and philosophies are born. And much more than this. The notion of netizenship may be old, but it still works. Just a little portion of Manetas' work is net-based, yet 99% of it couldn't exist without the Net. And I think the same should be said for all the artists in the New Wave exhibition.

You found some naïveté in the press release, and you describe the installation as loose, sloppy and disappointing. That's what I thought in the beginning, but spending some more time in the pavilion, I started feeling comfortable with this kind of presentation. A serious, functional, museum-style installation would be too much "telic" for the father of Neen. In my view, the Internet Pavilion wants to be a meeting point, an happening site, a place where you can meet hackers and pirates and where you can see some good, fresh art, but without the seriousness of an exhibition. It doesn't want to compete with its neighbor Pinault, but it wants to be the cool place where everybody is going after visiting Punta della Dogana. You say:

> Given that these artists are doing some of the most compelling work in the field today, this was an enormous letdown. More attention, care and thought could’ve been devoted to the presentation of each artist’s project.

In a way, what's really naïve and immature here is not their conscious, ironic appropriation of the celebratory language of the first net art years, but your anxiety for the recognition of the practice (but I could say “our anxiety”, since my approach would have been very similar to the one you suggest). Good art is not recognized as such because the label on the wall is in the right place. The looseness of the Internet pavilion can be a lesson for all of us who believe that net art can enter the system simply becoming user friendly, imitating traditional art forms and putting well formatted descriptions on the wall. The problem is: are we making it more accessible or more boring?


Harm 6 years, 5 months agoReply

Unfortunately I completely agree with this review regarding the new wave show.
Please take into account this show was conceived by Miltos Manetas and ideas were not always completely reflecting those of the participating artists.

Magdalena Sawon 6 years, 5 months agoReply

I would agree/disagree with both Ceci and Domenico - while there is a larger cultural dimension to internet going beyond tool&medium description, the pavillion did very little to convey anything - the install was godawful, sloppy, the information level non-existent - for the ones "in the know" there is no reason to encounter the works in this way, the "newbies" had very little to grasp. Surely there is a middle ground between pathological opulence of display and fetishization of object (art trophy) going on in Punta Della Dogana, and hermetic little ghetto of Padiglione Internet next door. Accessibility, respect for the artwork and some info does not equal boring and compromised.
As for the Biennale Proper there was lots of scattered good work but the general lack of urgency, newer media and "time stamp" of 2009 was quite stunnning - like artists working in studios without windows. Making imaginary worlds indeed. It is prolly why Ceci writes about a handful projects with some sociopolitical dimension. For me though in the Polish pavilion poetry and aesthetization literally "washed out' the big subject and the Mexican one was just the opoosite - heavyhanded to the bone. good issues rarely equal good art. sorry to be hard to please.

Daniel 6 years, 5 months agoReply

Let's be honest. This project meant well, but was a complete fiasco logistically.

There is no way to justify having a physical pavilion if its just going to be used as a foosball lounge for some Venice-Area leftists and their dogs….

The videos were projected on panels of painted-over-graffiti, propped up against the wall by some of the artists in the show 10 minutes before the opening "press conference"— We had close to no support from any production crew, who preferred to sit around reading newspapers and going out at night breaking fascist's arms than have anything to do with art.

I think it would be best if we all forgot that the pavilion ever existed physically, and just focus on the presentation of the work online. But, I also have problems with the idea of net-art being segregated at all… I mean, there isn't any ceramics pavilion…..

Domenico Quaranta 6 years, 5 months agoReply

Hi Daniel,

even if I tried to support the project, I can't but agree with one of the artists in the show. If the artists are unhappy, the project is a failure of course.

Talking about segregation, in my little work as a curator I always tried to avoid it. Probably today a separated "net art show" is even more stupid as ever, since most of the best artists working on the internet are working out of it as well, with galleries etc. That said, I still think that the Internet pavilion made an interesting step onward, at least conceptually, talking not about "net art", but about "net citizenship". Probably this isn't enough to make a good show, but the good news is that the "ceramics pavilion" model is a thing of the past


Creamy Dreamy 6 years, 5 months agoReply


Miltos Manetas 6 years, 4 months agoReply

Comparing websites with ceramics.

" I found it odd to frame the internet as a territory, when it’s clearly a tool and a medium" says Ceci Moss.
Well, that means she understands nothing about the Internet neither about "Internets".
Then she complains about the Exhibition but there has never been any real space "Exhibition". The press release (Biennale.net), it says clearly: "Location: The Internet. Opening on June 03 at the headquarters of the project, S.A.L.E Magazzini del Sale"
The NewWave show is here: http://newwaveshow.com, the rest is at Biennale.net, the whole thing is a project that **started** in Venice. What happened at the headquarters was a "get together" and a demo of some sides of the project plus performance and music. I didn't care to even have a physical place, it was offered to us 2 weeks before the show and if it wasn't for a few artists that came determined to put up their projections I would have left it empty. Anyway, its OK they "projected", but I couldn't let them do the everyman's show you find everywhere from NY to Athens. It wasn't bad the way they install it anyway and thanks to the Pirates from the Embassy of Piracy, the Headquarters, became this way an "Internets" which means a physical reality conditioned by what happens online. Non all artists understood that and that's fine. Harm and a few others don't even believe in the ideas of the Internet Pavilion and-like Ms Moss probably think that Internet is the new TV&Fax&Phone that we can "use" to make contemporary art and show it to your parents.

Some notes:
- Headquarters is a place from where you prepare for a fight; from my side I am interested in war, not peace.
- The InternetPavilion was a Trojan horse to bring the ideas of Piracy and Anti-Copyright to the Venice Biennial. It was many other things also but the Piracy was what come to surface. There must be some reasons..

Brian Droitcour 6 years, 4 months agoReply

I agree with Miltos that the internet is more like a territory than a tool. If an artist does a performance in a park, you'd say performance is the medium and whatever props he uses are the "tools," but the park itself is the space. Likewise, Quicktime is a tool, scripts are tools, Flickr is a tool and they are all available for use in the territory of the internet. While the internet is not cut off from the world, it does have different conventions of behavior, including different ways of looking at art. (http://www.purekev.com/ brought me back to these thoughts last week, I suggest you watch it if you haven't yet.)

That said, I don't think the Internet Pavilion successfully conveyed the idea of the internet as a territory, either in its Venice venue or the New Wave Show. The projections in Venice presented net art as an alternative kind of video art, and the New Wave Show just herds up a few pieces that have been shown already on Club Internet or other sites and validates them with the official logo of the Venice Biennale–something that seems antithetical to the ideals of piracy that Miltos is espousing. In both cases, internet art is something that be contained in a gallery or an online analogue of it, rather than existing in a broader territory. Miranda July said that her project for "Making Worlds" (described by Ceci in the post above) would be complete when people posted photos of themselves with her sculptures to their Flickrs or Facebooks or whatnot. Corny as that may be, it shows a greater sensitivity to the nature of the internet than the Internet Pavilion did.

Miltos Manetas 6 years agoReply

The following text was written on 11/22/09, the day of the closure of the Venice Biennial.

Today is Sunday, Nov 22 2009. That's 11/22/09 -which can be read also as 11/22/33 (9= 3x3). That is the very last day of the Venice Biennial and also the last chance to visit the InternetPavilion, which is hosted at www.PadiglioneInternet.com.
From tomorrow the Internet Pavilion will be closed and it will re-open again for the next Venice Biennial in two years.
Still, there is enough time today for a few more hours at least, to make something historical happen inside the Pavilion. Its up to you really, up to any of us.

Speaking for myself, I believe that what's possible, what "can be done", has nothing to do with "technology". Technology-as Wikipedia says- is "a broad concept that deals with human as well as other animal species usage and knowledge of tools and crafts, and how it affects a species' ability to control and adapt to its environment". In that sense, computers aren't really "technology": dogs and other animals can't use them. The Internet isn't technology either, plants can't grow there. Computers at their present stage are more similar to rocks and stones and the much hyped "Internet" is a little more than some kind of dirt: some sort of desert dust that is covering a large part of the planet but not everything.

The InternetPavilion is at this stage the embassy of a country: the new country of the Internet inhabited by a very small minority (people who own computers are less than 1% of humanity). The "real" Internet Pavilion -the one we may decide to enter in two years from now, (or even later today, maybe just a nanosecond before midnight), could be the door to a reality where the World doesn't need a mediation, where you can send an email by just moving your lips instead of this ridiculous message that I am typing right now on a machine. There isn't anything "mystical" about this, we can actually try a little experiment at this very moment: Please, let go your computer mouse, relax back on your chair or on the sofa, wherever you are reading this text, close your eyes and draw two circles in front of your face using your right hand , one circle from the left to the right and the other from the right to the left. Then, open slowly your eyes and without using your computer, send a reply to this message.

Have a nice day

Miltos Manetas, 11/22/33