Dreams, friends, are boring. Though we must not say so. To confess that one craves the real thing over the craft, as John Berryman once wrote, is to betray one’s prejudice against imagination – a partiality, it would seem, against art. Luckily, such reasoning is rubbish; good works inhabit imagined and real worlds simultaneously. But such is the stuffy realist position one flees to when faced with the likes of ‘Monday Begins on Saturday’, the first edition of the large-scale ‘research’-based triennial, ‘Bergen Assembly – An Initiative for Art and Research’.
Buried in the exhibition’s tagline (and burying obvious things into convoluted clamour seemed to be the biennial’s fundamental initiative) was ‘artistic research’, the largely state-buoyed tendency of Northern European art (one might blame the infrastructural complex of institutions, curators, state funding and artists) to turn any Wiki page or imagined monument into a tedious school project. This hyper-exhibition, like The Biennial Reader that tombstones the bookshelf of every Curatorial Studies MA student, arose out of the 2009 Bergen Biennial Conference, itself inspired by the city’s resolve to host an international biennial. That idea was thankfully dismissed. What came about instead was an ambitious, dinosauric, slow-foods, research- and coffee-intensive, ostensibly self-reflective triennial, orchestrated in a cushy, oil-drenched city by Moscow-based curators Ekaterina Degot and David Riff.
In a knowing nod to the inevitable pomposity of this enterprise, the show’s title, theme and cutely curtsying tone was taken from Monday Begins on Saturday, a 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The book takes an allegorical Soviet bureaucratic institute as its theme (spoiler: no work actually gets done, people relish their bland cubicles and there is no weekend). The metaphorical superimposition of socialist USSR onto the state-financed Norwegian art infrastructure of the Bergen Assembly was surely intended to be playful. But the tagline, like many works on display – and like the novel’s own bureaucrats – seemed to fetishize the appearance of activity: busyness over real business, the look of the library over the books within. Dora García’s seminar-table annotations of Finnegans Wake (2013), for example, were pretentiously explicit in their reverence for the ‘look’ of literary research. Like nervous interviewees announcing their flaws before their interlocutors can, the curators hyperbolized the scaffolding around the exhibition, ballooning its rhetoric: work by 51 artists (whitewashed as ‘researchers’ in its argot) installed (‘convened’) across 11 locations (‘institutes’ of ‘Pines and Prison Bread’, ‘Defensive Magic’, ‘Lyrical Sociology’, etc.) in an effort to produce ‘defensive counter-magic to the magic of bureaucracy’. In each ‘institute’ they installed the grace note of a copper-engraved passage from the Strugatskys’ novel, as if a détournement of Soviet bureaucracy still required polite literary taste to sanction it all.
The ‘researchers’ comprised an international group of contemporary artists, many of whom live and work in Berlin or Norway, and many of whom, such as Moscow-born, Long Island-based Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, count as members of a post-Communist diaspora. Also on display were mostly good, selective works by historical figures: ludic photographs by Moscow Conceptualists the Gnezdo Group, or excellent and sensitive industry-related photographs by Aleksandr Rodchenko taken on a 1933 research trip. But the contemporary artists, as a whole, like Flaubert’s iconic dilettantes Bouvard and Pécuchet, picked up their lab masks – or Defence Against the Dark Arts wands – and took dutiful refuge in the act of mining the news, blogs or JSTOR. The resulting subjects felt almost slavishly topical: surveillance (in Stephan Dillemuth’s Department of surv31llanc3&3ncr1pt10n), algorithms (in Francis Hunger’s video installation Deep Love Algorithm) or futures trading (in Minze Tummescheit and Arne Hector’s Happiness in the Abstract, Fictions and Futures #1, all 2013). These works were all designed to smack of timeliness, but – since they only scratched the surface – they merely constructed a set of hyperlinks to ‘hot’ themes.
Certain projects were indeed impassioned and committed, and would have been interesting in isolation. This was the case especially when art butted its head against non-art, as in Ane Hjort Guttu’s video interview with an anonymous artist who discussed her own, outsider-seeming visual ‘scores’ (How to Become a Non-Artist, 2007). Whether or not ‘artistic research’ is at stake, works were most engaging when they showed the imaginaries that masquerade behind the real. Monument to Rebellion (2007–13) by Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas, for example, was an array of found documents and objects spread out on three tables, diagramming the real-life case of a Detroit public art work made by Jack Ward during the time of the Detroit riots of 1967, which includes a letter from the artist himself disputing the non-commonplace public association of his sculpture with the riots. The dyslexic Ward spells Detroit as ‘Detriot’ throughout, in a way that achingly symbolizes the very real mix-up of fictional and collective memories – and that works of art, unlike science fair projects, gain meaning only by being framed (and taken up by) real, socio-historical discourses.
The pedantic convergence of ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ – research and art – only presupposes an original antagonism between them. As a result, one is turned into the other’s puppet. The general curatorial attitude towards art and its relationship to reality could already be gleaned from the curators’ admission, in their catalogue text, that in a fit of fiction-induced frenzy they ‘seriously contemplated inventing all the artists and making all the work [themselves]’. The best counterargument to this – if it’s even necessary to argue against such a fantasy – comes from Władysław Strzeminski. In a critique of aesthetic formalism in his Theory of Vision (1958) – excellent research drawings from which were shown here – Strzeminski wrote that ‘the basic mistake’ of Soviet formalist art was to ‘cut art (its reality) off from the […] productive forces which are shaping it, from historical arguments’. Ironically enough, for a history-envying exhibition touting ‘anti-formalism’, Strzeminski’s argument works just as well against it. There’s too much at stake in the actual world to play such simulacra off as real. Artists, researchers, whatever, put down your magic wands.