‘The State of Things’: Series of lectures at various institutes across Venice, programme available here: http://www.oca.no/programme/norway-in-venice/venice-biennale-2011/the-state-of-things
Lecturers: Judith Butler, Vandana Shiva, Franco Berardi, T.J. Clark, Jacques Ranciere, Eyal Weizman
‘Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS’ with artist Bjarne Melgaard
Curator: Pablo Lafuente, Marta Kuzma and Peter Osborne
Laura Stocks interviews curator Pablo Lafuente
Laura Stocks: This year Norway is independent of the Nordic Pavilion. In what way does the absence of the pavilion affect Norway’s representation?
Pablo Lafuente: The temporary interruption of the collaboration with Finland and Sweden in the Nordic Pavilion in the Giardini, which is going to last for three editions of the Biennale, was for us an opportunity to try new models of national representation and new relationships to audiences in a context that does not often enough lend itself to it. By liberating us from having to organise an exhibition in the actual pavilion, it allowed us to explore what kind of relationships art could establish with other fields within the Biennale, with the urgencies affecting the world today, and with the local – institutional and individual – scene in the city. After a lot of discussion, we decided to organise two programmes – The State of Things and Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS, the latter led by artist Bjarne Melgaard – that explored what we thought were key issues and did so in collaboration with local institutions such as Università Iuav di Venezia, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia or Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia, and through discursive and pedagogical programmes.
LS: ‘The State of Things’ is initially based on the concept of the Nansen passport, how does this reference or relate to contemporary nationalities?
PL: We thought that the figure of Nansen and his passport were extremely suggestive and we thought a productive image for our times – he professed a genuine internationalism that was put at the service of those minorities that were oppressed or not recognised by the established political and administrative structures. In the current situation, when it is not easy to find such attitude, we thought invoking Nansen’s figure would serve as a wake up call and perhaps as a model for action.
LS: Current political, social and economic issues are global in scope; to what extent does this transcend the representation of individual national identity?
PL: Norway has traditionally adopted a role of international mediation, already from Nansen’s time. And this is something we wanted to reflect. But, as you say, urgent issues are very often, if not always, of international significance. The tensions and conflicts affecting one society are never exactly the same as another’s, but it is possible to find close parallels between different contexts, as exemplified by the recent public revolts and citizens’ movements in Tunisia, Chile, Egypt, Spain, Yemen, Israel or Greece, or the racist political discourse that certain parties and sectors of society of considerable size promote in France, the US, the Netherlands or Norway.
LS: What was the criterion for the chosen intellectual speakers?
PL: We approached thinkers, activists, philosophers, writers… whom we respected, and whom we thought had a track record and a contemporary history of engagement with the situation of the world, be it as thinkers or agents/activists. We aimed to ask a diverse set, in geographical and professional terms. The specific issues were to be selected by them, and we wanted to make sure that there was, if not a comprehensive list of key issues, at least one that was diverse enough to offer a complex picture of the problems affecting the world today.
LS: How can art and large multinational events, such as the biennale, be used to take on a social responsibility?
PL: Discussion is always important, on every scale and context. Key issues and voices are often ignored in the world at large, or not given enough time and space. The contemporary art context has proved to be able to function as a good platform for discussion, although this hasn’t been always explored in full. This activity has been mostly absent from the Venice Biennale, and we thought there was no reason to continue that way. In fact, we thought that a platform with the visibility and profile of the Venice Biennale could not ignore this possibility (or, if you want, responsibility) to think about the world that surrounds it.
Once that is decided, each context will allow for and demand specific approaches. A look at the pedagogical activities of, for example, documenta 12 or the 1998 Bienal de São Paulo can show how social responsibility can be tackled.
LS: The series of lectures for ‘The State of Things’ are disseminated orally. What is the effect of this type of discourse and how does this differ from visual forms?
PL: The lectures are given in different Venues in Venice throughout the duration of the Biennale. They are also broadcast live through OCA’s website, and the recordings archived there. Sections from the lectures have been posted on YouTube. A book will appear, upon the conclusion of the programme, with revised transcriptions of the lectures. All these formats aim to reach as wide an audience as possible – those who were in Venice during the opening, those who live or visit Venice subsequently, those who come to OCA’s website because they are already interested, and those who come across them by chance on the Internet. All these formats offer different types of access, experiences and agencies, but in general they allow for a displaced experience (in time and in space) that a conventional exhibition hardly ever achieves.
LS: Whom is the intended audience, considering the intellectual and complex content of the lectures?
PL: The audiences are many: art audiences (those visiting Venice and those who become aware of the project through our marketing initiatives), academic audiences in Venice (university students, researchers and teachers, who we have targeted throughout), and individuals, worldwide, who might be interested in the work of Vandana Shiva, Judith Butler, Saskia Sassen, Eyal Weizman, T.J. Clark or any of the other speakers, and who, as I pointed out above, may come across the lectures by chance.
The content, as you say, is complex, but not targeted to academics. The lecturers have until now articulated those ideas with clarity, and there is no reason why anyone who speaks English could not engage with them.
LS: The programme ‘Beyond Death: viral discontents and contemporary notions about aids’ simultaneously forms part of Norway’s representation at the biennale. The four-month course involves participating students, how will a larger audience effectively receive the information?
PL: We have informed about the nature of this programme and its different levels of audiences through emails, through the catalogue, press releases… The immediate audience is the students, who have worked with Melgaard for four months. They have also worked on an exhibition, ‘Baton Sinister’, that was open to the public, and that offered a hint on the work done throughout the four months. So this audience is a second-level audience whom the project is not directed to, but who can engage with its ideas and formalisations regardless. Then there are discussions, such as this one, in which hopefully the format and the ideas of the project are reflected upon.
LS: The course relies on the engagement of its students. How heavily does involvement from the public make for a successful understanding to Norway’s representation this year?
PL: We had very clear in our heads that we were not interested in conventional relations to audiences, as is normally the case in Venice: very simply, perhaps too simply, these consist on putting together an exhibition among many, and hoping visitors to the city decide to visit it. We wanted to work with more specific audiences (students, Venice-based people) without forgetting about the usual Venice visitors and others who don’t go there. Discourse has a different set of channels of distribution from ‘physical’ art, and some shared problems as well as others, different ones. For us it is very important the discussions are accessed, at the time the lecture is given, but also subsequently.
LS: Bjarne Melgaard, who leads ‘Beyond Death’, is a Norwegian artist - in what way (if at all) does the programme explicitly reference Norwegian society?
PL: Melgaard was invited to develop a programme for the students in relation to AIDS and its representations today. He devised the detail of the programme, and he taught it, together with guests he invited. The programme doesn’t make explicit reference to Norwegian society, although it reflects on an issue that seems to have been forgotten, although it is still important for those affected, directly or indirectly, within Norway and outside of Norway.
LS: What is Norway’s main aim by including such social and cultural issues?
PL: As curators, Marta Kuzma, Peter Osborne and myself wanted to highlight the importance of placing art within the world at large. AIDS was a key issue for art and the artists in the 1980s and 90s, but it has now almost disappeared as a topic – while remaining a key emergency in the world, especially in parts of it. We thought it was important to address it.
LS: Would you say art has a responsibility to engage in politics?
PL: It’s difficult to talk in general. ‘Art’ is too abstract to have agency, and therefore responsibility. My colleagues and I, as curators of the Norwegian representation, felt a responsibility to use this opportunity to engage in social and political issues.