A Better Splash: Bergen Assembly 2016
Bergen Assembly’s 2016 edition (from now on: BA16) honors the original intentions behind the city’s commitment to host a perennial contemporary art festival/exhibition/symposium. Such intentions were, and still are, to rethink “biennials”1 from the ground up and experiment above and beyond their existing frameworks. BA16 consists of an almost year-long calendar of exhibitions and performances, complemented by talks and discursive platforms, engagement, study and research opportunities culminating in a cluster of September events that served as the more official “opening.”
When the idea of such a cultural enterprise was first proposed, in 2007, the institutional response was a rather cold-blooded one. In 2009, a multi-day, international conference was convened to discuss whether To biennial or not to biennial. The conversations were sieved through, edited, and published as a book.2 The due diligence of this analytical antechamber, itself a multi-year undertaking, could have had the sobering effect of a weekend of steady rain on the roof of the organizer’s camping tent. As it turned out, extensive prep-work was a pretty decent idea.
The question “Does the world need more biennials”? Would probably yield the answer: “No” even among a group of unruly, uninformed high school juniors. It certainly does among experts of the field, although the reasons why might vary. Yet, we remain submerged in biennials, triennials, quadriennials. Add the cultural by products and disingenuous (if often well organized, locally welcome and eagerly attended) discursive attachments used to legitimize the roving art fair circus/market, and you will probably agree with me that one single additional biennial could indeed become the proverbial straw.
Bergen’s questioning and transparently self conscious approach to even figuring out if the city really wanted to get down and dirty in this oversaturation3 seems like the kind of feet-first dive we’d all favor when trying a really high, steep, craggy cliff; the sane person’s way to prepare for a big, cathartic splash. And live to tell.
BA16 seems to, paraphrasing the words of an informed and artistically involved local friend (artist/performer Andrea Spreafico), to have finally emancipated itself from its own soul-searching past, embracing the arduous but rewarding task of setting new standards.
The organizers’ bid to showcase the work of a (relatively) small number of artists and curators, allowing them to take time and unfold multipart interventions and programming from February to October 2016, prioritized activities with potential lasting effects on the cultural scene. It also came off as superior to the need to lure the cargo-cult devotional pilgrimages inspired by fly-in-fly-out mega exhibitions, and the predictable vacuums they leave behind once the circus has left town. Although normatively targeted to a cued-in audience of art enthusiasts and professionals, some of this edition’s best moments also had clear potential to engage the non-denominationally aesthetically and intellectually curious. Let’s look at some of the highlights.
- Lynda Benglis’ year-long calendar of large and small exhibitions. Curated by PRAXES’s Rhea Dahl and Kristine Siegel and culminating in the museum-caliber Adhesive Products at Kunsthalle Bergen, anchored by a tight selection of her rare, fragile and larger than life urethane foam or cast metal spill works from 1969-70. The kunsthalle selections also included a majority of formally and conceptually connected works by contemporary artists. Personal favorite: Olga Balema’s oddly shaped resin “water tanks”, condemning their own metal bones to inexorable rust and erosion caused by H2O, the liquid tarred by the slow consummation of this ecosystemic microdrama in return. Also: the substantial and remarkably accessible visual/aural experience of Benglis’ three 1971 video selections at Entrée gallery. The video collages treat the camera as a phantom limb, the audience as now voyeur, now cohort, now potential co-director.
- Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Cocaine and Caviar costume diorama (an assembly of props, masks and characters from previous video productions and performances) and their dialogue with the wallpaper tableaus of inspirational materials / visual references and selection of video works from the visually exhilarating, narratively discombobulated Hermitos’ Children series at Kunstgarasjen. Although still, silent and definitely not built to last much longer that the performances, videos and bacchanalias they animate, the lurid papier mache, tape, foam, fake fur etc. costumes resonate with the trademark awkwardness, sweat, sensuality, exclamations and hysterical laughs of the artist’s best performances.
- Freethought’s Partisan Cafe’s location (a former fire station occupied by retired firemen protesting the city’s future plans for the building and advocating its conversion in a museum dedicated to fire itself) and several of the works in the adjacent exhibition, investigating infrastructures of the infinitesimal, small, large and so-large-it’s-invisible variety. Highlights in this attention-demanding group show included Spirit Labor, a brain-massaging video by Adrian Heathfield and Hugo Glendinning connecting the artistic practices of artists who adopt invisibility, relationality and dispersion in their poetics. Off-site screenings of Phil Collins’ new commission Delete Beach were also a treat, Collins’ 6 min. anime explores the grey areas between utopia (a world without oil) and dystopia (that same world’s authoritarian and technology-enabled crackdown on an elusive subculture of oil “Burners” who sniff, inject and venerate the scarce and hard to come by crude that’s left). Delete Beach packs a quantity of great ideas and possible narrative directions in its fast paced intro; undue closing titles confirm that the intro was, in fact, the whole thing. The upside: that same brevity also acts like a conversation prompter, extending the work’s reach far beyond the movie theater.
- The intuition, research and groundwork behind Within, Tarek Atoui’s multi-disciplinary exploration of deafness (more on this project later.)
- While recognizable infrastructures (often addressed by members of freethought as a condition of human life) and their many meanings, issues and implications were front and center in the three day symposium held at the former United Sardine Factory the connection to that overarching motif was sometimes elusive, at least for the uninitiated, in many works and projects included in the aforementioned old fire station exhibition.
- The actual musical instruments, performances and exhibitions presented in Tarek Atoui’s Within at Sentralbadet, Bergen’s magnificent, currently decommissioned modernist public pool. Created in collaboration with deaf or hard of hearing composers and craftsmen, the instruments sounded predictably loud, vibration and bass-heavy… all characteristics that we stereotypically associate with disabled hearing. They also seemed to use vibration, color and movement in ways that were not fully fleshed out, or accessible to the audience. The performances were administered to an orderly seated, quietly listening audience, barring out any possible multisensorial involvement beyond the sense of hearing itself, which I believe was the communication channel to be questioned and/or expanded upon by this project.
- I totally appreciated Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s candor in facing the puzzled audience at the end of her The Cell Group, Episode Two… performance. She let us all know what we had been waiting for and following around like zombies for one hour was just a dress rehearsal. Still, her trainwreck of a performance would have been much better with a basic set of improvements: massive amounts of liquor or other drugs forced upon every adult, kid and senior in the audience, total darkness, an actual narrative or any form of audience engagement to hold on to. Without any of the above, The Cell Group… was just a meandering crew of unconvincing/unconvinced costumed performers cooking in Chewbacca suits, venerating a giant worm and other cartoonish props, singing along to an astonishingly bad cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, leading the crowd around a (potentially awesome) bomb shelter location like it’s any other damp parking lot. It’s probably going to all look just fine on video, but…
- Never one to write about stuff I haven’t seen, I wonder if Benglis’ ceramic sculptures and paper work exhibitions presented around April were really as awesome as they looked in pictures? Because again, in pictures, they sure did. The artist described the ceramic exhibition Glacier Burger as a nighttime scuba dive into a water tank of electrifyingly colored fish (!) Same thing for Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Iron Age Pasta Necklace Workshop which looked like an absolute riot in the documentation materials I’ve seen.
- Film programs and sound massage (yup) sessions offered as part of the Within project at Sentralbadet sounded promising but, at a glance, the tiny screening room, abundance of long form videos and docs and extremely specialistic selections all forecasted unrealistic turnout goals. Who, exactly, would a program of this nature really appeal to? Rephrasing: how many would commit to a week of daily screenings dedicated to the topic of “expanded notions of listening”? in Bergen, Norway, population 278,121?
I personally had a great time at BA16. The sort of art-worlders who live in and around Bergen, whom you would expect to also have a great time and extensive engagement with something like BA16 probably all already have, or will. So… what about the famous “general audiences” and occasional visitors? Does this stretched out, slow paced approach to seeing, thinking and talking about contemporary art and culture make sense to them, as well?
That’s a big question, and probably besides the point. What about a small fact instead: Bergen Assembly tapped into extraordinary resources, matching them with an even more extraordinary willingness to take risks (and/or confidence in embracing its own privilege). In its 2016 edition, it sharply foregrounded research, experimentation, and audience engagement rather than spectacle. Visitor numbers be damned. In a winning bid to push the “Biennale” envelope beyond the misdirected thirst for cultural and urban development it so often fails to attain, the curators seized a very concrete opportunity to take time, turn the tempo down, imagine and actualize new ways to make not a bigger, but a better splash.
- Ed. Bergen Assembly is actually a triennial event. Please excuse the recurring use of the word “Biennial” throughout the piece. It is an effort to generalize and simplify when referencing the kind of large, international, perennial exhibitions of contemporary art the word has become synonymous with. ↩
- The Biennial Reader, 2010. An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art. Edited by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø. Hatje Cantz & Bergen Kunsthall. ↩
- Although, anecdotally speaking, a review of the 2009 conference by Ursula Zeller seems to suggest a predetermined outcome: that is, to actually have a biennial at some point, for the conference. See: http://u-in-u.com/magazine/articles/2009/bergen-biennial-conference/ ↩