Demolish neoliberalist multiculturalist art-sistem now! This is a spray-written statement by Александр Бренер (Alexander Brener) at the Manifesta art biennial. His gesture opens up a wide field of thinking about art’s aesthetics, ethics and terror.
Brener performed a series of (artistic) actions, in theoretical publications usually described as provocations. We could say for his works that they reveal the Freudian Unheimlich of the art field, right what “was supposed to remain hidden, concealed, but came to light,”1 as he, for instance:
defecated in front of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh at the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow;
painted the US dollar sign with green spray across Kazimir Malevich’s White Suprematism painting at the Stedeljik Museum in Amsterdam.—Because of that act, which the court defined as damage to someone else’s property, he was sentenced to a ten-month prison sentence. He defended himself in court with a statement: “The cross is a symbol of patience, the dollar sign is a symbol of trade and commodity. The ideas of Jesus Christ are more important in the philanthropic field than the ideas of money. With my action, I did not oppose the painting, but entered into a dialogue with Malevich.”
The Demolish neoliberalist multiculturalist art-sistem now! intervention was realized in collaboration with Barbara Schurz, at the opening press conference of the European Biennale of Contemporary Art Manifesta 3, held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in the summer of 2000. He wrote the statement by spray over the projection canvas behind the speakers’ backs. He (or Barbara?) then added slogan Fortress Europe in graffiti-style on some surface just in front of the whole scene. He was taken out of the hall by the security guards, and the opening continued without articulated public comment by the representatives of the biennale about the event, that is, with their more or less complete ignorance of the act they attended.
Brener understands the dominant mechanisms of the contemporary artistic production (firmly anchored in the ideological model of neoliberalism)—according to his acts, statements and written notes—as dangerous and discriminatory, whilst his goal is to “create conflict”.2 He decided to warn about these mechanisms through actions mentioned above.
With an ad hoc inscription across the projection canvas of the Cankarjev dom hall, at the start of the official opening ceremony of Manifesta—which describes itself as an innovative European model of presenting contemporary art—, he publicly marked this biennale as a promoter of the neoliberal cultural model. But it wasn’t just about the Manifesta, because with that simple gesture he addressed any art fair, and at the same time publicly announced his opinion on the art field.
The opinion of the artist has become a statement during the very act he performed, and also an unexpected exhibit of the manifestation. One of its connotations is also a criticism of the process of integration of the local (Eastern European, provincial) art subsystem in the global (Western, governing) one, which sets the trend of large and prestigious art fairs (biennials, triennials) in the service of the culture industry (which includes art as business, trade and tourist attraction, in order to revive the mainstream economy as ostensibly new economy that integrates art and design as bringers of “added value”).
Brener’s action, as expected, angered the curator of Manifesta 3, Francesco Bonami, and opened up a number of irritating questions on a public level, which is visible in an interview with the curator for a local magazine. The journalist’s question was: “Is Manifesta part of the mechanism of large international capital which affects everything, including the art market?” The curator’s answer was: “Talking about commercialisation, the market and the capital in relation to Manifesta is ridiculous, almost mocking. Manifesta is financially undernourished, the influence of big capital on it… it’s really funny! Brener’s action was the most expensive project. […] It seems to me that it will cost him 15,000 German marks plus the costs for a lawyer.3 The average costs for one artist at the Manifesta are about 5,000 marks, and if we look at the curators’ fees, they are not much higher than the damage caused by Brener with his action.”4
The multi-meaning curator’s answer on the one hand reveals his understanding of artist’s gesture as harmful (he declares that the artist caused a “damage”, which has only a monetary equivalent, or only a material meaning), and on the other hand mirrors the hierarchical economy of the valuation of works of art; above all, it reveals his understanding of the event only through economic logic as he smoothly overlook the socio-performative charge and meaning of the protest gesture.
The journalist question, which the curator obviously experienced as provocative one, is a sign that Brener’s action had an effect, and the curator’s response to it confirms the fact that the power holders of the art field do not convey actual and articulated—as opposed to apparent and controlled—criticism, but rather persistently limit and belittle it. In this case, the art field did not swallow the artwork and thereby neutralized it, but instead tried to neutralize it in another significant way—by declaring it as deviant, excessive, offensive, violent, vulgar, uncultured, wrong and therefore an insignificant, non-artistic act, although at the same time as “the most expensive project”, which should be paid by the artist himself, according to curator’s brave announcement that actually tends to criminalize the action.
Looked at from a wider perspective, the example is both a symptom and a proof: the sooner one tries to cross the (invisible) limit of what is acceptable, the lack of freedom in the Western-style democracy is shown to us in full light. In art, this effect is visible all the more plastically, since art is considered a supposedly limited, yet autonomous territory of freedom.
With his protest writing on Manifesta and his interventions in museums, Brener addressed the art field, and at the same time he also hit a much bigger target, that is the very organization of society, and for that he was also punished. The omnipresent market, as Robert Kurz writes, “as a general accompanying noise, has become an absolute matter of course, and if we thematize it negatively on the practical level of appearance, we can easily earn the reputation of vulgarity”.5 This is exactly what happened to Brener, because he spoke explicitly, militantly, in situ about the financialization of life, about hierarchical mechanisms and processes, through his symbolic and yet very real public call for abolishing of the neoliberal art system. The fact that he was criminalized and punished is, last but not least, a tangible evidence that the art field is part of a wider hierarchy, and not some allegedly safe, creative and autonomous space of freedom.
The perversity of the notion of the art autonomy as a civilizational achievement comes to the surface precisely when it is not respected at a key point, that is, where autonomous art is supposed to enter public spaces without obstacles. Fate, sense and purpose of such emancipatory attempts is very clearly commented by Jacques Rancière (and his statement is compatible with Kurz’s): “Today, economic violence is completely normalized, while the social violence that responds to it is culpable. We must rebuild the space of polemical legitimacy, which has been exhausted.”6
It would be naive to expect that a systematized, molded and integrated “autonomous” art would be able to build a social(izing) space, just as it would be childish to expect that the universal declaration of human rights would effectively secure the rights of the oppressed. If Brener’s solitary call was not artistic, it was a performative act, but not from a shelter of artistic autonomy, as once tried by Marcel Duchamp.
If weapons of governors are classification, demarcation in separation, if they are dependent on the reliability of mapping,7 with the classification in Duchamp’s example they did successfully. As noted by Theodor Adorno, works are usually critical in the time in which they appear, later they will be neutralized. After a certain period of disapproval and rejection of Duchamp’s inventions, the managers of the art field invented a new category, in which they classified his works and placed them in museums. Neutralization was the price of some aesthetic autonomy of the welfare state era.
In the example of Brener, this kind of classification (so far) did not work, on the contrary (and paradoxically), the artist himself “placed” his work in museums and biennials. Radicalized (decaying) capitalism simply affords itself unconditional exclusions, which are vividly summarized, for instance, by the notion of necropolitics. Brener’s autonomy thus has a different quality than the autonomy of Duchamp.
Later on in Ljubljana, too:
Moderna Revisited—a Valuation of the Gallery Visitors
Moderna galerija (Modern Gallery in Ljubljana) officially re-opened its renovated premises on 24 November 2009. A group of people decided to intervene in the opening ceremony. The keynote speaker was the minister of culture of Slovenia, and an unannounced action took place at the end of her speech.
A lightly masked group swooped down on the gathered crowd of visitors with a very special weapon—devices for printing and pasting price tags. Many present were marked with a price.8
In all likelihood, the group wanted to communicate through the action that the institution primarily neutralizes everything it reaches, which could be understood as complete commodification, in a radical sense even of the audience itself. The audience of museums and galleries is primarily a passive consumer factor of the assembly line of art production, despite all attempts (and precisely because of them) to present the institution as an educational and increasingly participatory instance. The price tags thus communicated: you are/we are all commodities, a part of the process of exchanging of certain (symbolic) capital; even if you belong to the cultural elite, you are worth so and so euros.
I understand the price-tagged visitors of Moderna galerija as eloquent readymade exhibits, uniquely placed in the consecrated spaces of a museum. As a reflection of a decision on how to place criticism in action—how to situate it and embody the dissatisfaction with existing conditions into an affirmative happening, into an act of self-empowerment of its protagonists—this intervention seems to come from a weighty consideration, from the thought and aesthetics of the impossible, with a touch of humor and, to use Rancière’s proposal, a “positive schizophrenia”.
1 S. Freud, Spisi o umetnosti, p. 297.
2 A. Brener and B. Schurz, The Art of Destruction, p. 89.
3 “Cankarjev dom sued him due to the damage, which was estimated at approximately 14,000 German marks at the time, but withdrew from the proceedings because it was impossible to get Brener into the courtroom.”—V. Pirc, Provokatorji množic, mladina.si, 23.7.2003.
4 V. Teržan, Brenerjeva akcija je drag projekt (Brener’s Action is an Expensive Project), mladina.si, 10.7.2000.
5 R. Kurz, Svet kot volja in dizajn (Die Welt als Wille und Design. Postmoderne, Lifestyle-Linke* und die Ästhetisierung der Krise), p. 18. *Bolded by N.J.
6 Demokracija kot nujen škandal (Democracy as an Ineluctable Scandal)—interview with J. Rancière, Maska, No. 86-87, p. 47.
7 Z. Bauman, Tekoča moderna (Liquid Modernity), p. 144.