The ongoing quest to create a manifesto continues …
In the previous installment of this story, I defined a manifesto as something which is:
Declarative! // For This! // Against That!
As you will have seen, Kim and I have never felt comfortable with that mode of communication. Perhaps we think too much, but we seem to always come to the conclusion that things are a bit more complicated than that. Also, bubbling away in the back of our minds was the idea that the Biennale staff themselves should be the ones to come up with a manifesto. Who are we to impose something upon them? All our experience in community-based co-design tells us that a solution is going to “stick” a lot more, if it’s the invention of the people themselves.
However, we hung around with the biennale staff for a fair while and no endogenous manifesto seemed forthcoming. They were just a bit busy, you know, actually getting their festival together. Then it occurred to me – the reason the Sydney Biennale commissioned us was so that they could outsource this work. Perhaps that’s the thing with arts organisations – they need artists to say the things out loud that they themselves can’t say.
With this in mind, I felt emboldened to scratch out the next manifesto iteration. This one, we called the “versus” drawing (or, as Kim calls it jokingly, harking back to Mad magazines of yore, “spy vs spy“).
This was the first draft, scrawled in my notebook en route to a meeting with the board of directors of the Biennale of Sydney:
What I wanted to get at here was the idea of a systemic rethink (a proper overhaul) of the whole idea of what a Biennale could be (rather than just tinkering around the edges).
Currently, the biennale model, replicated all around the world has the following features:
- takes place every second year
- exhibitions in multiple venues
- exhibition goes for 3-6 months
- has lots of artists
- artists come from all around the world
- competes for attention from the international art-world community
- costs a lot of money
- generates prestige for many of those involved
- produces a shitload of carbon and other waste materials
But does a Biennale have to look this way?
Why are we so fixated on this model?
That’s what the versus drawing is asking.
Thus, it’s longer title is:
Business as usual Biennale -vs- Plastic-free Biennale (in which “plastic-free stands for the transformation of a whole lot of stuff, not just “getting rid of plastic”)
The versus drawing is not intended to be “correct” in any way! Rather, it’s meant to provoke discussion by posing a series of impossible dichotomies. For example, a “business-as-usual biennale” would allow artists ultimate autonomy in decision making around materials, even if this results in environmental pollution. By contrast, a “plastic-free biennale” would have a policy forbidding the use of certain materials and processes, effectively curtailing the aesthetic autonomy of the artist.
And what if we decided to have a biennale with no carbon-belching flights? Currently, biennale curators fly to all corners of the globe, finding the best artists and bringing them home to showcase their vision. Isn’t this “expo” model just a hangover from the big trade-show expositions or world fairs of yester-year? What would a biennale look like if we banned all that air travel? What if we started budgeting for environmental impact, and not just the financial costs of putting on a big festival? (And I’m not just talking about tokenistic carbon offsets here, a strange economy which seems, at least in part, intended to allow organisations to continue with business-as-usual, guilt-free).
Is art a realm of freedom, exempt from the ethical requirements of the world beyond the art-world? If we restrict artists’ liberty, are we heading towards some sort of Stalinist regime, where the means and ends of creative production are prescribed by an overarching arbiter? Would that result in a bunch of politically correct but crap art? How do we negotiate personal agency versus the good of the commons? Aesthetic quality versus ethical concerns? Can’t we have both??
These are the questions posed by the versus manifesto. For our exhibition at Cockatoo Island, we wrangled the manifesto into a blackboard version to fit the space:
Our intention was that this big chalkboard might prompt audience members to have these conversations among themselves. And of course, before COVID, we had been planning to host various school and university groups in the space, to engage in these debates while standing in front of the chalkboard.
Alas because of COVID restrictions, those collective in-person discussions haven’t come to pass – but the versus manifesto has in many ways guided our “big picture” provocations in our ongoing, semi-regular meetings with the Biennale organisation. Our role, it seems is to bother the staff (in the nicest possible way, of course) to keep thinking about this stuff. And to remind them of what’s at stake: a business-as-usual biennale that prioritises human prestige, vs a biennale that contributes towards solving the greatest environmental challenge of our time. The latter may not end up looking like a “biennale” at all. But then – so what?