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<nettime> Whitney Biennial 06
Trebor Scholz on Wed, 31 May 2006 08:11:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Whitney Biennial 06

Whitney Biennial 06: An Afterword

Judith Rodenbeck and Trebor Scholz

The articles have been written and the doors of the Whitney
Biennial are now closed.

It is an historical truism in cultural production that after
World War II, but especially after the freedom struggles of
the late 1950s and 1960s, to think of art along traditionalist
lines as devoted to beauty (or even only to itself) became
suspect. More pressing were questions of authority and interest,
of exclusion and inclusion, and critical art practices took on
such post-Duchampian topics as "Who conditions the context in
which artworks are situated and by which they are certified?"
Aesthetics for many became a productive problematic for art
rather than a field delimited by notions of "the beautiful" as
its proper expression; no longer attached to the ineffables of
the beautiful or the sublime, a new aesthetics was, rather,
addressed to the play of cognition and sociality. And this has
been the case in advanced practices of the last 50 years.

Reviews of the Whitney Biennial of 2006, however, found much of
the press up in arms about absence of beauty in the exhibition.
(Though as Calvin Tomkins pointed out in the New Yorker, the
one reliable thing about the Biennial, decade after decade,
has been that Hilton Kramer will object to it on exactly these
grounds.) Many critics writing about this Biennial juxtaposed
the absence of the "pretty" with the presence of collaborative
works, the latter understood as "political" sheerly by virtue of
multiply-credited authors. But is collective or collaborative
production necessarily a) "political" (whatever that means)
and b) therefore un-aesthetic? (And is the "not-beautiful"
necessarily the un-aesthetic? Kant himself wrote that the ugly
could be sublime.) The question of beauty versus politics seems a
smokescreen, or at least a critical misfire.

The question of beauty versus politics assumes that "beauty"
equals aesthetics and does not equal politics. Yet the so-called
"absence of beauty" at the Whitney (and there is plenty of
beauty, actually) was not necessarily due to a presence of
politics. In many of the works on view what was absent all
too often was not only craft and precision and but historical
consciousness; these were overtaken by (relatively) privatized
narratives invested with semi-public anxieties--imagination
for the ³reality television² era. And even the "beautiful"
paintings were more political in this show than the much touted
but utterly dopey Peace Tower, which we can't even think of as
"colossal" in its failure. Aside from its silly siting (for a
real statement it should have been in the middle of Madison
Avenue, blocking traffic and accessible to intervention) this
nominally collaborative piece was clubby and the contributions,
indexed together, came off as puerile and self- rather than
message-centered, presenting as "democratic" and "free speech"
something manipulated, in-crowd, and homogeneous. By contrast,
working thoroughly within the art world and, unlike the Peace
Tower, fully cognizant of that fact, the chocolate appropriations
by Kelley Walker reinserted politics and a level not just
of actuality but of contemporaneity into Warhol's race-riot
silk-screens. Peter Doig's paintings also stood out. And the
Francesco Vezzoli¹s Caligula trailer bears up over repeated
viewings, becoming more and more sinister and hilarious each
time; tired as it may have been after its trip from Venice to New
York it cannot help but win fans.

Was there a different aesthetic that emerged because the show
contained so many collaborative projects? While there were
collectives like Bernadette Corporation, Deep Dish TV Network,
and Critical Art Ensemble in the exhibition, the biennial was
not a call for a collaborative aesthetics. The show merely
acknowledged the fact that collaboration, cooperation, and
consultation are important features of the contemporary cultural
landscape. That such inclusion of collaborative practices or
collectives "stretches conventional definitions of art and artist
even further," as Holland Cotter claimed in the New York Times,
is hard to fathom in 2006. Artists have not just discovered
working together. Where were all those critics who suddenly
discovered that artists collaborate (or even form networks)?

The post-readymade dialectic--between the display-as-art and the
forensic trace--that seems to be driving much art these days was
not only ever-present but seemed in fact to drive this Biennial,
too, in both its selection and its installation, from the pairing
in the Whitney's drab moat of the unfortunate Peace Tower with
a visually and conceptually underwhelming piece by Natalie
Jeremijenko and Phil Taylor to the installation of Francesco
Vezzoli¹s Caligula-as-CSI trailer (complete with velvet cinema
seats) nearby a popcult winnebago and alongside Ed Paschke's
supremely good images of voyeurism. Forensic traces ranged from
accumulations of data to arrays of painted mugshots (the 9/11
crew, dispersed throughout the gallery, anonymous artist) to
photographic techniques (the brilliant "Left Behind" series by
Angela Strassheim) to the list of desiderata for barter (Carolina
Caycedo's art-by-telephone network) to faux pop star obituaries
to the blobs of chewing gum stuck not only on specific works but
also on random walls and artworks.

One might extend the notion of forensics towards the historical,
for this exhibition presents a melancholic autopsy of the 1960s,
from Walker's visually and conceptually smart riffs on Warhol to
Otabenga Jones's strangely arid evocation of the Panther era. In
one of the show-stoppers, DTAOT (Tony Oursler and Conrad, Dan
Graham and Rodney, Laurent Berger, and Japanther) deliver an
autopsy of 1960s hippie culture. While the satirical hippie opera
touches on the artworld's imperative of youth, this is ported
to the present and a certain bitterness is hard to miss. The
biennial did not feature many works that we were crazy about. But
works such as DTAOT's did counter the art world youth obsession
and valued artists who are not the next big thing but have rather
worked for many decades. More extrapolated still would be the
repeated references to Warhol, Bruce Nauman, and Jay deFeo, all
of whom serve as over-strong models for younger artists, along
with the actual inclusion of 1960s bad boys Kenneth Anger, Tony
Conrad, Ira Cohen and 1970s weird girls Sturtevant and Dorothy

What exactly does historical consciousness do? We'd submit that
it's here because that historical work emerged in an era with a
serious political culture and discourse. Some of that historical
work, looked at afresh, now gives forth its culturally critical
secrets in a way that may not have been so clear then--the
intensities of Ed Paschke's painting, for instance, or Tony
Conrad's Flicker are striking. In this regard the strong and
repeated citation in this exhibition of avant-garde music of the
1960s--work that dealt with liminality and limit experiences,
with harmonics and the spatialization of the temporal, with
collective production and experience--seems an interest, at
least on the part of the curators, in exploring experiential
models that have been obscured by the IPO frenzy of the art
market. Yet so much of the reference material for today's young
artists has been obscured in the pedophilic rush to the bank;
artists reinvent the wheel, and usually not very well. And we
live in an era in which mainstream popular music from U2 to the
Strokes and the White Stripes has been largely devoted to the
technical replication of the 1970s sound, while missing the
radical experiential dimension of its production. One of the only
chiefly-sound piece, Jim O'Rourke's "Door," seemed to be largely
opaque to its "viewers," who spent their time clustering at the
entrance of the installation vying for the best static vantage
point from which to watch a slow 3-screen projection rather than
moving around and exploring the acoustic, spatial, physiological
dynamics of the piece.

There were things in "Day for Night" to engage the masses
(contrary to what some critics claimed), from the consistently
narrative photography to the repeated citations of celebrity to
the literal and figurative invocation of graffiti and bubble-gum.
Visually much of the work focused on its own legibility, even
lexicality. This had two aspects: the presence of language,
either written or spoken, as keying device; and the predominance
of figuration, either as bodily representation or as citation.
One was struck by certain repeated motifs that appeared here,
as if the individual artists participated in a hive mind (or
mindlessness): the bunny puppet (recycled now through past works
by Nayland Blake, Pierre Huyghe, and the film Donnie Darko
and here present in photos of pseudo-Satanist ritual and in a
pathetic knock-off of Schwitters¹ Cathedral of Erotic Misery),
the phrase "eat shit and die" (it appeared in works by two
different artists), the bottled excrescence motif (as perfume
and as pickle), the apocalyptic desertification motif (from
conestoga wagon to Unabomber hut to cities in the scrub to the
subtle contribution of the Center for Land Use Interpretation),
the apocalypse itself (not one but two works dealing with the
Rapture), etc. The recurrence of individual riffs is interesting
but irritating; yet more troublesome is their sheer obviousness.

Large exhibitions are 3D visualizations of the social network of
the curators and the artists (and gallerists and curators) they
know. Curators are legitimizers and editors of cultural content;
they can be power-brokers. But what Chrissie Iles and Walker
Art Center deputy director Philippe Vergne did at the Whitney
was much more open, and clearly not about the articulation
of a singular vision. If anything, it seemed clear that the
curators had in mind an exhibition of something other than
the single-author marketable artist: Reena Spaulings and the
Wrong Gallery are complex projects; Sturtevant, and her redo of
Duchamp¹s career, has always been difficult; and the Center for
Land Use Interpretation produces no saleable object. Yet the
institutional commitment here seemed inconsistent.

The biennial recognized the multiple roles that artists take
on today, including that of the curator (Maurizio Cattelan's
Wrong Gallery). But it was hard to overlook the crowding of the
floors (including the Wrong Gallery¹s contribution, which made
that crowding an aesthetic gesture). Curatorial decisions behind
juxtapositions in the exhibition were often hard to figure out;
there were perhaps just too many pieces in the show. (Globe
and Mail: ³What a bloody mess.²) Often the juxtaposition of
works appeared nonsensical; in other cases, such as the decision
to place Jutta Koether¹s installation of pathetic disco-black
panels next to the work of one of her historical models, Steve
Parrino, the combined result was a deeply desultory slog. There
were a number of collaborative works, but this show was hardly
"long on" collaboration. The very few new media works were only
awkward visual addenda to the spectacle of the styrofoam graffiti
Stonehenges; sound from one installation leaked over into another
(we were uncertain for a long time if the Paul Chan piece was
supposed to be silent). The screen-based work by Carolina Caycedo
used the computer as documentation device for a mobile barter
project. Her piece and the superb work of The Center for Land Use
Interpretation are hidden away in the maze of the exhibition.
Squeezed into corners near an exit, overlooked by most, was their
computer kiosk featuring the organization's 30 exhibits and many
critical lectures, tours and publications on various uses of land
over the past 12 years. CLUI's contribution to this biennial, one
of the two working computers in the entire exhibition, documented
their research and art initiatives. The computer kiosk served as
archival apparatus. The performative artwork itself could not be

At the same time, some of the more politically charged pieces
were stashed away near toilets, the museum's gift store, or
the stairwell, or neutralized by curatorial sequencing. While
this might have been a self-conscious curatorial attempt to
enliven the margins, it became especially painful with Deep
Dish TV's very confrontational and amazing presentation of
guerilla documentary, which was, ironically, placed between the
knick-knack stands of the museum shop and the banks of toilets
in the basement. If anything, this biennial fueled suspicions
about the isolationist artworld and the new morphology of the
white cube. The display of Richard Serra's Abu Ghraib protest
poster as an oil drawing alongside Monica Majoli's gorgeous-and
hyper-aestheticized images of intense bondage (and across from a
bathetic photo-memorial to Matthew Shephard) runs serious risk
reducing it to an object of what Susan Sontag called "fascinating
fascism"?discharging the political force it had when it was
distributed as a multiple, its original display form. And Jerry
Saltz, writing in the Village Voice, pointed out that only 25
percent of the individual artists on view in the Biennial were
women. This seems lame and weird in 2006; while the nod to
identity politics in the exhibition was strong and clear this
actual gender imbalance nevertheless indicates that the Whitney
is still fighting the battles of the late 1960s--another argument
for the inclusion of all that "historical" work.

Biennials are easy targets and every biennial gets ritually
trashed. Berlinale, Liverpool Biennial, Taipei Biennial, Havana
Biennial, Sharjah International Biennial, the Texas Biennial,
the Istanbul Biennial, Capetown, Kwangju, Sao Paolo.... Every
larger city seems to have its own biennial these days. Phillip
Vergne himself pointed out that "there are now over 200 biennials
in the world." New York itself has another biennial (the Free
Biennial) and the Whitney Biennial even has a critical clone
of its website. This rich landscape gives an event like the
Whitney Biennial much less of an exclusive hold on cultural
capital. Whitney director Adam Weinberg says that the museum
has been rethinking its mission as a museum of "American" art
in a number of complex ways. As for the Biennial, would it
be possible for any show to be an adequate survey? We don't
think so. Either you'd get something radically incoherent--an
³adequate² survey of art activities using, say, a statistical
model of distribution--or you'd get something coherent--a
possibly adequate survey of a specific tier, arena, or niche
of art activities. The curators acknowledged the limits of a
best-of national biennial by expanding it to a more international
focus while narrowing its thematic orientation. "Day for Night"
juxtaposed internationally circulating artists, familiar from
biennials worldwide, with others who had not shown in museums
before (but don¹t lack gallery representation). At the same time,
a topical show like this biennial cannot be simultaneously a
signature survey, and the decision to turn "Day for Night" into a
thematic exhibition was fortunate given that the concept of the
Biennial as national survey has outlived itself.

And then there¹s a broader set of definitional and technical
problems: the media art scene, for instance, is still only
awkwardly incorporated in such museum spectacles. If one holds
this biennial to its expressed mission of being the "signature
survey measuring the mood of contemporary American art" as its
website states, then one may wonder why a significant part of the
contemporary art landscape is left in the dark: digital art, or
what some call "new media art." The show highlighted video works
(32 artists featured videos) and demonstrated a strong focus on
photography (17 artists working in that medium were included). Is
the demand for inclusion of new media art unfair as the inclusion
of computer-mediated work was so clearly not the set goal of
this exhibition? Are conferences, media art festivals or art +
technology spaces such as Transmediale, the Subtle Technologies
Festival, the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA), or
the Beall Center at University of California Irvine the only
venues in which computer-mediated artworks can rock out, isolated
from the rest of the art world? Or do "new media" simply need
new venues? The problem is amplified by commentators who, like
The New York Times' Carol Vogel, don't acknowledge the existence
of anything but traditional media when stating that "There will
be a fairly equal representation among mediums: painting and
sculpture, photography, film, video and performance."

The relative absence of new media art is striking for two
reasons. First, the contemporary experience of those visiting
this exhibition is deeply enmeshed with technologies and the
Internet going far beyond TV or cinema screens. In 2006 it is
hard to ignore the wealth of cultural production in the field
of new media. The current explosion of art projects dealing
with social networking (Golan Levin, Chris Barr), information
visualization (Casey Reas, Lisa Jevbratt), or situated locative
technologies (Julian Bleeker) is impossible to overlook. Second,
the Whitney has a history of committing to computer-mediated
art practices. In 2001, the museum put on two exhibitions:
"BitStreams" and "Data Dynamics." The Whitney Museum also
features the "Artport" website, a hub for "new media art," which
is programmed by Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts Christiane
Paul. The larger question is why able curators like Paul are not
more central to institutions like the Whitney. They should be at
least consulted when curating high-budget exhibitions that set
out to represent the American contemporary cultural landscape.

It isn't interesting to say the Biennial is not a good survey.
But it is worth noting that we are so painfully aware of this
fact these days. In the not-so-distant past artists not from New
York had a terrible time getting into the show. This year there's
a cracker from Texas, lots of work from California, photos from
the Midwest, etc; the curators are both European and the linchpin
exhibit, Pierre Huyghe¹s film/installation on the groundfloor, is
by a Frenchman. Another, more probing question to ask about these
exhibitions is to what kind of cultural capital a show like the
Whitney Biennial bestows on works, be they single-author objects
or collaborative and multi-author projects, and how does that
capital get used? To what degree do we need empathy and shared
insight into particular art discourses--that is, accumulated
cultural capital--to "appreciate" the aesthetic when we see it?
And more broadly, to what extent is the aesthetic itself as a
category begging (yet again) for redefinition--or, perhaps more
to the point, revectorizing? Will Deep Dish Television suddenly
acquire cultural cachet and a fat endowment? We doubt it, but if
it did it might be a useful thing, beautiful or not.

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