Post Autonomy now 4

Title:  Post Autonomy in Slow motion

[lecture version of text]


Opening remarks


Last year for the Mongolian Land art Biennial I speculated in a lecture whether we were experiencing the final phase of Globalisation and Colonisation, that signalled the end of Globalisation and Colonisation along with the proliferation of Global Biennials, that then led to triggering of both the possibility to “rethink the role of the Biennial”, and “entry into a new phase in the development in Contemporary culture itself“.

In order to address the question of the institution of arts link to Colonisation and Globalisation I also wondered “what space is available” to step back from the processes and mechanisms art institutions are linked to, in order to address these issues without in turn contributing to these problems,  how to “develop the language” to be able to address these problems, and  “How we address these issues as part of a contemporary cultural practice?” as opposed to a “series of observations about the evolving complexity of contemporary art in terms of Global Biennials?”

If we bring all these points together “can we then start to talk about the transformation of art itself?”


“What is the rationale for staging this set of issues within the context of Baku?”.. I plan to flesh this question out later since at the time it was not so obvious, other than the fact that Baku is another culture that has recently emerged from a Soviet style art system and is looking for another as yet unrecognised system that is more compatible with current international developments in art.

Nevertheless what makes sense to think through in the background to the following text that constituted the bulk of my lecture for the conference at the Centre for contemporary art in Baku are two fundamental points for developing Post Autonomy as the transformation of art –

“Art has reached a basic level of maturity”

“And given that existing art institutions of art are in a state of survival and looking for another language for art, then every culture is on an equal footing and has the capacity to contribute to developing the next stage of art”


I now want to look at these claims in more detail


[To do this I will need to expand on what is understood by


Neo-liberalism and the Nation State

Colonisation and Globalisation]


What is a Biennial?


To lead into this question it is necessary to introduce how Biennials are understood by institutions and the main stream, to do this I will read excerpts from a number of recent texts on Biennials, starting with Oliver Marchart, co curator of Documenta 11, then the philosopher and artist film maker Hito Steryerl, and finally Ellen Filipovic. The three quotes I hope will provide a rough picture of what we understand by Biennials, and along with its current manifestation the Global Biennial, and show that by strategically looking at Biennials it is possible to reach to the core of the ideological function of what we understand by Contemporary art, and more specifically its spatial, Global and Colonial functions.

The following excerpt by Marchart, is taken from a text by the Belgian Philosopher Dieter Lesage “The next Documenta Shouldn’t be in Kassel”, and  is a text that has been at the back of mind for a few years, and used in a number of projects, readings and the on-going project Mobile Documenta,  if only because it is the clearest statement that I know that  goes to the heart of what we currently understand by the Western institution of art, the accepted normalised idea for developing institutions through evolution rather than revolution, and the continued use of  a vocabulary that in many respects  I see as a naive wish fulfilment for a Euro centric tradition of arts role and its use of redundant terminology and claims in terms of “Utopia” and “the Emancipatory role of art”.

The quote can be broken down into three statements – a definition of a biennial, its function, and the argument whether we should “abandon institutions of art”, invent other forms, or continue to use existing institutions and change them from within.

“In his book “Hegemonie im kunstfeld. Die documenta Ausstellungen dX, d12 und die Politik der Biennaliserung” Oliver Marchart describes museums, biennials, and other large-scale art exhibitions such as documenta as hegemony machines, functioning not unlike the World’ Fairs that have contributed significantly to the project of nation building since the mid- nineteenth century.

Following the reflections of Antonio Gramsci in Quaderni del carcere, Marchart defines hegemony as a precarious balance between dominant and subaltern forces that, through the networks of society’s institutions (museums, biennials, and large-scale exhibitions), establishes a momentary primacy of certain forces. These forces can always be overturned, depending on shifts in an ongoing “war of positions.” The concept of hegemony can be explained as the way in which consensus is produced as a primordial means of securing the dominance of certain forces. Every institution, which may at some moment seem to consolidate dominant bourgeois culture, may at another point be useful for a counter-hegemonic project – one that could eventually establish another hegemony. Following Laclou and Mouffe’s radicalisation of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Marchart points out that subjects and subject positions are only the effect of hegemonic discursive formations.

The progressive and emancipatory potentiality of institutions as discursive producers provides the main reason why they should not be abandoned, as a great many leftists have done out of a belief that institutions as such necessarily consolidate petty bourgeois culture. Marchart strongly argues for such a potentiality, citing the hegemonic shifts in discourse that were produced in documenta X & Xl.”

Dieter Lesage The next Documenta Shouldn’t be in Kassel, e-flux journal, December 2008.


Next the German filmmaker and theorist Hito Steyerl wrote in a recent text “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the transition to Postdemocracy”

“The Global Guggenheim is a cultural refinery for a set of postdemocratic oligarchies, as are the countless international biennials tasked with upgrading and re-educating the surplus population. Art thus facilitates the development of a new mulitpolar distribution of geopolitical power whose predatory economies are often fuelled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock and awe policies.

Contemporary art thus not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition towards a new post-Cold War world order. It is a major player in unevenly advancing semiocapitalism wherever T-Mobile plants its flag. It is involved in mining for raw materials for dual-core processors. It pollutes. seduces and consumes..From the deserts of Mongolia to the high plains of Peru, contemporary art is everywhere.

Why and for whom is contemporary art so attractive? One guess: the production of art presents a mirror image of postdemocratic forms of hypercapitalism that look set to become the dominant political post-cold war paradigm.

Here is the bad news political art routinely shies away from discussing all these matters. Addressing the intrinsic conditions of the art field, as well as the blatant corruption within it – think of the bribes to get this or that large scale biennial into one or more peripheral region or another – is a taboo even on the agenda of most artists who consider themselves political. Even though political art manages to represent so-called local situations from all over the globe, and routinely packages injustice and destitution, the conditions of its own production and display remain pretty much unexplored. One could even say that the politics of art are the blind spot of much contemporary political art”

e-flux journal #21 Dec 2010

My last quote is taken from “The 2009 Bergen conference on Biennials” Norway, which brought together key texts and definitions of Biennials and the new Global Biennials from the past 30 years. They realised a number of things, that the term of Biennial is a recent invention which started to be regularly used only after the 1950’s, while the actual definition of what constitutes a Biennial is undefined, there is no one fixed agreed definition, especially in the new form of Global Biennial.

“The promulgation of counter-narratives and experimentation with counter-models for exhibition making remains the utopian promise of the biennial in the age of globalization. But how should we understand the term “globalization” to which the biennial is said to be now intimately linked? Is the so-called globalization of the cultural sphere of the last few decades a development towards greater inclusivity of artistic practices beyond (Western) modernity or, on the contrary, does it represent the promotion of a (decidedly Western) hegemony for art, exhibition models, curators, and audiences? In other words, in the biennial’s celebration of globalization, does it prove to be a truly inclusive, transnational, multicultural, “counter-hegemonic” project, as Okwui Enwezor contends? Or is the biennial, as George Baker argues, a mere consolidation of dominant bourgeois culture that is both “archaically nationalistic and explicitly occidentalist,” especially in its championing of globalization, which shows itself, in fact, to be “a process of Westernization, not its critique”?”

From Bienniology by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, The Bergen Biennial Conference 2009.

The position and language to discuss Biennials

These texts establish a basic setting for analysing the global context of the field of art, as defined by the network of Global Biennials.  However there are a number of key problems that need to be resolved before we look at Biennials further, and really it is “how do we articulate problems within the field of art?”

There are a cluster of issues around this problem, which can roughly be seen as the Language, thinking and practice suitable to address these problems. It is quite clear that the majority of solutions offered within the field of art often end up contributing to the very problems they initially set out to resolve – a clear example we can point to are institutional practices – for instance practices that set out to speak about or examine resolving issues of colonisation and globalisation often end up extending those very same colonial and global mechanisms. It also strikes me that if thinking, language and practices have been shaped by Neo Liberalism and Global capitalism since the early 1990’s then surely whatever observations and insights we make now remain trapped within that paradigm. This issue is closely related to the capacity and availability of language within the field of contemporary art itself to be able to make observations about art and in this case Biennials.  Therefore in order to be able to “say anything at all” it is necessary to locate and define another space, in this case I discuss and outline the issues of Biennials within the framework of the discourse of Post Autonomy, where Post Autonomy signals the transformation of art.[Clarify and substantiate more!]And it is only by shifting any discussion and thinking about art to the discourse of Post Autonomy that I see any possibility for actual thinking and discussing art beyond its existing restrictions and limitations within the framework of art as a Euro Centric tradition.

What happens if the mechanism that we take for granted that allows us to make sense and articulate what takes place within the field doesn’t exist or if it does exist it is undergoing transformation so that we don’t recognise the language yet – if this is true how do we make sense of observations offered by both Marchert and Steyerl? Are these texts fakes/trade talk? So how are certain texts and positions seen to be protected outside existing conflicts and problems? If conflicts and problems of articulation exist whose role is it to be able to say as much? Or are there only problems and conflicts for certain groups and not others?

This issue allows me to introduce a parallel set of concerns that I think need to be taken into account when discussing Biennials. How do we talk about Biennials when there is not a language to discuss Biennials? And what is revealed in recognising this symptom and how does this in turn locate us closer to understanding Biennials?

Behind this question is a series of conflicts – which we now need to go onto look at and which highlights the key function of Biennials as “hegemonic machines that define discourse and positions.”

The semantic and narrative base that once defined contemporary art has come under increasing strain such that it is now no longer able to offer useful descriptions of either the life world or the art world – if we are to believe recent statements by Liam Gillick in his recent text on the usefulness of contemporary art to define contemporary art issues, the disorientation and break down of traditional art narratives and language to define contemporary art as outlined in Hito Steyerls recent text Vertical thinking, or the text “The Dialectics of Post Autonomy” by the Philosopher Peter Osbourne, where he suggests that the very language of Modernism, and he suggests this is the only language we have in art, has become so thin that it is unable to articulate anything.

[Firm this up – locate more concrete quotes from each text.]

We can also point beyond the semantic and theoretical problems inherent to whatever is understood by contemporary art and its problems in offering coherent and useful observations about art, to a crisis in the very survival of the autonomy of art institutions themselves, whose prognosis fall under the umbrella term of Post Autonomy, a term that simultaneously points to the moment of the threat to the existence of arts Autonomy leading to its break down or the moment of its transformation.

Is it possible to take this degrading of language, categories, concepts, and thinking literally? And show that we have indeed arrived at the end of the trajectory defined by the language of Modernism, along with the baggage that opened up and gave it sense, and entered into another trajectory, but instead of holding onto the shreds of language and thinking, to instead recognise that we are in the very process of locating a new thinking, language and logic? And that this very process of mapping out using the material form of language as art marks this process?


What do Biennials do?

I now want to move to concrete examples of Biennials

When we talk about Biennials what do we actually mean? In the UK I am aware of a number of regional Biennials – Liverpool Biennial, Whitstable Biennial, Folkestone Biennial, Brighton Photographic Biennial, then in London David Medallions London Biennial, and even the Hackney Wick Biennial, which is just a small part of one borough of London.  Then we have Istanbul, Venice, Manifesta, and yet other forms of Biennials such as the German funded First Land art Biennial. But when we think of Biennial we think of Venice with its pavilions housing countries from around the World and on an even larger scale we have Documenta, which according to Marchart mirror the 19th Century World trade fairs, and as far as I can tell from the literature I have read full fill the same purpose, the bringing together of the World into one location and at the same time the dissemination of Western Modernist culture to Non Western cultures. And it is on this level that Biennials and Documenta in this form can be said to contribute to Nation State Building and to a greater extent the consolidation of Western culture.


  1. 1.       Documenta 12

With Documenta 12 the existing restricted form of institutions of art started to be questioned more urgently, where the curator of the Documenta Buergal talks about the “exhibition as a medium”. Venues for showing art from around Kassel from different historical moments since the invention of the art industry were used to display works by contemporary artists, to show the evolution of the spaces and places for presenting art, at the same time looking back to another model of distributing art where it is not the museum or gallery that is responsible for presenting art but the public space of the State itself as outlined in Schillers concept of the “Culture state” ,  key to Schillers need for a revolution through a revolution in culture.  With this Documenta the curator emphatically equates Modernism with Colonisation and the ethical dilemma this puts artists in and the complexity of locating strategies to address this inherent problem, alongside the difficulty in locating methodologies in art that work now.


  1. 1st Brussels Biennial

In 2008 at the 1st Brussels Biennial institutions and theorists started to put into question the value of the Biennial, and especially its Global form, as a form adequate for the presentation of contemporary culture.  As part of the Biennial a series of lectures was organised by Pascal Gielen – The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon: Strategies in Neo-Political Times.


The art biennale – once born as the promoter of the nation-state and its secularized faith, nationalism – has acquired a somewhat different guise today. The political agenda has been relegated to the background and replaced by a worldwide competition among cities and other places-to-be, with a profusion of biennales as a result. This success cannot be explained without the enthusiasm with which politicians, managers and other sponsors have embraced the event. And it is precisely this heterogeneous interest that makes the biennale suspect. After all, it fits easily in a neoliberal city marketing strategy of so-called creative cities.

‘Rhizomes, ‘networks’, ‘nomadism’, ‘escape routes’, ‘non-hierarchical forms of organization’, etc. – these are the words with which biennales have increasingly presented their own operations over the last 10 years. Documenta 12 may have represented the saturation point of this Deleuzian discourse … cultural practices keep in step with a powerful societal hierarchization of values and norms … Large institutions [like museums] usually [let in innovation] only sparsely. It is, after all, their societal task to constantly weigh the present against the past … It is precisely biennales and internationally operating curators who have fought against this ‘grandeur’ … because it was felt that the museum hindered innovation … In observing the majority of art museums one still comes across fixed working hours, fixed appointments, a rigid differentiation between functional units (artistic staff, educational department, public relations, maintenance and management). [This] impedes the post-Fordian requirement of flexibility within a globally operating art world. It is precisely the biennale that partly fulfils these immaterial working conditions. On that level the biennale displays the hallmarks of a post-institution. Its periodic and event-based character in itself makes it easy to work with temporary contracts.

Pascal Gielen, The Biennale: A Post-Institution for Immaterial Labour


Constructing the material conditions of the symptoms of Post Autonomy


Now I want to look at the contribution by Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova “Once is nothing, Individual systems,” which took the form of an exhibition of an exhibition from another biennial, in this case the restaging of the exhibition “Individual Systems” by the curator Igor Zabel for the 50th Venice Biennial in 2003. Zabel’s exhibition served two functions – examination of the continued relevance of the project of Modernism, and, the continued role of the autonomy of art and its institutions at a time of increasing hostility by external forces against its autonomy and survival.


I want to break this down further.


Esche & Hlavajova’s presentation consisted in representing the architectural layout of Zabels project, in other words the material form of the Biennial structure itself, so that the very material structure of the biennial was up for display.


This reconstruction resembles strategies deployed by Sturtevant.  For instance take her grouping together of her reconstructions of Duchamp’s work into the semblance of a retrospective show of Duchamp’s. This re-presentation of an exhibition, exhibiting an exhibition, the repetition of the same, the exhibition as the most used mass form of short term display of art, [then the mass global repetition of the Biennial form] is of course a trap, we need to fall into to confront the thinking we bring with us to experience and confront art, in this case through tricking our belief that this a show of Duchamp’s work in order to highlight the customs, traditions, rituals which we become a part of, nowness, expectation of constantly new experiences, that coalesce around this specific form of presentation.

On the other hand there is a clear echo of the look Gillicks recent retrospective exhibition and the methodological approach to issues of memory, retrospectives, experience of events that have passed as developed in the displays and exhibitions by key artists developing Relational Aesthetics.

[Image of Gillicks retrospective]


Yet their project consisted not just in the repetition of another project in the form of the Biennial, and re-framing the project of Modernism with its defence of Autonomy, but a programme charting and identifying both the symptoms of the attack against the survival of arts autonomy, in other words Post Autonomy, but also a strategy for the defense of arts autonomy. I think we can see that Steyerl text contributed to a similar mapping of the attack against arts autonomy and charting of the symptoms of a Post Autonomous condition. What we inadvertently find is that when we discuss Biennials and Globalisation a discussion of Post Autonomy takes place. And what we seem to witness in Esche and Hlavajova project is the beginning of the visualization of Post Autonomy. But what is this programme for promoting the survival of art and strategy to resist attacks by the State and other powers? Or to reframe this, how does the Deleuzian project, Deleuzian influenced institutes of art, Deleuzian influenced Global Biennials, suggest a defense to address the problems inside and outside art?

To address this issue adequately it is necessary to broaden out the framework in order to briefly look at current discussions of the language and issues to confront the symptoms of Post Autonomy.

E-flux writers, Former West, Ecip

We need to link Esche and Hlavajova’s project to a related project “Former West” a project examining the breakdown of former Eastern and Western Europe, where they actively address possibilities of change inside the language and space of Modernism, particularly around the Philosophical notion of the “Horizon”. The curator Simon Sheikh suggestion that at times of difficulty such as this instead of opening out into other possibilities the task of the institutions of art should be to consolidate and rethink their own functions, while Osbourne, Steyerl etc suggest that within the horizon of possibilities offered within the Bourgeois project the horizon is always ahead, there is no possibility for catch up and overcoming the horizon of possibilities, which I interpret to imply that innovation or rethinking the inherent problems of Western Culture are impossible.














Summary of points made during the text



Deferent definitions of what a Biennial is

Marchart, steyerl, Esche, Documenta 12

Post institutions

Deleuzian institutions of art

Arts link to colonisation and Globalisation and the spread of western hegemony

Locating new strategies to address this complex

At the point of addressing Biennials and Globalisation we address the question of Post Autonomy

Charting the symptoms of Post Autonomy



Response to the normalised Euro centric position as outlined by Marchart

The progressive and emancipatory potentiality of institutions as discursive producers provides the main reason why they should not be abandoned, as a great many leftists have done out of a belief that institutions as such necessarily consolidate petty bourgeois culture. Marchart strongly argues for such a potentiality, citing the hegomonic shifts in discourse that were produced in documenta X & Xl.”

I agree with both Baker and Steyerl that Western art and particularly the Global Biennial extend Western Hegemony, and for many reasons I am uncomfortable with this fact. So what is to be done? Do we do nothing and is there no route out of this situation?

Given this apparent impasse and poverty of thinking, this acknowledged and willed conservatism, it is clear that we need another route – instead of understanding the symptom of Post Autonomy to signal the threat and destruction of art we should instead see it to signal its moment of transformation, and it is only within the framework of arts transformation is it possible to locate a new thinking and language.















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