The Art Biennial’s Dilemma: Political Activism as Spectacle in Aesthetic Capitalism
In recent decades, the biennial has become the most widespread mode of showcasing contemporary art. Rather than acting as mere aesthetic containers, these shows aspire to be socially relevant by raising questions about capitalism, colonialism, inequality, environmental devastation, and gender imbalances. In this chapter, we draw from ethnographic observation of the 7th Berlin Biennale (2012) that took place in the context of a rising anti-capitalist discourse reflected in the Occupy movement and the movement of the squares. We explore the outcome of curators’ attempts to disrupt existing practices by introducing the logic of activism. Drawing from empirical vignettes, we identify three institutional rationales that coexisted, clashed, and mutually displaced this logic, reaffirming rather than disrupting the idea that art has to preserve some distance from social reality, that neo-anarchist activism should prefigure social reality in the here and now, and that the configuration of the above through the organization’s politics of visibility that promotes the spectacle of the Berlin Biennale and itself as a brand. These three rationales concomitantly and decisively structured the event’s public performance and turned the idea of linking art to activism into the spectacle of a human zoo. We discuss our findings and link the micro-institutional logics to broader macro-level logics of aesthetic capitalism and spectacle.