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Picture 5

I’ve read several essays and manifestos recently on the artistic implications of Facebook.  These writings can be evocative, and are often extremely successful at garnering the cultural capital they wish to theorize.  My own thoughts on these essays are best expressed by friend and scholar Adam E. Leeds.  I’d like to quote an email I received from him:

“…I am done reading articles about how Facebook changes the world.

1. I don’t actually believe that what goes on on social networking sites is that different from what went on before them, or changes our sense of self much.

2. There are changes in society on account of them; the most important ones are the delocalization of networks and the instantaneity of mass communication — new articulations of time and space.

3. These technologies are totally in their infancy.  Facebook might not be around in ten years. We don’t even know what is the paradigm that will replace it, yet.

4. We won’t really know the cultural implications until we see the culture that the generation that grows up with whatever replaces Facebook creates.”

Total agreement.  This is not to suggest, of course, that pop culture requires being canonized before it can be effectively parsed.  There is a significant difference between technology as phenomenon and technology as medium — when writers treat cultural phenomena as media, the theory must take a different approach.  To speak of Facebook as medium, as paradigm, disallows its potential for instantaneity which, I think, is what it is actually good at.

Surely, the contemporary theoretical essay does not need to be one for the ages –that’s the mode of contemporary. But I can’t help but think how I recently read Boris Groys’s problematic essay on institutionalized video art, and how very dated it felt (it was written only 6 years ago).  To speak of these phenomena as prototypes for the future (or even prototypes for now) misses the point of technological ephemerality and presentness.  Presentness, in this instance, is not necessarily grace.  In technology, presentness is chopped, distorted, and wholly untrustworthy.  It is interesting, certainly.  But it is not implication.

The April issue of Machete is out now at Marginal Utility.  You can download the PDF of the issue on the website or pick up a free issue at the gallery (319 N. 11th St).  I’m going to reprint the article I wrote for them here:

Yes! We Have No Biennials! by Manya Scheps

Philadelphia already shambles behind New York City, tripping over itself, breathing heavily.  A Philadelphia biennial would only expose our flaccidity to a larger audience.  Yet recently, there has been some whimpering about having one, both on the artblog and its heinous, feral offspring, the artblahg.

In “Home is Where the Art Is”, an article for the Philadelphia Weekly on March 10th, Roberta Fallon advocates a Philadelphia Biennial, in the vein of the Whitney’s.  She wants to showcase regional talent in a big, institutionally-supported way.  The arsenal—ICA, PAFA, the PMA—though dusty, can draw in large crowds, serious revenue, and ultimately garner interest in collecting.  The exhibition would be an investment and a commitment to cultural awareness for the Philadelphia area.  Her argument hinges on the supposedly lucrative culture market that exists here: the huge flocks that graze the Flower Show, the tents pitched the night before Wicked’s opening.

The artblahg, that unnamed individual (or individuals) who fires willy-nilly at everything in range, takes charge on Ms. Fallon in an open letter published on March 11th.  Fallon’s proposed biennial is contested and torn apart, labeled as ‘clueless’, and replaced by an alternative anti-establishment model.  This version of a biennial would be, from my interpretation, a cross between InLiquid’s Art for the Cash Poor show and a big group high five.

To be clear, the artblahg actually did not argue with Fallon.  As is its wont, the blog (I’m sorry, the blahg) threw its hands in the air and declared a fight. Fallon’s and the artblahg’s ideas of a biennial are congruent modulo…everything.  The two aren’t in the same ring, or even the same stratosphere.  While I sympathize with the thoroughly DIY artblahg model, it is in no way an alternative to Fallon’s big idea.

As such, I am not interested in dissecting either side’s proposed biennial and comparing the problems and benefits with each.  What I am interested in is the given presumption that the biennial model is worthwhile, particularly in Philadelphia.   The biennial is simply a terrible way of exhibiting art.  The intentions are good, perhaps even noble: the biennial is a much more flexible entity than its museum counterpart.  It is (or it aspires to be) a post-institution: periodic, event-based, and temporary.  Yet it doing so, it often eschews historicity, careful research, and contextualization.  It presents a gaggle of artists, haphazardly linked through a curatorial concept or, more often than not, basic contemporaneity.  In its effort to be everything that the museum is not (adaptable, current, liberal), the biennial also loses the content and the weight that are inherent with establishment exhibitions.

The biennial’s self-image is schizophrenic and unsatisfying.  It attempts to walk a tightrope between independence and foundation.  It strives for the uninhibited forward thinking of a gallery while it uses the marketing strategies of massive institutions (and the crowd-herding techniques of a seasoned ranchman).  It occurs in specific locations, but offers no local engagement.  Certainly, the Whitney, Manifesta, even our dearly beloved Philagrafika (which, I know, is not a biennial) happen all over the world.  But they happen in white cubes all over the world.  A Philadelphia biennial could exhibit regional artists or international ones, but that selection is entirely immaterial if it’s just at the PMA.  And while of course it could happen at a location with personality and weave itself into the fabric of the community, this would significantly reduce the size of the audience.

The biennial inherently forces these unpleasant choices because of its conflicted allegiances.  It is simultaneously overly concerned with innovation and securing sponsorship.  This is the biennial at its most seedy, as it attempts to merge widespread palatability with site-specific boldness.  With a clear nod to its political and nationalistic roots, the biennial is an agent in a worldwide cultural competition.  Or, as sociologist Pascal Gielen writes, ‘[the profusion of biennials] cannot be explained without the enthusiasm with which politicians, managers and other sponsors have embraced the event…it fits easily in a neoliberal city marketing strategy of so-called creative cities.’

This is not to naively suggest that art exhibitions should (or can) be free of profiteering.  I mention it simply to highlight the unique quandary in which the contemporary biennial finds itself.  It’s mobile but established.  It’s local but disconnected.  It must be opportunistic without being exploitative, political without being self-aggrandizing.  The exhibition model holds tight to the Modernist notion that a good idea is a new idea.  But how can a good idea realistically recur ever other year?

Of course, biennials will always hold an esteemed position in the art world.  Some are actually good exhibitions, like the Poly/Graphic Triennial in San Juan and some, like the Whitney, just aren’t going anywhere.  But the template as a whole is outdated, problematic, and supremely uninspiring.  A recurring regional arts show in Philadelphia, establishment-endorsed or otherwise, is boring and indistinguishable from the hundreds of other exhibitions like it.  It is not, as Roberta Fallon claims, an investment.  It’s a gimmick.  Better to channel the weight of Philadelphia’s institutions and (miserly) cultural funders to independent curators, gallerists, and critics with great ideas, or promote lasting regional engagement with contemporary artists.  Philadelphia can highlight its makers, thinkers, and earnest independence to a mass audience without simply copying the withered biennial model.

I rewatched this video today after a year of keeping it in the back of my mind.  It is so good.  Hampshire College professor and stand-up theorist Joan Braderman gets all Mystery-Science-Theatre-3000-on-acid with Dynasty.  Brought to you by everyone’s favorite community media organization, Paper Tiger TV.  It’s 28 minutes long and worth it, though a few minutes will give you a pretty rich taste.  Braderman’s commentary is great and all, but thumbs-up to the amazing 1980s video art.  Remember when this stuff used to be new and not pseudo-vintage irony?  Neither do I.