What will art be in the future? Will art objects still exist, as we know them today? According to Fragments from 2084– episode I by Pelin Tan and Anton Vidokle environmental challenges will mandate downsizing and recycling the materials used. The work is part of the new triennial “Bergen Assembly – An Initiative for Art and Research”. Together with the catalog text “Our Literal Speed” it heralds the disappearance of the art market’s traditional production of goods. In the future art will work in opposition to commercial and institutional forces, developing gestures in relation to the sociopolitical challenges of a society that sometimes involuntarily subjects us as viewers to random experiments.
These are some of the current speculations concerning the future featured in an ambiguous venture entitled Monday Begins on Saturday. Rather than providing answers the exhibition opens interesting investigations of the utopic visions of the avant-gardes – particularly in Russia’s revolutionary past during the drive to establish a communist society, but also under the cold-war space race of the 1960s which unleashed a wave of investments in research, technology and new utopian visions. Several works in the triennial examine and document i various ways how utopian ideals of art and society are continuously breaking down to arise in new disguises across different times and contexts.
The communication concept consists of a publication, a series of exhibitions in central Bergen and a symposium, which ran during the opening in the last weekend of August. Both title and concept were appropriated from the Soviet sci-fi novel Monday Begins on Saturday (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in which a research institute is so obsessed with finding a solution to the human pursuit of happiness that time and material goods lose their significance. The Strugatsky brothers’ fiction has been transferred to the various exhibition venues (Kode 1, Kode 4, Bergen Kunsthall, Knipsu, Rom 8, Entree, Visningsrommet USF, Galleri 3,14, Østre, Bergen Skolemuseum og Bergen Kjøtt) through dialectic approximation. Thus the galleries have been converted into “research institutes” investigating the research potential of art in order to make us see, understand and participate in various more or less successful utopias.
This first Bergen Assembly also provides a connection to Norwegian conditions and a playful speculation on the happy land of Norway coupled with the omnipresent yet intangible idea of artistic research. This concept has been the subject of painstaking debate and examinations concerning what is actually required vis-à-vis scientific research. Artistic doctorates were introduced in Norway 10 years ago and the program is hosted and coordinated by – precisely – in Bergen at the Academy of Art and Design.
This first edition of the Bergen Assembly features fragments of Russia’s scientific and ideological past – perhaps also its present – transferred to Bergen both literally and figuratively speaking. Every single gallery features an electronic clock and a potted plant on the floor, the obligatory paraphernalia of every former Soviet bureaucrat’s office. Thus the two Russian curators Ekaterina Degot and David Riff seek to link a nostalgic socialist utopia to the local artistic reality (Bergen). Both are high-profile figures on the art scene, teaching i.a. at the Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia in Moscow. They are highly acknowledged both at home and internationally: In 2000 Degot published the book Russkoe iskusstvo xx veka (Russian Art in the 20th Century) considering the history of Russian art through new eyes: its development from Kandinsky and the “birth of abstract art, over the avantgarde and the dawn of post-Soviet contemporary art exemplified by the prominent example of Oleg Kulik and Olga Chernysheva. Degot has long been interested in especially Chernysheva’s poetic realism and she is just one of many Russian “researchers” featured in Bergen. Other key names include Boris Groys, Dmitry Gutov, Anton Vidokle, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Yuri Leiderman & Andrey Silvestrov, Chto Delat and Pavel Pepperstein who all have a post-Soviet, geopolitical and cultural history in common.
The route between the exhibition venues throughout the city of Bergen creates a sense of dynamic and imbues the venture with a grandiose bienniale-feel. As at other international art events, visitors here are equipped with maps, fliers and catalogs by helpful assistants. Each venue is presented as a fictitious research institute featuring titles like “Institute of Tropical Fascism”, “Institute of Lyrical Sociology” and “Institute of Love and the Lack Thereof”. Sometimes a certain irritation is aroused by the fact that the idea and titles of these fictive institutes is better than the art they present. The films are particularly diverse in terms of length and quality and it is not always clear in what way they are intended to underpin the overarching narrative of the exhibition.
At Bergen Kunsthall the tone of the gallery space is set by a number of socialist sci-fi films, here transformed into the “Institute of the Disappearing Future”: a well-executed institute in terms of content as well as the juxtaposition of objects, installations and films. According to Degot and Riff the pervasive favoring of film as a medium of artistic research is partly due to Lenin’s penchant for this art form and partly to their interest in time-based and time-intensive art. Lenin preferred film because he believed this new popular medium was best suited to moving the masses, in other words for propaganda. Encountering film after film in the white cube of the exhibition space is entirely different from the singular experience of a dark cinema.
Of course the curators are aware of this, yet they insist on prioritizing filmic narratives as a counterstrategy to all things accessible and spectacular. It is difficult not to miss a bit of slightly more ”bourgeois” formal, research-based art to counterbalance the narrative meta-approach of the triennial. At an early point on my round I viewed Ane Hjorth Guttu’s Untitled (The City at Night, 2013). Here the subject interviewed describes how she has carried out hundreds of grid-based drawings for a private archive as a quiet protest against the art system and the indifferent attitude she frequently observes in relation to the works and efforts of the artist. Her voice stayed with me, weighing on my conscience as I pressed on with the other hurried triennial guests, hasting from one film to the next without enough time to watch them from beginning to end. Indeed several were worth experiencing, such as Jan Peter Hammer’s Tilikum (2013), Chto Delats Fragment for a Border Musical (2013) and the incredible Hypercrisis (2011) by Josef Dabernig, from an abandoned Armenian building, which previously functioned as a recreational facility for privileged, Soviet cultural workers.
Institute of Pines and Prison Bread at Østre is showing selected “research photographs” by constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) taken in Karelen in 1933. They document Stalin’s enormous and inhumane project to link the northern borders of the empire to Moscow as well as constituting a quirky observation of technological interventions in nature. Here at the Assembly Rodchenko serves as an important historical reminder of the ever-imperiled position of art in society. In 1934 the utopian project of the historical avant-garde was permanently abolished with the introduction of Stalin’s socialist realism.
The term utopia denotes a perfect society where everybody contributes to the community and the pursuit of art and science as described in Thomas More’s work from 1516. Soviet society sought to realize a communist utopia. This exhibition invites reflection on corresponding Norwegian utopias and several works center on the theme of the victory of Norwegian social democrats over extremist movements, yet the current situation requires the continuous revelation and demystification of new utopian understandings. During their triennial work Degot and Riff became interested in how Bergen and the Norwegian state granted money to art and artistic research. The catalog text contains their musings on whether Norway is in fact a socialist country, particularly in contrast to contemporary Russia, where the social function of art has long since disintegrated.
Thus the Bergen Assembly poses the question of whether the Norwegian welfare state represents a European utopia of the recent past or whether it remains a dream of the future. It investigates the role of art and its utopian aspects while broaching a range of questions: Can research-based art transcend societal development or will it stagnate with the post-Fordist economy to ultimately become another marketable product on the artistic assembly line? The belief that the road ahead for art lies with research presents a problem. This is indicated by the curators’ dialectical and ironic use of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel, in which a utopian research atmosphere is secured through the limitless Soviet state-funding of art-production on one hand and of a constantly growing bureaucracy on the other. Free, autonomous art appears to be an unachievable goal that even the socialist utopia cannot accomplish.
Arranging a triennial like this one is an act of invitation on the part of a city, combined with a desire to become visible to the surrounding world. In his speech during the opening celebration in the town hall governing mayor for culture Gunnar Bakke emphasized the importance of the presence of international art in developing the contemporary artistic infrastructure of the city. It may sound utopian, even slightly alarming, that the municipality of Bergen aspires to become «the cultural capital of Norway», but there’s more: According to the municipally approved 2008-2017 art plan Bergen is to become the most exciting and innovative art city in the North! It was the conservatives, headed by Gunnar Bakke and his predecessor Henning Warloe, who convinced the previous director of Bergen kunsthall Solveig Øvstebø to participate in developing the plans for the Bergen Assembly triennial. There was a realization that this “research experiment” might appear both fascinating and annoying through its refusal to make itself accessible to a wider audience. Yet the curators’ intellectual and creative concept appears as one of the most interesting current initiatives nationwide. Monday Begins on Saturday can be considered an outright challenge to more populist municipal plans to put Bergen on the art map. Ideally, future explorations of this triennial concept should be shielded from strategies targeting the market and the general public. Yet the ambition that Bergen will be setting the agenda for local and international contemporary art is likely to remain a utopia.