A few weeks ago, I thought that the 7th Berlin Biennale had constructed a kind of tomb where movements would come to die. Arriving in early June, we encountered exactly a human zoo, a position from which activated activism felt impossible. It seemed that an anemic representation of the movement was being exhibited and consumed by an audience; rather than occupying, we were being occupied by the institution. Also, the “global” activist community appeared surprisingly nationalistic and was blocking itself in various ways which Carolina details, leading to a culture of degeneration. For example, I witnessed an “activist” call the police on someone else to settle a dispute, which created a pleasing spectacle for the art audience. So my initial experience when we arrived was very close to Carolina’s picture and I was angry with the curators and wondered if anything helpful for the movements could come from the 7th Berlin Biennale. I even wondered how much damage the 7th Berlin Biennale would do to the movements.
However, after a two-week experience in Berlin, I have two questions to offer to her assessment. The first: is the goal of growing a healthy square on the model of Puerta del Sol or Liberty Park an appropriate measure for the 7th Berlin Biennale? Certainly a museum exhibition with “star” curators and with time limits is a strange place to set up an inclusive public square. And one that is funded by the German government is an even stranger place to invite members of 15M protesting austerity! Also, at least in New York, the #square stage of the movement passed months ago, partially because the logic of squares created problems in themselves and we are busy trying to understand how the post-square stage can work. So here, perhaps we could have started, not finished, from the conclusion that a “free square” wouldn’t be likely. This would lead to the question concerning the other strategies we can follow with the resources available here. It turned out that we found many tactics and some of them started with leaving behind the pure square model in search of hybrids.
The second question: Is it possible to pronounce an experiment a failure halfway through? This question touches on the “space of possibility,” which I think is kind of the bread and butter of the movements–another world is possible! (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). In my experience with Occupy Wall Street, you’ve got to trust the moment, even when it twists and turns out of control. Sometimes, for example, the moments when police exerted the most force – like that day of 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge – the dispiriting situation quickly flipped around into a win for the movement. I feel like our involvement in this global movement, which is responding to 30 + years of Neo-Liberalism, is like scratching around for hidden pathways, secret allies, magic tactics within an extensive fortress-city. So maybe looking for new spheres in which to act, using new tactics, without giving up, keeping the space of possibility open despite all logic, despite absurdity, is a strong position to take.
So what did we do with the situation? After the initial shock of finding ourselves in a human zoo, I/we began to respond. What was first needed was to address the power hierarchy of the zoo and flip the situation so that we could regain our dignity. An international group of activists attempted this through a series of semiotic guerrilla actions (naming the curators publicly for example) and holding meetings which culminated in a proposal (which was accepted) for the former curators and director to step back. Our logic: to invite and exhibit the movements was not a bad thing in itself, but only a first step, and one that would naturally lead to degeneration if it stopped there. It was necessary for the institution to “go farther into the concept,” pushing the 7th Berlin Biennale structurally in a horizontal direction to make their invisible frame visible and put it under question. To accomplish this, we were leveraged by the strength of our group, by the public “failure” of the Biennial thus far (leading perhaps to desperation and willingness), and by allies in the press. The proposal was consensed upon in a simple version by the Biennale staff, and an experiment about the limits of activism in relation to institutions was initiated.
As we walked into the muddy waters of open meetings and the realization that in the short time we had, we could probably accomplish very little concrete changes within the institution (some of us wanted to support the guards in raising their 6.5 euros/hour salary for example), we did notice (not only occupiers but guards and staff too) that we got a lot of our dignity back. Things began to move. New allies emerged from all sides and we began to work together in groups that broke the boundaries of “occupiers” and “institution.” The former curators who at first seemed like our zookeepers became kind of collaborators, maybe even activists. Interesting collaborations were proposed and attempted. Could we use the 7th Berlin Biennale institutional name to pull off even stronger actions, hacking the ambiguity and class-relation of culture in service to the movement? We also used tools from the #square such as general assemblies, working groups, and our consensus process, but this move toward horizontality was not a “pure square model” but hybrid territory. We are conscious that as we play out this experiment we are also developing tactics that can be shared for future hybrids that transgress many lines. A “continuity working group” is busy planning such future hybrids.
So far, I would not call the experience in Berlin a success. I don’t think there is such a thing in this movement. Part of what we are doing is moving beyond a striving for success in the way we previously defined it (mostly through acquisition of money or status). But neither can I say that it was a failure. We entered a space of tension and possibility, created a kind of interesting mess and many people are now busy developing this mess collectively. It is possible that this is simultaneously a process of cooption of our movement and also the discovery of secret passageways in the fortress. Let the global movement be everywhere, attempt everything. We’ll see what happens next.