Near the end of the first semester of Green light Venice, Shared Learning granted another glimpse at the true potential of its reciprocal layout. Navigating the politics of the Biennale - who or what does get right into the center of the contemporary art world? Who or What doesn’t?
We met Angela Vettese in the auditorium of the Green light - Shared Learning space. The founder and director of the Visual Art Graduate program at the Venice International University was no stranger to the team. It was from her class of visual arts here in Venice, that most of the Green light's volunteers had been recruited. And whoever spent some time in the project, understands the crucial role they play in the project. Vettese had joined us to host a tour through the Giardini - the Biennale's famous centerpiece park. Drawing from her expertise as an art historian and theorist, we set out to question the contingencies of emancipatory agency on the backdrop of a structural contextualization of the Venice Biennale itself.
The Giardini: Reproducing nationalism and at the same time disrupting it
Home to a selected village of about 30 national art pavilions, the serene area of the Giardini manifests a prestigious microcosm buzzing with protagonists and visitors from all over the world. With the Venice Biennale amounting to somewhat of the art world's Olympics, the gravitational pull emanating from this microcosm stretches far beyond the sphere of artistic production; Everybody takes pride in being a part of it, the stakes are high and the according mechanisms of presence, representation, inclusion and exclusion unfold right at the intersection of arts and politics. If one was to dissect the historicity of everything manifested in this garden (for example by reading the architectural decisions made within each pavilion or following the curatorial programs and their rhythms over the years), the Giardini's fascinating plurality would reveal itself as a complex dispositive, a competition of different strategies and conceptions of art and cultural (re)production.
The Venice Biennale, today, is synonymous with vivid pluralism and a global, post-national orientation. Exactly the kind of which has come to characterize the contemporary art scene. In 1895 though, at the very beginning of it all, the time of the Biennale's original conceivement and the Giardini’s construction, the Biennale formed a prototype belonging to a genuinely nationalist agenda. Being the very first-of-its-kind international art fair, right at the beginning of its genealogy, structurally and pragmatically, the Biennale was not only designed to operate within an order of nation states, but rather to actually reproduce this order through means of cultural diplomacy. At the very heyday of nationalist imperialism, this arena for cultural diplomacy manifested the new, competitive, rigid but also possibly emancipatory ideals the young nation states.
Through the years, the strategies and conceptions present within the Giardini have outgrown nationalist agendas on several fronts. Every Biennale produces its own curatorial program articulating a distinct vision on contemporary art and its possibilities. This programming represents as a centralized agenda operating as an organizational principle positioned diametrically to the autonomy of the national art pavilions. And with the Biennale's own Central Pavilion lying right in the center of the Giardini, its agenda enters the stage of cultural diplomacy right at eye level with those of the surrounding nation states. In addition to that, even within the “methodological nationalism” sustaining an individual pavillion's program with nations being imagined communities rather than monolithic entities, there are various strategies, possibilities and differences gaping the hegemonic conditions within a country and the way it represents itself during the Biennale.
Following Vettese, it’s exactly this heterology between a centralized curatorial perspective, a methodological nationalism and the autonomous aspect within any national cultural representation, which allows us to understand each show as a set of decisions, negotiations and genealogies. Following this perspective while integrating the experiences of Green light participants, the tour resulted in a vivid discussion about the manufactured nature of nations situating the many strategies present around us within the field of cultural diplomacy while revealing the role of art in the construction of imaginary communities. In the award winning German Pavilion for example, the aesthetics of the space and the programming were discussing the conflict and the notion of threat connected to Germany’s past, present and (possible) future. All of this could be made visible through the pavilions architectural arrangement reminiscent of a cage, it’s use of performances, materials and embedded narratives. The French pavilion on the other hand appeared void of such a direct engagement with its national history. Its sound-studio like setup focused on music, celebrating the act of creativity. As artist Xavier Veilhan took us backstage into the recording room, he explained how the importance of interactivity was lying at the core of his concept for the French pavilion.
Subsequent Talk between Vettese and Macel
After about one and a half hours, the group headed back to the Green light space. Here Christine Macel, this year’s chief curator of the Biennale, joined the conversation. Initially the discussion was supposed to act as a follow-up on the topics we had discussed before: The gravitas of institutional genealogy, the contingencies of autonomous agency and, more generally speaking, the possibility of the Biennale to give space to heterotopic strategies. The analytical tools provided by Vettese were invited to engage in conversation with Christine Macel’s vision of this year’s Venice Biennale. Highlighting the specific qualities and capacities of art rather than letting art become a constant referential gesture towards the political or the economic, hers was a Biennale created specifically with, for and by artists. How would this vision of art and artistic practice communicate with Vettese's perspective on the genealogy of the Biennale and its structural setup?
Macel shifted the conversation immediately towards a concrete engagement with Green light itself, including the Green light participants and volunteers. Referring to the communal effort that structured the daily rhythms of the project, participants and volunteers articulated a view very similar to that of other Green light participants before: talking about the family-like atmosphere within the project and rooting agency in [C1] their everyday activities and the capacity of empathy, they weight in on the radical openness and the possibility to open up as being the main aspect sustaining the processes of becoming part of this team. Doing so, they would address certain difficulties and doubts which they had had in the beginning and described how these doubts would be overcome through everyday practice itself. Summing up this impressive manifestation of open hearted dialogue, here is what Green light staff member Anahita Tabrizi had to say about our shared experience:
“Now, the interesting part was to sit in the middle of the non-nation-related Central Pavilion with a group of obvious immigrants, who were trying hard to overcome the nationalist resentments they face while seeking to become part of a community that already exists. The crucial problem is to become an integral part of an already existing (that is to say: complex and self-defined) society. There are countless theories on how this can be done, some of them still questioning if integrating “others” can be achieved after all, without immediately constructing the image of a collapsing society. This is why a group of people with ongoing asylum processes, attending each day in the Biennale and coming to the central pavilion is that strong, because it is questioning the practices leading to the traditional setup of the Biennale itself. That Green light actually leads to the building of a community is not only indicated by the participants statements though. It also shows by the comments of the volunteers on the project. The volunteers, as part of the already existing society shared in Italy, talked about how they had the same experiences of evolving, overcoming themselves, their own prejudices and their own predefined view of the world. This they had to do in order to be able to become a part of this community in Green light. Either you change your shape and become almost interconnectable like the lamp itself: you evolve to an understanding that you always deal with individuals or you fail trying to attend the Green light project.”
by Clemens Aaron Rettenbacher
Clemens Rettenbacher, TBA21 Educational Department, is also co-initiator of Talent Space, an open project which actively intertwines artistic productions with social engagement
 "methodological nationalism" empasses a scientic approach, in which the nationstate is perceived as predominant in social activities.