Collapses: The Venice Biennale and the End of History | Art Practical

Collapses: The Venice Biennale and the End of History

The 2019 Venice Biennale feels like the end of everything: the end of art tourism, the end of vacations, the end of the beach and the climate of pleasure. With bad news about the climate crisis worsening every day, the nationalistic turn of governments from the U.S. to Britain to Italy to India and Brazil, it’s unclear whether the liberal ideology that produces world-scale cultural events like the Biennale can hold much longer, or whether the economic or ecological structures of global tourism can continue to support it. The liberal democratic order of free markets and free will is undermined around the globe by violent nationalism and economic protectionism. The Biennale exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, offers little but a hollow scream in opposition. The whole thing feels a bit like buyer’s remorse, a magnum opus from a lapsed believer in Francis Fukuyama’s promise that we’d reached the End of History.1

Arthur Jafa

Joint Italy-EU military vessel with helicopter, Piraeus Port, Greece, August 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

Both the main exhibitions and the various national pavilions feature more women and artists of color this year than any previous. Diversity is manifest with respect to types of work, interests, materials, biographies, and ages of the artists on view. Curator Ralph Rugoff states that “[the artists’] work grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world.”2 Diversity and multiplicity appear here to be set up as counternarratives to universalism, the ideology that has historically governed the international contemporary art discourse. But is this in fact the case? Fukuyama says, “The spectacular abundance of advanced liberal economies and the infinitely diverse consumer culture made possible by them seem to both foster and preserve liberalism in the political sphere.” If, as Fukuyama suggests, there are  “fundamental ‘contradictions’ of human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure,”3 diversity is not one of those contradictions. Rather, pluralism reinforces the “common ideological heritage of mankind,”4 while fascism’s resurgence around the globe and the popular embrace of nationalist identity are more of a contradiction in light of the realities of international markets. This is the turn of events that market utopians like Fukuyama failed to anticipate.

Rugoff never comes off as a utopian, given his pervasive air of weary detachment. Rather, the exhibition transmits how it feels to watch the ascent of Donald Trump and the unfolding catastrophe of Brexit from the “all-knowing,” cool remove of the contemporary art insider—omniscient, yet impotent, and unable to divest from toxic habits. George Condo, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Christian Marclay, and Arthur Jafa channel an anxiety bordering on panic. Construction, shipping, air travel, commerce, monuments, the body, gender—all once fixed as concepts in the Western imagination, with clearly associated positive values, are now invoked by artists such as Yin Xiuzhen, Nicole Eisenman, Slavs and Tatars, and Martine Gutierrez as hazardous, unstable, and volatile. Nowhere is this instability more evident than in the work of Mari Katayama, a Japanese artist whose self-portraiture tableaus tease the boundary between agency and objectification. These artists, more than the comparably straightforward representation advanced by artists like Zanele Muholi, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, or Gauri Gill, capture the zeitgeist of not just the show but the present time. Our historical moment is monumentally catastrophic, and the usual serious response to extremism doesn’t seem to be working. Instead, the images range from abject to absurd.

astronaut

Indios antropófagos: A Butterfly Garden in the (Urban) Jungle. Peru Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

Especially relevant are the artists who toy with the fetishization of Indigenous bodies and cultures for Western consumption. Within the main exhibition curated by Rugoff, Gutierrez situates her U.S.-born Latinx, trans body within a series of photographic landscapes, Body in Thrall, that challenge touristic notions of indigeneity, cultural authenticity, and romanticized poverty around non-white people. She occupies diverse personas, from a film noir femme fatale to the terrifying Aztec deity Tlazolteotl, “Eater of Filth,” always negotiating the high fashion aesthetics of desire with a subversive decolonial aggression. Similar themes and tactics appear in Indios antropófagos in the Peruvian Pavilion, curated by Gustavo Buntinx, in which historical artifacts from the Spanish colonial era and large mosaic tile works by Christian Bendayán depicting frolicking Indigenous youth come together in a scathing critique of cultural tourism. In the French Pavilion, curated by Martha Kirszenbaum, artist Laure Prouvost references the oceans and the sea life projected to die out by 2048, only 29 years into the future, with a number of glass animals seemingly cast into the sea floor, strewn across a landscape of refuse and discarded technologies.

Back in the real world, there’s no way to excise or sequester the beautiful parts into a future that can outlast the very real catastrophes happening now. The overwhelmingly urgent need for a complete lifestyle change played in my head over the week following my visit to the Biennale, as I recuperated from a difficult personal and professional year on a seven-day Greek Islands cruise with my young children, partner, and parents. Looking over the waters where thousands of migrants have drowned, from the top deck of a massive, yet outdated, luxury vessel, I considered how the looming climate crisis creates a condition of simultaneous enjoyment of the modern world that is all around us, and a mourning for its obvious and inevitable loss. Is this the end of curating? The traditional role of the curator as guardian of the world’s collected treasures seems as irrelevant as the contemporary job of mounting resource-heavy exhibitions for an international crowd of jet-setters. Conceptualism has begun to rot from the head, as when Rugoff controversially chose to include Christoph Büchel’s installation of a salvaged boat that, in 2015, sank in the Mediterranean with more than 800 people aboard. I reflected on this watery tomb, recommissioned as a tourist attraction, while looking out across Piraeus port. In the distance, a military troop (jointly operated by Italy and the European Union) performed exercises atop a warship in a city where anti-immigrant attacks are on the rise. In the seventeenth century, the Venetians gained and lost control of Athens in a rivalry with the Ottomans. Today, it seems the EU’s primary objective in the Mediterranean is to sever thousands of years of interconnection between these three regions. Two years ago, the regenerative promise of art as a universal cultural good was undermined when documenta 14 recreated the financial dynamics of German austerity policies in Athens, Greece afresh. Debts went unpaid, workers uncompensated, all in the name of “fiscal responsibility” that nearly shuttered the sixty-year-old event for good. What better outcome ought we to expect this year from an art event born out of universal nationalism?

Christine Wertheim

Halil Altindere, Space Refugee, 2016. May You Live in Interesting Times, Venice Biennale 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

An explicitly utopian impulse is fugitive in May You Live in Interesting Times, but it manifests in the intersection of art, science, and technology. Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef raises awareness about preservation of the oceans through a crowdsourcing practice that combines mathematical learning with environmentalism and craft. Tavares Strachan’s meditation on African American astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., locates metaphysical discourse about the afterlife within a scientific conversation about space travel—where elsewhere Halil Altindere complicates this view with the tale of Syrian cosmonaut Muhammed Ahmed Faris and his persecution by the state. Ryoji Ikeda bathes us in cleansing white light and describes a massive, thunderous universe of data that takes breathtaking shape before our eyes. Hito Steyerl’s This is the Future is a post-internet pastorale in which computer vision is applied to the Venetian landscape to depict a state of perpetual, dreamlike futurity in which the present persistently refuses to resolve into view. The protagonist of Steyerl’s installation seeks out a garden that she had previously hidden in the future in order to protect it from the ravages of the present.

The song of the Lithuanian Pavilion Sun & Sea (Marina) still rings in my ears:

“When my body dies, I will remain,
In an empty planet without birds, animals and corals.
Yet with the press of a single button,
I will remake this world again”

The finale of Sun & Sea (Marina) details the 3D printing of facsimiles of species in widespread collapse, taking comfort in their simulated resurrection as one would in the cold rays of a dying sun.

Greek Islands

Sun & Sea (Marina), Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

The gentle tenor of the apocalyptic visions in Sun & Sea (Marina) perfectly encapsulates the feeling of living at the outside edge of the story of the human species on planet Earth, with the knowledge that history as we know it may well be about to end because our species is one of millions undergoing collapse. The emptiness of our endeavors is invoked by Shilpa Gupta, whose wildly swinging metal gate hammers an effigy of national borders into a gallery wall. Otobong Nkanga’s drawings in acrylic on crayon reference the mechanical, industrialized nature of exploitation in the 21st century. Unlike the bees, whose society is organized around abundance, we humans have engineered systems to maximize our suffering. If humankind can truly lay claim to a common ideological heritage, as Fukuyama once argued, we have only ourselves to blame for our impending end.

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Highlights from the town hall meeting with Jack Dorsey and the Twitter team at Techpoint Africa

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A couple of days ago, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and CEO, made his presence in Nigeria known through a tweet.

One of the arranged engagements for Jack — who is also the co-founder and CEO of Square — was a town hall meeting at Techpoint’s headquarters in Lagos.

Jack with Twitter’s CTO, Parag Agrawal; lead engineering team, Micheal Montano; and Twitter product lead and Periscope co-founder, Kayvon Beykpour took turns responding to questions from people at the meeting.

“I want to understand the challenges of starting a company here and figure out a way I can support,” Jack claimed.

He also revealed that there are plans to hire Nigerians to work remotely for Twitter as well as Square.

“Speaking specifically about Nigeria, in the future, many of our customers will be from here [more] than there are today. There is [a] massive opportunity here for Twitter because Nigeria has many technical talents and impactful public conversations happen here too,” Parag added.

Here are highlights of the town hall meeting.

Twitter’s product lead offered Dara Oladosu a job at Twitter

After listening to Dara Oladosu talk about his Twitter bot — @QuotedReplies — Twitter’s product lead, Kayvon Beykpour offered him a job on the spot.

Kayvon went as far as offering Dara his seat on the panel.

And in what seemed like a confirmation of Kayvon’s job offer, Jack asked Dara to wait behind when Adewale Yusuf — Techpoint’s CEO — asked Techpointers to join the Twitter team for a group picture.

Parag had earlier pointed out that the company is working on decentralising its workforce.

Interestingly, Kayvon joined Twitter, along with Micheal after it acquired his startup, Periscope.

There are not enough Nigerians on Twitter

Jack, reacting to a question of Nigerian representation on Twitter, simply quipped, “not enough.”

Corroborating this, Kayvon added, “I’ll just say not enough, and that’s one of the reasons we’re here. We sense the impact that can be made is relative to the number of people.”

These responses pointed to the fact that the micro-blogging platform only has a small fraction of the 98.39 million active Internet users in Nigeria.

Jack to spend six months in Nigeria

Responding to a question from the moderator, Jack revealed that he would be spending six months in Nigeria in 2020.

“I want to live here for three to six months next year, full time, no travelling.”

However, Jack didn’t mention what he would be doing in the country during this period.

Practical tips on how CEOs can manage their startups

Sharing his experience as CEO of two companies, Jack touched on how setting priorities and creating team dynamics can be key to a company’s success.

He further stated that CEOs should ensure decisions are made with rich context that can properly address solutions.

He went on to say entrepreneurs shouldn’t set mediocre goals.

“We often raise bars on what we think is possible. We do things that scare us.”

“Remote work helps me connect well with my team.”

Jack mentioned how working from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays helps him bond properly with his team.

He added that this gives him ample time to have elaborate discussions regarding the company’s growth.

“Working remotely twice a week gives me so much time to focus. When I invite these three over, we set apart three hours to have deeper conversations and make tactical plans we may not have in the office environment.”

New Report: Nigerian startups raised a combined $38.01m in Q3 2019, just 7% higher than Q3 2018. Download the report.

Attend Techpoint Startup School, a 5-day intensive training for budding African tech founders and CEOs. Classes start 2nd of December. Enrol now.

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Reprieve on the way for 119 Nigerians on death row in Malaysia | P.M. News

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Malaysia execution for drug trafficking

The 119 Nigerians on death row in Malaysia may be saved from the executioner if the country’s legislature passed a bill to abolish the death penalty as being proposed by the country’s law minister Liew Vui Keong.

The minister plans to table the bill in the March 2020 sitting of Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s Lower House of Parliament.

According to Amnesty’s latest report, Fatally Flawed: Why Malaysia must abolish the Death Penalty, 1,281 people are on death row as of February 2019.

Foreigners make up a significant 44 percent, 568 people, with Nigerians accounting for 119. They were sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

“Nationals from Nigeria made up 21 per cent of this group, with those from Indonesia (16%), Iran (15%), India (10%), Philippines (8%) and Thailand (6%) following suit”, Amnesty said.

Amnesty International latest report: Nigerians on death row may get some reprieve soon

“A significant 73 per cent of all those under sentence of death have been convicted of drug trafficking under Section 39(b) of the Dangerous of Drugs Act, 1952 — an extremely high figure for an offence that does not even meet the threshold of the ‘most serious crimes’ under international law and standards and for which the death penalty must not be imposed,” AI said in the report.

The Nigerians have not been executed because of a moratorium on executions in place since October 2018 as the government mulls law reform.

A special task force led by immediate past chief justice Richard Malanjum has also been set up to study alternative penalties for laws carrying mandatory capital punishment.

Amnesty report points at various flaws in the Malaysian legal system, including denial of complete legal aid to foreigners.

Amnesty also said that insufficient funding of legal aid also hinders Malaysians from accessing proper representation, especially those who live in rural areas and who are not able to afford a lawyer.

“It is further concerning that because of how legal aid is structured in the different schemes that provide no free legal representatives until the trial is due to start, many defendants are left awaiting trial without any legal assistance for significant periods that have extended from months to, in most cases, two to five years,” the report read.

For foreign nationals, the report noted delays of more than 24 hours to several days before their respective embassies were informed of their arrests. This is despite international law which states that prompt communication is necessary.

Amnesty, which campaigns to end to capital punishment worldwide, called for competent legal representation be made available to all defendants.

It also called upon the police to inform all detainees of their right to legal aid.

‘Secretive’ pardons, executions

Aside from the pre and post-trial stages, gaps in legal aid also affected the ability of inmates to acquire assistance when filing their pardon petitions, noted Amnesty.

When it was available, the report cited a lawyer’s testimony about how prison officials pre-selected inmates who would be able to receive legal aid, all of whom were Malaysians.

“The decision on who gets that support is not transparent and creates an additional degree of arbitrariness and discrimination in the death penalty system,” it said.

The NGO further urged the government to solve the delays and lack of transparency in clemency proceedings.

Pardons can only be granted by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and the state rulers after consulting the Pardons Board. However, clear procedures for them are not laid out in Malaysian law except for some guidelines in the Prison Regulations 2000.

In practice, the report noted that inmates are often informed of their right to clemency but not the criteria for pardon consideration.

Inmates and their families are often left without any news from the authorities for a long period after submitting their petition.

The report also noted instances of delays by prison authorities in communicating the result of a pardon petition to an inmate’s family.

In the case of rejected clemency petitions, Amnesty noted that families were not informed of the date and time of impending executions except that they would happen “soon”.

“Some of the letters handed over to the families were dated two weeks earlier, suggesting that the prison authorities had held on to this information until only days before the scheduled date of the hangings,” it said.

Amnesty urged Pardon Boards to disclose all relevant information to inmates to allow them to prepare adequately for the pardon petitions.

It also wanted the boards to promptly update inmates, their families and their lawyers on the progress of their applications.

Following objections to abolishing the death penalty in total, the Pakatan Harapan government is now looking at replacing the mandatory death penalty for 11 serious criminal offences to allow for judicial discretion.

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Emmys 2019: Fleabag and Game of Thrones win big on Brit-dominated night

Phoebe Waller-Bridges comedy was the surprise victor while the final season of HBOs fantasy drama picked up the most Emmy awards

Awards and prizes

It was a British invasion at the 71st Emmy awards, with Game of Thrones taking home the prize for best drama and Phoebe Waller-Bridges Fleabag sweeping most of the comedy awards in a night that saw numerous nods to stars from across the pond.

The biggest question heading into the night was whether Emmy voters would reward perennial juggernaut Game of Thrones for its divisive final season. The show was nominated for 32 awards the most for any single season of television ever and had already won 10 Creative Arts Emmys last week. Game of Thrones took home the nights final prize for outstanding drama series and a best supporting actor nod for American star Peter Dinklage bringing its total to 12 awards and breaking its own 2015 record for the most awards given to a series but was otherwise shut out of the telecast.

Instead, Fleabag emerged as the nights big winner, upstaging Veep, HBOs other Emmys mainstay in its final season, and last years darling The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Fleabag, which originated as Waller-Bridges one-woman show at the Edinburgh festival fringe, took home the awards for outstanding writing, best comedy series and best directing. Waller-Bridge also claimed lead actress in a comedy series a surprise win over Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who would have become the most decorated Emmys performer of all time had she won a ninth award for her role as Selina Meyer on Veep.

Jodie
Jodie Comer. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Waller-Bridge, who began her third acceptance speech by saying This is just getting ridiculous, was the crest of what amounted to a British wave at the Emmys, with wins for several stars: Ben Whishaw (A Very English Scandal) won for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series, while Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) apologized to her Liverpudlian parents for not inviting them because she didnt think it was my time in her speech for lead actress in a drama series. Chernobyl, HBO and Sky Televisions brutal, critically acclaimed limited series on the 1986 nuclear disaster, won for best outstanding writing, best directing and limited series. John Oliver won his fourth consecutive Emmy for best variety series for Last Week Tonight, and Jesse Armstrong took home best drama writing for HBOs upstart Succession. Black Mirrors choose-your-own-adventure flick Bandersnatch also won for best television movie.

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Emotional speeches take center stage at 2019 Emmys video highlights

In a hostless awards show packed with more awards than anything else, perhaps the most stirring moment of the night was Michelle Williams speech for outstanding lead actress in a limited series (Fosse/Verdon), in which she heralded gender pay equity. My bosses never presumed to know better than I did about what I needed in order to do my job and honor Gwen Verdon, said Williams, now an outspoken activist for gender pay equity following the revelation to herself and the public that she was paid significantly less than costar Mark Wahlberg in the movie All the Money in the World. The next time a woman, and especially a woman of color because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her, Williams said to some tears from the audience.

Believe her, because one day she might stand in front of you and say thank you for allowing [her] to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.

Jharrel
Jharrel Jerome wins lead actor in a drama series. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The nights other highlight was an inspiring win for Jharrel Jerome as lead actor in a limited series for When They See Us, Ava DuVernays Netflix series on the wrongly convicted Central Park Five that was otherwise shut out of awards by Chernobyl. This is for the men we know as the exonerated five, Jerome said as the real Central Park Five, now exonerated, raised their fists in solidarity.

Representation and tolerance were also the themes of speeches by Billy Porter (Pose), who took home the prize for lead actor in a drama series The category is love, yall, love! he shouted and Patricia Arquette (The Act), who won outstanding supporting actress in a limited series. Arquette dedicated the award to her sister Alexis, a trans woman who died in 2016, and urged an end to discrimination of trans people. Give them jobs. Lets get rid of this bias that we have everywhere, she said.

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Michelle Williams gives powerful Emmys acceptance speech on pay inequality video

Outside of the British winners, other highlights of the evening included two nods to The Marvelous Mrs Maisel Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein for supporting actor and actress in a comedy series, respectively and an underdog win for Ozarks Julia Garner as outstanding supporting actress, besting Daenerys Targaryen herself, Emilia Clarke.

Game of Thrones still got its recognition, however, as a portion of its massive cast and crew took the stage for the nights biggest honor. Given all the fire and ice, dragons and long shoots, it is amazing that all of you are still alive, said co-showrunner DB Weiss. I cant believe we finished it.

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The Democratic Presidential Debates

Reality TV is meant to trick the eyes. The high drama of housewives bickering about who said what over a bottle of wine. Cast members secretly scheming to avoid elimination off the island. Contestants blatantly lying to rig the game in their favor. What unfolds before us, to quote Susan Murray and Laura Ouelette in 2008’s Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, “is an unstable text that encourages viewers to test out their own notions of the real, the ordinary, and the intimate against the representation before them.”

This week, inside Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Democratic presidential hopefuls participated in the second round of debates. Last night found two of the top candidates—Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Joe Biden, along with Senator Cory Booker—center stage. The whole ordeal played out like an episode of The Real Legislators of America.

Remember: Absorbing, can’t-look-away TV is not about stability, however much we yearn for—and need, really—politics to be. The value of the unstable text is in its consistent guarantee of popcorn-worthy entertainment. Those who watch, myself included, find a perverse comfort in it because it’s entirely reliable; it gives us something to bicker about with family, friends, colleagues. It challenges us in ways for which we are unprepared, and sometimes for the better.

The primary architecture of debates, like reality TV with its twisting plots and snaking subplots, obeys a simple formula: an adoption of disorder. Biden, who remains the frontrunner despite his moderate establishment policies and a thrashing from Harris in June during the first round of debates, was again assigned the role of villain. A textbook archetype of the genre, the former VP doesn’t quite find a kindred spirit in the diabolical savvy of Spencer Pratt (The Hills) or Jax Taylor (Vanderpump Rules), but all great TV hinges on the roles characters submit to. That’s one of the more fascinating parts about Murray and Ouelette’s theory: Although the text itself is prone to unpredictability, the characters must conform to stationary roles.

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“You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” Booker said to Biden, railing into him. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” Later, Booker again pounced on him over the matter of criminal justice reform, and Biden found himself caught in the heat of Harris’ agitation on the topic of health care and paralyzed by former Housing Secretary Julian Castro’s criticism of his shaky immigration record.

But before drama turned rapid-fire, there was the sly splendor of the 10 candidates on stage, standing side by side, captured with a trippy canniess by Brendan Smialowski. There’s a static, almost robotic feel to the vertical poses they take; their top halves have been severed by the camera’s frame. The linear symmetry of their lower limbs, the uniformity of their display, suggests an analogy: Not unlike reality TV, we all have a role to adhere to.

But then, almost instantly, the photo challenges its very hypothesis by displaying the full-body reflection of the politicians on the stage floor (Jordan Peele’s tethered beings from Us sprang to mind). And so, here in the democratic upside down, a counter suggestion is proposed: that even the roles candidates were assigned—The Hero, The Antagonist, The Everyman—are not, in fact, as stable as we anticipate.


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