There has never before been a Berlin Biennale that has already achieved such an international presence and controversial resonance in the run-up to the opening—not only in the media but also amongst artists and colleagues. And in the last few months, it has been extremely striking how often, even in our own small circle, members of the team or myself have been asked about our general professional and personal well-being particularly »under« Artur Żmijewski’s curatorship of the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. As a rule, in the voice of the other person one could detect the greatest respect accompanied by sincere sympathy. What makes this Berlin Biennale so different and why is it being so closely watched? In September 2009, the international members of the Selection Committee (Jacob Fabricius, Malmö Konsthall; Bartomeu Marí, MACBA—Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Matthias Mühling, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau München, Munich; Joanna Mytkowska, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; and Hoor Al Qasimi, Sharjah Biennial) unanimously named the internationally renowned Polish artist Artur Żmijewski as the curator of this year’s Berlin Biennale. Żmijewski is seen as being not only critical of institutions, but is also known for breaking taboos, provoking media scandals, and transgressing borders in his artistic work. In his curatorial concept, he put the focus on projects with a lasting political impact—beyond the mainstream and entertainment. Żmijewski appointed the art collective Voina from Russia and Joanna Warsza from Warsaw as associate curators, and they further developed the concept and program for the 7th Berlin Biennale together with him.


As curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale, Żmijewski unconditionally calls for art to have a social impact. In this way he attacks—nearly iconoclastically—the concept of "autonomous art" while at the same time expecting and claiming a protected space for it. Such a concept is called for and even justified when one considers the current economic and social context, international political situation, and dynamic shifts in the entire global system. But when this transgression of borders engages with socio-political themes that have become inscribed in the particular national culture of remembrance and the production of ideology in a manner that is highly complex and sensitive, it provokes controversies that go far beyond what a contemporary art institution normally has to deal with. And this is a challenge for the team, the institution, and all the supporters and sponsors.


As a rule, avant-garde and critical artistic practices are characterized by provocation and polarization. However, under the banner of the "freedom of art," all of this can be exhibited by every institution and quite naturally finds a place in public and private collections as an artifact. Then perhaps one sits there with a champagne glass in hand—as recently described in the "art market" pages of a large German daily newspaper—next to Jenny Holzer’s messages of horror related to rape and cruelty during the Bosnian war. And the question that rightly remains open is: is this perhaps a bubble that we find ourselves in?


Is the depiction of cruelty already a critical act? Do we change anything simply through exhibiting critical artistic positions? Or do we thereby create something to identify with, but without any practical consequences? Is it only art education that works with action-oriented perspectives, or can the production of art and reality truly be one, as Artur Żmijewski and the associate curators Voina and Joanna Warsza claim? And what does this mean for art and its institutions? After art and artists in the western world became increasingly politicized in the 1970s—in New York, for example, with Art Strikes, or in Germany with, among others, Joseph Beuys, who ran as a candidate for the Green Party—what followed was a period of distance and / or critical observation. The world settled down again, at least on the surface. The conflict between two systems, one capitalist and one socialist, which came to an end after the Wall came down in 1989, was followed by a globalized and harmonized view of a vaguely defined future. September 11, 2001 marked a serious turning point and the beginning of the western nations’ war against terrorism. Conflicts today take place somewhere else; although we are very well-informed by means of the most diverse media channels, we seem to have lost the space for the negotiating and brokering of social and political changes, the space for civil disobedience, participation, and political culture—despite fundamental political and economic imbalances.


A biennial, which only temporarily reaches a limited public, cannot be a substitute for this. Do museums, art associations, and contemporary art institutions perhaps have the possibility or even the responsibility to support socio-political movements and to themselves develop an emancipatory force, in short: to make viewers become citizens? What does the future hold in light of the increasing commercialization of art and culture and the development of the "visual industries?" Has this contributed to a weakening of institutions? The unconventional, the opinionated, the radical, the obsessive, and the inner requirements of artistic production have been replaced in recent years / decades by the calculable, the market-compatible, the short-term, and the business plan. Institutions are increasingly subject to the demands of a neoliberal "event" economy. Their educational mandate often gives way to a popular mandate to consume. In the best case, institutions have managed to remain platforms for critical positions. But don’t we have to work harder on preventing his emancipatory force from being fundamentally called into question as a result of these developments?


Specifically for this reason it is of invaluable importance that since it first took place in 1998, the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art has developed into a format that offers a free space that is as removed as possible from market demands and the difficult position of institutions, and in which concepts as well as experiments in the contemporary production of art and culture can be tested and further developed—even when this can sometimes be confrontational, transgressive, or even shocking. It is exceptional and of the greatest significance that the German Federal Cultural Foundation has supported each Berlin Biennale since 2004 with 2.5 million Euro, and thus also made highly controversial themes—and the often uncomfortable handling of them—possible.


The preparations for this year’s Biennale have more than once pushed KW Institute for Contemporary Art to its limits. The goals that Artur Żmijewski set of having art interact with reality, of utilizing art as a tool for political processes, and of abandoning the customary strategies and working methods of an art institution as far as possible have presented more than just a challenge. Long before its opening, this Biennale became a forum for negotiating what art may do, what art is, which borders should perhaps not be crossed, what an institution and its sponsors can support, and at what point it becomes harmful, out of place, and questionable—both politically as

well as artistically.


With this Berlin Biennale, in which Artur Żmijewski acts without showing consideration for acceptance, feelings, vanity, political correctness, positive media coverage, or working together in a cordial way, the institution has taken a great risk. This also regards the fact that today, shortly before the opening of this Berlin Biennale, we do not know what the results will be. This uncertainty and open process is what Żmijewski demands unconditionally; it is something that—when combined with a radical critique of institutions and a general broadening of the concept of art—is contradictory and often in direct opposition to the current conditions for institutional work. Tolerating this and making it productive in opening up other perspectives was something that we all had to learn.


The projects by the artists that Artur Żmijewski, Voina, and Joanna Warsza invited to participate in this Biennale are almost without exception new productions, experiments that will be tested in reality. Whether the social function of art remains in the exhibiting of it, whether it can sometimes be made productive specifically as a result of its contrariness, or whether it can produce reality according to Käthe Kollwitz’s motto, "I want to have an effect on my time," and thereby change society, is something that we are all curious to see.

10th Berlin Biennale