Guest post by Carolina, a member of M15 from Spain who was invited to the Berlin Biennale like Occupy Museums. This open letter was originally posted in Take the Square on May 31, 2012 when Carolina left the Biennale.
Some weeks have passed since the #OccupyBiennale started. The framework was/is a difficult one: a contemporary art exhibition, probably the most famous one in Europe, most of the artists would pay to be there to have an extra line in their CV that adds, “Berlin Biennale.” However the #occupy and #15M movements were invited, not because of their artistic skills but because of the political process they were living worldwide
There was quite a controversy about participating in an art event, the fear to be “exhibited”, the fear to be swallowed up by a “commercial” event, when art becomes a consumer article and forgets its function of questioning reality and when transgression is even more marketable than art; “people” it seems are so bored in society that they need “adventure”, so art has to sell that adventure. This was the starting point at the Biennale, #occupy | #15M, visitors expected to share an “adventure”, that thousands of people are living in their squares, the process of civil disobedience going on in our time.That was the risk and the challenge that was to be overcome when finally the invitation was accepted.
To say that the #occupy|15M movement has been successful all over the world is something very difficult to assert. Spain has shown that #15M has really changed society, perhaps the changes are not still visible, but they are so deep, that we can say it is a turning point in Spanish society as there is no way back to the previous situation. The #Occupy movement over in the US may have had the same experience, the awakening of society, that regaining of people’s consciousness and their capacity to decide for themselves, things that seemed dead or numb. But in most of the other countries it has been a “well intended” movement that has not managed to transcend into large public support or concrete gains.
The challenge, however, was very tough: a clear motivation and strong driving ideas were needed, and it was particularly difficult to find them in an artificial environment, with an artificial goal, with no core group that could help facilitation and with not real bonds that could tie people to the #Biennale square.
When you’re out of the movement, watching it evolve for a few minutes or hours, you do not get a sense of how it came to be; you get no hint that the spectator is not a spectator, but a part of the show. One can imagine building a wall, how ironic would that be in Berlin, one brick at a time, and building it as a separation from what is not wanted (corruption, domination, mental slavery, exploitation of remote, unknown, corrupt invisible hands), and as well as a new means for expression (painting, writing…).
So to presume that people coming to the exhibition would not “look-at” the #occupy |15M movement space expecting something to “happen” was a wrong way to focus public participation in the Biennale. It was wrong to believe people would simply join because they had the need to, to expect that a building could reproduce the process of the squares as public space, to think that things “would” happen naturally when the process itself was artificial, not in a pejorative sense, only to describe that it needed a particular input from the people occupying the space. This input, or driving force, happened organically as people organized in squares as there was a moral or political (maybe even material) motivation.
At the same time, the intention of the curators to stay out of the process has not worked as planned. It is not possible to play in both sides, to present a self-organized space with constraints because it really belongs to the exhibition set; the relation of power between curator and “occupy” could not be diluted, every now and then it appeared in the scene and no reaction to that situation ever occurred.
Asamblea madness, as something untouchable, fixed, un-redoable, is the belief that an Asamblea is something else rather than a tool (among others) for coordination and decision-making. To pretend that in an assembly it is necessary to have everybody that may have participated in previous ones, is not being inclusive. Anyone that passes by can make a decision, and there is no need to wait for a “specially implicated” person as he or she is a “leader”. If people can attend, great and if not they have to assume it, that leads sometimes to difficult situations, but it is how a square works, under the belief that everybody is a part of it, and can participate. The other essential thing is Trust. Decisions must be taken even if we are not present, one has to rely on the group, on the decision taken during an Asamblea where people discuss and add nuances and arguments. We can’t fossilize decisions to what was decided in the past, the building of a square is something alive, continuously changing, and as decisions change, needs change, there is nothing that can be guaranteed forever except that every decision can be re-thought.
In the Biennale, the scheduled Assembleas have not been respected in the first weeks. Nobody attended, so that gives a clue of the commitment towards the collective building process, nobody had the need to talk about the conflicts, to look for solutions, the international status of things, or anything, but in the name of assemblies decisions were not accepted.
Although it may seem quite unbelievable, there has been some fascist behaviour among some of the so-called occupiers, that don’t represent what actually happens in the squares, where respect and active listening takes place. Instead of this we found a lack of respect, and even mobbing done to people who has joined this “artificial” square, making difficult to stay and actually work on things rather than playing the game of exhibition. The result of this attitude was people leaving the #OccupyBiennale, feelings of hostility, invitations to leave, an example in the mailing list , a mail with subject that read: “Exclusion of antisocial, arrogant, anti-art, anti-individual occupy guest.”
Followed partially by:
“Permanently trouble making people who dont accept the decision of former assemblies, talking bullshit, standing on an arrogant, non flexible position should be sent back.We need constructive people and no trouble makers. you are here in Germany where law and order rules. Even in the german Occupy Movement we have law and orders decided by former assemblies. If you are not able to accept those former decisions you better go back home.”
A week after and under pressure, it was explained that it was “sarcasm”, is this believable? Who can accept this behaviour? Where is the sarcasm? We saw something present through all the process of the #OccupyBiennale, people that come are “guests”, “visitors” or even treated as “enemies”, there is a “we” , strong identities, to the “we” belong the best, the winners, so the #occupy instead of being a space with no identities, no discrimination, comes out to be one more identity and exclusive.
This shows another fact that fascism is present, when it comes to remain silent and don’t do anything about these kind of comments, specially in a country with such a background full of deportations, borders, where the wound still emerges and where certain topics are still sensitive. But the problem is not to have a fascist, there are many, and we’ll have to cope with that, the problem is that nobody else reacts: fear?
This fear lead us to several uncommon behaviours as remaining silence when intolerable behaviour took place, to respect the established roles of being “guests of an institution and having to respect the rules even if they make no sense in our context, fear to discuss and debate when there is censorship around certain topics being talked, restricting certain debates just to Germans because the “outsiders” would not understand the German context. Instead of understanding that building a global movement means explaining contexts, decoding ideas that can be obvious for the local people but not for the others, but a wall appeared once more. A “we” and a “you” were created, dialogue stopped flowing, one is right, the other is wrong, no exchange is possible, positions are fixed. This cannot be part of a #square, where there are no previous truthful statements, everything is under construction, everything can be questioned and solutions are built based on the discussions taking place.
An individual or collective process?
A thing that happened during the organization of the “event”, was that there was not a thought given to the building of a commons: of a common space, of a common working place, of a common goal. The square was a container, a check-in of projects that were individually shown at an exhibition. Why and how did that happen? Perhaps it’s not an easy question to answer, while our mouths are full of words like collective, collaboration, our practices are very distant from them. In the end there was a lack of political maturity in the group, the tension between being or not being part of the whole exhibition lead to the situation of finally presenting the “visitors” with an exhibition, a model of what is supposed to be a square which is very far from reality.
People belonging to the so called occupy movement, with more voice than the rest, seem interested mainly in putting their name on the walls of a famous art exhibition that will guarantee some extra rewards, once it is added to their CV and forgetting that one of the basic principles of the movement is to avoid personal profit.
Social networks present a fundamentally historical perspective, involving people and their relationships. The success of the Spanish Revolution takes root in the social fabric of the population. One can’t just decide to MAKE THE SQUARE and expect this social fabric to be of any quality. Building networks take time, effort and participants. But the OccupyBiennale square–a literal one, enclosed between strong walls, doesn’t invite anyone from outside to its physical boundaries. One example is the intervention of Jeremy Zimmermann from La Quadrature du Net, who talked about ACTA in front of a dozen “outsiders” who were all already in the know. Nobody else was interested. Maybe because
they already understand the scope and consequences of ACTA? A collective would have respected the “guest” and given him a chance to transfer this knowledge.
The construction of an artificial square has failed but it’s good to see why and understand the process. First of all, to escape the logics of exhibitions and institutions is not possible; we can interact with them, we can do some lobbying so that some things change, but what is not possible is to think a process of true freedom inside them (as the ones lived in the squares). A square has no limits, no restrictions, while a exhibition has, even if there is a different purpose, to establish a border between what is the “proper” exhibition and the #occupy space. When problems appear, such the lack of space, they have to be solved within the predefined and limited space, without it being possible to “disturb” other parts of the exhibition. The concept of what role was played by every part in the exhibition cannot be questioned, and finally there is a curatorship, so the #occupyBiennale had it’s cage, and when it was found that it didn’t accomplish the needs of all the “occupiers” a “battle” for space started that could only be solved by having people leave.
An inclusive space could not be made, not just for this, but also for the lack of political views and aims of the people most involved, for the incapacity of setting up discussions about conflicts, but also solutions, experiences, a “lecture” based space, where no collective intelligence could be felt. There is a lot to be learned about collective processes, when the people are in the squares, where a high percentage of the population is involved, it means a deep social change. In the end this means changing social rules, it means changing our own positions, even when we may think they are the best and obviously so, it opens a space for questioning the unquestionable, but those kind of changes we never know when or why they happen, they are spontaneous and unpredictable.
Meanwhile we should be able to remember that we are not playing games, nor playing assemblies, nor squares, people are suffering. The causes are many, injustices due to social welfare being destroyed and they will get worse and affect even to “rich” countries, people is dying daily fighting for freedom and food. Activism is not a goal, something to be done in our spare time, the goal is to change and disrupt the logic of the system, to build a new world, not to carry out a process with no goal. A global movement is taking place outside, many countries are really searching for alternatives and for the first time in History knowledge is more distributed, there are tools to put it in common, technologies to facilitate information, communication and decision-making, and they can be on our side if we defend them, so while the old system is collapsing, we have the opportunity to build a global change and a better world for everyone. Shall we do it?
To forget fear we have to feel free and this did not happen in the #OccupyBiennale.