It appears that our time is emblematised and equally traumatised by the collapse of distance. And with this collapse, difference becomes visible...Here we enter the zone of intense proximity, a form of disturbing nearness that unsettles as much as it exhilarates, and transforms as much as it disquiets the coordinates of national cultural vectors.
The collapse of distance and the disturbing and exhilarating nearness described by curator Okwui Enwezor in the catalogue to the Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far exhibition in Paris in 2012 led to an anthropological turn in the contemporary art world. In the mid-1990s Hal Foster acknowledged this new turn in the artistic milieu and suggested that a new paradigm structurally similar to Walter Benjamin's "author as producer" model emerged: “the artist as ethnographer”. In this new paradigm the object of conflict remains in large part identical: the “bourgeois-capitalist” institutions of art (the museum, the academy, the market, and the media) and its exclusionary definitions. But more recently Foster argues that the subject of identification and association has changed. This subject is now externalised from the geographical and cultural setting of the artist. It is now the cultural Other in whose name the committed artists struggle. Mirroring this observation, curators too responded to this anthropological turn by looking to other cultures for their research focus. In the case of the Ghetto Biennale the subjects of identification and curation are the inhabitants of a poor local neighborhood in the epicentre of downtown Port-au-Prince in Haiti, and mainly the artist collective called Atis Rezistans, who live in this neighborhood which is often described as a slum.
The 3rd Ghetto Biennale was co-curated by Leah Gordon, André Eugène, Jean Hérald Celeur and myself. We invited more than fifty artists from Sweden, Trinidad, North America, Belgium, Japan, Britain, Italy and Brazil to visit and engage with the artist community Atis Rezistans and to create new art works in their neighborhood responding to the theme Decentering the Market and Other Tales of Progress. This theme foregrounds one of the major contradictions of the biennial spectacle: while many visiting artists come from “neo-Marxist” perspectives and try to escape the commercialised gallery world of the centre, many Haitian artists are keen to plug into the commercial networks for global art consumption and try to sell their sculptures to the visiting artists. In bringing artists from extremely different socio-economic strata together, this is surely not the only contradiction provoked by this exhibition project. The conflicts of the Ghetto Biennale revolve around the discursive fields of gender, race, class and sexuality. But are these biting conflicts reason enough to neglect this artistic experiment all together? Is it more politically correct or more ethical to eschew a slum neighborhood rather than to sit down and talk to its residents and hazard the consequences? The Ghetto Biennale creates a space where visiting and local artists find themselves literally embodying structural positions of marginality and centrality, as they become personally involved in re-configuring difference, sameness and inequality in their individual interactions with one another. But in so doing, the Ghetto Biennale runs the risk of turning into yet another form of contemporary slum tourism, similar to that which can be experienced in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro or the townships in Cape Town. In this sense it would rely on converting difference, poverty and insecurity into pleasure and consumable adventure for artists who want to escape the boredom of the toothless and institutionalised art world of the centre for a week or two.
The strongest and most successful achievement of the Ghetto Biennale is the creation of a platform that leaves room to witness “subaltern” forms of autonomous curating as seen in Gétho Jean Baptiste’s exhibition space Royaumes des Ordures Vivantes or André Eugène’s Musée d’Art E Pluribus Unum. The Haitian artists curate their own exhibition spaces and retain their right to self-determination. These exhibition spaces seem overcrowded and lack the curatorial control to which a 'high art’ consumer is accustomed. While this may feel at times unsettling for Western curators, I highly appreciate this polyphonic openness and curatorial opaqueness. If we curators of the Ghetto Biennale believe our own rhetoric of abolishing the barriers between "high art" and "outsider art" with this biennale modality then it is highly necessary for us to step down even further and leave the field open for the "non-professional" curators of the neighborhood. German-Nigerian artist Emeka Udemba planned to implant a white cube gallery into the Gran Rue neighborhood. Unfortunately his proposal White White Cube could not be realised because of funding difficulties. But his idea raises important issues of cultural commodification and assimilation. Are we only able to appreciate the aesthetic systems of other cultures through commodifying them according to our own institutionalised systems of art presentation?
On the day of the opening the visitors of the 3rd Ghetto Biennale could see side by side in the neighborhood the local artist’s ateliers with art works and performances installed and performed by visiting artists: A subtle but concise wall sculpture by Emilie Boone drawing much needed attention to the often overlooked artisans of the area could be found on a wall, there was a colorful knitted net by Diedrick Brackens, Tom Bogaert’s newly designed etiquettes for prestige beer bottles which discuss national Haitian identity were installed at Papa Da’s exhibition space and the personal and moving performance-piece Love.Think.Haiti by Kantara Souffrant in collaboration with the Haitian student Lucienne Louis could be witnessed at André Eugène’s Musée d’Art.
The biggest weakness of this year’s biennale was the short time-frame in which many visiting artist came to Port-au-Prince. This was criticised by many members of Atis Rezistans and I agree with their opinion. It should be obligatory for participating artists to stay at least one month because otherwise this whole endeavor is inclined to become a quick slum vacation into the triste tropiques where visiting artists are parachuted in and out without truly engaging or collaborating with the local artist community and other inhabitants of the neighborhood. But the Ghetto Biennale nonetheless succeeded in diminishing clichéd images of the urban poor and provided an opportunity for more nuanced and self-determined representations for artists of a local neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. It is a case of “globalisation from below” that creates a Talmudic space for debate and conflict. Only by travelling to this particular neighborhood and experiencing a disturbing and exhilarating nearness are artists able to engage with the community and in the best cases able to deconstruct and transcend clichéd images of a “ghetto”. The biennale is a short rupture of a social norm. But the daily struggles of the majority of these families and inhabitants will go on afterwards. Longstanding hierarchical power relations and inequalities cannot simply be diminished by an art event but that should not prohibit us from communicating with the urban poor, nor from engaging with their visual practices and specific forms of curatorial self-determination. The collapse of distance described by Okwui Enwezor could be felt painfully, disturbingly but also exhilaratingly in the interaction between artists from extremely different socio-economic milieus during the time of the Ghetto Biennale. I have never experienced such a comparable nearness while visiting an art exhibition or pavilion in the institutionalised global network of biennials in Venice, Havana, São Paulo or Kassel. Maybe it is time to reassess the position of biennial curators altogether and to leave the field open for ‘non-professional’ or ‘outsider’ curators and different forms of ‘indigenous curating’ of local neighborhoods around the world, so that finally different counter-curatorial and opaque strategies of art presentation can challenge, transform and revitalise the allegedly “transnational global form” of the biennial.