Contemporary Research Intensive was a workshop organised in the context of the 57th Venice Biennale to investigate the concept of “contemporaneity.” Gathering together artists/curators/researchers, we questioned how to approach the different (social, financial, cultural...) temporalities co-existing in our historical present in the context of contemporary art research, and particularly through practices involving the exhibition-form.
The book—the tenth volume of the Contemporary Condition Series— combines the outcomes of these discussions with the collective effort to think of the publication process as a temporal form.
Biennials, triennials, documentas… and contemporary art’s politics of presentation
To correctly pose the question of how biennials, triennials and documentas relate to the production and presentation of contemporary art a primary temporal remark is needed. The history of periodical and international large-scale exhibitions can be traced back to the late 19th century. Nevertheless, it is in the cultural and geopolitical aftermaths of the fall of the Berlin Wall (followed by the virulent expansion of the Internet) that we can recognize the lowest common denominator of the phenomenon of the international large-scale exhibition as we experience it today.
Therefore, to grasp the artistic and political breadth of contemporary biennials, triennials and documentas we need to address their character and function in the context of the dismantling of the three worlds order after 1989 and of the radical capitalist revolution that followed the dissolution of historical communism. This remark is important because, following the loss of a communist horizon of revolution – of the horizon of social revolution itself – “a critique of the dialectics of social exchange in capitalist culture should be at the heart of any critical theory or practice of contemporary art […].” Targeting the relation of the periodical large-scale exhibition-form to such critique is pivotal to decipher the incongruences grounding most of the contrasting views on the historical and political potential to recognize to biennials, triennials and documentas after 1989.
Moving from this debate I will try to ground my argument that although international large-scale exhibitions are the privileged form for the presentation of the coming together of the different times and social spaces of the Contemporary in art, the relation of contemporary post-conceptual art to the critique of the dialectics of social exchange in capitalist culture cannot be reduced to such occasions. Arguably, in fact, art’s intellectual freedom stays in the very indeterminacy of it forms and politics of presentation. I am not here simply remarking once again the friction between artists’ and curators’ authorships in the programmatic contexts of large-scale periodical exhibitions. Rather, I am here stressing the importance of distinguishing the critical potential of contemporary art (practice) from its thematic and chronological compartmentalization in the context of the biennale-form. In other words, contemporary art does not coincide neither with the art presented in the last biennale, nor with that being selected for the upcoming ones.
Much recent critical discussion on the nature of international large-scale exhibitions orbits around two opposed, but inherently connected, poles. On the one hand, biennials, triennials and documentas are approached genealogically, confronting the transformations of individual biennials along history, analysing the social impact on their discrete geopolitical environments and their importance for a global, post-colonial, history of contemporary art and curating. The different strands of this approach share the idea that “curating the history of the present may contribute to this endeavour to move beyond the global capitalist status quo and the neo-fascist perversions it engenders.” There is here the recognition of a transversal philosophical, social and political potential to the biennale-form. On the other hand, a loose variety of left wing approaches condemn the international large-scale exhibition-form – not differently from art fairs – as another symbol of the high capitalist process of total commodification of art.
Of course, a genealogical approach to the international large-scale exhibitions is indispensable to investigate its impact on our ways of perceiving and historicizing art today. Exactly by virtue of this, however, international large-scale exhibitions reveal to be formering machines. They are functions of the historical time of the Contemporary. A time that reproduces itself independent from narratives rooted in the past and ideals of futural progression. Embodying the very historical and temporal contradictions of the Contemporary, biennials, triennials and documentas become the space to display the future as a present past rather than projecting any futurity on the contemporary present. The history of the present as curated in this context, therefore, produces a fundamentally historicist, chronological, partitioning of time. There is no movement beyond the global capitalist status quo. The periodical, international, large-scale exhibition-format cannot transfigure into a political form of historical change. Rather, negatively, biennials, triennials and documentas come to present – and represent – all that historical and political change is not. They are direct expressions of the specific material and social relations of global capitalism, of “capital’s capacity to cross borders” and to appropriate cultures. This is why the periodical international exhibition form can never fully embody a critique of the dialectics of social exchange of capitalist culture. The biennale has not developed in order to question and overcome its own conditions of material and financial possibility.
It may not be a case that the temporal frame within which we are moving, also corresponds to the space-time where the art historical social turn and the critical discourse of relational aesthetics were conceived. Both these ideas, in fact, ground on the understanding of art after institutional critique as the space for the production of a specific kind of sociability, where artworks configure “ways of living and models of action within the existing real […].” “Art is conceived as an immediate form of non capitalist life”, as a critique of the social relations of commodification. Not differently, international large-scale exhibitions increasingly tend towards the creation of supposedly socially inclusive, multicultural and counter-hegemonic spaces of political and critical experimentation. The displacement of curated venues around different geographical locations – think of the ‘platforms’ of Documenta 11 and to the Kassel/Athens dichotomy of Documenta 14 – is an important example here. This critical terrain also highlights an interesting point of contact between the two opposed perspectives on international large-scale exhibitions outlined above.
The transnational exhibition-form compensated the modern decline of the binding power of mediums, forms and genres via new mediating social functions; and constituted itself as the fundamental unit of artistic significance for the “speculative collectivities” of our postcolonial globality. Nevertheless, by mirroring the virtual interconnectedness of the globalized financial market, the forms of social exchange performed in today’s international large-scale exhibitions can never be really subtracted from the dominant social relations of capitalist exchange. Thematic and curatorial innovativeness, strategic geopolitical locations and increasingly complex spaces for critical confrontation are, logically, insufficient strategies to bypass this limit.
This provides us with the very frames underlying the second order of (loosely leftist) approaches. International periodical exhibitions are here considered radical expressions of the ethical and political contradictions of today’s capitalist art industry. They are susceptible to the fluctuations of the market not less than explicitly commercial art institutions such as galleries and art fairs. Their apparent transnational social inclusiveness is another embodiment of financial processes of political and cultural homogenisation. However empirically aware, such a perspective on the phenomenon bears its own set of contradictions.
In particular, the second order of critiques of the biennale-form often seems to neglect that all conceptions and realizations of autonomous spaces for and of art – either social, revolutionary or institutional – necessarily belong to the history of art’s liberation from the heteronomous determinations of Church and feudal patronage by early capitalist commodification processes. This is why a consistent critique of the dialectics of social exchange in capitalist culture – the struggle against the alienation of social relations – is so important for contemporary art. Under this perspective, the biennale-form is not comparable to modern institutions such as the museum and the gallery. Rather than configuring another threshold for the art/non-art distinction, biennials engage with contemporary post-conceptual art’s inner dialectics between autonomy and heteronomy.
Therefore, international large-scale exhibitions are today an unique stage of contemporary art’s confrontation with the changed, global, conditions where its struggle against the subjection to the commodity-form takes place. This makes the international large-scale exhibition-form an extremely aware and self-critical institutional platform. But does the international large-scale exhibition exhaust the formal possibilities for art’s critique of capitalist forms of social alienation?
My answer is no. It does not. It can not.
I have already argued that biennials, triennials and documentas embody a historicist form of curating the present. The very organizational structure of all periodical large-scale exhibitions responds to the need of crystalizing existing discourses into specific ideological frames, themselves hetero-determined by the market economy of the art industry. The radical thematic differences between the last and the present editions of the Venice Biennale is an example. Finding a curator committed to emphasize “the important role artists play in inventing their own universes” after Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 focus on the post-colonial politics of globalization was the admitted task of the Biennale’s Director.
This sheds a light on a fundamental issue. The nature of the conflict between artists and curators in the context of international exhibitions is not reducible neither to a simple matter of contrasting authorships nor to the frictions between individual artworks in the context of a selected, thematised, display. These are not independently curated events. Periodical large-scale exhibitions are managed and directed. They are companies normally operating in the capitalist market and responding to fixed budgets and to related needs for brand and subject diversification. Such hetero-determination reveals the inherent impossibility for biennials, triennials and documentas to move anywhere beyond the global capitalist horizons.
Two orders of considerations necessarily follow. On the one hand, the idea that the international large-scale exhibition-form configures a critical space able to unlock innovative forms of democratic, political, experimentation reveals to be strongly rhetorical. It is naïve to think of the transnational spaces of the art industry as the locus for a structural rethinking of established social and political relations. The speculative collectivities of biennials and triennials will hardly transform into bearers of common political interests. On the other hand, the critical potential of contemporary, transnational, artistic discourses cannot be limited to the market-determined ideological frames of international large-scale exhibitions.
We are now back to the argument that critical contemporary art cannot be equated neither to the art presented in the last biennale, nor to that selected for upcoming ones. I am not here attributing a discrete political potential to the art falling outside of institutionalized exhibition-forms. This would configure a straightforwardly heteronomous critique of art’s relation to the established forms of capitalist exchange not too different from that embodied by Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. Of course, the radically distributive unity of contemporary post-conceptual art is itself subjected to structural institutional pressures, practical exhibiting opportunities and individual artistic choices. Nevertheless, there is reason to think that at the very front of contemporary art’s “immanent self-critique” – of art’s struggle against commodification – stays the need for a constant, systematic, problematization and transformation of art’s own multifaceted forms of publicity and presentation.  The format of the international large-scale exhibition cannot be an exception.
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 Stewart Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” Third Text, 21:4 (2007): 386.
 Nanne Buurman and Dorothee Richter, “documenta: Curating the History of the Present,” On Curating, the documenta issue, 33 (2017): 7.
 “For Koselleck, who designated the distinctively modern in terms of historical time, “experience is present past, whose
events have been incorporated and can be remembered.” Similarly, expectation also occurs in the today and signals the
“future made present”.” See Harry Harootunian, “Remembering the Historical Present,” Critical Inquiry, 33 (2007): 471–
494. See also Reinhart Koselleck, Future Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time , 255–276.
 Peter Osborne, Anywhere and not at all (London: Verso, 2013), 165.
 “Documenta 11 is proposed as the détournement of the spectacular visibility of Documenta, in order to pursue a destructive critique of Documenta. But this is par for the course of contemporary exhibiting. Otherwise, let’s face it, Documenta wouldn’t have let it happen.” Stewart Martin, “A new world art?,” Radical Philosophy, 122 (2003): 19.
 Stewart Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” 379.
 Peter Osborne defines as “speculative collectivities” the transnational collectivities imaginable via “the new technological and geo-economic forms that are affecting a radical re-spatialization of social relations.” Osborne, Anywhere and not at all, 195.
 Ibid., 28 and 167.
 Jane Morris, “Venice Biennale director Christine Macel promises an artist-centered exhibition,” The Art Newspaper, September 23, 2016.
 Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” 371.
 Osborne, Anywhere and not at all, 161.
 “[…] art’s resistance to commodification is obliged to take the form of an immanent critique or self-criticism. This suggests that the self-critical constitution of modern art is due to its commodity-form, and that this is misrecognised by various formalist narratives.” Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” 373.