5th Thessaloniki Biennial

 

Between the Pessimism of the Intellect and the Optimism of the Will
 

23.06. — 30.09.15

Participating artists: Carlos Aires (ES), Can Altay & Jeremiah Day (TR/US), Ivan Argote (CO), Marwa Arsanios (US), Bertille Bak (FR), Taysir Batniji (PS), James Beckett (ZA/NL), Adelita Husni Bey (IT), David Brognon & Stéphanie Rollin (BE/LU), Depression Era (GR), Ninar Esber (LB), Mounir Fatmi (MA), Peter Friedl (AT), Mekhitar Garabedian (SY/BE), Ganzeer (EG), Marina Gioti (GR), Piero Gilardi (IT), Hamza Halloubi (MA), Nick Hannes (BE), Sven Johne (DE), Annika Kahrs (DE), Eleni Kamma (GR), Hayv Kahraman (IQ), Mikhail Karikis (GR), Chrysanthi Koumianaki (GR), Erik Van Lieshout (NL), Thomas Locher (DE), Angela Melitopoulos & Angela Anderson (DE/US), Tom Molloy (IE), Nikos Navridis (GR), Qiu Zhijie (CN), Pavel Pepperstein (RU), Antonis Pittas (GR), Theo Prodromidis (GR), Meriç Algün Ringborg (TR), Anila Rubiku (AL), Marinella Senatore (IT), Nedko Solakov (BG), Nikos Tranos (GR), Thomas Weinberger (DE), Olav Westphalen (DE)

The title of the 5th Thessaloniki Biennial was inspired by an aphorism invoked by the philosopher, political theorist and writer Antonio Gramsci in The Prison Notebooks (Quaderni del carcere) that he wrote between 1929 and 1935 while he was imprisoned by the fascist regime in Italy. In these voluminous writings, which he composed during his eleven years of incarceration Gramsci writes, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned … I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” This latter phrase constitutes a point of departure to talk about the current situation of multiple crises unfolding in many areas of the Mediterranean, which will once again be the point of departure for the biennial.

 

As a diverse blend and composite of cultures, religions, ethnicities, languages, traditions and norms –and the crossroads of three principal religions and continents – it becomes very difficult to define the Mediterranean area, except in geographic terms. Indeed there is much debate on whether we can even speak of a Mediterranean identity, culture or even region; and equally, it is impossible to treat the countries of the area as an undifferentiated group, nor arrive a singular definition of what constitutes ‘The Mediterranean’. It is as much a real as an imagined space, whose perception has been determined and coloured by idyllic as well as negative stereotypes and misperceptions. But what many of the twenty-six countries seem to face today are a series of serious ongoing crises (whether social, economic, political, environmental) as well as several zones of armed conflict. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to call the Mediterranean a crisis zone of sorts. Greece, Spain, and Italy have suffered economic crises, Turkey seems to be in perpetual political crisis, while a large part of the Southern shores of the Mediterranean simmer with political and social unrest as democracy is challenged; finally, the Eastern shores remain mired either in armed conflict or decades long unresolved political, religious and territorial disputes.

 

So while the Mediterranean cannot be defined in terms of a common identity, it does constitute a hotbed for some of the more burning issues of the moment including social and economic equality, democracy, civil rights, migration and mobility, issues which create a fine tension between order and disorder. Many countries of the Mediterranean, in fact, face prolonged or unresolved crises. Gramsci himself defined crisis as precisely that situation where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” and added that, “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Given the failure of both politics and the political imagination, what remains in many parts of the Mediterranean world is an anticipation of alternatives and the hope for a better world.

 

Gramsci’ quote is particularly relevant today, not only as concerns the Mediterranean, because it well describes the current situation of impasse in many parts of the world, where citizens are told ‘there is no alternative’. It is in the vacuum or grey zone of this anticipation that we find ourselves in today, fuelled by desire but bogged down by reality but also realpolitik. It rests with artists, cultural practitioners and grassroots activists to exercise the creative and radical imagination, in order to critically dissect what is happening right now (thus engaging the pessimism of the intellect) as well as to envisage or allude to another way of being (by harnessing the optimism of the will). It is precisely the imagination that fuels this optimism of the will that appears lacking today in much of the politics and policies that govern Europe, the Mediterranean and much of the world today. The exhibition took Gramsci’s ideas as a point of departure to reflect on the current situation of being in between two situations – one that is conceptual, the other which is very much tied to the problematic ‘real’.

 

‘Pessimism of the intellect’ might mean looking at the world as it is with all its flaws; the pessimistic intellect entails putting things under scrutiny and into doubt. It views the world critically, puts things and givens into question, which is the basis for any advancement. In a sense the pessimism of the intellect is pragmatic, but not necessarily cynical. ‘Optimism of the will’, on the other hand does not necessarily denote a naïve view of the world but rather evokes the imagination, vision and mental strength necessary to bypass adversity, something that most humans inherently possess, and have also harnessed since time immemorial to get through times of hardship and move forward.

 

In light of the general fatalism and apathy that governs many aspects of politics, economics, and public life today, Gramsci’s phrase seems as relevant as it was when first written. It is the optimism of the will that when implemented finally sparks change and can sow the seeds for a better future. What we seem to miss now, more than ever, is the optimistic will put into action. The latter perhaps provides a key counterpoint to the situation of hopelessness today, which as David Graber correctly pointed out in his book, Revolutions in Reverse: is not a natural state of affairs: “Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced. If we want to understand this situation, we need have to begin by understanding that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures [….] this apparatus exists to shred and pulverize the human imagination, to destroy the possibility of envisaging alternative futures”.  Art is one of the ways that this sense of inevitability of hopelessness can be challenged by opening up critical ways of looking at the world not only as it is, but as it could be. Art and creativity in general are thus key sources not only of criticality, but also of optimism, providing a window that transcends the lack of political imagination, the violence of capitalism and the leveling, and homogenising practices of corporatism and administrative bureaucracies. The artists in 5th Thessaloniki biennial, in one way or another, harnessed critical, oppositional cultural practices, exercising the freedom of the imagination and symbolically engaging with Gramsci’s aphorism.

The 5th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art is the third one of a three part program which started in 2011 and is funded under the Operational Program Macedonia-Thrace 2007-2013, co-financed by the European Union (European Regional Development Fund) and Greece. The organization is run by the State Museum of Contemporary Art, realized with the participation of the “5 Museums’ Movement of Thessaloniki” (Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki., Museum of Byzantine Culture, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Teloglion Foundation of Arts), supported by the Municipality of Thessaloniki and with the collaboration of many local institutions.

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