Ural Biennial 2017: Literacy for the New Age
The 4th Ural Industrial Biennial spans the vast expanse of the Sverdlovsk Oblast in Russia, geographically located in the no-man’s land between Europe and Asia, a region whose administrative centre is the city of Ekaterinburg. For its fourth edition, titled “New Literacy”, the biennial focuses on the “social, economic and cultural changes of the coming future”. Curator João Ribas talked to Spike editor Robert Schulte about programming a biennial in a challenging political and geographical setting; the interplay of society, technology and culture; and ideas of literacy old and new.
Robert Schulte: The biennial is taking place in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia, which is dominated by factories and mining operations. Do you think the residents here can relate to the main topic of the fourth industrial revolution?
João Ribas: The identity of the biennial itself relates to the region – it takes place in industrial spaces rather than the conventional, replicated white cube of most biennials and museums; its identity is informed by the technological, social and political implications of these spaces and their social history, of mining, technology, and mass industrialization, both past and present. In the case of the 4th edition, the manufacturing plant that we have occupied for the main part of the biennial plays an important role: it used to be a secret facility for producing sensitive aviation instruments. The kinds of technology, knowledge, surveillance, and vision evoked by this are explored, prismatically and directly, throughout the exhibition, in relation to the interfaces, languages, and speeds of what we are calling the fourth industrial revolution. If the first was of steam, the second of electrification and machinery, and the third of information, the fourth is of convergence, where bits collapse into atoms, the genome combines with data, molecular with algorithmic, on an industrial scale. This revolution is transforming the relation between physical, material, and ecological worlds, and, once again, like the previous ones, proposing new ways of organising space, time and movement.
Can you explain how all this will come across in the exhibition?
The exhibition engages the new forms of literacy implied in these transformations, in terms of the images, languages, and gestures – that is, how we move, what images witness rather than just represent, and how language adapts, from emojis to SMS. The industrial venue itself is a major element of the dramaturgy in this regard, a kind of residual element of the last stages of industrialization against which this new revolution is set. We've preserved the stopped clocks in the building, for example – all showing different hours of the day – which creates a kind of time-travel effect through the various floors of the exhibition. It´s in this former industrial space that you encounter a variety of artistic practices reflected in this transformation, from the greenhouse heated by mining cryptocurrency – an entire ecosystem, created for the biennial by Urban Fauna Laboratory; or the laboratory for producing artificial life by the Moscow-based art group 18 Apples, or the sharp contrast of the pristine contemporary conference room of Pilvi Takala's The Trainee, set against the histories of industrial labour.
"This revolution is transforming the relation between physical, material, and ecological worlds, and proposing novel ways of organising space, time and movement."
While reflecting on the legacy of industrialization through a variety of media, from Pavel Otdelnov's paintings of ruined factories in the region or Alexandra Paperno's comissioned installation On the Sleeping Arrangements in the Sixth Five-Year Plan (2015), the exhibition also tracks the changing ways we work, live, dream and play. One of the very first artworks you see in the exhibition is the Lumière brothers’ film of workers leaving the factory – as they exit, we now enter the factory under a new order of capital. The exhibition follows this change in terms of how the body, and in particular the hand, becomes central to the choreography of daily life as a result. The hand in Yvonne Rainer's Hand Movie is a pre-interface hand, from which the language of “touch” is just barely emerging. Now nearly everyone is fluent in this new language, this new dance. In Pedro Neves Marques'The Pudic Relation, a robotic hand makes contact with a plant that closes on being touched, in an ecology of nature and technology convergence.
Could you describe the region you encountered for us a little bit?
I found it an immensely creative region in transition, with lots of energy and a strong sense of identity – between Europe and Asia, and also marked by being the industrial heartland of the country. The city has undergone several real and symbolic transformations: its name changed twice, first following the October Revolution, and then again after the fall of the Soviet Union; it really only opened to foreigners in the early 1990s, has a fantastic density of Constructivist architecture and a rich history as a city of rock music and street art that can still be felt among its engaged creative community today. Part of the theme that structures the show relates back to this history, as representative of another major social and technological change, with corresponding effects on language, space, time and movement. With the October Revolution, of which this year is the centenary, the calendar changed; the typology of homes changed (Constructivist houses didn't have kitchens, which oppressed women; meals were to be taken in communal cafeterias instead); the names of places changed – this historical horizon is important for the understanding our current condition. The commissioned photographic installation by Kirill Preobrazhenskiy looks at Moscow metro stations that still retain their Soviet names; Antonina Baever´sTransatlantcuxa announces the presence of new languages. I think where contemporary art is of particular importance is in how it can employ forms of imagination and open spaces for novel forms of thinking, making and action, as well as for the specific cultural character of the region. “Made in the Urals” means something very distinct – I’ve come to really appreciate that.
The Sverdlovsk Oblast spans an area of almost two hundred thousand square kilometres, with lots of unused space. Tell me something about curating and organising a coherent program across such a vast disintegrated area.
The biennial has an ongoing program of reaching out throughout the region and organizing hundreds of exhibitions, architectural tours, encounters and events in Ekaterinburg and across the Urals, decentralizing the notion of cultural production. It puts artists in residence in factories, organizes excursions to architectural and industrial sites throughout the region, and brings artists from the region to Ekaterinburg, while also reflecting on the contemporary in a global sense.
“Image as Witness” is one of the biennial’s three sub-themes, along with “Choreographies of Capital” and “The Persistence of the Word”. How much do you need the images of the exhibition to succeed? Most people will look at many of the works through visual interfaces.
That is inherent to the idea of the image as witness. We walk around with hundreds of images in our pockets, and have nearly instant access to a massive online archive of tens of millions of images. These have become witnesses to the personal and global events of contemporary life, from our social-media posts and stream of news images that mediate world events, to the dashcam recordings that have become viral videos in Russia, or images that begin to function as evidence, such as body-cams on police offers. Instances of crimes or violence in which a bystander or attacker records the act are now more prevalent than ever. In fact, the immensity of this archive provides a massive data set that can be made into evidence – either for tagging or controlling the movement of people, or mobilized as a tool for juridical or ethical action. Somehow we reconcile a distrust of images – as easily altered or manipulated – with granting them increasing legal, ethical, political and emotive power. Maybe images are now a kind of virus that we replicate by sharing and liking. When we distance ourselves through an image, or where an image sees more than we do, it suggests they witness the present for us, seeing beyond human vision and beginning to function as agents and actors. At any rate, they witness our subjective, emotive life as well as iconoclastic acts against their possible truth-function. Several artists in the exhibition, among them Susan Schuppli, Harun Farocki, Forensic Architecture, and Moises Saman, address this directly.
"Somehow we reconcile a distrust of images – as easily altered or manipulated – with granting them increasing legal, ethical, political and emotive power"
The biennial aims at a “New Literacy” for “understanding the speeds, languages, and interfaces of this transformation.” Some people would argue that we can never attain this kind literacy – that digital technology works with precognitive signs that are structure us deeply even as and they remain undecipherable for us. Can art really help?
Those “pre-cognitive” signs are the point. This is a form of new literacy, and I think we have attained it in some extent: most people who use smartphones or touchscreens have never read a manual. It is already evident in the new visual and gestural languages we’ve now learned almost without noticing. The swipes and flicks of touchscreens that almost everyone performs today are part of a new choreography of everyday life. If Charlie Chaplin was the great dancer of the industrial age, we are dancers of a new choreography that has reordered our movements at work and at play. Those same gestures are codified as intellectual property, as Julien Prévieux addresses in his fantastic work in the biennial, as a dance constructed out of the physical catalogue of touchscreen and interface gestures. The nature of work, and the movement of the body in relation to capital, always defines such a choreography, both personal and social – deeply structuring, as you say.
Art can help us to understand, maybe unlearn, maybe reshift this new choreography and these effects, which range from our daily unconscious gestures to the migration of refugees. We become most aware of the literacy implied in these transformations when there is friction: when the digital hits the friction of the physical world and the human body, or when migration flows hit the friction of the sovereign state, etc.
"If Charlie Chaplin was the great dancer of the industrial age, we are dancers of a new choreography that has reordered our movements at work and at play"
But this undecipherability also depends on what kind of literacy you are talking about. Our gestural or visual literacy is nearly unconscious – though it has a genealogy. But there is also the opacity of the algorithm, for instance, which works without most people being aware of how it functions. Here I think there is a mythical parallel. The Google search box is like the contemporary oracle at Delphi. In Ancient Greece one would travel to Delphi to ask a question of the oracle – a hole in the ground above which a prophetic female seer mediated the response. In the search box, the algorithm functions to the same effect.
Yet, on the other hand, despite the importance of images and visual interfaces to today’s networked world, text and reading remain a principal means of producing and consuming information. We create new grammars through transformations in technological relations of production – so there is a parallel between Soviet typography, emojis, and the isostype pictorial language Otto Neurath attempted to employ to describe Russian industrialization in the 1930s.
"We create new grammars through transformations in technological relations of production"
If you had to choose a favourite work in this biennial – and you now have to – what is it? Where is it to be found?
I am rather fond of the films of Alexander Medvekine (1900–1989) at the moment – he created a “cine-train” that would go from town to town making direct cinema with working people and peasants during the first Five-Year Plan. He also lived and made films in Ekaterinburg in the mid-40s, and his work would go on to inspire Chris Marker to form the Groupe Medvekine in France in the late 60s. We are showing Medvekine's own films and those by the Groupe side by side.
You’re programming a biennial located on the edge, both geographically as seen from Europe as well as in terms of the art world’s attention. What does that mean for a curator in terms of artistic freedom?
The art world’s distributed attention – an opacity where a light is shone here or there depending on a variety of economic and social factors – needs to be continuously challenged. I was very interested in this notion of this edge or border – a place where so many histories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries intersect, but somehow exist in an imaginary which is distanced, displaced, out there – the edge of Siberia is how some people describe it. I live on one edge of Europe (in Portugal), and this other edge relates to many of the issues I was interested in exploring thematically, in terms of industrialization, technology, literacy, and revolution (especially with this year being the centenary of the Russian Revolution). The rich context of contemporary Russian and Ural art greatly contributed to this – the reason there are so many artists from Russia and region side by side with artists like Thomas Hirschhorn or Jenny Holzer, is because their work was just so relevant.
What about political freedom?
The relation between artistic and political freedom in Russia is certainly intertwined, and the former often politicized, but there are a lot of misconceptions. For one, there are instances of this all around us, these contemporary forms of iconoclasm, restriction, or closing-off of artistic or political freedom, even in supposedly liberal parts of Europe. We have work in the biennial that would be polemical in these other contexts; but the exhibition also pushes against some of the frictions – of gender for instance, or of movement and expression – that the context itself demands, and that reflect what is an engaged community that is among the most active, progressive, and committed. What is important is to maintain a space, and a public space, where these questions can be raised while allowing for dialogue, which is largely what an exhibition is to me: creating a relation between things, gestures, and people, in space.
"The relation between artistic and political freedom in Russia is certainly intertwined, but there a lot of misconceptions"
I am also in a profession whose personal ethics, for me, are about taking care of the public life of the imagination, which always needs to be defended and opened to new voices, new identities. Part of the fourth industrial revolution is in fact the production of new languages to represent or describe new identities – we are in the midst of an amazing production of novel languages, and the biennial has tried to be responsive. There are works in the exhibition that insist on the relation between political and artistic freedom, but they are not a provocation. I’ve tried to create the conditions for such a space while trying to understand, in my way, as an outsider, the current cultural and political conditions in which this is operating. In the midst of this, I hope what I have been able to do is to create the conditions that allow artists to take us where we need to go, for art as well as for politics.
JOÃO RIBAS is Deputy Director and Senior Curator of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art and curator of this year's Ural Industrial Biennale.
ROBERT SCHULTE is an editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.