Digital Venice

54th Venise Biennale opening took place in the beginning of June and was entitled Illuminazioni (Illuminations). This event, happening since 1895, was historically a contest between artists presented by their nations in “pavillions” built in the Giardini, a park in the town.

And the Venise Biennale used to be indeed a national pavillion thing. It's understandable as the first Biennale started in an historic period when the concept of nation was not questionned the way it is today. This national and pavillion issue is not as important as it used to be. Two examples of the fact that even inside the Giardini things are changing a bit : the Polish pavillion showed work by an Israelian artist, and the artits in the American pavillion are Portoricans.

In 1999, Harald Szeemann accepted to curate the 48th biennale at the express condition that it could open it, dAPERtutto as the title put it – and be head of it two times in a row too. It was also an answer to the cut of comtenporary art in the Aperto manifestation that Jean Clair had stopped just before. The exhibitions at the Arsenale started and since then it became more and more important and large. At the same time, countries which had no pavillion in the Giardini started their own in other parts of the town and now the new national pavillions are everywhere in town. Once thirty one countries were there, they are now eighty seven, the lasted having joined are South Africa, Cuba and India.

There are also “Collateral Events” which are officially in the Biennale show and list but with no direct financial participation. And also wild exhibitions and performances all over the town. Then Venise Biennale has become more and more widely speculative and experimental but if we talk about the Digital Art presence, I would be much more pessimistic. The gap between Contemporary Art and Media Art is still very deep, in Venise as well, or even more. Nevertheless some examples taken in the different possible ways to exhibit or perform allow us to think that something is happening there too.
Among the pavillions showing Digital Art, two were to remind of. First one is Hans Hoogerbrugge in the Danish pavillion where he showed a video as part of a collective show. He is an artist, illustrator and animator with various medias, and a pioneer of Internet art with animations regularly posted on the net. The monochrome animated drawings features a man talking about philosophical, political and existential issues a view of life at the dawn of the twenty-first century, dealing with timeless issues such as ageing, fear, sex, death, religion, and alienation, in a deliberatly low techonology. The work he presents in Venice is one of them, the portrait of a man wearing a characteristic black suit and tie uniform, a sort of electronic alter-ego of the artist. The new work made on purpose for the Danish space entitled Quatrosopus, presents a four headed man offering diverse points of view and dilemnas about freedom of speech. The statements are quotes from Ezra Pound, Charles Dickens or Les Brown, mixed with a guitar riff from Neil’s Young Rockin’ in the Free World. The result is striking even in an extract has you have it here. >

The second one is Ahmed Basiouny in the Egyptian pavillion. This new media artist and professor worked in Cairo, where he died in the night of January the 28th, 2011, in Tahrir Square when he was demonstrating for freedom among millions of others. During four days he had filmed all he could in downtown Cairo and in the square, with his digital and phone cameras, showing it in real-time, becoming both a contemporary witness and an actor in revolution.  The exhibition shows wide screens with Basiouny performing in a gallery with Internet links and the  images he took before his death in a police assault. In the hall, written in large letters, the last message Basiouny posted on Facebook : I have a lot of hope if we stay like this. Riot police beat me a lot. Nevertheless I will go down again tomorrow. If they want war, we want peace. I am just trying to regain some of my nation’s dignity. >
Among the Collateral Events, Federico Diaz Outside Itself was particularly succeeded. This work is described as an interactive installation assembled by robotic machines and untouched by human hands from concept to materialization. Diaz is an Argentine artist working and living in Prague. Two robots assemble thousand of black spheres in a shape created by the morphing of the ambient light generated by the viewers as they walk on an an interactive floor. The huge Arsenale shed is just enough for the pharaonic work the robots can do : The mathematical program enables the two robots to build and, together, arrange about 2,000 of the 5 centimeter-diameter balls every two hours, completing a large, continuously shape-shifting construction over a period of several months”. Diaz sees his work as a reflection on the fact that technology is a link we can create to the limitation of the human body, to go further, go “outside oneself. >
Among the important manifestations in Venise not really in the Biennale and not exactly at the edge either, the Internet Pavillion, conceived by numerous artists and curators trying to go on with a projet set for the first time in 2009. The original idea comes from Gustave Courbet “Pavillon du réalisme” that he decided to rent to give a chance to his own paintings (L’atelier du Peintre, for instance) during the Exposition Universelle in 1855, because he had been outcasted from the official exhibition. The Internet as a media for art, despite its now decades long history, is obviously not interesting enough for the canonic spaces in Venice Biennale. As a result, it was rather far from the rest of the exhibition. But it is indeed Internet art, and as such needs no special space or time to be seen... >  
Last but not least, the Biennale has also some pirates and hacktivists. The Anonymous group, Augmented Reality (Manifest.AR), had lots of interventions everywhere in town, using smartphones or more usual actions like changing the name of the Greek Pavillion from Hellas into Sold Out, a reminder of the kind of economic and political oppositions the notion of “nation” implies as well as  implying that this topic today could have something to do with the International Monetary Fund. >

Manuela de Barros

Published in the Digitalarti Mag #7.

Digitalarti Mag, the international digital art and innovation magazine.

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