Art

The Athens Biennale Negligently Satirizes the Aesthetics of the Alt-Right

In Athens, a biennale offers a critique of humanism, Marxism, capitalism, identity politics, and everything in between, but fails to explore pragmatic solutions.

An installation view of the 6th Athens Biennale (photo by Dorian Batycka for Hyperallergic)

ATHENS — The sixth edition of the Athens Biennale opened to a melody of wry subversion, second-rate accelerationist aesthetics, and objectionable tactics of overidentification that peaked in the 1980s. Entitled ANTI, the Biennale employs decades-old strategies borrowed from post-modernism known as “parafiction” (presenting fiction as fact); “third-positionism” (a stance opposing both communism and capitalism); and most abundantly, “overidentification” — the act of identifying oneself to an excessive degree with something or someone else, typically to the detriment of one’s own individuality or beliefs.

The culminating exhibition seems to be a statement on what curators describe as the “distinct, idiosyncratic and uneasy screenshot of our political, social and cultural momentum.” Anti-virtue signaling becomes the voice of the “cunning villain, the proactive manipulator, the taboo perpetrator,” with the exhibition accelerating through many of the most polarizing and politically divisive issues of our times, be it humanism, Marxism, capitalism, or identity politics, offering a critique of just about everything, while managing to propose little by way of solutions or alternatives to the status quo.

The exhibition attempts to tackle many of these issues at once: the European debt crisis, the aftershock of the global financial recession that shook the continent, cultural politics in Greece, mass migration, war, class-based frustration, digital alienation, consumerism, mental health, and gender. The exhibition — featuring 99 artists, collectives, and theorists set across four main venues — references a bevy of well-known contemporary tropes including post-truth, accelerationism, overidentification, and corporate aesthetics. On top of everything, the Biennale is haphazardly dedicated to Zak Kostopoulos, the trans activist killed earlier this year by a shop owner in Athens in what many rightly billed as a hate crime.

This year’s edition, curated by writer and curator Stefanie Hessler, artist and theorist Kostis Stafylakis, and founding director Poka-Yio, is billed as an “opportunity to put our values forth.” Values, it seems, that seek to overidentify with images, ideas, and politics of the far-right, brimming with tokenistic, deliberately un-woke “LOL nihilism.”

Anna Uddenberg, “Dom Depot” (photo by Dorian Batycka)

Besides the usual cadre of LOL nihilists par excellence: Jon Rafman, Ryan Trecartin, and Anna Uddenberg, the exhibition predominantly platforms artists whose work epitomizes the vapid, empty lies of post-internet narcissists. ANTI foregrounds the same set of parallels between post-internet, satirical fascist modulations of cultural propaganda, transhumanism, far-right overidentification, and corporate aesthetics, on such an epic and theatrical scale of shit not seen since the 9th Berlin Biennale.

Take the work of the Front Deutscher Äpfel for instance, which inhabits one of the largest and most complex installations in the Biennale, taking up an entire conference room at the Esperia Palace. In it, the group claims to use satirical organization to troll extremist parties, mimicking the very organizational structures and militaristic style of fascist extremism they purport to criticize. During the opening days of the Biennale, the group staged a performance called “How to become a nationalist pop star.” They dressed in black slacks and military-style jackets adorned with red armbands, and were surrounded with banners emblazoned with an apple, appropriating Nazi imagery and propagating what the artists call “the need to maintain the purity of the German fruits, worshiping the apple as the most emblematic German crop.”

Front Deutscher Äpfel, “How to become a nationalist popstar” (2018) / “Boskopismis” (2005) / “Untitled” (2018) (courtesy of the Athens Biennale)

In the 1980s, Laibach, the musical wing of the art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art, or NSK), developed a practice around a similar set of tactics, employing overidentification as a means of undercutting totalitarian aesthetics and their symbols, not by an open or direct critique of them, but rather through an obscenely exaggerated adoption of them. In doing so, Laibach famously claimed to be fascists just as much as Hitler claimed to be a painter. Using irony and satire, Laibach and NSK appropriated the imagery of state power and elements of pan-Slavic folk traditions, exploring how these connections manifest in unforeseen ways.

As a strategy of cultural-political intervention, overidentification is a strategy that has been employed to varying degrees of success by numerous other groups and collectives since Laibach — from the Yes Men, Christoph Schlingensief, Reverend Billy, the Billionaires for Bush, and many others.

Taking what curators describe as the “diverse, ambiguous and often incommensurable manifestations” of art and politics, the exhibition panders to zombie millennials, confused and bewildered by the lack of alternatives under capitalism, completely tone deaf to what is clearly an emergent and divisive culture war. A culture war that is being fought on both the left and right, deliberately made ambiguous by exhibitions such as ANTI, which attempts to create a disjunctive synthesis in which radical ambivalence is given space to flourish. A re-contextualization of alt-right aesthetics under the superficial veil of post-internet irony and satire, thereby becomes reminiscent of Steve Bannon’s dire warning “that politics happens downstream from culture.”

A screenshot of the “public wall” (screenshot via the Athens Biennale website)

In addition, the Athens Biennale appears to be censoring images and artworks critical of the alt-right on its Public Wall, a space on its website that is supposedly open to all. An image submitted by Kelson Anderson (via username “Gritty_Is_Anti”) was prevented from appearing on it. After numerous attempts, Anderson claims her image was being censored. The image itself, of the Philadelphia Flyers NHL hockey mascot that has been memed widely into a symbol of anti-fascism, combined it with a quote from Ana Teixeira Pinto, which reads: “if you try to mimic the strategies of the alt-right, you will become the alt-right.” Meanwhile, a quick perusal of what has been accepted on the “public wall” reveals a cacophony of neo-Nazi imagery, including one image recently posted of a door made of swastika patterns and underneath Nazi numerology. 

Agnieska Polska, “New Sun” (2018), HD animated video (courtesy of the artist)

The works that do manage to take up either a progressive or alternative stance in the Biennale are thereby rendered mute by virtue of the exhibition’s overidentification with the alt-right. Agnieszka Polska’s fantastic quasi-future animation video “New Sun” (2017), which evokes the personal and tenuous relationship humans have with the solar system, sets an altogether different tone than many of the transhumanistic works on display. Meanwhile, the Peng! Collective’s ongoing work, “Civil Financial Regulation Office” (2018), creates a parallel between citizen activism and financial bureaucracy, whereby actual people are situated in the exhibition space that is then transformed into a call center operated by six people, trained and hired as agents to call representatives of financial regulatory and policy bodies in Europe, such as the European Central Bank, asking questions and basically trolling them for eight hours a day.

The Peng! Collective, “Office for Civil Financial Regulation” (courtesy of the Athens Biennale)

Shortly before the Athens Biennale opened this past October, artist and writer Luke Turner penned an open letter stating his intention to boycott the event and withdraw his own participation, citing organizers’ decision to platform a number of artists who have either supported outright or defended alt-right sentiments in art communities. He drew attention to “organizers’ collective failure to take any decisive stand against the abusive behaviour of another of the invited artists,” notably Berlin-based artist Daniel Keller. Turner presented evidence that he was targeted on social media by Keller and other artists linked to LD50, the fascist-alt-right-leaning London gallery that was forced to close in spring 2017 after protesters got wind it had been platforming figures such as Brett Stevens, who was an inspiration for — and subsequently praised  by — the far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik.

After protests of the gallery reached a near fever pitch, Keller — who self-identifies as a politically-active leftist of Jewish decent — came to the defense of LD50 and Deanna Havas (an artist who had previously shown at LD50) this August. Havas, an artist who came to LD50’s defense claiming to be both “apolitical” and a Donald Trump supporter, got into a confrontation with Turner online after she liked a meme of Turner’s work being carried away by Pepe the Frog. Keller, in turn, rose to Havas’s defense, prompting a flurry of tweets between them, which prompted Turner to boycott the Athens Biennale (where they were both scheduled to appear).

In March 2017, Keller wrote in Frieze magazine that anti-LD50 protestors were “disgusting,” and accused them of “punching down.” He voiced criticism of those taking a stand by suggesting that, “the video of dozens of demonstrators screaming ‘Nazi scum off our streets’ into the face of the sole counter-protester (who as far as I can tell … isn’t a Nazi) made my skin crawl.” Though Keller self-identifies as a socialist, he seems to revel in allowing alt-right sympathizers a platform to deliver hate-speech, spuriously claiming, “it is a really dark indicator for discourse in general if we retreat into our own bubbles and refuse to examine and learn from the groups to which we are opposed.”

Following Turner’s criticism of Keller’s support of LD50, Keller’s haranguing began to heat up, prompting Turner to email the Athens Biennale asking for Keller’s removal, citing the fact that he was not willing to share a platform with someone who has been so dismissive of the dangers of alt-right aesthetics and platforms that support them. Turner wrote:

“I am writing, with regret, to make public my withdrawal from participation in the 2018 Athens Biennale, and to highlight the reasons for this. My withdrawal is due to the organizers’ collective failure to take any decisive stand against the abusive behaviour of another of the invited artists, and their campaign of berating and harassing individuals fighting fascism and antisemitism, particularly within the art world.”

Archiving some of Keller’s and Havas’s tweets and trolling, Turner emailed the Athens Biennale in order to point out that he had been targeted, harassed, and attacked. However, he said his complaints fell on deaf ears, and that the Athens Biennale refused to take a stand over what they called a “Twitter flame”:

“They repeatedly attempted to absolve themselves of any responsibility by insisting that the Biennale is not a platform; yet it patently is. They attempted to minimise and dismiss Keller’s behaviour by describing it as operating within an intellectual ‘art-bubble’, and as part of the ‘etiquette’ of social media, as if that has no real-world consequence. Yet it absolutely does; these platforms are an essential and potent part of the real world.

“The organisers were continually dismissive of the harmfulness of Keller’s actions, maintaining simply that the Biennale is a space for ‘heterogeneous projects’ to exist—as if Keller’s gaslighting and his minimising of antisemitic abuse was merely a case of taking sides or holding contrary opinions. They insisted instead that they are ‘no jury’, as if that excuses them from their complacency and inaction. However, it does not; art institutions are not neutral.”

After the open letter was published, Turner sent an open letter to several of the primary funders of the exhibition, including the British Council, Frame Contemporary Art Finland, the Goethe-Institut, and the European Cultural Foundation, among others, all of whom explicitly told Turner they would in no way be withdrawing their support. The institutional complacency, foregrounding institutional complicity, underlies the hypocrisy of those who are willing to call out their enemies concerning political blunders but fail to hold their friends to the same standards of accountability.

Daniel Keller and Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, “The Seasteaders Plan B” (courtesy of the Athens Biennale)

Keller’s principal project at the Athens Biennale is a documentary about the history of the Seasteading Institute, founded in 2008 by activist, software engineer, and political-economic theorist Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton Friedman), together with technology investor and philanthropist Peter Thiel. Together with Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, the film sets its lens on a libertarian project that aims to create autonomous tax-free zones in French Polynesia.

Following Turner’s open letter, the Athens Biennale issued a response calling his claims defamatory and false. “The exhibition deals with forms of polarization and antagonisms and criticizes intolerance, fascism and hateful trolling,” the Biennale said. They, in turn, called the spat between Keller and Turner a “flame war” on social media, minimizing the actual harm perpetrated by alt-right bros and their allies who troll progressives online:

“The evidence provided by Turner was a thread of tweet exchanges between him and Daniel Keller. The thread shows a heated Twitter debate between two artists who each claim to belong to the same progressive front. While these tweets depict opposing opinions on how to deal with fascists, trolls and anti-semitic cyber bullies, they do not suffice to prove that Daniel Keller is either enabling anti-semitic ideas or sympathizes with reactionary networks. Expelling Keller on these accounts would neither solve the problem of disagreement over diverging tactics, nor be the right choice for an exhibition that deals with these precise conundrums. In our view, it is crucial that these discussions about such urgent issues as fascism go beyond a flame war on Twitter, which the different parties involved are clearly not primarily entertaining because of their political projects against the alt-right, but for personal purposes exploiting the attention economy of the internet.”

Despite the evidence on social media that Turner provided to the Athens Biennale, namely of Keller’s sympathy toward his views, the Athens Biennale concluded that: “accusations of anti-semitism and fascist sympathies should be supported by hard evidence,” calling Turner’s accusations against the Biennale and Keller libel and defamatory.

JP Downer, “Decent Don” (2017) (photo by Dorian Batycka)

Accordingly, ANTI seems to long for art that no longer has to justify its existence solely with reference to well-known political agendas. But rather than giving into PC culture, the exhibition merely leans heavily into irony, albeit with a type of tone-deafness and ambivalence one might expect from extremely privileged individuals. In the hermetic, often obsessive terrain of the internet’s “woke” positionism, skepticism toward PC culture can manifest in real-world violence. And cherry-picking issues that fit into a curatorial frame without giving much afterthought to how platforming alt-right sympathizers may be detrimental, if not outright dangerous to marginalized communities in the long run, is a serious concern with exhibitions that employ the strategies of overidentification and accelerationism.

Recycling tropes of capitalist consumerism and digital alienation may seem cool and fashionable at the moment, but they play into the confusion of our present malaise, step-in-line with the seemingly endless feedback loop of post-truth, cheap provocation, self-contradiction, and sweeping theoretical conjunctures.

As I finished walking through the exhibition, I felt succumb to numbness. Encountering endless digital CGI art films (Hito Steyerl rip-offs), cringe-worthy fashion installations (Gosha Rubchinskiy rip-offs), pop-up shops, and deliberately kitsch consumer objects that double as post-conceptual ready-mades, I got the feeling that this is where contemporary art comes to LARP for the libertarian alt-right.

Quenton Miller’s bus stop ad reading “Are You Dying? Are You Marxist?” (2018) (photo by Dorian Batycka)

One work by Quenton Miller drove this point home: situated outside the exhibition venues, Miller’s work takes the form of a series of bus stop ads (and a recorded dinner conversation) that read: “Are You Dying? Are You Marxist?”, a work that originally appeared as an advert in the London Review of Books. I read the work as part of a counter-cultural troll-op designed to poke fun at so-called “Cultural Marxists,” many of whom are often the target of abuse in online forums such as 4chan, usually for the simple, inexcusable act of supporting minorities.

Disturbingly, it should be noted, the Athens Biennale opened to the public on October 27 the very same day a 46-year-old white male stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire, killing 11 people.

As news of the shooting quickly spread, the online activity of the killer Robert Bowers, who frequented a far-right social media platform called Gab, bore all the hallmarks of an alt-right troll, combining a dizzying array of antisemitism, white ethnonationalism, toxic misogyny, and conspiracy theories — in short, the very same toxic mix of ideas the Athens Biennale pretends to criticize, but in reality platforms, mimicking all too faithfully the alt-right tendency to create legitimation through proxy and confusion.

Above all, the Athens Biennale is about as stimulating as a Joe Rogan podcast featuring a double bill of Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson, which is to say, not at all. Leaving Athens, I started to think of the exhibition as an outright tragedy — not evil per se, just cheap and opportunistic, fashionable and trendy — containing the detritus of what in future decades art history will likely come to see as this generation’s discarded, populist, Gamergate-inspired lies.

If the logic of the Athens Biennale has taught us anything, the only success has been in hollowing out the space where the language of progressive activism transforms social norms into a radical upheaval of an un-enlightened avant-garde millennial mass. It cheaply and rather unthoughtfully reworks an aesthetic paradigm developed decades earlier by Laibach and NSK, filtered through Nick Landian-accelerationist ideas long since debunked, all the while embezzling the tired and overly-utilized strategy of Situationist détournement.

And while the strategies of overidentification employed by the Athens Biennale may have been suitable 40 years ago, I would argue that they are severely unsuited for addressing the urgent transformative potential required of art today. The context of post-Yugoslavia ought to serve a reminder here, showing how Laibach’s generation didn’t change their strategies even after success in subverting their enemies, thus actually reproducing their enemies’ values once more. Above all, overidentification and the tropes used by the Athens Biennale merely exonerates the aesthetics of the kind of “fuck-you-free-thinking” apolitical, nihilistic millennials of privilege. Meanwhile, exhibitions that continue to employ such tactics end up making use of semiotic sabotage that threatens the humanistic foundations upon which progressive movements have been working toward for decades, a strategy that ought to met, contested, and resisted at every possible turn.

The 6th Athens Biennale, ANTI, runs through until December 9, 2018, at various locations. The Biennale was curated by Stefanie Hessler, Kostis Stafylakis, and Poka-Yio.

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