Opinion

Three Takes on the Art Basel “Rioters”

Swiss Police disperse protesters opposed to the "Favela Café" at Art Basel (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic; original video below)
Swiss Police disperse protesters opposed to the “Favela Café” at Art Basel (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic; original video below)

Over the weekend, a group of 100 or so activists protesting Tadashi Kawamata and Christophe Scheidegger’s “Favela Café” were teargassed at Art Basel. The café, in attempting to mimic the desperate conditions of Brazil’s tragic slums, meant to bring introspection and perspective to Art Basel’s air of orgiastic excess — a project not unlike building a waterslide on the sun.

Needless to say, it ended poorly, with police forcibly ejecting a protest group opposed to this trivialization of the favelas, a crew variously described as “revelers,” “partying protesters,” and “an artist-activist group.” As these divergent descriptors might suggest, we thought it would be worthwhile to lay out the different perspectives offered up in the three pieces of English-language coverage published so far, a fun exercise in bias spotting.

First up is this unsigned story by Swiss Info, the “international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.” The public broadcaster is structured much like America’s National Public Radio but, if the tone of this piece is any indication, might find itself in better company with Clear Channel, the AM/FM sewage conglomerate. The bad news begins with the headline, an icy Helvetic snarl: “Police crash illegal Art Basel party.” The story continues:

An Art Basel installation was the site of clashes between police and illegal partiers on Friday night after revelers launched an impromptu gathering at the outdoor “Favela Café” exhibit on Basel’s Messeplatz … No one was arrested in the incident, although police were forced to respond with tear gas and rubber bullets when some in the crowd began throwing bottles, chairs and bags of paint after being asked to turn off their music. [emphasis added]

Yes, occasions like these are a great reminder of how lucky some are to live in a country where the independent press never makes statist excuses.

Next up is Artinfo’s In the Air Blog coverage by Lisa Contag, which is easily the most even-handed of the bunch. The headline, though attention grabbing, states the facts without editorialization: “Clash at Art Basel: Police Forcibly Evict Protestors from Tadashi Kawamata’s Art Favela.” A linguistic fairness prevails throughout (a minor missing word notwithstanding): “about 100 partying protesters” had “a rough encounter the [sic] local police.” The story crucially notes that the police used “excessive amounts of tear gas,” an important piece of information.

Finally, Art Review, publishers of our favorite annual rankings, redeemed their fascination with power and influence in an extremely brief write-up of the affair that proved highly sympathetic to the protestors, calling them an “artist-activist group” and allowing that Kawamata and Scheidegger’s installation is “politically uncomfortable.”

Video of the clash with police at the Art Basel “Favela”

Discomfort seems to be a recurring theme in Art Basel’s global circus, though even the staunchest Basel stalwart might find “Favela Cafe” difficult to defend. For a sense of the extent of the challenge, consider that the center-right German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in reviewing the show at Basel, delivered an underhanded Teutonic condemnation of the café’s political project, dismissing it as “well-meaning, though one suspects the purpose was not well thought-out.” (Gut gemeint, man ahnt die Absicht, ist nicht immer gut gedacht.)

Update 6/18, 8:05 am EST: Greg Allen has a good play-by-play analysis of what happened and a roundup of the footage shot of the incident over on his blog.

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