5th Berlin Biennial: Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours

Various locations, Berlin, Germany

Superflex, Collect to Win (2007)

Superflex, Collect to Win (2007)

In 1971, the curator Seth Siegelaub asked a lawyer friend to draft ‘The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement’, a lengthy contract produced as a double-sided poster, which Siegelaub inserted in magazines and distributed at no charge. This summer, the artist Maria Eichhorn handed out A4 copies of the contract to audience members at an event she hosted along with Siegelaub as part of the ambitious ‘night programme’ of the 5th Berlin Biennial. Sitting in front of an overhead projection of the contract, Siegelaub explained that he originally aimed to give artists a share in what happened after their work was sold. Next to him sat Daniel McClean, a practicing lawyer who was invited to rigorously and methodically parse the lengthy document. While Siegelaub maintained that he had originally intended the contract to be ‘practical’ and ‘user-friendly’ – an honest attempt to ‘fit art into an existing system of relationships’ – art, by definition, especially in 1971, was not meant to be ‘practical’, and conceptual artists objected to the contract’s regularization of art. (Only one artist to date, Hans Haacke, has used the contract successfully.) But nearly 40 years later, the contemporary audience’s probing, business-savvy questions about copyright and intellectual property revealed a palpable eagerness to legitimize and professionalize an art world they belong to but whose operations they might not fully understand.

Several of the events in the biennale’s ‘night programme’ similarly involved artists investigating the structures and regulations of their own profession by inviting them to be refracted by other disciplines: law, neuroscience, cybernetics or psychoanalysis. It was sometimes hard to tell whether these ‘professional readymades’ were tools of institutional critique or genuine attempts to glean the legitimization of other occupations. In the case of Chris Evans’s Cop Talk (2005–ongoing) this ambiguity is a conscious part of the project. In a room in the Universität der Kunst, Evans hosted a panel discussion about this ongoing work – in which he invites police recruitment officers to give presentations to art students – with critic Nina Möntmann, artist Hito Steyerl, and Tobias Flessenkemper, chief of coordination for the EU police commission. Evans earnestly maintained that Cop Talk attempts to make the police force ‘mirror society in a more accurate way’ by recruiting more creative people; complimentarily, it offers art students a serious long-term alternative to a financially risky art career. But Evans’ project also exposes a tacit moral order in the art world, that artists operate outside normal professional boundaries and are therefore able to see other careers from a privileged critical distance. This prejudice was borne out in the clips Evans showed from past Cop Talks in which art students interrogated the police representatives about everything from police brutality to uniforms, while the police continued their presentation as if the room was full of typical, willing recruits. The panel’s debate centered on who is being manipulated when neither side knows it is participating in an art work. But as Flessenkemper, the resident expert and the outsider in the room, pointed out, police are trained to investigate complex crimes, so they’re likely to know what they’re getting into; not to mention that the threat of ‘verbally aggressive art students’ doesn’t compare to the dangers of police work. Such matter-of-fact descriptions of his profession made it harder for art students interrogating police recruiters to look subversive or morally exempt.

For the final night of the biennale, a crowd gathered outside KW Institute for a prize draw presented by the Danish group Superflex for a ‘trip for two to Zanzibar’. Superflex had invited Francesca von Habsburg – both a collector and a commissioner of art – to share some anecdotes on corruption in the art world, but echoes of the event’s title, ‘Collect to Win’, haunted the collector’s earnest, unstructured ramble. Following that, the evening’s token non-art representative, Jesse Garcia of Transparency International, a global commission against corruption, was invited to select the winning entry. This dubious prize draw, coupled with undertones of corruption, turned the final night of the biennale into a dodgy scenario in which everyone seemed to be implicated. Who is really regulating the profession of art? And how would the art world begin to fight corruption amongst its own, if we could even recognize it?

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany. 
Issue 117

First published in Issue 117

September 2008

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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