Bergen Assembly 2019

Biennials are the most important and interesting phenomenon in contemporary art. After the Venice Biennale, many other similar models were revised with new geographies, concepts and ways of working the art, history, politics. Many biennials have become institutions, and as a consequence of their subsequent neo-liberalisation and capitalisation, biennials have become corporatised.

Institutional critique states that biennials, in the majority, are machines of cultural normalisation; media-driven programmes comprised of works, names, and practices that obey the flow and ebb of art markets. A hegemony and means of promoting or perpetuating colonial or neo-colonial practices; a national political weight in the selection of names, compromising the autonomy of leaderships and curatorial teams. Given the complexity of democratic and less democratic systems and forces, the biennial seems to comply with increasingly predictable programmes, tied by political intromissions and the need to show objective results.

But this does not seem to happen with the Bergen Assembly.

Despite being the second-largest city in Norway, Bergen is a discreet town in the Fjords. To the west we have an immense frozen sea, to the east are the dense green mountains, under an often grey and rainy sky. The streets perpendicular to the water reveal an urbanism in communion with the sea and maritime activities. Bergen, like many other Norwegian coastal cities, is inseparable from its sea and from the mythical and legendary Viking voyages, it is a port of embarkation and disembarkation. For centuries, it has welcomed and hosted foreigners. Now, it welcomes curious people and tourists.

The Bergen Assembly is a reflection of Bergen’s worldview. It is the synthesis of the conceptual and democratic abilities of the Norwegians and their approach to current, complex subjects, Even when they reveal the contradictions and insufficiencies of national, or lato sensu of Western policies. The Bergen Assembly is a critical project that excludes the biennial term from its vocabulary. It replaces it with another, more inclusive and recognisable: Assembly. That said, the Bergen Assembly is a counter-assembly – it has its own structures based on dialogue, debate and public discussion in which art and community are the starting points. After all, it’s not possible to identify a single Norwegian artist in isolation, its a multiple, transnational assembly that gives preference to the intricacies of cosmopolitics, more complex, more contradictory and diverse than simply politics. The horizontal replaces the vertical: there are directors and curators (Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler), but they are not the main figures. All decisions are made by a group formed of Paul B. Preciado, Pedro G. Romero, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Simon Sheik, Murat Deha Boduroglu, etc. – all with remarkable careers in philosophy, arts and curatorship and some having been part of Manifesta or Documenta.

Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead is the motto of the third edition of the Bergen Assembly. But it’s not about death; it’s about life and its celebration, about what’s wonderful and tragic, chaotic and linear, ambiguous and objective. The dead are not dead; they are called to life, in a multiverse of possibilities, ways and beings, of teachings, stories, legacies and battles – revived and debated here.

The several exhibition spaces welcome many essays and projects that talk about the immense insufficiencies of neoliberal and capitalist policies. Among Marxist and post-Marxist theories, the left is exercised and explored in fields seldom debated. In all works, there is a dimension of struggle, of resistance, but there is a common network between works, artists and thinkers at the Bergen Assembly, a kind of “trans” epistemology, or philosophy. A desire to be more daring and comprehensive – transgressive, transitory, transformative, transnational. This is the event’s greatest originality and strength.

Based on seven major programs, the Bergen Assembly is not only an art biennial, it is a biennial of things. On the one hand, the oldest practices of drawing and engraving, with works of remarkable delicacy and strength by Lorenza Böttner, Capital Drawing Group, Robert Gabris, María Galindo or Goya, and on the other, practices that escape the domain of the arts. These come as the Feminist Health Care Research Group project, a group that sought to inform German women about health and sexuality, or the Feminist Gaming Group, a meeting of women interested in video games, who find it a safe space in which they belong.

The issues of colonialism are explored in transversal works and projects. In Kode 1 and Bergen Kjott, narratives of power and predation are presented, not only those derived from the exploitation of the African continent, but also those in the Norwegian territory itself, as is the case of the Sami. The idea that this country apparently has no colonial practice is rebutted by Norway’s very alignment with the old European historical narratives – something emphasised by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Creator of Oi!.

However, it’s the Parliament of Bodies – revived after the Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens – the most daring, radical and democratic programme. If, in the exhibition spaces, the most important element is the passivity of observation, in Parliament of Bodies it’s the intervention, the action, the dance and the performance (ours and that of the participants). With Paul B. Preciado and Viktor Neumann as the main curators, and the ever-changing installation by Andrea Angelidakis, this is a parliament that discusses identities, sexuality, bodies, politics, life, death, neoliberalism and capitalism. Always to the rhythm of the word and the presence of the body. This is the triumph of the Bergen Assembly.


The Bergen Assembly ends on the 10th November.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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