(after the title of Midnight Oil’s 2000 album).
Brutal Youth, furniture, door, plastic bones, record covers;
How to make a monster?, ink on paper;
both 2008, Daniel Guzmán
“The responsibility and the autonomy of the citizens should be developed through a socio-cultural animation, through culture, arts and even education.” So was the idea of the Houses for the Youth and the Culture (Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture, MJC), an early post-war phenomenon in France, whose idea was to give a new (cultural and educational) frame for young people; in order to accompany them from the early ages until their majority. The concept of this year’s mediation programme of the berlin biennale is not far removed from this socialist-democratic idea of arts and culture, and goes even further in its utopia: in its belief in communities that create themselves through the getting together in an exhibition space, in constituting an assembly, in other words a democratic forum.
According to the concept of the mediation programme, mediation should be seen as “a vehicle of transformation (…) were a whole range of agents could contribute to the assembly of artworks and audience”, as written on the biennale’s website. For the third time I have been through the exhibition of the biennale with 16 year-old teenagers for a two-hour format of “investigations”, a format thought to focus or attentionate certain aspects of the exhibition in à la carte manner. None of the participants of such investigations have most-likely been in a museum before, or could even distinguish the term “contemporary”. Nevertheless they all came, maybe more forced than actually interested, as part of the obligatory art course between one class on the baroque, and another on trompe-l’oeil.
According to the format, the teenagers would become specialists or experts of the exhibition space, because they would get the opportunity of looking at art “differently”. But there frustrated the first attempts of the teenagers. How can the one obtain information if none is given, or the details have to be decodified? How can the one understand a code, if the mechanisms of the codification are not to be referred in any of their own experience?
In the aftermath of these difficult times spent with teenagers, I could join this experience to a special tour made for the former singer of Australian environmental rock-band Midnight Oil – Peter Garreth, now the country’s Minister for Environment, Heritages and Arts. As I felt in that case also totally out of space in a world of embassies and politics (or the rockscene in Australia, even though my link to Daniel Guzman’s ‘Devo’ piece was almost perfect here), this experience is similar to the one with teenagers as I must attempt to refer to their peculiar cultural contexts, or understandings of the art space, which usually differ much from my own background.
For most of the visitors of such art events – I would not talk about the art tourists, but a public that is not familiar to art, but believe in it as a tool for education and culture (as the post-war communist government in France believed) – the works shown have to deliver something immediate in order to be caught – usually a visual hook. I am here talking about these famously known maxims of “approachability of art”, or “access to the art world”. The general attitude towards an art exhibition is to enjoy the work, instead of attempting to value it. A methodical approach in counter-point to this attitude could be a one of finding references in a known context, in order to transpose them to the new art context. Moving one tool of value from one socio-cultural frame to the other.
For the teenagers I would ambitiously try to make them think about which degree of contemporariness an artwork should offer, in order to be understood in our societal context. After one of these investigations, one of the teachers told me – profoundly embarrassed that none of her pupils reacted to one of my most provocative attempt to make them talk – that it is difficult for teenager to get access to contemporary art as it is extremely detached from reality or their lifes. Right. If I would consider this comment, I am then floating in an area in which I’m trying to define some new criteria in the exhibition. Still as my role as a mediator, I have to adapt within the different groups of people coming to see “art” and choose the good card. In that case I could try to come back to some pseudo-pedagogical capacities gained through two years experience of “teenagers-workshoping”, speaking the infamous social worker language: a patronising attempt to speak the teenagers lingo, a excruciating experience for all concerned.
Through these experiences there is at least one thing that assures me about the exhibition itself and the mediation programme. Neither is actually ready to operate a dialogue between the audience, the work shown and those with knowledge. It is not necessary to refer to Plato’s shadows within the democratic forum (this year berlin biennale is entitled “when things cast no shadow”), but for sure sophism does not work with teenagers either.