Laura O’Leary Visits Venice Biennale: Art Fund Report

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Laura O’Leary, Programme Assistant at QUAD, Derby visits the 58th Venice Biennale for the first time; researching digitisation, moving image and curatorial strategies to develop her knowledge as an emerging curator.

 

I am the Programme Assistant at QUAD, an international centre for engagement in contemporary art and film, focussing on major exhibitions, and the creative use of emergent digital technologies. Whilst in Venice, I attended “Art in Dataspace”, a (free) conference organised by Liechtenstein Pavilion at Museo Correr to explore conversations related to the digital art field. The speakers: Sabine Himmelsbach, Sybille Krämer, Geert Lovink, Lev Manovich, Georg Schöllhammer, Bernard Stiegler, Ben Vickers and Vladimir Jerić Vlidi discussed different components of what digitization means during this day-long symposium. Topics throughout the day included the relationship between:

 

  • data-numbers

  • algorithms-governance

  • networks-radicalisation

  • smart phones-normalisation

  • future-organisation

 

The conversations conveyed what is being theorised now in digital art by these experts. Distinct moments included the discussion of algorithmic curation by Ben Vickers and a surprising statistic made by Vladimir Jerić Vlidi, that “50% of humanity is offline”. Sybille Krämer was applauded during her talk for the impactful way she discussed her subjects, which varied from entropy’s relation to stupidity, the psychology of why we use smartphones and the spatiality and plurality of “digital”. The conference room of Museo Correr was in the grandest location I’ve ever been to for a symposium. This event has been well documented and all the talks are available online at artindataspace.net.

More personal research of mine, though equally interesting is curating moving image, therefore when I visited the Venice Biennale, I was on the lookout for striking moving-image exhibitions. I found Larissa Sansour’s In Vitro at The Danish Pavilion, Bárbara Wanger & Benjamin de Burca’s Swinguierra at the Brazilian Pavilion and Republic of Korea’s Pavilions, with works by Hwayeon Nam, siren eun young jung, Jane Jin Kaisen. Each pavilion displayed socio-political work in a visually distinct way, which I reflected on in three reviews that I wrote for New Art West Midlands and This Is Tomorrow. It was useful to draw out this experience and consider the narrative and political thrust in these films, alongside the installation. When thinking about these works in Venice, it was nice to slow down and focus on exhibitions during this intense encounter with an overwhelming amount of art. I also enjoyed work by Kahil Joseph, John Akomfrah and work by Ed Atkins in Ralph Ruggoff’s curated exhibition that responded to the Biennale theme “interesting times”, which alludes to a Pandora’s box of concerns across the world.

 

Prior to writing these reviews I discussed the Danish Pavilion with Birmingham based curator Nat Muller and had the opportunity to discuss the Republic of Korea’s pavilion with their exhibition team, expanding my understanding of their curatorial methods, which was a bonus of being at Biennale during the opening weekend. After visiting Venice, I chatted with a colleague about effective ways to curate moving image, and very quickly after made an Instagram account called Curating Moving Image (@curatingmovingimage) - a research platform to reflect on the budgets, technical equipment, topics, seating, and forms of display of exhibitions from around the world that work with moving image; an unexpected byproduct of this experience. 

 

Other activities included meeting artist, Kensuke Kioke who is based in Venice who his solo exhibition Happy Ending as part of FORMAT19 at QUAD. I also met with Sean Burns, a friend who was reviewing the collateral exhibitions for Frieze Magazine and enjoyed discussed the Biennale programme with him. I had the pleasure of meeting artist, Soham Gupta and discussing his portraits of vulnerable people in Kolkata who confide their experiences with him, which were part of the curated exhibition by Ralph Rugoff. And was grateful to meet with Aaron Bradbook, curator of Ballarat Foto Festival, Australia, amongst many other conversations with a range of artists, curators, marketing officers and even visitors you’d meet on the Vaporetto ( this is a water taxi (( - they’re so fun.) Being there for the opening weekend was a hotbed of activity and a great opportunity to meet people from around the world.

 

As this was my first time being in Italy and at the Venice Biennale, I was blown away by the beauty of this city; it looks and of course, feels better than the postcard. Being from Birmingham, you often hear the comment “Birmingham has more canals than Venice”, so I was expecting a lot of canals, naturally. However, I did not quite comprehend the architecture of this slowly sinking city, seeing buildings that looked as though they are about to topple over. There have been many conversations following this trip, such as the political nature of the works, Venice’s fragile environment, and the bourgeois atmosphere of the Biennale - it was unlike anything I’ve ever known. This attribute was actively criticised whilst I was there - discussing precarity in a former palace was noted by a speaker at the symposium, but the organisers at large know it’s “cosmopolitan” - it’s part of the reason why so many people enjoy it.

 

To round up, I am hugely grateful for this experience as I saw life-changing art; work that has expanded my areas of political interest and understanding of ideologies around race, gender and class. And I had the opportunity to level up my knowledge about curating digital art. I cannot thank the Art Fund and QUAD enough for making this trip possible.