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On being Working Class & Unknown at PressWeek Venice Biennial 09

QUESTION: “Who the fuck’s [artist] Chris Brown?”

The sun blazes down. The sea chops seductively against the walls of the sun-bleached facades of a city built on water. The sun sets and people get dressed up in designer clothes to venture on their networking spree.

This is no ordinary art crawl. This is an art crawl swim, where only the best survive. This is press week at the Art Venice Biennial.

I was in town to launch a recent collaborative effort: Project BIENNALE – the book! Which as you can imagine, brings together the subversive and the celebratory ideals of biennial culture and collaboration themes. The launch, although sat in the peripheral areas to the main attractions of the Biennial, was successful and we wanted to celebrate by seeing some art and joining in on the art pavilion parties. And this is where my story begins.

We swooned over the small satellite events that were dotted over the landmass of tourist Venice. Some of the most notable satellites were the Internet and street art events (Shepherd Fairley). We enjoyed the smaller pavilions such as Palestine who offered a lot more food for thought for the audience. All of the 7 artists have a gift at being able to link the local with the global covering a wide range of themes from architectural design to the epistemology of biennial culture. Although I was later saddened to find out that this year’s Palestinian show is considered not a pavilion but a “collateral exhibition.” The proposal was to have Palestine in the Giardini but was never realized as the official rules say that only nations recognized by Rome can be invited. This in itself becomes more interesting. It urges questions of an on-exiting community discourse on the colonialist socio-spatial reconfiguration of place in events such as biennials. What gives Rome the right to deny the acknowledgement of Palestine as a country? If a country, a powerful and beautiful country that homes many interesting contemporary artists, can’t get into the Giardini or even the realization of its importance then how does a working class kid artist get noticed?

On the same island of the “Palestinian collateral exhibition” was the Welsh Pavilion. Wales is a relatively new pavilion at Venice. A group of us were checking the smaller pavilions before we hit the elite at the Arsenale and Giardini. One of the organizers of the Welsh Pavilion was a guy a called Chris Brown and a friend of mine, Bryan, wanted to make sure we could go to the Wales Pavilion opening party as our hostel was a few blocks up. He chatted to some self-important Welsh guy and in an attempt to get us on a RVSP list named dropped Chris Brown who had worked on our book, Project BIENNALE.

“ Do you know Chris Brown?” Bryan asks to the three welsh men.

“Who?” asks one of the men bending over tying his shoelace lazily.

“Ch-Chris Brown…. Its just..”

“Merlin, do you know Chris Brown?” the other guy says scarcely to the guy at the back of the shed.

Merlin walks up to Bryan and stands up straight close to his face and announces, “yeah… I know Chris Brown… who’s asking?”

The rest of us have already turned to leave. It is only Wales after all? We wait at the bottom of the street on a stone bench near the water for Bryan to return. Phoebe, another member of the group, in our exhausted silence asks, “ Who is Chris Brown?”

We laugh but don’t answer as Bryan turns up and proudly announces to us that, “ We’re in! They said that we’re on the RVSP list – as soon as I said that Chris Brown is in our book they were game”

A day of art browsing passes and we head back to the Welsh Pavilion. We get there and another self important woman asks, “ Who are you?!”

Phoebe , having already thrown a tantrum over dinner, flips out at this question. “ Who am I ?!” She announces back at the woman holding the clipboard, “who am I? I don’t need this. I don’t need to say who I am. I’m going. Who do they think they are? They are Wales!”

Somewhat embarrassed a friend and I stay excessively still and quietly wonder what to do next. I say back to the woman on the door, “ We spoke to someone earlier who said we would be on the list.”

She askes back, “ who was that?”

I say, “ erm… Not sure… Chris Browns partner or something.”

On hearing Chris Browns name Phoebe flips out again, “ Oh, Sarah you just didn’t. You shouldn’t have to name drop to get into Wales. I’m going. You can go. I’m not. I don’t need this”

I demand Phoebe to stay where she is as she runs off around the corner, whilst a tutor of our struggles to gain entry in front of us. We decide to sheepishly sneak away and find Phoebe sat around the corner with her head in her hands.

She sees us and exclaims, “ After a years break away from art I thought I was ready for this. But I don’t think I am. I just wanted to enjoy the Welsh Pavilion as much as the next person. I don’t think I should be asked who I am to get in.”

In response I say, “ In fairness in any job/area the higher up you get the more you’re likely to get asked who you are. It’s not just art.”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew that it was true but I was uncomfortable with this truth.

Why can’t Palestine be a Pavilion? Why do I have to name drop to assume my worth to the Welsh Pavilion just to drink their booze?

The peripheral position in art can be both good and bad. People already operating successfully within the main art world don’t truly appreciate the subversive position because you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. I’m sure at one point everyone has tried to be counter-cultural but soon become institutionalized and conservative. As an example, I think of an artist friend of mine who I deeply admire. I loved how they were so socially engaged and rigorously involved with left politics. We see them, some 20 years later, sat writing about the Economy of the art world and wondering how to market their new website whilst counting their £££££ from a cushy institutional job. This isn’t wrong either – but what does it take to treat people equally in cultural events?

What is really at stake if Palestine gets its own place in the Giardini? Would Wales loose its reputation (whatever that is) and spontaneous combust if it let some working class unknowns into its official party?

I normally would make this more theorized and academically rigorous but today I feel like it’s more important to leave it as a story, away form bullshit, so you can decide the questions to defend and oppose the events. After all, narrative is a different debate all together.

I leave you with my main last question – Who the FUCK is artist Chris Brown!??! I still don’t know.

The working class guide to Press Week @ Venice Biennial.

1) If you don’t have a press pass don’t be fazed. Press passes don’t get you entry to the parties. Break in to the Giardini. A secret entrance is located about a block up away from the main gates. Look for a broken wired fence, crawl through the hole and follow the trees to walk out just behind the German Pavilion. Check your hair for leaves.

2) Maintain your working class accent. Don’t pretend to sound posh or academic. This won’t get you anywhere. Exaggerate your roots. Use your individuality as a tool to make you exotic.

3) When asked “Who are you” Maintain eye contact at all times. Be the someone they want you to be.

4) Failing that. Name Drop – Chris Brown.

5) Wear clothes that might not be expensive but look expensive. This way they might think that you’re an art collector.\

6) The more parties you get into the less money you have to spend.

7) Art in the main pavilions tend to be bland or exactly what you was expecting (whether that’s good or bad) Pay your respects to the smaller pavilions not located in the main bits.

8) Satellite events are your true events to network because these people are more likely to work with you.

9) Stop in a hostel – its way cheaper and some well-established writers and curators also stop there.

10) If someone gives you a dirty look. Dirty look them back. They won’t expect it.

(NOTE: You can catch some of the Palestine art @ POSTMASTERS from July 7, 2009 - august 8, 2009
"the thousand and one nights,"
an exhibition of palestinian art curated by mary evangelista with michael connor )