Artists producing new work every day and contributing to the public debate – this is the ambition of the 2017 ultra contemporary biennale.
It’s the 2007 Istanbul Biennale and I’m running down the central shopping street in a small group. The word ‘Biennalist’ is emblazoned in red on our white headbands and, as we jog, discuss the theme of this year’s biennale: optimism in a time of global war. Is this hypocritical when the biennale receives funding from corporations who contribute to global unrest?
It was my first introduction to the work of the Colonel aka Thierry Geoffroy, a French conceptual artist based in Copenhagen. Now seated in the café of the Black Diamond library in central Copenhagen this February, he declares that it’s about time the contemporary art world had a wake up call.
“The problem with Fox News is that it makes people believe that what they are watching is news when it is just propaganda. Contemporary art has the same problem. It pretends to care about things, but does the opposite. It supports the weapons industry and vodka. It pretends to be critical but it isn’t. And pretending is bad for all of us.”
Ultra fast art
My jog through Istanbul is what Geoffroy likes to call a ‘Critical Run’ and is one of several art formats he has coined. All tend to incorporate participation and reflection about the role of the artists in society.
But we have met because he wants to tell me about a new idea: an Ultra Contemporary Biennale. Over the space of six weeks in Copenhagen in 2017, artists will create new work everyday that addresses pressing social questions. The art will be created and presented in galleries, public spaces and institutions, and consist of work by everyone from sculptors to performance artist.
“The art world has abused the word contemporary. When you go to a contemporary art show, you are seeing antiques. The word has been stolen so we need a new word: Ultra contemporary. It’s about creating a city that debates in the present, a city that breathes at the same speed as the now.”
Ultra contemporary isn’t the first concept Geoffroy has introduced into art speak. Along with the Critical Run, he is most well known for his Emergency Rooms that are installed galleries and where artists and the public debate on-going social issues. The idea is to train what Geoffroy calls our ‘awareness muscle’, our ability to think critically about the world around us.
“I am fighting apathy,” he explains. “It’s like a gas that has been dropped on society and makes people start sleeping. People notice they can kill without anyone intervening, and politicians can be corrupt without anyone noticing. The whole system is gassed, and it’s my enemy. So now I’m trying to find a formula to create an antidote, a recipe to fight this apathy gas.”
Dysfunction detectorsArtists play an important role in society in Geoffroy’s view. Not content with producing works of aesthetic beauty that are easily commoditised for wealthy art collectors, he argues that artists are uniquely capable of detecting – what he likes to call – ‘dysfunctions’ in society.
It’s a view shared by his collaborator and curator Tijana Miskovic, who sits beside him today.
“Artists takes things that people normally thing of separately, and create new meanings by combining them,” she says. “Visual aesthetics through colour, shape and form should be brought into the daily debate, they add something in addition to the word.”
Miskovic also argues that artists tend to register changes in society long before they develop into actual issues. The problem is that while contemporary artists might claim to address political or sociological issues, the process of creating their work is too slow to contribute to the debate. The ultra contemporary movement, on the other hand, will give a platform for artists to communicate their ideas immediately.
“People who oppose the ultra contemporary will say, ‘art cannot be done fast’”, says Geoffroy. “But just because you have done something quickly, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been thinking about it for ten years. It’s like taking a snapshot, like the photographer Henri Cartier Bresson what he called ‘decisive moment’ – you can wait five hours, but when you take it happens very fast.”
Fast art will mean less polished works, they admit, but this will simply shift our understanding of what a successful work is. Ultra contemporary works will be judged by their relevance and efficiency, their ability to address the issues of the day.
The role of the artist
“In order to exist you need a living strategy, you can just exist or you can make a manifesto, and by making a manifesto you design your life and give it shape. I write lots of lists, for what I will do next week and in ten years time. I try to give shape to the future,” he explains.
“The artists are capturing things. They have a capacity to integrate information and give birth to an artwork that is a synthesis of everything they feel. They can give us a real time diagnosis and look ahead to what might come, so we must capture what they say and give it to the public as fast as possible!”.