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Manufactured dissent

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 09, 2018

Factory settings: Egyptian couple Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s ‘Out On the Street: Variations’ is about an acting workshop in a working-class Cairo neighbourhood, in which 10 men recount episodes of exploitation, humiliation, and injustice

A touring exhibition that sites protest, and its politics, in the shop floor of factories, including a virtual one

The German pavilion at the Venice Biennale has a long and somewhat troubled history. Built in 1909 as the Padiglione Bavarese (Bavarian Pavilion), it was redesigned and expanded in 1938 by Ernst Haiger, an architect closely linked to Hitler’s Nazi regime. In recent decades, a number of artists and curators have used the biennale as an opportunity to grapple critically with the building’s historical baggage and explore contemporary notions of nationalism and globalism, such as when Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik won the 1993 Art Biennale Golden Lion by smashing the pavilion’s floor under enormous wall-mounted letters that spelt ‘Germania’.

In 2015, curator Florian Ebner (along with co-curator Lars Willumeit) continued this modern tradition with ‘Fabrik’s, an exhibition that transformed the brutalist pavilion into a ‘factory of political narratives’. Divided into four production sites, each was taken over by a different artist. An adapted version of the exhibition is now touring globally, with a stopover at Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan and Chemould Prescott Road gallery till August 26.

“The German word fabrik means factory, but there is also the resonance to the notion of the ‘social fabric’,” Ebner, now chief of photography at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, tells BL ink over email. “This exhibition is about different forms of factories, a vanished factory (the work by the Egyptian couple Metwaly/Rizk), a virtual factory (‘The Factory of the Sun’ by Hito Steyerl). But the whole exhibition itself is also a kind of imaginary factory, or a factory to analyse different forms of protests in our society.”

The show’s subtitle is ‘On the circulation of data, goods and people’. Each of the four artists explore how control over this movement is shaping our world, and how neoliberalism enables the easy flight of capital and information to the global north, while making it ever harder for the producers of those ‘goods’ to make the same journey. The conceptually interlinked works also explore the relationship between images and the political and social realities they are supposed to represent, producing what one reviewer called ‘a conceptual model of photography’.

Munich filmmaker and visual artist Hito Steyerl’s ‘Factory of the Sun’ is a video installation set in a black room illuminated by a Tron-like grid of blue lighting. The half-hour film is part video game, part behind-the-scenes movie and part MIA music video of dancers in gold bodysuits, protesters killed in corporate drone strikes and menacing Deutsche Bank spokespersons mouthing catchphrases such as “this is a democracy, I can tell you what I want”. The keyword-laden opening introduces us to a techno-dystopia where corporations have managed to accelerate the speed of light (a metaphor for labour), positioning Deutsche Bank as a capitalist mirror of Soviet-style authoritarianism.

Drawing heavily from sci-fi movie tropes, Steyerl crafts a B-movie narrative of a small, global band of cyber-insurgents taking on the corporate-state. Bronze busts of Stalin floating around on the screen are targets for a young woman at a firing range. The artist’s brother, who went viral on Youtube for a series of dance videos made in his basement, dances here in a gold-lamé costume in a ‘motion capture studio gulag’.

It’s all a bit of ‘uncanny valley’ here — in fact, the phrase ‘This Is Not Reality’ flashes frequently on the screen — but perhaps that is the point. That the unending stream of images and data dominating our lives is disempowering, divorced from reality, turning reality into unreality. “Hito’s installation is very much focused on the question of technology, the deceptive myth of the internet, the cultural clash between those who defend this utopia and the ongoing commercial appropriation of the internet,” says Ebner.

Tobias Zielony’s ‘The Citizen’ uses photography and images to explore the experiences of refugees from Sudan and other African countries. In 2015, the massive influx of refugees from Africa gave rise to a series of protests in Germany against the restriction imposed on them and Europe’s ‘racist asylum policies’. Using a mix of his own photographs as well as news clippings from the migrants’ home countries, Zielony positions them not as victims of far-flung tragedies but self-confident protagonists who assert their right to be taken seriously as political subjects. There are also copies of a newspaper produced by Zielony with interviews with some of the refugee activists featured in his photographs.

Egyptian couple Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk approach the issue from the opposite end — the effects of movement of capital under neoliberalism on those left behind. Titled ‘Out On the Street: Variations’, the film-and-sculpture installation documents a workshop held in Cairo where former factory workers of the Egyptian Starch and Glucose Company — privatised in 2004, shut down and destroyed in 2010 — enact the everyday indignities they faced in the backdrop of the Arab Spring protests that year.

Finally, there is Olaf Nicolai’s ‘Giro’, a performance piece set on the pavilion’s roof. Inspired by Erri De Luca’s 2001 novel Montedidio, it is a commentary on the shadow economy and the invisible workers who produce the goods we so conspicuously consume. In Venice, Nicolai set up a workshop to manufacture wooden boomerangs, which they occasionally tested by throwing off the roof. For Mumbai, the adapted work shows two videos shot from cameras mounted on the boomerangs, accompanied by a series of images that reference different historical, mythological and cinematic perspectives on rooftops and flight (white smoke rising from the Vatican roof, parkour, snipers, pleas for help scrawled on rooftops during Hurricane Katrina). Nicolai’s installation ties together the different strands explored throughout ‘Fabrik’, positing the rooftop as a political sphere and exploring both the visible and invisible processes that surround the circulation of data, goods and people.

Published on August 11, 2017

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