IN 2003 DURING THE INAUGURAL PRAGUE BIENNALE ONE OF THE INVITED ARTISTS, PAULA ROUSH, SET UP SHOP OUTSIDE THE CITY'S NATIONAL GALLERY SELLING T-SHIRTS EMBLAZONED WITH THE RALLYING CRY: 'BOYCOTT BIENNALE'. HER ENTIRE STOCK SOLD OUT IN LESS THAN AN HOUR. Roush's (admittedly mild) attempt to inject an air of protest into the proceedings had been snapped up by the biennale-loving hordes as a fashionably risque souvenir; what began as a gesture of revolt had quickly morphed into yet another shopping opportunity. While this episode is undoubtedly an example of the inherently apolitical nature of many visitors to international art events, who tend to humour radicalism with a mixture of irony and mild condescension, it is also symptomatic of how large-scale exhibitions, like multinational corporations, increasingly demonstrate the ability to effortlessly elide any form of dissent that threatens to undermine their operations.
The capacity of the blockbuster biennales around the world to ingest and thus neuter dissenting voices has been much commented upon, but the way that this is achieved has subtly shifted of late. Large-scale exhibitions no longer seek to absorb radicalism into their remit directly: what is important is that your event is seen to encourage radicalism by taking it under your wing in some shape or form. This year's Documenta is a prime example. Under the auspices of its 'magazine project', it has invited 95 periodicals from around the world to publish commentaries on one of Documenta's three 'leitmotifs', as chosen by artistic director Roger M Buergel, namely: 'Is modernity our antiquity?', 'What is bare life?' and 'What is to be done? (Education)'. The obvious benefit of this is that, at a single stroke, Documenta instantly appears unconventional and edgy: surely it cannot be accused of an occidental bias if it has invited magazines from Skopje, Bogota, Jakarta and Hanoi? Surely it is antiestablishment if it includes publications with impeccable left-wing credentials such as Le monde diplomatique?
This goes beyond what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak described in Death of a Discipline, 2003, as 'the definitive tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent'. Instead it is the manifestation of a rather more pernicious need within the dominant to produce and thus control the emergent itself, ensuring that both its current hegemony and any nascent oppositional structures remain firmly within its sights. This has enabled a form of 'laboratory radicalism' whereby debate can be nurtured and dissected in an environment over which a certain dominion is retained; Documenta 12, it should be noted, has exercised an important level of distributional control over its magazine project by selecting the articles that comprise its 'magazine of magazines', which was published in three parts during the lead-up to the event's opening this June.
With this in mind, the emphasis on co-opting a wide variety of publications into this year's Documenta seems to reflect not radicalism but a realisation that it has the potential to be a global 'brand' and as such can be promoted in a way that your average multinational would instantly recognise. The first steps of any marketing strategy invariably advise increasing the number of international outlets for your brand and the frequency with which it is deemed newsworthy. (All major exhibitions now have a media partner on which they can rely for coverage, but why settle for only one title when you can get 95!) This increasingly globalised marketing of Documenta, it must be said, was well under way before its current incarnation since a central tenet of Okwui Enwezor's avowedly political Documenta 11 was the creation of five 'platforms' that traversed four continents and spanned 14 months, generating an array of symposia and publications as it went along. Documenta 12 has matched the peripatetic model of Enwezor and extended its scope, with Roger Buergel and lead curator Ruth Noack embarking on a promotional lecture tour over the last year that has stopped off in London, Paris, Antwerp, Sofia, Dakar and Sydney. …