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Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The Elixir App, Installation view (Visningsrommet USF), Bergen Assembly 2016, Photo: Thor Brødreskift

How does one reinvent the format of a perennial art exhibition at a three-year interval? It is a task of no easy accomplishment set by the Bergen City Council after having hosted the Bergen Biennial Conference in 2009, poised to consider whether “to biennial or not to biennial” in response to the ambitions for an international art biennial in Bergen. Following the conference, the idea of a biennial was abandoned, in favor of a triennial and a slower approach. Where the 2013 edition ‘Mondays Begin on Sundays’, convened by Ekaterina Degot and David Riff, scrutinized notions of artistic research, this year’s edition is itself conceived as a year-long study and exploration firmly anchored in the city, with events unfolding over the year, culminating in the September program.

The Bergen Assembly 2016 has no clear beginning or ending, nor does it depart from an overarching theme. Instead it is a complex puzzle consisting of three independently developed propositions by artistic directors Tarek Atoui, freethought and PRAXES, which in turn are coupled with different exhibition openings, screenings, performances, and discursive events staged around three main locations and smaller venues. Unfolding on its own terms and in its own ways, the generous program invites the visitor to embark on different sorts of journeys, from experiential and sensual ones to more cerebral ones. At times, however, the assembly’s dispersed nature triggers a sense of hesitation as to whether the three curated components could be linked into a more cohesive narrative. Marked by mixed concerns, fractal thinking and different temporal registers, the assembly largely evades the idea of a unified and all too easily consumable curatorial framework, even if here and there connections emerge. Perhaps the recurring thread may well be the desire for connectedness itself, be it through infrastructures of feeling, a suspended fluidity or sonorous vibrations.

The Infrastructure Summit, Aesthetic Analytics #2, USF Verftet, Bergen Assembly 2016, Photo: Jonas Boström

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Lynda Benglis, Come, 1969-74. Private Collection, Lynda Benglis, Untitled, 1969-75. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York, Nairy Baghramian, Slip of the Tongue, 2016 (detail). Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, London, Installation view, Bergen Assembly 2016, Exhibition Adhesive Products at Bergen Kunsthall 02.09-09.10.2016, Photo: Thor Brødreskift

In collaboration with Paris-based Council and the Bergen Deaf Center, Lebanon-born musician and composer Tarek Atoui developed a set of projects, which aim to bridge the gap between hearing audiences and marginalized art and music communities, including the deaf community in Bergen. In Sentralbadet, an abandoned public swimming pool, Atoui filled the empty basin with a collection of nine customized instruments (WITHIN), such as The 0.9 which has a gestural interface through which ultra-low-frequency sounds can be produced that are physically felt, perhaps even before they are heard, or The SubBass Prototone, an organ pipe that one can enter and play from inside. Complemented with performances and rehearsals, WITHIN challenges how we understand the experience of sound, subverting our inherited hearing knowledges. Council’s contribution Infinite Ear consists of films, recordings, and sound massage workshops exploring how we can experience sound through bodily sensations or even our vision.

More complicated is the second part convened by freethought, an academic collective including Irit Rogoff, Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Massimiliano Mollona, Louis Moreno and Nora Sternfeld. The group’s on-going study of the slippery concept of ‘infrastructure’ materializes into various installations in the old Fire Station (the Gamle Hovedbrannstasjon) and firemen’s union, as well as in Bergen Kunsthall, and is discussed throughout three performative projects: ‘Specters of Infrastructure’ in the adjacent Partisan café, the two-day ‘Infrastructure Summit’ in the old Sardine Factory (USF Verftet), and ‘The City Seminar on Infrastructure 2014-16’.

The physical exhibition staged at the old Fire Station consists of six chapters, some of them given rather lofty titles. Typical of a long-term research-oriented approach rather than a curatorial one, Archives of Substance compiles an abundance of interviews, publications and discursive materials, tracing seemingly peripheral activities such as having a coffee or looking at an exhibition as potential political moments. Despite its academic foundation, Shipping and The Shipped is a captivating installation. The exhibition, curated by Stefano Harney and including collaborative work by artists, philosophers and friends Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, Arjuna Neuman, Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Wu Tsang, and Fred Moten, comes together as a poetical rendition of Harney’s compelling research into shipping as the “centre of capital’s infrastructural imagination” asking whether “the ship is arriving or escaping, piloted or pirated, modularised or marooned”. Despite the chapter’s importance as a case of cultural infrastructure, articulating a desire for social and spatial liberation, some visitors unfamiliar with the larger discourse were left wondering whether the group’s “infrastructure of feeling” could tip over into nepotistic exclusivity. No wonder ‘The Infrastructure Summit’ was a necessary supplement in order to clarify and expand some of the ideas explored in the show. More directly related to Bergen’s current and historical identity as a port town is The End of Oil, comprising Delete Beach, an animation by Phil Collins, and Oilers, a documentary film by Massimiliano Mollona and Anne Marther Dyvu. Especially moving is Oilers, which chronicles the possibly last construction of an oil platform in the Norwegian offshore yard, and addresses the workers’ anxieties in the face of declining oil prices—a rare instance of film that presents the human side of the controversial oil industry.

But why this sudden interest in infrastructure, which has resurfaced in the art world at different occasions? The urgency to inquire into infrastructure “arises from a recognition that structures govern more than ideology”, freethought member Irit Rogoff says in her opening statement at The Infrastructure Summit. ”It has become the convincing logic to jump start economies, education and markets. We are infrastructural beings enfolded within the circuits of so-called enablement.” This acknowledgement of our new infrastructural condition set the tone for an interesting range of speakers and panelist to appear on stage over the weekend, each addressing the theme from their particular research angles. What are the ways in which infrastructure disciplines bodies, allocates resources, links processes, and where do we locate its subversive and critical potential? At times a little too abstract, the concept of launching a program on infrastructure through the lens of contemporary art is definitely a thought-provoking one.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The Elixir App, Installation view (Visningsrommet USF), Bergen Assembly 2016, Photo: Thor Brødreskift

Tarek Atoui / Sonic Therapy Sessions, Deep Listening with Pauline Oliveros and Ione, Documentation shot, Bergen Assembly 2016, Sentralbadet, Bergen, Photo: Thor Brødreskift

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If freethought’s curatorial concerns are rather abstract (even if distinctive), then PRAXES, who are Berlin-based duo Rhea Dall and Kristine Siegel, adopted an approach that is quite the opposite. During a yearlong cycle of events, publications, and exhibitions the duo delved into the work of two unassociated artists: Lynda Benglis, an iconic feminist figure whose sensual and corporeal forms complicate the relationship between body and sculpture, and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd who celebrates pop culture in exuberant performances. During the opening weekend additional exhibitions and performances followed, including ‘Adhesive Products’, a group show at Bergen Kunsthall. The show explores Robert Pincus-Witten’s notion of ‘the frozen gesture’ through the lens of Benglis’s work, alongside the work of other artists (Nairy Baghramian, Olga Balema, Daiga Grantina, Sterling Ruby and Kaari Upson), whose sculptures are characterized by the use of bold colors, gooey textures and a fluid materiality.

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Obviously, there is no single formula for reinventing the format of a perennial art exhibition, which will always remain a tricky endeavor. Yet, the Bergen Assembly’s second edition may well become an example for future triennials to come of a project that eagerly put itself at risk by radically rethinking the event’s infrastructure and temporal framework. Turning itself in a slow-paced infrastructure, it succeeded at enabling a quite a different sort of experience, one that draws on study, research and participation, and adopts a collective rather than singular authorial voice. The different projects have warmly invited the visitors in the city of Bergen to engage in unlikely conversations, be it with a coffee at the Partisan Café or during a deep listening session in an empty pool. 

Website Bergen Assembly 

Laura Herman

is criticus en curator

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