Berlin Art Week 2020 starts today in circumstances unlike anything encountered in previous years. Or so we think, hear, and read. After all, the activities organised by Berlin Art Week’s numerous project partners—along with Berlin Gallery Weekend, which shifted its traditional May dates to autumn for well-known reasons, and Manifesta in Marseille—represent the first major art events since the widely implemented lockdown. So expectations are high. After all, nobody really knows how it will all work: an art week with staggered openings, social distancing, and hygiene rules in place—one without all the socialising, the community, the meeting, the exchange, and the necessary density. This year (you think, you hear, you read) everything is fragile and precarious and provisional. New, basically.
But is everything really so different? So entirely new? Not at all. For sure things like face masks, keeping a 1.5-metre distance from fellow humans, and pre-bookable time slots for exhibition visits were unimaginable at this same time last year. But everything else? Many of the issues addressed in Berlin Art Week exhibitions and events have been on the radar for some time now. Perhaps we’re only seeing them differently now. It had long been clear that things can’t go on like this indefinitely: sustainability has been part of the discussion for a while, as has the opportunities and possibilities of increasing digitalisation; there has been talk of cutting back and the end of frequent flying. Vulnerability, care work, and infrastructural thinking have been on the agenda for years, as had dialogue about structural inequalities and questions of exclusion. Whether we noticed it—or better, whether we could afford not to notice it—had once been a question of perspective and privilege. Even the ›old normal‹ was a dearly bought illusion. Returning to it is not an option. But neither is postulating a new one. Instead it is a matter of consciously making use of the openness of the situation, all problems and difficulties aside.
One good example is the massive push for digitisation and the lockdown-necessitated movement of many activities online. The art world also quickly shifted to digital formats in spring, from so-called online viewing rooms to conferences and performance events via Zoom. Berlin Art Week followed suit and—with the online journal in which this text appears and the so-called playlist—created a digital space in which those involved in Berlin Art Week can have their say, topics can be negotiated and, most importantly, events can be broadcast or videos and podcasts hosted online. Live events and pre-produced content, but also streamed audio content from Cashmere Radio and SavvyZaar, Savvy Contemporary’s new radio station, will be available here.
Not that art is abandoning the real space of institutions in particular and the city in general. On the contrary. The question as to how these spaces can be redefined is an integral part of the discussion. Hans Haacke’s poster work ›We (all) are the people‹ is on view throughout the city outside of some of Berlin Art Week’s partner institutions. And Cashmere Radio for example, defines itself as both a publicly accessible space and as a digital stream that can be accessed from anywhere. And as Nadim Julien Samman—the KW Institute for Contemporary Art’s new Curator Digital Sphere, responsible for the Berlin Art Week talk and event programme ›EC(centri)City—Die exzentrische Stadt‹ at the Akademie der Künste (AdK)—said of the contrast between online vs. offline exhibitions in one of the first interviews we posted here in the journal: »It is not a question of either/or. How could it be? The trajectory is towards convergence—layered propositions.«
Layering seems quite the apt description. And it could apply equally well to the relationship between local and global. In another Journal interview Ariane Beyn, curator of the ›Readings From Below‹ exhibition at Times Art Center Berlin, notes just that. She speaks to the fact that institutions would have to act at both the local level and be digitally, internationally networked. Although this has basically been the case for several years now, what is new is the need for multi-track thinking and overlapping at the same—along with the obvious connection and integration. Perhaps there is also another way to consider the relationship between local and global: as a loose archipelago of various different elements that interact with one another but nevertheless operate autonomously and according to their respective peculiarities; units oriented towards specific depth and local density that are still connected to one another—and between which there may also be gaps.
The same thing that applies to space can also be said of time. After all, Berlin Art Week is defined in its name not only in terms of place—as decentralised as it has always been within the city—but in time. Up to now, the five days of this week have obeyed a certain dramaturgy of openings and events. This year is different. Openings are day-long affairs, and distinctions between various sections and categories have largely been dissolved. The 11th Berlin Biennale, also one of the Berlin Art Week programme partners, already opened last week.
It seems like a strange coincidence that the exhibition, which was originally planned for June and postponed until autumn, now presents a kind of prologue for Berlin Art Week. It was, after all, intended as an ›epilogue‹ for a programme that, long before the pandemic, had been trying to undermine the event character of blockbuster events and counteract it with long-term projects and various sequential moments known as ›experiences‹. The four curators wanted to create more space for sustainable relations, for discussions, for actual encounters, for complex situations—for something deliberately diffuse in content, space, and time. Because work of substance takes time. And yet the deeper something delves into (infra)structures, the more invisible it sometimes becomes even to an outside audience and the more difficult it is to mediate—and the more it resists exploitation in the extractive sense. As with the Berlin Biennale, many of the threads running through this present have long been exposed. The question is which ones to actively pick up. And how they can be woven together.