Contour 2013: Sixth Biennial of Moving Image
24 August - 3 November 2013
Review by Pieter Vermeulen
The sixth edition of Contour - the Biennial of Moving Image in Mechelen, Belgium - is entitled ‘Leisure, Discipline and Punishment’, a triptych of themes running parallel with the deliberate choice of exhibition venues: a football stadium, a church and a prison. The title inevitably recalls Michel Foucault’s famous book ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’, even though the curator prefers to avoid any straightforward interpretation. Jacob Fabricius (b.1970) is the director of the Kunsthal Charlottenburg in Copenhagen. Throughout his career, Fabricius has expressed his interest in a direct dialogue between artist and curator, often leading to innovative formats such as a hitchhiking exhibition (‘Auto Stop’, 2008) or ‘Art Calls’ (1997), an art project with answering machines.
This year, Contour has set up a collaboration with three other biennials, in Liverpool, Göteborg and Ljubljana, facilitating the commission of two new video pieces for each location, supported by the European Cultural Programme. Mechelen, a mid-sized city in Flanders, has built up a reputation for hosting notable contemporary art events, with ‘Newtopia’ as a recent example (autumn 2012), an exhibition about human rights by Brussels-based curator Katerina Gregos. Around the same time, an ambitious and architecturally cunning new museum for the Holocaust and the Human Rights was erected. In addition, Hof Van Busleyden, a beautiful former 16th-century palace in the city centre, is now being rebuilt, extended and renovated, temporarily housing the central exhibition of Contour. The works are displayed in the basement of the building, in a large, symmetrical scaffold structure.
It all started two years ago, just before the end of the previous edition, when Jacob Fabricius invited Belgian artist Sven Augustijnen to participate in his ongoing, long-term project ‘Old News’. By asking individual artists to collect articles, images and words from newspapers over a certain period of time, the project redistributes and rearranges the information we consume on a daily basis. Using ‘The International Herald Tribune’ as his primary source, Augustijnen has been gathering newspaper clippings for over two years, the result of which can be seen and read in the exhibition.
So what does this have to do with the moving image, one might ask’ It’s clear that the curator has a rather unusual take on the subject, and rightly so. ‘Sending a postcard from one location to another is a moving image already,’ he explains, referring to the narrative work of the Brazilian artist Pablo Pijnappel, who is presenting a series of twelve postcards, recalling the story of an old friend. At the start of the exhibition, we see a video piece by Harun Farocki, ‘How to Live in the FRG’ (1990). The artist assembled different instructional videos from Germany before the unification, exposing the deceitful nature of our Western so-called freedom of choice. Further on, there is a new video by artist duo Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys, much in the same line as their previous idiosyncratic works. ‘The Brown of Mechelen’ combines generic shots of the city centre, with a voice-over telling the most absurd anecdotes. Apart from its absurdism, the alienating effect it creates can be read as a subtle comment on Flanders’ ever-increasing political narrow-mindedness.
More directly connected to the theme of the biennial is a work by New York-based Liz Magic Laser, who is showing a collection of film posters. Starting from selected scenes in these films, she created a choreography together with Lisbeth Gruwez, restaging tumultuous incidents with prison inmates.
The same blending of reality and fiction is characteristic of Keren Cytter, whose videos exemplify a continuous attempt at deconstructing the conventional visual language and narrative structure of the film format. Her newly commissioned video, ‘Corrections’, is presented in a church along with a number of works by other artists. Despite the fact that the curator can readily explain the glass windows as a ‘simplistic form of the moving image,’ this exhibition venue seems to lack a certain necessity. Displaying works in locations such as the church or the prison, loaded with a specific history, meaning and imagery, requires a difficult balancing act between the literal and the open-ended. These places impose certain rules or codes, spoken and unspoken, to the artist, the curator or the visitor. At the same time, this is what inspired David Shrigley, whose short animation films are also included in the show, to make a series of posters entitled ‘Rules of the Prison / Rules of the Church / Rules of the Stadium’, humourously summing up a list of rules of conduct for each location.
In anticipation of the biennial, other artists have been invited to engage with the local context and thus produce new work. Dutch artist Paul Hendrikse, for instance, turned the sounds and behaviours of football supporters into a musical score, which were then reperformed by the same people. During the summer of 2013, young Belgian artist Sarah Vanhee worked with prison inmates, engaging them in a kind of screaming workshop, disrupting the silence and anonymity of the environment.
And still, after seeing all these socially engaged artistic practices, one might ask oneself: who is Contour really meant for’ Who is the public, who the audience, who’s in and who’s out’ Despite the swollen rhetoric of most biennials, these lines are often traced in an invisible and unspoken way. So perhaps the apparatus of the biennial, a complex whole of codes, rules and norms, would have been interesting to add as a fourth item on the list.