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The Biennial of Very Fine People, On Both Sides

By SDLD50, 12 September 2018

Further Thoughts on the Athens Biennale

The Fash and the Spurious: Rightward Drift

The Biennial of Very Fine People, On Both Sides


In 2017, Shut Down LD50 encountered Daniel Keller as one of the prominent voices opposed to protests to shut down the LD50 gallery space after it was revealed to have hosted an extensive programme of talks by racists and activists on the extreme right. Keller is not himself a fascist, but he represents a tendency that is familiar in the contemporary artworld, of mediocre liberal ‘commentators’ who position themselves as experts in contemporary right-wing culture, appear in many ways to enjoy it, and who experience terrible convulsions of indignation whenever anyone tries to get it the fuck out of their face. 

The latest victim of Keller’s litigious free-speech ass-scratching is the artist Luke Turner. Turner objected first to the artist Deanna Havas belittling him after he received anti-Semitic abuse online (which she seemed to endorse), and then to Keller’s upstanding attempt to leap to Havas’s defence, on the grounds that Turner has more industry visibility than she does. (The fact that this could have something to do with Havas’s deserved rep as a right-wing goon was bracketed in Keller’s account, presumably because he cares so deeply about class solidarity.) Turner then wrote to the curators of the Athens Biennale, at which both he and Keller were due to present work, and demanded that the curators disinvite Keller for facilitating the abuse. The curators refused to do so, and Turner published an open letter announcing his withdrawal. On 4 September the curators responded by declaring that ‘We will not participate in attempts to silence another anti-fascist Jewish voice, that of Daniel Keller, or other voices against anti-semitism’ and that ‘Turner’s public address is false, defamatory and contributes to the trivialization of the issues it purportedly addresses’. 

By attacking a victim of anti-Semitic abuse, the curators accuse a Jewish artist of trivialising anti-Semitism by protesting it. This is as unacceptable as it is absurd. By reproducing almost verbatim Daniel Keller’s slanders against Luke Turner (‘trivialisation’, 'defamation’, etc.), ANTI are de facto defending a posture of constructive ‘engagement’ with the far right, while gesturing inanely towards the need to 'host’ opposition to it. Their merely verbal fence-sitting conceals a practical partisanship. 

In support of Turner, SDLD50 would like to note the following: 

·         The curators’ attack on Turner, their refusal to take seriously his experience of anti-Semitic threats and provocations by online abusers, and the extraordinary upside-down logic of their self-representation as defenders of ‘anti-fascist Jewish voice[s]’,  is totally continuous with the crushing stupidity of their pet project. The Biennial’s vision of ‘ANTI’ (the name of this year’s Biennial) as an ‘attitude’, as non-conformity detached from any definite political orientation, and of ‘marginality’ abstracted from social history, is presented as a daring transgression of rigidified political correctness. It is in fact a badly written celebration of the ‘pleasure’ of political centrism.  

·         This 'pleasure’ operates on many different scales. It is at once the ‘sense of humour’ that Daniel Keller says that Luke Turner should develop when it comes to getting attacked again and again and again by alt-right anti-Semites on the internet, and the general sense of relief that the ruling political class experiences when it clings on to political power by implementing stricter border controls. (The fact that the curators of the Athens Biennale are too distracted by their own verbiage to recognise this, is all part of the joke.) 

·         Anti-fascist culture begins with an acknowledgement of the situation we’re facing. Nazis attacking migrants in the streets in Chemnitz, African trade unionists gunned down in the fields in Sicily, British prime ministerial candidates publishing crude slurs against Muslim women, people living impossible, illegal and invisible lives, facing brutal hardship, fear and death, and managing nevertheless to organize, to form bonds of solidarity with working-class people in the communities to which they move, to create lives for themselves and organisations of self-defence. ANTI begins with a list of places where middle-class artists go to spend the money that they earn by making a mockery of all that, with a ‘migration office’ thrown in for good measure: ‘[T]he gym, the office, the tattoo studio, the dating website, the migration office, the shopping mall, the nightclub, the church, the dark room’.

·         More important in this case than the issue of platforming or non-platforming is a basic strategic choice. Do we resist fascism by (i) 'engaging’ with its advocates, befriending them online, and winking at their abusiveness (as Deanna Havas patently does), perhaps while producing jocular 'summaries’ of their culture for publication in liberal arts magazines; or do we do so by (ii) fighting fascists, denying them access to our spaces and refusing to tolerate their provocations? A simple experiment for anyone who wants to answer this question: check out just how many fascists, misogynists and Trump supporters proliferate in the Social Media timelines of those who choose to fight the good fight by doing outreach in the fascist community.   

Fascist tendencies thrive in cultural environments organized around the principle that there are some very fine pleasures on both sides. By reproducing Keller’s slanders against Luke Turner ('trivialisation’, 'defamation’, etc.), the curators of the Athens Biennale only prove how widespread in the artworld that principle is. They say that ‘ANTI is not a neutral discussion platform but an agonistic space hosting different approaches on how to deal with ominous tendencies in politics and culture. Diverse voices are essential to initiate a meaningful discussion on how to combat such issues. Dealing with these controversial issues is the exact core of the conceptual framework of the exhibition and denotes the urgency of ANTI’. But all that this amounts to is yet another confirmation of the disabling self-regard of the bourgeois arts professional for whom nothing is more urgent,or more terrifyingly under threat,  than the ‘diverse’, ‘meaningful’, ‘controversial’, and ‘agonistic’ sound of their own voice, along with all of the vulnerable adjectives that they are paid by the word to say in it. 

SDLD50 supports Luke Turner in calling out anti-Semitism where he sees it. We stand behind him, also, in rejecting the glib, ersatz ‘anti-fascism’ that sets more value on the perpetrator’s ‘experience of ambiguity, polarity and contrariness’, than it does on the victim’s unambiguous self-defence. 


Anti- by Horrible Gif

Image: Horrible Gif