Playing the Long Game: BAK on Curating the Political

Alice Creischer, In the Stomach of the Predators, 2013-2014, installation view (fragment), BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2014. (photography: Tom Janssen).

On screen, a wolf, a jackal, a hyena and a bear undertake a symbolic journey, traveling from the arctic island of Spitsbergen, to the grasslands of Benin, and on to Istanbul. Dressed in bulky coats affixed with esoteric accessories, the animals' heads are blank profiles, revealing as much as the faceless and exploitative institutions that they represent: Wall Street, Monsanto and other less familiar yet equally rapacious corporations, developers and interests. They are darkly vicious predators, yet the absurd situations they encounter, and their ill-fitting costumes and flat animal heads reveal the action as a grotesque theatre, a Brechtian farce.

Andreas Siekmann, In the Stomach of the Predators, 2013-2014, installation view (fragment), BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2014. (photography: Tom Janssen).

In some way, doesn't all political art become a kind of grotesque theatre, or didactic lecture? Artists Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann acknowledge and amplify this question in their exhibition In the Stomach of the Predators currently showing at BAK (basis voor actuele kunst) in Utrecht, Netherlands. Creischer's unsettling yet comedic video, as it has been described, owes much to Charlie Chaplin in its portrayal of societal ills. Her partner Siekmann, on the other hand, embraces the didactic in political art, employing the educative iconography of simple pictograms -- reminiscent of Gerd Arntz's famous designs -- to reduce the complex webs of capitalism to readable panels.

Alice Creischer, In the Stomach of the Predators, 2013-2014, installation view (fragment), BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2014. (photography: Tom Janssen).

In the Stomach of the Predators is the result of research conducted by the artists -- over several years, many exhibitions, and two biennials (in Benin and Istanbul) -- concerning the control of corporate biotech and agribusiness over the world's food supply. The centerpiece of their research concerns the Svalbard Global Seed Vault located on Spitsbergen, an underground storehouse of all extant crop seeds, intended to preserve their strains for future use in case of disaster or extinction.  It is quickly revealed that this seed library is in fact funded by the same corporate lobbies that have contributed to genetic modification and the decrease of biodiversity in worldwide crop production, as farmers gradually go from farming heritage seeds passed down through the generations to seeds bought from industrial agribusinesses like Syngenta and Monsanto.

Aernout Mik, Cardboard Walls, 2013, installation view (fragment), BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2014. (photography: Gert Jan van Rooij)

The exhibition, a product of many years of research, supplements the research that is being conducted at BAK. In the Stomach of the Predators is one aspect of a year-long curatorial focus dedicated to the topic of "Survival" at BAK. An installation and video by Aernout Mik entitled "Cardboard Walls" inaugurated the Survival series, which has been augmented by talks, discussions, and lectures on topics such as "The Commons as the Survival of the 'Public,'" and "Critique of the Ideology of 'Post-isms.'" The subject is an apt one, considering the delicate status of the survival of non-profit arts and culture centers in the Netherlands, following the recent sweeping budget cuts to the cultural sector due to the ascendancy of right-wing politicians there.

BAK, however, is more than a cultural center or an art gallery. Part think-tank, part research incubator, part publisher, part art space, part political instigator, BAK employs a radically different mode of operation than galleries and museums where art exhibitions are the primary principle and product. At BAK, exhibitions form only one component of long stretches of research devoted to particular topics of importance to the study of the contemporary condition. The investigation of the notion of Survival took place over the course of months, beginning in February of 2014, and is just one part of a two-year project, Future Vocabularies, which will span the years 2014-2016. This in turn stems from and comprises the concluding phase of an even longer-term project, FORMER WEST, which began in 2008.

New World Academy #4, The Art of Creating a State, at BAK (photography by Ernie Buts)

In these long-term research, exhibition, education and publication projects, BAK participants -- researchers, scholars, artists, activists and students -- engage in the critical study of subjects of paramount worldwide importance, topics that require sustained attention and scholarship. The FORMER WEST project, for instance, using the year 1989 as a departure point, examines the effects of the resulting global neoliberal landscape, whilst imagining and speculating on possible post-national futures. It's a topic that could potentially be dealt with in one exhibition, publication or biennial, but benefits from the long-term approach, which allows for evolving positions involving multiple perspectives from artists, theorists, and activists from all over the globe.

In a rapidly proliferating contemporary art world, with attention spans becoming shorter and shorter, this kind of extended contemplation as curatorial model is exceptionally rare. While most art spaces' trajectories simply lead from one exhibition to the next, BAK's foundation of long-term investigations resembles instead the research a scholar undertakes for a dissertation, but -- crucially -- through art and dialogue rather than solitary study and writing. The social, dialogic, and expositional elements of BAK's undertaking proposes alternative methods of disseminating knowledge that depart from traditional text-based learning; BAK also produces publications but does not privilege them over its other manifestations.

New World Academy #4, The Art of Creating a State, at BAK (photography by Ernie Buts)

Parallel to BAK's long-term research projects is its educational platform, "Learning Place." The Survival semester, for instance, was accompanied by a 16-week curriculum for in-depth discussion and participation alongside the various facets of the wider project. While an educational component seems like a natural fit for a program so invested in dialogue and research, the Learning Place platform also critically serves as a "site of talent development." With this recent course's subheading of "Curating the Political," BAK seems to be investing in future curators -- yet another long-term focus, and one that will surely impact and influence the art world going forward.

Curating political art certainly proves to be a challenging endeavor, particularly in a contemporary art environment so geared towards commercial work. While many institutions may pay lip service to political and critical art and perspectives, BAK provides a real model of engagement with the urgent and complex issues that the world faces today. Art, after all, may simply be theatre, but the jackals, hyenas, wolves, and bears of the world are very real.