For many, this year’s Venice Biennale has had a veil drawn over it; one that draws us back to core questions concerning any ‘Utopia of Access’ – the theme of the Research Pavilion. For artists around the world, most directly, perhaps, those living in the south of England, the death of artist Khadija Saye, one of the victims of the appalling fire in the high-rise building in West London known as Grenfell Tower, circles about the Biennale in a manner hauntingly reminiscent of the smoky greys she employed in her silkscreen prints. Saye’s mission to recover ‘diaspora’ as an artistic category could not alter her real-life situation; utopian access in one arena – Venice – was not matched by the more everyday right-of-entry in another – a safe home in which to live.
Confronted with this brutal juxtaposition, can the philosophical allure of Utopia feel anything but irrelevant; and what might this mean for the relevance of this year’s Venice Biennale? The festival’s manifestations are akin to the city’s geography, with its pavilions separated by inky canals and accessible by restricted means (usually by boat). Canals create, and become, margins, places to cross or navigate, but sites of their own meaning as well.
Separation – the denial of access – creates hierarchies but it is the situation of those at the extreme margins of this separation that highlights this most forcibly; in reflecting upon their plight, our attention is drawn further and further towards the liquid margin that is the enforced dwelling-space of the most comprehensively disenfranchised. Venice is at the centre of a spider’s web of travel routes converging upon its strange, unstable, historically-saturated location. Just as its own destiny is inseparable from its inexorable descent into the waters of the lagoon, its cultural attractive force is one that can both engulf the individual visitor and contributes to its own millimetre-by-millimetre inundation. As with other great centres of cultural tourism, ‘La Serenissima’ is being forced to ask difficult questions about access: how to establish priorities and maintain order.
Art-forms in Venice have their own order and prioritisation; the Camino Events pavilion with its music research was a marginal event, outside the Biennale mainstream and physically distant from it, as if the general message of utopian access and the arcane nature of the inner workings of art-music might somehow be impossible to reconcile. Many non-musician artists might concur with this sense of music’s inaccessibility – especially in its most recondite classical and contemporary manifestations. They might also lay the blame for this upon musicians themselves. But is there something more intrinsic to music’s nature as a sonorous art-form, and what does this mean for music’s place in a utopia of access?
There is an association between the denial of access to social and economic security that results in the deaths of Saye and others and the sense of ‘privilege’ that stills surrounds art-music as it is conceived and practised in the West. It is imbued with a forbidding combination of ‘pastness’ and chauvinism with aggressively contemporary elitism and a naively arrogant marginalisation of differently-situated musics; this mixture, in turn and paradoxically, condemns it to the role of ‘Other’ – within the spectrum of musical expression and among the cultural community at large.
However much such criticisms of the contemporary state of art-music may be justified, music in all its manifestations has something of the quality of the inky water of the canals; it draws its meaning through the measured passing of time, obscure in its depths and ungraspable by the eye. Beyond any barriers of privilege that it may have wilfully erected around itself, it is arguably the hardest of the artistic media to pin down, to illuminate and to open up as an ‘authorised’ artistic space for all.
But is part of the concept of a utopian access involved precisely with accessing the supposedly unauthorised spaces? If so, while in many ways more marginal than ever, perhaps music also retains a potential for resistance by virtue of its being without clear margins. Survivors of Grenfell Tower sing hymns in memory of those they have lost; music also echoes up and down the Venetian streets, seeping out of the city’s places of enclosure: many pieces within the Camino events have involved musical wanderings, leaving the site and returning.
What would a Venice Biennale primarily devoted to music be like? Or is such a prospect doomed, as with any utopian project, to remain an unrealisable vision?
Vice Rector for Research
Director of the Arne Nordheim Centre for Artistic Research
Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo