Museum of Non-Participation
The Embassy of non Participation
Sydney Biennale
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  • Sydney Biennale Text

    The 20th Biennale of Sydney, inspired by a quote from leading science fiction author William Gibson, is titled The future is already here its just not evenly distributed. This edition of the Biennale will be presented at seven main venues conceived as embassies of thought. (An embassy traditionally functions as a state within a state: a host country characteristically allows the embassy control of a specific territory, a system that enables the occupation and creation of new spaces in other lands.) It is this metaphor we are looking to develop when thinking about the themes for the Biennale and Sydney. Understood more as temporary settings rather than fixed locales places as transient homes for constellations of thought the embassies are: Cockatoo Island (Embassy of the Real); Art Gallery of New South Wales (Embassy of Spirits); Carriageworks (Embassy of Disappearance); Artspace (Embassy of Non-Participation); Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (Embassy of Translation); and a bookshop (Embassy of Stanislaw Lem). For the first time a former train station used solely for funerary purposes, Mortuary Station (Embassy of Transition) will be a Biennale venue.

    Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal said: If each era posits its own view of reality, what is ours? One of the key ideas this Biennale explores is how the common distinction between the virtual and the physical has become ever more elusive. The embassies are inspired by the unique locations and individual histories of the venues; they will provide safe spaces for thinking that convene for the three-month duration of the Biennale. A focus on in-between spaces is key: in terms of our interaction with the digital world, the blurred boundaries between art forms and the interconnection between politics and financial power structures.

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  • Artspace Press Release

    Interrogating the politics of participation is especially relevant to Artspace as the host site for what is to be the final iteration of The Museum of Non Participation. For more than 30 years, Artspace has existed as an alternative space dedicated to the presentation of contemporary and experimental art in a critical context. Along with existing works, the artists spent two months in residence at Artspace developing new works that draw on the rich history of the building and its surrounds, including its naval heritage, its use as an artists squat in the 1970s, issues facing the Indigenous communities of Woolloomooloo, the environmental activism of the Green Bans and ongoing gentrification in the area.

    The multifaceted exhibition at Artspace is conceptualised as an infinity loop, which branches out in two directions linked through a central space near the entrance to the gallery. Here visitors are presented with two adjacent doors that offer different access points to the exhibition, and through which one must return to complete the picture. Mirza and Butler riff off Duchamps bespoke door in his tiny Paris apartment which was famously hinged on a jamb shared by two openings, thus serving two thresholds and three rooms simultaneously. A door that closes in one direction opens in another.

  • Uroboros, 2016
    sound, 27 minutes, looped

    At the entry point to The Museum of Non Participation at Artspace, visitors will find themselves immediately immersed in a spectrum of sound. Sound therapy which utilises frequencies and vibrational properties to induce states of meditation, relaxation and healing, as well as brain waves associated with daydreaming and imagining has been used for centuries across cultures from chanting to didgeridoos and Tibetan singing bowls. For this new audio work, Mirza and Butler have collaborated with musician Siri Sadhana, creating what is known as a gong bath or meditation to literally and metaphorically set the tone for the exhibition. This sonic antechamber provides a moment of pause or reset before crossing the threshold.

    Letter to the Left, 2016
    ink on paper

    On view here is another new work created especially for the 20th Biennale of Sydney that acts as a kind of premise to the exhibition at large. It draws on Ursula Le Guins utopian sci-fi novel of 1974, The Dispossessed, which details radically different societies on two close planets: Urras, on which there are multiple states each with their own governing body; and Anarres, with no government or economic system. Shevek is the books protoganist who travels between the two and who reappears in Mirza and Butlers Museum. Like Le Guins celebrated classic, the range of works presented across the galleries tap into notions both utopic and dystopic: anarchy, revolution, individualism, collectivism, capitalism, power, resistance, agency and freedom.

    Letter to the Left

  • 3. ACT 01788, 2016
    digitally-printed wallpaper and ink on paper

    Shevek resurfaces in the narrative of ACT 01788, intermingled with another text that is key to Mirza and Butlers project Silvia Federicis formative 2004 study, Caliban and the Witch, which examines the body and, in particular, womens bodies, in relationship to the transition from feudal to capitalist society. The ground for this work is a bespoke wallpaper created by the artists during their residency at Artspace which depicts a repeat pattern of hand-drawn imagery relating to local and global incidents of protest and resistance. Gleaned from a wide range of historical and artistic sources, images include a 1969 remonstration in front of the Chicago Federal Building by the Womens International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.); an image of rose-shooting guns by street artist Shepard Fairey, itself appropriating a 1968 propaganda poster from the Chinese Cultural Revolution; the mythological harpy, a rapacious half-woman, half-bird monster whose name has come to refer to mean, nagging or predatory females; children jumping off the wharves at Woolloomooloo; iconic first contact imagery; and the International Monument that celebrates migration and the multi-ethnic community of Fairfield.

    Mirza and Butler have appropriated the form of ornate colonial wallpaper, which initially may appear an innocuous form of decoration, but was a method for wealthy imperialists to transport a taste of Mother England to their new home in the colonies. These wallpapers sometimes depicted the so-called discoveries of explorers, such as Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, produced in France in the early nineteenth-century and based on the expedition accounts of Cook and La Prouse. Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia.

  • 4. Hold Your Ground, 2012
    HD video, 7 minutes 57 seconds. Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, London

    Hold Your Ground is inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, and triggered by the artists discovery in Cairo of a pamphlet of instructions for prodemocracy demonstrators called How to Protest Intelligently. With specific instructions around what to wear, where to meet, what to say and who to speak to, the pamphlet provided a series of ideas or tools for the citizen attempting to resist the state. Hold Your Ground dissects the semantics of the crowd and the resulting performative speech act; it calls forth the struggle to turn fugitive sounds into speech. Including archive footage from demonstrations in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Egypt, the piece predominantly focuses on a character that both attempts to teach and struggles to speak a language of protest.

    5. Everything for Everyone and Nothing for Us, 2014
    HD video, 9 minutes. Commissioned by Hayward Gallery, London

    A companion piece to the previous work, Everything for Everyone and Nothing for Us is set in a TV studio, where a protester-intraining listens to audio extracts from a political speech by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Having absorbed the sounds, the protester uses movement to exorcise Thatchers voice, retraining the body to resist capitalism.

  • 6. How to Protest Intelligently, 2013
    A4 paper and ink, series of 9

    This series, displayed alongside the two video works mentioned above, consists of real advice and propositions for protesters (Shoes that make it easy to run and move quickly; Scarf to protect your mouth and lungs from tear gas) overlaid with the artists graphic interventions that translate Arabic phonemes the building blocks of spoken words into idiosyncratic choreographic and musical scores. These layers of the real and the imagined, combine to create an absurdist manifesto, highlighting the difficulties of participation and non-participation alike.

  • 7. The Ectoplasm of Neoliberalism, 2015
    digitally-printed silks, 272 x 250cm each, series of 8 (6 of 8 exhibited)

    The Ectoplasm of Neoliberalism is a meditation on the vaporisation and condensation of structural violence and its effect on the individual body and its nervous system in relation to our collective social body. Taking the form of large-scale silk collages, each image is drawn from Mirzas research into radical and psychic archives, looking for a confluence of occult and radical politics.

  • 8. ACT 02084, 2016
    digitally-printed wallpaper and framed screenprint, 87 x 87cm

    ACT 02084 adopts the semiotics of the ubiquitous airline safety card, using its comic-like visual form to tell a specific and true story of collective resistance. Mirza and Butlers practice aligns with activist politics, highlighting the ways in which we are all interconnected and complicit in one anothers lives, and holds a space for suppressed voices, histories and knowledge. Their focus is on making withdrawal visible, facilitating and acknowledging individual and collective agency. The wallpaper behind again, developed by the artists in Sydney using digitally-scanned hand-drawn imagery shows the ancient symbol of the uroboros, a snake or dragon eating its own tail, associated with notions of self-reflexivity, renewal and cyclicality. The uroboros has been described in Jungian psychology in archetypal terms as a representation of the pre-ego dawn state the undifferentiated infancy experience of all humankind.

  • 9. You are the Prime Minister, 2015
    neon, desks, chairs, Eton College Kings Scholarship Examination 2011

    Lit up in neon, You are the Prime Minister becomes an empowering invitation to take up the title role in a fantasy fiction. The statement is the start of a longer question drawn from a real scholarship exam for thirteen-year-old boys entering Eton College, an elite school that educated 19 of Britains prime ministers and 12 members of the current government. In response to this question, each young candidate is required to argue for the necessary and moral use of military force against civilian protesters, at his command. The examination question was leaked to the public by activists in 2011, the same year that riots spread across the UK in response to the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by police investigating gun crime in the black community.

    10. The Unreliable Narrator, 2014.15
    two-channel video, 17 minutes

    The Unreliable Narrator narrates the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which ten young men associated with Lashkar-e Taiba, a radical Pakistani Islamist group, carried out a series of 12 coordinated attacks lasting four days and killing over 160 people. The video is sourced from CCTV recordings of the siege, an interview with the lone surviving gunman, a Bollywood reimagining of events, together with conversations between the attackers and their controllers, who directed their actions via satellite and mobile phones and VoIP. Alternating between the position of the terrorists and that of a seemingly impartial commentator, the piece suggests that the event was performed for the benefit of news cameras: This is just a trailer, the main feature is yet to come.

    The works connects with an ongoing project called The Patriarchal Clock, which explores womens bodies as sites of resistance and celebrates womens solidarity, strength and power in the face of violence, abuse, racism and oppression.

    Clockwise from left

    ii) We are the granddaughters of the witches you werent able to burn, 2016
    handmade textile, 117 x 170cm

    iii) THESE ARE NIGHT THOUGHTS..., 2016
    extract in vinyl from The Patriarchal Clock, first published for No One Belongs Here More Than You, The Living Archive: Curating Feminist Knowledge, 54th October Salon, a collaborative project of the Cultural Centre of Belgrade and the feminist curatorial collective Red Min(e)d, 2013.

    iv) The Patriarchal Clock, 2016
    handmade textile, 116 x 100cm

    Window Vitrine
    Extract in vinyl from The Patriarchal Clock, op. cit.