Bucharest Biennale 4

Handlung. On Producing Possibilities.
by Felix Vogel

"It is because of this already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it 'produces' stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things. These stories may then be recorded in documents and monuments, they may be visible in use objects or art works, they may be told and retold and worked into all kinds of material."
Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition (1958)

I. Handlung

Is there a difference between actions and stories? The German term Handlung serves not so much as a translation for both words, but much sooner it refers to the very semantic level. It is impossible to differentiate 'actions' from 'stories', both meanings are intrinsically linked to each other and generate each other. It is exactly this ambiguity of Handlung that should be stressed here and be made productive. The 4th Bucharest Biennale suggests an experimental set-up to scrutinize different modes of action, possible courses and capabilities of action. It will try to examine various stories, interweaved plots, and fictions and how all this is bound to or detached from concepts of agency. How is agency proposed and what instructions for taking action are necessary or have to be developed? We will examine practices that criticize, rewrite, correct or queer established narratives as well as yet other forms that play with the set of conditions of constructing narrations and history. It will be about the appearing of things in the blinding bright light that shines out of the public realm. With this project, we will investigate how, who, and where these possibilities of action are produced, how one can intervene in common patterns and how other and new possibilities of Handlung can be generated. In a critical manner, the set-up of this project will be based on the urban and spatial organization of Bucharest with its different historical and political layers and thus trying to examine how urban structures and architecture act as agents to allow, interdict and produce Handlungen.

II. The public sphere: Action, emancipation and dissent

The public sphere - and therefore our whole living together - is structured through various forms of Handlungen. Handlungen have the very potential to make things visible, to find a form of communicating this, hence Handlungen are responsible for the becoming of the public sphere. In other words it can be said that every single change, every single movement is based on different modes of action, which need to be narrated. Nevertheless, not everything that is happening or everything that one can speak about is automatically Handlung. In her book The Human Condition, published in 1958, Hanna Arendt distinguishes between three major human activities: labor, work and action. According to Arendt, labor corresponds to the human body and vital necessities, while work "corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence". Only action is "the only activity that goes on directly between man without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality" and it is also the activity that allows an entering into the public realm. This short definition shows that action is a very open and general concept, but it does not include all activities and every speech act and is, despite all similarities in Arendt's thinking, not equate to Aristotle's conception of politics. Nevertheless, all this happens in the public realm and consequently the Greek polis can still be described as the clearest realization with its division in oikos (private household for labor and work) and agorá (public space of the polis for action). We will see later how these parameters of public and private space have changed and consider possibilities and necessities of their reactivation. With Arendt, Handlung can be valued as the inner logic of emancipation, because it makes political action possible and finds a form to narrate it. Another interesting view - that touches on the recent state of democracy and on the possibilities of art in this context -linked to this is Chantal Mouffe's conception on the so-called 'post-political society'. Mouffe's analysis takes its starting point at the absence of dissent. She observes that there is a strong model of consensus located in the centre of today's politics, arguing not only that there are no alternatives, but that the logic of consensus politics prevents any form of disagreement. Nevertheless Mouffe observes a never-ending dimension of conflict and antagonism - which she transforms in 'agonism' that has a lesser enemy connotation - which is supposedly ever present in the 'radical heart of democracy'. This agonistic model can be one possibility in saving or establishing a radically democratic society that is based on various layers of disagreements, which are rationally accepted as disagreements. If today's 'official politics' is not producing possibilities of actions and if a culture of dissent became extinct, the question then is: How can new possibilities of action - new possibilities of and for Handlung - be produced and what kinds of interventions are necessary to interrupt recent (i.e. consensus based) processes? What does disagreement mean and how can it be applied? How do we have to imagine and where can we find those agonistic models?

III. Fiction, narrative and history

At this point we have to remember that this text is about an exhibition, about artistic projects, i.e. fictions. However, fictions become relevant as fictions, if we recognize the formerly 'facts' also as fictions. Reality is - as it was stated earlier - historically constructed and narrated and therefore also art has the very potential to create reality too. It is commonsense to talk about the fact that not only the whole living together, accompanying every action, activity and speech act, is structured through certain rules and regulations, but also the way how certain things and circumstances are narrated in a prearranged way. This distribution of identifications, representations and subjectivations is also based on a spatial organization and a distribution of spaces - be it private housings, public spaces, parliaments or borders. Art - and more general: fictions - can produce those narrations, but it allows doing so differently from the predetermined order, respectively breaking it and producing new forms as well as different models of identification. Just recall the numerous events, which established breaks and discontinuities in the established order, not only in the artistic field, but for society as a whole: From Flaubert's novels over the invention of photography as an artistic practice (and thus breaking with established forms of representation) to such groundbreaking art works as Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat.
Having in mind that those Handlungen are ruled by contingency, it does not make a difference, if the outcome of a particular action or how it is narrated was predetermined or if it happened spontaneously or without any impact on its aftermath. Consequently, it would be mistaken to just concentrate on a particular outcome and the agency that a Handlung might or might not produce and how the notion of participation can be productive: the question of how narrations, and the resulting narratives, are constructed seems even more crucial, which also asks for an investigation in the connections or connector joints between the different actors and actions. To put the legitimacy of a narrative into question examines the notion of actions at an earlier stage; it is no longer the 'substance' of the action that is essential for its perception, but the modality in which it is narrated that is the examination of that which leads to and allows its narration. To draw near to this difficulty, the difference of meaning between history and story has to be erased: Each history is fictional and each story is rooted in a particular 'historical' set-up. With Hayden White we can argue that history is a verbal artifact, a narrative prose discourse: The content of history is as much invented and imagined as found. History can never be only factual, found and thus completely "true", because at least the context of certain past events and lived stories (what actually occurred) can impossibly be restored. We can no longer see the "content" of the past as if it were a series of (found) stories, but instead have to regard this as a piece of fiction, because the former is mistaking the narrative form in which historians communicate their knowledge of the past as actually being the past's own. Hayden White goes even further and, in describing narrative as a somehow universal concept for the sharing of reality, highlights the - without explicitly mentioning it - the agency that narratives have: "To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself. So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent [...] or programmatically refused." It is thus not only necessary to carefully observe the purpose and "dispositif" of a certain history - and thus also its object and speaking position (historian/historiographer) - but also how it is narrated and put into a form.

IV. The city of Bucharest as Handlungsraum

Every Handlung needs its particular spatial framework and produces space itself. In the public sphere there is an ongoing reciprocity between space that produces actions and actions that produce space. It is again Hanna Arendt who conceptualizes public space as "the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men." The city of Bucharest shows today's changes and shifts of public space in an exemplary, but yet unique manner and tells different histories and stories of how spatial parameters produce, allow and force Handlung. The way in which Bucharest and its city structure is perceived today - that is its often unregulated, autonomous and rampantly amorphous development - goes back to the very beginning of the city and to each of its dramatic breaks. Because of this deep-rooted historical heritage and still intact structure, Bucharest can yet (or again?) be described as a junction of village-like city quarters, which were in earlier times called 'mahala'. This disordered structure, characterized through undefined boundaries - even in the city centre huge areas were used for agriculture until the end of the 19th century - did not change until mid-19th century, when at least for the inner city small changes in the style of Georges-Eugčne Haussmann were made. This will to an overall appearance and structure was again intensified in the early 20th century. Unique urban landmarks like Nicolae Balcescu Boulevard as a coherent modernist architectural complex in the city centre have just been possible because there was no coherent and functioning old city structure established, which rooted in Romania's belated industrialization. This absence of regulations and fabrics made Bucharest an experimental laboratory for modern town planners and architects. Even though many of the ideas got stuck at an utopian level, the ideas that were developed in the 1920s and 30s in Bucharest were often based on models of communitarian division of space - without being yet connected to institutionalized forms of socialist architecture - and generally the city was understood as a space of possibilities.
Although, the largest change - for the first time due to an all-embracing and applied master plan - for Bucharest's structure occurred undoubtedly during Ceausescu's period. In the 1970s he propagated a new way of structuring housing and living, which was 'supported' by the need for reconstruction due to a devastating earthquake in 1977. Supposed to realize socialist ideals, he proposed a model called 'unități structurale complexe' (complex organizational unit), which is based on a vision of collective social life that collects habitation, education, leisure, medical care as well as commercial needs - of course on the lowest level possible - within one common facility. Coinciding with the shift in private space, the perception of public space changed, too. Due to the split-up and the missing organizing principle of city quarters, there has not been something like public squares and places earlier; it was the communist regime who needed them now for representational use. Ad hoc, they established huge squares for deployments and parades, just for the sake to stage and emblemize the regimes power and authority and thus spatially limiting and forcing possibilities of Handlung. Again there was no public space for the people, meaning a space where gatherings and meetings can take place and therefore the possibility of the visibility of a community - and the becoming of a community - could take place. After 1989 the city changed again enormously and - once more without much planning - new structures are rising: Bad copies of western high-rise buildings in the centre as well as gated communities in the periphery are being build; at the same time communist block of flats are autonomously transformed according to the needs of the people and yet different housing complexes are squatted by those who cannot afford living space. All this should not be viewed as something bizarre, but as Bucharest's constitutive urban identity. And it is not the history or the typologies of these changes that are per se interesting, but the transitions that lie in between this distribution of space. There are different mentalities and guiding concept present at the same time, which offer different concepts and structures of public space and thus distinct possibilities of Handlung. It could even be claimed that the autonomous and amorphous growing and self-developing character of earlier Bucharest's 'mahala' is (re-) activated once more. Also through investigating spatial concepts and configurations of Handlung, the 4th Bucharest Biennale tries to make the above mentioned changes and activities productive. It will raise questions how established (urban) structures can be conquered and critically questioned as well as how interventions through appropriation, modification and community-based participation can take place. How can Handlung define and defend the public realm today?


1. The German word Handlung will be kept - and its plural form Handlungen - in italic for the whole text, thus highlighting its different layers as well as its haziness. It is one of the most difficult and yet easiest words to translate: Action, activity, agency and participation, but progression, act, plot or story would also be perfect translations, but all of them are limited to one - and only one - specific meaning and therefore unable to recall the different layers that cannot be blanked, because they are permanently present. The significations of Handlung that go more in the direction of action and activity can be explained in separation from a more passive and unintended behaviour as something that is happening active and deliberately and is focused on organizing reality. Whereas the term agency has an even heavier connotation of a thing or a person to produce a particular result and could be described as form of existence, which expresses the terms political implication. On the other hand side (plot, story, etc.), Handlung has meanings close to fiction and narration; respectively they appear as something happened and something that is reported afterwards.
2. The definition of 'thing' is based on Bruno Latour's ideas in his essay "From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik" (cf. 196), where he advocates for an "object-oriented democracy": "For too long, objects have been portrayed as matters-of-fact. This is unfair to them, unfair to science, unfair to objectivity, unfair to experience. They are much more interesting, variegated, uncertain, complicated, far reaching, heterogeneous, risky, historical, local, material and networky than the pathetic version offered or too long by philosophers. Rocks are not simply there to kicked at, desks to thumped at. 'Facts are facts are facts'? Yes, but they are also a lot of other things in addition."
3. For the German edition of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt translated "action" as either Handeln or Handlung.
4. Hanna Arendt: The Human Condition, Chicago 1958, p. 7.
5. Ibid., p. 7.
6. Chantal Mouffe: On the Political, London and New York 2005; The Return of the Political, London 2006; The Democratic Paradox, London 2000. See also her essay Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics in this volume (cf. 248)
7. If I talk about "artistic projects" here, I understand this in the broadest sense, which includes all the other aspects and projects that are taking place within this biennale and is thus highlighting the interdisciplinary approach.
8. It would go too far, if we would consider Blumenberg's thoughts in extenso, but his short text Prospect for a Theory of Nonceptuality (in: Hans Blumenberg: Shipwreck with Spectator, Cambridge 1996.) gives a good idea about how a feedback between narrative structures and world good function.
9. Speaking with Jacques Ranciere, these are the moments in which politics happens. Ranciere speaks about 'la part de sans-part', which becomes visible in those acts of politics, which are in fact a new 'distribution of the sensible', a new order of different regimes. Cf.: Jacques Ranciere: La Mesentente. Politique et Philosophie, Paris 1995; The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London 2004. See also Maria Muhle's essay Aesthetic realism, fictional documents and subjectivation. Alexander Medwedkin. The Medwedkin Groups. Chris Marker in this volume (cf. 151).
10. Cf.: Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford 2005.
11. Cf.: Hayden White: The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Baltimore 1987; Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore 1973.
12. Hayden White: The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, in: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, On Narrative, (Autumn, 1980), p. 5-27.
13. "Handlungsraum" is again a very powerful German word to describe spatial conditions of actions, because it is used as a vocabulary of narrative theory and theatre as well as to determine the political area in which action is possible.
14. For a more detailed analysis of this relation see Ludger Schwarte's text Performative Architecture: Setting a Stage for Political Action in this volume (cf. 172)
15. Arendt, p. 200.
16. Boris Groys talks about a double erasure in Eastern Europe: The first one with the beginning of socialist and communist regimes and more recently the introduction of the capitalist economic/cultural system.
17. I do not want to spend much time with historical facts and just highlight one of the major differences to other European cities in the middle ages, that is the absence of a city wall. Leaving aside all military consequences here, this uncommon structure has still some impact into recent days. Through the nonexistence of a city wall, it is impossible to constitute the borders of the city and thus having a relatively diffuse notion of its spatial existence.
18. It has to be mentioned that this conception is anything but new. Its roots can be found in modernity, if we think about Le Corbusiers unite d'habitation and later on (but still earlier than Ceaușescu) in projects of Team Ten members.
19. Srdjan Jovanović Weiss describes those structures and transformation as 'turbo-architecture', according to the popular music genre 'turbo-folk', a very fast and eclectic mix of traditional East European folk music, Western pop music as well as techno and rock.

Still from Otolith III
HD video (colour, sound) 48min UK 2009