Maya Van Leemput, Tom McDonough and Ilya Budraitskis were invited to take part in the biennale as “mediators” whose role was to reflect on the show and stimulate the discussion within the show. Andrey Shental reflected on their presence within the “cognitive machine” of 6th Moscow biennale.
If you are not involved in the day-to-day running of the Moscow Biennale, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice one of the most important strategic decisions made by the curatorial team. However, it is precisely this hidden-from-the-audience experiment that I would call the main revelation of this show. In addition to the artists, theorists and bloggers, the show’s curators invited the so-called “mediators”: three intellectuals whose full-time participation is based on establishing discursive and dialogical connections and bonds within the Biennale. Unlike other invited theorists, futurist Maya Van Leemput, art historian Tom McDonough and activist and historian Ilya Budraitskis will not give a single lecture or make any presentations. Instead, as the website states, they “mediate, nurture and reprocess the Biennale on site.” Although their roles vary — Van Leemput is primarily interviewing politicians and journalists, while McDonough and Budraitskis organize “intellectual workouts” — they spend the whole day on site, communicating with different people and actively participating at the public discussions, and are also involved in the operation of “media machine” — a kind of press service office, exposed to the visitors.
Of course, there is nothing unusual about encountering intellectuals, theorists or thinkers among the participants of contemporary art exhibition, but the project of the 6th Moscow Biennale shows just how this figure — or, rather, the structural role of this figure — is undergoing the process of transformation and mutation. Van Leemput, McDonough and Budraitskis do not produce any knowledge in the strict sense of this word, meaning that they do not present auteur concepts or constructs (as it usually happens with projects associated with the so-called “educational turn“ or in the context of “discursive exhibitions”). The main duty of the mediators is presence as such and to a certain extent this situation reminds me of how pop culture celebrities are paid to be seen at a certain event to raise its symbolic value. If the art theorist Simon Sheikh, famous for his parallels between art and immaterial labour, showed that the emergence of the so-called “talk value“ (the commodity’s capacity to increase its value by means of language) gave possibility to earn the means of subsistence on the basis of virtuosic linguistic practice, then the situation with the mediators is somewhat different. Mediators do not necessarily have to speak for themselves, but they can provoke others to speak up.
The presence of theorists in this project sets the intellectual atmosphere: particularly, mediators dispersed in the crowd of listeners, ask the most thought-provoking questions and make the most well-argued comments and, similarly to a claque of professional applauders, make an impression of a thinking, engaged, and very educated audience (which in fact rarely happens at the artistic events in Moscow). But simultaneously, their role can be characterised as a maintenance of intellectual tension and dynamics of neural activity of the exhibition subjects. By producing each day new speech events and carrying out communications, by exposing — and this is how the media machine works — their symbolic status and the ability to keep up the conversation at any level, they stimulate the participants and the public to join the collective thinking process. That is why this media machine — the title that at first doesn’t seem to be a good one — turns out to be more than justified. The cognitive labour machine, as one can describe every large-scale exhibition, can use for its fuel the grey brain matter.