Project Biennalist by Thierry Geoffroy/Colonel

The contemporary politics of emancipation is a politics of inclusion—directed against the exclusion of political and economical minorities. — Boris Groys

Séamus Kealy - article from Cmagazine published in the june issue


The Venice Biennale is being invaded this summer by several groups of artists, again. The tactic of artists dropping into the world’s most prestigious international art event is nothing new, really. From energetic art students of European academies to disenfranchised mid-career artists to Sunday painters of boats and landscapes, there is a long tradition of uninvited “guest artists” arriving at this biennale—and others, for that matter— to put on a show. At first glance, this might appear to be an opportunity to promote artwork, or become discovered after years of slogging away in one’s studio, or, having just been on the brink of completing one’s studies under, what one might see as, unsympathetic, thick-headed faculty who have no sense of young talent. And so, guests to the biennale must trudge through ad-hoc booths, swarming groups of oddly dressed performers, dazzling rows of large-scale pictures beside the canals, or other awkward, sometimes imposing presentations by those who dare to take up space not provided to them by national or international cultural bodies.

Months ahead of the 2009 Venice Biennale, there could be listed at least three “drop-in” art projects. The first involves a boat being sailed into the biennale by a Slovenian art group. This idea—again nothing new—has been realized in previous years, including a campy but affective and melancholic boat installation/project by Canadian artist Paul Wong in 2003. A floating tactic will also be realized via the Canadian project Reverse Pedagogy, a project involving artists and curators who will officially arrive in Venice via canoes, and then live together in tents in a Venice apartment. This band of artists will continue a Jacques Rancière-inspired collective enterprise that involves co-production, collaboration and disdain for structure and authority. The first version of this project was realized in 2008 at The Banff Centre, and involved Canadian artists Paul Butler, Dean Baldwin, Kristan Horton and others. A few short months after the biennale in Venice, Reverse Pedagogy will be held in its third manifestation at The Model in Sligo, Ireland.

A third “drop-in” art project this summer is by a veteran at this business, Thierry Geoffroy/Colonel, who literally parachuted artists into the 2007 biennale. Where younger artists more cautiously display their wares or engage the public, Colonel’s mode of attack is often unfashionable and flagrantly provocative. Simply enough, Colonel takes the biennales and their themes seriously—to the point of obsessive, literal engagement. In 2003, Colonel first journeyed to the Venice Biennale as a makeshift crusader determined to first document and then demarcate the attending media representatives’ combined viewership (this biennale was titled “The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” and attracted upwards of 60,000 journalists in its preview days). Interviewing journalists one by one, Colonel sought the audience figure for each media outlet—whether in the hundreds, thousands or, as some claimed, millions. Colonel then presented journalists with invitations to his own event, an artist-carrying-curator piggyback contest. Each invitation was sized according to the claimed number in their audience—hence the small, medium or large invites. This piggyback event, with its childish promotional materials (stick men drawings and scribbled text on photocopies) and mostly disregarded antics, then took place in front of Arsenale, against the art world’s backdrop of nationalistic prestige, institutional status, individual power and fame.

Since then, Colonel has dropped into every Venice Biennale, as well as other art and cultural events—from music festivals to art fairs. For Colonel’s fifth incarnation, there will be several platforms of activity both within and beyond the fair. The primary action is the format Biennalist, which Colonel organizes months in advance, and attracts artists from around the world as participants. Biennalist takes its cue from the ongoing Emergency Room project that Colonel has arranged in art spaces globally, which involves artists creating instant exhibitions that respond to the crises of the day —literally. Artists of every stripe (their technical ability as artists is not up for discussion usually) turn up and make artwork in the exhibition space, then mount it for an opening—which can happen daily or even on the hour. Biennalist takes this ”emergency” format to the world’s major art events. As with many of Colonel’s projects, Biennalism has a manifesto behind its activity:

Biennalism is an art format, like Emergency Room.
A biennialist is an artist working in this format.
This working implies some savoir-faire and some rules.

A biennalist loves biennial themes.
A biennalist loves triennial themes.
A biennliast loves quadrennial themes.

Biennial themes are treasures.
Biennial themes often reflect matters about the world of today.

One of the goals of the biennialist is to create a set of methods that will enable artists to penetrate cultural staged events and surf in them freely when they have emergency statements to expose. The general mission of the biennalist is to point at dysfunctions.

Thus, Biennalist artists are united under a campaign of critique and disruption, using biennale themes as fuel and fodder. Over 30 artists have booked into a camp on the Lido, the base for this year’s activity. Each morning, artists begin with training, an “awareness muscle” activity where exercise is combined with political discussion and reviews of the critical news of the day. A boat is then taken to the Arsenale where at precisely 12:30 each day, a version of Emergency Room happens. An ad hoc space that can hold a temporary exhibition of works produced either that morning or on the spot by these artists must be found each day. Some days, the Emergency Room will take place in pavilions and thus earn the name Penetration—such as at this year’s Austrian pavilion, where artist VALIE EXPORT is one of a few artists this year who have agreed to be “penetrated” (the Danish pavilion, which represents Colonel’s homeland, refused). Colonel sees these activities as part of a “gentleman’s agreement.” Curators and representing artists are approached with a clear idea of the project, and are consulted about the parameters for how far the Penetration activities may go. In 2007, Daniel Buren agreed to allow Penetration into the Greek pavilion, as did Venezuelan and Egyptian representatives—each slightly differently and all temporarily.

Colonel’s ideal this summer is to involve two to three pavilions. Sometimes, he notes, the curators come and take everything away in the night, which immediately begs the question of who owns the place in actuality: the artist, the curator or the country? Colonel views this engagement, in one capacity, as a litmus test of the structure and realms of the art world—here specifically as a test of an extreme where channels of power intermesh with different colours of national spheres, producing socio-economic grandiosity, a multitude of imagined histories and, of course, spectacles of the wealth of oligarchic classes. To insert a political narrative within these spheres that is about the same spheres is to often meet indifference or become lost in the spectacle itself. This is perhaps why Colonel’s projects parachute directly into the context and adopt the central themes of the art events. The goal is to be, in effect, the perfect engaged audience to the extreme—and live out the biennale to the point where its structure reveals itself, a turning inside-out of the hierarchies and nationalistic meta-narratives that are the central reason for the biennale to exist. The 2007 Istanbul Biennale, for example, was entitled “Optimism in the Age of Global War,” and Colonel and his team organized a series of runs where participants discussed this theme, its relevance and its implications while gasping for breath. (“Did a sponsor come up with this theme?,” asks one individual.) The last Venice Biennale, “Think with the Senses-Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense,” was a perfect target for Colonel. In a series of engagements with the biennale public, the theme was questioned, its origins considered and its meaning taken seriously to the point of irritation.

Colonel’s activities are, in fact, akin to the scenario of the “good communist,” as recently described by Slovenian writer Slavoj Žižek. The good communist perfectly meets the criteria and follows the ideology of Stalin to the absolute chagrin of the great leader, and to the loss of his own life.  The biennalists are engaging the theme and rules of the biennale literally—to the point of structural breakdown and threats from its organizers. What emerges is more than an illustration of power relationships.  Rather, it is the discomfiting, true essence of the art world, which is—despite its oft ruminations on progressive subject matter—a mostly retrograde and repressive beast when its forces gather together most impressively.  

Another aim, Colonel insists, is to promote criticism, to “make it cool—because it’s cool to be apathetic now. It’s cool to be cool—it’s not cool to be me, I’m pathetic. To make it trendy, we have to speed up a little, in order to deal with the world.”  Thus the biennalist activities involve many young artists who readily agree to Colonel’s daily regime of awareness exercise, penetration and other following actions in order to form a temporary, specific and engaged artist community within and beside the glamour of the art world’s most powerful representatives.

However, what might appear to most transgress (and thus most irritate) the field of the protective, nationalistic boundaries set by and upheld by the institutions participating in the biennales is the assertion by Colonel and his crew that their artwork has some sort of equality with the artwork of the high-production, often world-famous artists in their representative pavilions. True democracy, as Jacques Rancière reminds us, annoys and inspires great hatred for its virtues. Instead of feeling threatened by the activities of “drop-in” artists, most institutions and their representatives most likely feel indifference for, as almost all forms of aesthetic judgment would assert, there is no competition in their minds. But this may be missing the point. As Boris Groys explains:

But the equality of all visual forms and media in terms of their aesthetic value does not mean an erasure of all differences between good art and bad art. Quite the opposite is the case. Good art is precisely that practice which aims at configuration of this equality. And such a confirmation is necessary because formal aesthetic equality does not secure the factual equality of forms and media in terms of their production and distribution. One might say that today’s art operates in the gap between the formal equality of all forms and their factual inequality. That is why there can be and is “good art”—even work which affirms the formal equality of all images under the conditions of their factual inequality.

By “today’s art,” Groys is referring to effective contemporary art that parses socio-political or global currencies—effectively “criticizing the socially, culturally, politically, or economically imposed hierarchies of values”  —and therefore making a space for art to exist within its own autonomy. Colonel’s ongoing project—his series of “drop-ins” or semi-mad engagements with political activism in an art world context—may often resemble “bad” art in that, for the most part, no particular aesthetic of art is excluded from his project. However, the very inclusiveness of his project—which rejects any form of exclusion—stretches his activities into a utopic realm. And the perfect place for its existence, and its very definition par excellence, is within the sparkle of contemporary art world spectacle à la biennale. Groys defines in art the “vertical infinity” versus the “horizontal infinity,” which may be best glimpsed when alongside each other: “One approach emphasizes images that denote national cultural identity, while the other, inversely, prefers everything international, globalized, media related.”  The praxis of Colonel’s practice is by definition inclusive, international, globalized, media-related and prickly. It is also multi-faceted, evolving and employs familiar, sometimes ridiculous formats so that its activity can be enjoyed by all, especially those beyond the art world context.

Alongside this year’s series of Venice Biennale Penetrations are at least three other activities organized by Colonel and carried out by the teams of artists and public volunteers who join the fray. All these activities, as with the Penetrations, feed off the biennale like parasites—feeding from their economic and social structures, their very hierarchies—in order to both define their raison d’etre and to simultaneously mirror the state of affairs that give rise to them. Colonel’s Critical Run, a group jog through institutional structures where participants speak to one another about global urgencies (akin in spirit to Awareness Muscle [2007]), is a case in point. This event will be identifiable—and welcome to all—during the first week of the biennale. Another activity is the Protest Fashion, where strangers are approached and asked to wear political slogans on headbands that they write themselves. Colonel’s team will provide only red markers and strips of canvas to form the headbands. With the heat in Venice, the hope is that the slogans will drip like blood from individuals’ sweaty foreheads. As an exceptionally mobile and viral-like project (everyone wants to wear one), Protest Fashion will do what it intends to do: make politics trendy, if only momentarily.

The most clandestine of Colonel’s biennale activities is Rumeur. Through the natural tendency of gossip to survive the greatest of impediments, rumours about the biennale or famous individuals, for example, are spread. At the 2007 Venice Biennale, artists spoke loudly on their mobile phones in vaporettos (or to each other outside the giardini) about a secret party, one where Tracy Emin would inject her menstruated blood into Bulgarian wine on a British warship and Elton John was expected to turn up. Colonel has most recently activated Rumeur at the Fiac art fair in France, where he walked through the fair, speaking loudly into his phone, “there is not a crisis in France—contemporary art is alive and well, and you must buy it.”

Colonel’s entire project is effectively and creatively disseminated online to both attract participants and to exist in its most perfect form: as media spectacle itself. In the 1990s, Colonel had perfected press releases and TV appearances to complete his projects. Today, his activity is found in many manifestations on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and MySpace. One of his several Facebook identities has 1,600 friends alone, which includes fictitious people who themselves attend and even act in the biennale—like the rumour project—in what ways they can from their digital realm. There is Bob Delay who lost his job because of the financial crisis: “he’s ready to do the revolution, but won’t be going to Venice.” Further, Colonel has, in fact, the only official Facebook group for the Venice Biennale over which he has full control. Having no sponsors, no national links, these 100% DIY activities float within the online world of blurred distinctions, and in the spectacle of art world glamour. Regarding his Facebook community, Colonel writes,  “This year, we’ll all go naked to the Canadian pavilion party.”


Colonel’s father is a retired French army colonel, having raised his family in Algeria and France. Thierry Geoffroy chose the term “colonel” for his artist name as a means of keeping personal narratives and experiences close to his ongoing project of contesting the ordinary, as it is upheld by familiar structures of law and order, belief, interpersonal relations and the insistence for the world to make sense while continuing to appear senseless. The title of “colonel” is a military rank, and a definition within this most ultimate of orders becomes twisted in meaning to convey a duty that must be done, just as a mother must raise a child. Just as the anti-Surrealist writer Georges Bataille wrote that a dictionary contains not the meaning of words, but their tasks,  Colonel’s “task” is in contradistinction to the usual meaning of “colonel.” Instead of the role prescribed by a greater order, the artist employs, through his activities, an off-kilter signifier as a posture to challenge epistemological and political orders. There are a few categories of meaning and behaviour that Colonel is precariously and humorously at odds with: cultural identity, the rules of language, difference (national, racial, sexual), political passivity and social consensus, which very often observably assert a general, contemporary malaise of indifference to both these questions and questions of socio-political responsibility. Colonel’s ongoing art project appears to be a parody of current discourses on notions of cultural and, to a lesser extent, sexual hybridity and “inbetweenness,” but, in fact, the ongoing Colonel project is a deliberate set of encounters that make this very inbetweenness (and its dizziness before the lens of a video camera, or within the odd parameters of the Peter Sellers-like, charismatic persona suggested by Colonel’s naïve questions) shimmer with familiarity and buckle under the weight of a gaze … as it very well should.

Colonel’s actions may appear comic, but his sentiments—consciously encased in odd scenarios—are earnest. These questions (of class, power, status, difference, politics, knowledge, etc.) are by no means new. And often enmeshed together by Colonel, distinctions blur. These terms have been probed in the art world, often in biennales and triennales, and other realms of communicable information—for example, in a textual or academic discourse, despite how unshakeable they are from the substance of these events or discourses. Thus, it appears that Colonel is self-lodged in the eternal return of asking his audience questions that have already been investigated to death. Academic or festival-produced investigations on these subjects, however, may breed more difference, indifference and indecision than what may have been intended; in the least for the very reason that the problematic matter of these subjects are often inseparable from the format and organization of the events that contain them. This might be why Colonel broaches these questions to us awkwardly, in a backwards fashion, all at once, dressed as a quasi-paratrooper or a French tourist. So then, no matter how absurd, quotidian, clichéed or proto-modern his structure may seem, Colonel brings a structure—sometimes including a manifesto—but not merely to take up the questions differently. In fact, the structure he employs and wears—as a didactic Frenchmen, as a soldier’s son, as a former medical student, as a “professional tourist,” as an independent investigator, as an art collector, as an artist—is itself part and parcel of the very problem. Very often Colonel acts out performances within what are identifiable Bourdieuian considerations of the various fields of social space, attempting, for example, to connect aesthetic judgments to often incongruous social situations. The conclusions one may anticipate with these sort of questions around space, identity and rules of behaviour do not arrive with any finesse. Easy answers may very well not arrive at this time because of larger questions surrounding how the world—which both the ontological and experiential realities beings traverse through and attempt to come to terms with—operates in this day and age. It may be a question, more simply, of how wealth and power structures assert themselves in an institution, a biennale or an interaction on the street.

In recent discourse about Colonel’s activities, what has most often been ascribed to his character is a “Duchampian provocateur” personality, or an active, anti-bourgeois, anti-status-quo employment of nominalism within clashing social spaces. However, it is likely more instructive to focus on the courses of relations that Colonel manufactures as an alert and response to, in simple terms, the ideologico-political power structures that govern collective waking life. Colonel’s responses are ever-changing and caught within naïve sets of ideologies. He is not simply asking who one is expected to be and how one should be within a political and social world by being from a particular region. Nor is Colonel simply forming a constant mockery of ideological or cultural structures. By putting these terms or resonances into question, a nostalgia for a vanquished, even imaginary, collectivity is framed. More accurately, perhaps, this is a nostalgia for something utopian. However, Colonel’s inherently conscious inability to form an alternative, that is, for example, an alternative set of economic or social relations that last more than for one unusual encounter, results in speedy improv scenarios that appear more like Dr. Strangelove’s characterizations of identity by relying on a familiarity (for the participant, audience, etc.) that in the same moment undoes itself. As drug-induced hallucinations and gatherings have (temporarily) lost their resonance for having an impact on “shifting” social consciousness, Colonel employs other waning forms of invoking change. One might identify his methods as mostly an idealistic mixture of guerrilla interviews, improvisation, naïve art and political action.  However effective these activities may appear to be at momentarily casting a glance back at the object called collectivity, they have still become co-opted within commodified terms of value, ownership and exchange—as is the inevitable conundrum. The mirror Colonel holds up to the art world is not simply a circus mirror, distorting what is normally seen into a Mannerist or satirical object. Instead, what is seen is a set of familiar activities, usually some form of gathering resembling social unrest without any identifiable collective unrest, caught amateurishly in the topsy-turvy whirlwind of contemporary media spectacle, or the frigid structures of an art institution, amidst free-floating behaviours, ideologies and endless streams of various degrees of useful information. Yet the activities under Colonel’s direction remain unaffected by this lack of actual political collusion. His projects maintain a resistance to the world as it is, in a way that is neither dreary nor pessimistic, but almost Ghandian in a postmodern, befuddled sense. What persists are near tongue-in-cheek hints at revolution and at the potential of the smallest of gestures (especially by youth). This might be characterized as an idealistic, proto-modern, almost impractical platform from which one should construct the foundations of contemporary identity— much as author Simon Critchley has written about recently.  Colonel’s steadfastness to this ethical commitment—itself almost morphing to suit its context—never wavers, nor does the delicate balance of his character, resisting definition, appropriation, identification and integration by his activities’ deliberate exposure of all of these situations.

As epitomized by the Biennalist activities this summer and beyond, Colonel’s projects appear to give credence to the notion that sometimes impractical or awkward ideas carry disruptive force. Whether irrational, produced out of desire or inexplicable, impulses (and especially those that are usually suppressed for the sake of a social harmony to avoid a moment of humiliation or embarrassment) contain a substance— some form of awareness jelly that Colonel suggests is withering in this day and age. Quotidian impulses contain a spirit of resistance/knowledge that is itself generally less and less characterizable or recognizable as its role in this hyper-capitalist society appears to be waning, given the seeming evaporation of political alternatives. The very appearance of this withering must induce some spark of collective disappointment and, Colonel insists, political transmutation. So while many people deplore the political potential of demonstrations and political organizations, or look to the world with fatalism, Colonel holds up the everyday and makes gestures that invoke a “multitude” beneath the surface of all of our interactions. Here is an acknowledgement of the biopolitical potential within the least “significant” of being. It is a question of harnessing gestures, not as a proletarian revolution, but first as a means of demonstrating the power of the collective “meek” to perhaps enable denouncements of oppression. Because of how awkward, unacceptable or pointless a silly gesture may appear, there is also within these gestures something that resists the categorizing and legitimizing machinery of societal behavior or collective social grace. This is not something to deplore or reject, but worthy of acknowledgement, especially for its very newness. One might insist that awareness jelly is not present in its particular potential until the very moment when awkwardness erupts. By resisting an adherence to what is most acceptable and decipherable—without falling prey to the destruction of anarchic violence for example—Colonel insists on the possible revolutionary power of the everyday.

What first appears almost like a last, shrill, absurd call to the world (“we must do it today, because tomorrow it will be too late”), suggesting that media saturation has over-bellowed all artistic expression filled with revolutionary potential, may appear heroic and simplistic. It might also be described as Hegelian, since the declaration of an end of the modernist quest of a work of art (to be formed in its very resistance to the status quo, especially bourgeois values) is implicit in Colonel’s invasions into cultural space. However, as such, Colonel calls for a beginning, not an end. Do his interventions not indicate that below the surface of western, capitalistic society is a fascist strain that defines interaction and meaning, as dictated by the desires of a misguided western world? One might argue that Colonel’s activities strike the possibility of another shift. For example, with all the modern vanguard movements, the art world has never been more dominated by its own institutionalism. However, the contradiction is that institutions often attempt to house contemporary art projects that speak to the most radical and impossible of ideas. Colonel has found himself here. But, at the same time, his work resists settling in for a dusty analysis and categorization. This parallax in Colonel’s work—both the deliberate approach and the simultaneous withdrawal from being historicized or compartmentalized—remains within purely nominalistic gestures and emphasizes continuity in the face of the apparent end of history.

After years of curating and art production in Canada, Séamus Kealy became Director/Curator of The Model in Sligo, Ireland, in 2008. Projects there include the touring Signals in the Dark: Art in the Shadow of War, Medium Religion (produced by ZKM), Reverse Pedagogy and DORM, a large-scale artist collective-in-residence project.
Kealy’s “Ten Texts For 18:Beckett” was awarded the 2007 Curatorial Writing Award (Long Essay) by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, the only award of its kind in Canada. His Colonel activity of choice is the slow dance.

-----------------------------------note from the artist 07 june 2009 --------......

Penetration at Venezuelan pavillon

3 Penetrations about emergencies took places at the Venice Biennale from june 04

with the invitation and welcome from their artists and curators
 -artist Daniel Medina for Venezuela pavillon /curator María Luz Cárdenas
-artist Jussi Kivi for the Finnish pavillon
-artist Jacques Charlier and curator Enrico Lunghi for the Belgium boat

burning Emergency artists that expressed  :Rosaria Iazzetta/Sebastiano Delva / Kristian von Hornselth / 2/4our / Marta Orlando / Kim Dessault / Christian Costa / Jussi Kivi / Åsmund Boye Kneverland .

link to images for publication