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Dreams and Conflict: The Dictatorship of the Viewer

This article was previously published in the NCMA Quarterly Newsletter, Summer 2003, Number 68. Republished with permission.

This article shares the title of this year’s Venice Biennale, the 50th since its inception in 1895. The prestigious show draws contemporary artists from around the world and is intended to foster a ‘universal language of art’. Much of the exhibition-at the Giardini della Biennale -is organized by country and there are 64 national ‘pavilions’ where compatriots display their work. Another organizational pattern, shown at the nearby Arsenale, pulls work together thematically in special zones: ‘Delays and Revolutions’, ‘Fault Lines’, ‘Utopia’, ‘Zones of Urgency’ and ‘Clandestine’.

Art critics have already started to process the show. They appear comfortable in the role of dictator, at ease with their own views. Writing for The Observor, Laura Cumming asks “But where’s the art?” and suggests that “the world’s grandest art show has become too bogged down in politics.” (Sunday June 22, 2003, The Observer). Margot Bannerman and Alison Jones are kinder: “Despite the contradictions and sometimes trite attempts to fit in with the theme, the attempt by the curators and artists to engage in wider debates is significant.” (Socialist Review, The Language of Art, July 2003) But overwhelmingly it seems that the art critics did not like what they saw, one going so far as to describe his experience as hell! (Guardian, My Venice Biennale Hell, Howard Jacobson, June 20, 2003)

I am not an art critic, but a conflict management consultant. I found the sub-title liberating. If I was the ‘dictator,’ meaning was mine for the making. I was curious to discover how art dealt with the subject of conflict, and what sense I could make of it.


Curator, Francesco Bonami, references Martin Luther Kings’ famous “I have a dream” speech and notes that despite the articulation of a world free of discrimination, it is very much part of our current reality. It appears that the very tension that a dream creates can be the cause of conflict. And it is this tension, between this dream and what is, that has informed Francesco Bonami’s own vision: “History is an endless stream of dreams generated by conflicts, and the endless stream of conflicts is the tragic consequence of unrealized dreams. . . . I am for producing dreams that contain the madness of conflict.” (Show Catalogue)

In this sense, the show was an opportunity to explore King’s dream-40 years on- and rearticulate the content of the dream as it relates to conflict. And as the sub title suggests, face the inherent subjectivity of human experience and by extension of the dream.

The role of national identity and how that interfaces with the dream was a prominent theme-from the nomadic Palestinians who do not have a ‘pavilion’ and display large passports around the grounds of the garden, to the Spaniard, Santiago Sierra, who bricks up the front entrance to the Spanish pavilion and guards the back entrance with a hired security guard. You must have Spanish identification to enter from the rear. (Wall Enclosing a Space.) Elsewhere, a vending machine offers immigrants credit cards, passports, and books on how to speak English without an accent. The structural layout of the show with country pavilions suggest a comfort with nationalism even as the work questions its role. Whose dream led to passports, one wonders? Whose interests do they serve?

Yoko Ono is also at the show, in the Utopian zone. All her material is geared to the imagination of peace. There are some explicit guidelines at another venue in the Utopian zone. Stick figures on paper say: “Communication is key to utopia”, and “there is no substitute for face to face communication.” One of the Dutch artists imagines collaboration and provides an opportunity to co-create shoes. (Carlos Amorales, Flames Maquiladora). Yoko Ono also invites action-there is glue, string, and tape to ‘restore’ broken cutlery. I take buttons that say, “imagine peace.”

The content of the peace we are to imagine is less clear. Does peace mean the absence of conflict? And if there is no conflict what happens to the dream? Does peace represent the realization of the dream?


Conflict is as inevitable as fire or rain. As the emergent property of a living system, it can not be predicted by examining the human ‘parts’. It is a sign that the system has moved away from equilibrium and has reached a bifurcation point. It calls forth choices. New ways of being. Creativity.

And yet the idea that conflict is bad (“the madness of conflict” the curator reminds us) is deeply rooted in folk wisdom. It results in large doses of avoidance behavior (around 50% of the time) and unproductive fighting for 30%. Only 20% of the time do we use it productively. I am encouraged that the Biennale has made the conversation about conflict explicit.

Jeanne Van Heeswijk revives an old Dutch game (Draw a Line). The instructions explain three options: Fight, Play and Act. A large square of flat earth, two knives and two humans are needed. A father and son step in the ring. They divide the square in half and take turns throwing the knife/weapon /tool into the others field/territory/space. If it sticks in the ground, the other draws a rectangle and that becomes the throwers field/territory/space. From their behavior it is not clear whether they are fighting, playing or acting. Their intent frames their activity.

Reframing is a key skill if conflict is to be used productively. It invokes a shift in perception, so that we can learn from the conflict and re-organize if necessary. Instead of blame we recognize the creative dynamic; we can shift from past to future and back; we are aware of what we need and why; and rather than imposing our standards as objective truths we talk, trying to create a common reality that supports the web of relationships we call life.

Land, boundaries, nationalities: the earth in the square reminds me of that. Religion, sexual mores, economic theory, genetic ethics and specism are other common balancing reinforcers that are at the heart of conflict that resolves around unmet expectations or imposed dreams. They feed back on rampant growth, whether virtuous or viscous, and call forth a tension between their ideals and reality. They are surfaced at the show.

The video installations of Israeli artist Michal Rovner (Data Zone) comes closest to expressing the circularity inherent in most conflict dynamics: small black figures against a white backdrop walk in circles in Petri dishes, other circles move in the opposite direction and turn on one another. They interact endlessly, like the causal loops used to describe archetypal patterns of behavior by living system theorists.

Other video installations are rooted in specific political contexts. Some are playful, like the piece that seeks to deal with ‘terrorism’ by designing buildings that sway to avoid aircraft. (Chen Shaoxiong, Anti-Terror Variety)

What sense have I created? I know I feel overwhelmed. There is so much more than the few works that I mention. From those that I select, I generate my own conclusions. Being a dictator can be lonely. I wonder about communication and how obscure so much of the art work appears to me. When it is not obscure, it tends toward trite, or overly political. Maybe the critics are right!

Is it possible to co-create a shared understanding of peace and conflict? The show has got me thinking about my dream. Peace that accepts conflict and deals with it productively. Peace that holds space for the dream, despite the tension or conflict that may bring. I do feel inspired to continue the conversation.


John Ford

 John Ford is the author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy. He mediates; trains; and consults to organizations that have accepted the inevitability of conflict and are seeking to approach it with greater clarity and confidence. He was the managing editor of from 2000… MORE >

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