The Autonomy Archipelago

For a middle power in spectacular decline, France comes off reasonably well amongst the united States of the Biennale: an Albanian-born, Berlin-based, artworld-respected artist, curated by an upper-level staffer of a big public institution, strikes near pitch-perfect balance. The parochial may shout a bit; art-marketeers will complain that Republican virtue continues to trump harder-edged market considerations, thus contributing to Paris’s supposed eclipse from the dominant attention economy; but fielding this pair of middle weights seems both a smart and an elegant choice, inasmuch as it mirrors the paradoxes of autonomy – the watchword of France’s geopolitical situation and of the artistic ideology it arguably incarnates better than any other nation.

Geopolitically, France has colonies in every time zone of the planet; the legitimacy for maintaining these “overseas territories” within the colonial fold relies on the claim that they enjoy some degree of administrative “autonomy” – a logic that requires a particularly elastic understanding of “autonomy.” (Several years ago, a French president was chatting amiably with a foreign counterpart over a glass of champagne. “I’m not sure what ‘autonomy’ means in French,” said the guest. “I see you speak our language perfectly,” replied the Frenchman.) The strategic redistribution of autonomy has become second nature to the elites of the Fifth Republic, because in their attention economy, the redistribution is all, the autonomy itself insignificant; the less traction autonomy is liable to gain in a given sector, the more it is to be encouraged. And the paradigmatic sector is that of art.

If Republican universalism and benevolence (along with the Eurozone that comes with it at no extra charge) can extend to clusters of islands in the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the shores of Newfoundland and that gigantic chunk of South America called Guyana, surely it can extend to any autonomous artist whatsoever, wherever he or she may be located, provided that location be squarely within the broadest framework of spectatorship. It is thus that autonomy opens not onto a horizon of emancipation but onto one of self-policing. For “autonomous” art owes its fleeting moment of limelight in the attention economy to repressing a crippling double thought: that it must be art, just art, and that art is not enough.

Stephen Wright


Institut Français in co-production with the National Centre for Visual Arts under the Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Anri Sala
Christine Macel
Selection procedure:
The director of the French Institute proposed the artists to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Culture and Communication. After the artist was officially appointed, the artist invited the curator.


Christine Macel
France, 1969
Lives and works in:
No. of participations in the venice biennale:


Anri Sala
Albania, 1974
Lives and works in:
No. of participations in the venice biennale:
Represented by galleries in:
Berlin, London, Mexico City, New York, London, Paris and Zürich

Politics & Economics

State System:
Semi-presidential federate republic
Ruling Political Party:
Centre-left Socialist Party
Population (World Bank, 2011):
GDP per capita (World Bank, 2011):
Unemployment (World Bank, 2011):
9.3% of the labor force
Net OECD ODA Aid Donated (2011):
Military Expenditure (SIPRI, 2011):


International Criminal Court recognized


Country independent since:
843 (Treaty of Verdun: creation of the Kingdom of France)
Last Major Border Revision:
1962 (independence of Algeria)
Colonial History:
Former colonial power
Former Colonies:
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Madagascar, Djibouti, Scattered Islands, Réunion, Lebanon, Yemen, Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Congo, French Indochinese Union, French India, Haiti. Currently the French Republic still includes many overseas territories of which the regions French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Réunion are integral parts of France. Some claims of French sovereignty are disputed by Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Comoros.
International Court of Justice cases:
Global Militarization Index (BICC, 2011):
Nuclear Force?
Ongoing Conflicts and Disputes:
Armed conflicts over the Russian-backed secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The independence of these regions is internationally only recognized by Russia. The USA support Georgia's army and Georgia has ambitions to join the NATO.
Participation in Multinational Missons:
NATO mission in Afghanistan and Kosovo. UN peacekeeping missions in Congo, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, Israel & the Middle East, Ivory Coast and Western Sahara. EU missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.