Project Biennale

“To Biennial or not to Biennial?” – FRIEZE Magazine

An article in Frieze Magazine, UK that discusses Bergen Kunsthalle’s conference on biennials, which Project BIENNALE featured in and is now archived in a library of literature that surrounds biennale phenomena. The conference was inundated with papers and research that Bergen put together, along side a set list of international curators, art historians and critics currently involved in curating, critiquing or researching the proliferation of biennials in the past few decades. Check it. PB


To Biennial or not to Biennial?

Despite being given a title that sounds like a nameplate necklace the late David Foster Wallace might have worn, the Bergen Kunsthalle’s conference on biennials – called, yes, ‘To Biennial or not to Biennial?’ – was a cogent, significant and eye-opening affair. For three days in late September, an international crowd of 33 art-world heavy hitters (Carlos BasualdoMaria HlavajovaCaroline A. Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, among others) gathered to debate the history, practice and future of the biennial, with each noun given its own day for the speakers to chew on. If the biennial fever of the last 15 or so years – current editions include Athens, Curitiba, Gothenburg, Herzliya, Istanbul, Lyon, Moscow and Venice, as well as in nearby Moss, Norway – seemed reason enough for a multiple-day conference on said events, as my small plane left Amsterdam and rose over the North Sea I still wondered what exactly I was in for.

Such thoughts ceased, however, as soon as we flew in low over the fjords and chains of archipelagos that surround this western Norwegian city (second in size to Oslo, and with all the ambition that second-child status incurs). Having stashed my stuff at my hotel, located near the historic fish market, I made my way to theBergen Kunsthalle for the conference’s introductions. There, in one of the institution’s slate-grey galleries, I encountered the kind of local politician we all wish we could claim as our own (Americans, don’t hold your breath). Slight and grinning,Henning Warlowe took the stage. ‘As a politician whose heart beats to the sound of contemporary art,’ he began, before presenting the three lovely conference organizers – Bergen Kunsthalle director Solveig ØvstebøElena Filipovic, co-curator of the 5th Berlin Biennial, and Marieke Van Hal, director of the inaugural Athens Biennial – with bouquets of flowers. Like all the speakers to come, Warlowe tried out the conference’s mash-up of Hamlet: ‘To biennial or not…’ he giddily declaimed, assuring the thoroughly charmed crowd that the funding for a biennial was definitely in place, and that he hoped the outcome after three days of discussion would be ‘To biennial’. The crowd laughed sweetly if uncertainly – we had only just arrived, after all.

As Øvstebø would tell me the next night at a party at the Kunsthalle, the idea for the conference came about in 2007, when Warlowe approached her to jump-start a biennial in their city. Despite the art-loving politician’s pledge of kroners and enthusiasm, Øvstebø hesitated. In a rather incisive and brilliant public relations move, she decided that a conference – to debate the biennial’s current state, and to perhaps lay the groundwork for a child that without some real magic no one might want – should come first. She rallied to her side Filipovic and Van Hal, and the three put out a call for ‘biennial knowledge’ on e-flux. Inundated with papers and research, they then put together a set list of international curators, art historians and critics currently involved in curating, critiquing or researching the proliferation of biennials in the past few decades.

In addition to the conference’s heavy schedule of presentations and panels, the organizers had brought the Arquivo Histórico Wanda Svevo – an archive of biennial literature put together during the 28th Sao Paulo Biennial last year – in toto from Brazil to Bergen. Both ‘archive’ and ‘biennial’ have become weary with art-world use the past few years, so I wasn’t prepared for the beat my heart skipped as I laid eyes on the collection. So many catalogues, so many countries, so many nice fonts laid out in neat rows against wooden shelves! My heart beat quickest at the South American 1960s covers with their faded Modernist typefaces, as well as at a small yellow hardback edited by Karl Holmqvist and consisting of fragments of text by, among others, Gertrude Stein, Williams Blake and Burroughs, and Gwen Stefani. As I paged through, conjuring up strategies to make it mine, I noticed how Stefani’s ‘B-A-N-A-N-A-S’ litanies are strangely Stein-esque in proximity to the writing of Ms. Tender Buttons.

The next day the conference began in earnest: I found my way to the elegant Grand Hotel Terminus, where most of the talks – the first day’s theme was ‘History’ – would be held. The hall was packed and the first speaker, MIT art historian Caroline A. Jones, was a knockout. Equipped with a Madonna-worthy head mic, she deftly laid out the historical origins of the biennial. She made the point that the turn-of-the-century expos – theExposition Universelle in Paris, in 1889, and the firstVenice Biennale, in 1895, for example – were the blueprints for the biennials of today. Using a 1901 pamphlet by a young law student that lucidly described the polarizing emotions that the fairs incited, she offered the two dissenting views: liberals for, who felt that Paris was not a citadel to be protected but an open city to be shown off; and conservatives against, who felt that Paris had culture enough of its own, and should not be whoring around to other nations and cultures. International exchange versus protectionism, in other words.

Noting that our current biennials are structurally indebted to these perennial exhibitions of the past, Jones argued that at the same time the biennial form has created key structural shifts – that, essentially, ‘biennial culture is the term we can use to describe this appetite for art as experience.’ One of her most interesting points was that the 21st century’s emphasis on experiential art works – now sometimes derided as ‘biennial art’ – is an echo of the 19th century, suggesting that the 20th century’s emphasis on form ultimately failed. If videos and installations are the genre of the new millennium, Jones claimed, then biennials are ‘their regulating salons’. Since biennials have changed the art world, we must acknowledge that the ‘placement of the art object inside a world picture produces both the object’s and the picture’s significance.’ She then laid out her central philosophical question: ‘What are the conditions of possibility for the global work of art?’

Jones’ concern with art-world globalism would be echoed by each speaker that followed, and it led directly into the next talk, byCharlotte Bydler. The author of The Global Art World, Inc.(2004), and a lecturer and art critic in Sweden, Bydler focused on the way in which globalization has affected contemporary art circulation. Her presentation was a little more scattershot, as it variously focused on the ‘global art world’ and more specific examples of local production, such as Sweden’s Gothenburg Biennial. Indeed, her most interesting points came in the contentious panel afterwards, with Jones and Austrian art critic Sabine B. Vogel. Bydler, her black curls shaking vigorously, stated that biennials were no different from group shows, that they were just event structures, with more marketing. Jones and Vogel vehemently disagreed, but Bydler had inadvertently brought up the catchphrase – ‘event structures’ – that almost every presenter would use, mostly pejoratively, over the next few days.

Some astute observations and interesting questions from the audience followed: Australian art historian John Clark noted that the rise of international fairs and biennials coincided with the decline of national salons; in assent, Jones told the anecdote about Napoleon exhibiting Gustave Courbet over the road from the national salon, as a rebuke to the provincialism of the French academy. Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective noted his uneasiness about the ‘national representation’ that biennials such as Venice espoused, as any example of ‘nationality’ could always be discounted – as with documenta 11, in which he was uncomfortable with the way India had been represented (documenta 11 consisted of five conference-like ‘Platforms’, the fifth being the exhibition in Kassel itself; Platform 2 was held in New Delhi and was called, with a nod to Gandhi, ‘Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation’. Sengupta has previously written about his discomfort that Platform 2’s speakers didn’t take the ‘trouble to relate or inform their presentations with a sense of the contemporary political/social/cultural context that they were encountering in India’.) Just as Jones provocatively asked if Raqs itself would ever deign to represent India at the Venice Biennale Vogel called for a break before the afternoon workshops. Saved by the bell.

Quinn Latimer

Quinn Latimer is a writer based in Basel.

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