Exhibition view during the 28th São Paulo Biennial, in a section of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, the main exhibition venue, controversially left entirely empty, São Paulo, 2008. Photo by Andres Otero. Courtesy São Paulo Biennial.

Biennials and Infrastructural Shift—Part II

This is the second in a two-part extract from Terry Smith’s recently released book, Thinking Contemporary Curating (published by Independent Curators International, New York). Part one featured in AAP 79 and is also available on our website.

Since 2000, the biennial has been widely seen as undergoing a crisis of overproduction, of having become stale in form (theme A, with subthemes a, b, c and d; x number of artists, y number of works each, in z amount of space) and, as a result, in danger of being absorbed back into the traditional museum. There now seems to be a competition among the curatoriate to see who can reconceive the biennial in the most inventive and influential way. Yet, this tendency is so pervasive that one begins to wonder where, outside of Venice, a conventional biennial might be found today.

Eleanor Heartney made this comment regarding the 2010 Gwangju Biennale (in the December issue of Art in America that year), noting that while its early editions were overseen by big-name European curators, like Harald Szeemann and René Block, more recent editions had fallen to younger, more geographically, philosophically and ethnically diverse curators. For example, in 2002 Charles Esche and Hou Hanru turned over curatorship to alternative spaces and artists’ collectives; while in 2004, Yongwoo Lee teamed ordinary people with professional curators. In 2008, Okwui Enwezor presented an exhibition of other exhibitions, re-creating, partly or wholly, shows that had been presented elsewhere the previous year. While these innovations aimed at opening up the event to the serendipity of unexpected choices, Massimiliano Gioni’s 2010 edition, entitled 10,000 Lives, struck Heartney as a carefully crafted exercise in curatorial control, which therefore embodied  the museum ethos it was meant to overturn.

However accurate her characterizations, they illustrate a larger point about the contradictory friction between an open-ended format (the biennial) and a singular event (the clear curatorial statement, the definitive exhibition) that haunts contemporary art curating, whatever the exhibition site. The sheer number of biennials—around 200 and counting, since 2000—has made it impossible for even the most brilliant curatoriate to pull off its self-imposed challenge of reinventing the format every time. No wonder that São Paulo in 2008, and Bergen in 2009, decided to prioritize reflection on the history, relevance and prospects of the biennial form itself, over the exhibition of artworks themselves. They invited attendees to re-examine an exhibition format whose success as a mode of global connectivity—arguably to the point where the international-local dialogue has become decreasingly productive as an antinomy—was coming under threat due to local funding and political difficulties (themselves largely outcomes of the global financial crisis).

There were, of course, significant backstories. The São Paulo organization, with its long history (since 1951), its relative success in consolidating cultural links with Europe and the United States, and its promotion of local artistic ideas as being of international relevance (notably anthropophagy in 1998), had demonstrated a capacity for reflective changes of direction, however fraught and contested. In 2008, the decision to show few artworks (initially none), and to devote the entire exhibition to debating contemporary art’s relationships to local society and international forces, was derailed by the high-level security imposed on the venue in response to a graffiti attack on the main walls of the empty exhibition spaces.

As elsewhere, the polemical tone was soon lowered. The 2010 São Paulo Biennial explored a constellation of political/artistic territories: The skin of the invisible, Said, unsaid, forbidden, I am the street, Remembrance and oblivion, Far away, right here and The other, the same. The 2012 installment explores The Immanence of Poetics. Indeed, poesis is replacing politics everywhere as the retreat position in the international art world. Titles of this kind—mixed lists of lines of poetry, graffiti, book titles, text headers and film subtitles—are becoming a familiar way of naming clusters of curatorial themes. They signal the presence of disparate elements, torn halves, that do not add up, perhaps because that would imply totalities that no longer exist. This does not, however, take away the challenge of making meaning on more specific levels, and of situating them within larger world pictures.

Applying biennial processes to the problem of rethinking the biennial is occurring throughout the system. For example, the Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Como, under the title The Most Beautiful Kunsthalle in the World, organized more than 20 meetings between 2010 and 2012 for art-world players to debate the diverse models of exhibition spaces and its characteristics; the relation between economy and art; the definition and identity of the figure of the curator; the publications of art and other questions related to all the aspects of doing and producing exhibitions. Outcomes are as yet uncertain, but do not hold your breath. The 2009 Bergen conference, To Biennial or Not to Biennial, led to an excellent resource book, The Biennial Reader. At the conference itself, the underlying issue was whether to institute a biennial in the city, given the plethora around the world but the few in Scandinavia, the relative wealth of Norway and its need to prepare for a post-North Sea oil future. The City Council recently announced that the Bergen Biennial Foundation would play a major role in developing the proposed Scandinavian Triennial for the city, incorporating an aspect of discourse and knowledge production into its outlook.

Against this updating, and regionalizing of the standard international model, Manifesta, the nomadic biennial, is instructive. Launched from kern Europa—intended to engage countries at the volatile borders of the newly formed, largely notional entity of the European Union—the errant itinerary of Manifesta, a fragile yet resilient quasi-organization, has accurately reflected the productive errancy at the heart of the enterprise of rethinking Europe. Since Rotterdam in 1996, Manifesta has been staged every two years in a different European city—Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, Donista-San Sebastián, Nicosia (although this event, a planned art school, was cancelled), Trentino and, in 2010, Murcia—by teams of outside curators, working together for the first time, who are asked to spend the intervening years combing the continent for new art and to present it in whatever ways seem relevant to them. Iterations have deployed innovative formats ranging from museum exhibitions, through unusual sites all over each city, to an art school, internet sites and, in 2012, a former coal mine in Genk, Belgium.

On a global scale, cultural connectivities are also changing, swiftly and drastically, as the old centers see the ghosts of entropy looming within their success with spectacle, and locales in Asia and the Middle East in particular seek to institutionalize rapidly. The story in each place is highly specific to local histories, priorities and possibilities: thus the value of research, such as that of John Clark, which compares the role of biennials in various Asian regions. In some locales outside of the former West, regional connectivity has been sought for some decades—most notably in Havana since 1984, from a tercomondialist perspective. In recent years, as the income divide widens, and concentrates in fewer yet highly mobile hands, many Asian biennials, and sites in the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District, for example, seek to use high art as lifestyle cement within the formation of economic hubs for their region’s one percent. Within large nations such as Brazil and China, internal cultural connectivity is a growing concern, coming to match their interest in connecting with global currents. Cultural policy, they might say, must face both ways.

Meanwhile, on the one-to-one level on which art actually gets made, and exhibition venues are built and sustained, there is much going on. Curators have recognized that building local infrastructure is a necessary condition for encouraging and enabling artists and audiences to think away from the vertical structures of local and international art worlds. Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta has been pivotal to the development of contemporary Indonesian art. Sán Art is playing a similar role in Ho Chi Min City, while the Arrow Factory in Beijing seeks to connect the activity of the known art districts to that of a remnant hutong. Connecting such centers through lateral or regional networking is the next important step. Already, Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, has built strong regional ties to organizations such as Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, and Salt (formerly Platform Garanti), in Istanbul.

Residencies for artists, curators, writers and administrators have become a key medium for such network building. In circumstances where the institution of even the most fragile infrastructure is impossible, persistent curating and open-hearted art practice is nonetheless achieving important gains. In 2007, responding to a situation in which al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art—founded in 1998 in Jerusalem’s Old City—found itself with an accumulating collection of contemporary art by Palestinian artists but no prospect of exhibiting it, founder and director, Jack Persekian conceived of the Contemporary Art Museum Palestine (CAMP) as a source of exhibitions shown elsewhere by partner institutions (such as, among others, the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven). CAMP has said it aims to reflect one of the core Palestinian experiences—displacement—without illustrating a political narrative. Initiatives such as these may be forming a support structure for art that does not necessarily follow Western infrastructural models. Not surprisingly, the fragility of that structure, its extending and stretching, has geopolitical resonances at every level.

If the biennial has indeed become structural within the exhibitionary complex, then its recent history might indicate a certain ossification of the large-scale mega-exhibition, and a lowering of its subversive potential. Does it make sense to take the biennial form—rather than the concept of a specific exhibition for this place, at this time—as the crucial object of critical curatorship? Isn’t this mistaking a medium for a subject? Perhaps it also presumes that the biennial is perfectible and singular, when the success of the format as a vehicle for transitionality has for decades depended precisely on its node-like structure, its easily imitated parameters and, on the local level, its unique (for art institutions) mix of prominence, regular recurrence and reliable unpredictability. Confusion between open-endedness and singularity remains unresolved—it may even have proliferated. This might be because the most important focus for artists, curators and other art-world activists right now is not only to perfect the biennial, and to pursue the curatorial, but also to accelerate the shift in the infrastructure toward open-ended inventiveness—to become, in a phrase, infrastructural activists.