An Institution Already First Time Around appeared in the book Making Biennials in Contemporary Times (2015) following the World Biennial Forum No. 2 How to Make Biennials in Contemporary Times in São Paulo, November 2014. The book is edited by Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente, Luiza Proença, Oren Sagiv and Benjamin Seroussi, and published by Biennial Foundation, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, ICCo - Instituto de Cultura Contemporânea. It is also avaibalbe online here.

ENGLISH ONLY

An Institution Already First Time Around

For the generation I belong to, a biennial – no matter if it is the first, second or eighth edition – comes across as an institution, and like any other art institution it has owners (be they public or private), expectations, ambitions, problems and potentials. The biennial field is traversed by many interests: those of business and urban development, politicians, gallerists, curators, artists and audiences.

Biennials are, for most curators, formats that must be engaged with, and they need to be imagined, formulated, produced and communicated at the intersection of all those interests. The same goes for all the others invested in these recurring events. How their engagements are manifested reveals biennials’ possibilities and limitations, and curators often provide answers to very particular remits and conditions. As a curator, you are frequently asked to bring the world as represented through art and artists to a place, and to be able to see the place in question in a way that is valuable both to the local art scene and audience as well as to their international equivalents.

Looking back at two biennials I was recently involved in, it becomes apparent to me that biennials have much in common with the rest of the institutional art landscape, but also that it is a restless format suffering from wanderlust and homesickness at the same time. These were the Biennale Bénin 2012 – a multi-urban biennial in the south of Benin – where I worked as Associate Curator for Research and Encounters invited by the Artistic Director, and Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) 2013 – an archipelago biennial off the coast of Northern Norway – where I was one of three curators in a team invited by the board of the biennial. [1]

The biennial as institution is resolved and unresolved at the same time, as the ambition to activate a place often ends up with a re-activation of known models in new places. And it is possibly through this tension between ‘institution’ and ‘model’ that we can catch a glimpse of a bifurcation ahead of us.

Biennials today have much in common with the disciplines of the humanities: just as the humanities grew out of the need to legitimise the nation state, biennials have thrived while legitimising globalisation through art. While the humanities are trying to define new tasks for themselves today, now that their original goal no longer exists, biennial culture is still in the midst of a moment of being historicised. Biennials are nevertheless at a crossroads, as their traditional task of maintaining globalisation is actively questioned. However, the questions that are being asked are formulated with a handicap that we very seldom discuss: the fact that ideas of the nation and the global are based on the same ideological ground. With this as a backdrop, it is interesting to further inspect the paradoxical format of the biennial, simultaneously homeless and chained as it is.

Discussing particular biennials in a nuanced way requires enormous amounts of information, or focus on certain details only. Here I will only provide a specific type of detail: similarities. Both this presentation and the discussion of the format in general – the biennial – thus become victims of the same homogenisation that they promote.

What binds these two examples together is that they could hardly be presented as mega-events, which is how biennials in general have been portrayed in the attempted historicization of the biennial form. The exhibition in Benin showed fewer than 30 artworks, while the exhibition in Lofoten featured 25. However, both projects had a much higher number of professionals related to the exhibition, involved in side-projects or discursive activities. Twelve artist initiatives and groups were invited to create projects integrated in the biennial project in Benin, and three seminars/workshops were organised by each of the Associate Curators. In Lofoten, a theory seminar was created for the opening weekend with visiting and local art student and specialised audiences in mind. Thus, both biennials were able to create formal and informal forums for professional exchange between artists, art students, art historians and institution professionals. The budgets were of similar size – theoretically. However, the inner workings of the administration of the biennials were different. Both biennials were physically located outside of institutional art architecture, utilising domestic, commercial and public spaces. The biennial exhibition in Cotonou, the financial centre of Benin, was housed in a building that had once been a supermarket, while LIAF 2013 inhabited several locations, including a residential house, a fish factory, the local Am-Car club, the cinema and library and many other places in the village centres of Kabelvåg and Svolvær. Another similarity is the way that both teams of curators responded to the places in question, and particularly their socio-economic situation. To that end, the biennials’ respective titles give us some indication: LIAF 2013 was entitled Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?, and Biennale Bénin 2012 was entitled Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen. Both curatorial teams had an outspoken emphasis on ‘the public,’ with programmes created by art historians and art educators – and, in the case of LIAF 2013, by local inhabitants coming from backgrounds other than art – to create meetings and discussions about the role of art in society today. As visitors – like biennial curators so often are – we as curators took our relations with our hosts seriously, because the public is also our host, as we must not forget. Yet another aspect that binds these two examples together is that those in charge of creating the curatorial teams insisted that they be made up of curators from different geographical backgrounds.

Art professionals and others investing in the field of biennials often project onto and portray the biennial as an experimental and dynamic format serving art and its audiences. Thus, experimentation is a trait that is emphasised in the historicization of biennials. Looking at the total number of biennials in comparison to the number of biennials that are commended for experimenting or opening up new avenues in exhibition-making and contextualisation of the art it commissions and displays does not necessarily confirm this allegation. Rather, if we follow David Harvey’s elaboration in the essay The Art of Rent: Globalization, monopoly and the commodification of culture, this particular field of culture is in such fierce competition internally that a certain ideological monopoly has emerged. According to Harvey: ‘The fiercer the competition the faster the trend towards oligopoly if not monopoly.’

Apart from the few biennials – like those in Berlin, Gwangju, Saõ Paulo and Venice – most biennials are homeless, which separates them from one of the tropes of globalisation: extreme mobility, since being homeless is not a detached position. The homeless belong somewhere, and their individual history is key to verifying their no-fixed-abode status. Not having a home does not mean being nomadic. Rather, it locks one to a place – a chained situation not altogether negative if we think of the biennial, as it can very well create fertile ground for both dreams and hopes. As far as biennials go, some of course directly underpin the connection to globalisation through their mobility. Manifesta – the so-called ‘roving biennial,’ invited to a new location in Europe for each edition – is an example. Further confirmation of the link between the biennial format and aspects of globalisation can be found in the next documenta – the ‘too big to fail’ perennial – which in 2017 is establishing a franchise in Athens, thus exploring the biennial format with one of the most established business models refined through the age of globalisation. Together with the biennials with permanent homes, they are both privileged ‘citizens’ of biennial culture.

At the moment, the productive parameters we need to discuss the biennial do not seem to be clearly formulated, which entrenches the discussion in a trivial set of antagonisms, like local vs. non-local, and in a polarised position to other institutions. If we are to consider biennials as complex social forms – which is one of the established ways of defining an institution – they ought to be discussed and treated as such, rather than as models that are duplicated, or even copied, mechanically.

During the biennial boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, their curators became caretakers of immaterial globalisation processes, just as museum curators once were set to care for material, often nationally oriented, collections. Looking back at writings in different art periodicals from that decade, it is possible to perceive that the ‘conflict’ instigated by the ‘visitor’ (the curator) was much discussed then. However, this discussion appears to have died down – or, at the very least, it seems that the art press grew tired of repeating the same kind of ‘criticism.’ If we want to take the institutionalisation of the biennial seriously, it might be worth re-orienting this and many other debates, because there are certain overarching challenges apart from the obvious questions that globalisation has brought that ought to be addressed.

Looking at the two examples previously mentioned – and making a generalisation based on them as I have done here – it is obvious that biennials today are duplicating pre-existing models and that in some instances curators are appropriated and even instrumentalised to do so. Curators are still – and maybe more so now than before – expected to process or digest the world on behalf of the site of the biennial, as if doing that would create stand-ins for the commons we seem to so desperately need. Those who had the privilege of taking part in defining the roles and models duplicated today were open-minded and inventive. They might even have had the privilege of a larger context in which to develop their intellectual autonomy than is offered today. My generation has taken many of these curators as its role models, and it might be worth finding ways to collaborate across generations to investigate how to address the biennial model in times to come with an institutional awareness. With an interest in this historic opportunity of collaboration, we can through practice challenge a scenario of retrospection that is described so wonderfully in the novel Stoner by John Williams, in which the protagonist, the English professor William Stoner, introduces his course on medieval literature with the following words:

‘Very well,’ Stoner said. ‘I shall continue. As I said at the beginning of this hour, one purpose of this course is to study certain works of the period roughly between twelve and fifteen hundred. Certain accidents of history will stand in our way; there will be linguistic difficulties as well as philosophical, social as well as religious, theoretical as well as practical. Indeed, all of our past education will in some ways hinder us; for our habits of thinking about the nature of experience have determined our own expectations as radically as the habits of medieval man determined his. As a preliminary, let us examine some of those habits of mind under which medieval man lived and thought and wrote . . .’
[3]

--------
[1] Artistic director for Biennale Bénin 2012 was Abdellah Karroum, Didier Houénoudé was Associate Curator for Special Projects, and Anne Szefer Karlsen, Olivier Marboeuf and Claire Tancons were Associate Curators for the Encounters and Research Programme. LIAF 2013-curators were Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni and Eva Gónzalez-Sancho.
[2] www.generation-online.org (accessed 31 January 2015)
[3] J. Williams, Stoner (1965; reis., London: Vintage Books, 2012), p. 231

An Institution Already First Time Around appeared in the book Making Biennials in Contemporary Times (2015) following the World Biennial Forum No. 2 How to Make Biennials in Contemporary Times in São Paulo, November 2014. The book is edited by Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente, Luiza Proença, Oren Sagiv and Benjamin Seroussi, and published by Biennial Foundation, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, ICCo - Instituto de Cultura Contemporânea. It is also avaibalbe online here.

ENGLISH ONLY

An Institution Already First Time Around

For the generation I belong to, a biennial – no matter if it is the first, second or eighth edition – comes across as an institution, and like any other art institution it has owners (be they public or private), expectations, ambitions, problems and potentials. The biennial field is traversed by many interests: those of business and urban development, politicians, gallerists, curators, artists and audiences.

Biennials are, for most curators, formats that must be engaged with, and they need to be imagined, formulated, produced and communicated at the intersection of all those interests. The same goes for all the others invested in these recurring events. How their engagements are manifested reveals biennials’ possibilities and limitations, and curators often provide answers to very particular remits and conditions. As a curator, you are frequently asked to bring the world as represented through art and artists to a place, and to be able to see the place in question in a way that is valuable both to the local art scene and audience as well as to their international equivalents.

Looking back at two biennials I was recently involved in, it becomes apparent to me that biennials have much in common with the rest of the institutional art landscape, but also that it is a restless format suffering from wanderlust and homesickness at the same time. These were the Biennale Bénin 2012 – a multi-urban biennial in the south of Benin – where I worked as Associate Curator for Research and Encounters invited by the Artistic Director, and Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) 2013 – an archipelago biennial off the coast of Northern Norway – where I was one of three curators in a team invited by the board of the biennial. [1]

The biennial as institution is resolved and unresolved at the same time, as the ambition to activate a place often ends up with a re-activation of known models in new places. And it is possibly through this tension between ‘institution’ and ‘model’ that we can catch a glimpse of a bifurcation ahead of us.

Biennials today have much in common with the disciplines of the humanities: just as the humanities grew out of the need to legitimise the nation state, biennials have thrived while legitimising globalisation through art. While the humanities are trying to define new tasks for themselves today, now that their original goal no longer exists, biennial culture is still in the midst of a moment of being historicised. Biennials are nevertheless at a crossroads, as their traditional task of maintaining globalisation is actively questioned. However, the questions that are being asked are formulated with a handicap that we very seldom discuss: the fact that ideas of the nation and the global are based on the same ideological ground. With this as a backdrop, it is interesting to further inspect the paradoxical format of the biennial, simultaneously homeless and chained as it is.

Discussing particular biennials in a nuanced way requires enormous amounts of information, or focus on certain details only. Here I will only provide a specific type of detail: similarities. Both this presentation and the discussion of the format in general – the biennial – thus become victims of the same homogenisation that they promote.

What binds these two examples together is that they could hardly be presented as mega-events, which is how biennials in general have been portrayed in the attempted historicization of the biennial form. The exhibition in Benin showed fewer than 30 artworks, while the exhibition in Lofoten featured 25. However, both projects had a much higher number of professionals related to the exhibition, involved in side-projects or discursive activities. Twelve artist initiatives and groups were invited to create projects integrated in the biennial project in Benin, and three seminars/workshops were organised by each of the Associate Curators. In Lofoten, a theory seminar was created for the opening weekend with visiting and local art student and specialised audiences in mind. Thus, both biennials were able to create formal and informal forums for professional exchange between artists, art students, art historians and institution professionals. The budgets were of similar size – theoretically. However, the inner workings of the administration of the biennials were different. Both biennials were physically located outside of institutional art architecture, utilising domestic, commercial and public spaces. The biennial exhibition in Cotonou, the financial centre of Benin, was housed in a building that had once been a supermarket, while LIAF 2013 inhabited several locations, including a residential house, a fish factory, the local Am-Car club, the cinema and library and many other places in the village centres of Kabelvåg and Svolvær. Another similarity is the way that both teams of curators responded to the places in question, and particularly their socio-economic situation. To that end, the biennials’ respective titles give us some indication: LIAF 2013 was entitled Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?, and Biennale Bénin 2012 was entitled Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen. Both curatorial teams had an outspoken emphasis on ‘the public,’ with programmes created by art historians and art educators – and, in the case of LIAF 2013, by local inhabitants coming from backgrounds other than art – to create meetings and discussions about the role of art in society today. As visitors – like biennial curators so often are – we as curators took our relations with our hosts seriously, because the public is also our host, as we must not forget. Yet another aspect that binds these two examples together is that those in charge of creating the curatorial teams insisted that they be made up of curators from different geographical backgrounds.

Art professionals and others investing in the field of biennials often project onto and portray the biennial as an experimental and dynamic format serving art and its audiences. Thus, experimentation is a trait that is emphasised in the historicization of biennials. Looking at the total number of biennials in comparison to the number of biennials that are commended for experimenting or opening up new avenues in exhibition-making and contextualisation of the art it commissions and displays does not necessarily confirm this allegation. Rather, if we follow David Harvey’s elaboration in the essay The Art of Rent: Globalization, monopoly and the commodification of culture, this particular field of culture is in such fierce competition internally that a certain ideological monopoly has emerged. According to Harvey: ‘The fiercer the competition the faster the trend towards oligopoly if not monopoly.’

Apart from the few biennials – like those in Berlin, Gwangju, Saõ Paulo and Venice – most biennials are homeless, which separates them from one of the tropes of globalisation: extreme mobility, since being homeless is not a detached position. The homeless belong somewhere, and their individual history is key to verifying their no-fixed-abode status. Not having a home does not mean being nomadic. Rather, it locks one to a place – a chained situation not altogether negative if we think of the biennial, as it can very well create fertile ground for both dreams and hopes. As far as biennials go, some of course directly underpin the connection to globalisation through their mobility. Manifesta – the so-called ‘roving biennial,’ invited to a new location in Europe for each edition – is an example. Further confirmation of the link between the biennial format and aspects of globalisation can be found in the next documenta – the ‘too big to fail’ perennial – which in 2017 is establishing a franchise in Athens, thus exploring the biennial format with one of the most established business models refined through the age of globalisation. Together with the biennials with permanent homes, they are both privileged ‘citizens’ of biennial culture.

At the moment, the productive parameters we need to discuss the biennial do not seem to be clearly formulated, which entrenches the discussion in a trivial set of antagonisms, like local vs. non-local, and in a polarised position to other institutions. If we are to consider biennials as complex social forms – which is one of the established ways of defining an institution – they ought to be discussed and treated as such, rather than as models that are duplicated, or even copied, mechanically.

During the biennial boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, their curators became caretakers of immaterial globalisation processes, just as museum curators once were set to care for material, often nationally oriented, collections. Looking back at writings in different art periodicals from that decade, it is possible to perceive that the ‘conflict’ instigated by the ‘visitor’ (the curator) was much discussed then. However, this discussion appears to have died down – or, at the very least, it seems that the art press grew tired of repeating the same kind of ‘criticism.’ If we want to take the institutionalisation of the biennial seriously, it might be worth re-orienting this and many other debates, because there are certain overarching challenges apart from the obvious questions that globalisation has brought that ought to be addressed.

Looking at the two examples previously mentioned – and making a generalisation based on them as I have done here – it is obvious that biennials today are duplicating pre-existing models and that in some instances curators are appropriated and even instrumentalised to do so. Curators are still – and maybe more so now than before – expected to process or digest the world on behalf of the site of the biennial, as if doing that would create stand-ins for the commons we seem to so desperately need. Those who had the privilege of taking part in defining the roles and models duplicated today were open-minded and inventive. They might even have had the privilege of a larger context in which to develop their intellectual autonomy than is offered today. My generation has taken many of these curators as its role models, and it might be worth finding ways to collaborate across generations to investigate how to address the biennial model in times to come with an institutional awareness. With an interest in this historic opportunity of collaboration, we can through practice challenge a scenario of retrospection that is described so wonderfully in the novel Stoner by John Williams, in which the protagonist, the English professor William Stoner, introduces his course on medieval literature with the following words:

‘Very well,’ Stoner said. ‘I shall continue. As I said at the beginning of this hour, one purpose of this course is to study certain works of the period roughly between twelve and fifteen hundred. Certain accidents of history will stand in our way; there will be linguistic difficulties as well as philosophical, social as well as religious, theoretical as well as practical. Indeed, all of our past education will in some ways hinder us; for our habits of thinking about the nature of experience have determined our own expectations as radically as the habits of medieval man determined his. As a preliminary, let us examine some of those habits of mind under which medieval man lived and thought and wrote . . .’
[3]

--------
[1] Artistic director for Biennale Bénin 2012 was Abdellah Karroum, Didier Houénoudé was Associate Curator for Special Projects, and Anne Szefer Karlsen, Olivier Marboeuf and Claire Tancons were Associate Curators for the Encounters and Research Programme. LIAF 2013-curators were Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni and Eva Gónzalez-Sancho.
[2] www.generation-online.org (accessed 31 January 2015)
[3] J. Williams, Stoner (1965; reis., London: Vintage Books, 2012), p. 231