On Friday I went to the all-day conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt here in Berlin. The conference was arranged by the Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art and the Biennial Foundation,* directed by Marieke van Hal. It was a Conference related to the First General Assembly of the International Biennial Association. I opted out of the first lecture named "Why Biennial" held by Maria Hlavajova (too early), and arrived to the panel discussion named "Biennial Writing - Re-assessing Art History". The panel included Bruce Altshuler, Nicolas Bourriaud, Juan A. Gaitán and was moderated by opinionated Koyo Kouoh (of RAW Material Company, Dakar) who took the opportunity to speak her own mind, and was not acting merely as a moderator, but rather more as a participant in the panel. One of the things she aired was what she called the "intellectual corruption" amongst curatorial writing, by which she was referring to the constant and at times highly annoying cross-referential style of writing, where curators tend to quote and refer to other thinkers, texts and theory so much that only a fraction of the text is the curator's own thinking. Not to mention the long list of footnotes that regularly accompany such a text. Her impression about these types of texts were that the curators were trying to "write themselves into power" as they were directed only towards the inner circle of the "highly incestous" art world from which they could benefit from (DANG!). With such an opening one would have hoped for a vivid debate.
Bourriaud who was sitting right next to her, and could very well have been the main target of her sharp tongue had she not added the disclaimer that she found his curating to be much more "sympathetic" than the regular curator-writer she was referring to. Bourriaud's presentation came just after a presentation by Altshuler which was mainly a brief overview of the history of curating the mega-show. Bourriaud seemed to be unprepared but at the same time, very sympathetic and kept his talk in the relaxed, french style one would expect from the director of École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He insisted that the curatorial concept and their writing was a subtext to the exhibition and nothing more, that it is perfectly optional for the visitors to read it, and that there is a grammar to curating that may, or may not, help the ideas of the exhibition to come forward. Juan A. Gaitán came very much unprepared too, but in a different manner it seemed, definitely not in the French way anyway. He started off by saying that he was very much sceptical towards these types of talks/panels (one could not but wonder why he had agreed to participate nonetheless) and didn't seem to have an opinion about anything other than simply agreeing with Kouoh's presentation of his work that his idea for the Berlin Biennial this year was to avoid words. Oh, now I am a bit mean, perhaps, but the only thing that I can remember that he actually said was that for the Berlin Biennial he "attempted the simplification of words" in order to let the ideas of the art come forward. Hmm.
Ok, granted, curators are perhaps not rocket scientists and should perhaps not be expected to act as that either, but the panel left the audience with very little of interest. Did we just listen to four of what is generally considered to be the top-intelligentia of the art world, and this is what we got?
A bit disappointed and without food for thought, we had some lunch before the lecture by Bartomeu Marí, the director of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). Marí's lecture was about the results of the fact that the art world has expanded so tremendously over the past 20 years. Now the arts are less and less public, more private and what does this mean for, and what are the implications to the world of institutions, museums and biennials? He mentioned a funny anecdote as an example of how things now look from visiting the Art Basel this year. Most of us art geeks that had not the chance to go to Basel this year nevertheless got the message about what seemed to be a very interesting show named 14 Rooms, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach, installed in a specially built section designed by Herzog & de Meuron, presented by Foundation Beyeler/Art Basel/Theatre Basel featuring 16 performance works by as many artists. Marí' had at the entrance noted that there was a new feature to the presentation of the exhibition: the list of the artists (16) was placed parallel to the list of the patrons to the exhibition, and that the list of the patrons included just as many names, and with the same size letters. We now do not only have star artists, and (still a few) star curators, but we now also have some star collectors. Of course, this is a tendency that has been prevalent since a while now, and what comes to mind is for example when the world record for contemporary painting was broken by a Rothko some years ago, and people were not speaking about the painting as a "Rothko" but instead as a "Rockefeller" as the painting had been owned by David Rockefeller before it was sold at the auctions.
It wasn't until the very end of his talk that I found myself with a spinning brain though. He mentioned the fact that there is now a "new" commodity to be collected with great prestige (not only art works), and that is the archive that is left from a newly passed away artist. The new thing is that museums an institutions (with muscles enough to collect and store many - different - things) approach the relatives of the recently passed artists and offer huge amounts of money in exchange for the entire archive of the artists. Naturally, it is easy for the relatives to say yes, often they don't know how to store these things themselves, and they are also perhaps happy that someone consider their father/mother so important that they want to keep the "left-overs" intact. Not mentioning a possibility to get a buck or two. It might not seem so problematic at first, but as he explained, the collectors that acquire these archives can make it very difficult for others to do research in the archive, or loan from to make an exhibition that might not fit the purposes of the owner. This can prove problematic, for instance can there be political reasons for an institution within an oppressive regime to entail the whole remnant archive of a dissident artist for instance too, that cannot be neglected. Who can we trust to write the history of art? He mentioned that the Getty Art Museum collected archives fiercely. My thoughts lies with what happens with the archives collected by private collectors.
The last point of the day was supposed to be a panel discussion, but it turned out to be single talks, one after the other, by the participants: Geeta Kapur, Galit Eilat, Ahmet Ögüt, Hedwig Fijen and the moderator Bige Örer. The title of the discussion was "Institutional Critique - How to be Self-Critical in Biennial Work". Every participant used up at least double of their given time-slot, and in Kapur's case, most likely even triple the time, in order to outline a short presentation about their thoughts and work, which left no time for discussions after, which really was a shame because this was the moment when something actually happened and a real discussion was unterwegs.
So, first off was Geeta Kapur, a Delhi-based critic and curator. She contended for an institutional critique a biennial can do from within. I am not entirely sure that she was argumenting for the so called "New Institutionalism", and if so - in what manner. She used the word "maverick" a couple of times to describe what a biennial could do, it could look to understand the structure from the inside and only then find the radicality from within. She used the example of Jack Persekian, who a couple of years ago got sacked as the long-time head of the Sharjah Biennial because he had overlooked to see that a work exhibited in the biennial (that were later removed) were offensive to Islam. She meant that it was the right thing to do (to remove Persekian) as he went too far from within. She meant that the art-worlders that defended him so fiercely were wrong as he should have instead found the "right" kind of radicality and thus had the possibility to stay on.
After her, Hedwig Fijen, who came directly from St Petersburg where she was responsible for Manifesta for which she has been a director for since quite some time. Like we all know, Manifesta has been bombarded with an