Notes from The Biennial Conference

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. 

 Carolyn Christov-Baragiev, Ahmet Ögüt, Bige Örer, Galit Eilat, Hedwig Fijen and  Geeta Kapur.

Carolyn Christov-Baragiev, Ahmet Ögüt, Bige Örer, Galit Eilat, Hedwig Fijen and Geeta Kapur.

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 enormous amount of critique for being situated where it is this year, in Russia, in St. Petersburg and in the Eremitage. She mentioned how none of the artistic projects had been in any way been object of political pressure and that there had been internal discussions all along the process about staying or leaving Russia and the decision to stay was not taking lightly nor naïvely. She mentioned that the LGBT-movement in Russia had wanted them to stay to avoid further isolation and to keep an open channel, and that in the end, with all the talk about boycott, only three artists decided to withdraw from participating in the biennial. Kaspar König was in the audience, but never said anything. 

Ahmet Ögüt, the only artist who entered the stage this day, talked of course mainly about the recent case of the Sydney biennial from which he and four other artists decided to withdraw from when it became clear to them that one of the sponsors (of 6% of the budget), Transfeld - owned by members of the family who initiated the Sydney Biennial years ago, was managing immigration detention centers (read their statement here). As the debacle had such impact, that the Transfeld company withdrew as biennial-sponsors in the end, Ögüt et al decided to in the end participate with the biennial since their withdrawl actually had some effect. This is an interesting case-study about a successful institutional critique, I suppose. Last but not least, Galit Eilat took the floor. Currently she is one of the co-curators to the Sao Paulo biennial that will open in September 2014. She talked about the current social- and political situation in Brazil, not without bracing the Brazilian recent 7-1 loss against Germany in the World Cup in Belo Horizonte. A very last minute addition to the group came thus, namely the last Documenta-curator, Carolyn Christov-Baragiev who is currently curating the next Istanbul biennial. She spoke for something of like 10 minutes, and 80% of this time she used to read an text-message conversation between her and an artist who she evidently chose to participate in the Istanbul Biennial. We were to know from this that her dog Darcy was happy amongst all the flowers, and the moral of the story is that we all have to fight evil from within before we can take on other evils of the world.  

It was after this that the only ignition to the debate came, and it was about Ögüt's differentiating "boycott" from "withdrawal". He was questioned by Eilat and Kapur, and he never really had the chance to reply because there was another event waiting to start in HKW, so all of us had to leave. 

In the end there was not much new that were brought  to the table. And I couldn't really see the point of having these people traveling across the world to meet up unprepared in some cases, and without enough time to engage in debate. This falls back on the invited speakers of course, who should have had the good taste to come prepared or not overstate their welcome by using up triple their time-spot, and of course on the organizers for not having more time if it proved to be needed. But why were there so few artists invited? Sometimes I can't help but to loathe how self-centered and self-absorbed curators easily can become. I really do think that the curatorial work are constantly being ignored, under-estimated, under-paid and overseen. And indeed, the Biennials should be talked about - from the outside and the inside -, but considering the fact that there are so many different biennials, with so many different objectives - everything from city-branding to "keep the artists at bay" within an oppressive regime, it is strictly speaking impossible to generalize about biennials at large, just like every exhibition or curator operates differently. 

*Correction added 15/7 on demand :) : The conference during IBA’s General Assembly is organized by the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. The conference and the General Assembly are hosted and generously supported by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation). In collaboration with ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and Biennial Foundation. With the kind support of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Gwangju City, German Federal Foreign Office, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.