Essays

Developing a Consequential Biennials Dialogue

What are we to make of the worldwide proliferation of biennials and similar events during the past twenty-five years, and what does the future hold? From the handful of well-known international events established by the late 1970s - when "international" generally meant Euro-American, or simply "Western" - the roster has now swelled to more than 100 by some counts. Of course, as "recurring artistic event" and "marketing buzzword" have moved up the list of biennial definitions, we might argue what counts and what doesn't. But even the most curmudgeonly semanticist would have to concede the past decades have witnessed at least a ten-fold increase in the number of large-scale events aspiring to periodic global art world significance.

A range of interrelated factors drive the phenomenon, of which we are all quite aware, although their manifestations are too different in their disparate contexts to more than gloss them with an overly-familiar litany here: globalization, information technology, cultural tourism, economic impact, new or renewed nationalisms, and the ongoing and hard-won fragmentation of Western hegemony. In a twist of Einsteinian complexity that characterizes contemporaneity, time and space coordinates have both expanded and shrunk, depending upon one's location and perspective du jour. The smorgasbord of locally staged international events both participates in and reflects this transitional moment.

Following the close of its 51st edition and in celebration of its 110th anniversary, the Venice Biennale recently took stock of its historical role, recent trajectory, and possible futures in this new context. From 9-12 December, "Where Art Worlds Meet: Multiple Modernities and the Global Salon" brought together a multi-disciplinary group of speakers and a daily audience several hundred strong at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti (which recent biennale visitors will know as the site of the Latin American pavilion). Chaired by Robert Storr, artistic director of the 2007 edition, the conference was intended as "a meeting of minds" and "a forum for inquiry into this profoundly influential but increasingly problematic exhibition format at the site of its invention." No specific outcome was planned or consensus sought, although critical issues such as the future of the national pavilions frequently arose. Rather participants and audience members alike were encouraged to contribute their perspectives on biennials and the art world today, as well as la Biennale di Venezia itself, with the hope of stimulating accretive discussion for reflection and review. 

What are we to make of the worldwide proliferation of biennials and similar events during the past twenty-five years, and what does the future hold? From the handful of well-known international events established by the late 1970s - when "international" generally meant Euro-American, or simply "Western" - the roster has now swelled to more than 100 by some counts. Of course, as "recurring artistic event" and "marketing buzzword" have moved up the list of biennial definitions, we might argue what counts and what doesn't. But even the most curmudgeonly semanticist would have to concede the past decades have witnessed at least a ten-fold increase in the number of large-scale events aspiring to periodic global art world significance.

A range of interrelated factors drive the phenomenon, of which we are all quite aware, although their manifestations are too different in their disparate contexts to more than gloss them with an overly-familiar litany here: globalization, information technology, cultural tourism, economic impact, new or renewed nationalisms, and the ongoing and hard-won fragmentation of Western hegemony. In a twist of Einsteinian complexity that characterizes contemporaneity, time and space coordinates have both expanded and shrunk, depending upon one's location and perspective du jour. The smorgasbord of locally staged international events both participates in and reflects this transitional moment.

Following the close of its 51st edition and in celebration of its 110th anniversary, the Venice Biennale recently took stock of its historical role, recent trajectory, and possible futures in this new context. From 9-12 December, "Where Art Worlds Meet: Multiple Modernities and the Global Salon" brought together a multi-disciplinary group of speakers and a daily audience several hundred strong at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti (which recent biennale visitors will know as the site of the Latin American pavilion). Chaired by Robert Storr, artistic director of the 2007 edition, the conference was intended as "a meeting of minds" and "a forum for inquiry into this profoundly influential but increasingly problematic exhibition format at the site of its invention." No specific outcome was planned or consensus sought, although critical issues such as the future of the national pavilions frequently arose. Rather participants and audience members alike were encouraged to contribute their perspectives on biennials and the art world today, as well as la Biennale di Venezia itself, with the hope of stimulating accretive discussion for reflection and review. 

Among the possible choices for cultural infrastructure and its development, however, biennials are, like other festivals, a comparatively flexible and low-risk form - which is no doubt one reason for their mushrooming. That's not to say they're easy (indeed, their recent but waning aspiration to map a sort of cultural United Nations has made them extremely challenging intellectually), nor to vote them most likely to succeed in the cultural expansion contest (some recent entries will likely fail with time). All other things being equal, however, they offer a more favorable ratio of variable to fixed costs than institutions requiring purpose-specific buildings, and they are therefore more capable of adapting to environmental changes. They tend to be exponentially less expensive to get up and running than their iconic architectural counterparts, though some biennials are housed in these partner institutions. And if they fail, it's a lot easier to make them go away than, say, a Millennium Dome. For these reasons, biennials and similar cultural festivals will likely remain an attractive card to play as the stakes advance in the global culture game. And there was plenty of indication at the Venice conference that new players are poised to join.

But if we'd all do well to relegate economic impact studies to the dustbin, curator Paolo Herkenhoff's presentation on the 24th Bienal de Sao Paolo in 1998 may point the way towards maximizing one of the core benefits Frey argues are a solid basis for valuing such events: education. Herkenhoff's biennial was developed with the explicit aim of giving something back to Brazil, of realizing lasting benefits for regional and even national communities. He conceived the biennial as an "educational tool" with the realization that the provision of public money for a budget might rather be thought of as an investment in the public education system. To this end, 300 guides were trained, 1000 school teachers received 30 hours of training, 50,000 school rooms were provided with relevant educational materials, and 200,000 students were brought to the biennial. Such an ambitious plan required direct participation with the board of education of the State of Sao Paolo, which allowed the investment of resources to return substantial benefits. By 1999, the material circulated within the school system had reached 1 million children, and by 2004, it had benefited 3 million.

Herkenhoff's team's achievements came to mind the following day when former Third Text editor Jean Fisher stated, "The sites of art are people, not places." Lamenting the fact that genuine cosmopolitanism that is not conceived as another universalism seems to be an ever-receding dream, Fisher elaborated upon the market-driven art world's selective inclusion and the double bind of wishing for inclusion from the outside: achieving inclusion means legitimating the authority of the host, but reform solely from the outside isn't possible. "Genuine dialogue" with "consequences beyond rhetoric" is the only means of ameliorating this chronic condition.

It was therefore rewarding, indeed inspiring, to see so many contributing voices to the Third Text discourse - one the contemporary art world should rather embrace as essential to its own - as participants in "Where Art Worlds Meet." And it was no less inspiring, if unquestionably belated, to see Rosa Martínez on the round table stage for the concluding panel discussion, in which successive Biennale curators shared their experiences and direct suggestions for the Biennale administration. With Giovanni Carandente, Achille Bonito Oliva, Germano Celant, Francesco Bonami and Martínez speaking in succession, it was clear that things have indeed changed in past decades. Indeed, one might share Fisher's hope that this genuine dialogue could prove consequential for the Biennale's future.

As for the future of biennials more generally, 2006 already seems a heavy schedule, but 2007 should prove of critical interest. As the painter Luc Tuymans observed, 2007 will witness a large-scale exhibition "tsunami," which he described as a "suicidal program" that's "bad for everyone" and will draw back the prevailing discussion to the question of distinguishing between quantity and quality. At the very least, the coexistence of the Venice Biennale, Documenta XII, Munster Sculpture Project, and some dozen others will prove impossible to digest. Given this extraordinarily competitive operating environment, perhaps a greater number will prudently follow Herkenhoff's lead in answering the questions on everyone's mind: what and who are all these events for? 

 

Speakers and schedules for "Where Art Worlds Meet: Multiple Modernities and the Global Salon" - along with introductory texts by Davide Croff, President of the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, and Rob Storr, Director of the 52nd Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte (2007) - are available at http://www.labiennale.org/en/news/art/en/37051.html.

The Talk Saver website that hosts recordings and transcripts of the full proceedings is available at http://www.talksaver.info.

Gerhard Haupt and Pat Binder's website Universes in Universe is at http://www.universes-in-universe.de.

For Bruno Frey's "What Values Should Count in the Arts? The Tension between Economic Effects and Cultural Value," see http://www.crema-research.ch/abstracts/2005-24.htm.

For Matthew Turner's March 2005 Perspectives, see Wicked WKCD

 

 

Joe Martin Hill is the founder of Vision Connect, a management and curatorial consulting firm, and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York. He was on the team assisting Robert Storr in the preparation of the event discussed above. Other team members to whom Joe expresses thanks are Lindsay Harris of the Institute of Fine Arts, Anna Mecugni of the City University of New York, and Francesca Pietropaolo of The Museum of Modern Art.

 

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Author

Joe HILL

Topic
Essays
Date
Sun, 1 Jan 2006