artcore journal

artcore journal

Notes on a Biennial by Eva González-Sancho

In her text Biennial Culture: A Longer History, Caroline A. Jones, refers to biennials as “event structures.”[i] In this highly instructive text, she traces biennial history in its multiple aspects (social, political, economic, tourism, etc.), drawing attention to the paradoxes and ambiguities of its origins and development. In the extensive and substantial information provided by this history, the idea of an “event structure” leads to the idea of a place for art, that of the “event” – something, which I have always felt a desire to flee from. This raises questions as to the nature of the ‘here and now’ and of the coherence of one’s own contribution as co-curator of a biennial, in this case the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) 2013, and also how to respond to artcore journal’s invitation to speak of the possibilities for acting within such a framework: of an event structure or a “structured event”? These words raise a series of doubts in my mind. Mainly, as to the idea of event, its sense of immediacy and, not infrequently, its failure of commitment to art practices that question in one way or another the nature of public space, an issue that interests me greatly. Here, I am referring to art in public space, rather than public art as a sort of decoration, an art that has to do with public space in its broadest sense, given that biennials have accustomed us to art interventions both outside and inside private spaces or in spaces not usually devoted to art.


Image courtesy of the author.

The event may attempt an engagement with local contexts, although this often remains superficial, and many texts written to justify such events refer to a need to articulate the local in universal terms. Engaging seriously with the local context needs time, commitment and a good deal of research.

These issues lead to the question of how the biennial framework might condition the possibilities for the action of art. But first of all, it must be decided where to hold the biennial, how, to what end, and with what audience in mind.

To define the composition of a biennial and then contribute to its ongoing history involves firstly, marking out a field of action, digesting its previous characteristics and evolution and secondly, determining appropriate formats for work and production and lastly to present, on the basis of a series of parameters (not only physical and temporal but also social, political, and conceptual), a coherent art proposal that addresses a particular public that must be defined a priori. Like other forms of art production, this proposal will also suppose the transmission of knowledge and ideas, which to some extent will originate from the context in which the proposal is made. Ideally, this should trace a route from the local to the universal, from the concrete to the general: a construction process set in motion and deriving from the specific context and leading to an eventual theorization. This rather than the opposite: defining a concept (whether of a universal nature or not) and then searching for facets of the local context that might illustrate it.

The aim is to make the art instigate discussion in society, in full awareness of the context in which this discussion is to take place. It may sound simple, but I do believe that the fundamental issue for producing an interesting biennial is one of attention to the particular context in which it is to take place.

In some cases, the topic of globalization has provided a pretext to justify developing almost any issue in any context, even though this approach runs the risk of a poor outcome for any biennial that adopts it. Not because the chosen criteria are uninteresting in themselves, but because their legibility will be difficult in certain contexts and their effectiveness may prove lacking. Big ideas are all very well but it is perhaps more important to focus on ‘something’ that will ‘provoke.’ In this sense, I still believe in art’s ability to provoke, if not change, our thinking about the world that surrounds us.

Artur Żmijewski has introduced the idea of “practitioners of impotence”, speaking of art’s potential for modifying reality. His words suggest that there is little or none. However, the mere act of making us discern, even if hesitatingly, the reality that surrounds us and helping us to apprehend it in a spirit of criticism, is a necessary step on the path towards change. In contrast, the seventh edition of the Berlin Biennale did seem to suggest the weighty effectiveness and potential of art in society, mainly based on a variation of the “readymade” – the translation of an object from its usual surroundings to another context, as if these objects had never been passed through the ‘filter of art,’ whatever this may be. This leads back to the issue of whether the biennial’s context really offered the optimal conditions for giving form to the curatorial proposal, one that was far removed from the event and where I sometimes had the feeling that the target audience had been narrowed down even more than usual. Perhaps it is not art that lacks a capacity to bring about change but rather (in this case) the context in which it appears and its public reception, a question that leads to proposals yet to be made. This is a question that remains unanswered. The biennial, like any art project, should question its own presentation format – does a biennial in fact need works of art? Couldn’t it be a book? Or, perhaps, a series of archives?[ii]

Biennials are ruled by the paradigms of their production and do not proceed at the same pace as other exhibition formats, such as shows presented within the framework of a more or less long-term exhibition program. Most biennials offer a varied and colourful tourist circuit arising from the use of spaces not devoted a priori to art exhibition and from interventions in public space or other different modus operandi, temporal diversity or even, paradoxically invisibility.[iii] Biennials also make greater demands on the public in terms of an effort of memory in relation to the event and its contextualization than in the case of the reading of a classic exhibition program. Or rather, biennials demand coherent mediation in order to provide the audience with the necessary tools for their reception and contemplation.

Undoubtedly, there are ways of working that can help to establish a relation between context and concept. On one hand, there is the production of new work and ideally this can take place through artists’ residencies. Again, there is the need for sufficient time to assimilate and work with and within a context. It is also clearly necessary to work with artists who can respond to the challenges of producing work within, for example, this type of residency. A second strategy for approaching local contexts is the gradual introduction over time of the biennial’s ideation by means of multiple strategies such as art interventions, talks, etc. and the ongoing maintenance of foci of reflection over a long time, perhaps even when the biennial period has come to an end. In proportion to the scope, ambitions, timeframe and resources available, many biennials have backed the production and development of tools for discussion and thinking (debates, texts, etc.) that have then lead in part to the production of the works shown, in other words, the final outcome.

The concept and form of the next edition of LIAF 2013 will be made public in February, when this article has already been published. The festival’s formulation has been preceded by much internal discussion by the curatorial team of its relations with the local context and the forms of production. The issues of local context exist on various levels. The first of these is the most obvious: Lofoten, an archipelago district in the county of Nordland, Norway, offers a remarkable and beautiful landscape, which arouses doubts and fears of producing a festival arising from the seductive powers of great natural beauty and art works based only on this. The idea of this biennale is to look beyond work suggested by the natural features of Lofoten and approach a pertinent, legible, active, current, local and universal problematic, based on the context that the region offers; choosing, in particular, two of its towns, which the festival will span. Secondly, the aim is to take an approach that will make sense in wider contexts than Lofoten alone, and will address both local people and visitors to the festival. The aim is that Lofoten become – as a place for both experiencing and contemplating – a suitable vantage point from which to approach a reading and a questioning of the dynamics of themes taken up in other parts of the world. In other words: to aim to reach a discussion in society by way of art.

Brussels, December 2012

Eva González-Sancho is a curator and currently a member of the curatorial team of Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) 2013, together with curators Anne Szefer Karlsen (NO) and Bassam El Baroni (EG). [LIAF 2013: 6 September– 29 September 2013]. She was director and curator of FRAC Bourgogne (Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, Dijon, France) from 2003 to 2011 and Etablissement d’en Face Projects (Art Projects Office, Brussels, Belgium) from 1998 to 2003), as well as lecturing in The History of Exhibitions at Metz University from 2001 to 2004.

Her interests have always revolved around the many issues today being raised by public space, as well as the perception and function of space as evidenced in exhibition projects (both in Dijon and abroad) with artists such as Guillaume Leblon, Pedro Cabrita Reis, Lara Almarcegui, Jonas Dahlberg, Katrin Sigurdardottir, Knut Åsdam, Peter Downsbrough, Gaylen Gerber, Rita McBride, Koenraad Dedobeeleer, and also in acquisitions of new work for the FRAC Bourgogne collection by Francis Alÿs, Jordi Colomer, Henrik Håkansson, Marcelo Cidade.

Linked with this primary area of research, her projects also enter into relationships with language, and sometimes with text, through artworks which are part and parcel of a broader questioning about issues of awareness, the conditions and forms of self-perception and self-consciousness in a given place, or in the readings of History as illustrated in different ways by the works of Imogen Stidworthy, Frances Stark, Stefan Brüggemann, Dora García or Matthew Buckingham.

She defines her curatorial work as focussing on ‘Non-Authoritarian’ art practices, in other words, those which offer the public an extremely broad margin for manoeuvre and interpretation, non-spectacular approaches that acknowledge the viewers own protagonist state, individuality, and responsibility.

[i] Caroline A. Jones, “Biennial Culture: A Longer History,” in The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art, Eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal & Solveig ØvstebØ, published by Hatje Cantz, 2010.

In September 2009, Solveig Øvstebø, director of  Bergen Kunsthalle, organized together with Elena Filipovic, co-curator of the 5th Berlin Biennale and Marieke Van Hal, director the Athens Biennale, a three-day debate on the history, practices and future of biennales entitled “To Biennial or not to Biennial?” Subsequently, “The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art” was edited, a diverse compilation of texts and contributions commissioned before the symposium together with those presented in course of the debates and talks. At present, Norway enjoys the Bergen Triennial and the Moss, Biennials together with the Festival International Art Festival taking also place every two years.

The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art. Edited by Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebo. Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010. 568 pages.

[ii] Created by André Malraux in 1959, the Paris biennale was the third in history. From 1959 to 1985 it was organized under along the usual lines, exhibiting diverse artists, works and projects, but was losing ground in relation to other events and was in danger of disappearing altogether; it has been reformulated in the 2000s with the peculiar form of a biennale without exhibitions, curators artists or public. A biennale that examines different aspects of art and its problematics. The Paris Biennale archives are situated in the Chateaugiron Archives de la critique d’art, in the Kandinsky Library of the Pompidou Centre, Institut National de l’Histoire de l’Art, the Maeght Foundation and the Institut National de l’ Audiovisuel. A high proportion of the archive texts are available on line.

[iii] Invited to take part in Skulptur Projekte Münster 2007, Mark Wallinger “constructed” using white thread an invisible circle running through buildings and the skies over the city.  The spectator would search in vain for this line encircling the sky, really only visible on the map in the Münster 2007 visitor’s guide. In this piece, Mark Wallinger set out to represent a transcendent boundary corresponding to a former Jewish ghetto. By attempting to visualize the circle, the spectator – providing he/she remained inside the territory it demarcated – became part of a community.

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