Carlos Basualdo in dialogue with Sarat Maharaj

What is a biennial? I used to think I knew until I attended the Bergen conference ‘To Biennial or Not to Biennial?’. In a paper burgeoning with data about the proliferation of biennials over the past 20 years, Rafal Niemojewski (Hayward Gallery) told us that not all biennials take place every two years, and some only happen once. Although the conference title playfully referred to Hamlet’s question ‘To be or not to be’, it was also a serious question—should Bergen have a biennial or not?

The conference’s structure, format, and spatial dynamics produced an environment conducive to generating discussion. Crucially, however, research and funding were instrumental to its success. Perhaps the best thing about the conference was not the presentation of answers, of facts and figures or the tidy resolution of issues, but rather that it raised so many questions, it fostered discussion and disagreement, and allowed questions to remain unsettled. Conceived by Solveig Øvstebø (director, Kunsthall Bergen), Elena Filipovic (writer and independent curator), and Marieke Van Hal (art historian and director, Biennial Foundation), the Bergen Biennial Conference was openly described as a thinktank. Held in three different buildings (Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen Kunstmuseum and a large hotel), the conference base was sited in the Kunsthall, where talks and receptions replaced art in the galleries, where delegates could read and reflect upon biennial discourse throughout the day and into the evening.

At its launch reception, Øvstebø set out the conference’s aim: to critically examine the phenomenon of the biennial and its discourse, in light of Bergen City Council’s plans to establish a biennial for contemporary art in Bergen, and to take research as a starting point. Indeed, both conceptually and materially, research informed the conference. The organisers issued a call for ‘biennial knowledge’, which attracted 150 analytical texts on biennials and provided a source for programming the conference, inviting some authors to participate and others to attend. These texts were assembled into an archive made available for consultation in the Kunsthall throughout the conference. (Plans to publish a selection of the texts are already underway, with a two-volume reader to be produced next year; the first volume will consist of extant texts important for the discourse, and its second will contain newly commissioned texts and texts from the conference archive.)

Another archive was also available for consultation—the most comprehensive documentary source on biennials, the Arquivo Histórico Wanda Svevo (Wanda Svevo Historical Archive), presented biennial catalogues together in a library format. Originally produced as part of the 28th São Paulo Biennial, 2008, the purpose of including it as an exhibition linked to this conference was to ‘theoretically contextualise critical thinking and writing on recurrent large-scale art exhibitions’. Bringing together publications for biennials that no longer exist or take place under different titles, the Svevo archive historically and geographically maps the international terrain of the biennial and other types of periodical exhibitions. Officially opened by Henning Warloe, commissioner of finance, cultural affairs and sports for Bergen, the Svevo archive and conference seemed to have the city’s complete support —intellectually, financially and politically.

After the launch, presentations were organised into the broad categories of History (day one), Practice (day two) and Future (day three). Talks took place in large morning sessions followed by a choice of two smaller workshops or dialogues in the afternoon. Caroline Jones (MIT) introduced the historical origins of biennials and large-scale exhibitions, from the 1900 Paris Exposition to the foundation of the Venice Biennale, and proposed that in the 21st century biennial culture has produced a hunger for ‘art as experience’. Her response to Daniel Birnbaum’s curation of this year’s Venice Biennale—the presentation of artwork as a world and where the viewer might possess different ways of world-making—is that the artwork should be understood as something that is inserted into a world. Jones’s main points were: that biennial culture engages tourism and the art market; its platforms regulate the art world as salons or academies once did; its preferred genres are video and installation; and its aesthetics favours ‘experience’. Consequently, the aesthetics of experience, according to Jones, has moved from the exposition’s utilitarian assemblage to the form of exhibitionary spectacle. She cited the 2005 Lyon Biennial (curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and Jerome Sans) as both important for freeing the biennial from obvious nationalisms, while also participating in a recent drive to problematise the convention of national pavilions, nationalisms and the concept of the ethnic state.

Ingar Dragset and Ann Demeester at the Biennial Reports workshop 
Ingar Dragset and Ann Demeester at the Biennial Reports workshop

But where Jones looked at the origins of periodic exhibition-making, Charlotte Bydler’s presentation offered a critical perspective on the contemporary biennial as a global phenomenon. Bydler (Södertörn University College) drew on her research into the global art world to explore how biennial culture functioned like a closed system, citing Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. She critically evaluated the biennial as an ideological project in which cross-cultural relationships were not always recognised. Bydler considered how some biennials such as the Gwangju Biennale and the 5th Gothenburg International Biennial addressed issues of imperialism and global localism.

That afternoon I chose to attend a dialogue between the artist Anri Sala and Hans Ulrich Obrist in which they responded to the question ‘Did Biennials Change Art?’. They talked about setting up the first Tirana Biennale in 2001, the project ‘Utopia Station’ (2003-ongoing), and explored critical problems with biennials and other forms of periodic exhibitions. While considering issues of sustainability and legacy, Sala and Obrist foregrounded open dialogues over the desire to perpetuate or resist the inclusion of the usual biennial suspects.

Over the second and third days, speakers considered biennial practices and the question of the future of biennial culture respectively. Presentations by John Clark (University of Sydney), Maria Hlavajova (BAK) and Paul O’Neill (Middlesex University) were followed by lively debates over the balance between curatorial concepts and practical concerns, well chaired by Ute Meta Bauer (MIT). A session of geographically, politically and economically wide-ranging ‘biennial reports’ were meanwhile presented by Gridthiya Gaweewong (on Saigon Open City), Ann Demeester (on the Vilnius Triennial), Ingar Dragset (on the Nordic Pavilions, 53rd Venice Biennale) and Chrissie Iles (on the Whitney Biennial) and carefully chaired by Elena Filipovic. The third day concluded with incredibly diverse but complimentary talks from Bruce Ferguson (founding director, SITE Sante Fe), Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Raqs Media Collective), Ranjit Hoskote (poet, artist and curator) and Rafal Niemojewski. All of these presentations, together with the alternative dialogue and workshop, remain available to view online.

Like the best conferences, questions dominated the proceedings. It seems appropriate to present some of these here accompanied by their authors. How can one ‘biennial’ responsibly? How and what is there to ‘biennial’? (Maria Hlavajova) How do we think about place, context & situation? How do we produce publics? What could a future of a biennial look like in Bergen? (Paul O’Neill) How can a biennial installation analyse space, structures and place? (Ingar Dragset) Is it cynicism or naïveté that makes one feel apart from the market? (Elena Filipovic) Is this swell of biennial discourse due to exhaustion, saturation or criticism of its maturity as a field? Does discursivity take the biennial back to its utopian origins? (Bruce Ferguson) Can one curate a biennial to death? What does it mean to show work in a place of evacuated labour? (Shuddhabrata Sengupta) Is spectacle always as evacuating and alienating as it seems to be? (Ranjit Hoskote)

If the issues and predicaments raised in the conference could be captured in a single image, it is Shuddabrata Sengupta’s talk that comes to mind. He explored the issue of curatorial responsibility, and expressed appreciation at Bruce Ferguson’s invocation of ‘the shrinking world anxiety as a mark of the anxiety of privilege. A great deal is made of the megalomania of a global vision which forgets to pay attention to the fact that there are global visions everywhere and there have been for a very long time.’ He played a clip from Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1957), the second film in a trilogy about the life of a boy named Apu. The narrative encompasses the period of time from his childhood until he leaves for university, when he takes with him a tiny globe; in Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel on which the film is based, Apu is described ‘as hungry for space and thirsty for time as Leif Erikson’. For Sengupta, the globe represents a different kind of imagination of the world.

The desire for the biennial exhibition to somehow represent the whole world in all its complexity may be real, but it nonetheless demands curatorial responsibility, dialogue, legacy and attention to the balance between global and local.

Stacy Boldrick is research and interpretation manager of the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh