Steven Cairns: Has the prerogative of the biennial been effected by the increasing number of this type of art event? Do you think that ‘the biennial’ has to be individualistic in its approach, and how will bb5 relate to the city of Berlin while maintaining this individualism.
Elena Filipovic : A biennial can be many things, but it is first and foremost an exhibition, and as such it should give artists the support, space, and context in which to say something; it should articulate critical ideas, and be something that an audience can engage with. The rest is mostly marketing and hype. Should that ‘exhibition’ that the biennial is at its core be individualistic? Well, I would say yes, insofar as it must try to do the things that it does in a profoundly personal way. I don’t know how to curate any other way. I don’t think the fact that there are more and more biennials changes any of that, but I do think it demands that we recognise that ‘the biennial’, however much it is an ‘event’ with all the demands of spectacularity and consumption that that implies, doesn’t always have to behave like one.
Adam Szymczyk : Of course, like everyone else, we have reservations concerning the possibility or perhaps even the unavoidable situation of the biennial becoming merely a part of an event culture, a locus of heightened expectations, a show subject to quick forgetting and fast opinion-making. The culture of periodical events to a large extent has replaced the significant group exhibitions of the past. This has been established over the last 10 years through the so-called proliferation of biennials and the parallel increase in value and power of the art market. Any biennial by definition calls for its repetition—but at the same time it can never remain the same, as the difference is what is at stake. This ambiguity of embedded repetition and constant demand for change and innovation makes the biennial an exceptionally ample exhibition model at this particular moment in global development. Although they take place in locales as diverse as Berlin in Germany and Cetinje in Montenegro, it is rather unsurprising that biennials gravitate towards sameness and may appear interchangeable. Luckily, the frighteningly complete equivalence between different biennials can never be achieved. Biennials, in the plural, seem to fulfill the needs of the market, of various local, national, inter-national and global economies; they cater to conflicting political interests and provide useful ‘platforms’ for ‘emerging artists’ to show their work; sometimes they can even grant recognition to more obscure and marginalised positions in art. Biennials are evil, sure, but there is always a chance to get some useful lessons out of a biennial, in the singular, too.
EF: Exactly. And indeed I would say that in this potential singularity, a biennial can articulate critical positions that maybe aren’t being argued for, or at least not enough, elsewhere. For us this possibility has been crucial and a motor for thinking not only about what the group exhibition could do today, but also how to refashion the particular temporal and spatial rules of biennials, in the plural, to make people experience this one differently, so as to better understand the stakes of what the artists we have invited are working on.
SC: Using ‘day’ and ‘night’ as containers for the works in bb5 sets up an immediate contrast between the two elements. How will this affect the works and the contexts within which they are presented?
EF: Yes, ‘day’ and ‘night’ do suggest a contrast, but we weren’t necessarily thinking about how to set up contrast so much as how to provide an alternative forum for experiencing contemporary art practices differently than one does in a typical exhibition space and according to conventional exhibition hours. One doesn’t usually think of an exhibition in terms of an event of the ‘day’, but it happens that it is open during certain business hours, available to people who are free during those times— for better or worse, the fact that it is apprehended in the daylight affects how one experiences it. We wondered what would happen if we found a way to create a pendant to that, something that might expand the exhibition’s time (but also space, since the ‘night’ events will be spread across the city), and use all of the associations that one attaches to the nocturnal—the apprehensions but also the excitement—to the artists’ and the viewers’ advantage.
The idea emerged from sensing artists’ needs to construct different modes of address. The nights will be made up of a series of time-based workshops, concerts, performances, and other singular events. If that might paradoxically seem like we see the biennial more like an ‘event’, I would say instead that, in the plural, our series of events deflate the hyped sense of the ‘event’ by happening at a rate of one per night for the duration of the biennial: and in that accumulation, and confluence of the disparities of these very diverse events that make up one exhibition spread across time, something else is constructed. And we thought that something could be called an exhibition. One will have to be there to experience them and we did think that precisely in Berlin, with the enormous community actively committed to attending such events, there might be a following for such a night exhibition.
AS: The title of our ‘night’ part of the exhibition is taken from an erotic thriller made by Andrzej Zulawski in the 1980s, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (My nights are more beautiful than your days). The title proposes a unique experience to an individual stumbling through the ‘nights’ and experiencing the strange beauty of it, as opposed to banalised experience of the ‘days’, shared by many. The day signals visibility, transparency and easy accessibility; each exhibition contains a lasting configuration of art objects, the movement being the thoughts and movements of exhibition goers alone. The night is related to difficulty, lack of visibility, blurred borders between things and the risk of an encounter with something that is beyond comprehension, with familiar figures performing uncanny acts in surroundings that are transformed by night, although we know them from our daily lives. The night programme is the fifth element; it is our fifth main venue—a temporal venue that encompasses a multiplicity of locations. It is a mobile, fleeting experience all over Berlin, very contrary to the fixedness of day venues. The artists appearing in the night programme are as important as those showing their work in the day shows—but rather than exhibiting things, they show us signs that we may overlook. The night programme is a collective exercise in attention.
SC: Berlin’s recent history is predominantly political. How will this context relate to the artists exhibiting? To what extent will the works be masculinised by these contexts and how does this relate to Berlin as a city with a recent artistic history reflecting gentrification by influx of artistic culture?
EF: Berlin’s history has been predominantly political for longer than recent times and those long and layered different histories interested us. The once-divided city is a potent place and we haven’t shied away from trying to respond to some of its complexity, but answering the question of or deciding on Berlin’s history was not something that?we took on as the goal of bb5. On the other hand, one could say that the choice of venues we made: Mies van der Rohe’s landmark Neue Nationalgalerie, Richard Paulick’s Schinkel Pavilion, the former margarine factory of the Kunst-Werke, and the empty lots of the Skulpturenpark, a part of the former dead strip at the border of Kreuzberg and Mitte are necessarily charged places and each so distinct that certain histories come to the fore anyway. The locations are very distinct and spread across Berlin but also split between being in the former East, the former West, and the outdoor venue that is literally on the border. We also didn’t at all give artists the specific mandate to respond to Berlin’s history, but all that said, it happens that we are interested in two things in a number of artists that we have selected for the biennial: the way they grapple with history in general and also the way they respond to the challenge of a site. So, however different they are, many of the artists in the biennial could be said to be dealing with history—past and very contemporary —and many of them have imagined how to show their productions in the?different venues selected for the biennial. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by works being ‘masculinised’ by those contexts so I can’t adequately answer about that.
AS: I do not think that the burden of political history of Berlin throughout the 20th century has to be considered as something that masculinises the works produced in the bb5. We could say: a work which exhibits the correct political tendancy need demonstrate no further qualities. We can also decree: a work which exhibits the correct tendency must necessarily exhibit all other qualities—if we like to believe Walter Benjamin’s handy definition, which is actually inscribed on the wall of the courtyard of Kunst-Werke, one of our main exhibition venues. There exist a variety of possible artistic responses to any totalising discourse, and the artists we asked to participate in the show will make new work that will certainly confront both political history of Berlin, ideology of exhibition venues and constraints of diverse contexts of production, proper to each artist’s practice.
SC: How will bb5’s ‘night’ projects function in relation to audience? Does the fact that they are duration sensitive and programmed for the entire duration of the biennial suggest that the audience might predominantly be local, not international?
EF: The audience that comes for a few days from abroad will always have the chance to experience a few events, but naturally a local audience (or a visiting audience so taken by the offerings that they decide to camp out in Berlin for the duration!) will have the opportunity to see more events. It is also likely that few local visitors will see all the events—it would be great if they do but we couldn’t demand that! The idea is that the whole programme might be apprehended collectively, by putting together the experiences of many people; but more than that, such a project suggests that an exhibition might just be something that is changing, constantly in construction, and in that way fragile, impermanent, and partial.
AS: We very much believe that the audience will not only be international, but predominantly local. The local audience in Berlin is pretty international too, isn’t it? Berlin is a huge city with many audiences and the range of events our programme comprises should address some of this diversity. In no way did we think we would like to exclude the international audience. But you can’t have it all. There are over 60 nights to go through, and the strength of this programme is in the state of exception each night creates, and in the choice the visitors need to make, deciding which nights of the biennial they feel attracted to, as days are passing by.
SC: What dialogues will be initiated in bb5, and if these relate to existing contexts do you see these contexts being altered or reinterpreted in response to bb5?
EF: It is hard to know at this point what dialogues will be initiated from the audience’s engagement with the artworks in the biennial but dialogue has indeed been important to our thinking. It was the reason we chose to work with fewer artists in the ‘day’ exhibition, for instance, than typically takes part in such biennials and why we wanted to be able to support ambitious new productions. Most of the projects that will be on view have been created for bb5 and many were developed in relation to conversations and visits to the sites. And though it might sound like an atypical way of catalysing dialogue, one way we did so was through the catalogue, which will be a quite idiosyncratic assembly of newly commissioned and existing texts, poems, source materials, and other odd excerpts. There is none of the art critical exegesis that convention would ordinarily impose for such a publication, because it hardly made sense to us to make such a catalogue before the exhibition we were thinking about (and could not yet even see completely in our heads) had actually taken shape. We wanted to create a more open structure for the catalogue and use it as a tool for the artists to think about their own practices, so, for instance, we requested that they send us their source materials for their thinking in general rather than images of previous works. In some cases, speaking about these sources led to or in some way impacted the specific projects the artists worked on for the bb5. In that way, the catalogue can be said to not so much document something already finished (the pieces in the biennial or even the event itself), but instead accompany, influence, and complicate its result.
AS: Additionally, one of the important ‘dialogues’ and perhaps the most figurative metaphor of dialogue, is the programme of five exhibitions of artists of an older generation curated by younger artists. The first of these changing shows will open some weeks before the opening of the biennial while the last one will close after the last day of the biennial. The exhibitions at Schinkel Pavilion will extend beyond the timeline of bb5, adding another temporal dimension to the experience of the show. We could say that we have day exhibition venues, we have the night programme and then we have another sense of duration with five short artist-curated solo-shows at the Schinkel Pavilion.
This 5th berlin biennial has a distinctive history that needs to be reflected upon and critically addressed in order for the biennial not to lose its relevance to the city and relationship to local communities of artists and other interested individuals. Through our choice of artists and by encouraging them to engage critically with the contexts provided by exhibition venues, we made it quite apparent that we are willing to engage in dialogues on-site with a sense of urgency and immediacy, in order to better understand and perhaps transform the circumstances of this particular biennial.
Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP