DISCUSSION | Biennials: From Emergency to Emergence

Posted on 16/06/2011


[Recovery & Regeneration]
[From Emergency to Emergence]
[The Commons]

There is much to learn from these initiatives and there is a need to shift our thinking from the idea of ‘emergency’ to that of ‘emergence’. Goldstein defines emergence as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”. There are an estimated 300 biennials presented around the world and Hou Hanru observes that “everyone is trying to find a new format or new ideas”. Claire Doherty also proposes that “The unstated aim of any curatorial endeavour is to produce a situation like no other”. O’Neill’s proposition of curating as ‘becoming discourse’ has bearing here as does the idea of ‘tendency’ via Georg Lukács. I am inclined to extrapolate this further as ‘ethos’. If we want more than ‘a model’ or an imposition (and I do) then we need to attend to the conditions of emergence. Emergent structures, via Wikipedia, are patterns that cannot result from a small set of rules or events … Rather, the interaction of each part with its immediate surroundings causes a complex chain of processes leading to order in some form … Emergent structures are more than the sum of their parts because the emergent order will not arise if the various parts are simply coexisting; the interaction of these parts is central. Let patterns emerge.

The curated biennial is often referred to as ‘a model’ (or ‘format’) – top down, conventional, organisationally generic, and driven by the rarefied and reified vision of a curator or curatorial group. This normative idea of ‘the model’ seems stifling, complicated and inured as a bastion that beckons tactical incursions and grassroots interventions. Perhaps it’s not a matter of rethinking the model or disrupting the model, but rather posing exhibitionary typologies, or genres as Ferguson, Greenberg & Nairne propose, which might offer specific, flexible and locational strategies. One model never fits all. It seems like a design problem in which identity, purpose, politics and narrative are confluent. Part of that problem is funding, especially the funding for artists. In The Art Newspaper, Ben Luke explores this and other criticisms of biennials. Critical comments abound: “no one is going to pay you for your time or production”, “people rest on their laurels and their reputations”, “it is an art fair”, “it is an exhibition that is somehow about objects and not about people”.

Consequently, there is a sense that, despite their ambition, biennials don’t realise potential or expectations, perhaps attributable to their serving many masters. The ‘biennial model’ is a constraint that, according to Luke’s informants, exploits artists, pushes cultural product to market, patronises communities and wastes potential. (Sounds like any other corporate or industrial workplace.) There is a tension between what a biennial does and what it could or should do – the curator is a pivotal, almost cultish, figure answerable in some fashion to government, funders, boards, sponsors, project teams and committees. There are those who endeavour to imbue a critical curatorial approach that offers alternative exhibitionary pathways, a different kind of interrogation of curatorial practice including consideration of legacy. I was quite interested by a point on Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial website: “The idea of using art to create a unique community has attracted attention around the world as the ‘Tsumari method,’ and has been discussed in the West and in Asia by curators and other art professionals, local government study groups, international meetings, and symposia.” This indicates an event that is less about fidelity to a model or format, and more about other aspirations – a kind of trusting letting go, an invitation, an opening or, even, a flowering. This is also evident in some of the projects that focus on gardening, crafting and cooking.

Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø state that “although the biennial cannot be precisely or absolutely defined, it nonetheless demands that we examine it”. Such an examination recognises the biennial can do something else, as a platform – “a site for experimentation, contingency, testing, ambiguity, and inquiry”. However, fundamentally, this view tends towards intervening on a model rather than shaping typologies that are complex and inclusive of those interventions and incursions. So when curators talk about engaging the local community and responding to local conditions, it still sounds like a top-down institutional concession, gesture or imposition: a biennial is contradictory in its specificity as a global locality (destination) within a locality.

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