DISCUSSION | Biennials Plus and Minus

Posted on 16/06/2011

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This week, I am participating in an online discussion about art biennials via the discussion list [empyre], which facilitates critical perspectives on contemporary cross-disciplinary issues, practices and events in networked media by inviting guests – key new media artists, curators, theorists, producers and others – to participate in thematic discussions. I am also publishing my contributions to the discussion here across several posts. After the online discussion, I hope to include some of the other commentaries that arise in the discussion.

Biennials Plus and Minus

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

In the last few years, my work has been focused on social and cultural planning and policy. Shifting my perspective from an urban/cultural writer to an urban/cultural planner shifts my reasoning for writing and my engagement with narrative. It redefines my relationships with place, community, text and image. So I am interested in this discussion about Biennials from the perspective of the story they offer about cities, space and places and the hope they create for the future. Not just the hook into globalised hyperbole about ‘creative cities’ but more compelling stories of geography, transculturalism and networks. What new geographies, territories and cultures are emerging from the global financial crisis and natural disasters? Cities, regions or nations? Or more provisional arrangements of space, politics and culture?

I’m particularly curious about the role art biennials (and other cultural festivals) play in revitalisation and regeneration, where there is a deeper engagement with people and place. And then, there’s a finer grain – the grain of your experience of these events and what they mean for you in your place, your practice, your relationships. Claire Doherty says

Since the mid 1990s, the context-specific international exhibition has become allied to urban regeneration and cultural tourism, whereby the cultural event becomes an ideal cipher for the meeting of international and local – hence any thematic title tends to be superseded by the city’s name followed by the word ‘biennial’ or ‘international’ and in some cases, as in ‘Istanbul’, are one and the same. The dilemmas of cultural tourism versus criticality notwithstanding, the promotion of place as both subject and site for international exhibitions also runs the risk of subjugating art to a notion of place that is out-of-date.

I rarely get to biennials. My experience of them has been limited: the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) and the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. I’ve attended Contemporary Istanbul (an art fair, part of the 2010 European Capital of Culture Program) and other festivals, including the London Festival of Architecture. I often buy catalogues after the event from the discount tables of gallery bookshops. While in Istanbul, I noted some of the discussions building up to this year’s incarnation of the event in the broader cultural and urban context. More recently, I’m immersed in design and urbanism and so have made a point of looking into events such as Brisbane’s Unlimited Asia Pacific Design Triennial. The APT and Unlimited are very politically and regionally charged gestures of cultural cartography and diplomacy – intended to position Brisbane as a cultural centre and destination in the political geography of the Asia-Pacific. Fundamentally, these events point to a critical mass of activity focused on cultural, exhibitionary, didactic and curatorial themes and practices that are linked to other economic and tourism claims. In The Curatorial Turn, Paul O’Neill describes exhibitions as:

contemporary forms of rhetoric, complex expressions of persuasion, whose strategies aim to produce a prescribed set of values and social relations for their audiences. As such exhibitions are subjective political tools as well as being modern ritual settings, which uphold identities (artistic, national, sub-cultural, ‘international’, gender-or-race specific, avant-garde, regional, global etc); they are to be understood as institutional ‘utterances’ within a larger culture industry.

I’ve been dropping into a range of texts to excavate some reflection about these kinds of international art events. The following themes emerged as offering opportunities to reflect about art biennials:

1.    Recovery & Regeneration
2.    From Emergency to Emergence
3.    The Commons

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