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To Biennial Or Not To Biennial?

Critical review of the conference in Norway, including remarks about the general Biennial debate.
By Ursula Zeller | Nov 2009

Another biennial conference – and, as always, many of the participants were old hands on this topic. But a few new faces were encountered, especially from the academic milieu. That in itself is a merit that distinguished this event from all others – even if it was not necessarily a gain in terms of content. The Internet page offers a live stream of the conference. All contributions, including the discussions, can be seen or heard there.

Why a biennial conference in Bergen? The local culture politicians offered Bergen's art hall the opportunity to launch a biennial. Instead of enthusiastically saying yes, those responsible reacted with a conference. Thinking, instead of plunging into action – a rare response. But in our regions, people have rightly become cautious about biennials. The most recent failure of such an initiative, in Brussels, was not so long ago. But perhaps this reticence can also be interpreted as a sign that, as globalization progresses, EU Europe is beginning to feel the loss not only of its economic importance, but also of the attendant cultural significance. In 1993, Thomas McEvilley already clearly described it in his article "Arrividerci Venice: The Third World Biennials" for Artforum: biennials in the Old and New World have lost their justification. [1] Even if his prediction that they would be replaced by African biennials has not come true, the Asian biennials have, with a few exceptions, surpassed the European ones in terms of purposefulness, seriousness, and not least financial strength. The question whether a biennial makes sense for them doesn't even arise for every city in the countries of Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

So one can have justifiable doubts whether the saturated art scene in Europe really needs another biennial. Maria Hlavajova, a curator who has lived in Holland for years, admitted in one of the discussion groups that the Western art scene has far too many of all events. She said that, if local cultural politics came to her with an offer for a new biennial, she would immediately ask whether a biennial could achieve more than she now offers with the program at her exhibition institution. Nonetheless, she would carry out the biennial, even if she would immediately have to seriously ask herself what she could exhibit in the Dutch context that isn't already shown there anyway at the numerous art institutions.

One advantage of the Bergen conference was that a younger generation of curators and researchers began illuminating the phenomenon of biennials and their possibilities. And they did so very thoroughly. Nonetheless, the somewhat older observer of biennials could not shake the impression that some insights gained at earlier symposia were presented and experienced as brand new in Bergen. Of course each generation has the right and the necessity to see and discuss familiar questions in a new light. But it is embarrassing when what has already been worked out about the history of biennials is almost totally negated. It is hard to say whether this was due to ignorance or intention. For example, it was at least annoying when Charlotte Bydler, as a historian of biennials, used Olav Westphalen's comic "What our city needs now..." without citing René Block's exhibition in Kassel in 2000, "Das Lied von der Erde". And no one can have overlooked that, in the framework of this exhibition and in the run-up to the documenta, one of the first truly important biennial conferences – with at least twice as many participants as the Bergen conference – took place, jointly organized by the Fridericianum and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) in Germany. A look in the Internet would have sufficed. But the questions revealed another problem of research, in the example of Charlotte Bydler: due to lack of material, the researcher must carry out case studies. So in the case of the biennials, he must travel a lot – and that's expensive. Here the problem begins: if no third party pays for a trip, then one cannot conduct research. This explains why little research is done on the biennials in Africa and Latin America and more on those of the financially more robust Asian and the less distant European biennials. The question of inclusion and exclusion, much discussed in the 1990s, is thus still relevant in this respect.

If some people use the Internet too little, others rely on it too much. Caroline A. Jones apologized not only for poor reproductions with the remark that she was unable to find better ones in the Internet. Questions also showed that only what is available in the net seems to exist for her. "I'll google it," was her repeated expression. She probably can no longer imagine that there are matters that cannot be researched in the net. But archive work simply cannot be replaced. It was also slightly disconcerting that her knowledge of biennials mostly came from the Venice Biennial and that, for lack of her own archive research, she perpetuated the widespread error that the World's Fairs were the model for the Venice Biennial. As Jan May showed in the dissertation he completed in 2007, the Venice Biennial actually set out to emulate smaller sales exhibitions, like the exhibition in the Glass Palace in Munich. Even if the World's Fairs are Jones' specialty, a trip to São Paulo would surely have done her good. First, it's not that far away from the United States; and second, São Paulo offers a counter-example to Venice, namely the argumentative surroundings of a biennial in a land with low currency reserves.

The third researcher, John Clark, investigated the biennials in Asia, which led him to a precise typology of this phenomenon. It may not be apparent what the individual pieces of information imply and who benefits from the precise assignment of a biennial to a particular type, but in any case Clark has assembled a mass of data and facts – and in contrast to the other researchers, he illuminated the object of his study extensively, as well, and has visited most of the Asian biennials for years. His information gathering provides a secure basis for future studies. Revealing, beyond that, were his remarks on parallel modernities in Asia, on the rise of so-called biennial art, and the observation that the biennial curators always claim that the works on display were newly created, even if this is not always true. In this way, his lecture provided an amusing and instructive look behind the scenes of biennials.

Paul O'Neill drew his knowledge from the academic and curatorial field. He presented several concepts that left the path of major exhibitions and focused on locally-oriented, discursive exhibition projects. He thereby shed light on an avant-garde aspect of curatorial work, even if the exhibition formats thereby developed cannot be applied one-to-one to biennials.

Bruce W. Ferguson, Founding Director of SITE Santa Fe and a college teacher, stood in for Ivo Mesquita, who was ill. Ferguson was the real surprise of the Bergen conference. Based on his broad biennial experience as a curator, organizer, and visitor, he had the courage for frank words, and his criticism hit the bull's-eye. He freely admitted that the biennials offer the very best for a small segment of the art world, the art nomads: trips to distant countries, good food, drinks, and parties. This explains their popularity. On the other hand, he noted that the art world is already weary, though not exhausted, by the great number of biennials. This is quite an elitist standpoint and he agrees with Homi K. Bhaba, who says the world is small – for those who own it. But what about the others? Ferguson grants that the biennials have replaced the museums as sites of intellectual investigation and that knowledge production has moved from the museums and academies to the biennials. From this he derives a plea for biennials as sites of knowledge production, an idea that Sarat Maharaj also placed in the center of his ideas. Ferguson summed up that there are no entirely new models of biennials yet, because even the discursive biennials can turn into pure spectacles. He is nonetheless convinced that biennials are meaningful – especially for all those who do not yet possess the world.

The biennial practitioners naturally had a tougher time than the researchers. They had to draw solely on their own experience, which they could illuminate at best in the context of current curatorial practice. So it was a smart move by the organizers in Bergen to have the respective curators present the various biennials, their curatorial work, and their organizational conditions in the afternoon – also because this made it possible to convey information on faraway biennials that not everyone can visit. Outstanding was Sarat Maharaj – eloquent as always and at the same time unbeatably reflective. His passionate plea for biennials as sites of knowledge production left Carlos Basualdo almost no room. The performance by Hans Ulrich Obrist, a biennial heavyweight, was also as expected; one cannot always be certain that he knows where he is at the moment. Unfortunately, the representatives of the biennials in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East – or the "Third World", as Gerardo Mosquera, Founder of the Havana Biennial joked – were clearly in the minority, and not solely because of illness. Their low number of participants is inversely proportional to the number of biennials that are held in these countries. And there was little said about the artists, the actual producers of the substance. The curators, including the artists among them, preferred to speak about themselves, plus a little about organizational structures. The respective publics of biennials played little role in the thoughts of any of the participants, except in the contributions from Bruce W. Ferguson and Paul O' Neill.

Apropos the public: it wasn't really clear, either, whether this conference really targeted the public in the hall or whether its target audience was newcomers to biennials or biennial experts. Newcomers surely received only a fragmentary picture of biennials at the conference. The experts spoke on a high level, discussing some shortfalls of biennials that may be of only marginal interest for the general public. For example, Maria Hlavajova rightly called for transparence in financial structures – only the most recent Istanbul Biennial broke down its budget precisely in terms of outlays for administration, advertising, and artists or the production of the works of art. We know that many other biennials do not pay their artists and even expect them to bear the costs of their presentation themselves. Those who bring money, are included; those who don't – tough luck! Doubtless an important topic that is seldom openly discussed, but perhaps something more for insiders and not very informative for a broad public.

The meagerly allotted time for discussions and the way the lecturers were separated from the normal public during the lunch breaks and evening hours provided an inkling of something that became utterly obvious on the third day: the organizers expected to learn nothing more about the topic from the public and the discussions. Their own decision for or against a biennial had already been made, as Solveig Øvstebø made clear in her statement. The non-lecturers were relegated the roles of extras, even if the organizers surely welcomed their financial contribution. For the public appeared in extraordinary number – thanks to Norwegian customs of adult education: the event not only counted as paid work time, the employers also paid the costs. And beyond that, each participating Norwegian collected valuable (state) points exchangeable for benefits. Precisely because the event reached such a large audience, it would have been desirable for the organizers to do some thinking about the audience's specific wishes. But perhaps their interest was less in the conference as public event than in the repeatedly mentioned two-volume reader that is to be published. In the first volume, fundamental texts on the topic that have already been published are to reappear. The second volume is to contain new texts, primarily from the contributing lecturers. It was not hard to recognize the organizers' ambition – and of course their attempt to attain final power of interpretation over the theme. It is to be hoped that the selection of texts will also give a voice to an older generation of biennial experts, who could contribute marginalized older reflections about biennials.

What remains? At any rate, one central question was approached from several sides: whether and how a biennial differs from other group exhibitions. There was agreement that the event character of biennials gives them greater visibility, which is useful for persuading politicians and sponsors of the necessity of such an event. And if the results were not entirely satisfying, the step into research was in the right direction, anyway. Just 5 years ago, there were hardly any scholarly texts on the theme; many of the previous symposia have not been published or only partially in ephemeral venues. And the question of transparence was openly addressed. The biennials do not have an interest in showing their hands. The numerous national support organizations, in particular, have to acquire their information on their own at great effort. This made it clear once again that an overarching institution is lacking that could demand transparence and help enforce a Code of Ethics obligating all biennials, as was already under discussion in Kassel. Such a code would also have to stipulate that biennials must involve the local public, if they want to be regarded as successful. In this way, a kind of Art Biennial Watch Organization could develop that would also be in a position to maintain an overarching archive of biennials in which knowledge production is collected, prepared, and made accessible. Marieke van Hal, one of the organizers of Bergen and for many years a staff member of manifesta, is working on founding a Biennial Foundation. It is to be hoped that she can carry out this task.


  1. Thomas McEvilley, "Arrivederci Venice: The Third World Biennials", in: Artforum, November 1993; republished with Roger Denson's commentary in: Capacity: History, The World, and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism, Routledge 1996


Ursula Zeller

Director of the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen. Until 2007, she directed the Visual Arts Department of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa, Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations), Stuttgart. For the ifa, she visited many Biennials, and organized several Biennial conferences.

© Text: Ursula Zeller

(Translation from German: Mitch Cohen)

Bergen Biennial Conference
17 - 20 September 2009

Three-day conference, in response to existing plans in Bergen to establish a biennial in the city in 2011

Bergen Kunsthall

Rasmus Meyers alle 5

Conference program conceived by:

Solveig Øvstebø

Marieke van Hal

Elena Filipovic

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