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Paco Barragán about his new book: From Roman Feria to Global Art Fair, From Olympia Festival to Neo-Liberal Biennial: On the 'Biennialization' of Art Fairs and the 'Fairization' of Biennials. Interview by Michele Robecchi.Jan 2021
"The first path will lead the artist to aesthetic glory and art historical fame; the second is just what you take when you need to pay the rent."
© Artoon by Pablo Helguera
Michele Robecchi: Your first book, The Art Fair Age (2008), explored the phenomenon of art fairs. Your second book titled From Roman Feria to Global Art Fair, From Olympia Festival to Neo-Liberal Biennial: On the "Biennialization" of Art Fairs and the "Fairization" of Biennials investigates fairs and biennials, and how these two formats have dominated the way art has been presented over the past two decades. In it you note how literature about some fringes of these pivotal platforms has been scarce. Why do you think that is?
Paco Barragán: I think we have two issues here at play of an art historical and a philosophical nature. Art History with capital letters is basically the history of the artist as genius, artistic movements, genres and the aesthetical appreciation of beauty. Let's recall that most studies and research about art and its relation to the market stem from the sphere of economics (think of cultural economics like John Michael Montias, Peter Spufford and Clare McAndrew) or sociology (Raymonde Moulin, Olav Velthuis, Filip Vermeylen and Alan Quemin). Still today art history hasn't shown much interest in the social and economic conditions of art and its relation to the history of the art market. A second element that explains this lack has a philosophical background: The very idea of the art market, that is art as a commodity has always created a kind of uneasy tension in the artworld in general and academia in particular. Let's recall Winckelmann, Schiller, Kant, and even Marx and their distinction between play and work, contemplation and art production and the capital idea in art and art history of "disinterestedness". If you combine these two aspects you understand why there are hardly books about art fairs (market, commodification), but not why there are still relatively little books about biennials (art history, disinterestedness). And while the art fair represents the wrong side of art history, it's incomprehensible that the biennial that stands for the right side of art history—if we think with Pablo Helguera's artoons—has so little bibliography. Just think that the classic book of the Venice Biennale is still Lawrence Alloway's The Venice Biennale 1895-1968: from salon to goldfish bowl written back in 1969! And what about documenta? There are six books about documenta, but most of them in German and only one is bilingual German-English, edited by Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel, titled 50 Jahre/Years documenta (Archive in Motion) published in 2005. This is weird while only between 1955 and 2005 there were some 35,000 articles according to Karin Stengel and Friedhelm Scharf in their essay "Press Poliphony: A History of Documenta-Criticism." By now this could easily amount to 100,000! Closer in time we have The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art edited by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø in 2010, but it consists of a series of essays and articles, it's not a book that provides a historical perspective of the biennial. And if we add to it that most of the biennial literature is Eurocentric and hardly contemplates, for example, the rich history of biennials in Latin America, then there is a lot of research to be done.
I wrote a book about the history of art fairs and biennials for another important reason. I'm aware that theorists that are interested in art fairs don't write about biennials and those interested in biennials don't consider art fairs as they understand these as separated spheres. But these are, as I say, "the old ways": we need a less biased approach as the neo-liberal regime with its "experience economy" and its "culture industries" has pervaded all spaces of contemporary life and also the artworld and its structures. This black and white approach (art fairs-bad versus biennials-good) is no longer valid as it's unable of apprehending the large scale of greys: how art fairs and biennials have morphed throughout history producing the so-called "biennialization" of art fairs and the "fairization" of biennials. In this sense, my book is not only about the history of art fairs and biennials but also about their heterogenous status in today's neo-liberal regime.
Michele Robecchi: In your book you pinpoint the 1990s as a pivotal moment in the proliferation of biennials. This was a time where many institutions worldwide figured it was more effective to concentrate financial and logistical efforts on one periodical big event rather than investing in the program of an institution few people would visit. Cut to two decades later, many of these biennials no longer exist. What, in your opinion, went wrong?
Paco Barragán: Yes, the 1990s was neo-liberalism in full swing with the advent of low budget air companies, cheaper transports, tourism, the naissance of city branding and so on. In short: The so-called "experience economy". And within this whole "experience economy" biennials and art fairs have become the perfect tools of soft power, as Joseph S. Nye keenly would have argued, in the tough competition for attention. 
As you know, founding a biennial can respond to the want for "being modern" and attract tourism, but it can also respond to a political decision, which is very often the case. And as a biennial—unlike a museum—is a perennial event that happens every two years it is a much more and eagerly awaited affair that has achieved, as you know very well, cultural event status. Due to its periodicity, events like the Venice Biennale or documenta (or even Art Basel) have this aura that a museum lacks because it's always there!
Yes, you're right, many biennials have disappeared or are simply in bad shape. One of the best examples I know is the Valencia Biennial: it lasted four editions! It was a political decision by the Secretary of Culture Consuelo Ciscar from the Partido Popular, Spain's right- wing party, to hold a biennial and put Valencia on the international map; and it was equally a political decision by her successor Esteban González Pons, member of the same political party, to get rid of it. Valencia had a 5 Million euros budget, but the local scene was against it as they considered the money should be invested in the local artistic infra-structures. If a biennial doesn't have the support of the local art scene and addresses its necessities it simply ends up failing. We can quote artist and Third Text editor Rasheed Araeen here confidently: "The purpose of a biennale anywhere in the world is first to address the needs of its own local or national constituency, its own art community, and if this constituency is not taken into consideration whatever one does will fail." This was precisely the reason why the Johannesburg Biennale disappeared after its second edition, and this was also the reason why the local art scene in Gwangju created the Anti-Gwangju Biennale because—as Korean curator Jiyoon Lee recalled—they didn't feel represented by the "junk from the West". Very often it's a political decision that underlies the foundation of a biennial and very often it's equally a political decision that forces the termination. And, of course, these political motivations can respond in full or in part to a general economic recession and budget cuts in education and arts.
Michele Robecchi: This brings me to another point you make in your book—the tendency of biennials of invariably picking up from the same pool of curators, resulting in the replication of the same model over and over again. Whilst I understand the reasoning—international experience and reputation are evident assets—ultimately you seem to imply that the blame for this lack of imagination lies mostly at the curators' door rather than the organizers.
Paco Barragán: Well, basically it's a mix of factors here at play. On the one hand, we have local politicians and local elites that use the biennial to brand their city and their own agendas and recur to established curators that have been doing the rounds: first Harald Szeemann, Jan Hoet and the like and more recent people like the late Okwui Enwezor, Charles Esche, Massimiliano Gioni, Nicolas Bourriaud, Hou Hanru and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. In this sense, you see there is a pool of curators with international status that for a local politician or local corporation can guarantee international visibility and international press coverage for their city with their sole presence. Deep down it's a very parochial attitude that reveals an enormous inferiority complex among local politicians and elites wanting to be accepted by the mainstream. And this is what has brought with it the kind of sameness and uniformity that is proper of most biennials in terms of curatorial proposals and the repetition of a same group of artists.
Furthermore, those curators are brought in because with them on board it's much easier to have certain high-end artists participating and certain branded galleries, collectors and foundations paying production costs, transport, installation of the artwork and guarantee the presence of the artist.
Finally, as you can see from most biennales, all the topics are revolving around the same fashionable issues related to post-colonialism, multi-culturalism, globalization and a kind of bland institutional critique that ended up being institutionalized critique. All the World's Futures, Viva Arte Viva, How to (...) things that don't exist, May You Live in Interesting Times, Beyond the Future, Between Idea and Experience, Fever, A Grain of Dust a Drop of Water....the titles are clear examples of this kind of curatorial art speak.
Michele Robecchi: The Venice Biennale stopped selling art in 1968. Art Basel was born in 1970. Do you think there is a correlation between these two events? Or do you have the feeling that fairs, regardless of the evolution of biennials, were bound to boom anyway?
Paco Barragán: We consider the past with the eyes of the present, id est, anachronistically. We think grosso modo that art fairs are sales platforms while biennials and museums are not. But that has never been the case. Most of the exhibitions, starting with the Roman Old Masters blockbusters in the 1600s that later were replicated in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin were sales exhibitions. The exhibitions organized by the national Royal Academies were also sales exhibitions. Most museum exhibitions at the end of the 19th and deep into the 20th century were sales exhibitions.
In this sense, the fact that the Venice Biennale between 1942 and 1968 functioned like an art fair with an official trader, Ettore Gian Ferrari, who charged 15% for the Biennale and 2% for himself for any artwork exhibited at the show that he was commissioned to sell, was not new, it simply continued anterior sales models. We have to bear in mind that the art fair had already earlier sales precursors like the Renaissance pand (1470), the Baroque kermis (1630), the salons organized by the French Academy (1667), the Paris World Fair (1855), the Salon des Indépendants (1884), the Impressionist exhibitions (1784), the Munich Glaspalast Austellungen (1886) and especially The Armory Show (1913).
But yes, there is an interesting coincidence between the discontinuation of sales at the Venice Biennale in 1968 and the advent of the contemporary art fair end of the 1960s. Sales were an important part of the funding of the Venice exhibition, which was chronically underfinanced. The advent of the May 1968 protests also affected the Biennale and the Giardini. "Venice," writes Vittoria Martini, "was invaded by thousands of students who believed the Biennale and the city itself represented all they were fighting against at the time: institutions overrun by rampant capitalism encouraging the commercialization of art."  The protests also put an end to the awarding of prizes, and these were not reinstated until 1986. The prizes had always been surrounded by intrigue and corruption according to Alloway. Especially notorious was art dealer Leo Castelli, who campaigned incessantly with the international committee members to obtain the painting award for the artists he represented, like Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein. Dealers' influence was felt strongly at the Biennale during these years, and the changing political and sociological climate crystallized around that time in the advent of the contemporary art fair organized by dealers: ART COLOGNE in 1967 and Art Basel in 1970. The student struggle against capitalism and bourgeois society paradoxically contributed to the advent of the art fair!
Did sales end at the Venice Biennale? It's obvious that sales have mutated into more sophisticated forms, but Venice is still one of the major platforms for consolidating artistic careers. Art dealing, concluded Alloway, is a symbiotic of the modern Biennale. And let`s recall the words of former Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf when he decided to launch Art Unlimited in 2000: "Our biggest competitors were suddenly not the other art fairs but the biennials. We had surpassed the other art fairs, but suddenly we saw this phenomenon of the biennial turned into a market event; and even if it wasn't official, next to each artwork you would find the dealer and he was selling it."
Michele Robecchi: Your book casts important lights on a time when cities until then considered peripheral in an admittedly West-centric art discourse, like Istanbul, Havana, Tirana and Johannesburg, made an attempt to take center stage. Why do you think Istanbul seemed to have fared better than most?
Paco Barragán: Istanbul is the perfect example of the neo-liberal biennial model: it has since its inception in 1987, applied the same recipe of international curators—Hou Hanru, Jens Hoffmann, Adriano Pedrosa, Charles Esche, Carolyn Christov- Bakargiev, Nicolas Bourriaud, just to mention a few—and artists with an international reputation, the corresponding local quota and the vague themes that are normative in this kind of large-scale international event. And, last but not least, the biennale is organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), a non-profit and non-governmental organization established in 1973 by Dr. Nejat Eczacibasi, owner of the Eczacibasi Pharmaceutical and Investment Holding.
As Dany Louise rightly explained, "The IKVS foundation can therefore reasonably say to be aligned from inception with the economic interests of the parent company, international destination marketing, the globalizing economy and the desire to be associated with Western development concepts." So, matters of education, developing a local art scene or attending its needs are not on the agenda.
Despite the complex political moments that Turkey is traversing (with the migration crisis, the role in the civil war in Syria, the rampant authoritarianism and religious conservatism, and the repression of women) in both the 2015 edition by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and the 2017 edition by Elmgreen and Dragset, political art was absent. In other words: the biennale functions as a de facto high-end marketing event for specialized art audiences.
Michele Robecchi: Do these shows necessarily have to display a political angle in order to work? In 1976 Carlo Ripa di Meana organized the Biennial of Dissent. It was the first time Venice was going for a thematic approach. It was criticized precisely because it was felt the political angle was too facile. Most importantly, it was dismissed as a weird approach. Interestingly, from the 1900s onwards devising biennials with a theme, even better if political, became the norm.
Paco Barragán: Yes, the years between 1968 and 1976 are fascinating years in the life of La Biennale, but probably underrated among international art audiences and still "strange". To me perennial events like the Venice Biennale or documenta are important because they represent the Zeitgeist of our time: they should convey what is good, utopian or radical art and give us as citizens an idea of the challenges of society.
Michele Robecchi: 1972 is generally acknowledged as the year when documenta changed forever. However, you pin down the 1990s/early 2000s as a further moment of reconfiguration of the show.
Paco Barragán: If Harald Kimpel talked about the exhibiting versus commissioning phase, I see three clear periods: 1) the modernist art phase (1955-1968), 2) the star curator phase (1972-1997) and 3) the global art phase (2002-today).
The first phase was under the helm of Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann and focused on exhibiting modern Western art. It was characterized, on the one hand, by Arnold Bode's Inszenierung, which were innovative but not in the appropriate way. As a graphic artist and trade fair designer, his displays overplayed the artwork, relegating it to almost an irrelevant function. And as such, all the four documentas had an irretrievable art trade fair air. On the other hand, Werner Haftmann continued with Alfred Barr's formalist reading of art history and abstraction as lingua franca. For this reason, even Robert Rauschenberg's Bed (1955), which had been selected by MoMA's Porter A. McCray and shipped to Kassel for the documenta 2 (to be held in 1959), was squarely rejected because it went against Haftmann's narrative that "art had become abstract."
The second phase starts with Harald Szeemann, who inaugurates the "star curator" era with well-known art professionals like Jan Hoet, Rudi Fuchs and Catherine David, and exhibits exclusively Western contemporary art. From a philosophical and geo-political perspective, and contrary to what the title of the exhibition enunciated, documenta was an exclusive Eurocentric and later Euro-Americancentric event. Walter Grasskamp defined it as "selective Eurocentrism." Germany, Italy, France and, from the second documenta on, the United States provided the bulk of the artists. Other West European countries were totally ignored, as well as other parts of the world like East Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
The third phase begins with the appointment of Nigerian-born Owkui Enwezor (the first non-European curator) and his global art documenta in 2002. And this will become the model ever since for today's neo-liberal biennial that we see reproduced urbi et orbi.
Michele Robecchi: Manifesta, the touring biennial who reached its finest moment in 2000 when it emerged as the first pan-European Biennial, is not discussed in depth. Yet it is an interesting subject, especially considering its current reputation as a "Biennial for Rent". Is there any particular reason why you chose to stay away from it?
Paco Barragán: While Manifesta is internationally the best-known touring biennial, it was not the first. We now know that the I Bienal Hispano-americana was held in Madrid in 1951 and travelled to Barcelona; the II Bienal Hispano-americana was held in 1954 in Santiago de Cuba and travelled to Caracas and Santo Domingo, among others; and the III Bienal Hispano-americana was held in 1956 in Barcelona and travelled to Geneva. It prefigured Manifesta by 45 years! Then we have, according to Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, "the Biennial of Arab Art that began in Baghdad in 1974 and continued in Rabat, Morocco and to Jordan." And just two years after Manifesta, we have the roaming and ongoing BAVIC in Central America, held for the first time in Guatemala in 1998. And there are other smaller and less known "walking" biennials, like Meeting Points, the Emergence Biennale and Land Art Mongolia, just to mention a few.
I find Manifesta or "Moneyfesta", as Dutch critic Sandra Smallenburg finely renamed it, interesting as the perfect example of the neo-liberal biennial model and how it changed its discourse according to the blowing of the "money wind". First it was supposed to enhance relations between East and West, but it only happened once in Ljubljana. Then from 2010 the focus changed towards the relationship Europe-North Africa. But in hardly 20 years it will be held three times in Spain: 2004 in San Sebastián, 2010 in Murcia and in 2024 in Barcelona again! I only see, as you rightly say, a "Biennial for Rent". The city that pays the staggering hiring price of the Manifesta brand which started, let's recall, in Frankfurt (2002) with € 1,3M and amounted to proximately € 8M in Marseille (2020), will ring the bell.
Now, was or is Manifesta a relevant biennial from a conceptual or a curatorial perspective? Not really! It is most of the time focused on young emerging art, and as such more cutting-edge and chaotic, but it doesn't add much to the curatorial discourse. From all the biennials held, I think the Manifesta 6 Nicosia School project by Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle and Florian Waldvogel was a daring proposal, but, as you well know, it wasn't finally carried out. Maybe the engagement of Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities was too utopian, and precisely that was what it made it particularly interesting. And I just haven't found that kind of interest in most of the Manifesta editions.
Michele Robecchi: There were other reasons why Manifesta 6 didn't work out regardless of the rocky relationship between the curatorial team and the Cyprus authorities. The curators didn't get along to the extent that each went on to organize their own separate segment; there were budget issues; the idea of turning the exhibition into a school was debatable; and the concept of trying to reunite an island that had twice rejected this notion via referendum was arrogant—not utopian. It was a lost opportunity on many levels.
Paco Barragán: You are far better informed than I am on the topic. I guess this is what happens when utopia meets Realpolitik! But this is precisely in my opinion the role of the biennial: not only to frame the Zeitgeist but to propose the curator's Weltanschauung with all its utopian, radical, alternative or uncanny propositions, as flawed as they may be. Art's role for me is to annoy society, to cause discomfort, to provide society with new perspectives. The Dana Schutz affaire during the Whitney Biennial (2017) with her challenging painting of Emmett Till titled Open Casket (2016)is a perfect example of how the art world can serve as agitator or platform for triggering larger discussions that are relevant to society, in this case the Black Live Matters (BLM) movement.
Michele Robecchi: Another event you only mention in passing is Dak'art—arguably the most successful biennial on African soil. Is it because you don't think it would contribute anything to your general narrative? Or is it simply a geographical area that doesn't interest you as others? I'm thinking about the Latin American Biennials—São Paulo, Havana and the Bienal Hispano-americana among others—another untold story that you focused on.
Paco Barragán: It's difficult to keep track of all biennales. And honestly, I don't have much information about African biennales, except for the Johannesburg Biennale. And I have never traveled to Africa, unlike other continents where I have been able to visit many biennials. So, that's above my pay grade and leave that to African scholars or those interested in Africa. Dak'art would be aligned with the Havana Biennial and with the Asia-Pacific Triennial representing what I have framed as the resistance biennial model.
It's more logical and more natural for me to address and focus on the rich history of Latin American biennials, a continent that I not only have visited very often and maintain fluid connections with, but where I also had the chance of living and also working as Head of Visual Arts of Cultural Centre Matucana 100 in Santiago de Chile between 2015 and 2017.
For me it's surprising how little about Hispanic and Latin American biennials appears in Anglo-Saxon publications while this continent has after Europe the richest history in biennials starting already in the 1950s and the 1960s. Think of the Hispanic American Biennial (1951) in Madrid; the São Paulo Biennale (1951); the II Hispanic American Biennial (1954) held in Cuba; the I Bienal Interamericana (1958) in Mexico City; the Bienal de Córdoba (1962) in Argentina; the Bienal de Coltejer (1968) in Medellín; I Bienal Latino-Americana de São Paulo (1978); La Bienal Paíz (1978) from Guatemala; La Bienal de La Habana (1984); La Bienal de Cuenca (1986) in Ecuador; the Panama Biennial (1992); the Curitiba Biennial (1993) in Brazil; the Mercosul Biennial (1996) in Porto Alegre; the touring biennial BAVIC (1998) in Central America; and a series of other biennials that have been created ever since. To my surprise, Asian biennials that came much later to the fore are more known among international audiences than Latin American biennials.
In conclusion: besides framing the general history of art fairs and biennials, one of the goals of my book was to put the spotlight, on one hand, on the rich and fascinating tradition of biennials in Latin America that remains largely untold and, on the other, to counteract some of the readings done by Western scholars on the São Paulo Biennial and, especially, the Havana Biennial.
(The interview with Paco Barragán was conducted via email by Michele Robecchi on 21-22 January 2021)
© Photo Courtesy Paul Nescio (Amsterdam)
Paco Barragán was the artistic director and curator of CIRCA Puerto Rico and PhotoMiami art fairs between 2004-2007, after which he authored in 2008 The Art Fair Age (CHARTA). He was co-curator of the Prague Biennale at the National Gallery (2005), la Bienal de Lanzarote (2008) and Toronto’s Nuit Blanche (2016). Barragán was also the International Communications Director of the Bienal de Valencia (2003). He was the artistic director of the Castellón International Expanded Painting Prize (2004-07) and of the first edition of the International Festival SOS 4.8 in Murcia (2009). A prolific curator, Barragán has conceived 91 international exhibitions among which Don’t Call it Performance at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (2003), ¡Patria o Libertad! On Patriotism, Nationalism and Populism at COBRA Museum (2010), Erwin Olaf: The Empire of Illusion at MACRO-Castagnino (2015), and Juan Dávila: Social Contract (Chilean Trilogy) at Matucana 100 (2020). Barragán has an international PhD from the Universidad de Salamanca (USAL) in Spain and is Contributing Editor of ARTPULSE.
Curator and writer based in London, where he is a Commissioning Editor for Contemporary Art at Phaidon Press. Some of his recent publications include monographs on the work of Sharon Hayes, Yayoi Kusama, Adam Pendleton and Adrián Villar Rojas. He was one of the curators of the 1st and 2nd Tirana Biennale.
From Roman Feria to Global Art Fair, From Olympia Festival to Neo-Liberal Biennial: On the 'Biennialization' of Art Fairs and the 'Fairization' of Biennials
With Artoons by Pablo Helguera