ANNA MANUBENS (AM): I would like to start by quoting Eva on something she said in a recent presentation of osloBIENNALEN First Edition (OB1): “We want to set up an institution.” What do you mean by that?
PER GUNNAR EEG-TVERBAKK (PGET): We should start by mentioning that this mission and the role that we are taking on respond to the assignment that was originally given to us. The two-year project OSLO PILOT, on which OB1 is grounded, was a response to a call to present a model for a future new biennial. So already from the very start, the mission was not a typical curating job. We were not asked, “Can you select artists for a biennial?”; we were asked, “Can you come up with a new model for a biennial?” So, the idea to set up a structure was somehow embedded in the original assignment. The typical situation would be that you already have an institution with a structure and a history, and then you have a curator who organizes an exhibition within that structure. The curator’s task is usually to be in charge of artistic content, but they rarely touch the pre-existing structure.
EVA GONZÁLEZ-SANCHO BODERO (EGSB): The idea was to set up an institution that could support the ideation and production of artworks in the public sphere. Often, when it comes to art in public space, curators follow something that we call a “commissioning regime.” The artist assumes all responsibility for the development and production of the project. This is perhaps why it is fairly common to see the same artists on the list of participants, the ones considered fit to deliver within this kind of regime. We intend to depart from that model.
AM: So, you don’t commission?
PGET: Not in the traditional way of understanding the commissioner as an institution or organization that sets the rules and a framework and then expects a delivery.
EGSB: We prefer to say that we invite. We think of the invitation as something like welcoming artists into a residency programme rather than initially asking for a concrete outcome. We like to share the risk and responsibility with the artists. We are not juxtaposing individualities that are coming from all over the globe without affecting one another; we are creating a coherent programme and mission that needs a new institutional set-up in order to improve the conditions under which artists develop work. We intend to move away from the situation in which the artist works alone to one where the projects both trigger and receive long-term support. If you provide artists with optimal conditions, you get a better art scene. Plus, we are working in public space, an environment that is very different from the protected exhibition room and has its own needs, so we have to respond to this specificity, too.
PGET: People think that all we do is select artists. But we want to curate a structure, and that is troublesome because structures are not usually curated.
AM: Your struggle or caution with concepts—“inviting” vs. “commissioning”; “makers” or “curators”; stating that you are curating a structure rather than content—is a symptom of the structural work that you are intending to pursue. I recently realized that my interest in how we take care of institutions beyond what is presented in them, is rooted in structuralist thinking, and thus in language. Naming things and finding new ways of telling the things we do is already structural work. You are literally defining the terms and conditions for engaging with art practices in a different way.
There are a couple of words that I would like to ask you about more particularly. The first one is “institution.” Why stick to a concept that, briefly put, is not living its most popular moment when you could do without it? In your case, there was no biennial institution previously; u are deliberately deciding to set up a completely new one.
EGSB: I have never been opposed to the institution. Quite the opposite. For me, institutionalizing something means giving it the chance to develop in a professional way. When I directed Établissement d’en Face Projects in Brussels, for example, my job was unsupported by a proper contract. When I left the project, at least one position had been created for a coordinator working alongside me. Setting up an institution means responding to the needs of people who have to work and get paid for their work. This is maybe the first level of what an institution should mean: creating working conditions.
PGET: At a time when cultural institutions are both under sectorial criticism and under attack from capitalist forces, reclaiming the institution can prevent its delegitimization. Building an institution is an opportunity for rethinking it. If you look at commissioning regimes, they are based on expectation, on pre-ordering or pre-figuring what the work of art will be. The worse that can happen in such a scenario is that artists don’t deliver what was anticipated. It is interesting to think about the possibility of creating an institution that could allow experiments, and even failure… Another key term for us is contingency. The structure that we are setting up intends to admit—even embrace—contingency. This is why we may find ourselves in situations where the artists completely rethink their work or want to change it or re-route it. The commissioning machinery never makes room for that.
AM: The second word that I wanted to ask you about is “biennial.” OB1 will last five years, so why still call it a “biennial”? It seems like both words, “institution” and “biennial,” should be used “sous rature”—Derrida’s term that is not ideal but still the only one available. Why change the duration while keeping the word?
EGSB: We are working in this long processual chain—from ideation to a possible collection. And we don’t think this is at all possible within a six-month period.
AM: But you could work for three years without public visibility and then open for six months. Why did you decide to make the whole process open?
PGET: Our use of duration makes us very different from documenta, for example, where you have a five-year research process and then the presentation of the outcome lasting 100 days. We have somehow reversed this; we would like to have five years of production time in order to invite artists to use time in different ways and make room for the unforeseen.
AM: There is a recent trend in biennials to modify their duration. What makes your use of duration singular?
EGSB: We were indeed not the first ones to announce that the time span would be prolonged, but we were the first ones to think of it in relation to a structural commitment and without a theme. Our theme is the structure. It is the evolving biennial. When you extend the period of work, it does not necessarily mean that you are working with the idea that things can evolve and perhaps change and adapt, that things are still undecided. The list of artists was not announced beforehand or drawn up in advance. It is growing as we move forward, in parallel to the structural work.
AM: You just said, “Our theme is the structure,” and this raises two questions: on one hand, how has that affected your way of curating? And on the other, how does curatorial sensitivity translate or materialize structurally?
Let’s start with the first one: if you don’t invite artists based on a theme so to say, do you invite them based on how their practices could rehearse a new institution, for example? As a means to stretch the institutional muscle?
PGET: Yes, but I don’t think it is deliberate. We are not looking for projects that might challenge us in a self-conscious way.
EGSB: When we invite an artist, we explain that we are curating a structure. This is in a way all we say. But there are a series of things that are very much present across the projects that the biennial has produced so far: ideas such as co-authorship, co-production, long-term or episodic proposals, and practices that question the autonomy of the work… Personally, I have always worked like that, and I vindicate what in psychoanalysis is called the “après-coup.”
AM: I allow myself to underline the fact that everything that you have just mentioned are hows rather than whats. How to do something, rather than a discourse or concept. One way of interpreting this is that, because you are proposing a different set of coordinates to work in, you allow—and naturally facilitate—practices that are both made for and making this structure and thereby connect to each other. If I take Dora García as an example: in response to the conditions available, she has initiated a long-term project which eventually became a group work and suppressed her name from the equation. It is now a Rose Hammer project. Should you want to acquire it, who would you buy this work from? The project pushes the institutional gymnastics forward. Towards an institution that would not only welcome co-authorship but would also have to find practical and legal ways to preserve it, for example.
EGSB: The acquisition of something that is not tangible and that is made by 20 people who don’t want to give their individual names is indeed complex. I am quite sure that it is a matter of identifying precedents. Drawing inspiration from other fields such as film, for example, in which ways of paying immaterial rights and labor have already been established. We can also look at re-enactment contracts and agreements in dance and theatre. This is nothing new; looking at previous examples will help make all this possible.
AM: I was first attracted to your project because I saw it as a form of coherence. A coherence between claiming and doing. The announcement of institutional renewal is usually celebrated, but I hardly ever see the practical translation of renewal claims. You can in fact declare “we need new institutions” in a very irresponsible manner. That is, within a framework that you did nothing to reset or rethink. So, I am attracted to what you intend to do because your concept is a practice. And this takes me back to the second question: How do you materialize an institutional concept?
PGET: Usually, there is a division between the curator’s area of operations and the institution’s, but we need to merge them. What we need to do is to take some of the behind-the-scenes work we are doing and bring it to light. The making of a contract, how works are produced, we need to provide this information, which is not always given… For us it is not ‘behind-the-scenes,’ it is at the core of what we want to do.
EGSB: It is a venture that we need to develop further. So far, what is mostly visible is that we have produced about 25 projects, something that can be shown. But we should go further in giving our other working premises the same value and stress that they are equally important in shaping an art scene, even though they do not take the form of an art object. It would be very good to place value, for example, on the fact that the biennial has been one of the driving forces in letting 50 subsidized artist studios in a building that was abandoned and which is also our headquarters. This was a move that also placed an obstacle in the path of gentrification, which would rather see the studios away from the center.
AM: Two other examples of material translations of your structural effort could be the radio unit and the production unit that you are setting up. Could you say something about these?
EGSB: We have very good artists working with film and video in Norway who are straddling two chairs (art and cinema). However, talking to them one realizes that they don’t have any structure that is particular to that in-between field and able to support their production or distribution in the long term. The idea behind the film production unit is to fill this gap by providing the technical support and skills that are needed.
We also want to set up a radio station through a residency of La Publika, a radio project based in Bilbao led by consonni. We have invited them for a residency to help us set up our radio unit.
AM: And what will happen when they leave? The biennial is the occasion for creating a long-term accompanying structure, but who will take care of it later?
PGET: We need to leave a structure that it is possible for the institution and other institutions to make use of if they want to. However, we cannot force the city to adopt our curatorial concepts in the future.
EGSB: Who says that the next curator will stick to the five-year time frame? He/she can also decide whether to collect works or not. It is very much our concept. Our title, osloBIENNALEN FIRST EDITION 2019–2024, is rather problematic because it is quite technical. It can easily get confused with the institution that we would like to build (osloBIENNALEN), with what we would like to leave behind—a legacy.
AM: Since you understand the structure as a curatorial matter, I see how for you, what remains is subject to its curators. However, I also think that the advantage—and even the political agency—of what you are proposing is that it counters the event logic in favor of long-term nourishing groundwork. The set-up that you propose runs against the usual ‘intensive’ consumption of the event, i.e. the disposal of a big budget over a short time with little—or no—compost left. By contrast, your structural work could allow us to talk about OB1 as a sustainable biennial, one that uses its resources and its programme to nourish a soil, a scene, a city. Therefore, if things vanish after your edition, you run the risk of making your curatorial position legitimate and singular by saying “we are working structurally for the city” and then failing to do so if nothing remains. The structural dimension would be a bit compromised if everything vanishes after five years…
PGET: There are many potential scenarios. One scenario—a bad one—is that when we leave nothing is kept. The city disregards our work and forgets about the whole thing. I have experienced that as a curator working for an institution: once you leave, the new person completely forgets or neglects everything you did before. A better scenario is for OB1 to be the birth-giver of a modus operandi, which the city takes on and turns into an institutional practice. Nevertheless, they might do that in a different way from how we imagined it.
AM: I would imagine that having a biennial that intends to leave something available for the city would be well perceived…Especially considering that your public funding comes from the city’s investment budget, a source that deals with infrastructure, too.
PGET: And this is a different source from other cultural institutions. Our budget comes from a different area.
PGET: We receive a percentage of the investment budget. It comes from urban development for example, new buildings, new roads…
AM: This is something you often (unsolicitedly) clarify, why?
EGSB: Every city seems to want its biennial, but when it arrives, the money is usually pulled from other budgets, cut from other institutions in order to host the biennial. In our case, it doesn’t work like that. It is a very different situation, which is more comfortable when it comes to creating collaborations with other institutions.
AM: And what do the other institutions and collaborators say about it?
PGET: In the beginning, they were kind of skeptical about us because they assumed the biennial would unfold in the usual way: using loads of money on invited artists that come and go leaving no infrastructure and no sediment. But we did it another way.
AM: Are the sediments there already so they can be publicly appreciated?
EGSB: Yes and no. A lot of the structural/instituting work is still in process, in its early stages.
AM: As soon as you start to do things differently, you enter a sort of never-ending re-explanation of what you are doing. Inertia in cultural formats is difficult to counter. But you are already exploring other forms of communication, I would say. Take, for instance, the book that you are now holding. It only includes the artworks—and not yet the structural work—but it is already different from a book that another biennial would produce.
PGET: A biennial would never produce a book that distinguishes between “new works,” “ongoing works,” and “completed works” as in our case. It highlights the evolutionary structure and its time frame.
AM: The title of the book is a date, October 2019, which makes it stand as a sort of provisional extraction within a longer timeline.
EGSB: When we opened in May, we had texts about the works, but we also asked a few authors to write about works that were not yet made. We put those essays in a folder with the name of the artist, and we thought this folder could grow as the work evolved and that it would be made accessible to visitors who wanted to know more.
AM: So, the text material would thicken as the project grows, with different voices speaking about its evolution? That’s such a nice idea. What happened then?
EGSB: When we were making the book October 2019, which is the second one, we looked back at those essays that, at the end of the day, almost no one had requested because we couldn’t find the right way to announce their existence. As we looked back at this existing material, we realized it was an interesting exercise to write and read about something that is not yet there or not finalized. And this is how we arrived at the idea of having a book that deals with that which is done, that which is ongoing, and that which is still to come.
AM: So, you have writing strata being compiled alongside the works. Have you started a similar writing process about the structure?
EGSB: Not yet.
AM: Maybe this interview is a first step; a first attempt to communicate the structuring principles of OB1 beyond, before or below the artworks.
PGET: It mirrors the way in which we work.
AM: One last aspect I wanted to address is budget, as I believe it is at the core of the design of an institutional architecture such as the one you are building. A lot of what we are able to do in general depends on how it is managed and translated into numbers. Since you are “an evolving five-year programme,” how do you handle a budget where you have a significant part of activity that is deliberately left undecided or to-be-decided?
PGET: We don’t handle the budget. It is a matter of working on a five-year biennial project with annual budgets that we do not handle. This is another example of a very challenging aspect of a structural project, how to proceed when some structural aspects are not under the auspices of curatorial praxis or when praxis does not inform the curatorial.
AM: What does that say about the real agency or transformation ability of our professions when we seem to be given absolute freedom content-wise while limited interference with structural/institutional/administrative matters?
EGSB: Our project is a curatorial statement of praxis, in other words, it intends to implement structural thinking rather than depict or illustrate a theory. This would indeed require access to the administrative machinery (budgets, definition of contracts, etc.). But generally, it is taken for granted that curatorial work must be concerned with the production of objects, texts, ideas, but not the redefinition of structures or tools.
PGET: The reason why we are given freedom to determine content but only limited possibilities for intervention in structural/institutional/administrative matters is that the latter might actually challenge existing systems and the social and economic realities they produce and maintain.
AM: What is the impact of speculative programming on budget management, for instance? You told me that there are artists who in a spontaneous way—as they were producing their own work—have also requested to work with other artists. These collaborations would be unforeseen work, how would you integrate them?
AM: From the standpoint of budget planning, I mean…
EGSB: Yes and no, because these are artists who are in a “long engagement” with the biennial. So, we would understand collaboration as a part of their durational involvement.
AM: What is a “long engagement”?
It means that some of the artists are in a long-term dialogue and work process with us, three to five years. Lisa Tan, Dora García, Julien Bismuth, Mette Edwardsen…
AM: This category, “long-term engagement,” is it something you use publicly?
EGSB: No, we’ve only used it between us so far; it is not public.
AM: But it could help your legibility. It follows the logic of the adjectives that you are already using, such as “completed” or “ongoing,” which really help an understanding of how you are handling time and production.
EGSB: We would end up having too many terms: “slow process,” “long-term”…
AM: The different durations are such a big part of your singularity that the variety of names gives an immediate sense of this plurality.
PGET: It could become beautifully poetic, because we would also need a category for Hlynur Hallsson’s work, which would be “disappearing”…
AM: I am inquiring about this because changing or adapting the regulations can be a form of long-term policy making.
EGSB: But regulations are also fragile. I’ve seen events being cancelled with institutions not sticking to what they agreed in a contract without any major consequences.
PGET: The juridical language of contracts falls—unfortunately—a bit beyond what is curatorial. They include the budget, the fee, state what the artist is about to do… To our knowledge, the contract does not have any kind of curatorial or artistic element.
AM: I am not sure I agree with that.
PGET: When we invite someone, we start by having a conversation with the artist. Then we pay the artist to come up with a proposal. In this first contract, nothing is said about the potential new production. Then, with the biennial director, we will check whether their proposal is something we can and want to do in terms of artistic content.
AM: I would say that paying for a proposal is a curatorial decision. The way of undertaking curating sets in motion consequent forms of administration.
EGSB: There are some things we can influence. But not everything, as we do not have access to all the information. From the beginning, our curatorial proposal has rested on the desire to influence cultural policy.
PGET: We are constantly wrestling with the trouble of explaining to the outside—but also inside, within our team—that the biennial has a modus operandi that is its theme. If we relax for a second, we fall back into the trap where things are explained in the usual way.
EGSB: It is exhausting.
PGET: We opened in May and now we are in November. We have just started…
AM: Not having all the answers and tangible outputs yet is an expression of the honesty and coherence of the evolving nature of your endeavor.
EGSB: We have five years…
This text is a shortened version from a longer conversation held in Oslo in October 2019.
For OB1’s second year (2020), budget and resources were not allocated until March 2020 with a reduction to the expected budget. Moreover, the developing Coronavirus crisis in public health is conditioning all decisions as to how to move the biennial forward. Most probably, this will allow us, or force us, to proceed to the implementation of our original plans to operate beyond the physical public space and invest in the public sphere and its media (TV, radio, digital platforms). At the time of editing the above interview (originally held in October 2019), we are rethinking the 2020 programme, which must now respond appropriately to a completely unforeseen and tragic public catastrophe. We must decide not only how to operate and on what basis, but also how to address possible audiences, in plural, via platforms that may not be accessible to everyone and in some cases may be quite exclusive; social media had already been deemed as generating ‘social distance’ long before COVID-19 came on the scene.
Eva González-Sancho Bodero is a curator with a special interest in definitions of new models of contemporary art and its production, the construction of public space, language, and art practices defined as ‘non-authoritarian.’
Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk is a curator interested in developing art projects in public space, creating connections and close encounters with other social systems and discourses, external to the art world itself.
Anna Manubens is an independent curator, writer, and producer with a preference for hybrid roles at the intersection between research, public programming, close project development, structural explorations and exhibition-making.
Prior to the 5-yearbiennial project, González-Sancho Bodero and Eeg-Tverbakk worked together as co-curators to develop and conclude OSLO PILOT (2015 to 2017), an experimental two-and-a-half-year research-based project aimed at defining the format for a first biennial in Oslo: osloBIENNALEN FIRST EDITION 2019–2024, a project conceived to explore specific questions arising from art in public space through an evolving five-year programme.
The Biennial is owned and funded by the Oslo Agency for Cultural Affairs.
 OSLO PILOT was a two-year project (2015-2016) investigating the role of art in and for the public realm. It sought to lay the groundwork for a future periodic art event in public space. Oslo Pilot’s programme was aimed at exploring the intersecting temporalities of the artwork, the periodic art event, and the public sphere. More information can be found at: https://archive.oslopilot.no/oslo-pilot/about-oslo-pilot/, last accessed December 1, 2019.
 From 1998-2003, Eva González-Sancho Bodero directed Établissementd’en Face Projects. Her programme included a series of individual projects always involving new production (including projects by Lara Almacegui, Dora García, Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter, but also a two-year research project entitled Legal Space Public Space, dealing with the use of legal gaps by citizens, artists, urban planners, architects, etc., within the construction of public space).
 Grini and the Futures of Norway is the title of a project existing under the authorship of Rose Hammer, an artist persona comprised of a collective of individuals. For osloBIENNALEN, Rose Hammer will produce a series of performances entitled National Episodes in the Brechtian Lehrstücke (lesson play) tradition. These will revisit low-key but transcendent episodes in Norwegian history, such as the mythical meetings that took place at Grini prison camp, Barrack 12, during the Nazi occupation of Norway. More information on: https://rosehammer.home.blog/, last accessed December 1, 2019.
 consonni is a publishing platform based in an independent cultural space in Bilbao. Since 1996, they have been producing critical culture and they have more recently prioritized the printed word, together with the word that is whispered, heard, silenced, or recited, the word that becomes action, that becomes body. From the expanded field of art, literature, radio, and education, their ambition has long been connected to the public domain. For more information on La Publika: http://lapublika.org/index.html, last accessed December 1, 2019.
 Seven Works for Seven Locations is a multilingual text-based work that is spray-canned directly onto public walls/surfaces around the city. Each of the seven works consists of a compilation of three texts in different languages reflecting on Oslo’s population composition and/or language: English, Icelandic, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Sami, Swedish, and Somali. As time passes, some of the texts remain but others are covered over or deteriorate.