The proliferation of new art biennials over the last ten years has been met with a great deal of skepticism. Many observers have argued emerging biennials in the periphery are mere adaptations of the late-nineteenth-century exhibition model or that they arise from the desire to make a spectacle or to drive tourism in the region.
However, many of these contemporary biennial models have the potential to consolidate cultural infrastructure and to provide spaces for exchange between people, institutions, buildings, technologies, and archives. Together, the heterogeneous actors enable the creation and delivery of art and cultural experiences, granting them greater visibility on an international scale. Their smaller infrastructure has the advantage of not being as slowed down or constrained by the global art market as long-established, major biennials such as Venice or extremely well-financed biennials like Gwangju or Istanbul.
The significance of location is something that all biennials take into consideration, although each example imposes a rethinking on the way this concept is articulated. As Monika Szewczyk suggests, the location and locating of the biennial “relates not just to the ‘event,’ but also to the geographies it helps to imagine and render.” This essay seeks to situate and re-articulate Latin American biennials as a documented past, which sets the bases for new models to emerge and creates a local history that affects the regional socio-political landscape.
Historically, Latin America has seen the creation of two of the most representative cases of biennials, which at the time changed the course of what a biennial meant for the art world and national representation systems: the Bienal de São Paulo and the Havana Biennial.
Change of Perspective: The Bienal de São Paulo
The Bienal de São Paulo, the second oldest art biennial in the world after Venice, was founded in 1951, sponsored by industry-linked patron Francisco ‘Ciccillo’ Matarazzo, who also founded the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM-SP) in 1948. Its inauguration was motivated by cultural, economic, and political forces that shaped the postwar period within Brazil and internationally with the intention to increase the cultural capital and international commercial partnerships. Being the first modern biennial to be realized in a geopolitical location in the Southern Hemisphere, it included twenty national pavilions from three continents. The national-representation format was maintained from the beginning until the early 1980s; however, unlike Venice, where the participating nations are left to their own devices and manage their pavilions independently, in São Paulo the artistic director always established a spatial interaction between the artists of the represented nations and the artists invited by the biennial.
From 1961 onwards, an autonomous foundation was endorsed by the Brazilian government. The biennial could now receive funding from both city and state agencies and thus was no longer tied to private patronage. In 1964, the same governmental, financial aid became a point of pressure, as the Brazilian military government in power after a military coup showed its first explicit effects on the biennial. The evidence of cultural repression on its program and the boycott adhered to by artists worldwide affected the exhibition’s international prestige. International agencies maintained a diplomatic, distanced participation until political change became apparent in the early 1980s. The 1983 edition marked a re-introduction of private sector funding, which financially ensured the presentation of national and international artworks of particular historical relevance. Private sponsorships supported the pedagogical ambitions of the event as established in the early 1950s, reaching by then more than a thousand teachers and nearly 120,000 students and becoming one of the biennial’s most appreciated features of its legacy.
Change of Format: The Havana Biennial
The Havana Biennial started in 1984, focused primarily on artists from Latin America and the Caribbean. The third iteration, in 1989, additionally brought in artists from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Instead of framing itself as a global show, the Havana Biennial was focused on what they coined the Third World. According to Rachel Weiss, “The idea of a Third World arose as a mutual political project among newly-independent nations defining themselves as ‘non-aligned.’” Since its creation, the Havana Biennial formed part of a Latin American political agenda proclaimed by the Cuban revolution—by means of other institutions such as Casa de las Américas. It was conceived as an alternative to the biennial and exhibition system. Organized by the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, its particular importance lies in its declaration as openly political, intellectual, historical, and cultural, as well as its affinity towards Third World countries and marginalized minorities inside capitalist states. This discursive model started the proliferation of biennials that would follow as spaces for discussion and debate. The themes and approaches introduced in the first Havana Biennial inspired many contemporary biennials from the Global North and the Global South alike.
The Cuban socio-political context allowed the biennial—as a national project—to engage with a local perspective on art production and decolonization through the inclusion of multiculturalist points of view pushing a regional agenda. The Havana Biennial signaled a shift from the hierarchical influence from Europe and United States to an equal dialogue among regions, as it aimed at empowering artists and intellectuals of the Southern Hemisphere and challenging the hegemonic role of the centers of economic power in the distribution of contemporary art.
What has been the standard for art biennials within the canon for over one hundred years has been questioned, taking a stand against the status quo of Western art history and nationalism. Devoid of national exhibitions or the awarding of prizes, the Havana Biennial set a new precedent with its emphasis on research and discourse with the inclusion of an international conference. According to Green and Gardner, this emphasis led to the “idea of an expanded role for curatorship into curating discourse as well as art.” The role of curators as creators of discourse influenced how biennials and other large exhibitions have been framed to this day, broadening the set of knowledge production strategies. The new paradigm has only been possible due to Cuba’s established position as a center for the arbitration of non-hegemonic world networks. The biennial aspires to a global reach from outside the European and North American art system, creating new networks between communities from the Global South without scales.
Change of Organization
Radical content or formats are not sufficient unless the production of art itself is transformed. The new biennial models explore the possibility of oppositional thought and discourse, as many of their predecessors did before them; however, their core organization—based on cooperation and alliances—is what differentiates them from earlier models. Under different local situations, the three cases here will provide examples of structures that are intrinsically multi-voiced due to the infrastructure that makes them possible.
BienalSur was first conceived by the Union of South American Nations and a group linked to contemporary art and education in 2015. Unlike the models where some artists are invited directly by the chief curator or selected directly by their countries of origin, BienalSur announced an open invitation to any artist, curator, or art space. Without the need to fit into a specific curatorial theme, the biennial opens itself to a fragmented idea of what a Latin American art biennial could be. Creating its cartography, a particular territory and itinerary, BienalSur reaches out to expand Latin America on a virtually planetary-scale, gathering artists and curators from the five continents. With Museo de la Inmigración and Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (Immigration Museum and Contemporary Art Center) in the city of Buenos Aires as its starting point—the 0-kilometer marker in BienalSur’s route map (fig 1.).
With its broadly decentralized structure, BienalSur aims to connect with communities and alternative venues rather than traditional art circuits. To find common ground among artists from different geographic latitudes, the first iteration of BienalSur took place in 2017 in 84 sites, located in 16 countries and 32 cities worldwide. The aspiration was to promote a periodical, real dialogue on equal grounds among different parts of the world. The program unfolded over two years across different cities, inviting active participation through exhibitions, public programs, workshops, readings, symposia, and performances. Artists, art professionals, thinkers, academics, biennial participants, and audiences met at different moments and places during the two years to articulate critical, situated thinking in close dialogue with the artworks. In this way, the biennial worked as an umbrella institution that gave visibility and support to less established spaces and practitioners in the network, becoming an opportunity for artists to emerge on the international art scene.
The 2019 edition offered some changes and additions to the initial concept, the distribution of the program across two years was mostly condensed within six months, with some events beyond the main timeline. A series of international conferences open to the public with artists, curators, critics and collectors held since the foundation in 2015 continued to regularly promote and rethink relevant aspects of art production and mediation in the region. The vast scale of the project and the cartography departing from the 0-kilometer marker—a new center—highlights the physical distance between all participants. The dispersed integration of the program has been facilitated by the information revolution, brought about by the Internet and the development of digital communication in general. With its online presence and digital archive, BienalSur contributes to supporting the existing network of cultural agents in the region to assist artistic and financial cooperation and alliances beyond the program of the biennial itself.
#00Bienal and Bienal Sin 349
The cancellation of the 2018 Havana Biennial due to Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the effects this had on the cultural institutions and infrastructure in Cuba bore evidence of the rising political tensions, as well as the debilitation of cultural and organizational structures on the country. The decision to postpone the biennial caused strong reactions in the Cuban art scene. Many cultural actors decided to join forces and create a new alternative event organized independently from the state: the #00Bienal (2018). Under the motto “In each studio, a Biennial,” the #00Bienal aspired to function as a platform for various independent spaces (studios, art residences, alternative organizations, and cultural initiatives) whose practices provide a dialogue with popular concepts. More than supporting the inclusion of artists in official institutions, the #00Bienal confronted the challenge of validating Cuban artistic practices within a context of a more inclusive local discourse.
A favorable strategy for the 2019 Havana Biennial would have been to invite #00Bienal's two main organizers—artist Luis Manuel Otero and art historian Yanelys Núñez—to discuss their experiences and create a common ground to foster alternative points of view. However, under the shade of Decree 349, which requires artists to obtain government approval to mount their projects, Otero was detained by the authorities in April 2019 to prevent actions during the biennial. This series of events has prepared the bases for a new alternative biennial to arise. Under the title Bienal Sin 349 (Biennial Without 349), local cultural workers invited international artists to stage gestures or other actions alongside Cuban colleagues, reflecting on the subject of censorship in the country. The Museum of Politically Inconvenient Art (MAPI), united with the San Isidro Movement and Los Artistas de Los 30s, carried out various strategic actions in order to test Decree 349 and introduce questions about the latest Cuban approaches to culture. MAPI and the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba brought together works by Cuban artists who were not invited to the biennial. Most of those artists are neglected by state institutions and enjoy little recognition in the state-run media since their works rely on questions about LGBT and animal rights, governance, and racial issues in Cuba and abroad.
The different accounts regarding these two parallel, non-official biennials take us beyond art and the experience of the exhibition to provide a critical and contextual reading of the biennial format and its relevance in nation-state representation. Art biennials need to be considered as part of the fabric of a wider public sphere, as a convergence of internal politics and diplomatic resolutions. The official Havana Biennial was created to include underrepresented voices; however, the same structure relegates cultural producers who aim to cultivate a more open policy and now organize themselves to present their ideas.
La Bienal en Resistencia 2019
Located in Guatemala, the first edition of La Bienal en Resistencia presented themes that concern the Latin American region from an artistic point of view. During October 2019, the biennial worked on community outreach through exhibitions, actions, and critical demonstrations in open, public spaces in Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango, and Chichicastenango. The program presented more than forty multidisciplinary proposals from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Guatemala in a joint curatorial exercise initiated by Maya Juracán and Gustavo García. The project was based on what they call “community curatorship,” which invites horizontal dialogue between people linked to the art system and external agents.
La Bienal en Resistencia was conceived as a space to generate community dialogues that highlight problems, uncomfortable issues, and social exercises affecting the Latin American region, highlighting a feminist and queer perspective. It considers 'resistance' everything that is presented as a critique and revitalizes the system. In addition to exposing the current socio-political situation in the country, the biennial encourages certain ways of creating, constructing, and thinking that do not necessarily respond to an aesthetic or market logic.
Naming the project a biennial intentionally situates its existence concerning historical exhibition-making; however, the name does not imply a particular structure, offering an openness to create alternative and counter-models. Reflecting critically on their role within the institutional ecology, La Bienal en Resistencia 2019 had a specific awareness on the problem of “biennialization,” which does not only affect artists and curators but also transforms existing institutional models, cultural policies, and city administrations. They intended to use the concept to deinstitutionalize art, making it available to a broader local public on the streets of their city, giving new meanings to what a biennial could be beyond sacralizations and academicisms.
The tension between the peripheral and the central, and the local and the international, on the one hand, endorses the mobility, openness, curiosity, and innovative drive of post-institutions (fairs, festivals). On the other hand, it shows a growing preference for local actions, collective memory, and the stability offered by the institution (museums, art centers, cultural centers). In this sense, the biennial can be described as an “unstable institution,” whose identity is defined concerning the more established and symbolically weighty institution of the museum. The instability allows radically diverse projects to take place under this label, involving not only production and display but also the construction of discourse and the distribution of knowledge.
This essay argues that new, smaller, and more innovative art biennials offer a better chance for self-organizational arrangements that engage independent collectives and artist-run organizations as well as small or medium-scale art centers. The three cases explore different forms of contestatory strategy, seeking to work against the globalist model of the biennial both with and against instrumentalizing forces on regional and national levels. Their aim is not to provide an answer to biennial fatigue, the figure of the star curator, or the institutionalization of art, but to be locally relevant, to create spaces for self-organization, and to look at new ways of nation-state representation from the bottom up with long-lasting repercussions.
New biennial models from the peripheries influence the current shifting times in cultural institutions, especially in connection to the process of making things public and advancing the conversation on contemporary art production. With the freedom that the peripheral status allows, these biennials could potentially foster new curatorial practices, delegating authority through collaborations with local and global institutions, curators, artists, thinkers, and audiences to establish a new type of art institution. Currently in Europe, regional, local, collective-oriented biennial initiatives rooted in the Global South are welcomed with enthusiasm to act as a counterpoint to the general belief in globalization and to create a new map of contemporary exhibitions with methodologies focused on distributed agencies.
Distributed organizations can develop and adapt faster than standard institutions because they are not constrained to a single place, timeline, budget, or authorship. Creating knowledge under these conditions assumes new values that arise from social needs and self-organizing networked structures so that the distribution of knowledge itself becomes a strategy rather than a limit.
Production and exhibition technologies, dissemination practices and interventions arise when the prevailing situation does not meet the current necessities. Bottom-up workflows open up new possibilities to regain agency for practitioners who create alternative biennial models, many times overlapping with existing ones. Collective work is essential in the four new biennials presented in this article; their modalities are intrinsically decentralized, and their work is only possible through shared efforts. In that sense, exhibition-making, if only for one edition, could become zones in which participants can learn to negotiate responsibilities, social relations, and peer-based means of production.
Agustina Andreoletti is an Argentinian cultural worker based in Cologne, Germany. Working within the realms of research, writing, discussion, publishing, and exhibition-making, she reflects on the unstable overlaps between material, discursive, social, and political practices. Andreoletti completed her postgraduate degree at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, where she currently serves as an academic assistant. She is the director of the non-profit project space Gemeinde Köln. Since 2019, Andreoletti has been working on her Ph.D. titled “Distributed Biennialism: Alternative Biennial Models in Latin America for New Institutional Ecologies” at the University of Cologne.
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 The 13th Havana Biennial, called The Construction of the Possible, was held from April 12 to May 12, 2019. During the course of the event, many incidents of censorship took place, including the destruction of the contributions by Ibrahim Ahmed and Carlos Martiel.
 Decree 349 requires all people in Cuba engaging in artistic activities to be registered with an institution affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, which negotiates contracts and payment with the artists and can deny permission to pursue a project and punish them for doing so in defiance of the Decree. See: Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and Cubalex, ART UNDER PRESSURE: Decree 349 Restricts Creative Freedom in Cuba, last modified March 4, 2019. https://pen.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Art-Under-Pressure.pdf/.
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 Giving great importance to the questions of how it is done and who is doing it, many small European biennials have adopted the inclusion of collectives of curators and artists as their core teams, collaborations with local institutions, and the possibility to celebrate the event over a long period. Contour Biennial 2019 (Mechelen, Belgium), Bergen Assembly 2019 (Bergen, Norway), Berlin Biennale 2020 (Berlin, Germany), documenta 2022 (Kassel, Germany).