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by Henk Slager


1. Today's interest in biennials seems to be particularly focused on manifestations in imagination-triggering metropolitan environments such as Berlin, Shanghai, São Paulo, and Dakar. That does not mean, though, that contributions to the artistic discourse provided by perennials on locations elsewhere on the world map would be less important or even irrelevant. Quite the reverse, I would like to claim: events and manifestations in a geographically far-off corner of the world seem to create a critical distance, enabling artistic reflection to be more authentic and palpable. Outside the blazing spotlights of the international art scene, a peripheral biennial or triennial is able to make sharp and sometimes even risky choices, because of which radical and complex perspectives can be articulated in a subtle and intellectual way. Precisely these biennials provide a cumulative counterpoint to the Venice Biennale’s universal template for the biennial as form and medium. They can therefore be seen as a potential space for the generation of a counter-discourse against the system of presumptive universality, which is globalized, but above all hegemonized. Because of this, these platforms make a structural contribution to the deconstruction of the contemporary visual arts exhibitionary complex: an apparatus that understands biennials as signs of the event-based nature of the art world with a focus on the temporary and occasional. A similar, and profoundly striking, description can be found in Okwui Enwezor’s seminal essay “Mega-Exhibitions: The Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form” (1): such non-centric biennials contrast the totalizing logic of spectacular capitalism with the potential of “multitude” as a resistance force.

2. Another problem many mega-biennials currently struggle with is the requirement for productive and interesting collaborations involving local partners and institutions. For the peripherally located biennials and their often natural form of being embedded in regional infrastructures, such an issue is entirely out of order. Just because of that embedded quality, small-scale biennials will meet the axiom once articulated by René Block: “Rather than a perfect exhibition, a biennial should become a workshop for contemporary art, something that could provide an opportunity for encounters between local and international artists that would encourage work and exchange. Beyond a spectacular, large-scale, international exhibition festival, making themselves the producers, educators, and hosts of discursive programs.” (2) And with that, the question, “To Biennial or not To Biennial,” which was asked ten years ago by the preliminary Bergen Assembly (3), should be strategically reformulated as “What a Biennial yet can Be?” This question can be understood both institutionally and speculatively. How can we prevent, after a period of a “Biennial Decade” (4) where the biennial was decisive in the presentation and reception of contemporary art, that these experimental formats and platforms are being absorbed back into a traditional museum show and thus become part of the general exhibitionary complex. Such institutionalization means that biennials become less and less able to engage with the challenges thrown up by the present and emerging realities. Thus, a more speculative dimension emerges: How can a biennial contribute to the political imaginary? How and in what format can a biennial contribute to articulating the following three questions: what is possible and impossible, visible and invisible, to be done and not to be done?

3. The model proposed by René Block seems to be based on the experimental practice introduced in Havana in the 1980s: making Cuba the fourth location in the world to host a biennial. It was a biennial that no longer focused on the Eurocentric model of the Venice Biennale, but which set itself another programmatic goal: to develop a different mode of exchange, namely to present the Global South. Hence, a discourse was developed that gave the first impetus to a postcolonial consciousness: the south as a zone of agency and creation that did not fit in the linear perspective of art historical thinking. Moreover, it was no longer thought in the centrist terms of a main exhibition. An organic whole of shows, events, meetings, workshops, panel discussions, publications, and outreach programs was placed opposite the provincialism of the center. By taking what was once just an exhibition, and unraveling this format into an array of various subexhibitions, venues, and event formats, a biennial model was created that is still distinctive of today's thinking about biennials.      

The focal point of the first editions of the Havana Biennale was not placed on the spectacle as such, but rather on investigative and discursive interests. For example, the Biennale introduced a range of urgent issues and vocabularies at an early stage: nomadism, displacement, marginalization, cultural hybridization, ecology, and the periphery of postmodernity. And with that, the Havana Biennale was the beginning of what would later be described as the discursive turn in curating: a decisive step towards conceiving biennials as discursive environments, where the display of artworks is part of a much broader project of research and knowledge production.

4. Could a contemporary biennial form be regenerated to capture the innovative energy and the inspiring impact that it had throughout the world during the 1990s, or will our understanding of biennials drift into the repetititions of institutionalization, the taming of difference, and the merge with other art world structures? To answer that question it is necessary to invent a different, more topical exhibitionary structure, one that manifests more acutely the antinomies and predicaments of our present situation: its multiplicity, its layered contemporalities, and its proliferation of differences. The most important and most urgent challenge is: How could a biennial question the hegemonic world system that globalization has created and, as Steven Madoff has argued (5), contrast this with new forms of contemplation? How could a biennial put an end to the instrumentalizing culture of festivalism and spectacularization and, despite today’s continuous acceleration (a direct consequence of the quantitative overload that characterizes the current mega-exhibitions), demand specific attention for slowing down and meaningful engagements?

Presentation Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide), Contour Biennale, 2019.

In the recent Contour Biennale – Coltan as Cotton (2019) (6), a curatorial strategy was developed that articulates both questions. Concentrating on three moments of three days spread over a year (containing an intensive program of screenings, installations, presentations, workshops, performances, reading groups, and discussions) seems to enable a different awareness of duration, sustainability, and discursivity. In fact, the Contour Biennale has shown that a peripheral biennial has the potential power to be a committed meeting point for experimentation, philosophical deliberation, and other modes of imagination. Moreover, it emphasized once again that such biennials as critical sites for thinking and production mainly engage in exhibiting our contemporaneity, whereby they will also invite us to think about a different understanding and perception of time.

5. In light of the topical question about the consciousness of time—and likewise how time appears to be a politicized concept—we currently see a deliberate refusal or disclosure of time in many committed exhibition practices, for example, by pointing out that exhibition is a verb. Thus, opposition seems to be raised against a narrowed concept of time: a regulated time, a synchronized time, an allegedly objective physical clock time, which ultimately equates to a global measurement that temporalizes everything else, and denies any form of coevalness: any form of anachronism is excluded for the sake of producing history and acceleration. Such a reducing strategy—today referred to as “chronopolitics” (7)—therefore asks for critical, alternative approaches, like being open to different temporal imaginaries and allochronisms. We will have to free ourselves from the yoke of abstract time, and once again draw attention to liveable time: the time in which we still can intervene and shape the condition of human life. It currently seems that liveable time is exhausted, especially now that the perspective and promise of the future has decreased. What remains is the linear perspective of an irreversible destruction. (8)

However, what we know for sure is that there still is an understanding of limits—limits of dignity, limits of the intolerable, and the limits that we can discern and therefore indicate—and that here still lies our fundamental critical capacity: the art of making the limits apparent and of drawing from the moral, aesthetic, and political consequences of this possibility. And with that, a clear assignment arises for experimental biennials to develop investigative display systems and discursive formats that stimulate the generation of new values from a critical perception of the intolerable. (9)

Metahaven, What is Art, 7th Bucharest Biennale, 2016

6. An illustrative example of such a think-tank-type, discourse production-oriented biennial can be encountered in the Bucharest Biennale—a medium-sized biennial on various locations and art spaces in town and since its erection engaging in strategic cooperation with local art partners. (10) This biennial is characterized by an incessant interest in artistic thinking processes, by the capacity to articulate that form of thinking in a multiplicity of modes and models, and most of all by the quest for display possibilities to address the other. Departing from such a focus on various forms of differential thought, the recent editions of the Bucharest Biennale have incorporated distinct and topical visions on the situation of the political, i.e., a recognition that politics cannot fully account for the conditions we live in; rather it requires a far broader range of modes and models allowing us to account for their effects at various registers.

For example, the 2012 edition—Tactics for the Here and Now—posited issues that have not lost any of their relevance in the current research-based discussion: the presentation of works of art that express a kind of resistance to both the speed and the changing nature of things, the reworking of histories, and the production of a different kind of knowledge through a consciously constructed perspective on the contemporary: a perspective that curator Anne Barlow would describe as developing imaginative spaces. Similar perspectives on new modes of political imaginaries would follow in the subsequent editions. In the 2014 edition—Apprehension—the question was directed to fear as an epistemic method that can be used to avoid governance. In 2016—What are we building down there?—the situation of public space was central: the search for different modes of engaged address and publicness in a post-socialist city that goes through processes of privatization. Finally, in 2018, Edit Your Future approached a renewed interpretation of speculation: analyzing the current social, political, and economic imaginaries, and providing a platform for future scenarios.

7. In this method of working, the Bucharest Biennale provides—in spite of or perhaps thanks to its peripheral position—a significant contribution to the topical biennial discourse. It demonstrates that it is possible to think a biennial beyond the capitalist logic of the spectacle by understanding a biennial as an evolving, more inclusive event program focused on (thinking) processes and new forms of engagement and display. The ambition of the 2020 edition was to articulate this curatorial logic even more explicitly. The starting point of its narrative was the topic of how the hegemony of the current discourse on research could have had such a devastating effect on the critical potential of contemporary art. After all, doesn't speaking in terms of knowledge production and methodology ultimately lead to academization and stereotyping? And doesn’t such a method of presenting fit seamlessly into the calculating frame of thinking a globalizing worldview?

Tiong Ang & Company. The 2nd Hands. A project in process for the 9th Bucharest Biennale, 2020

These questions indicate that we urgently need to say farewell to models based on economic primacy. According to the curatorial narrative of the 9th Bucharest Biennale—Farewell to Research—artistic research must be conceived as a complexity of creative practices, artistic thought processes, and curatorial strategies. Because of the required concentration and contemplation, this edition of the biennale opted for different forms of perception of time and attention: performative conferences, unfolding research exhibitions (where production and dissemination coincide), research seminars, and research screenings.

8. However, the current Covid-19 crisis has also direct consequences for the overall logistics, i.e., the display format of the 9th Bucharest Biennale will have to be rethought and restructured. Therefore, we will look for sustainable online options and publication platforms. Moreover, further consideration will have to be given to what such an extremity means for—the future of—exhibitionary forms as biennials. It is, of course, clear that today’s global pandemic is setting all things on edge. Right now, we can only create a platform for topical discussions and speculations about transformations of the status quo and the “not yet known” horizon of the future.

As Professor of Artistic Research (Finnish Academy of Fine Art 2010-2015) and as Dean of MaHKU Utrecht, Henk Slager has made significant contributions to the debate on the role of research in visual art. In 2004, Henk Slager – together with Jan Kaila and Gertrud Sandqvist – initiated the European Artistic Research Network (EARN), a network that investigates the impacts of artistic research on current art education through symposia, expert meetings, and presentations. Departing from a similar focus on research, he has also (co-) produced various curatorial projects, a.o. Flash Cube (Leeum, Seoul, 2007), Translocalmotion (7th Shanghai Biennale 2008), Nameless Science (Apex Art, New York, 2009), As the Academy Turns (Collaborative project Manifesta, 2010), Any-Medium Whatever (Georgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011), TAR – Temporary Autonomous Research (Amsterdam Pavilion, Shanghai Biennale 2012), Doing Research (dOCUMENTA 13, 2012), Offside Effect (1st Tbilisi Triennial, 2012), Joyful Wisdom (Parallel Project, Istanbul Biennial, 2013), Modernity 3.0 (80 WSE Gallery NYU New York, 2014), Aesthetic Jam (Parallel Project Taipei Biennial) and Experimentality (1st Research Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2015), Asia Time (5th Guanzhou Triennial 2015-16), To Seminar (BAK, Utrecht, 2017), The Utopia of Access (2nd Research Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017), Freedom, What was that all about? (7th Kuandu Biennale, Taipei 2018), Research Ecologies (3rd Research Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019), and 9th Bucharest Biennale (2020). He recently published The Pleasure of Research (an overview of educational and curatorial research projects 2007-2014), Hatje Cantz, Berlin 2015.



1. Okwui Enwezor, “Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form,” 2004 (Reprinted in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic et al. (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2010), 426-445.

2. René Block, Foreword, Catalogue 8th Sydney Biennale, 1990.

3. Prior to the first Bergen Assembly 2012, an international conference took place in 2009 asking the following question: How to Biennial? This led to the following outline: “Bergen Assembly has the ambition of working prognostically, allowing newly emerging initiatives to be investigated in light of their future potential.”

4. Ten years ago, the 4th Bucharest Biennale (Handlung. On Producing Possibilities, 2010), organized, also in collaboration with the Zurich University of the Arts, the symposium: The Biennial Principle, which contains various elements that highlight the globalizing debate of the past biennial decade.

5. Steven Madoff, ed., What about Activism? (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).

6. 9th Contour Biennale, curator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Mechelen, January 11-October 20, 2019.

7. Cf. Renate Lorenz, ed., Now, Now, Now: Chronopolitics, Art & Research (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015).

8. Marina Garcés, “Conditio Posthuma,” Barcelona, 2017.

9. For example, Brian Massumi’s 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

10. More information about the previous editions can be found on the Biennial Foundation website: www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/bucharest-biennale/.


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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini