drucken Bookmark and Share

by Ronald Kolb

The Curating of Self and Others— Biennials as Forms of Governmental Assemblages

The Curating of Self and Others[1]Biennials as Forms of Governmental Assemblages[2]

For at least the last ten years, a great focus on contemporary art discourse has established itself, especially surrounding the “biennial format” from a rather new perspective, taking into account not only art historical and aesthetic trajectories often associated with museum studies, but also looking into the economic, socioeconomic, political, and geopolitical conditions. The large numbers of justified critiques of the Eurocentric hegemony of art’s modernity and the constant classification of all other art practices in relation to the dominant Western canon is still a matter of negotiation and discussion in many ways. Analyses of the “exhibitionary biennial complex” find themselves in the middle of contemporary, hence complex, constellations of worldviews within post-/decolonial thought through the lens of aesthetic, visual art practices and their representation, and displayability with all its distribution channels.

I want to propose adding to this discourse with a closer look into what a biennial is and can do by applying Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality. As biennials are a rather transparent amalgamation of political and economic apparatuses—of power and knowledge with local and global ramifications—within cultural expressions, they present themselves as a prime example for analyzing the function of the neoliberal and its effects on everyday life. As others may have briefly indicated, my proposal is to see biennials as a prime example of a neoliberal agenda. While the beginning of public museums in the 19th century could be seen as “civic engines”[3] in line with a liberal agenda, biennials—maybe conceived as an exhibitionary format that arose from the public museum and its origins, World Fairs—took up the neoliberal agenda[4] early on. The simultaneous loud presentations of hegemonic narratives (of national identities, of “global”—often times meaning “Western”—ideology, of economic potency) and the enabling of critical interventions[5] are inherent to contemporary biennials worldwide.

Compliance, Critique, and Compliance–Critique
Foucault’s analyses suggest that the modern nation-state and its institutions are formed in conjunction with critical thought. In that respect, critique forms the institution, and does not  utter the desire of getting rid of the institution all together. Critique (or the “Art not to be governed like that”) regulates sovereign power. But—looking also at the various biennials out there—forms of critique can be drastically different, and this should be addressed: there is (“passive”) critique and (“active”) critique. There are so many forms of compliant critique (and so many captured in the hegemonic framework) that one strongly feels that the mere gestures of critical art and exhibitions are like soft pillows for a clear conscience in a bourgeois society, which might agree on the critique, but only to calm their nerves without the need to act differently. But at the same time, Foucault warns us not to easily and categorically call out as wrong everything that comes with state or sovereign power.[6]

This Biennial, That Biennial, and the Other Biennial—Never the Same
Starting with a rather simple definition of a biennial, one can describe biennials as a recurring (2,3,4,5,10 years) contemporary art event, usually displaying artworks in large-scale—“mega”—exhibitions, often accompanied with a discursive environment, with discussions and other public encounters with audience and artists. The artworks and art practices on display and in discussion are usually engaged within the framework of contemporaneity; living artists  exhibit oftentimes site-specific art projects that are newly commissioned. The biennial itself is embedded in a city, a region, within a national cultural framework, and/or in a local specific setting but—one can easily observe this by the added “biennial,” “triennial,”…—to the location a biennial is set up.[7] Biennials are initiated with a “will to globality”[8] as the late Okwui Enwezor put it and expresses a desire (or better: the will) to engage in a global and “modern” public sphere. This may ignite from various sources: one could see certain biennials in light of a national narrative, (often newly formed) nations demonstrating industrial development or cultural progress[9] cynically speaking so as to show the world a certain kind of democratic and political freedom to its citizens[10] or to counter certain dominant narratives, e.g. the Western narrative of modernity coming all the way from Enlightenment, and its judgement of reason with eyes only. Apart from various reasons for setting up a biennial, each biennial enters into a dialogue with an audience, a public—internationally and/or locally.

Global vs. Local
Some biennials are pretty much directed to the so-called international art scene (whatever this heterogenous group of actors consists of: poor artists with the hope of becoming famous? Collectors in fur? Professional museum curators and precarious independent workers?) and therefore are often founded in the hope of incentivizing tourists’ visits, but also the local art scene, and hopefully also a more diverse local public is attracted by the biennial’s appeal.

Biennials that cater more to the first group—the international art scene—are confronted with criticism, as they do not play out their site-specificity, their local accessibility, and tend to be seen as a vehicle of the overly dominating art market and its overshadowing interest in profit more than anything else.[11] But the often expressed critique of biennials that host only “international”—meaning art-market relevant—artists possesses a similar threat to a biennial that is solely rooted in the local or national art scene, one that would make the presentation of art fall back on a local identity, playing directly into identitarian narratives.

This can hypothetically lead strangely enough to a reinvigoration of fixed (local) identities with an inherent danger of re-identification with a national or locally connoted project. To follow Jens Kastner here: the reproduction of processes and an insistence on ethnic identities within the vernacular of even the most international biennial preserve ethnicity as a closed formation.[12] An early example of a successful counter-narrative can be found in the 3rd Havana Biennial. Gerardo Mosquera, one of the founders of the Bienal de la Habana and one organizer of the first three iterations, pointed out that, “Another significant change brought by the third Bienal was that European and North American artists with Third World diaspora backgrounds, such as those identifying themselves as black artists from Great Britain, were included, as was the Border Art Workshop from San Diego and Tijuana.”[13]

Biennial Categorizations To Let Go Of
Over the course of the last ten years, various categorizations have been established in a dialectical style. These categorizations may separate and distinguish certain biennials from others with quite a hegemonic undertone. It may dismiss certain more newly established—often “peripheral”—biennials as a mere image representation and image production for and within a national or regional identity, as art market-driven aesthetic homogenizers for economic reasons, as culture reduced to a spectacle for tourists, and so on. This comes along with polarized descriptions of biennials as “Janus-faced.”[14] In the very same year, the still profoundly relevant and prominent Biennial Reader stated in its editorial that biennials are caught between spectacle and critique with skeptics on the one side referring to biennials as a spectacle of the art market with the ever same artists and on the other encouraged critiques claiming biennials create an experimental format of critical discourse and exhibition-making.[15]

Setting up biennials in this polarized field seems to be less helpful in our times, as it tends to shed light on things in a right–wrong mode or an either–or. Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas suggest analyzing biennial exhibitions and formats in a paradoxical way that may not be resolvable.[16] In that case, there might not be one side or the other, but an “intermingledness” in varying degrees: economy, power, artistic expression, and other aspects come together in a sort of contested field with different outcomes, one expression dominating others in different cases.

Refined Categorizations
A more elaborate categorization was given by Charlotte Bydler.[17] According to Bydler, biennials started as “philanthropic-capitalistic enterprises” (the Venice Biennale and the biennials that followed this model, like Bienal de São Paulo, established themselves as the expression of the international political climate of the Cold War (documenta, Bienal de la Habana), and later after 1989 as a contemporary “global” format, which is often rooted in democratic aspirations in dealing with a collective trauma (e.g., the Gwangju Biennale, the short-lived Johannesburg Biennale).

The dichotomy between hegemonic narratives and formats of resistance developed by Oliver Marchart[18] directs biennials toward a conflictual reading of power relations in a Center–Periphery scheme. In the end, it questions the normative belief that a contemporary biennial format of today is a direct successor of the Venice Biennale. Moreover, within a constant struggle, biennials of “the periphery” questioned the dominant “Western” model of modernity and entered the struggle for hegemony a long time ago, and may have even won it. This thought is directly in line with the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and its narrative of resistance (as a biennial it positioned itself against a colonial Venice Biennale model). [19]

But examples of early biennials also show the distancing of a supposedly “Western” model of art history: The Bienal de São Paulo changed its narrative and departed from the original model of the Venice Biennale rather early on after its foundation. At least since 1978, the Bienal de São Paulo has turned into a very different project, and laid the groundwork for the Havana Biennial, according to Mirko Lauer, following Anita Orzes.[20] And other younger, and smaller, “Biennials of Resistance” followed.

Individualizing Biennials
In our globalized time, however, differentiation cannot be drawn with a geographical mapping. Biennials in the North can be set up as a model of resistance, while biennials in the South can express a highly aestheticized format for the art market. To complicate things even more, looking into a single biennial’s history—even the Venice Biennale—reveals a mind-boggling transition between artistic forces of the avant-garde, political-activist struggles, and, in the end, the overarching dominance of the art market in its current state.

This is the complexity of the world in which we now live: an utterance (of any sort) has to be researched and looked at with the specific context and history in mind, making it hard to apply any grand narratives from the past, like “East” and “West,” or “Center–Periphery”. In that regard, biennials can be seen as a mere form with a certain set of parameters; yet, while looking closer into each one, one detects a rich history of different contents and contexts. This is also highlighted by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in the conversation with Dorothee Richter in this issue.[21]

Derailing Biennials From Their Apparent Historical Trajectories
A historical outline provided by Federica Martini (through others: e.g. Peter Sloterdijk)[22] put biennials in line with art fairs and festivals, together with the public museum (which originated through nation-states and rise of the capital system) and with that, in line with colonial pasts. In that way, biennials are often seen as remnants of World Fairs, and with every newly founded biennial and iteration, it cruelly refers to an origin in a Western colonial narrative.[23] But—alas in a rather disciplinary and educational way—at least the art fairs and early public museums had the intention of bringing different classes together. The vision of a rather newly established ruling bourgeois class that was to “educate” the working class by showing them how to behave could be differently read as a reciprocal exchange between the two social groups.

Today, the urgent desire for shared platforms where communities of different interests can come together and learn from each other discussing things (and “educating” themselves admittedly within a knowledge/-power stru3cture) sheds maybe a different light on these old formats of fairs and festivals. I even would see it is a strength of biennials with a strong event character, as it can create a public sphere, where segregation/isolation of our contemporary finely fragmented special interest driven groups can come together.

In my thinking, contemporary biennials are unlike public museums; they are not only an utterance derived from its connectedness to a specific time and a specific place. They relate to a global sphere—with all its colonial traces and postcolonial relations—and form a complex dialogue for a rather limited group of people. Public museums and institutions submit to a much stricter function of national representations, as they are oftentimes heavily dependent financially and politically. One could argue that biennials are on the front line of contemporary art practices, showing art and mediating discourse that has not yet entered the canonical narrative of art history presented in public museums and their collections. That being said, avant-garde movements were last to be discussed in Documenta11 with Okwui Enwezor, and only in the framework of postcolonialism and a mutually influenced historiography of modernities with more than one dominant agent over the other.

Because of their more fluid character and their relationship to the global sphere, biennials tend to move faster than traditional institutions with stricter structures. Biennials are, one could say, more neoliberal in their labor ethics, and more liberal in their line of thought.

Biennials of Governmentality
I want to highlight the shift from public museums and art fairs in light of a state-driven, national educational project[24] to biennials as a flexible structure transgressing identities and catering to a global sphere with Foucault’s concept of gouvernementalité. One could argue that Foucault later rearranged his own theoretical analyses of a somewhat deterministic ideology of the disciplinary power of modern states that he so famously laid out in the Panopticon as a model of the modern state. His thoughts on disciplinary power with the aim of constant self-surveillance derived from the spectacle of punishment shifted to the question of how a police state could have been overcome in the past (and may be helpful to know to be able to overcome it today!).

An important distinction in Foucault’s proposed concept of governmentality—as an analysis of the neoliberal agenda, but also as a proposal of “freedom” in itself—is to position oneself much more clearly against the economic dominance of the neoliberal agenda over all aspects of the social. Foucault sets up governmentality as a much broader concept, trying to “bridge” the “modern sovereign state” and the “modern autonomous individual,” and show how they depend on each other.[25] In this sense, governing means thinking of one’s own rules of governance. The famous “conduct of conduct” is born. The ultimate trajectory is not getting rid of the state or state structures, but much more seeing the necessity of governing (“the self and others”)[26] and institutions—that can be reshaped along the way—that help to govern a society.

Related to the (anti-)hegemonic biennial machine, governmentality makes visible (consciously or not) the critical attitude of the individual (the artists, the curators, and the publics alike), and at the same time our compliance within hegemonic structures. The questions that arise within these structures, according to Foucault, is embedded in the questions of how to be (or not to be) governed.

On that note: I would propose following Tony Bennett[27] in seeing and analyzing the exhibitionary biennial complex (and other exhibitionary formats with the same structure) as a form of governmental assemblage,[28] setting up proposals for governing structures (at the same time externally for the public and internally while producing an exhibition) by regulating the public’s (and one’s own) behavior, representing cultural identities by re-staging and reframing (or expanding) the historical, political canons and dominant narratives.

The new challenges for museums, like for biennials—if this institution still wants to exert relevance and power—is to embrace and support new knowledges and its forms, rather than continually reproduce representations from a toxic collection, while at the same time opening up to different networks (assemblages). In Tony Bennett’s words:

“Museums need to be considered in terms of their relations to […] governmental assemblages, and less as self-contained knowledge / power apparatuses than as switch points in the circuits through which knowledges are produced and circulated through different networks. As such, they play a part in the distribution of the freedom through which liberal forms of government are organized, according a capacity for free and reflexive forms of self-government to some sections of the populations they connect with while at the same time denying such capacities to others.”[29]

And while the mode of self-organization seems settled, the underlying problems of the governmental assemblages rooted in neoliberal thought need to be taken care of, as the material side is often neglected or left out. Again, the geo-historical and geo-political contexts can vary so extremely that an analysis can only be thought of for each single case. Propagating liberal ideas of education can mean extremely different things in different contexts. And self-organization—in certain contexts a much needed empowering process—can mean neoliberal structures of the “West” outsourcing responsibility of the sovereign state. One has to be careful not to so easily use these terms generically as a means of devaluing structures and processes. Again, these terms have their own topological and governmental history, varying greatly in different regions of the world. Even deploying the “neoliberal agenda” for every situation does not take into consideration that these concepts are embedded in a rather “Western” context, and mean little to nothing, besides yet again showing off a different form of colonial narrative. As a well-known example of the so-called West, one could look at the UK’s neoliberal path since the 1980s, dismantling the state (for ruthless economic practices) and stripping the sovereign of its responsibility of caretaking for its citizens at the same time, as one definition of neoliberalism. In other parts of the world, the state may never have established such a high form of control and regulation altogether. Self-organization can be framed in a totally different concept than in “Westernized” contexts, where self-organization is often directly linked to commercialized self-realization.[30]

In our globalized world, where national identities have exceeded their purpose of producing citizens, museums have to shift their exhibitionary complex to let in “governmental assemblages” in order to open up to a broader and more inclusive formation with situated knowledges not derived from a national framework, but from smaller units of loose and open-ended communities.

For that to happen, the notion of the “audience” or the “public” has to be profoundly questioned, as it always is a thought “after” the show is up. And as beneficial as the educational turn might be, it still makes the distinction between the exhibition, the artist, the artwork, and the audience. Thinking with Foucault, I would say, it is quite clear that art is a discourse of statements uttered by all involved in culture, be it the artists, curators, writers, critics, or the public. The biggest task or challenge might be to think of the audience not as a subject to regulate, control, or reform (a non-disciplinary approach), but to think of the public as a part of the “governmental assemblage,” as one important agent in the coming together in an exhibitionary complex.

For that, new forms of biennials need to not only be discursive, but set up sustainable, self-governing, long-term structures that overcome a “mere” timed display of artworks or a “mere” assembly of people in discussions. As a final hint to such new models that you can observe popping up everywhere, I want to refer here to the newly established alliance between the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague, the Biennale Warszawa, the Kyiv Biennial, and the OFF-Biennale Budapest—not only a network in solidarity, but the consequential contestation of a regional and national identity, forming a sustainable structure that can be made possible in a self-governmental manner. The signs of the time all blatantly show us that a national governmental authority is no longer a reference point in any way, neither as representative of a national interest, nor as a caretaker of the social and of equal rights.

Ronald Kolb is a researcher, designer, and curator. He is Co-Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts, and an Editor-at-Large of the web journal On-Curating.org and honorary vice-chairman of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. He is a PhD candidate of PhD in Practice in Curating, a cooperation of ZHDK and University of Reading, supported by swissuniversities. His PhD project deals with curatorial practices and community-based art engaged in techniques and methods of governmental matters with a drive for “global” / trans- / post-national contexts.


[1] The title refers to Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France between 1982 and 1983, which were published under the title “The Government of Self and Others.”

[2] See: Tony Bennett, “Thinking (with) Museums: From Exhibitionary Complex to Governmental Assemblage,” in The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Theory, eds. Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015).

[3] See: Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” in The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London; New York: Routledge, 1995).

[4] The neoliberal agenda does not only entail self-realization and the most flexible labor conditions, but places all aspects of social life under the dominance of the economy, whereas liberalism had politics—society, and its equalizing parameters—in the forefront.

[5] The critical mode in Michel Foucault’s “What is Critique?” indicates that critique and governmental state institutions are conditional to each other in modern democratic states. Critique in liberal and neoliberal thought is occupied with the questions of how to be governed, of self-regulation, and self-governing.

[6] In the historical context, Michel Foucault addressed this critique against the radical Leftist approach of the RAF and others.

[7] Why a certain number of even newly founded biennial exhibition formats like Bergen Assembly refuse to take up the term “Biennial” or “Triennial” has more to do with art’s complicating play with distinction than anything else.

[8] “The will to globality” expressed by Okwui Enwezor can be read through Foucault’s concept of the will. A concept that lets the subject not only follow rationality or desire but acts as a subject’s expression to be determined. In that line of thought, a subject is constituted through her will, because she can determine her own direction.

[9] See, as a profound elaboration on the entanglements of postcolonial desires of progress and colonial pasts that does not wish to be seen in a strict historical trajectory of the biennial models starting from Venice: Okwui Enwezor, “Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form,” Biennials, monographic edition of MJ – Manifesta Journal: Journal of Contemporary Curatorship 2 (Winter-Spring 2003-4); Ranjit Hoskote, “Biennials of Resistance: Reflections on the Seventh Gwangju Biennial,” in The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Øvstebø  (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall; Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010).

[10] See: Christian Morgner, “Inclusion and Exclusion in the Art World: A Sociological Account of Biennial Artists and Audiences,” OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[11] For a more profound analysis, please read Shwetal A. Patel, “Resisting Biennialisation: Institutional and Community Responses to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale,” OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[12] See: Jens Kastner, “Staat und kulturelle Produktion,” June 19, 2020, http://www.jenspetzkastner.de/fileadmin/user_upload/PDF/Soziologie___Politik/Staat_Kult_Produktion.pdf.

[13] Gerardo Mosquera, “The Third Bienal de La Habana in Its Global and Local Contexts,” OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[14] At the Biennale Principle, a conference held in 2010 at the Bucharest Biennale 4, Beat Wyss and Jörg Scheller expressed biennials as “Janus-faced.” A text was later published: Beat Wyss and Jörg Scheller, “Comparative Art History: The Biennale Principle,” in STARTING FROM VENICE: STUDIES ON THE BIENNALE, ed. Clarissa Ricci (Milan: et al. Edizione, 2010).

[15] See: Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, “Biennialogy,” in The Biennial Reader.

[16] See: Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas, The Paradoxes of the Biennale,” OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[17] Charlotte Bydler, The Global Artworld, Inc.: On the Globalization of Contemporary Art (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2004).

[18] Oliver Marchart, “The globalization of art and the ‘Biennials of Resistance’: a history of the biennials from the periphery,” in World Art 4:2 (2014): 263-276.

[19] The director of the 7th Gwangju Biennale interestingly enough was Okwui Enwezor. Ranjit Hoskote, the co-curator, expressed the resistance against the Venice Biennale explicitly in “Biennials of Resistance: Reflections on the Seventh Gwangju Biennial,” in The Biennial Reader.

[20] See: Anita Orzes, “Curatorial Networks: The Havana Biennial and the Biennials in the South, OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[21] See: Bonaventure Ndikung in discussion with Dorothee Richter, OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[22] Federica Martini, Vittoria Martini, Just Another Exhibition: Stories and Politics of Biennials (Milan: Postmediabooks, 2011). The text was updated in April 2020 for OnCurating Issue 46: Contemporary Art Biennials—Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency (June 2020).

[23] See: Timothy Mitchell, “Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order,” in Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.) The Visual Culture Reader, (London-New York: Routledge, 1998), 293.

[24] See: Bennett, The Birth of the Museum.

[25] Thomas Lemke, “‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality,” Economy and Society 30, no. 2 (May 2001): 190–207, 191.

[26] This expression is drawn from the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France between 1982 and 1983. “The others” is not meant here as a philosophical concept of “the Other” in a representational way, but expresses much more the shared process of coming up with an agreed contract, how to be governed as a society.

[27] Bennett, “Thinking (with) Museums: From Exhibitionary Complex to Governmental Assemblage.”  

[28] Governmental assemblages should not be confused with exhibitionary formats in the manner of “relational aesthetics,” where basically a relation is being established between a fixed curator position and the artists, regulated within the aesthetic regime. It is much more occupied with shifting the power position of a curator or a director (and artists) into a network versus a curator with one singular vision.

[29] Bennett, “Thinking (with) Museums. From Exhibitionary Complex to Governmental Assemblage,” 16.

[30] Critiquing the historical trajectory of liberalism in its universalist idea, establishing a life form of freedom of choice, must be researched at another time.

Go back

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