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by Ronald Kolb and Shwetal A. Patel


This (draft) edition of OnCurating began life through a series of discussions and workshops between a group of scholars and researchers asking questions about the nature of art production today and what role, if any, biennials play within this paradigm. The underlying assumptions and factors that are generally attributed to the rise in the number of large-scale recurring exhibitions were examined and questioned and a draft-working document that may spur further research and analyses by practitioners and scholars in the field was created in the process. Some of the questions we began this project with include: Is the biennial format really a worldwide phenomenon, and if so, to what extent? Do biennials look the same everywhere because mostly world-renowned curators are in charge? To what extent is the local context important to the hundreds of biennials that operate today? What kind of audiences generally sees these kind of globally connected exhibitions and who profits in the end? Is the rise in biennials foremost a symptom of the neo-liberal economics of an unregulated art market? Are there narratives of our colonial past still at work and to what extent? Have biennials shaped exhibition making practices and the discourse surrounding contemporary art? Clearly some of these questions are beyond the scope of this initial research and require a great deal of further study and analyses and it is not our intention to provide all the answers. At this stage we simply wanted to begin studying these questions in more detail through greater empirical research into the field.

The last major survey of biennials and perhaps still the most current overview is The Biennial Reader[1], edited by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø published in 2010 following the Bergen Conference of 2009. The Biennial Reader is an in-depth discursive and theoretical investigation into this global phenomenon, although very little empirical research was conducted at the time. Charles Green and Anthony Gardner’s publication Biennials, Triennials, and Documentas: The Exhibitions that created Contemporary Art[2] from 2016 also deserves mention. The well-researched publication shows the historical development of certain biennials – from the first biennials, in the context of the Cold War until today and problematizes today’s major exhibitions within this historical framework.  

The recent history, display, and shift in contemporary art is increasingly observed through the lens of biennialisation, linked in part to the surge in the number and growth in popularity of biennials over the past two decades. Today, over three hundred large-scale, perennial exhibitions exist globally. These recurring exhibition formats have been widely considered to have come to define contemporary art and art history[3]. The biennial has come to be regarded as one of the most ubiquitous and celebrated models across the globe, with biennials now regularly taking place in all major continents.

Biennials operate without an authoritative, supra-national body imposing rules of functioning or common practise.  There are no commonly accepted minimum standards and/or procedures. Whether as result or cause of this, the biennial as a model may in fact evade definition: the sole common thread being their cyclical, recurring and event-based features, i.e. being temporary. Collective discourse of the biennial’s apparent professionalisation has recently crystallised around the emergence of the International Biennial Association, yet the body’s influence on practice has remained limited.  Arguably, it is the very lack of any supra-national oversight or minimum requirements which acts as a significant driver of the propagation and multiplication of this typology in modern and contemporary exhibition-making, allowing for open interpretations, rapid evolution (especially since the 1990’s) and organisational autonomy, in an increasingly globalised, standardised and interconnected cultural sphere.

Despite this, the appearance of a new ‘Biennale or Biennial’ elicits certain expectations with regards its characteristics and modalities. As became so clear in the initiation of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial, confusion often arises amongst the uninitiated as to how artistic activity was solidified into such an apparently prestigious format. Anyone, anywhere, can start a biennial in a diverse range and mode of avatars, though this remains somewhat underappreciated. Certainly, for a new biennial to gain international prominence, critical validation on the global biennial ‘circuit’ (read, Western artistic agents) is necessary.  Yet there is a level of confidence apparent – in terms of definitional flexibility - in the instigation of these recurring exhibitions in such disparate and frequently dislocated sites.  This suggests such post-colonial dynamics are not the inevitable parameters through which biennials can come into being. Indeed, the drive and desire to mount successive waves of these ‘mega-exhibitions’ has led to their becoming crucial to a reasonable definition of ‘global contemporary art’.  This constitutes a reversal, from geographical relations defining art practice relations, to art practice relations defining geographic relations[4].

Over the last 20 years, intense critical and theoretical debate has surrounded this exhibition format.  A growing number of scholars and researchers as well as professionals in the field have organised conferences and symposiums, and published books, journals and articles documenting their popularity and growth, as well as their increasing prominence within the discourse of a ‘global’ history of contemporary art and culture (Enwezor, 2003). In concert with this, several organisations have sought to provide international thought leadership in the field. Broadly speaking, two primary positions have emerged.  One, as argued by art historians Charles Green and Anthony Gardener, purports that biennials’ enduring popularity may be attributable to their becoming ‘structural’ to the ‘artworld’. They thus become essential to negotiating ‘contingencies’ and urgencies which in turn lead to forms of ‘contemporaneity’ and ‘world-making’. In contrast, the Nigerian poet and curator Okwui Enwezor – in the vein of Guy Debord – has posited that biennials (as well as museums, commercial galleries, fairs, academies and residencies) result from the neoliberal market logic of ‘spectacular capitalism.’  I would suggest that these positions are not mutually exclusive.  Their elision may in fact elucidate the enduring appeal of biennial-making in the contemporary age.  Despite the spectacular desirability of the biennial format, new biennials often reject institutional hallmarks or fixed parameters and orthodox structures, using precarity as a means of allure, sustenance and drive. That new museums of contemporary art such as London’s Tate Modern have built multiuse spaces that mimic the malleability and nimbleness of biennials in their master plans is a telling result of this new institutionalism and biennial mantra in the international artworld.

Throughout this report, we will place emphasis on biennials within the visual arts paradigm, though biennials of architecture, design, graphics, photography, music, dance and other disciplines have also flourished. Biennials have arguably emerged as one of the key markers and drivers of modern exhibition-making and are increasingly important for an understanding of post-war, late 20th century, and early 21st century art history[5]. If museums and gallery exhibitions have for the past century been ‘the medium through which most art becomes known’, then today it is perhaps the biennial exhibition that is the ‘medium’ through which new forms of art and artistic practice are introduced[6]. Despite increases in intercultural dialogue and understanding that have emerged in the field, and the rising number of visitors and audiences that encounter contemporary art through biennials and related formats, there is a growing sense of creeping homogeneity and normalisation. If, arguably, the art history of the early twentieth century was written in Moscow, Paris, Zurich, New York and London (i.e. Europe and America), then the art history of the late twentieth and early twenty first century has also been written in cities including São Paulo, Havana, Gwangju, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Sharjah and Kochi, as well as the traditional power centres of Europe and America.  

Given the vast amount of discursive and theoretical literature related to the field, we felt that an empirical analyses of global biennials may help inform trends and decipher tropes that have emerged as the format has proliferated around the world. Therefore, unlike previous art-historical studies into biennials, our goal with this project was to primarily conduct an empirical study on biennials, hopefully giving rise to a new set of questions and considerations. Alongside the empirical research, we conducted a series of interviews with curators, organisers and practitioners in the field to get a better understanding of the motivations and rationale behind their work.

We are aware that our research reflects a certain point in time and that the field is rapidly evolving. Some biennials may have ceased to exist since May 2018, whilst new ones may have appeared. Despite this flux, we all strongly felt that this research was both timely and could be helpful in understanding what was going on in this fecund and fast-moving global scene. We therefore consider the outcomes of this research as a starting point for our wider investigations, and we hope it will develop over time, with a broader set of data points, including more in-depth interviews and analyses from different regions around the world. We also hope that others may take some aspects of this research and develop areas that we either missed or did not have sufficient time and resources to pursue for this current edition of OnCurating.

We began this survey by creating data points for approximately 300 biennials we found in existence. On the one hand—we hope—you can observe the sheer increase in the number of biennials over time, and on the other, you can compare certain regions geographically and draw new inferences from the data we have captured.

In addition to biennials, we also considered annuals, triennials (held every three years), quadrennials (held every four years), documenta (held every five years), and even Skulptur Projekte Münster (held every ten years) as recurrent exhibition formats of contemporary art. We collectively refer to these forms of exhibitions as ‘biennials’, though their periodicity may vary. We have not, however, included a number of yearly recurring festivals of film, theatre, dance and other forms in our research. We hope that this form of selection focuses our research to the contemporary art field and more acutely towards the nature of contemporary art production today. We are primarily interested in the question of what is happening to art production within this context of global biennialisation. It could be argued that the kind of art being propagated curatorially, including how art and art history are taught around the world, has increasingly homogenised and is converging to singularity. Biennials may therefore form part of a larger hegemonic system of influence and that is why we are especially interested in conducting this research at a time of hyper-globalization and increasing digital connectivity.

The basic parameters for our data points are defined below.
1. Country of Origin - In which country does the biennial take place?
Note: There are a few biennials that take place in more than one country and some countries that are not fully formed or internationally recognised nation states.
2. Location of Biennial - Where is the biennial located relative to each country’s geopolitical setting: i.e. capital city, second-tier city, and peripheral locations.
3. Founding Year of Biennial - In which year was the biennial founded?
4. Main Discipline of the Biennial - Architecture, design, film, sculpture, etc.
5. Cycles and periodicity – What is the cycle and periodicity of the biennial?
6. Frequency of Biennial – Have these biennials sustained their cycles?
7. Founding Team – Who founded or initiated the biennial?
8. Funding of biennial – Who primarily funds the biennial?
Note: Although most of the biennials we surveyed display their sponsors and partners transparently, we could not find all of the relevant information and hence we could not provide sufficient data at this stage.
9. Venues – Are the biennials held primarily in permanent, temporary, or outdoor venues?
10. Digital Presence – Does the biennial have a website and is the biennial active on social media?

The vast majority of biennials we surveyed all seem to display the urge to be visible to a worldwide Internet audience and for most of the data points we surveyed, we were able to find the relevant information online. Although biennials tend to be very distinct from each other, and comparing biennials is a fraught and complicated task (not only in a cultural and historical context, but also in their embeddedness in a specific society and economy), most organisations displayed the need for connecting and disseminating their activities and output to a global Internet audience.

This “will to globality,” as Okwui Enwezor puts it, may have many different motives: displaying cultural prowess and soft power (often initiated by the government as a self-representation of a country/city/regional identity), or raising awareness in a globalized art market (i.e. establishing artists and their markets), or bringing together local and international artists on a common platform. These motives lead one to assume that biennials aspire to be visible and relevant to local, regional and global audiences – if this may be possible at all.

At this point, we should also address the fact that although we proofed our research at least twice, we cannot guarantee that all the information provided is completely accurate. We are confident that the data is approximately accurate, and we hope that peers and scholars in the field can help us fill in the gaps and make corrections where possible.

The editors of OnCurating have undertaken this research to enhance our understanding about the diverse range, geographical spread and formats of biennial-type exhibitions operating in the world today and to provide information about their location, founding bodies and funding sources amongst other measureable parameters. The research was carried out with the help of students and faculty at the Postgraduate Programme in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland and we have been limited by time and resources to conduct more in-depth research at this stage. We hope this work will spur others to continue probing and asking new questions about the field, as it grows in size and importance in the coming years.

Our goal from the outset was to keep the information presented within this draft  edition of OnCurating as timely and as accurate as possible. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them. The research is by no means comprehensive, complete, accurate or up to date; it is simply what we could find through sources such as Biennialfoundation.org, a non-profit organisation that primarily exists online. The results of our survey are primarily meant to be of a general nature and are not intended to address the specific circumstances of any particular biennial or organising entity.

It has been our goal to minimize errors caused by our group research methods and by using online sources, however some data and information in this edition may have been sourced from sites that are not error-free and we cannot guarantee that our analyses will not be compromised by such errors.

The Biennial Foundation, a primary source for the list of international biennials in existence, does not accept any responsibility in connection with the content presented in this draft edition of OnCurating. We therefore urge scholars, researchers and journalists to use the information presented here only as a broad indication of trends and not as a definitive survey. We urge caution when directly citing the findings of this research, as the data presented is time, definition and context specific and may invite misinterpretation. The editors and publishers accept no responsibility or liability whatsoever with regard to the information contained within this draft edition and recommend independent verification of all data points presented.

In addition to the empirical analyses and surveys, we developed a questionnaires which was sent to people working (or having worked on) biennials in different positions in different parts of the world. We want to understand their motivations, learn about their working conditions and other specific insights into how their biennial functions and sustains itself. We all strongly feel that it is one thing to seek information related to general empirical data, but another to be “inside” an operating structure such as one that establishes and sustains a biennial project. We are grateful to these interviewees and their willingness to contribute their time and share their insights with us for this survey.

In the Questionnaires section, you will find short interviews (a questionnaire based on seven questions) from Julia Moritz on dOCUMENTA (13) (conducted by Camille Regli); Mi Lan on the Bi-City Biennial of Urbanism/Architecture Shenzhen (conducted by Christine Kaiser); Wato Tsereteliis on the Tbilisi Triennial (conducted by Elena Setzer); Adam Caruso on the Venice Architecture Biennale and Andrea Bellini on the Biennial of Moving Images (conducted by Kristina Grigorjeva); Jean Kamba on the Biennale of Kinshasa (Yango) (conducted by Nkule Mabaso); Adnan Yildiz on the Istanbul Biennial (2010), Alisa Prudnikova on the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Alexandra Blättler on the Klöntal Triennale, and Hajnalka Somogyi on the OFF-Biennale Budapest (conducted by Ronald Kolb); and Yongwoo Lee on the International Biennial Association, Qudsia Rahim on the Lahore Biennale, and Rafal Niemojewski on the Biennial Foundation (conducted by Shwetal A. Patel).

Collaborative research
The impetus for this issue of OnCurating was initiated by Shwetal A. Patel, PhD scholar at Winchester School of Art, and conceptualized with the help of Damian Christinger, Ronald Kolb, and Dorothee Richter from the Zurich University of the Arts, ZHdK. The research and articles were planned and compiled by Shwetal A. Patel and Ronald Kolb, with the help of students and faculty following two workshops at the Postgraduate Programme in Curating (www.curating.org), held on March 24 and April 14, 2018 in Zurich.

Field work and research was carried out by ZHdK students, including Christine Kaiser, Kristina Grigorjeva, Oliver Rico, Camille Regli, Giovanna Bragaglia, Miwa Negoro, Franziska Herren, Heike Biechteler, Elena Setzer, Fabienne Ott, Swati Prasad, Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo, Ella Krivanek, Paul Toraiwa, Niyara Useinova, Rui Yuan, and assistant to the programme Max Heinrich.
Additionally we would also like to thank Swati Prasad for helping with the design of the diagrams and graphs from the data we gathered—this has made it much simpler to make comparisons across parameters and geographical locations.

Shwetal A. Patel is a founding team member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (India) and PhD scholar at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

Ronald Kolb works as a designer (www.biotop3000.de), lecturer, and film-maker in Stuttgart and Zurich. He studied Visual Communications (MA) at Merz Akademie, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media, Stuttgart, Germany and runs a design and research studio with an emphasis on publications and web design i.e. for Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg, ifa (Institut for Foreign Affairs, Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage, Badischer Kunstverein, ZKM. He was an Associate Professor at Merz Akademie, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media from 2009–2015 and is now Scientific Researcher at the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ZHdK. He is Co-Publisher of the web journal On-Curating.org and honorary vice chairman of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart since 2014.

He is PHD scholar of PHD in Practice in Curating, a cooperation of ZHDK and University of Reading, supported by swissuniversities.

1 Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Øvstebø. eds., The Biennial Reader (Hatje Cantz, Bergen Konsthall, 2010). Text(s) by Milena M. Hoegsberg, Jakouba Konaté, Lawrence Alloway, Caroline A. Jones, Daniel Buren, Carlos Basualdo, Okwui Enwezor, Ranjit Hoskote, Gerardo Mosquera, Rafal Niemojewski u.a., John Clark, Bruce Ferguson. The Biennial Reader is an anthology of essays on the global phenomenon of art biennials and includes seminal republished texts collected from around the world, as well as newly commissioned contributions from the leading scholars, curators, critics, and thinkers of biennials.

2 Anthony Gardner and Charles Green, Biennials, Triennials, and Documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art, Wiley-Blackwell, 2016

3 Ibid, p. 3

4 Ibid, p. 3

5 W. B. Ferguson, R Greenberg and S Nairne (1996) “Mapping International Exhibitions” in Greenberg, Reeesa, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, (eds.) Thinking About Exhibitions, London & New York: Routledge.

6 Ibid, p. 2

Go back

Issue 39

Draft: Global Biennial Survey 2018

by Ronald Kolb and Shwetal A. Patel

by Shwetal A Patel, Sunil Manghani, and Robert E. D’Souza

by Ronald Kolb and Shwetal A. Patel

by Ronald Kolb and Shwetal A. Patel

asked by Shwetal A. Patel

asked by Shwetal A. Patel

by Ronald Kolb and Shwetal A. Patel

asked by Kristina Grigorjeva

asked by Camille Regli

asked by Nkule Mabaso

asked by Shwetal A. Patel

asked by Ronald Kolb

asked by Elena Setzer

asked by Ronald Kolb

asked by Kristina Grigorjeva

asked by Christine Kaiser

by Shwetal A. Patel