Hajnalka Somogyi is a curator of contemporary art. Since 2014, Somogyi has worked as leader and co-curator of OFF-Biennale Budapest, the largest civil, independent international art project in Hungary that is based on Somogyi's initiative. In 2013-2014, she was editor of artmagazin.hu. Between 2009-2012, she was curator at Ludwig Museum—Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, and between 2001-2006 at Trafo—House of Contemporary Arts, Budapest. She co-founded the independent art initiatives Dinamo and Impex, both in Budapest.
1. What was your motivation to work on a biennial? What was your position/task?
OFF came about in order to strengthen the local independent art scene and to participate in public discourse by the means of art in an increasingly authoritarian, anti-intellectual, and xenophobic political context. The goal has been to gather and amplify the energies and ideas of the local scene, to enhance visibility, to create a ground on which we can network internationally (and fundraise), to bring up issues that are underrepresented in the local discourse, to work in a democratic structure that we can identify with. I initiated the project by proposing the idea of a grassroots, collaborative biennale in Budapest that boycotts the Hungarian state-run art infrastructure, in 2013. Since then, I work as the leader of the project.
2. How would you describe the model of the biennial you work for, also compared to other biennials?
OFF-Biennale Budapest is a grassroots endeavor, organized by a micro-association with the participation of many local artists, curators, groups, civil society organizations, galleries, collectors, scholars, students, etc. There is no central curatorial mastermind; instead, the program is the total of contributions by all the abovementioned participants. However, there is a central theme, and there is a selection process to ensure the strength of the program. The structure and methods of the biennale are always adapted to the fast-changing cultural-political context and to the needs of the local scene. Nevertheless (or, exactly for this reason), the program is very international, and the project itself proposes some commentaries to international biennales. One such commentary can be that this biennale is based on a boycott, and it turns this format into something constructive. Furthermore, while biennales in general are often criticized for their institutional amnesia, OFF certainly develops a memory trove: having a very committed, stable Board that works as a (para-)institutional think-tank, and building on an ever-growing network of local and international partners, instead of engaging in international headhunting, it nurtures good old friendships. Operating in a political environment that is increasingly hostile toward organized civil action and free thought, this biennale is not an official tool for city marketing; it is often perceived as a protest against the undemocratic tendencies in Hungarian state governance.
3. What goals/wishes are connected with your biennials? What should be achieved? What were your personal goals?
The goal, as stated above, is to strengthen the local art scene. We would like to contribute to the creation of projects by Hungarian artists that could not be realized within the institutional system, and to bring international artists into dialog with this context. We would like to encourage and promote independent work in the field of art and to ensure visibility for the projects that are born this way. Supporting critical thinking and promoting art as its agent, contributing to public discourse on important but underrepresented issues are very important, as are our international connections and the discourses and projects that these collaborations enable. Beyond all this, my personal goal has been to gather all my best colleagues and friends on the platform of one project so that we can keep on working together even after the institutional system ceased to provide sufficient ground for that.
4. Biennials have proliferated as the art world has scaled in size and global reach in recent decades; however, very little information exists about the exact number, geographical reach, and funding and governance structures of these arts organizations. Can we compare biennials at all?
If one looks at the local social/economic/political/historical context of each biennale (which is rarely emphasized, except for cases of scandals), one might be able to observe interesting patterns and similarities. In acknowledgement of this background, it might be more meaningful to talk about various models and policies.
5. Biennials provide a point of convergence for the art world, expose large audiences to art (and other disciplines and mediums), and catalyze interest in cities and regions with global aspirations. Do biennials necessarily have a positive social and economic impact?
6. Could you talk about the funding processes and sources? How do you think this affects the biennial? Does it affect it at all?
In case of the past two editions (that’s what we have had so far), two-thirds of our funding came from international sources: some of these only supported elements of our program (e.g. the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, ERSTE Stiftung), some aimed to support the local civil society through grants (Norwegian Civil Grant, Open Society Initiative). We get a lot of support from the cultural institutes that work in Hungary (e.g. Goethe-Institut Budapest, the French Institute, etc.). Local support comes from a group of private donors and from companies that mostly help with in-kind support (office and exhibition spaces, security services, book-keeping, storage, wine, etc.). Ensuring local support is the work of many people (gallerists, collectors, artists, etc.), and it generates many collaborations and a spirit of common stakes; international funding contributes to the internationalization of the biennale and, unfortunately, puts our organization onto a governmental blacklist: international funding is officially suspect as it is seen as a means of exerting foreign influence. Besides, not working with public money in a country where the scene’s vulnerability to political opportunism is caused partly by the lack of alternative resources and infrastructures, has been quite a challenge and has necessitated a huge amount of pro bono involvement, especially in order to launch the first edition. Sustainability is still far away.
7. What sort of curatorial, institutional, or technological innovations can help ensure the vibrancy and relevance of biennials going forward?
For us, being rooted in the local situation and working from there in ever-widening circles of networks has given a meaningful answer to this question; I’m not sure there is a general answer to it.