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asked by Shwetal A. Patel

Questionnaire: Yongwoo Lee

Dr. Yongwoo Lee

IBA (International Biennial Association)

Dr. Yongwoo Lee is an art historian, critic, and curator. He was the founding director of the Gwangju Biennale, established in 1995, and served as president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation for six years (2008-2014). He was the founding president of the IBA (International Biennial Association) from 2014 to 2017.


1. What was your motivation to work on the International Biennial Association? What was your position/task at the beginning, and what has it become over time?

Establishing a platform for communication and intervention between biennials and biennial practitioners is the most important reason for the establishment of IBA. Since the 1990s, the proliferation of biennials has been remarkable, but there have been almost no horizontal ties between biennials and no exchanges sharing the practical resources and issues of biennials. As the first elected president of IBA, I was focusing, with members of IBA and boards, on securing members, data administration, and a way to find new vibrancy for biennials.

2. How would you describe the model of IBA that you have worked towards and created? Also compared to other biennials’ research centers and organizations, as well as university departments and archives you have visited?

IBA is a members’ club. Individual members include experts such as curators, writers, administrators, theorists, and scholars who are related to creating biennials. The institutional members refer to all the biennials in the world, and if they have performed at least three biennials, they are eligible to apply. Other biennial centers, organizations, and colleges are related to the research on biennials at large, I think.

3. What goals/wishes are connected with IBA over the medium- to long-term? What should be achieved in your opinion? What were your personal goals at the beginning, and what have they become?

In 2000, a group of biennial experts from various backgrounds gathered in Kassel, Germany, and attempted to form an organization such as the biennial association. Kassel’s documenta and the Fridericianum Museum hosted the meeting, which aimed to jointly respond to the information exchange and the contents that would impede the practice of biennials. The most important political challenge at the time was visa issues related to inviting artists and curators. It was not until 2013 that the goal was achieved. IBA is a member-centric gathering similar to CIMAM. The association for the members’ interests is a very simple aggregation, but it has a wider existential reason and persuasive power when it acts broadly in the field of cultural discourse as a whole. IBA can be a real guide for biennials when it leaves the interest groups for only biennials.

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?

It is the number of biennials for which we conducted research after the establishment of IBA. By the end of 2017, more than 280 perennial artistic events have been held under the name of biennial and the triennial and the like. It is much more than I thought. These numbers range from very small to global in size. These numbers are not related to the quality or contents of the exhibition, since they are the sum of exhibitions in the name of biennial and triennial conducted by the independent biennial foundations, museums, and art centers, and various artistic associations and members. The budgets are very different, and the sizes of exhibitions and projects are so diverse. At the IBA General Assembly, comparisons and distinctions between different member biennials are clearly presented and understood. We don’t talk about the size of the budget and exhibition.

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, would you agree? How does IBA's research activities, council, and leadership satisfy this promise? Do biennials necessarily have a positive social and economic impact?

The biennial is certainly a convergence model of artistic practice. The biennial had a reputation for politicizing all exhibition contexts, but it has changed a great deal in recent years. Biennial exhibitions show all kinds of experimental, radical, and political contexts of contemporary art, but the process of making biennials is very strategic and regional. Global aspirations and regional discourse always conflict. There is a desire for globalism in a particular country or region that they want to have at a biennial, but it is a huge burden for biennial makers. The biennial is to some extent an expression of a desire to advance onto a global stage packed with culture.

6. Can you talk about the funding processes and sources of IBA and its activities?

The IBA budget has so far managed to combine local government support, where the IBA office is located, with the IBA’s self-developed budget. There is a General Assembly in which a certain fund is developed by a hosting institution (biennial) to hold an event or invite IBA members.

7. What sort of curatorial, institutional, or technological innovations can help ensure the vibrancy and relevance of art biennials going forward?

I often think about ownership of art festivals and exhibitions. Today, it seems that the time has come for art institutions such as art museum or biennial to hand over its ownership to the audience. The notion of acting like a power organ can no longer satisfy not only the audience but also the art community. Why don’t artists come to biennials and museums? The space of institutions must be free from the old paradigm of power. We need a new reflection on capital, power, and audience, and we need biennials and museums that open 24 hours to breathe with the public. Art institutions should turn into a part of daily life of citizens.


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