A great deal of this article is based on a close relationship with art biennials1 both in terms of the dynamic overlaps of critical interest as an academic and in terms of my presence as an artist and participant at both the second edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale2 (KMB) in 2014 in India and the inaugural osloBIENNALEN3 (OB) that launched in May 2019 in Norway. My focus in revisiting some of the texts written about Kochi’s Biennale over nearly a decade and introducing Oslo’s Biennale is to consider particular characteristics of these biennials, tracing back some of their ‘genealogies’ that might allow for reflection on how experiences ‘on the ground’ forged in Kochi become relevant later in Oslo. An awareness of biennial critiques has informed my artistic practice through specific projects End of Empire4 and Migrant Car5 produced for Kochi and Oslo, respectively, and developed to respond to particular local contexts when the projects were realized, testing thematic or propositional claims within the respective frameworks in respect to locality and public space. Both projects were produced locally as part of the performative, public-facing aspect of the work while engaging with local collaborators and agents as part of a social practice developed with respective local communities. Artistic inclusion has afforded me the opportunity to experience first-hand the particular complexities of local participation while engaging directly with biennial formats sitting between the intensity of local scrutiny and played out against wider global biennial discourses and critiques. Working directly with biennial teams involved in developing, producing, communicating, and managing these complex formats also gives some understanding of the internal struggles, pressures and dynamics of the often of the reality in ‘building an art biennial.’ The efforts and resources to even make an event happen are large, while the issues in sustaining and surviving the weight of expectation make the fact that these formats have proliferated quite exceptional. There is, of course, very little detail of biennial experience and certainly space for more research into the ‘practice’ of making art biennials.
Much has been written recently about the global development of biennials and any understanding of Kochi’s Biennale is to recognize its historical trajectory located in the body of research, texts, publications, and events about and around biennial phenomena (see the comprehensive Biennial Reader, 2010, that that came from Bergen Biennial Conference in 2009).6 Amongst the many more recent scholarly publications on biennials, Charles Green and Anthony Gardner’s publication Biennials, Triennials, and Documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art (2016) gives a useful historical and contextual framing of the phenomena of the biennial, acting both as a useful reference when locating some of the ‘genealogies of transcultural exchange’ that are pertinent here in terms of biennial editions, especially from the 90’s, that also challenge some conventional narratives on ‘biennalization.’ Importantly Green and Gardner note that there is a research gap that scholars are just beginning to address, and “It is the rapid turnover of biennials and their curators, as well as the diversity of their themes and forms of infrastructure.”7 What their account importantly provides is a route map as to the ‘before’ of developments of biennial characteristics that might give some insight into current essential biennial modes and approaches and a narrative that paves the way for the launch of the biennales in Kochi and Oslo. Importantly, with the KMB there is the possibility of looking at longer consistent narratives because key individuals have worked from its inception—including one of the founders, Bose Krishnamachari, along with trustees and other support staff and osloBIENNALEN curators together as co-curators developing and concluding OSLO PILOT, an experimental two-and-a-half-year research project with publication8 to conceive the format for Oslo’s first Biennale, allowing for the development of sustained research during the five-year period of this Biennale.
Before the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Firstly, in broad strokes, to give some context to my relationship to the KMB is considering the last three decades of visiting India from the UK, witnessing a nation’s contemporary art emerging within a national globalization narrative. Parallel was the country's rapid economic growth, which foreshadowed a growing international interest in Indian arts that has been seen as one of the benefits of the economic reforms of the ‘90s and the concurrent “biennial boom” that was occurring. Some see this period as key to countering Western and European hegemonies, while other see this period as recolonization under the auspices of breaking these hegemonies down. What is clear is that the global proliferation of biennials has challenged the predominance of certain global centers within the art world.
In India, this economic liberalization allowed an alignment of commerce, through the art market, of internationally focused artists as ambassadors of a certain idea of a contemporary Indian art world, making artworks that spoke more directly of universally understood issues and aesthetics of globalization. The resultant economic optimism of India in the ‘90s helped shape a boom in investment in contemporary Indian art, paving the way and creating the conditions and international interest for some of those Indian artists and future KMB artist/founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu and future artist curators Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty, and Anita Dube, all benefitting from these changes having developed their international profiles during this period. The critical reception of the KMB and this new international character can be linked intrinsically to this period of expansion in free-market capitalism conflated into a particular globalization identity for India. This new international identity for a generation of Indian artists who defined themselves internationally through this period can be seen to be key in influencing and being represented through Kochi’s development as a biennale.
In terms of Green and Gardner’s biennial ‘genealogies,’ Riyas Komu’s invitation as an artist to participate in curator Robert Storr’s 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 (India did not have its own national pavilion at Venice until 2011) and the Gwangju Emerging Asian Artists Exhibition in South Korea in 2010 are significant precursors to the KMB in 2012. Ranjit Hoskote is an important connecting figure in this narrative writing on biennials and on contemporary Indian art (including Indian Highway, 2008, Serpentine Gallery, London and India: Art Now, 2012, Arken Museum of Modern Art, Denmark). Hoskote also curated the Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and the first Indian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Hoskote describes Gwangju as the “biennial of resistance” because of its model of socially and politically led curation which will have certainly influenced some of the positioning of Kochi as a biennial within the political scope of Kerala. Hoskote goes on to allude in a KMB publication in 2012 that, “The gestation period for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has involved extensive discussions and consultations between the founders and a wide range of participants in global biennale culture: curators, politicians, theorists, critics, managers, artists, civic bureaucrats, industrialists, foundations […] They have acquainted themselves not only with the visible manifestations of such international festivals but also with the vast infrastructure that supports and sustains such endeavours, which usually remains invisible.” 9 As one of the supporters of the KMB, Hoskote would have brought experience to the KMB from his curatorial roles in 2008 in the Gwangju Biennale and the 2011 Venice Biennale in the build-up to the KMB’s development.
Some of my own speculations about this particular biennial were informed from a number of conversations with one of the trustees I was working with in Delhi with the complexity of the different internal situations for art in India, the infrastructure available to be able to start such an endeavor, and that this event took place in Kochi, a small southern coastal city more famous for its colonial histories of global spice trading and more recently for tourism. How and why would India launch its first biennial outside of the national confines of the established Delhi-Mumbai axis of Indian contemporary art, and what kind of reaction would this have on a national level, given that India had previously had repeated failed attempts to conceptualize a biennial prior to this endeavor (read Nancy Adajania’s chapter on the now defunct Triennale-India launched in 1968, the failed attempt at India’s international reach through contemporary art)?10
It was actually Kerala’s cultural minister that approached established Mumbai-based artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, asking them “to suggest an event that would reaffirm the state’s position on the cultural map,” with the final decision made in the Prime Minister’s office in New Delhi. However, the initial approach by the cultural minister to these two practicing artists was significant. Both Kerala-born, astute to the context they were working in, they took an artist-led approach, forming a community with both participating artists and local residents and traders. It is an approach that has proved distinct for this particular biennial and its relationship to the state. As with any endeavor, there was already a backlash and questions growing in the media and in the Indian art world, already indicating issues at stake in trying to launch an event synonymous with the wider burden of national representation on the global art stage.
Writing in the months leading up to the launch of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I mused on how India might develop the “situation of art” in India in terms of its global standing in a chapter, “Outside Art: Art, Location and Global Tensions,” speculatively ending with this biennial as a potential opportunity for India to gain some critical notice. Referencing the curatorial note on the Biennale website, one could unpack a particular conceptual conceit that collapsed together a particular local, pre-colonial history of cosmopolitanism. I wrote, “I have considered the motivations behind contemporary artists’ concerns to look beyond the production of artworks towards ideas connecting art with society and everyday life. The new Kochi-Muziris Biennale launching in Kochi in 2012, heralds a return to significant international engagement for India […]. This biennale has set out its international outlook: ‘[t]hrough the celebration of contemporary art from around the world […] invoke the historic cosmopolitan legacy of the ancient port of Muziris’ […] this event might be a key opportunity in India […] to connect internationally on home ground and help banish predisposed ideas of India and its art while bringing artists, curators critics and collectors to India to experience India and its art from the ‘inside’.”11
Kochi’s Biennale Effect
Traveling to India from the United Kingdom to visit the launch week of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2012 (the auspicious date of its launch was set as 12 December 2012), I arrived in Fort Kochi not only as an observer of art but to also consider the Biennale through the lens of critical possibilities posed in earlier writings. Attending the launch was to witness a ‘work in progress’ with delays attributed to the late withdrawal of some of the expected funds from a newly elected state government, sensitized by bitter criticisms from local pressure groups, a paucity of professional art infrastructure, and a highly unionized workforce (a legacy of local histories of socialism and communism). This was coupled with inexperienced and sometimes ill-equipped technical support and specific artistic demands, and the logistics of exhibitions across citywide sites was visibly challenging. The effect of this was not wholly detrimental to the event, lending a grassroots feel and communal problem-solving. It seemed apt in this deeply socialist state to see the visibility of the labor needed in the ‘production’ of art, which, in other circumstances, might have been a less effective avant-garde gesture or performance; seen in Kochi, this was both an honest and a welcome antidote to the self-conscious performance of reality or ‘white cube’ exhibition experience.
The result of artists’ abilities to connect and make sense of a place is not lost for some critics on many of the works made in situ at this Biennale. Lefebvre’s12 important insights on the dialectical, rather than oppositional, relationship between the increasing abstraction
of space and the ‘production’ of particularities of place, local specificity, and cultural authenticity—a concern that informs many site-oriented art practices today. The curators’ embrace of Kochi for a Biennale takes a certain logic, taking a site that conflates their curatorial history/globalization myth in a post-colonial city where there is already a historic resistance to cultural homogenization. It might be said that the ‘effect’ of the city in itself has been a large influencer on those artists attending, and the best works of those artists invited to produce on-site have been those that have paid heed and attentiveness to the local contexts. A number of projects absorbing and re-encoded colonial historiographies back into art again grounded even international contributions through shared cultural referents anchoring projects into the locality.
In terms of audience reception, it is notable that the KMB and the Gwangju Biennale have both been attracting significantly more visitors than the Venice Biennale. These numbers might be attributed to a more expansive audience made up of a larger contingent of local visitors and not just reliant on the middle–class, informed, cultural consumers or wealthy global ‘art tourists.’ The huge local audiences might be considered as another phenomenon and ‘effect’ that critiques the insular nature of many other contemporary art events. The need to engage and to develop a sense of community and opportunities for local inclusion has been important to both Gwangju13 and the KMB, developing new relationships between local audiences and maybe non-art audiences who feel able to engage their curiosity whilst also engaging artists to have a deep engagement with the city and its social and historic fabric.
By meeting with artists and organizers, the attended seminars, talks, and performances meant making a collective sense of the ‘biennial experience’ and understanding what was unfolding as a reading of the Biennale’s effect on the locality. A memorable incident that captures a political reality within the local public was an attack on a series of charcoal wall portraits of local Keralites by Australian artist Daniel Connell, which were defaced utilizing burnt coconut husks. The attack was accorded some significance as a particularly localized signal of opposition to the work. The artwork itself was an intervention in public space, with an implied endorsement by the Biennale that could be seen as evidence of a form of cultural imperialism that some locals felt had been brought to Fort Kochi, under the auspices of the Biennale as a “festival of international contemporary art.” This gesture reported as vandalism can be seen as fulfilling the potential for public artworks to be both politicized and localized and, in this case, by subverting the artwork’s and artist’s authority. When considered against Kerala’s active Marxist past, this gesture becomes redolent of the kind of fringe conceptual or performance art and an honest radical gesture in the vein of the politics of Rancière, marking the merging of life into art within this format.
In reflection, Kochi has become a good example of an art event that developed from the ground-up, meaning that its format and structure have been aligned with the locality in mind, a criticism aimed at many contemporary biennials that proclaim locality but do not deliver on these promises. In the Biennale’s speaker programme, Let’s Talk, Paul Domela (a previous director of the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art) spoke at the opening symposium of, Site Imaginaries and Sabine Vogel writes that his particular experience of developing a biennial format is responsive to the city but, “In Liverpool the strategy is to not exhibit works that have been selected in advance but to invite artists to create in-situ projects in direct response to local problems,” a strategy Kochi curators have taken to activate the city through the Biennale’s judicious use of space.14
By December 2014, the Biennale team was better equipped in terms of skills, experience, and logistics with a better knowledge of the spaces that allowed for a more strategic planning of artworks than time or money previously allowed. Building on early critical success, the second edition of the KMB had to work hard to develop its identity. This was refined further through a more controlled exposition by selected Indian artist Jitish Kallat who developed a curatorial approach based upon synchronically ordered artworks, with the title Whorled Explorations.15 This formed part of the continued development of the Biennale concept to take in the historic navigation of the globe as part of a mapping exercise connecting time, space, and history as a contemporary turn. Kallat built upon the original curatorial proposition of a paradigm of historical cosmopolitanism in the city of Muziris,16 a nod to a pre-globalization India and a critique of conventional historical thinking of globalization as a more recent phenomenon. We held an in-depth interview with Kallat in his Mumbai studio after the second KMB, which provided invaluable insight into his curatorial approach and methodical, systematic, conceptually driven and highly researched approach (see the chapter “Curation As Dialogue” in India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art).17
As part of Kallat’s second KMB, I contributed to the Biennale both as an artist producing a collateral art installation, End of Empire, and as an academic with colleagues through the Biennale talks programme. Using the basis of observations made in a previous journal article, “The Indian Biennale Effect,”18 produced after the first Biennale provided an opportunity to look at the knowledge gained from the use of the city by the Biennale within the public forum of the Biennale’s History Now seminars and talks. We saw the importance of connecting at multiple nodes of Biennale activity by curating talks that engaged with the contestation of space, thematically focusing on what we saw as a key character of this Biennale. Importantly, we were building mutually beneficial research by seeing a gap within the discourse within the Biennale about its own expansive role in respect to the city and the political ramifications of place and space. My contribution as an artist allowed me to integrate ‘glocal’ ideas of space both through discussion of social practice with producers in Kochi and of opening up the engagement to communities by the Biennale by building more socially orientated projects (see the chapter “End of Empire” in India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art).19
In continued discussion by Skype interview with Riyas Komu in 2014 leading up to the second KMB, my colleague Sunil Manghani and I discussed the particular descriptions of being a ‘people’s biennale’ and ‘productionist’ in nature that Chris Dercon (an early KMB champion and previous director of Tate Modern) had made. Referencing comments Komu made in a documentary from the start of the Biennale: “He says simply, ‘Stress is there. Artists are putting pressure.’ There is a double sense to his remark. Artists are putting pressure onto the situation and equally are being put under pressure by the circumstances. In contrast to the typical biennale set-up that offers refined exhibition spaces and technical support, Komu describes the scene as a real community, saying ‘it’s almost like an artist camp.’ [...] And what was particularly exciting was that everybody was learning at work. People were being introduced to art, art making and its history as they were working and engaging with artist. We didn’t have the luxury of a team that were already inducted to contemporary art. Even we were learning.” Komu also notes how the best art will survive if we take risks. He suggests the Kochi Biennale itself has “become a kind of synonym for getting artists ready to take risks’ [...] The Biennale gets made again, each time: ‘What happens in every edition of the Biennale’ he suggests, ‘is that risk comes back. Every edition of the Biennale is almost a new project. [...] We start afresh every time’.” 20 The idea of knowledge production through the experience of artists working at the Biennale exemplified a concern with education and learning leading to later initiatives such as a Student Biennale indicative of the ambitions beyond the scope of the Biennale to actively raise issues such as arts education nationally.
Performing The Biennale
This section draws on the online review, “Timely Provocations: The 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale,” written with my colleague Sunil Manghani for the Biennial Foundation in 2017.
We had just published our sustained writings on the KMG in India’s Biennale Effect and were travelling to Kochi to launch the publication and attend the third edition of the Biennale in December 2016. There was a great deal of anticipation as to where this Biennale would attempt to take its audience, testament to the critical interest the Biennale had generated since its inception. If the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale, under the curatorship of its founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, was distinctive for its site-specificity, and the second for Jitish Kallat’s conceptual ‘journey,’ the third edition under the curatorial direction of Sudarshan Shetty was concerned philosophically, materially, and politically with time, and we felt that was arguably the most challenging of the three editions we had visited (a visit to curator Anita Dube’s fourth edition was not possible in 2018 although we connected with her through the Imagined Biennales event we held at Tate Exchange in April 2018 in the run-up to the launch of the fourth Biennale).
Moving between the various opening events, you could pick up a mixture of delight and high praise, but also confusion and ambiguity in response to the latter uncertainties: this was precisely what Shetty wanted—that there was no center point, no required navigation, only multiple possibilities; a biennale that unfolds with time and patience. To have visited the previous Biennale was to experience the mapped and precise logic of Jitish Kallat. Shetty’s curatorial ideas were more amorphous and elliptical in description, clearly not wanting to be pinned down. He went on to describe how he saw the Biennale “as existing in process, something which flows, and I wanted to engage artists whose practices will create works that exist not only for the duration of the Biennale, but into the time beyond.”21
Under the curatorial title of Forming in the Pupil of an Eye,22 Shetty’s staging of the Kochi Biennale stretched over twelve official venues. Many of the sites, such as Pepper House, Kashi Art Café, and Durbar Hall, have been associated with the Biennale from the start. The iconic Aspinwall House provided the Biennale with its primary site, presenting key infrastructure as well as the opportunity to make more direct curatorial groupings of related works due to its extensive exhibition spaces. A number of new venues also appear in this edition, including the TKM Warehouse: offering large spaces, with ‘white-cube’ rendered walls, this venue has been used with confidence, giving breathing space to just five artists. Out of the ninety-seven artists participating from thirty-five countries, under half were of Indian origin with a high representation of lesser known Indian artists alongside more nationally established artists such as T V Santhosh and Himmat Shah. Notably, there were fewer internationally known artists that might typically draw large crowds perhaps pointing to another expression of confidence, with a more determined move to allow the Biennale to be a site of opportunity for emerging artists.
Shetty is much admired for his sensibilities towards art making and materials. The act of making itself is a palpable theme that is picked up in the selection of a number of works. Projects present that produced work over extended durations and also presenting performative works that are true to the process of making and performing can be lost on audiences. Nonetheless, this edition of the Biennale will be remembered for is its turn to the temporal arts. A particularly powerful and demanding work is Padmini Chettur’s Varnam, a contemporary dance production of three hours. Given the complex history of women’s status in India’s hierarchical social structure, along with a defiant feminist movement since the 1970s, and more recent media attention on continued violence towards women, Chettur’s Varnam 23 provides a radical and multiple re-imagining of the female body. It was certainly ambitious to exhibit such performance work and artworks in the making, not least because biennials tend to attract itinerant, international audiences who often only attend for a matter of days. But, again, this formatting and curating of works implies confidence, favoring those audiences who might invest more time in Kochi and also those local to the Biennale. This is one of the key observations from the first Biennale about making key decisions that break with conventional cycles of time, not only in scheduling but in respect to place and locality and the message that this gives locally. In an interview in The Hindu, Shetty discusses how his curatorial approach has evolved through wide-ranging conversations with practitioners in theatre, poetry, film, music, and dance. “I’m not trying to make visual artists out of theatre, music or dance performers,” he explains, but instead, “I’m trying to see how I can keep the integrity of the art form but blur the demarcations.”24
For the Curator’s Talk, as part of the opening events, Shetty was in conversation with the philosopher Sundar Sarukkai. The notion of “multiplicity” came up repeatedly, and Sarukkai kept referring to various iterations of the curatorial note (as if somehow there was no definitive version, but only a rich palimpsest of views). Shetty’s recursive (and anti-authorial) interest in conversation presents not a dialectical approach, but rather a multiple, layered gathering of meanings. Interestingly, earlier curatorial statements were much more explicitly conceptual.25 During the curator’s talk, in front of a packed audience at the purpose-built auditorium of Cabral Yard, Shetty appeared reluctant to break away from the intimate dialogue with Sarukkai, uncomfortable perhaps to give definitive or unequivocal answers in the ensuing Q&A session. However, if we read this third iteration of the Biennale as bound to temporalities and multiplicities, you come to accept a much slower engagement than any didactic curatorial statement might allow. We might suggest Shetty’s curatorial practice is revealed as being structured precisely as he wishes us to view the work: as layered, cumulative, shifting, multiple, provocative (even at times duplicitous). Shetty’s focus on the temporality of artworks, art forms, and material processes present a challenge to the biennial format, which typically is anchored by considerations of place and space. Yet, from its inception—and largely due to its artist-led approach—the Kochi Biennale has by no means adopted an ‘off-the-shelf’ model. Outside of the metropolitan sphere, Kochi has allowed for a renewed freedom to experience art, with less separation of art and everyday life; and with artists themselves engaged in the making of the event. Unlike some large-scale art events, which we might characterize as ‘legitimating forces,’ the Kochi Biennale suggests a humble invitation to ‘build it’ rather than be placed within it. At its best, a biennial is greater than a collection of its material objects and sites of display—it bears social connections, it addresses the surrounding local and global politics, it impacts upon educational contexts, and it forges new narratives. All of these things are true of Kochi, and through Shetty’s curatorship we gain further dimensions arising from new provocations of form, content, and time. The question we left with was if Kochi could sustain itself as a progressive force, or whether its own success will place too great a pressure upon it having delivered, with its third and arguably subtlest edition, multiple ways of thinking about this problem, offering as it does a ‘gathering’ of contemporary art that is radically (un)sustainable.
Building An Art Biennale
The following edited interview26 was published at the launch of osloBIENNALEN in May 2019, between myself and Norwegian student Åshild Kristensen Foss, studying at Oslo Metropolitan University and one of the participants in my Migrant Car project who was documenting the production of the car sculpture over a period of one month at the furniture workshop of Eddie King, one of the project collaborators in Grünerløkka27 in Oslo where Foss also lived.
AKF: Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution of the project previously titled End of Empire at Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which has become Migrant Car for osloBIENNALEN?
ED: I made a version of my car sculpture for Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014. Documentary evidence of this work was shown at Tate Modern in London in 2018 as part of an event How to Build an Art Biennale organized by Winchester School of Art in the UK.28 A chance meeting with the curators of osloBIENNALEN that year led to the present invitation. Rethinking the project for the city of Oslo meant new conversations about the concept of art in public space and subsequently the new car-free zone came up. For me, the restrictions placed on this space could be used as a geographical framing device to connect the presence of the car sculpture to the city dynamics, at the same time engaging with local debates. The idea of the car as a visitor suggested contextualizing the city as a host, which led to a discussion about the possibility of renaming the car, thought of as a migrating object—Migrant Car. This opened a wider discussion on the situation of migrants in the city. It would enact the idea of a car on a journey—the actual movement would be a performative gesture in itself—providing this motion was driven by people power, which would also give non-art publics a chance to encounter art in action. Important questions for me were: How might a project such as this promote cultural understanding and ‘forms of exchange’ as part of a strategy contributing to social engagement that would benefit the locality of Oslo, while contributing to a better understanding of peoples and societies within the context of the globalized urban situation that exists here. This led to my invitation to local students to develop participatory projects along the route the car would follow and to work collectively in shaping this journey, while also grounding the project locally. Part of my discussion with the student participants were around current critiques and political dialogues that focus on migration/immigration and “tensions around difference,” and what affective responses might inform attitudes and give voice to those who might feel marginalized in these dialogues.
AKF: I like that the underlying political theme in the project is based on engaging with issues in society, but you’re using participation and generosity to disseminate ideas rather than making an overt political statement, though the project title Migrant Car is provocative! Do you want the engagement to generate a learning situation and be a good example of how we can also work together through the dialogues generated by a project?
ED: An engagement with socially orientated issues underpins my critical interest in making artwork and has been a focus in my own practice. I don’t believe it is the job of artists to solve social problems, this takes away from the state’s responsibility to improve the social situation for those within a society; imposing this burden on artists distracts from sociopolitical responsibility. I do believe, though, that being socially aware, provocative, and active can be part of an engagement which, for some artists, can be a frame of reference to personally respond to what is happening in their time. In these terms, I really like the quote from Bertolt Brecht that, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but rather a hammer with which to shape it.” This thinking applies to art becoming a performance that might shape a social reality. The everyday becomes a universal and local language that might bring people closer to the art rather than separate them from it, while revealing new ideas about the familiar. I’m encouraged by the fact that the more successful the project, the less it needs me. I like the blurring that might happen between spectator and participant and that they all might have the potential to be the art. I’m heartened at how the project has grown via the workshop into the local community and beyond. Going back to the project’s genesis, to me it has been interesting to see how ideas tested in the Kochi Biennale and previously considered critically through my research and writing have informed the project. It has now developed more as a durational public participatory performance, with different audiences over time and space, where participants become performers of art, serendipitous guests bringing contingent art ‘actions’ and ‘situations’ into a space, and where the audience become part of a ‘spectacle’ of this art. I’m attracted to the proposition that art in public space might close the distance between art and everyday life, a possibility I think about often. That we might produce a situation for people to rethink their locality through the most subtle of actions, or even simply by moving this object, this Migrant Car, through the streets of Oslo is a possibility of making art accessible and allowing for a testing of a democracy of art.
The project Migrant Car represents a project developed with the curators of OB extending both critical experiences and approaches honed through the Kochi Biennale, my academic research into social practices, and through a number of deeply engaged and rigorous conversations to ensure coherence of the project for the locality of Oslo. These conversations and the research generated from Oslo will also contribute to ongoing research into practice and forms a significant personal engagement in a significant and challenging art project that has been meaningfully informed by Kochi research and practice. There are a number of interconnected components developed, built, and performed in public space developed between November 2018 and August 2018 in Oslo. The work comprises a moveable mixed-media sculpture based on a full-sized Hindustan Ambassador car built with local craftsmen whose workshop was transformed into a public-facing space allowing for the production to act as live performance of making the sculpture over an extended period prior to the launch of the Biennale. A documentary was made of the production, later installed in the window of the furniture workshop alongside a film I made of the Indian carpenter who built End of Empire, connecting craftsmen and projects from Kochi to Oslo. After the sculpture left the space, a documentary video was screened as part of a public event for the closing of the project in August 2018 in Oslo. This film documented the production of the sculpture, a community-initiated street party and street parade (this evolved spontaneously out of the project), eight student co-produced temporal projects/performances in Oslo’s car-free zone documented online in a blog,29 and the sculptures invitation to and engagement with events and public spaces in Oslo including Oslo Cathedral during refugee week and the Oslo Pride parade. The project has since moved on to Bergen Kunsthall 3,1430 where it has been re-curated for the locality and will move to Kirkenes later this year to collaborate with art collective Pikene på Broen.31 This final journey across the Norwegian border into Russia will attempt to retrace the journey on bicycles via the Storskorg border post where 5,500 refugees, mostly Syrians, entered Norway via Russia.32 As Migrant Car moves, it continues to creates curatorial possibilities and evolving situations and participations extending the space of the Biennale’s reach while following the logic of the ambitions developed with the curators that supported a temporal work that might challenge ideas of space, time, and locality.
Taking the logic of the work is to take sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts about the provisions of arts in society and the need for ‘access’ that goes well beyond simple economic considerations, but rather concerns deeper barriers based upon social and cultural grounds. This becomes particularly pertinent within the premises put forward in both Kochi and Oslo Biennales, with both privileging making art more accessible. Access in general is a highly contentious issue and there are clearly structurally, socially, and economically many barriers that separate Indian society, so Kochi’s statement of intent in bringing ‘everyone’ in is highly political and at the same time chimes with a particular progressive socialist political past in the state, not necessarily replicated in wider India. Maybe the choice of Kochi as a base for a biennial starts to make more sense than the hubs of Delhi and Mumbai, as a more egalitarian testing ground for the reception of this Biennale’s format. In the same way, in Oslo I have been supported in developing a collaborative project in an area of the city with particular recent histories of social change and reinvention in the eastern district of Grünerløkka that connects in sociopolitical terms back to Kochi.
A three-month period of developing the project prior to the launch of the Biennale meant a swift grounding within the locality/community, building dialogues to localize my approach, and building collaboration while finding common ground and building trust with everyone. OB has importantly developed crucial support structures for artists like myself, which becomes key to making meaningful projects and engagement in a locality, and this included research support, mediation, and production. For the project to be truly localized and collaborative meant that to some extent it would emerge and be determined by actions that came from its own internal dynamics, rather than any top-down, prescriptive, or defined project plan. It becomes a distinct dynamic nature in an unfolding project like this that the biennial format over a more fixed institutional format can accommodate. Of course, this open-ended approach has risks for both artist and sponsor and if an artist’s ambitions and complexity are too high or risk is mitigated out of the project, then both extremes can negate being reflective of the locality. This is one of the key reasons that the biennial format is still relevant as an alternative site to offer the space for risk-taking, for experimentation, for failure. Controls are needed but the right ones for each project, and these need space and time to get right, to interrogate and develop appropriate approaches and strong curatorial support. With OB, there has been an unusually high level of support and discussion in developing projects to ensure viability, coherence, and ambition. Key to my conversations with curators were the unfolding nature of increased engagement from the collaborators, the positive reception and self-organized response from the community in Grünerløkka and the students’ participation and ownership. During the process of this project, a point of collective ownership was reached where the project was as much owned by the collaborators and local community in Grünerløkka as it was a Biennale project.
In conclusion, those reading this article involved in the arts might consider what ‘after biennale’ might mean now, during the current impacts and restrictions of the COVID-19 global pandemic? It is inevitable that there is widespread reluctance to cancel events sometimes years in the making and with commitments made; finding alternatives, in the main virtual, has become the way forward for now. So, continuing to hold a conference on Contemporary Art Biennials with a title our hegemonic machines in states of emergency might be apt for the current situation. Here the ‘emergency’ is moving well beyond economic impacts and the underlying financial crisis, but ones that will transform an arts sector previously dependent on events, on participation, on bringing audiences together and the global movements of artists and professionals. It will be interesting in particular to consider the usefulness of learning from biennials in cities such as Kochi and Oslo, where the respective Biennales are exploring different ways they might operate locally across multiple sites, creating sustained engagements within their localities, investing in building arts projects that might give a useful or meaningful presence within the fabric of the city, initiatives supporting local artists and placing art in the city as part of everyday life. A different understanding might be made of those biennales that have worked to benefit and privilege those who are more local, to engage in more sustained and sustainable mechanisms with their arts, who look to develop programmes beyond the ‘event’ fixation of many biennales or by opting to work beyond conventional cycles, using outreach and alternative forms of engagement. Oslo is still early in its cycle with twenty-four projects spread throughout its first year with varying temporalities, lifespans, and repetitions. This strategy was developed so that it might allow for increased opportunities especially for those living locally beyond those coming for the traditional ‘biennial spectacle’ that has become synonymous with grand opening events. On the ground, there are criticisms of visibility of the Biennale within the city, and it is clear from my conversations with the curators that they have resisted the impulse to rush to meet expectations without diminishing what was designed as a progressive and open-ended format to benefit locality. Working with time and format might not reach the expectations or experience of art for some in the city but certainly privileging artists in general and the locality are certainly admirable and needed. Of course, there are myriad internal and external forces and pressures at play and, like Kochi, highly informed and engaged publics who want to have their say, but time needs to be given to give the space needed for some of the very issues raised in the framework to play out. Importantly, there is a space for potentially helpful discourse on the arts through formats such as biennials by reconsidering and rethinking particular strategies and practices that might support the emancipation and transformation of public and social space. The contemporary biennial can be seen as an active site for developing innovative approaches in participative arts, community engagements, pedagogic opportunities, as well as a space for broader cultural production, dissemination, and reception. So maybe now more than ever, the repetitive discussions and dialogues on biennial formats might give way to a wider discussion to those of urgent ideas and of artistic possibilities, to catalyze actions and create interventions within a world currently in a state of ‘emergency’ where there is little state imagination, only a shorthand politics of policies of constraint.
While Kochi and Oslo have joined well over 300 biennials that exist across the world, we have surely become ever more familiar with this format. In looking forward, we can also look back to reconsider lessons from the past, to revisit the ‘genealogies’ and to look closer so we don’t accept ‘standardization’ just because this is the familiar and easier path. Even in the shadow of a pessimistic prognosis, we might be forgiven for thinking every biennial, every art event, is just one of many, and only more of the same. Indeed, how can anyone operating within these sites of practice (which require a great deal organization, finance, and partnerships) resist the clutches of standardization and homogenization and remain risk-free?
Kochi and Oslo face different pressures on different points in their evolutions. Oslo must deal with the inevitable expectations when the format they have proposed doesn’t conform to expectations in much the same way that launching a Biennale in Kochi was initially questioned in India. Kochi, like many biennials, continues to weather critique and scandals but prospers because of a clear commitment to art and place. If, in our contemporary, global circumstance, artistic practice is to be allowed to develop freely, to experiment and deviate from the norm, then I am in no personal doubt that both biennales in Kochi and Oslo are trying to achieve this. The biennial format is still relevant, and even if Oslo faces scrutiny from the artistic community then they like Kochi must build over time the supportive local base to prosper. The focus on benefits to locality, to the passerby, to democratizing access to art, participations might all be seen as derived from essential characteristics of both Kerala’s communist past and Norway’s history of social democracy, both of which can be replayed through these respective biennales. This might be a well-intentioned utopian ideal of the role art might play in contemporary society but isn’t that the role of a biennial to be a site of arts resistance to the perceived status quo, to explore new ways of thinking and acting? We need ambitions more than ever that are rooted in an authentic reflection and the needs of the particularities of time and place. One thing we can be sure of is that real life has offered up the radical character of a pandemic phenomenon, which means we are all trying to understand a situation that is exceptional in its affect and simply accelerates the need for a structural challenge to this current paradigm. Beyond uncertainty, beyond what we might hope are temporary situations, is an opportunity not for the repetition of discourses of the ‘before’ and ‘during’ biennale, but to revisit and make space for not only a more radical imaginary but also a more credible imaginary. The unknown artist in Kochi reminds us of a continued need for ‘artistic consciousness in society,’ which is also a warning to be vigilant, now more than ever as we think to the ‘after.’
Robert E. D’Souza is a London-based artist, writer and professor of Critical Practice and co-director of the Critical Practices Research Group at Winchester School of Art at the University of Southampton. He is known for his temporal, site-specific, and participatory/collaborative art projects. His work explores critical practices that engage with a variety of production processes and producers and is supported by his contributions to critical writings around social, political and cultural change, including writing in relation to biennials that includes The Indian Biennale Effect: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 12/12/12 (Journal of Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, 2013), India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2016), and “Timely Provocations: The 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale” review for The Biennale Foundation (2017). He has contributed with Sunil Manghani and Shwetal A. Patel to a forthcoming publication How to Biennale! The Manual: Making Art Events & Exhibitions in the Age of Institutional Hybridity & Globalisation that was originally part of the workshop, How to Build an Art Biennale at Tate Exchange in 2018 with contributions from Kochi-Muziris Biennale and osloBIENNALEN.
Recent projects have been shown in art institutions, biennials, and public spaces in China, India, Spain, and the UK include Outside India at W+K Exp Gallery, Delhi, 2011 and the accompanying publication Outside India: Dialogues and Documents of Art and Social Change (W+K Delhi, 2012); Barcelona Masala: Narratives and Interactions in Cultural Space (Actar, 2013); the installation End of Empire, at the 2nd edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014. His current project Migrant Car launched at the 1st osloBIENNALEN in May 2019, and he is continuing this project working closely with the curators as it moves within Norway in collaboration with other Norwegian art projects and localities. Migrant Car has already been re-curated with the art foundation Bergen Kunstall 3,14 and will continue to the art collective Pikene på Broen later in 2020 (a group of curators and producers based in the northeastern town of Kirkenes). Here, the project will collaborate locally across borders and attempt to travel over the Russian border retracing a particular infamous route that Syrian migrants and refugees have previously taken in their bid to find ways of entering Norway via Russia.
Notes and references
2 The Kochi-Muziris Biennale launched in 2012 in the coastal city of Kochi in Kerala, India. The Biennale has been critically hailed and is now considered an influential platform for contemporary art and art education in Asia as well as being the largest art event of its kind in South Asia. It has gone on to be curated in 2014 by Jitish Kallat with Whorled Explorations, in 2016 by Sudarshan Shetty with Forming in the Pupil of the Eye, and in 2018 by Anita Dube with Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life. The Biennale has a tradition of appointing Indian artists as curators since its inception. The 5th edition of the Biennale is slated to run from December 12, 2020 until April 10, 2021, curated by artist Shubigi Rao.
3 osloBIENNALEN FIRST EDITION 2019-2024 has launched a new biennial model—an evolving program of art in public space and the public sphere. During a five-year period, the audience will be able to see and experience projects with varying tempos, rhythms, and time spans. These will take place over a number of sites in Oslo and beyond.
4 End of Empire was a collateral project produced in Fort Kochi for the 2nd Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The project extends my research interests in how artistic production might act as a dialogue with other agents of spatial process in the city and how can artistic conventions might be revised to articulate dialogues between art practice and public space. Publicly situating the artwork was a method to rigorously test and extend the local reach of the Biennale, questions I originally raised in my essay “The Indian Biennale Effect” (2013) referencing other critical dialogues on issues of biennial formats in terms of local engagement, relevance, and in reaching local, non-art audiences and communities. This was achieved through a particular methodology of project design, in locating and engaging the makers/producers of the sculpture as active local participants and collaborators and by making the process of production highly visible and documenting this in public space. My intention was to build a temporal and performative ‘living’ artwork as an extension of ‘everyday life.’ As a collateral project, this was significantly the only project working outside of the official designated Biennale structures and spaces in Kochi.
5 Migrant Car was developed through invitation from osloBIENNALEN curators, rethinking the previous site-specific project End of Empire, engaging critically with OB’s relationship to locality and community. The complex project engaged and collaborated with local communities, events, places, and people in the city whileconnecting to the interlinked local and international realities that represent the current multicultural and migrant populations of Oslo and the attendant social and political concerns. Focusing on impacts that migration into Norway is having on traditional social structures and modes of relations between different groups, linked to loss of community engagement, the project aimed to find relevant ways for locals to think about migrants by bringing people together across the city by developing situations for new relational possibilities. Central to the project was a number of co-produced projects with local students studying programmes such as Art in Public Space and Art and dissemination at local Universities KHiO and Oslo Met and the use of newly restricted space of the car-free zone in the city.
6 Bergen City Council’s plans to establish a biennial for contemporary art in Bergen, Norway in 2007 led to the Bergen Kunsthall organizing an international symposium to study and discuss the status of the biennial as an exhibition model, and also to launch a debate on the plans for a biennial in Bergen. A proposal for a biennial in Bergen was discussed during Bergen Biennial Conference (2009) with the question “To biennial or not to biennial?” by experts and researchers from both academia and the arts leading to the establishing of Bergen Assembly and a triennale launched in 2013. The Bergen Biennial Conference was followed by the publication, The Biennial Reader in 2010.
8 Eva González-Sancho and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, , OSLO PILOT (2015–17)—a project investigating the role of art in and for the public space—laying the groundwork for Oslo Biennial First Edition (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2018).
10 Nancy Adajania, “Globalism Before Globalisation: The Ambivalent Fate of Triennale India,” in Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, ed. Shanay Jhaveri (Bombay: The Shoestring Publisher, 2013), 168-185.
13 The 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea was directed by Okwui Enwezor with co-curators Hyun-jin Kim and Ranjit Hoskote. Widely acknowledged as the spiritual center of the struggle for participatory democracy in South Korea, the city of Gwangju made the first steps toward claiming the political importance of open civil and cultural forums as indicators of a stable democratic sphere by launching the Gwangju Biennale. Enwezor is seen as an important figure in terms of debates on globalization and postcolonialism through biennial formats, directing critically important events such as Documenta11 in 2002 and the Venice Biennale in 2015.
16 Muziris was an ancient harbor and urban center in the Indian state of Kerala (formerly the Malabar Coast) that dates from at least the 1st century BC. The exact location of Muziris is unknown to historians and archaeologists. The Government of Kerala initiated the Muziris Heritage Project to reinstate the historical and cultural significance of the legendary port of Muziris and is the largest conservation project in India. KMB’s move was strategic to include Muziris within the conceptual conceit of the Biennale name while connecting to a major government-backed heritage project.
17 Robert E. D’Souza and Sunil Manghani, “Curation As Dialogue: Jitish Kallat in Conversation,” in India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art, eds. Robert E. D’Souza and Sunil Manghani (London: Routledge, 2016), 132–
21 Robert E. D’Souza and Sunil Manghani, “Timely Provocations: The 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale,” Biennial Foundation, January 10, 2017, accessed Jun. 5, 2020, https://www.biennialfoundation.org/2017/01/timely-provocations-the-3rd-kochi-muziris-biennale/.
23 Padmini Chettur, Indian Foundation for the Arts, accessed May 5, 2020, http://indiaifa.org/grants-projects/padmini-chettur.html.
24 Parvathi Nayar, “The art of conversation,” The Hindu, Oct. 31, 2015, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/the-art-of-conversation/article7824390.ece.
25 Biennial Foundation, “Kochi-Muziris Biennale Announces The Curatorial Vision,” accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.biennialfoundation.org/2016/10/kochi-muziris-biennale-curatorial/.
26 Åshild Kristensen Foss and Ed D’Souza Beyond Participation into Art. [booklet within a project folder of artist information available to the public at the Biennial launch May 2019]. Oslo: osloBIENNALEN
27 Grünerløkka is a borough in the east of Oslo and is a traditional working-class district known for production in several factories placed here because of the advantages of being located close to the river. There have been shifts in the socioeconomic levels of the district as manufacturing has disappeared, waves of migrants have moved in, and now a gentrification process has taken place in the area.
28 The title of Winchester School of Arts’ (University of Southampton) week-long event at Tate Exchange in London in April 2018 led by Professor Sunil Manghani and developed in association with Shwetal A. Patel, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and international partners. This programme invited members of the public to engage in activities and debates concerned with the production of contemporary art and the biennial format. The programme was framed around key research conducted around the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, in particular the publication India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2017). Key to the programme was participation from curators from all three editions of the KMB and a final event, Imagined Biennales, with presentations of speculative ideas for future biennales followed by a live broadcast from the forthcoming curator of the 4th KMB by curator Anita Dube, six months prior to its launch.
29 The online blog was initially set up by student participants when it was discovered that the OB web architecture could not host this. A separate archive was produced by the OB to host the archiving of the documentary materials produced by students of their projects with a rich array of material including blog posts, photos, and video material. The blog has been extended to include other collaborations with the project, including time spent in Bergen at Kunstall 3,14 in October 2020 where five projects occurred. See: https://mcprojects.blog/about-mc-projects/.
31 Pikene på Broenis a collective of curators and producers based in the northeastern Norwegian town of Kirkenes, located 15km from the Russian border and 50km from the Finnish border. The town of Kirkenes is ideally placed for cross-border cooperation and cultural exchange in the Arctic. See: https://www.pikene.no.
32 Thomas Nilsen, “Russia will accept return of migrants in busses,” The Barents Observer, Jan. 14, 2016, accessed Jun. 5, 2020, https://thebarentsobserver.com/ru/node/301.