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by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter


Let’s talk about money; let’s talk about power; let’s talk about structural violence; let’s talk about states of emergency; let’s talk about new formats; let’s talk about old struggles; let’s talk about representation and identities, let’s talk about differentiating emancipation from domination; let’s talk about the thin line between governmentality and anti-hegemony; let’s talk about drop exhibitions and clashes between local art communities and international imports. Let’s also talk about society and its neglect (or support) for art and culture. Let’s talk about these contradictions and the new questions they raise—let’s talk about biennials today.

At the turn of the millennium, increasing debate surrounded the potentiality, relevance, and effects of perennial exhibitions, such as biennials, of which there were a growing number. This growth was especially pronounced in Asia and other parts of the Global South. This proliferation was recognized, and in part critiqued, in a conference titled “The Biennale Principle,” organized a decade later during the 4th Bucharest Biennale. The conference took place amidst an atmosphere of increased scrutiny around the format, exploring—not unlike The Biennial Reader—the assumption of art biennials as “Janus-faced.” On the one hand, biennials cater to a globalized art market with a homogenizing effect of similar exhibition formats and artists/works; on the other, biennials are rooted in local, regional, or national specificities as well as in an international critical discourse with diverse trajectories taken by various participants.[1] The publication of The Biennial Reader in 2010, produced as a result of the Bergen Assembly gathering the previous year, invited contributions from local and postcolonial perspectives and invited several practitioners from ‘peripheral zones’ including Havana, Dakar, New Delhi, and Norway.  The ‘Assembly’ has since gathered an impressive number of artists, authors, researchers, curators, and policy-makers to engage in a critical analysis of the biennial phenomenon on a worldwide scale, leading to the creation of a triennial, known as the Bergen Assembly.

Today, contemporary art biennials can be described as an ensemble of infrastructures, which do not have much in common. Being recurring events, biennials function as a node of globally conceived and produced art merging with local and site-specific contexts. Biennials in their precarious nature are not designed as long-term institutions, which often means that the whole organization has to be built up from scratch each time. Raising financial resources for a biennial (from the Venice Biennale to very small events) is often a significant and an implicit task for their respective curators. The number of biennials has proliferated rapidly, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and with an increasing number of biennials in the Global South in the last decade of the 20th century.[2] Biennials can sometimes act as a means of decentralizing the West in the cultural field, and they propose models of cultural crossovers, the merging of layers of subjectivation and differentiated models of knowledge production. On the other hand, they propose culture to be more event-based, more fluid—often with their finances unsecured on a long-term basis. This reality reflects groundbreaking transformations in societies with the emergence and proliferation of digital technologies, both at a global and local level, which have changed infrastructures, modes of production, and propagandist mass media. These transformations can be evidenced in the new forms of social and cultural production as well as the new classificatory orders of knowledge that have flourished with the emergence of digital media.

In early 2020—Henk Slager, director of the 9th edition of the Bucharest Biennale—invited us to host the conference “Contemporary Art BiennialsOur Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency.” One of the aims of the conference is to potentially actualize the biennial format. One could argue that not much has changed in the last twenty years: the premise of the conference then was to critique biennials as an instrument of imaginary reproduction of national or regional identities, or at least with close ties to national and international funding bodies with their own ‘soft power’ agendas.[3] Still, newly founded biennials are considered as vehicles for city branding, modernity, democratization, and internationalization, often initiated by emerging nations with an urge to show off economic, political, and social development prowess and to create new cultural spheres where translations of cultural knowledge may potentially occur.[4]

Nevertheless, biennials are, as the political theorist Oliver Marchart has remarked, big hegemonic machines. They make proposals about how to understand the world in which we live—locally and globally—and how to be in the world as a subject. Marchart likewise probes how race, class, and gender are positioned or repositioned in contemporary societies. Insofar as biennials are part of a bio-political process in the framework of specific local situations, Marchart also propels us to reread contemporary biennials from this viewpoint. For this edition of OnCurating, we decided to organize the anthology into different nodes of ongoing biennial discourses, centered on aspects of the Havana Biennial as the initial prime example of resistance and refuge, the Venice model as embedded deeply in representation, and on documenta in Kassel, Germany (principally documenta X in 1997 and Documenta11 in 2002) as performed criticality.

In 2020, one might feel a certain affection for the more or less transparent “big hegemonic machines” like biennials, which aim for an international discourse in a seemingly democratizing manner. With all their underlying deficiencies (canonical, hegemonic, colonialist, hot money-funded, politically influenced, hierarchical), biennials tend to establish international discourse, at best, rooted in local cultural specificities and contexts. Furthermore, it may be argued, biennials have the power to create a public sphere that has an international voice. These public spheres may offer opportunities for international exchange, and these exchanges entail traces of disobedience and rupture. Examining local and global issues, from the Capitalocene, to toxic masculinity, to permanent observation, to structural violence and its effects on artistic production, one should formulate these positions cautiously. Every manifesto and every manifestation in the art field can only potentially lead to a larger social movement if proposed in collaboration with other agents and actors in the field.

That said, biennials are each in their own way a complex constellation of different aspects and power relations of the aforementioned. With this edition of the journal, we wanted to include a variety of cases and research areas, not ordered along a historical trajectory, but rather, ordered by theme.

The first section entails current theoretical thought on recent biennial developments. The second section is a compilation of collected answers to short questionnaires around possible anti-hegemonic formats and contemporary urgencies. The third section is dedicated to discussing the Havana Biennial, in order to revise the conventional order and to use the combination of considerably different formats and spheres as a starting point. These formats and events, which might be thought of as biennials of resistance, offer us evidence of the prevalent dominance of Western paradigms and ideologies, but also its refusal. In the fourth section, we have compiled examples of recent biennials that oscillate between hegemony and disobedience, which is—admittedly—a risky proposition. Here, the balancing act between local constraints, economic pressures, international demands, and state control becomes visible throughout the case studies. One also discovers a surprising and imaginative kaleidoscope of possibilities developed by curators and curatorial teams for a variety of spaces of appearance. In the fifth section, we have included articles related to documenta, in particular documenta X (1997) and Documenta11 (2002) which are seen as game changers in the field of large-scale recurring international exhibitions. We end with the beginning in the sixth section, the Venice Biennale as a representational model, where some of the cost-benefits and challenges of the world’s oldest biennial are scrutinized.

The contributions consist of articles sent to us through an Open Call, reprints of historical texts from the last three decades, and answers to a questionnaire directed to the speakers of the programme and others operating in the field. The order of articles and contributions is laid out thematically, as we wish to illustrate the discursive complexity, and urgency, to still discuss biennial formats today. We felt there was no need to outline bold dichotomies, but rather we felt that a thorough analysis was needed in order to introduce an awareness of processes and to help transform and rearticulate a cultural public sphere through curatorial practice and theory today.

We encourage readers to critically explore the challenges, and benefits, of these machines, asking how we may use them progressively and how we may maintain and strengthen the cultural exchanges that these events may possibly provide. In this sense, biennials can be thought off as imaginary machines that can help us shape and influence possible future imaginaries.

1 Biennial Discourse
Oliver Marchart, in his text “The Globalization of Art and the ‘Biennials of Resistance’: a History of the Biennials from the Periphery,” suggests an alternative view of contemporary biennials in their format’s history and process. Examining the 3rd Havana Biennial that took place in 1989, Marchart observes a shift whereby “peripheral” practices enter the “center,” requiring a re-evaluation of prevailing center-periphery theories. This short conversation with Alfredo Jaar by Federica Martini “Art worlds into real worlds: A conversation with Alfredo Jaar” was published in 2011, and still gives a precise insight of an artist’s view into the bienniale circuit. Christian Morgner’s empirically researched approach in “Inclusion and Exclusion in the Art World: A Sociological Account of Biennial Artists and Audiences” examines assumptions and perceived prejudices on the international biennial circuit. Morgner’s paper unfolds along the theoretical line of public assemblies (articulated by Butler and Habermas), reflecting on the democratic potential of biennials, and at the same time highlighting the risks of a lack of engagement with general art audiences and site. Shwetal A. Patel examines the role of practice in biennial-making and argues against the growing homogeneity in the field. Patel explores the notion of biennial practices and asks how we may resist biennialization and standardization in the field.

Fatos Üstek, director of the Liverpool Biennial, was commissioned to select 50 Instagram posts which were tagged with the hashtag “#biennale.” In her contribution, Üstek ruminates on the impact of COVID-19 on our daily lives, and what changes it may bring to curatorial formats in the future. Whilst recognizing the means of social media applications, Üstek is compelled to take a closer look at her  “immediate surroundings, the micro-locale.” In “The Curating of Self and OthersBiennials as Forms of Governmental Assemblages,” Ronald Kolb proposes analyzing the exhibitionary biennial complex through the implications of Michel Foucault’s governmentality concept. The text claims, while the beginning of public museums in the 19th century could be seen as “civic engines” in line with a liberal agenda, biennials took up the neoliberal agenda early on.

2 Questionnaire
The questionnaire on hegemonic and anti-hegemonic movements and formats in biennials has been answered by Farid Rakun (ruangrupa), Raqs Media Collective, Martin Guinard / Bruno Latour / Eva Lin, Ekaterina Degot, Bonaventure Ndikung, Yung Ma, Eva González-Sancho Bodero, Raluca Voinia, and Răzvan Ion.

Farid Rakun (team member responsible for the artistic direction of the upcoming documenta 15 in 2022 and, also in limited form, the Jakarta Biennale) has created diagrams to record the structure of contemporary art and exhibition-making, whilst at the same time complicating these diagrams to showcase ruangrupa’s unique curatorial approach. Raqs Media Collective outline their curatorial efforts towards the 2020 Yokohama Triennale as an “interplay between auto-didacticism, the luminosity of care and friendship, and toxicity.” A discussion between Bruno Latour, Eva Lin, Martin Guinard formed the starting point of their contribution on the Taipei Biennale 2020, You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet.” The discussion tackles questions of planetary climate disaster and sets up to form a new understanding of “geo”-politics, and to “propose a thought experiment through the format of an exhibition.” Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala are compelled to rethink, through the 13th Gwangju Biennale named Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning, in what way “civic models and practices of care will emerge in the aftermath of COVID-19.” Ekaterina Degot responds to the questionnaire with a critique of contemporary art discourse based on colonial, gender, and economic conditions and inequalities. Degot’s starting point is the common historical context of steirischer herbst—the yearly festival she directs—and documenta, both originating out of a Cold War political climate. Steirischer herbst follows the trajectory of the "avant-garde," but is at the same time locally rooted in a conservative bourgeois setting. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung’s contribution is a conversation with Dorothee Richter about his concept for the Sonsbeek Quadriennial 2020—currently postponed. Whilst Sonsbeek’s general history is rather more of an art festival dealing with social questions within public art in public spaces, this year’s iteration under the name Force Times Distance examines the role of labor and its sonic ecologies.

Yung Ma’s contribution explores his conceptions for the curation of the Seoul Mediacity Biennale, suggesting that popular media strategies may be a potential learning field for outreach programmes in the visual arts. Another thread Ma explores is escapism, which has notionally changed in its impact since the COVID-19 emergency. Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, curators of OsloBIENNALEN First Edition 2019–2024, a new biennial that launched in the Norwegian capital in 2019. The co-curators speculate what a lasting structure for Oslo’s art in public space may mean, expanding the duration of the first iteration to five years and attempting to create new exhibitionary encounters and forms in a contested public sphere. Raluca Voinea wishes for a strong engagement of a Biennial with its local context otherwise in her view this “can be like those international conferences which take place in hotel lobbies and include one or two local speakers for courtesy and which only use the city infrastructure like any other branch of the tourism industry.” Răzvan Ion argues how the Bucharest Biennale came into being, and how new technologies have to be scrutinized when developing new formats that can re-envision the future for culture and society. 

3 Bienal de La Habana
Gerardo Mosquera examines in his paper “The Third Bienal de La Habana in Its Global and Local Contexts” the pivotal role of the Bienal de La Habana in introducing new elements into the biennial format. Changing an oftentimes representational exhibitory model into a discursive environment, Mosquera lays out the complex contexts of the first three editions between 1984 and 1989, navigated within a regime of political representation and postcolonial legacies. Agustina Andreoletti delves into the history of the Bienal de São Paulo and the exceptional role of the 3rd Havana Biennial in “A New Change of CourseDistributed Biennialism in Latin America.” The 3rd Havana Biennial, according to Andreoletti, created a new precedent for biennial formats, commencing a tradition concentrated on discourse and knowledge production strategies. With this historical outline, Andreoletti scrutinizes three contemporary biennials from South America: BienalSur, #00Bienal/ Bienal Sin 349, and La Bienal en Resistencia 2019 with a special emphasis on the “lighter” structure of these diverse biennials. Anita Orzes examines the history of the Havana Biennial in “Curatorial Networks: The Havana Biennial and the Biennials in the South,” which for its third iteration in 1989, according to Orzes, abandoned the “Western biennial format” of separating artists by their nationalities and instead proposed the setting up of workshops and theoretical meetings alongside the exhibition. The article reflects critically on biennials adjusting to a narrative of Eurocentric perspectives in art history and exhibition-making.

4 Biennials Between Hegemony and Disobedience
Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink critically analyze the premise of biennials as hegemonic machines through Gramsci’s usage of “hegemonies as situated historic and geographic ‘settlements’ that are actively constructed and maintained by factions of a society that make up a ‘historic bloc’.” Van Meeteren and Wissink scrutinize ways in which very recently established biennials in Thailand are balanced between ideas of nation, religion, and monarchy with notions of authentic ‘Thainess’ foregrounded. Melody Du Jingyi and Wilson Yeung Chun Wai explore in “‘Tactic’ and ‘Execution’: Reflections on the Curatorial Dialogues of the 12th Shanghai Biennale” the historical context and today’s adjustments of the Shanghai Biennale—founded in 1996—as the first biennial of contemporary art in China. While the biennial is rooted in an avant-garde tradition (the first iteration followed the large-scale Chinese Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989), the biennial is now operated under strict governmental supervision. In Xinming Xia’s paper, “The Yinchuan Biennale: The Belt and Road Initiative and the Artistic Practices Linking from the East to the West,” the author examines the history and context of the Yinchuan Biennale, a Chinese biennial established with themes of ecology and diversity alongside the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Sarat Maharaj’s co-curating of the third Guangzhou Triennial in 2008 makes us aware of a postcolonial imperative that “has generated its own restrictions that hinder the emergence of artistic creativity and fresh theoretical interface.” Maharaj’s catalogue essay, “Farewell to Postcolonialism, Towards a Post-Western Modernity,” expresses a certain unease about postcolonial critical tools ushering in their own hegemonic dominance. Patrick D. Flores describes his aim of setting up and artistically directing the 2019 Singapore Biennale in “Time to Unlearn: Urgency and Practical Intelligence in the Southeast Asian Museum.” Flores reflects on Southeast Asia’s history by escaping the traditional colonial narratives of the West, instead looking into “the civilizational discourses of China and India, Catholicism and Islam [...] and dense natural history that is close to the level of the Amazon.” In the text, “Freeing the Weights of the Habitual,” by Raqs Media Collective, the New Delhi-based artists and curators (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) ask: “Are we implicitly trapped within an already assumed intellectual and cultural narratology? And: Are we continuously crafting ways of doing things that keep certain tendencies at bay and working out modalities that can bring in different kinds of co-habitation? And: What is the mechanism—and how do we seek it—of “freeing” the weights of habitual narrative entrapments?” The text builds from an observation by Vietnamese American writer Ocean Vuong speaking about the thinking process behind his new book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

TOMORROW THERE WILL BE MORE OF US: ART AS A CONTACT ZONE” by Sven Christian examines South African biennials, namely both iterations of the Johannesburg Biennale—Africus (1995) and Trade Routes: History and Geography (1997)—and their spiritual successor CAPE 07. Christian describes how a sudden paucity of funding provided opportunities for more experimental and locally embedded exhibition formats. The contribution is initiated through the prism of the current Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 and its complex metaphors of sickness and healing. Yacouba Konaté examines the “The Invention of the Dakar Biennial” and suggests that the Dakar Biennial was launched for the promotion of African artists and artists of the continent. Through promoting alternative contexts and exhibition structures for non-Western art, Konaté suggests that the Biennial can help us rethink conventional classifications in the realm of art history. Conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator Rasheed Araeen’s essay, "Dak'Art 1992-2002: The Problems of Representation, Contextualistion, and Critical Evaluation in Contemporary African Art” examines the complexity of staging a biennial of visual art in Senegal and its implications for cultural autonomy and nation-building in the postcolonial era.

“Biennials and their Siblings: Towards an Interdisciplinary Discourse on Curating Performance” authored by Brandon Farnsworth observes a shift in biennial discourses, bringing the field closer to music and theatre festivals by discussing their shared common history. Farnsworth’s argument takes up as case studies the newly established osloBIENNALEN 2019-2024 and Florian Malzacher’s event project Truth is Concrete at steirischer herbst (2012). Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg Tverbakk discuss their ambition of setting up a new institution whilst shaping the first edition of osloBIENNALEN with Anna Manubens. Conjecturing a future biennial model, the osloBIENNALEN—a five-year-long endeavor—concentrates on the production of artworks in the public sphere, which has so far tended to avoid commissioned works from big name artists. Robert E. D’Souza’s article “Before, During, After Biennale considers the overlapping experiences of both artistic inclusion and critical academic engagement in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India and the recently launched osloBIENNALEN in Norway. These biennials are considered in terms of their specific characteristics and contexts in relation to engaging with locality and public space. D’Souza considers the attendant issues, complexities, and “biennial effects” against a developing globalized critical biennial discourse and how biennial ‘knowledge’ and ‘genealogies’ might have impacted the practice for those engaged in developing these two art biennials.

Nora Sternfeld reflects on the realities of her role and ambitions as Artistic Director of the 2016 Bergen Assembly in Norway. Teobaldo Lagos Preller sheds light on two recent biennials in “Bergen Assembly 2019, 11th Berlin Biennale 2020, the Virus, Life, and New Places.” Both initiatives may have  common curatorial and artistic strategies such as concepts of solidarity, affectivity, and cultural agency, encouraging changes to biennials and their formats.

Panos Kompatsiaris examines the idea of enabling resistant narratives to neoliberalism through dialogical and participatory works in his paper “Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials.” By investigating such dilemmas of the “biennial phenomenon,” the article lays out the incongruities and potentials of biennials within the current political-economic context. The interview with María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Lisette Lagnado, and Agustín Pérez Rubio by Katerina Valdivia Bruch, entitled “11th Berlin Biennale: On the Human Condition,” taps into a process-based, feminist curatorial approach of the Berlin Biennale team with its themes of care, vulnerability, affectivity, and solidarity. Their aim is to create sustainable relations and commitment toward the city and its people. Daniela Labra’s contribution, “Processual and transcultural: the 11th Berlin Biennale and the 34th São Paulo Biennial,” compares the curatorial concepts, contexts, and processes of 11th Berlin Biennale and the 34th São Paulo Biennial—whose openings both had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In “The Modern Paradigm and the Exhibitionary Form: The Case of ‘Altermodern,’” Catalina Imizcoz scrutinizes Tate Triennial’s fourth, and last, edition. Imizcoz focuses on modernity’s ideological infrastructure by critiquing the curatorial narrative put forward by its artistic director Nicolas Bourriaud. In Giulia Colletti’s article, “Overwriting: In Praise of a Palimpsestuous Criticality,” the author suggests using the palimpsest as a curatorial concept, and with this, as a “fragile, aggregative, and disruptive potential of interrupted narratives,” of retrieving historical layers and questioning “geopolitical hegemonies particularly in Europe.” Coletti highlights this hopeful method of re-establishing proximity with singularities for the transnational biennial Mediterranea 19 – Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean scheduled to be held in San Marino in 2021.

Miriam La Rosa examines the formation of the iterant biennial format Manifesta in “A Guest on the Edge: Manifesta and the Quest for European Unity and Solidarity.” La Rosa assesses the last two iterations in Sicily (2018) and Marseille (2020) and interrogates the initial idea of Manifesta—a spiritual successor to French artist Robert Filliou’s The Biennial of Peace—which is set up independently of their host cities. La Rosa argues that these projects may struggle with their long-term desire for bringing together a sustaining relationship between local art scenes and other European regions. “A Planetary Garden in Palermo: Manifesta 12 as Ambassador for the New Politics of Aesthetics?” by Nathalie Zonnenberg tackles Manifesta 12, the travelling European biennial format that highlighted the theme of migration for its 2019 edition in Palermo. The essay follows the question: To what extent can biennials be regarded as political instruments in their most direct sense? “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence,” co-written by the Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, and Mirjam Varadinis, presents Manifesta 12’s concept of a garden as a metaphor for coexistence. In Omar Kholeif’s interview, titled “Curating the Revolution,” the curator and writer explores the 2013 iteration of Meeting Points. The seventh edition was curated by the curatorial collective WHW (What, How and for Whom?).

In “Is a Good Neighbour…? Semts, Scale, and the 15th Istanbul Biennial,” the curatorial concept of the 15th Istanbul Biennial was set up in the Beyoğlu neighborhood in Istanbul and dealt with the theme of the neighborhood, speaking to both local historical identities and a broader identification of Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric narratives on-site. But the biennial also managed to address the point that biennials in general seem to produce and replicate globalization in a ‘Western’ canon. In Vasif Kortun’s and Charles Esche’s interview about the 9th Istanbul Biennial, the curators explore the notion of “non-Western” biennials that present a new tendency: a relative distance from a purely commercial system and an engagement with local political conditions. In “Chronosites,” curator Henk Slager suggests biennials function in rather speculative ways and in discursive environments, framing questions of artistic and political agendas, of im/possibilities, in/visibilities, and agency. In that context, Slager examines the Bucharest Biennale as a discourse production-oriented biennial with a history of experimenting in form and of artistic and curatorial thinking “in a multiplicity of modes and models.” Răzvan Ion offers perspectives on biennials as civil society initiatives in “Edit Your Future.” Ion suggests that biennials should be viewed “as independent civil society initiatives, consciously distanced from the calculating powers of the global art scene.” Ion proposes that  many biennials “have been realized through ongoing conflicts and crises that produced conceptual, visual, and functional knowledge providing us with many viewpoints in our quest for evocative and effectual biennales in any part of the world.” Vasyl Cherepanyn announces the “EAST EUROPE BIENNIAL ALLIANCE, a newly established alliance of the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague, the Biennale Warszawa, the Kyiv Biennial, and OFF-Biennale Budapest. Tapping into the different historical formations of biennials in Eastern Europe—with their grass-roots approach, precariousness, and critical voice—and political concerns, the alliance intends to engage in a transnational collaboration and “inter-metropolitan friendship.” Ksenija Orelj envisions the exhibition WE’RE OFF, which should have been part of The 3rd Industrial Art Biennial (IAB) in Rijeka but was cancelled due to the shutdown triggered by the Coronavirus. The ‘imagined exhibition’ follows themes of labor conditions, and intends to remind us of the historical working-class struggles for an eight-hour workday, and new struggles of precarities in times of hyper-production.

5 documenta
Catherine David gives a brief overview on documenta’s history in her introduction for the “Short guide, documenta X”—the shorter publication for her documenta X catalogue. David highlights documenta’s origin—started by local artist Arnold Bode—much in line with the Marshall Plan, exhibiting German’s lost modernity, but entering into a much more complex network of exchanges after 1989. In his seminal text “The Black Box,” the introduction  to Documenta11_Platform 5 by Okwui Enwezor, the poet and curator lays out his vision for Documenta11 as an ultimately unfinished project with its five platforms ending in Kassel. Enwezor complicates the history of the avant-garde—which shaped documenta since its founding in 1955—and suggests another reading using postcolonial thought, which is in opposition to postmodernism. The text also speaks about the ultimate breakdown of hegemonic Western ideology since September 11. Rime Fetnan analyzes the linguistic aspects of the curatorial discourse surrounding documenta X and d11 in her essay “Biennials and Cultural Difference: Between Critical Deconstruction and Essentialism,” implying that contemporary discourse, according to Fetnan, still retains Orientalist or primitive imaginaries. In “How photography (re-)entered documenta,” Mona Schubert follows new media’s—especially photography’s—entry into art history through the lens of documenta 5 and documenta 6. Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer examine Documenta 14 in Athens and its legacy and effects on the city.

6 La Biennale di Venezia
Beat Wyss provides bit-by-bit insights into his in-depth research project on the Venice Biennale. Launched in 2008 by the Swiss Institute of Art Research SIK SEA in “Globalization of the Periphery: The Venice Biennale Project,” the research project critiques center–periphery relations of the history of contemporary art, as well as the “evolutionist, colonial notion of art history.” In “The Paradoxes of the Biennale” by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas, the authors scrutinize biennials through the prism of paradoxes, which are an essential feature, they claim. Bethwaite and Kangas suggest four aspects by which to analyze biennials: “the paradox of the many and the few; the paradox of money; the paradox of power; and the paradox of scale,” and they examine the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale between the years 2011–2015 to unfold the entanglements between art and political and economic power.In “Cyprus in Venice: Art, Politics, and Modernity at the Margins of Europe author Louli Michaelidou unfolds the predicaments of “national representations” in biennial models, derived from the perspective of the Cyprus Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The author examines the complex task of representing a Greek Cypriot identity with the desire of attaining global recognition in a major international art exhibition. Alessia Basilicata takes up the journey to Venice through the cultural journals of how the USA Pavilion came into being, and how the pavilion found its identity in light of critics’ judgment of no “national expression.” “Venice Biennale: A Showcase for the American Debut in the Global Art” illustrates that an initial private approach relying on artistic exchange was transformed over time into representational identities of a state performing its role in arts and culture internationally.

Marco Baravalle suggests that the “populist neoliberal mayor of Venice Luigi Brugnaro, responds to the pandemic following the well known recipe of the shock economy: once the emergency is over, the motto will be ‘as before, more than before’, meaning: more tourism, more hotels, more cruise ships, more cuts to public services, more events to make up for the the time lost.” Baravalle asserts: “While we all should be working in the direction of a general shift outside of the neoliberal model, it is yet urgent to start a collective reflection on how La Biennale and other institutions in the global art circuit should radically be transformed.”

Vittoria Martini reacts, with “Venice, the Biennale and the Bees,” wholeheartedly to the (announcement of the) postponement of the next Venice Biennale (both architecture and art have been postponed to 2021 and 2022, respectively). Martini examines the historical changes of the presidency of Paolo Baratta, which ended in February 2020 after two decades, and suggests a renewal of the Venice Biennale as laid out in 1974 with an emphasis on critical debate and stronger participation by the public.

Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/MAS Curating, which she founded in 2005 at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator at Kuenstlerhaus Bremen. She is Executive Editor of the web journal On-Curating.org.

Shwetal A. Patel is a writer and researcher and is a founding member of India’s first biennial, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale which launched in 2012.
Patel is currently pursuing his PhD at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. He lives and works in London.

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


[1] Beat Wyss and Jörg Scheller, “Comparative Art History: The Biennale Principle,” in STARTING FROM VENICE. STUDIES ON THE BIENNALE, ed. Clarissa Ricci (Milan: Et Al. Edizione, 2010), 50.

[2] See: Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, eds., OnCurating 39 / Draft: Global Biennial Survey 2018 (June 2018).

[3] Wyss, Scheller, “Comparative Art History,” 51.

[4] Ibid., 52.

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini