I must admit that, upon receiving the invitation from the Board of Editors of the OnCurating journal, I did not expect the level of challenge I was signing myself up to. The simple task of selecting 50 images was further complicated when I was also asked to reflect on and speculate about the direction that the art world is currently embracing.
We are still in the midst of the crisis. The fact that we now have a better grasp of the situation and the scale of seriousness associated with the dissemination of the COVID-19 virus across towns, cities, countries, and continents have brought us to a different level of anxiety. It is a crisis like no other. It is not only due the fact that there is a global tragedy in progress, but also our lives and livelihoods are under scrutiny. The radical uncertainty that we are experiencing will carry us to horizons that we cannot yet predict from the perspective we hold. Perhaps, this is a topic for another essay. What is also happening is that we are experiencing a global crisis, from the screens of our phones, computers, and televisions. The fact is that COVID-19 is different from SARS, Ebola and even the Spanish flu, which took the whole of Europe under its dominion at the beginning of the 20th century. We are in the day-to-day of this crisis, yet we are overly connected through social media channels. The fear of missing out (#FOMO) is replaced by Throwback Thursdays (#tbt) and anniversary instances (#lastyear). There are no parties, no biennial openings, no large gatherings, but still the memorabilia of the favored past.
This is quadrupled by the expanded activity of art fairs, museums, institutions, commercial galleries, artists, and support campaigns. There is more and more content that is generated on a day-to-day basis. Instagram live has gained another streak. Instagram is a platform that brings us together, where we collectively support artists, technicians, foodbanks through purchasing works for affordable prices; where we engage in high intensity workouts, yoga sessions; where we stream critical debates, webinars, interviews; where we share our love for nature and early glimpses of spring… Amongst all this, are the questions of where the art world is headed, what the future of biennials is, what kind of art we will be seeing in the near future once the lockdowns and travel bans are lifted; once we feel confident enough to step outside of our immediate confinements; once we are ready to engage with and explore the world from the viewpoints of others.
It will be a slow burner…Perhaps slower than we expect or wish for… The art world and enthusiasts will not start conglomerating around exhibitions/biennials/art fairs as they once did… Travel will not be something immediate and at hand. The world will start by looking in and looking around, engaging with the immediate surroundings, the micro-locale. The circle will grow, slowly but steadily, as new levels of confidence are gained and as relationships will necessitate new dynamics and new variables. In the light of this, social media and digital media will play a significant role. It will be the portal to the world. The virtual exchanges will inspire the local and physical ones and vice versa.
In the context of the biennials, I imagine a period of absurdity, akin to the Dada movement post World War One. Reductio ad absurdum: reduction to absurdity, where we will challenge the real through its negation, where we will feel more confident to tackle a hardship through its counteract. There will not be big budgets to create larger-than-life installations in the physical realm. Cheaper and easier to access materials will inform artworks (like the Arte Povera movement in Italy post-WWII), and virtual reality will provide the possibility of immersive and spatial experiences. While we will engage more with the sublimation of matter into augmented form, we will also celebrate the minute interventions in the public realm, the delicate displays in museums. I wonder what we will make of archaeology and artifacts. These two domains were very strong informants of the early 20th-century biennials. The future of biennials will want to talk more about the future, will dream more, as dreams are the first things we abandon in a crisis.
Thus, my selection from an Instagram pool of images tagged with #biennale are a mix of absurd, ridiculous, and immersive experiences obtained in solitary confinements. Perhaps we will stop taking selfies. A side effect of the crisis that our self-image and attestation of ‘being there’ will no longer be as relevant.
Fatoş Üstek is director of the Liverpool Biennial. She is a jury member for the Turner Prize 2020, Dutch Pavilion 2021, and Scotland in Venice 2021. She lectures and publishes internationally.