“We might be forgiven for thinking every biennale, 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 of organization, finance and partnerships) resist the clutches of standardisation and homogenisation?”
Shwetal A. Patel, Sunil Manghani and Robert E. D’Souza, How to Biennale! The Manual, 2018
In the introduction to The Biennial Reader, Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø aver that, “Despite its institutional-critical pretensions, the biennial itself might have become one more bonafide institution of the art world just like any other’. Given this dire perspective almost a decade ago (fittingly, the book was released at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2010) the question is, what remains the same and what has changed in the world of global biennials?
The term “biennialisation” itself is an analogism for the often dialectical tension between redemptive world-making and bland homogeneity found in the over 300 or so biennials operating today, and their proliferation in recent decades. Often regarded as an analogy for the wave of biennials that emerged since the 1980s, the typology has arguably led to a shift in the contours of the known art world. Biennialisation, as this proliferation has been analogized, is today widely considered a derogatory term for the popularization of the format and its ideological tropes.
Alongside this popularization of this type of exhibition, the field of biennial studies is vast and ever expanding, making synopses about this global phenomenon both complex and often contradictory. On the one hand, they have allowed hitherto underrepresented artists, writers, curators and audiences to participate in art, and on the other hand, they have arguably led to a standardization of practices and approaches across the globe.
In light of this paradox and unique historical perspective, the question this essay seeks to explore is whether organizations such as Kochi-Muziris Biennale, of which I am a founding team member, can resist biennialisation and create autonomous and continually reflexive entities that do not only unquestioningly follow other, mostly Western, examples. The desire not to follow is not borne out of a sense of exceptionalism, but rather an understanding that differing contexts produce unique and variable outcomes.
Furthermore, how do institutional and community responses to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale shape the outcomes of the project, and in turn help shape practices that contribute new knowledge to the field? This article critically explores my research and practice as a biennial practitioner, firstly by outlining my experience in Kochi-Muziris and more recently working in Oslo with the OsloBIENNALEN. Although geographically, culturally and socio-economically divergent, both biennial-type organizations serve as a useful lens to analyse my practice and its contribution to the field at large. In both cases institutional and community responses help shape the outcomes of the project, in turn helping to also shape practices that contribute new knowledge to the field.
The article will conclude with practical information for biennial organizers to resist standardizing tendencies, which may lead at best to institutional inertia, and at worst, homogenous outcomes. To resist biennialisation is to resist adopting tropes and biases that have crept into the field in recent years. Increasingly we see similar exhibition models, curatorial strategies and funding patterns for a range and diversity of biennial-type organizations around the world, although these similar approaches have brought professional standards to the arts, they have also limited the scope and diversity of these projects. Too often, (and other large art forum or exhibition) organisers, I have argued, imitate rather than truly innovate in their local contexts. What can be done on an institutional level to change this? And does the origin of biennials as “global” exhibition spaces beginning with the original Venice Biennale in 1895 inhibit the way they have been conceived since?
“In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.”
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935
Mass-produced imagery, as Benjamin noted, is different to reproductions of the past. Today the internet and World Wide Web have exponentially increased our access to cheap tools, the smart phone being the tip of the spear, and our ability to ‘share’ images and ‘experiences’. Blue chip galleries routinely sell work ‘off a JPEG’, a morally contested business practice that many argue cheapens the ‘aura’ of the artwork. Equally, biennials who only rely on social media to communicate with audiences in place of real-time face-to-face interactions, may lead to a narrowing of discussion and complexity, dual outcomes to be welcomed.
Mass reproduction has always steered taste and aesthetic perceptions of societies; human civilization is littered with evidence of how the powerful and those in control used images to maintain the balance of power. Analysis of media theory and semiotics is beyond the scope of this article, but it suffices to say that all art is political and all politics have a visual and cultural dimension. The currency in this hyper-capitalist world of power is that of ideas and emotions, something that art and artists use as materials in their work. Hence, it makes sense that to control artistic output and consumption in a given society is to control the ideas and thoughts of its people. History is replete with examples of aesthetics being used for good as well as evil, dating back to ancient times. Numismatic images, parades, and Roman triumphs are just a few examples of how people in power have used images to influence public narratives.
Power in the art world still rest firmly with a handful of (largely Northern) institutions, collectors, media houses and art dealers. In global terms, Western art, followed by classical and ancient Chinese art are the most valuable and traded commodities in the art market, currently valued at around $65 billion. As Adam Caruso of Caruso St John Architects (London/Zurich) has noted in OnCurating 39, ‘I can sort of understand art biennials, although their character and purpose has dramatically changed since the rise of the art fair. The biennials are now a part of the art fair and auction travelling circus’.
So what could and should a biennial look like from a Global South perspective? Antony Gardener argues that these sometimes obscured histories ‘do not quite fit the habitual framings of biennials as beginning with a first wave at the close of the nineteenth century and segueing neatly into the neo-imperial tidal force of the 1990s and 2000s.’ Gardener and others consider that new-wave biennials coincide with globalization and neoliberalism in what he considers to be a ‘second wave of biennialization’ that was established from the mid-1950s into the 1980s. These biennials have arguably insisted upon ‘a self-conscious, critical regionalism’ as the strategy to realign cultural networks across geopolitical divides and cultural divides. In this optimistic scenario, Gardener argues that these new biennials represent sites of resistance against the image of cultural, art historical and international hegemonies.
Oliver Marchant describes biennials as ‘“hegemonic machines” that link the local to the global’ and that what is often perceived as the periphery (e.g. the Global South) often ‘anticipated developments that would later be of great significance to the centre’. Dak’Art, the biennial in Dakar, began in 1990 with an innovative programme alternating between artistic styles beginning with literature and transitioning to various forms of visual arts. Initially, Dak’Art ran without governmental support until 2000 and without an artistic director until 2006, demonstrating that decentralized art biennials can be successful without state sponsorship.
This “peripheral” evolution can also be seen in the way that the #00Bienal, which took place in Havana in 2018, circumvented government censorship and international banking sanctions through the innovative use of crowdfunding to create a unique decentralized biennial unsupported by the federal government. Perhaps due to the recent global recession and limitations on federal arts funding, this trend will continue even in the Global North.
My work with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is rooted, like the biennial itself, in efforts to create a biennial that speaks to both the global and the local. The location of Kochi plays an important role in defining its internationalism. Situated on the edge of the subcontinent and immersed in trade and cultural exchange for millennia, the biennial organizers – myself included – integrated these real and imagined histories into our strategies. Although the Kochi-Muziris biennial shared many aspects and commonalities with other biennials, many organizational aspects were unique to the location. Apart from trade unions and other groups engaging in the project, local women’s charities, the local population and volunteers were involved in the project.
In hindsight, the idea to create a biennial came from a bottom-up need from the artists themselves, in this case the two artist founders of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, the entity that organizes the biennial. The artists had long dreamed of creating a contemporary platform that could build on the early pioneering work of the India Triennale, which launched in 1968. Triennale India, as it was known, was a brainchild of the intellectual milieu of the period and the founders also included artists, poets and historians with the support of government. Sadly, the Triennale India project floundered by the 1980s and completely lost significance by the turn of the century. It had not been held for several years and it was in this vacuum that Geeta Kapur, Vivan Sundaram and others attempted to initiate a Delhi Biennale in 2005. Although this project did not take off, its influence seems to have come to fruition a decade later with the emergence of a spate of new biennials in South Asia from 2012 onwards (Kochi, Colomobo, Lahore, Karachi). In this sense, although the importation of a “biennial model” into the South Asian art scene was a top-down venture, the origins of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) was bottom-up. The foregrounding of the artists involved, the role of the curator and announcement strategy through social media and international communications were common to many other biennials; however, the on-the-ground experience of being in Kochi felt unmistakably rooted in local customs and cultures. Kochi-Muziris has faced a number of challenges since its inception, including allegations of elitism, abuse of power, lack of transparency and misuse of funds, though the project has remained resilient and has attempted to continually improve its governance and operational processes. This reflexive approach is essential if the project is to survive. Rather than aiming for a perfect biennial (model), the project continually learns from the imperfect nature of its enterprise so that each biennial might be better than the last. The biennial team and board of trustees view the biennial project as being in a constant state of flux, continually reshaping its structures, its strategies and management processes.
Since its inception, the artists involved have led many risky and experimental ventures, and these self-taught artists, organisers and their teams learned by doing. Practices emerged from these grassroots strategies to inform organisational and curatorial strategies. Over time, these practices evolved and became more specialised in order to function efficiently. Although these practices, which inform roles and responsibilities, can be identified, it is difficult to compare the KMB organisation across cultural contexts. As far as the KMB’s relationship with local communities, many individuals developed skills and capacities that they could trade upon after the biennial had finished, like serving as cultural guides for tourists in the region. Others were able to go on to more established institutions and work in areas including curating, production, mediation, research, translation, logistics and arts management. Although these job skills had universally understood titles, they belied the highly site-specific and locally-rooted nature of these new and improved capabilities. Like Dak’Art, the KMB is involved in an ongoing process of re-evaluation, constantly attempting to keep what is useful about traditional biennial practice and discarding or reimagining everything else.
My upcoming work with the osloBIENNALEN First Edition 2019-2024 continues this strategy. It is not a case of “implementing practices,” but rather, allowing practices to develop and evolve in relation to a given site. Therefore, the practices that emerges in Kochi are by necessity distinct to that of Oslo. The contexts vary but the underlying practice emphasises innovation and, above all, flexibility. It is not solely that context determines practice, however. Practice also influences the context, through involvement of the local and international communities. An ability to locate, analyse, and transfer skills between projects such as KMB and osloBIENNALEN are important in a hyper-connected world, but the focus must always be on flexibility. If what is being practiced is not working, discard it and begin again using as much local input as possible. Success here, I argue, depends on community participation and a sense of kinship with the project and its values. Continuous dialogue with stakeholders is not a means to a predefined end, but is intrinsic to genuine dialogue that furthers mutual understanding, respect for differences, and the participation and stakeholdership of all levels of society and thus strengthens social cohesion. These outcomes cannot be simply bought or manufactured through media tools and marketing expenditure. As in other locations and “biennial cities” around the world, the controversy at Oslo Biennial also stems from the local art scene feeling excluded, with a lack of communication and consultation in the process and funding. Furthermore, a five-year period may act more like an institution with its own problems rather than a nimble, temporary project, for which biennials are typically known.
Site is the starting point of any successful biennial. Understanding your site and its complexities may take many years and several iterations of your biennial. In Kochi the biennial occurs every two years but is augmented with ancillary programmes throughout the gaps between biennials, and therefore develops and maintains a year-round audience that becomes invested in the success of the biennial. Oslo is unique in that the organisers spent two years researching a format and their local context before deciding that the first edition should be a five-year programme. This novel approach emerged from their research of the local population and site dynamics, and overturns the traditional biennial dynamic of a repeating biennial event that lasts 2-6 months but occurs every two to ten years. Oslo, like any capital city, offers a crowded cultural calendar in which biennials can struggle to find an audience. By imagining a five-year biennial, the curators have prioritized local community relationships but will also face a new set of challenges.
Since its launch in 2019, the biennial management have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism, leading to one of the co-curators to resign and plans being altered radically to assuage local government, critics and the wider arts community. By radically changing that script and slowing down the biennial format, the curators and organizers escaped one set of challenges (namely the frenetic pace of biennial planning and execution) for another. These problems must be dealt with in their own turn, again moving continually toward increasing local stakeholdership in the project. Biennial organisations such as Manifesta, the roving European biennial, regularly include local projects selected through special juried competitions. These strategies are another form of negotiation that are essential for the survival and acceptance of these sometimes-alien ideas and formats. Although it is too early to say, the Oslo Biennial has turned a corner in its evolution, barely a year after its launch. The project promises to deliver unique outcomes for the potential of art in the public sphere. It is yet to be seen if the biennial can fulfil its five-year term, and under what conditions. Here we can observe that many of the problems that beset less well-funded organisations in poorer parts of the world, also plague so-called Rich World biennials. As this journal goes to press, intense debate and negotiations still swirl around the biennial in Norway and its future.
So what can biennial organisers and practitioners take from these case studies, given the widely varying contexts and success rates of biennials thus far?
First, one must observe and understand the local fundamentals. Even in this increasingly digital age, a physical biennial cannot be successful without the participation of its local community. This means thinking about language, accessibility, socioeconomic indicators, religious landscapes, poverty and living standards, educational measures, and artistic traditions. Theoretical concepts and tools, usually applied in sociology and development economics, may be prudent in these types of contexts.
Second, you must be as willing to listen to your constituents as you are to experts and, indeed, even your own voice. If your local community responds to particular aspects of your biennial more than others, it may be better to focus your efforts in those areas despite your personal preferences. This is not an attempt to potentially trivialise complexities, but rather a recognition of what works locally. Practices must be site-specific and need to evolve over time. The exchange of knowledge and skills is a two-way street, and must be grounded in your particular context (be that geographical, social, cultural, economic, political or historical). Community feedback is useless if it is not acted upon and shared. One must be able to accept criticism and complaints, and find ways to effectively respond and mediate in times of trouble and dissent.
Despite increasingly globalised formats biennials are, first and foremost, local events. The emergence of Global South biennials in Kochi, Dakar and Havana demonstrate that local and flexible approaches are crucial for the success of future biennials. Although these biennials operate in highly differentiated locations, their success may lie in their ability to navigate a compendium of macro and micro challenges. These typically range from a paucity of funding, lack of arts infrastructure and expertise and Government apathy and policy neglect for the arts. On the other hand, their ‘peripheral’ locations mean that they are difficult to access for non-locals, and there may be linguistic and cultural barriers to entry. Despite, and perhaps in reaction to these perceived deficits, these events have found prominence within the global art circuit. Locally they have found voice and confidence, creating new audiences and providing livelihoods to a range of creative sector labour groups. A lack of resources has in many cases led to novel approaches, site-specific solutions and nurtured inventiveness. Of course, it would be myopic to romanticise these conditions, as is often the case when non-local media and art world audiences visit these type of events, far from the established art centres of the Global North. Constant experimentation and reframing, as is the case in Oslo, can successfully combat the flattening “biennialisation” effect of the traditional biennial model and must be at the forefront of biennial practice going forward – not only on the “periphery” of the art world in the Global South, but worldwide.
Edited by Bethany Hucks, PhD candidate at Heidelberg University.
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.
 “Dak’Art, Biennale de L’Art Africain Contemporain,” Biennial Foundation, https://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/dak%E2%80%99art-the-biennial-of-the-contemporary-african-art/.