OFF-Biennale Budapest is the largest contemporary art event in Hungary. It started in 2014 as a grassroots initiative, a “garage” biennial set up by a small group of art professionals in order to create a platform for exchange between art practitioners and other members of society. Since 2014, OFF has become an internationally acclaimed event. OFF’s mission is to strengthen the local independent art scene and initiate public discourse about urgent yet neglected social, political, and environmental issues. OFF is a constant experiment that realizes the vision of a sustainable and democratic institution in the civil sphere. OFF-Biennale Budapest is a lumbung member of documenta fifteen.
OnCurating talked to the curatorial team of the OFF-Biennale to learn more about the collective strategies of the organization, the ways the biennial sustains itself through a complex alternative funding system, the local state infrastructure adverse to alternative artistic initiatives, and how the biennial is connected to the global context, in particular to documenta and ruangrupa. The political context of Eastern Europe has always created challenges for independent cultural institutions, so in this interview the OFF-Biennale organizers share their strategies to continue being alternative.
OnCurating: Thank you for accepting the invitation and for joining with such a great big group. I'll begin with a basic question—how did the project start and what was it motivated by?
Hajnalka Somogyi: The idea came in late 2013. It happened after a very turbulent time: in 2011 and 2012, there were a lot of civil activities in response to the government's effort to redraw the cultural map of Hungary, and most of us were a part of it in one way or the other, as there was just not much alternative to the state infrastructure.
When the government started to centralize the art system, taking away the autonomy of the institutions, changing the leaders according to not necessarily professional criteria, the art scene felt that we were losing the ground to keep going.
It was a very frustrating time trying to make our voices heard. So, I decided it was time to think about how to work under these conditions and keep up certain discourses. This is why I came up with the initial idea of organizing a grassroots biennial on a communal basis—basically just inviting a lot of people to contribute with projects that they found relevant and creating a single festival-like event. Among the original premises was the condition that we don't apply for state money and we don't collaborate with the system, which was the craziest part because of what I said earlier—there was no real alternative. I think in that psychological moment, people fell for it exactly because it sounded crazy!
Early on, I invited two of my colleagues, Nicolette and Katalin, to join. We discussed the idea, invited more people to give their opinions, and since the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, the next step was—“OK, let’s do it.” Eszter Lázár, Bori Szalai, and Eszter Szakács joined us quite a long time ago, too, so we've been together for a while now.
It started not necessarily as a biennial. It was still a little bit in the spirit of protesting, instead of reacting. I wanted to create something like a cultural defibrillator in the sense of restarting energies. One of the goals was to prove to ourselves that it was possible to pull off a large-scale project. It had to be big so that people feel that it's possible, and the biennial means so much, right? It marks an ambition! It marks a certain scale of internationality, and it produces hype.
OC: So, how important to you was to actually position yourself as a biennial? Especially as opposed to the usual understanding of the biennial with national pavilions, the scale, and the regular structures. How much of the protest was already included in the format for you?
HS: There was an official biennial in the making. A couple of months before we started, it was officially announced that one of the institutions of the new system was appointed to organize the Budapest Biennial. That seemed really ungrounded, superficial, and meaningless and given to people who do not have enough expertise in the art scene. So, we wanted to steal the show as well. That biennial actually never happened, but for a long time we were working under the understanding that we would function in parallel.
Nikolett Eross: After a while, seeing the art scene’s responsiveness and openness, understanding how we all came together and seeing what a massive quantity of artists and simply engaged people joined, the biennial somehow became a form. So, it became a promise to the art scene that we will make it again, it was a statement. Now, after the third edition, we can really feel that people take us as a serious player in this field, yeah? Aren't we?
HS: We are on the top of the power list, the super schizophrenic power list!
Katalin Székely: It was also conceived as an “off ” biennial, so it was intended to be outside of the system, as something that comes from a totally different direction with a totally different playing field and rules. That's why this “off” element, originally from Svetlana Boym’s “Off-Modern” theory, was also very important from the beginning. So, at first, everyone thought that it would be a one-time thing.
HS: Especially after we realized the first edition!
KS: Yes, it was so exhausting, but also euphoric in many ways, so that's why we continued.
Eszter Szakács: In retrospect, it is now clearer that the biennial is a sustainable format for us. We all have full-time jobs, and basically we do the biennial in our free time. This is our extracurricular activity.
HS: A hobby!
OC: So, if it's a deliberate point that you do not apply for state money, how is the project supported and sustained on a regular basis?
HS: First of all, we have international funding. That's at least two-thirds or sometimes three-quarters of the budget.
It's been always different for each edition, and it also says a lot about how the Hungarian system works right now. For the first edition, we received the EEA grant (also known as a Norway grant). Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland are not part of the EU, but they benefit from the economic connections, and therefore they created a fund with which they supported the less developed half of the Union, which involves around fifteen countries, Hungary included.
At that time, the EU system was built in such a way that 90% was given to the respective states to distribute it the way they wanted. But 10% of it—so-called civil grants—is given to a consortium of local civil organizations in charge of evaluating applications to independently distribute the 10% in the given country. So, when the second round was already signed by all other countries, Hungary just decided they would rather reject the 90%, not to have 10% coming into the country that they don't have control over.
The EEA were our main supporters for the first biennial, and we really became a flagship project for them. But then the collaboration could not continue.
Something similar happened to the Open Society Foundations—after supporting the first edition, they revised their funding strategy to focus on more political issues and left art out of the picture.
The first biennial was sponsored as well by the ERSTE Foundation, some private companies, and the Goethe-Institut. We usually have good connections to cultural institutions that operate in Budapest, but there have been changes to that, too; for example, the Polish Institute was initially very supportive, but by the second edition in 2017 they moved away.
Each time we would establish a connection with a foreign partner that we could not maintain because of the political situation, we had to start from scratch, which made the situation increasingly difficult.
The second biennial was mostly funded through a collaboration with GfZK in Leipzig. We became friends with the director Franciska Zólyom—she’s from Hungary, too—who decided to join forces with us. Since our curatorial concept for that edition actually had another iteration at the GfZK a half a year later, the Kulturstiftung des Bundes stepped in as a major supporter to Franciska and to the GfZK.
And for the third edition, Nicolette made a connection with the FFAI, the Foundation for Arts Initiatives, a New York-based foundation that supported not only that edition, but also the operations, which is very rare. This is another thing that makes our sustainability almost impossible—there are no available sources in Europe for operations because the EU thinks that it's a national competence. The whole funding structure is very project-based.
But the FFAI understood this need, and when COVID came, they also gave us a little grant to cover our bases and to regroup and postpone the event, which is where we are standing right now.
KS: We really want to diversify our kinds of support. We do have these major funding bodies, but we also try to connect to private collectors and individuals. We are also working increasingly on getting sponsorship from companies whom we are comfortable working with, which is also always a compromise, because we need to find companies that are comfortable giving us money.
HS: Unfortunately, in Hungary there is no culture for corporate support to begin with. New money doesn't necessarily go to culture. At the same time, we also have to be cautious not to use money that is gathered according to principles that are diametrically opposed to ours.
What makes it really difficult here is that for most of the companies a good relationship with the government is key, and the government has been proactive in telling these companies where to put their support.
On the other hand, there is a lack of culture on our behalf as well. Communicating with these companies, finding out what they need, how partnerships could be developed—this is a totally new territory for us as well.
For now, it's anyway quite insignificant compared to the international funding. We have a little more luck with collectors of contemporary art who are also politically sympathetic to our cause. But what you should imagine is €1,000-€2,000 each, even if it's a big supporter. So, it's almost like crowdfunding.
Bori Szalai: We also collaborate with a lot of people. There is a huge group of volunteers coming from the local art scene who always help us during OFF-Biennale, for whom the biennial becomes a common cause, so they really put their free time and energy in it. Though we cannot really translate it to direct numbers, this is a very important part of how OFF-Biennale can actually maintain itself.
HS: Organizationally, we have partners in our support network, too. Lately, we've collaborated with educational and other civil organizations that work with youth around the question of democracy. We have partnerships with the remaining free media.
OC: I guess it is also a separate full-time job to find these new opportunities and maintain them?
HS: Yes, and no one has the time to do it. This is why it's so difficult to maintain.
We also always have to build and rebuild the team. This group here is the curatorial team, and when we started, everyone was doing everything. Then obviously we realized that there are certain skills that are needed, and we don't have them. We started to involve specialists to work on specific areas.
We are still a little bit in the phase of doing whatever is not done by others while trying to build a team that can still function professionally. We are a think tank, but also we take on quite a number of management roles. Either officially through contracts or sort of unofficially because no one else is doing it.
The team changes throughout the process: before an opening, there is a communication team, an education team, and a fundraising person. The full administration team gets up to twenty people. After the biennial ends, we prepare the reports and put the finances in order, and then we either no longer need or cannot afford a team. It would be ideal if all these people could work continuously, so that our communication isn’t so periodic, but we cannot afford it.
OC: How does the curatorial team function process-wise? Do you have weekly meetings where you discuss ideas, or do you have a shared document where you throw in various touchpoints?
KS: Both ways, I guess. We do have weekly meetings, and everyone’s family members are really acquainted with our schedules: Tuesday nights are reserved for curatorial meetings. But in between we often share documents and develop ideas. If needed, we meet more often. So yes, it's always a continuous discourse between the six of us.
Eszter Lázár: Sometimes we meet in smaller groups the same day or same week, and we continue the discussion. The other will then get the memo.
HS: It is important to mention here that we are not masterminds who curate the biennial; we only come up with the general framework for the edition. For example, the first biennial had to be very inclusive and address a lot of people. Everyone had to come up with something that he or she felt was urgent. We were not financially supporting the participating projects; everyone came and realized their thing. These kinds of structural ideas come from the curatorial team.
For the second and third edition, we did have a concept, which was quite loose yet a very intriguing frame. But still through an open call, people would come with their curatorial positions and project proposals. In the third biennial, there were also jury members invited to our group to select the proposals.
In the third edition, we only had twelve projects to begin with, so we not only offered our curatorial guidance, but also took up management support, organizing, fundraising, communicating, coordinating the educational programs, etc.
So, the documenta fifteen invitation is really interesting for us because this is the first time we really are working as a curatorial team.
We’ve always curated some parts of the biennial; our exhibition was one of many projects, not necessarily larger or louder than the others. documenta fifteen is the first time that there is a management team and we are invited as curators to work together, which is both super exciting and very challenging.
ES: But the invitation was rather open, and we decided to do this with the invitation.
HS: Yeah, we could have invited a curator and made ourselves managers again, but that was not very likely.
OC: Is there any distribution of tasks or topics within the curatorial team? Do you each have a direction that you want to go or do you rather all decide spontaneously?
KS: In the previous editions, it became clear that it's much easier to continue conversation within a more limited number of people. So, we have now two groups that are working on two projects for documenta fifteen. But, of course, we know of each other's work, and we discuss it in the larger group, too.
NE: And some of us just couldn't decide between the two projects and are taking part in both of them.
KS: Yeah, that's me!
BS: Each of us is also in contact with one artist whom we invited, so we are constantly in active collaboration on a one-to-one basis. From time to time, we have group meetings with those artists, and we try to get them not only to concentrate on their artwork, but to be an active participant of the project as a whole.
NE: We also keep managerial responsibilities as well. documenta fifteen does cover the majority of production, but some parts happen here in Hungary, so we still keep at least a part of the organizational tasks.
HS: But at least we are invited by an existing institution to work with them. That's a big difference!
OC: What about the collaboration with documenta fifteen in general? How do you relate to the concept, and what is your position with regard to the ruangrupa values?
ES: In my opinion, we had to face two challenges. The first was our initial reaction: “Oh my god, it’s documenta, what do we do?” The second was to decide how to negotiate this huge responsibility on top of the biennale when we are already doing it as an extracurricular activity. So, how do we do OFF-biennale and documenta together?
I think what we came up with went hand in hand with the lumbung process—we envisioned our participation in documenta basically as a satellite of the biennale. We're not doing something completely different and new specifically for documenta fifteen, but we are treating this project as something that the biennale would do anyway.
We are working on two projects that we have been involved in already before, and we plan to bring them back to Budapest for the next edition in 2023. It's a full circle.
BS: It's definitely a super exciting invitation full of new challenges for us. For me, it was very exciting that we were asked as a lumbung member to present our ecosystem. It was very interesting for us to think about this question and to understand what it meant. What do we want to present? Who are those artists we want to work with and what are those projects which really represent what we are? It gave us a certain change in the perception of how we look at ourselves.
HS: Even though it's super frustrating that the whole idea that this documenta initially had—creating friendships and trust, meeting and visiting each other and hosting each other—has been made impossible with COVID, because everything was shifted to Zoom. But we still learned a lot in the process, so this idea of working on something we can later bring back to the biennale was also inspired by the conversations or by whatever we learned from other lumbung members while discussing these values. This exchange has been useful, and this is something that we would like to practice in the long run as well.
We are moving further and further away from this usual biennial model, when we do something for some months, put all the money in it and then boom—we forget it, everyone goes home, and two years later there's a new concept and new people and new stars and new stories. We now would rather like to keep on working on certain issues continuously, with certain groups, certain collaborations and make something out of it throughout the years.
We can still do it in a biennial format—there will always be new chapters, and we are invited more and more to collaborate with others. For example, we now have a little small-scale European project in collaboration with the Baltic countries and Poland. These collaborations are great for us to continue developing our ideas, and to bring our conversations into new constellations. In a way, this is also related or at least inspired by our connection to the lumbung members. We were strengthened by it, and it definitely gave us good examples of how to operate in the long run.
NE: Yes, exactly! We all have a background in institutional practices, we all work in museums, research centers, universities, galleries—we know those routines. But the lumbung experience helped us see those ways of operation that we would like to unlearn.
Of course, it is easy to say that if you are a part of an institutional system, then after a while you feel the need to unlearn, but it’s hard to put it into practice, as you don’t get too many examples. So, the lumbung context gave us this revelation. It seemed rather utopian and revolutionary in the beginning, and, of course, there are still practices that we would not follow, but it is really important for us to try.
This meeting point of this high institutional actor, documenta, with this super collaborative and almost anti-institutional body of ruangrupa and the lumbung members—that is a real revelation—even though sometimes it's a very stormy experience and a conflictual situation, but this kind of conflict can bring up something we can learn and digest for a long time.
HS: The point about unlearning is certainly true, but the other point is how you learn to operate outside the system, right? This is what we didn't really have any models for, because, as I said, Hungary didn’t have an alternative scene. Everyone was happy working within the system, even though it was never really perfect. But suddenly, there are these professionals for whom the status quo is just unacceptable, and they try to create something outside of it.
This is something that colleagues in Western Europe still don't get. What is super interesting, at least for me personally—having been to many professional symposiums and programs with various constellations of international people—is that it’s actually getting increasingly difficult to explain to Western Europeans our project and its motivations, while I'm experiencing interesting and fruitful conversations with people who live outside of Europe.
This is why the lumbung has been really interesting for us—suddenly we learned about this whole new approach. Of course, I'm not comparing our situation to the art scene in Cuba or Palestine or Colombia. But still, these experiences at this very moment of our professional operations are just more relevant than talking to someone working for a Western European institution and hearing them say: “Oh yeah, we had budget cuts as well.” Maybe it's also pessimism, seeing where our country is going.
When I started working in 2001, for Eastern Europe it was so clear that everything you wanted to learn was the Western way of doing things. This is how we were socialized professionally: we have to learn that language, we have to learn those practices, we have to mimic those institutional structures. We just never realized that the political and the social construction was so different that to consider the possibility of having a similar process was an illusion. So, currently for me it's astounding how irrelevant I sometimes find Western European discourses.
KS: Putting a more positive spin on that, it was also very eye-opening. Even though we were coming from this huge schism of what we think is professional, and what the state says—we really thought that it was a rather tragic situation. And then we meet these people from all around the world who are really in deep ****, and we understand that we're still good. It sometimes makes one really optimistic and reassured that everyone can find strength. Even though we only met most of them through Zoom, all the collectives are very cool and nice and sympathetic people, and I'm looking forward to meeting them in person.
ES: It's amazing to find all these kindred spirits and find allies in the lumbung and to know that we are actually sharing common experiences, but there is a certain difference of contexts. For instance, in Hungary, the state infrastructure is still very strong, we're just not participating in it. But in many of the places where other lumbung members are from—there is no art infrastructure at all. So, although we are all outsiders, it's a little bit different. Not to mention that we are EU members, and our passport is really really good compared to some other lumbung members.
So, being the only Eastern European lumbung member is a huge thing for us. It puts us into this great context and makes us learn about ourselves.
OC: A beautiful answer! Perhaps as one closing question—what's the future for the curatorial collective then?
KS: We also have other collaborations, one of which is the East Europe Biennial Alliance—it's also a way of looking into the future and seeing how we can help each other on many levels, and how we can find new approaches to doing things outside of the official way in this region.
ES: It is like mini-majelis, if we continue talking in lumbung terms—it's a collaboration that we started a few years ago with the Biennale in Prague, the Kyiv Biennial, the Warsaw Biennale, and then finally Riga Survival Kit Festival Riga. It’s a great combination, everybody has a different background, forms, and opportunities, but this is exactly why it works. Someone has cotton candy, someone has pretzels, and we can join forces, because we have different things to offer. Someone can push more on the money side, someone can work more on the actual alliance; it's a powerful ecosystem, and we also involve them within our documenta project.
KS: The future is in these collaborations.
HS: Besides this regional collaboration, which is super important, we would like to do that locally as well, making our practice less project-based and more strategic as a network-based operation.
The other thing that we've been contemplating for quite a while—and perhaps the lumbung can provide us with good examples as well—is to step away from this model of grant-based and sponsorship-based existence and try to develop activities that actually provide income that we can freely use. In a way—to combine artistic curatorial activity with more entrepreneurial endeavors, so that the profits can be used for our goals.
EL: On the topic of the sustainability of the biennale, we're also thinking about how we can change the format of the biennale—meaning that we don't want to focus on these three or four weeks per year, but we would rather focus on the continuous presence with different projects and programs. We don't know yet how we can do that, but maybe that's one of the key questions for the future—to see how we can maintain the practice besides the biennale format.
The interview took place on February 14, 2022, via Zoom, and has been edited for length.
Anna Konstantinova is a curator and a cultural manager based in Zurich. Her professional interests include post-photography, process-based and participatory art, and digital curating. She is a part of the Swiss photographic collective pool, the curatorial team of the contemporary photography collection of the bank Vontobel and the contemporary art gallery Lullin + Ferrari, alongside contributing to the program “Screen Walks.” She holds an MA in Media Studies from the Russian State University of the Humanities and is currently part of the MAS Curating in Zurich.
Giulia Busetti is an exhibitions producer and independent curator based between London and Zurich. After several work experiences in European art organizations, she is now focusing her collaborative research-based projects on the concept of cultural identity and its conflictual aesthetics, the role of the outsider and the necessity of dis-order, but also on all those practices that activate the political potential of artistic practice. She is a contributor to Ephemeral Care, a platform focusing on ethics, practice, and structures in the field of artist-led and self-organized (AL&SO) artistic activity. She holds a MA in Kunstwissenschaften at Kunsthochschule Kassel and Arts & Cultural Management at King’s College London and is currently part of the MAS Curating in Zurich.
 “About OFF-Biennale,” https://offbiennale.hu/en/about/budapest, accessed March 13, 2022.
 Svetlana Boym was a Russian-American cultural theorist, visual and media artist, playwright, and novelist. “The word ‘off-modern’ was coined by Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, finished in 2000 and published in 2001. […] ‘Off-modern’ is defined as a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project. It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side-alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic, and technological narratives of modernization and progress.” From Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Off-modern, accessed on April 10, 2022.
 “The EEA and Norway Grants are funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. The Grants have two goals – to contribute to a more equal Europe, both socially and economically, – and to strengthen the relations between Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, and the 15 Beneficiary States in Europe.” From https://eeagrants.org/about-us, accessed on April 10, 2022.
 “The Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, are the world’s largest private funders of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.” Taken from https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/who-we-are, accessed on April 11, 2022.
 The ERSTE Foundation empowers initiatives for change and contribute to civil society development and regional progression. Taken from https://www.erstestiftung.org/en/inside-the-foundation/, accessed on April 11, 2022.
 “The Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, a foundation based in Leipzig, is an exhibition space for contemporary art and a museum for art post 1945. GfZK promotes and imparts international artistic positions on its own premises and in public spaces, it initiates cooperations and carries out research-based artistic projects.” Taken from https://gfzk.de/en/institution/position/, accessed on April 11, 2022.
 “The Foundation for Arts Initiatives makes grants to institutions in the visual arts whose programs and activities are critical and whose practices they consider vital. Grants are also made to artists, activists, researchers, writers, and others in the visual arts to pursue their research without institutional, governmental, or philanthropic preconditions.” Taken from https://ffaiarts.net/, accessed on April 11, 2022.
 “The newly established East Europe Biennial Alliance (EEBA) is comprised of Biennale Matter of Art Prague, Biennale Warszawa, Kyiv Biennial, OFF-Biennale Budapest, and Survival Kit Festival Riga. As contemporary biennials have become an important vehicle placing art in new contexts and reaching new audiences, the Alliance is designed to enhance the role of biennials in shaping new forms of international solidarity, expanding socio-political imagination, and developing alternative cultural solutions. […] Through a number of artistic events, exhibitions, public programs, and the creation of a long-term collaboration mechanism, the Alliance attempts to discover the potential of cities in creating non-authoritarian cultural policies and finding ways to oppose the visions of culture based on a narrowly understood national identity.” Taken from https://eeba.art/en, accessed on April 11, 2022.
 “majelis is a term for a gathering or meeting. In person or digitally, regular majelis are an important tool of the lumbung network to exchange ideas and projects. mini-majelis are smaller gatherings, while majelis akbar (mega majelis) is a larger gathering between lumbung members, lumbung artists and other participants of documenta fifteen.” Taken from https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/glossary/, accessed on April 11, 2022.