The word biennial is an umbrella term referring to periodical large scale, international and group contemporary art shows that take place in a particular city or locale. Especially after the mid-1990s, their format gained unprecedented popularity appearing in different places around the globe. Moreover, the usage of the name biennial (or biennale in Italian) expresses a desire to tap into economies of prestige, mostly owing to the Venice Biennale that started operating in 1895. From a cultural policy perspective, their popularity has also to do with the fact that as a project-run, “unstable” institution (Basualdo, 2003) biennials are in a more privileged position than fixed institutions like museums to absorb crises or market pressures in an era of increased economic precarity.
Biennials are one of these arenas where the values of liberal cosmopolitanism are performed as part of a “global public sphere,” introducing new regions to global art discourses, practices, and themes, and, conversely, highlighting the local specificities and cultural practices of these regions to the rest of the world. Some more socially engaged biennials are also – at least in principle – sensitive to questions around class, gender, and ethnicity, and platform debates around the politics of equality. Yet, the discussion on biennials as inherently positive phenomena risks overlooking the political economic and ideological forces that sustain these shows.
At an economic level, a biennial is connected to city or nation branding, non-environmentally friendly touristic economies and the imperative of visibility in the context of interconnected neoliberal flows of capital, people, and art. From the perspective of resistant politics, the liberal paradigm to which biennials are attuned not only contains seeds of discontent but performs the mandates of global markets and often “artwashes” their ideological agendas. What Angela Dimitrakaki and Harry Weeks (2019) call “the consensus of liberalism” permeating the art field is then not merely a platform for potentially progressing emancipatory politics, but part of an art world apparatus affirming the dominant values of neo-liberalism. Thus, the larger cultural-political vision the biennial fosters cannot be disassociated from a liberal imaginary ideal, as it primarily addresses and crafts middle-class, educated and cosmopolitan publics attuned to, broadly speaking, western/liberal politics.
Moreover, the biennial’s project economies are hierarchical in the sense that it is usually the few privileged at the peak of hierarchy, e.g. the head curators, the organizers, and the blue-chip artists, who tend to reproduce their legitimacy, while at the other end there is a crowd of unpaid volunteers and interns who strive to enter the world of artistic recognition as a promise to “be part of the action.” Finally, their event-based and decentralized format offers increasing possibilities for public-private partnerships in the context of a cultural and economic climate that strongly favors these partnerships (Harris, 2004; Rectanus, 2002). Following, art’s merging with activism and resistant politics in these shows, generally thought to be a positive development, often unfolds in the plane of neoliberal flatness that erases political antagonism under the banner of openness and collaboration. Social movements get a platform, yet at the same time this very platforming obscures the political division between resistant politics and the capital/state, creating the illusion that both an official art institution and the street protesters inhabit the same political space.
Drawing on the above, this talk explores the inherent contradictions and political potentials pertaining to these celebrated art formats. Looking at biennials as situated sites for practicing ethnographic research, this talk asks, what types of publics, milieus, and subjectivities do their economies and cultures nurture and perform?
This online lecture explores the inherent contradictions and political potentials pertaining to these celebrated art formats. Looking at biennials as situated sites for practicing ethnographic research, this talk asks: what types of publics, milieus, and subjectivities do their economies and cultures nurture and perform?
Online Lecture: Tuesday, 27 October 2020, at 18:00 CEST (Leipzig) / 19:00 EEST (Athens, Moscow)
- Sassatelli, M., 2015. The biennalization of art worlds: The culture of cultural events, Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture.
- Jenifer Chao and Panos Kompatsiaris (2020), “Curating climate change: The Taipei Biennial as an environmental problem solver,” Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 7:1, pp. 7–26.
- Panos Kompatsiaris and Rowan Lear (2019), “Is Another Biennial Possible? Art, Time and Refusal,” London Journal of Critical Thought, no 1, pp. 29–39.
- Panos Kompatsiaris (2019) “Biennial art and its rituals: value, political economy and artfulness,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 11:1.
- Panos Kompatsiaris (2017), The Politics of Contemporary Art Biennials. Spectacles of Critique, Theory and Art, Routledge: London/New York.