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December 28, 2013

Turning the tide: the oppositional past and uncertain future of the contemporary biennial

Written by Rafal Niemojewski

The idea of the contemporary biennial as a viable space for real-life political activism requires a great deal of imagination from those frequently visiting large-scale recurring exhibitions around the globe as well as from those periodically checking in at the well established mega shows, like Venice Biennale, in search of a overview of recent artistic practice. Nevertheless, there’s possibly more to the perceivably idealistic subject of the current issue of Seismopolite than a simple desire to challenge the increasingly market-driven and depoliticised art institutions and experiences, which characterize the contemporary art world. It was only thirty years ago, when the history of the modern biennial took an unexpected turn, and, for short time, began to foster rhetoric of bold opposition against the institutionalized structures of power and inequality.

The decade of 1984-94 saw the emergence of a new breed of biennial, born of a global context, with political activism inherent to its project. During that period, several new biennials emerged in territories largely peripheral and disconnected in relation to the core of the contemporary art world, which at that time was still centralized and revolved around the few Western art capitals empowered throughout modernity. The Havana Biennial (est. 1984), Cairo Biennial (est. 1984), Istanbul Biennial (est. 1987) Dak’art (est. 1992) and Johannesburg Biennial (est. 1995), were introduced in territories then designated as the Third World, which could be translated as geographically remote, and politically and economically incompatible with the West.[1] One thing that these various institutions had in common was their manifest desire to challenge the status quo of unequal power relations within the art world and the world at large. The early editions of the Havana Biennial arguably articulated these efforts most explicitly.[2]

The focus of the early editions of the Havana Biennial was clearly directed toward art coming from the territories and countries designated as Third World, across the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Such a defined policy of inclusion reflected one of the most important missions of the Biennial: “to provide opportunities for mutual understanding, support and development of cultural strategies for the Third World countries and to strengthen their position in relation to the hegemonic First World.”[3] The conference on Tradition and Contemporaneity in the Arts of the Third World organized as part of the 1989 edition, was perhaps the most explicit articulation of the Havana Biennial’s politically charged mission statement. The conference papers (by Juan Acha, Geeta Kapur, Rashid Diab, Mirko Lauer, Federico Morais and Pierre Restany, among others) examined the possibility of reorienting the traditional art world axis of influence (North-South) to a horizontal gaze (South-South). In accordance with these postulates, the main exhibition staged during the third Havana Biennial was conceived as a vast panorama of creative activity of the Third World. Along with painting and photography, it also included separate sections dedicated to Latin American textiles, African wire toys, Arabic calligraphy and documentary photographs censored by the Chilean government.

The rhetoric of opposition vis-à-vis the hegemonic powers of the First World was articulated in a somewhat less radical way by the organizers of the Cairo Biennial, introduced simultaneously with Havana, in 1984. The model adopted in Cairo was reminiscent of Venice or Sao Paulo in maintaining national representations and a competition with prizes. During the first and second editions all the prizes were conspicuously attributed to Arab artists (from Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan, and Iraq) who represented a vast majority of the participants. As Thomas McEvilley pointed out in his overview of Third World biennials, the works presented in early editions of the Cairo Biennial were mostly Modernist-style painting and sculpture from the First World and Third World countries alike.[4] Unlike the Havana Biennial, Cairo did not feature any objects representing the local indigenous art tradition. The oppositional strategy of the Cairo Biennial, thus, manifested itself in the presentation of a large quantity of artistic production from the Third World executed in the contemporary visual modes of the First World (albeit modern rather than contemporary when seen from the First World’s perspective) rather than making any attempt to challenge the authority of these visual modes. As McEvilley pointed out, some Western critics read such a display of modernist Third World art as a ‘facadelike impression’ of the visual vocabulary of the First World cultures. However, following McEvilley’s astute observation, these works can also be seen as outcomes of local tradition, which by that time had fully absorbed the Modernist influence as its own.[5]

The Dakar Biennial established in 1990 as a cross art-form festival and from 1992 as contemporary art biennial named DAK’ART, represented a much more radical departure from pre-1984 biennials and, similarly to Havana, was founded with a strong aim of promoting local art production. This was made evident, among other things, by the name of its host organization The Dakar Festival for the Revival of the African Arts and the report it published to assess the 1992 edition, where one could read:

[DAK’ART] was established to expand the opportunities for promotion and presentation of African artists poorly represented on the international art scene […] it aimed to help Africa to develop its own artistic discourse and participate in the conceptualization of theoretical tools for analysis and appreciation of artistic proposals. This will mark its identity vis-à-vis other biennials of contemporary art.[6]

While the focus was manifestly on Africa as well as the African Diaspora, a small number of non-African artists participated in the 1992 edition (representing Canada, Japan, Portugal, Sweden, Italy and Mexico). This procedure continued in all the following editions where non-African artists were presented under the umbrella of L’Exposition Internationale. With regards to its original concept of cross-art form festival, the Dakar Biennial’s assorted exhibitions were held across a variety of venues in the Senegalese capital and featured exhibitions of local traditional arts and crafts, in particular textiles and tapestry (le Salon du Design Africain), presented alongside visual art production mostly focused on painting and sculpture following a recognisably Western tradition.

The three examples described above presented different models and strategies attempting to challenge (Havana), compete with (Cairo) or assert against (Dakar) the domination of the artworld of the developed countries, then straightforwardly associated with the First World.  However, at the beginning of the 1990s, with the demise of the Cold War world order and the process of new economic deregulation, the Three Worlds model began to be contested. The dissolution of ideological and political borders brought to light the following question: if there’s no longer opposition between First and Second Worlds does a self-identified Third World still make sense? Gradually a new vocabulary began to be put in place and the countries until recently referred to as the Third World began to be addressed as the periphery, or, often euphemistically, as “countries on the path to development”.

The two editions of the Havana Biennial in the early 1990s responded to this shift directly and immediately by introducing the notions of neo-colonialism (the fourth edition), and periphery (the fifth edition) and by modifying the geographical focus of the biennial. The 4th edition (1991) was presented under the theme of The Challenge of Colonization and was accompanied by an international conference on Cultural Domination and Alternatives to Colonization.  It touched upon a whole range of economic, social and political problems affecting the countries formerly designated as the Third World, which were now identified by their struggle to resist Neo-colonialism. Such emphasis was clearly expressed in the catalogue essays imagining alternatives to the current situation of Cuba (Luis Camnitzer, Ivan de la Nuez, Jorge Glusberg) and other countries such as Chile (Nelly Richard), Egypt (Brahim Ben Hossain Alaoui), and African nations (Pierre Gaudibert). The articulations of neo-colonialism and imperialism were presented here from a distinctively Latin American perspective, interlacing questions relating to the state of sovereignty of the former colonies and the notion of a new American Empire—“Why should we accept a feudal and repressive monarchy constructed on oil wells as a paradigmatic example of free society? Why a brown, sweet syrup with the unlikely name of Coca-Cola should become our spark of life?” asked Camnitzer.[7]

These questions were not dissimilar from those uttered by Edward Saïd in a later study, Culture and Imperialism, looking at these issues from a global perspective. Saïd defined imperialism as “the practice, the theory and the attitudes of dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory”.[8] In contrast, colonialism, which, for Said, was seen as being almost always a consequence of imperialism, was defined as “the implanting of settlements on distant territory”.[9] While by the 1990s colonialism had been effectively brought to a close, having been declared illegal by the United Nations in 1960, and condemned as “alien subjugation, domination and exploitation” and “a denial of fundamental human rights,” imperialism would seem to be more enduring.[10] In the catalogue of the third Havana Biennial, the latter was articulated as both the actual continuing administration of foreign territories and economic imperialism i.e. the involvement of capitalist businesses, in particular those based in the US, in nations which were former colonies. In the introductory essay, the President of the Havana Biennial, Llilian Llanes, also touched upon the subject of cultural imperialism, linking politics to an invocation of a posited Western moral superiority and duty and a narcissistic assumption by hegemonic powers that the non-West could only be improved by becoming more like the West itself.

These questions were elaborated further in the fifth edition of the Biennial Art-Society-Reflection (1993) this time analyzing problems raised by neo-colonial relations of power from the point of view of peripheral communities and minority constituencies, without reference to any geographically defined territory. The discourse generated by this edition’s catalogue essays and conference papers, including contributions from Nestor Garcia Canclini, Rasheed Araen and Magda Gonales Mora, opened reflection on what it means to live and work in the periphery and for the first time embraced the condition of ethnic minorities in the developed countries (and in particular in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia).

The 1993 edition of the Havana Biennial marked an important turn in discussions surrounding globalisation and, concurrently, in the ways the emerging biennials of the early 1990s articulated their oppositional rhetoric. Readings of globalisation through the lens of post-colonial critique, debated for the first time in Havana, began to be systematically appropriated into the discourses and frameworks of new and existing biennial exhibitions. The new variant of oppositional rhetoric as well as the geopolitical dynamic of the early 1990s relied to a lesser extent on the Three Worlds model and instead shifted into questions of global vs. local and the centre/core-periphery dialectics.[11] The Istanbul Biennial (est. 1987), which, with its third edition, Production of Cultural Difference, curated by Vasif Kortun, quickly gained international reputation was exemplary. The 1993 Asia-Pacific Triennial, hosted by the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane opened with a geographically defined showcasing the art of the antipodes. The remaining major biennials established in the early 1990s include inSITE (est.1992), situated on the border of Mexico and the United States (San Diego/Tijuana) and operating with a special remit to address the unique context of economic and political tensions, the Gwangju Biennial (est. 1995) as the first biennial in South-East Asia and the Johannesburg Biennial (est. 1995).

It seems the rationale of the proliferating new biennials shifted significantly around 1995. The earlier organizations were localised on the margins of the dominant Western culture and mainly in the territories considered as underdeveloped countries. The vast majority of the contemporary biennials established after 1995, on the other hand, were localised in the territories that could now be best described as emerging economies or developed countries. Their agendas also differed from the previous group. Most were established with the desire to join and expand the Western art world, rather than to challenge it, which was paired with ambitions for an important role within the Post-Cold-War new world order governed by the rules of the global economy.

This shift might be understood and articulated in relation to the phenomenon that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt described in Empire, written in the mid-1990s, and published in 2000. The book theorizes an ongoing transition from a modern phenomenon of imperialism, centred around individual nation-states, to an emergent postmodern construct created amongst global ruling powers, which the authors call Empire.[12] Negri and Hardt turned around thinking about imperialism, proposing a decentred global network and rearticulating capital in terms put forward by the French poststructuralists Deleuze and Guattari as a dynamic pattern of breaks and flows. Applying this paradigm to the system of the contemporary art world that the wave of oppositional biennials tried to challenge, we can see it as a rhizomatic network of nodes with various degrees of volume, connectivity and influence, representing the old and newly established centres of artistic production and dissemination. This interpretation presupposes that such a defined system is all-encompassing and therefore renders invalid the postulates of constructing alternative circuits on the margins, raised by the oppositional biennials.

That is not to say that all resistance towards the status quo of asymmetrical power relations is futile. As Michael Hardt explains:

If we recognize that global power is tending toward the form we describe as Empire, and that we're inside of that, and that we're all contaminated by it and part of it, and that there's no outside from which we could claim purity—that recognition doesn't have to be a resignation. It can be the basis of a project from within, posing something different.[13]

Accordingly, the majority of biennials established post-1995 can be read as “projects from within” articulating their agendas according to a new world order, where ideological oppositions and political blocks can no longer be easily drawn on a world map. Or, perhaps, following more pessimistic readings of late capitalism, should we assume that the biennial once empowered by a strong desire to challenge the hegemony of the Western art world with its influential acquisition-based museum culture and art market, in fact succumbed to these forces in the end? In 1997, Lyotard contended that the liberal capitalist system under which we live is not subject to radical upheaval but only to revision.[14] In a similar vein, Baudrillard asserted that there was no revolt any more, no antagonism, no longer any convictions, no longer any real opposition; the periphery struggling for empowerment has also been absorbed along other forms of struggle into the only freedom which remained, the freedom of the market.[15] The second edition of the Singapore Biennial (2008) clearly illustrated how far a contemporary biennial may distance itself from the ideals postulated during the early editions of the Havana Biennial in the late 1980s.[16]

Following these interpretations, today, it is difficult to imagine the possibilities of going beyond the realities of the existing order of late capitalism, and envisage that the culturally reprogrammed biennial format still bears real possibilities for emancipatory politics and the oppositional ethos which characterized the exhibitions of the 1980s. This, however, does not exclude all forms of political activism, and, in particular, those functioning on the level of individual works and projects and those that have been well assimilated by contemporary art and its discourse over past decade. Such forms do not constitute a political programme nor an agenda; rather they serve to sketch out the parameters of a potential political space whose major characteristic is precisely its marked departure from traditional politics, whether revolutionary or reformist.

One of the most distinctive features of the current discussions placing politics in the realm of art and its exhibitions is the suspicion and renunciation of any strategy of large-scale political change. The alternative to macropolitics is the penchant for politics of localism. Localism in a number of different forms is present in much of recent art discourse; with ideas of the reality of immediate experience, of anti-globalisation, of the self-governing community, etc. The idea of 'community' itself, standing in contrast to both individual alienation and the totalising state, has long been a tenet in art criticism.[17]

A second concept within the art and politics discussion, which made equally considerable impact on understanding current practices, is organized around a strong commitment to a model of an ideal politically engaged practice, which is nearly always participatory. It links the participants in a "dialogic community" and is empowering for those constituencies, which are disfranchised, silenced and excluded by the dominant discourses. Artists are often believed to be the ones who can carve out alternative spaces for reflection, imagination and discussion beyond the entrenched fault lines. Whereas previously, the biennial and its structure welded a certain political activism and oppositional rhetoric, today it is the artists and their works that might stir the waters but may not turn the tide.

Rafal Niemojewski is a Lecturer at Sotheby's Institute of Art and Central Saint Martins. He earned a PhD from the Royal College of Art for his thesis on the proliferation of the contemporary biennial. More recently, his research interests have expanded to include history of exhibitions and institutions in relation to changing ecology of the expanded artistic field. Outside academia, Niemojewski has led projects for the Serpentine Gallery, Bergen Kunsthall, Manifesta and dOCUMENTA(13), and worked as Curator of Programmes at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre. In 2013, he founded Artfore - research and commissioning agency exploring new ways to produce and experience contemporary art.

[1] Third World i.e. a loosely defined group of states which refused to ally themselves with either the First World (United States and capitalist countries in Europe) or the Second World (Soviet Republics and Eastern Block) after the end of World War II. However, the Third World did not form a stable unified group of nations and was often vaguely defined as: “the underdeveloped or poorer countries of the world, usually those of Africa, Asia and Latin America.” Source: The Oxford English Dictionary ed. 1989. Encyclopaedia definitions often also refer to the 29 countries participating in a conference at the Indonesian city of Bandung in April 1955. The scope of debates during that conference including the issues of human rights, territorial integrity and collective defence, suggests that the Third World was originally defined in political terms rather than geographic or economic.

[2] The first Havana Biennial, 1 May – 30 June 1984; The second Havana Biennial, 26 November – 31 December 1986, The third Havana Biennial, Tradition and Contemporaneity, 27 October – 31 December 1989; The fourth Havana Biennial, The Challenge of Colonisation, 16 November – 31 December 1991; The fifth Havana Biennial, Art, Society, Reflection, 6 May – 30 June 1994.

[3] Centro Wilfredo Lam (1984) Regulation for Participation, a tri-lingual brochure published and distributed during the first edition of the Havana Biennial, Havana: Centro Wilfredo Lam.

[4] McEvilley, Thomas (1996) ‘Arrivederci Venice: The Third World Biennials” in DENSON Roger, McEVILLEY Thomas (1996) Capacity: history, the world, and the self in contemporary art and criticism, London: Routledge, p. 137.

[5] Ibidem, p. 138.

[6] Conseil Scientifique de la Biennale des Arts de Dakar (1992) L’évaluation de la première édition de DAK’ART, Dakar : Conseil Scientifique de la Biennale des Arts de Dakar, December. Courtesy of Secrétariat Général de la Biennale des Arts de Dakar.

[7] Camnitzer, Luis (1991) ‘El Arte, La Politica y el Mal de Ojo’, in : HERRERA YSLA Nelson (ed) (1991) Cuarta Bienal de la Habama 1991 Catalogo, exh. cat., Havana: Centro Wilfredo Lam, p. 31.

[8] Said, Edward (1993) Culture and Imperialism, New York: Knopf, p.9.

[9] ibidem.

[10] United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (General Assembly Resolution 1514(XV)) of 14 December 1960. Article 1.

[11] The latter found its theoretical background in the theory of world-system articulated by US sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. According to this theory, the world system is governed by mechanisms that bring about the redistribution of resources from the periphery to the core. In his terminology, the core is the developed, industrialized, democratic part of the world, which economically exploits the poor, less developed countries—the periphery—through the means of the market. Wallerstein locates the origin of the modern world-system in 16th century Western Europe and defines it in the three volumes entitled The Modern World-System, with the last volume published right before the shift in question, in 1989. Wallerstein’s ideas, and the vocabulary drawn from his writings, had direct consequences on the contemporary biennial (both newly established and continuing organizations) of the 1990s. Notably, the introduction of his notion of the semi-periphery allowed the centre-periphery dialectic to take on a more nuanced gradation in the art world.

[12] According to Negri and Hardt the Empire is constituted by a monarchy (the United States and the G8, and international organizations such as NATO, the IMF or the WTO), an oligarchy (the multinational corporations and other nation-states) and a democracy (the various NGOs and the United Nations). Hardt, Michael og Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[13] Hardt, Michael; Smith, Caleb og Minardi, Enrico  (2004), ‘The Collaborator and the Multitude: An Interview with Michael Hardt’, Minnesota Review, Issue 61 (Spring 2004), pp. 63-77.

[14] Lyotard, Jean François (1997) ‘The Wall, the Gulf, the system’, in: Postmodern Fables, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 67-82.

[15] Baudrillard, Jean (1989) America, London/New York: Verso, p.116.

[16] For example, the main venue, the old City Hall, along with the exhibition, hosted an art fair in the basement, with several galleries selling small versions of large installations presented upstairs.

[17] The idea of community enabled the formulation of the new reading of site-specificity (Miwon Kwon) and thorough analysis of participatory practices (Claire Bishop).