To Biennial or Not to Biennial? Biennial Culture and Sustainability

In the art world, biennial is a word used to describe an event that takes place every two years to showcase the work of contemporary artists. The historical origins of biennials are to be found in late 19th century art expos.

The Exposition Universelle in Paris, in 1889, and the first Venice Biennale, in 1895, were the blueprints for the biennials of today.


Alexander Ponomarev, SubTiziano, 2007.


While our current biennials are structurally indebted to these perennial exhibitions of the past, Biennials in today’s art world signal a participation in the global community that is “of the moment”.

Biennial’s are supposed transform places from being everyday settings into temporary environments that contribute to the production, processing and consumption of international contemporary art, concentrated in a particular time and place.

Since the 1990’s ‘biennial boom’ the list of places hosting Biennials is seemingly endless: Berlin, Bucharest, Florence, Havana, Iowa, Istanbul, Kwangju, Liverpool, Melbourne, Moscow, Paris, Sao Paulo, Singapore, Sydney, the United Arab Emerites, Venice etc. etc..

In the face of this art-world globalism, or ‘art-world acceleration’, there has been increasing debate over the history, practice and future of the biennial.

Questions which we might ask are “what kind of spaces do these biennials produce?”, “how are they produced?” and “what do they do/achieve?”

With city authorities competing globally to promote their cities’ images, public art programmes, and in particular Biennials, are increasingly touted as capable of achieving a wide range of social and cultural outcomes, apparently helping to provide new economic bases in post-industrial settings.

The promotion of arts festivals like a biennial is therefore increasingly related with place promotion and the Liverpool Biennial is a good example of this.


Turning The Place Over © Richard Wilson


Click for video

Commissioned as the flagship work to celebrate Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture 2008 and its concurrent Biennial, “Turning the Place Over” – an 8m diameter disc from the building facade, cut out and then put on motorized rollers so that it literally turns inside-out – is an almost impossible architectural achievement created by British sculptor Richard Wilson. While the work itself is undoubtably one of the best installation pieces to come out of the Liverpool Biennial, its title “turning the place over” unfortunately reminds me of the fact that, like the work itself, most biennial installations and public-art interventions are only temporary. Cities hosting biennials may be ‘turned inside-out’ for the duration of the festival, but is this really a sustainable practice?

While biennials are often celebrated as vehicles of cross-cultural exchange – by introducing and connecting a city’s inhabitants to international art-scenes – recent attempts by commercial interests to control biennials and similar festivals reflect a wider situation in which marketing agencies and managers are transforming arts and culture into ‘arts and culture industries’.

The MIT art historian Caroline A. Jones recently argued (at a conference entitled “To biennial or not to biennial?”) that “biennial culture” is a term we can use to describe this appetite for “art as experience”.

The cyclical nature of biennial culture has produced an emphasis on transportable experiential art works like video art and installations – now sometimes derided as ‘biennial art’ – which can move from city to city doing the ‘biennial rounds’. This has similarly produced a cyclical curatorial culture where artistic directors and curators are no longer committed to a particular place but are rather ‘global citizens’ parachuted in from place to place.

There are now calls to move away from the sometimes on/off nature of biennials, to transform biennials from ‘event’ to something more sustainable and ‘sedimentary’.

As the Guardian art critic puts it:

“We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.” (Robert Hughes, The Guardian, 2004)

Alternative, more ‘sedimentary’ biennials, have there roots in the Whitney Biennial, New York. Since its inception in 1932 it has been a national showcase predominantly just showing contemporary American art, typically by young and lesser known artists.

The Art Gallery of Alberta, where I now work, recently opened the 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art. Its commitment to a provincial and cross-generational biennial is unique in Canada and since its inception in 1996, it has presented new and exciting works by over 115 different Alberta contemporary artists, helping to promote and bring national attention to the work of the provinces artists.

The question I would like to pose is in the face of art-world globalism is there now a growing need to protect local/provincial artists from being subsumed by the global art machine by staging more provincial biennials in Canada? Or can the right kind of balance be struck between showing work by international artists as well as promoting the work of provincial artists?

To be continued….

This entry was posted in art in place and the place of art, Biennial Culture, Creativity in the City and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to To Biennial or Not to Biennial? Biennial Culture and Sustainability

  1. squeamishy says:

    Thanks, Dr. Patchett! I followed some of your leads–very helpful for my own research. (I posted a link to your blog on mine–hope that’s okay.) Looking forward to reading future posts.

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