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December 28, 2013


The future of the biennial -

experimental places to reinvent political space?

Written by Paal Andreas Bøe

The relationship between «activism» and «autonomy of art» has been a recurrent theme in the after all very tired discussion on whether art works are political in themselves, or need to be shaped in a certain manner to be able to realize the political meaning and function of art. The reasons why this discussion constitutes a dead end, are of both historical and logical nature.

1) In a historical point of view, the revitalization of «political art» and activism in recent years can be seen as a reaction to tendencies after the fall of communism, where art under a neoliberal umbrella seemed depoliticized to such an extent that it almost seemed superfluous to ask whether art and art institutions might have any consequences for society. Art activism and «neopolitical» art can at the same time be seen as a reaction to an art-theoretically based, ideological divide between autonomous aesthetics and political art which has its roots in romanticism and which has been central to the foundational debates of modernism.

There is reason to ask if the problem in art’s current historical situation is not rather a state in which the two alternatives present each other’s caricatures as opposed extremes – where, on one side, insisting on the autonomy of works of art means a rejection of art as activism, that is, artworks which ask to be valued based on their political consequences; and where activism, on the other side, legitimizes itself by rejecting «autonomous» art as a self-absorbed and apolitical eulogy to art economy’s restless hunt for new fashions and markets. One problematic consequence of this is that the rejection of autonomous art leads to an «anything goes» where art is reduced to banal, pedantic and often not very original utterances concerning political questions. Another, equally problematic consequence is the «disillusioned» acceptance of the fact that art is limited by the art market, closing one’s eyes to the political aspect in so-called autonomous art and its spaces of presentation.

Would the solution then lie in a more productive, mutually enhancing relationship between activism and autonomous art, where both sides see each other’s political relevance and commit to a common cause?


2) The dichotomy between autonomous and political art is also problematic as a principle. To grasp the real causes for this, we need to address the concept of autonomy itself. The first problem with the concept of autonomy is its circumscription of «the artwork in itself», which historically has been an anti-instrumentalist strategy to keep art separated from life, but which is difficult to maintain without a recourse to metaphysics,[1] of the kind that we know, for example, from the symbolist movement in the late 19th century. Not only is such a recourse misguiding, but also serves to blur the rhetorical and ideological fundament of the «aesthetics of autonomy».

If we do, instead, question the metaphysical reference inherent in the idea of the single artwork as an aesthetically autonomous work, the rhetorics of autonomy is in turn highlighted. As opposed to the idea of the work as a metaphysical-ontological unit, autonomy understood as a rhetorical regime is a clearly tangible measure. In such a perspective, it can be seen as a product of a wittgensteinian language-game, i.e., of a background set of rules for praxis and material expression which creates a fundament for the meaning content of the concept, and by doing this, constitutes its politico-aesthetic space of navigation. We can never empirically verify what aesthetic autonomy is; however, it is very apparent what we do when we define a work as autonomous: we confine it to a room that is otherness, an other, if not sublime, space that is self-circumscribed. The expectation to do this lies in the very inner logic and lexical meaning of the concept, but is also culturally and politically determined. The elevation of such doubtful rhetorics to absolute truth is synonomous to ideology. However, a questioning of precisely this ideological aspect of aestetic autonomy is crucial, since it is a useful tool for political and economic forces that contribute to the privatization and a neutralization of art’s political meaning and agency – also in the form of commodities of contemporary art.

By way of extending the discussion to make it more fruitful, the idea of aesthetic autonomy would be rejected in favor of an idea of political autonomy. Both the so-called «autonomous» art and the so-called political art that we may call an expression of «cultural resistance» wrestle with the same barriers to the political autonomy of the sphere of art. They are both subsumed by political and economic factors which often deprive art of its critical status – despite many attempts to repoliticize art in public space, be it as activism, as the creation of «utopian political spaces», as relationist strategies of institutional critique – or other artistic  attempts to give life back its own autonomy.

The key to political autonomy, however, still seems to be public space.  A look at newly found or constructed art scenes, or artistic contexts that do not yet fit into the global map of contemporary art, can be apt to open our eyes to the fact that art can make a difference in society, also across different forms of art. Having made a couple of such observations, one easily draws the conclusion that what inhibits art scenes in their attempt to create a locally based, politically meaningful and consequential art, is the global art economy and its coincidental, restlessly changing investment of capital and attention in always new and exotic places.

One may ask, however, is local or site specific art an ideal in itself?

The art which interacts with local, socio-political questions in an unbound and free manner, for example stimulating freedom of expression and political liberation, may be an ideal. However, this seems to depend on the pre-existence of art’s capability to inhabit such a political space and, when necessary, to renew it and replace it with new spaces, dissolving cultural political attempts at their annexation. Only at the moment when such spaces become restricted by ideology, such as geopolitical agendas and/ or the market orientations of globalized contemporary art, the barriers arise. Asking the question in converse manner, seen from the perspective of global contemporary art, we may say that if art is to have a liberating potential as a global construction, it will also depend on the possibility to navigate by means of a «local» field of landing that constitutes a liberating rather than a colonialist force.

Is this nothing less than a utopia? A short revision of the concept of the «local» seems necessary in order to properly address the question.

The most immediate connotation evoked by the concept of the «local» is, especially within western fantasies about non-western societies, an ideal about «local identity» and the representation of site specificity. For a good reason critique has in this connection often been directed against the art market’s conditions for local representation, among other things the process of generalizing artistic expressions under the common term «local art», transforming it into an exchange value, and just as quickly alienating them from their original contexts. This does not mean that representation is irrelevant, but that a questioning of the very term of the «local» is necessary in order to break this vicious circle.

Neoliberal geography is not only globalizing, but also particularistic in the sense that it exploits the dichotomies of the local/ global and place/ space in order to define particular «exceptions» to status quo. The identity of place only becomes represented – that is, constructed – at the moment it can be sold – perfectly in keeping with the logic of colonialism, and today also often disguised as liberation. Correspondingly, the representation of place is not in itself a futile strategy for the politics of art today, but limiting art to the function of representation would definitely be so, since this is a strategy which neoliberalism lies ahead of, and which it effectively merges with its own language.

Furthermore, it is not only necessary to question the myths about given, particular localities, but also the myth about the local as such, in a way which proves more resistant against the political geography of global contemporary art. In other words, for art to be able to maintain a political function, a cartographic strategy is needed where the generation of new «places» has consequences for nothing less than the global map of contemporary art as a superimposed system. For this to be possible, the question of art’s political autonomy cannot be reduced to the question about representation – about to what extent the art maps corresponds to reality – but also needs to focus on the inner dynamics of the situations and interactions that art partakes in, and the societal meaning of this dynamics in a given place. So we cannot be content with a mere questioning of art’s representation of what «really exists» in a given place, without also paying attention to the contexts of interaction in which it engages in this place, regardless of artistic forms. We cannot only ask what art expresses and to what extent and in which sense this expression mirrors a local identity, but also need to ask how it contributes to the formation of place through public dialogue (a possibility which may well seem improbable in a western perspective). If we fail to do so, both art and its place coagulate into easily marketable icons of the local, having teased the orientalizing gazes of global contemporary art for a sufficiently long time. The semantics of mapping must, in other words, be replaced with a «map» understood as a political paradigm of interaction, sensation and expression, where what is at stake is not first and foremost a repoliticization of art as a counterbalance to «aesthetic autonomy», but rather the terms of space and place which need to be filled with radically new meanings. Seen from the perspective of a given artist, art’s political agenda will be to break up and renew art’s political places and spaces in the light of and interaction with his or her context. Simultaneously, however, «agents» of a larger format are needed to make way for a new, global cartography. «The art scene» is in itself an example of an idea which refers to such a format.

Biennials are indeed such a globally oriented agent too, and also have a history as spaces of exception in the map of contemporary art. In an article in the last issue of Seismopolite, Rafal Niemojewski describes a watershed in the history of biennials that took place in the mid 1990s, following the end of the cold war. He sees the Havana Biennial as representative of the earlier period from 1984 to 1994, as a biennial based in the «Third World», on the margins of western culture, and as a political space to oppose capitalism and inequalities in both the art world and the world at large. One of the most important missions of the Havana Biennial was namely “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.”[2] By the same token, Federica Martini discusses Robert Filiou’s itinerant Art-of-Peace Biennal, developed in cooperation with Joseph Beuys, and Ryszard Waśko’s Construction in Process in Lodz, Poland, that also constituted radical spaces of exception in the global contemporary art map, with a clear, political agenda. The idea behind the Art-of-Peace Biennial was to be an itinerant and regular meeting for a transnational community based on spirit, where artists and scientists could establish a dialogue. At the basis of the event was the assumption that the spiritual emergency caused by the capitalist model could not be dealt with by way of politics, as Joseph Beuys stated, but should have been addressed through an artistic perspective. Both events were different from institutional biennials in their utopian attempt to transgress the borders separating East and West, North and South, “giving solidarity and claiming solidarity”, Joseph Beuys summarizes. Despite the fact that biennials maintained political agendas throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the development took a different turn after the biennials, and with them, their political discourses, proved to be efficient tools for geopolitical marketing strategies at the same time as they became agenda-setting phenomena within mainstream contemporary art.

The question which needs to be asked today, against this historical background is: which future can we now envision for the biennial format, and by extension, the art scenes? If they have only a limited effect as “pre-figurative” laboratories for future politics, we should still perhaps not underestimate the role of biennials in the development of a new cartography. One of the reasons for optimism may perhaps, paradoxically, be seen to reside within the logic of the contemporary art economy itself.


Both critics and proponents of political ambitions in art often found their analysis on what they see as a total convergence between capitalism and the global contemporary art system, which on many occasions seems to be practically the case. Nevertheless, one may perhaps perceive a certain hope in the fact that the contemporary art map can never be 100% deterritorialized, and this is both in spite and because of its binding to neoliberal geography. At the end of the day the map always depends on new ideas which not only materialize in art as situated and bodily constituted perception and interaction, but which in sum create new spaces in the map. The result is a global art map which always constructs itself as a set of buffer zones with two margins. One, a deterritorializing, colonialistic and restless circulation of cultural expressions and visions of «localities». The other, the map’s inner necessity to unrealize itself to avoid stagnation; i.e. its dependence on the ability to recreate itself by generating new models for the art space.

It is therefore crucial that art scenes and smaller and larger (such as biennials) art spaces commit to the ambition of not only deconstructing the logic which at a given time defines the global art map, but to create new spaces as holes of resistance in this map, as an organic part of its way of renewal. We need to use this opportunity to create new networks between places and art scenes, and by so doing, unrealize the entire functionality of the map, by means of its own logic so to speak, and replace it with a map understood as a political paradigm of action.  Through this, we will also replace the current definition of contemporary art with a new one.

Biennial history provides examples of many interesting steps towards such a development, as mentioned earlier, among other things by letting art spaces and public space merge into each other. Among recent examples, several editions of the Istanbul Biennial are based on the city as myth and geography, and have also maintained an explicit agenda against the damages caused by capitalism and neoliberal urbanization which here, like in many other places, have entailed massive evictions of neighbourhoods that do not match the dominant westernized self-image of the city with its tourist attractions, shopping areas and financial districts’ power architecture. In reverse manner, but just as interesting, the 12th Istanbul Biennial layed the burden of constructing the biennial on the sholders of the beholder, thus excluding any explicit agenda in the form of a curatorial theory-paradigm. The irony in both strategies, which notably illustrates some of the main problem in art today, is the fact that they merge with a more comprehensive, geopolitical agenda to promote the «progressiveness» of the region, both economically (attraction of turism and foreign capital) and politically (democracy and freedom of speech). In a similar way, another larger art happening, documenta 13, can be said to have implied a rethink of public space through an effect of alienation, regarding both surveyability (where does its spaces begin and end, where does art begin and end, where do its limits go, and how can one distinguish between objects that are worth sensing and objects that are not) and unity of concept. The challenge faced by such strategies, regardless of the extent to which they may prove liberating to participate in for the beholder, is the fact that they will sooner or later be conceptualized in a manner which lends itself to the economy of contemporary art and geopolitical agendas, and are thus left standing as gaping contradictions which obviously do not threaten to collapse any artmap whatsoever. To come closer to such a utopia, at least a cooperation between art scenes is needed, and this is perhaps precisely where solidaric inventions of new art scenes can be key to opposition against the status quo of contemporary art.

According to one of Seismopolite’s writers, Raimi Gbadamosi, the recently conceived art scene of Cape Town represents a gloomy example in that respect.

The gallery system itself (...) excludes the main body of the population, not by closing the doors of their building to those seeking entry, but by closing its walls to ideas and representations that will question its wholesale acceptance of extant hegemonic positions (and might simultaneously alienate - through open challenge of power structures - its ‘paying’ customers). The furore that followed the now notorious rehang of the South African National Gallery was in part inspired by feelings that established powers and norms were being callously unpicked for the proletariat.

It can be argued that the phenomenon of ignoring the main body of the population is not unique to South Africa, but the almost absolute convergence of race and class in the dissemination of regulated visual culture is. Power retains dominance through its invisibility, and this has meant a peculiar set of absences. Daily life would collapse under scrutiny, so it is left well alone, and everyone suffers as a consequence.[3]


This is the kind of problems we need to face when speaking about the future spaces of art, where the key seems to lie in not merely the creation of new biennials, but of new spaces of art and art scenes that create networks and together constitute a cartographic-political force of resistance. It is in terms of such a solidaric cooperation that we need to think the art map of the future, as both interaction and representation, and in a continuous questioning and deconstruction of a global art system. This cannot happen without continuously making the most out of the small, but real openings in the map of contemporary art, to renew cartographic emblems over new markets, in a language which dislocates the art map and renews its functionality. The more the number of such «anti-places» increases, the more unrecognizable the global art map will eventually become. The political reality in such a utopian, resistant map would be difficult to ignore.



[1] The recent theories of so-called Object Oriented Ontology do however have a different take on the idea of the artwork as self-contained object, which proposes itself an alternative to the classical concept of aesthetic autonomy. For more on this subject, see Kathryn Floyd’s article in this issue, «Future Objects/ Object Futures».

[2] 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.

[3] «Of needs and blessings», Seismopolite issue 5, 2013