Biennials and ‘Biennials’

At a recent symposium on the British Art Show 1 the discussion took a somewhat unexpected turn.

Presentations by both Gavin Wade and Steven Gartside toyed with issues surrounding the themed show and the concept of the biennial. Gavin Wade’s infectious enthusiasm for the prospect of a biennial and his specific concentration on ArtSheffield05 as a project in which he was closely involved was in sharp contrast to Steven Gartside’s downbeat and almost melancholic take on the generalised pitfalls and hopelessness of such events. Following these presentations and somewhere amidst the ensuing discussion Gartside announced that he hardly ever got to any biennials and asked the audience to put their hands up if they had. Few hands were raised and as I raised my own a sense of shame washed over me. I was guilty; as well as being a Director of Sheffield Contemporary Art Forum (SCAF) and thus being in principle, partly responsible for the development of something looking a bit like a baby biennial in ArtSheffield05, I had also been fortunate enough to have visited biennials in Venice, Berlin, Istanbul, Manifesta in San Sebastian and Prague in the last few years in my capacity as an artist and a generally interested party.

Dismissals of biennials as nothing more than empty branding events come thick and fast and there is a growing tendency at such symposia and within the art press to critique the biennial as some form of generic project. Even when two-yearly contemporary art projects occur which attempt to articulate or negotiate a particular relationship with an immediate and specific time and environment, (for example, ArtSheffield, Situation Leeds, Liverpool, Istanbul, Manifesta) the critical demands which follow them are already pre-figured towards biennial failure and lack. In a form of language bewitchment the very mention of the biennial has come to signify a universal orthodoxy.

My own argument delivered at another symposium late last year 2 regarding the premise of ArtSheffield 05 was around this issue. In order to illustrate the point I made use of a strategy of parentheses employed by Michael Phillipson in his 1995 text, Managing ‘tradition’. The plight of Aesthetic practices and their analysis in a techno scientific culture’ 3 in which Phillipson outlines a difference between an ‘art’ on the one hand which is fully assimilated and an art (without parentheses), on the other hand, as that which is taking place (or at the very least, appears be attempting to take place) at the edges of assimilation, within which the very representations which assimilation takes are co-dependent with an ongoing self-reflexive practice for definition.

In a review of ArtSheffield03 The Guardian writer Alfred Hinkling had made the ironic comparison between Sheffield, London, Venice, Paris and New York with the implication that Sheffield might be struggling to reach the giddy heights of such “Art Capitals”, despite its “abundance of artists, studios and galleries/project spaces”. Hinkling even suggested that there may be no audience for art in Sheffield; going on to say that ArtSheffield 03 was an “admirable profile-raising event, which the organisers hope to develop into a biennial.” Presumably he had this Meta-Biennial in mind. This ‘Biennial’ seems to be one that confers on the city a sort of state of manipulated cultural grace by proxy, the main aim of which is to raise a brand. This ‘Biennial’s’ prime purpose orientates towards kudos, to announce that the host city is knowing, global and big up enough to appreciate art and its attendant complexities. A subtext of which is that it knows how to handle, produce, package, manage and ultimately prosper from aesthetically controlled revelations of difference, dissent, risk and dare I say it, dreams and conflict.

I had realised that as a Director of SCAF, the loose coalition of artists and institutions responsible for developing the programme in Sheffield, and as an artist who has an interest in aspects of the programme as a method of rethinking practice, my habitual response was also to typify a biennial as a ‘Biennial’. It was therefore my contention that ArtSheffield 05 was not to be a ‘Biennial’ but to be something else, emerging out of my adopted city rather than being dropped on top of it. Indeed, it was precisely that kind (un)critical response to the idea of the ‘Biennial’ which drove me (along with SCAF) to try to imagine the two yearly event as something other, for fear that all too quickly the academic and critical art world would whole us up and fail us with all the other ‘Biennials’ they had ever (or never) visited.

As Julian Stallabrass has pointed out so convincingly, many Biennials are powerfully ideologically grounded 4, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing left to reclaim. The assumption that a Biennial’s guiding principles are being mapped onto the global consciousness as marketable principles and icons of universality, openness, transformative potential, secular tolerance and creative risk can, if necessary, be contested by refusing to agree to the hyperbole. A biennial is not a qualitative description; it is a two yearly event. There are a whole range of audiences who have some kind of relationship to a whole range of biennials, and each one may be profoundly different from another, some of whom may be reasonably classed as local and most of whom could not be reasonably classed as part of an international art world elite.

Of course the biennials can be dismissed as having no relationship to the locality by a critical press which is flown in from the outside, or by academics who refuse to visit on the grounds that a biennial may be self serving. As Karen Watson from ESA in Leeds suggested to me after the British Art Show symposium, it’s a bit of a no-win situation. Hence, presumably the thinking behind ESA’s ‘Situation Leeds’ programme, which despite its extensive marketing and abundance of projects went largely unnoticed by the critical art press. If only ESA had called it a Biennial instead of simply trying to get some work out there on a manageable two yearly basis.

The status of the alternative Biennial is equally problematic. Most ‘Biennials’ would not appear as the genuine article unless they somehow appeared to sustain some ‘fringe’ or ‘alternative activity’ which, to quote last year’s Istanbul Biennial’s official blurb in relation to its own fringe activities, could “voice all that was suppressed”. Martin Herbert’s observations in Art Monthly 5 in ‘What is the alternative?’ are apposite. Herbert makes the point that the ‘alternative’ artspace listings within the pages of Time Out were re-classified in the mid-nineties to the status of ‘upcoming’. The issue being that where once the alternative had been counter to, other than, or strategically across, in becoming ‘upcoming’, it became the same as, but not yet fully developed; bound to the same linear forces, the natural inheritor of the precious cultural capital of the established spaces.

The situation in Prague in which allegedly acrimonious relationships between Flash art’s Giancarlo Politi and Milan Knizak the General Director of the National Gallery In Prague who at the time were joint curating the Prague Biennial is another example. According to Politi’s announcements, relationships between the two soured to such an extent that it led to the development of two so-called Biennials running simultaneously. Presumably this was a sort of bi-biennial, within which both were claiming the rights to the spirit of the real biennial and the other as a sort of hanger-on with neither calling themselves the alternative. Quite where the sanctioned ‘fringe’ or ‘alternative’ events of either of those Biennials would go is hard to imagine, unless both fringes were to meet in a kind of critical centre parting. As if to acknowledge this ambiguity and position itself in relation to the ‘Biennial’ the next big contemporary art event to come to Prague is entitled ‘Tina B’, an acronym for “This is not another Biennial” 6.

In his involvement with Art Sheffield 05 Gavin Wade’s spirited intention was to acknowledge and work with these conflicts and tensions; in short, to work from a different position than the all too easily assumed universal and utopian ‘Biennial’ premise or its closely related and not at all alternative ‘alternative’.

If the Istanbul Biennial laid claims to addressing locality by attempting to refuse the grand spaces and insinuate itself into the physical fabric of the city, if the Liverpool Biennial attempted to address the same or similar by foregrounding, collaborative, social, and relational processes then perhaps, through it’s somewhat laboured and self conscious curatorial processes SCAF could be seen to have attempted to force a change within itself by disrupting the flow of its own habitual production and representations, including its assumed upcoming status as a ‘Biennial’. In ArtSheffield05’s convoluted methods SCAF was making slow moves towards JJ Charlesworth’s definition of criticality, in that, as an agency theoretically responsible for attempting to foster a relationship with and distribution of contemporary art within the city it attempted “to implicitly try to assess its own value within the realms of its own production and context” 7.

Is ArtSheffield07 to be forced into a sort of critical hinterland, between a ‘Biennial’ and an ‘alternative’ once more? Hopefully not; perhaps the best way to refuse the ‘Biennial’ might be to organise a biennial, and in that sense perhaps ArtSheffield( 03/05/07 ) and any other events which need to take place every two years will be biennials after all, inside or outside of art capitals and Venice, Berlin and Prague certainly, but also outside of parentheses.

Steve Dutton is an artist and Reader In Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University. He is on the Board of Directors of Sheffield Contemporary Art Forum. Recent projects include ‘Text+Work = Work’ at the Text + Work Gallery Bournemouth and ‘The Dog and Duck’ at Kookmin Gallery, Seoul, both in collaboration with Steve Swindells.

1. Hosted by the Castlefield Gallery at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery. (Back)

2. Spectator T symposium, 28 Oct. Showroom Cinema, Sheffield. Speakers JJ Charlesworth, Sally O’Reilly, Becky Shaw, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Gavin Wade. (Back)

3. See Visual Culture ed Charles Jencks, Routledge; 1 edition ISBN: 0415106222. (Back)

4. Stallabrass writes, “One example would be the Istanbul Biennial, which is part of the Turkish government’s effort to assure the European Union that the nation conforms closely enough to secular and neoliberal standards to warrant membership. Another, the Havana Biennial serves to give the Cuban government a more lenient and culturally open-minded image by sanctioning dissent within this narrow and delimited frame”, p37 Art Incorporated, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280165-1.

Stallabrass goes on to state that the biennial does for a city what a Picasso above the fireplace does for a tobacco executive and that “it not only embodies but actively propagandises the virtues of globalisation” Ibid. (Back)

5. ‘What is the alternative?’, Martin Herbert, Art Monthly, issue 290, p13. (Back)

6. ‘Tina B’, The Prague Contemporary Art Festival, 18 May – 27 June, (Back)

7. ‘The Dysfunction of Criticism’, JJ Charlesworth, Art Monthly issue 266, p1. (Back)