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Venice, Basel, Folkestone: the rise of the Biennial

As yet another UK arts biennial comes to an end, James Pallister looks at the growth of a format that has seduced cities worldwide and is changing the way our regional arts scene works

The signs have come down. Business cards have been swapped, goodbyes exchanged and bags packed. The weary itinerants of the art world; curators, artists, buyers, head to their respective departure lounges or rail termini, ready for the next adventure.

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Last week, it was Dublin they left. But it could have been one of hundreds of cities worldwide: Venice, Miami, Basel. In the UK, they could be hailing their taxi from Middlesbrough, Sheffield, Tatton Park; waving goodbye to the seafront from Folkestone, Brighton or Whitstable; or hurrying to the station in Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle. All these cities host international art biennials, a format for city or town-wide art exhibitions, which has shown extraordinary growth in the past decade.

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The world shows and expos of yesteryear were driven by a strong sense of nationality; Khrushchev and Nixon clashing in the kitchen debates; each country’s individual pavilion in Venice’s giardini. Today’s biennials articulate a more liquid reality, where money moves easily across the world, between and within countries. Cities from the same country compete with each other for money, talent and ideas, and discussion is globalised, complex and highly networked.

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The Biennial Foundation’s map of biennials

According to The Biennial Reader (2010) (instructively subtitled An anthology of large-scale perennial exhibitions of contemporary art), there are approximately 314 art biennials worldwide. Reesa Greenberg observed in 1996 that they had replaced the museum and gallery as the dominant medium through which most contemporary art comes to be known. Since the late 1990s they’ve morphed in scale, number and frequency to become something quite different from the local arts festivals that some of them replaced.

Though its linguistic root may suggest so, a biennial doesn’t need to be every two years. The critic Boris Groys puts it: ‘The necessity to go to a city annually would be a burden. On the other hand, after three or four years one tends to forget why he or she found this or that city attractive. So the biennial rhythm reflects the time span between nostalgia and forgetting.’ And so, Dublin Contemporary is scheduled to be a five-yearly happening. Folkestone meanwhile, had the second edition of its triennial this year, the first held in 2008. There are now 13 significant art and design biennials in the UK.

With their increasing popularity, there has been a parallel self-awareness of biennials within the art world. Consequently, there is no shortage of criticism of the phenomena. In a piece in the New Yorker in 2002 about Documenta XII, Peter Schjeldahl describes a kind of dumbed-down aesthetic increasingly popular among biennial curators, which he calls ‘festivalism’. He says: ‘Mixing entertainment and soft-core politics, festivalism makes an aesthetic out of crowd control. It favours works that don’t demand contemplation but invite, in passing, consumption of interesting – just not too interesting – spectacles.’

Regulars to any of London’s design or architecture festivals may find this familiar. Wearing one’s gloomy goggles, you can see how this endless merry-go-round of slightly risqué installation, spectacle and carousing with contacts debases the viewer, leaving them looking for the next party, the next space to occupy, and to unwittingly take up their role in mapping out new places for prospective landlords.

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The curators of this year’s first Dublin Contemporary (see above) are well aware of some of the problems with biennials. Launched, with considerable pluck, in one of Ireland’s deepest recessions, it is curated by Christian Viveros-Fauné, a New York-based writer, curator, ex-art dealer and ex-art fair director, and Jota Castro, a Brussels-based Franco-Peruvian artist. Its sponsorship is similarly international, with embassy representation from British, Swiss and Israeli attachés. Viveros-Fauné claims that their engagement with the biennial model is critical, and makes a virtue out of limited means.

‘We’ve tried to provide a format that isn’t about getting the same huge names in. With 34 Irish artists showing, we have a significantly larger local or national contingent than other biennials.

‘Biennials have their own economies, and the economies are actually significantly larger than museums in many cases. You get the big name artists in, you pay for them, you put them up front, the younger artists at the back, and you pay through the nose for it.’ He also says that biennials’ emphasis on showing art that hasn’t been seen before detaches the event from any sense of art history, helping it become just another commodity.

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In her essay The Global White Cube, Elena Filipovic echos Viveros-Fauné’s point, arguing that rather than creating a new context for artistic process in culturally specific urban environments, they have ‘shown artwork in specifically constructed settings that replicate the rigid geometries, white partitions and windowless space of classical museum exhibitions’.

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Not so at Folkestone Triennial. In its second edition this year, the bulk of exhibits were displayed outdoors around town. At the opening, Andrea Schleiker spoke of the multi-layered challenge to fulfil its duty to the town, its people, the artists and the international art community. She said that truly great pieces came with a sensitive engagement with the location, a town rich in history. Certainly there were several moving artworks in both this year’s and 2008’s event, ones that evoked a meaning resonant to Folkestone. The town is something of an oddity in the UK in that its triennial fits within a wider investment strategy – largely funded by local local patron Roger De Haan’s foundation – that includes housing, schools, the harbour, arts studios and a new ‘creative quarter’.

The growth in UK biennials can be seen as part of another extraordinary development over the last decade: the proliferation

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of new, purpose-built regional galleries. In 2001, who would have thought the UK would have over £200 million to spend on a dozen big-name architects creating new regional art galleries? And who would have thought there would be an appetite for the huge amount of both cutting edge and established artwork to fill them all? Recently we’ve had, to name a few, Sergison Bates in Walsall; Caruso St John in Nottingham; Chipperfield in Margate and Wakefield; Viñoly in Colchester.

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Both trends are the result of our struggle to deal with what Philip Oswalt calls Shrinking Cities (2009), and how we feel our way towards functioning in a post-industrial economy. Northern Europe is full of cities with declining, aging populations. In those same cities, there are city halls full of politicians and with what Jamie Peck, geographer and professor at the University of British Columbia, cheerily calls, ‘a near-morbid fear of negative urban growth, and the concomitant dread of relegation in the competitive league table of cities.’

As artist Nils Norman, a beneficiary of several biennials himself, puts it: ‘Cities are compelled to compete with each other, Liverpool with London, Manchester with Liverpool, Rotterdam with Amsterdam, Bexhill with Hastings and so on. It’s idiotic. These cities are all incredibly diverse and yet the competition forces them to be the same.’

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Norman’s view is supported by Peck, who is himself hugely critical of Richard Florida, an evangelist for a model of urban strategy. His 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, had a significant impact upon planners and politicians throughout the 2000s. His thesis was that cities needed to attract a highly mobile and fickle creative class from elsewhere, a sort of mobile group of hipster entrepreneurs, who could turn around post-industrial cities regardless of what previously existed in the location.

In a paper published this June, Peck analyses creative strategies in Amsterdam through a series of in-depth interviews with city planners and those involved in the creative industries.1 He refutes the claim, often through the administrator’s own words, that creative strategies help drive economic growth. Peck is critical of a situation where ‘cities are forced to engage aggressively in mutually destructive place-marketing policies, in which transnational capital is permitted to opt out from supporting local social reproduction’. It is here, with the possibility of a vicious cycle, that the more insidious aspect of biennialism comes in.

Looking forward to a cash-strapped future, it’s hard to predict how biennial culture will develop, and even whether its high point has passed or is yet to come. What we can say for sure is that biennial culture has changed the way we consume art, its influence on a city’s marketing portfolio, even the art itself. And in this bloated decade, some great work has been produced.

The more troubling aspect is that it looks like the widespread adaptation of biennials has accelerated an unsettling trend: the more we cede public space to private interests and seek market solutions to civic problems, the more our civic imagination and willpower atrophies. The depressing endgame is a situation where our civic vision has corroded to such a degree that improving our cities with anything other than the market becomes ever more inconceivable.

 

BIENNIALS IN THE BRITISH ISLES

Liverpool Biennial  
Every two years / Founded 1998 / Contemporary art

Glasgow International     
Every two years / Started 2005, also ran in 2006, then went every two years: 2008, 2010, 2012 / Visual arts

Dublin Contemporary
Every 5 years / Started 2011 / Visual arts        

Art Sheffield
Artlink started in 2001, followed by Art Sheffield in 2003 / Visual arts

Manchester International Festival
Every two years / Started 2007 / “world’s first festival of original, new work.” Focus includes: music, visual arts, theatre, dance, food and family events    

Edinburgh Art Festival    
Annual / Started 2004 / Visual arts exhibitions

International Print Biennial (formerly the Northern Print Biennial) (newcastle)
Every 2 years / Started 2009 / British and international printmaking

Tatton Park Biennial
Every two years / Started 2008 / Mixed media on a different theme each year related to the site and to identity.

AV Festival: Newcastle Gateshead, Sunderland and Middlesburgh
Every 2 years / Started 2008 / Electronic arts, featuring art, technology, music and film installations                                

London Festival of Architecture      
Every 2 years / Started as London Architecture Week in 2004 / Architecture and design

Folkestone Triennial
Every 3 years / Started 2008 / Public art, using city spaces      

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