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The growth of the biennial is both economic and cultural, says James Pallister

[THIS WEEK] Biennials are booming. In the UK - since the Brighton Photo Biennial began in 2003 - Whitstable, Tatton Park and Liverpool have acquired biennials, and Folkestone has a triennial.

Worldwide, with 140 of them, once you’ve taken time off for Eid, Hannukah, Christmas and Diwali, there are usually two art biennials happening somewhere in the world each week. (See pages here for coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale.)

The Biennial Reader is an anthology of essays that examine some of the problematic aspects of the biennial’s vigorous growth. It includes an essay from a 2009 publication that covers similar ground, the 16th issue of Open (2009) a biannual ‘cahier on art and the public domain’ from the never-boring NAi publishing house.

The idea of art as an economic stimulus - as urban theorists such as Richard Florida would have it - is more popular than ever, judging from the regional development agency logos ever-present on biennial websites. As architect and curator, Christine Wang puts it in Open, ‘Biennials allow the cities to enter the global economy’.

The Biennial Reader’s editor, Elena Filipovic, criticises biennials in another essay, The Global White Cube. She argues that, rather than creating a new context for art, biennials have ‘shown artwork in specifically constructed settings that replicate the rigid geometries, white partitions and windowless space of classical museum exhibitions’.

For curator Simon Sheikh, it’s not all money-grubbing: ‘Biennials are part of (inter)national cultural hegemonies as well as city-branding, but that does not mean that they can only represent these features. While biennials remain spaces of capital they are also spaces of hope.’

  • One year subscription (two issues) to Open, 39.50 euros.
    Address: SKOR, Ruysdaelkade 2,
    1072, Amsterdam
  • The Biennial Reader, Sept 2010, Hatje Cantz, 49 euros

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