Features / Report

World Biennial Forum and Asia-Pacific Biennials: Situation and Prospects, Part 1

posted 03 Dec 2012

This past fall saw Korea tum into a veritable wrestling ring of modern art. One major modem art biennial after another took to the mats: the Gwangju Biennale (Sept 7-llov. 11), the Busan Biennale (Sept. 22-May. 24), the Seoul International Media Art Biennale (Sept. 11-Nov. 4), the Daegu Photo Biennale (Sept 20-Oct 28), and Project Daejeon (Sept 19-May. 18). No question about it—Korea’s biennials were hot stuff, drawing the notice of art professionals the world over. Capping them all off was the first ever World Biennial Forum, held from Oct 27 to 31. An event for officials and actors in every part of the biennial process (planning, organizing, managing, and supporting), “Shifting Gravity” set its focus on Asia, a region that has recently drawn major attention for its political, economic, and cultural dynamism. TheArtro took advantage of this opportunity look at the different aspects of this event—the first of its kind in the 117 years biennials have been taking place. It also looks at the biennials that are happening now in the Asia-Pacific Region, offering its own predictions on what’s to come next.

First World Biennial Forum

"Shifting Gravity," the first World Biennial Forum event, took place in October at Kim Daejung Convention Center in Gwangju. The title seemed to hint at the aim of the Gwangju Bienniale?now one of Asia’s premier events?to make its home city a center of gravity in the international art world. My prediction that this "shifting gravity" would be a power grab was bolstered by the speech given by The Belgian professor, Chantal Mouffe, famous for her theories on hegemony.

But my guess turned out to be somewhat off. The forum’s planners, Hou Hanru and Ute Meta Bauer, explained that the theme given to the keynote presenters was a "new cosmopolitanism." New or old, cosmopolitanism certainly seemed more familiar as a political term. The three scholars invited to give keynote presentations proceeded to hold forth on this very cosmopolitanism, discussing democracy, the globalized contemporary arts environment, and negotiating with reality. First, literary historian Wang Hui talked about a contemporary environment in China where the democratization process, under the relatively recently adopted capitalist system, has triggered a loss in "representativeness" on the part of the government, which can no longer speak for the actual society. The result, Wang said, has been a failure to bring together the differences of the members of society. The following day, aesthetician Nikos Papastergiadis declared that the cosmopolitanism discussed today should be a different variation from the one advocated by Eric Hobsbawm. Where the old cosmopolitanism was theoretically about claiming equal rights for all citizens of the world, in practice it took the form of a kind of assimilation?totalitarianism, to put it somewhat extremely. According to Papastergiadis, the "new" cosmopolitanism had to be something different, something that permitted reality to be viewed from completely different angles of view. For instance, he advocated gathering examples of artists’ works and perspectives that could be viewed in different ways, and exploring the possibilities that emerge. The next day saw Chantal Mouffe offering a presentation fit for a political scientist, drawing on the logic of hegemony to introduce a mechanism through which even today’s problematic forms, such as neoliberalism, are viewed as things that can be overturned. Hegemony, she said, can certainly be changed, if we can just recognize the problems and effectively form the right questions with "differences" from them. She went on to advocate ongoing attempts to form the differences we desire. Together, the three scholars said that in order to create new frameworks for surviving in a society where socialism has crumbled away and capitalism has failed to achieve fair redistribution, we, and in particular our artists and biennials, must sit down at the bargaining table with reality, approaching it with a cosmopolitan attitude and presenting our own versions of difference.

What the presentations did was to underscore the importance of a cosmopolitan approach in exploring the potential of difference. However, their suggestions did not seem to offer enough in the way of ideas for biennials to come together and do something, helping speed along the project. After all, the kind of gravity shift that Gwangju is aiming for, the grab for hegemony as a world leader, would seem to conflict with the cosmopolitan vision. And if the kind of different perspective Papastergiadis talked about represents an ontology that looks beyond those domains that can be represented by knowledge or put into language, then it could also be taken as a declaration that he did not intend to offer any course of action within a concrete epistemology. By not proposing "something," they could also be sending a message of hope to the citizens/spectators who make up the community, telling them that they have the choice of what "differences" to show in the future?handing them the authority the decide the "what" that will be pursued. Still, they did leave themselves open to criticism, given that these biennials can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Above) exhibition view of KIAF 2015 First World Biennial Forum, Photo courtesy of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation

Whom Does the Biennial Represent?

What the forum ultimately showed is that large-scale art events like biennials include many different actors with different perspectives. First, one should realize that the keynote presentations represent the perspectives of one set of actors, led by a moderate elite of scholars who provide biennials with their content. These are but one of the many sets of actors who represent the biennial event. What other actors out there might be their match? The time has come for them to show their face at the forum. This year’s event had biennial officials gathering around round tables under the same theme as the Gwangju Biennale, sharing details about the different events that are happening. Some did so as chairmen, others as artistic directors, still others as administrators. Some emphasized aesthetic themes, others operational effects. Who are they? Who are the actors in the biennials of the world? In Gwangju’s case, is it the managers at the Biennale Foundation? Can general directors serve as representatives when they typically finish after one go? Is it right for the government or administrative workers who supply the funds to be representatives? Or is it proper to strip the representativeness away from decision-makers who do the same things as general directors? And what of the visitors who pay taxes and admission? Or the people who hope to see the biennials bringing in tourist dollars? If we take into account the demographics of the typical biennial visitor, we can isolate the variables determining the future of the biennial: the international discourse of cosmopolitanism, efficient management policy, and the actors who arouse viewer interest in choose the differences that are presented. We can even put names on these actors: the elite, the government, the spectator/citizen. As a result, the Biennial Forum is not an actor working to shift the center of gravity, but an arena where these actors fight it out for the gravitational force that is hegemony.

Taking the Field: The Government, the Elite, and the Citizen/Spectator

The first team in the contest consists of the scholars and the elite, who are looking for areas of improvement in modernism. The moderates are looking within the system to find solutions to the problem of hegemony among actors, using the aforementioned differences and theories like cosmopolitanism. At the same time, they are working to protect experimental art (which has been suffering under a lack of support) and, as described above, defending diversity by advocating experiments with difference to improve on the methods used in pursuit of the ideals of democracy and humanism. Mouffe hinted at a radical segment within the elite’s top roster as she described political scientists and sociologists like Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri, and Jacques Ranciere. While they agree with the idea of defending difference, they are more interested in reclaiming the authority of class, as identified with the citizens and laborers (spectators) who were once discriminated against. As a result, the viewer is now able to compete in modern art and the biennial arena as a second team of participants in relational aesthetic with art, and, being citizens who share responsibility in government administration, as actors in governance. Finally, there is a third team. Biennials tend to take the name of their host city, and most of their funding comes from the host city and the national government. This high level of dependence means that it is difficult to imagine them being immune to interference from the (local) government’s political agenda. The government is the third team in the contest, and the richest of them off. So here is how the competition looks:

Above) exhibition view of KIAF 2015 General Debate at the First World Biennial Forum, Kim Daejung Convention Center, Gwangju

The business mind-set, the calculation of everything in terms of dollars and cents, is a fearsome thing. It has the potential to obliterate the very raison d’etre of the biennale ? that is, to promote culture and the arts. This accounts for the attention and attitude toward art we actually see at these biennials: uncertain, incoherent, half-hearted. Art history is becoming progressively filled with concepts like “briefcase,” “limousine,” “press conference,” “balance of trade,” or “quota.” Things have reached the point where biennials are obliged to somehow contribute to economic value external to art. They slide further away from their artistic or cultural horizons, becoming legitimized by the “romantic religion of the state” or ending up as attempts to rationalize brazen economic self-interest. 3)

Korea’s biennials have run into another dilemma confronted by Asian biennials as a whole. For all their trial and error, neither the Gwangju Biennale nor the Busan Biennale has been able to find the unique course that is right for itself. The general director of exhibitions for the 2004 Busan Biennale described being ordered by the steering committee at the time of his appointment to include 40 countries and over 100 artists. At such moments, it becomes clear that the biennale was never an active mechanism to present a vision and a path toward liberation, but a reactive mechanism aimed at concealing, or at least packaging, its incompetence. The physical environment for the exhibitions has visibly improved, but biennials are still bound to the desires of others ? courting name curators, drafting steroidal inventories of global artists, devising pretty but unconvincing slogans. How much sense does it make to appoint someone with zero experience or understanding of Korea as a general director ? unless, of course, said person was also general director for the Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany? Doesn’t such a decision mean that we’re substituting impressive CVs for something that mustn’t simply be traded away? What can a German without any knowledge or understanding of Korea do in an unfamiliar setting like Busan, anyway? He can plan “impromptu performances” and set up a Learning Council of 80-odd citizens and 41 artists ? and that's about it. There's no questioning his expertise, not when his stirring speeches have him using mind-blowing keywords like "dememorializing monuments." The Gwangju Biennale, for its part, failed to allay concerns that it might inhibit, or totally shut down, the activity taking place in thinking and discourse. Those concerns have become ever more serious over those ten years of searing numbers-based growth.

1) Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Korean trans. by Kim Ga-cheol). The Blessed People, 2011, p. 129.
2) Headquartered in the Netherlands.
3) Slavoj Zizek, Violence (Korean translation by Lee Hyeon-woo). Nanjangi, 2011, p. 149.

Changing Biennials: Hot Open Media

Once the ceremonies ended at the first World Biennial Forum, it was time for an even more heated competition in the debate portion. From the first team, Prof. Bae Hyeong-min opined that biennials and public art are turning into government tools for urban entertainment, arguing that the question of how to transcend this should be the focus of discussions at the forum. It was the equivalent of a dazzling dribble from one of the star athletes. It was strange, though?while the cheering section seemed to like it well enough, they also argued that while those who have experienced a big and expensive government-sponsored cultural event, and found it simplistic and only peripherally stimulating, have difficulty to go along with the idea of equating it with an experimental art exhibition, they also shouldn’t simply be thrown out with the bathwater simply because we agree with the cosmopolitan logic of "difference." At this point, the radical elite from the first team landed an own-goal, arguing that the citizen-spectators should be the ones defining the aesthetic, that they need to choose what is and isn’t art. Point to the second team. Even here, the verdict from the stands was that the own-goal was just. But the ones cheering for the second team began to roil with excitement?this was their match to win. Frustrated, the captain of the first team defended the own-goal, arguing that it was a defense of experimental art as a necessary element, but not the greatest element. At this point, there was a new attack on the third team?the argument that entertaining the public was not something for their benefit, but an affront to the development of humankind and cultural diversity. The head of the third team, a cultural policy researcher, replied with a smile. Experimental artists were always poor, he said, but they always managed to survive, and they would continue to do so. Because policy lumps the whole public together, it could reduce the amount of benefits going to the kind of experimental art that only made abstract promises about being helpful to human development at some unspecified time in the distant future. In other words, he couldn’t do anything about the fact that experimental art was not, could not, be a policy fundamental at the top of the priority list. It was a blow to the solar plexus for the first team’s players. Their legs were sagging. They were about to lose consciousness when the referee’s whistle blew. Then a call to the assistant referee and a brief consultation. There is something of a borderline when it comes to calling sportsmanship on a political punch like that: talking about how the so-called "experimental elite," in their disappointment at populist cultural policy, are, after all, humans too, and feel bummed out when they get fewer benefits. And a limit to particularity should also be recognized for policies crafted in language that are obliged to lump people into some abstract "public." But the public servants who use the money earmarked for policy are also human beings. The players on the third team have no right to say their hands are tied because the policy is what it is. The officials in charge of cultural administration aren’t the policy, but they are the ones who interpret policy. After all, those human beings take the money given to them for certain things and spend it in certain ways. Anyway, when a player from the first team attacks a member of the second for having lousy, shallow taste, the result is that the different athletes appoint themselves as representatives of their entire team ("How dare you insult our taste?"), or commit a foul by donning the second team’s uniforms and saying, "That shallowness isn’t our taste, it’s the taste of the second team that gives us taxpayer money." And so it went, back and forth, until the referees returned to position and their chief, the Dutch veteran Rene Block, handed the third team a yellow card. "Keep this up," he said, "and we’re going to have to take the forum to a different country every time like the Olympics."

Shin Hyun-jin

majored in painting and arts management. She worked as a program manager at the Asian American Arts Centre in New York, first curator at Ssamzie Space in Seoul, gallery director at Samuso in Seoul, and a planning team member at the 2008 Lucky Number Seven biennial in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She organized [Title Match] and served as co-planner for [tacit.perform[0]] in Seoul and [WATERwalks] in New York. She is currently working on a doctoral degree in art criticism and writing a dissertation and novel on neoliberalism and the institutional resistance of modern art. 

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