Biennialization and its counternarratives – join us at the CAA conference in Chicago

Biennialization and its counternarratives

Biennialization and its counternarratives
108th CAA Annual Conference

Friday, 14 February 2020, 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Waldorf Room, Hilton Chicago
720 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

Session description

Art world professionals and scholars rarely indulge in the exercise of counting the art museums in the world. On the other hand, the latest estimate of the actual number of contemporary art biennials became a permanent feature of every conference paper or publication on the subject.

Biennialization and its counternarratives will investigate the underlying motivations behind this strange case of arithmomania. It will interrogate the discourse of biennialization, which has been dominating debates surrounding contemporary art biennials over the past decade. Biennialization has, particularly within Western academic and professional circles, become a prominent buzzword, conjuring a diversity of associations, connotations and attendant mythologies. One of the characteristics of this discourse is a habitual conflation of the epistemology of biennials with several essentially contested concepts – such as globalization, gentrification or activism – which often leads to association fallacies. The session attempts to identify the latter, as well as other underlying assumptions and the ways in which the arguments made about the biennialization may be flawed or inconsistent with actual developments occurring around the world.

The aim of this session, intended as a polemic, is to provide a selection of most prevalent – and often competing – narratives and viewpoints in order to better understand how arguments about the contemporary biennial are currently framed and illuminate potential, new approaches to the subject.

Chair: Rafal Niemojewski, Director, Biennial Foundation

Discussant: Isobel Whitelegg, Director of the School of Museum Studies Postgraduate Research (PhD) programmes MA Art Museum & Gallery Studies (AMAGS), University of Leicester


Panagiotis Kompatsiaris
Biennial Ethnographies Against Biennialization: Place, Translocality and Global Forms

One of the most recurrent and persisting frameworks employed to speak about the phenomenon of art biennials refers to the idea of ‘biennialization’ (e.g. Tang, 2011; Frascina, 2013; Papastergiadis; Martin, 2011; Gardner; Green, 2016). According to this idea, biennials are the most influential engines of artistic globalization, in the sense of propagating, enabling and materialising art’s vocabularies in and across local settings. In this regard, artistic globalisation, i.e. the idea of the expansion and worldwide co-authoring of the field’s codes, is accelerated as biennials multiply as formats for displaying, producing and generating knowledge around contemporary art (Ferguson; Hoegsberg, 2010; Greenberg; Ferguson; Nairne, 1996). The problem with this framework is that it often describes the rise of biennial cultures as an on-going, and often frictionless, state of things. While scholars who employ it, may accept those frictions do exist, especially in the light of centre and periphery debates and the biennial’s internal heterogeneity, it does little to account for the situated complexities through which the biennial unravels as a global but also grounded set of practice, or a “global form” in Aihwa Ong’s and Stephen Collier’s terminology (Ong; Collier, 2005: 11). As an alternative to the numerical privileging of biennialization, this presentation will propose an ethnographic approach – site-specific and contextually sensitive- to study contemporary biennials. It will be focusing on the role and predicament of the biennial ethnographer as these events are staged, performed and articulated as parts of translocal places and their larger socio-temporal dynamics.

Amy Bruce
From Official to Unscrupulous: The Havana Biennial and #00Bienal de La Habana

Previously ignored innovations by “biennials of the south” or “peripheral” biennials have begun to be recognized for their substantial contributions to the contemporary biennial and disruptions to Eurocentric contemporary art discourse (Hoskote, 2010; Clark, 2010; Niemojewski, 2010; Mosquera, 2011; Weiner, 2014; Marchant, 2014; Gardner and Green, 2016;). However, what becomes of a longer history of a biennial? In the case of the Havana Biennial, which is regarded as the first contemporary biennial for instituting postcolonial perspectives and additional discursive components, (Niemojewski, 2010) it has become considered by many local Cuban artists as unscrupulous (Havana Times, 2017). The Havana Biennial initiated a network for non-Euro-American artists, yet the Cuban government has increasingly imposed limitations on Cuban artists and their creative economy. How do histories of biennials address inaugurative ambition and later editions effected by changing socio-cultural production? When the official 13th Havana Biennial was cancelled in 2018, local artists and curators organized their own biennial, #00Bienal de La Habana, in lieu of the postponed edition, which was later hosted in April-May 2019. By comparing the “unofficial” #00Bienal de La Habana to the official 13th edition of the Havana Biennial, this paper considers a present context for the Havana Biennial’s historiography, by mobilizing on-the-ground discussions about tensions between local and global narratives. My discussion examines curatorial intentions and strategies of each of these editions, revealing their ideologies and visions of the global that reflect on the productivity of local and global perceptions for rethinking historiographies of biennials.

Ciara Ennis
The Appropriation of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Wunderkammer Tactics for Rethinking Biennales

In the recent history of biennales and large scale recurrent exhibitions, the use of wunderkammer aesthetics and tactics has emerged as an alternative curatorial tool for rethinking tired exhibitionary formats and issues around exclusion and inclusion. This presentation will discuss the efficacy of these efforts in two exhibitions—Massimiliano Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace, the 2013 iteration of the Venice Biennale, and the Brain component of dOCUMENTA (13), curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in 2012. Presenting alternative approaches to display and content, the wunderkammer can be characterized by its dense form and generative mode of display, which manifests in abrupt juxtapositions and heterogeneous constellations. When deployed critically and creatively, this can increase the range of ideas explored in an exhibition by provoking unanticipated connections and associations. Similarly, the inclusion of diverse and disparate content—objects representing multiple fields of study, practices, and chronologies made by art and non-art professionals—can greatly expand the configurations of knowledge within an exhibition. Privileging ambiguity over didacticism, the wunderkammer’s flexible form and generative mode of display allows the viewer to bring their own subjective experiences to bear on the interpretation of an artwork, which increases engagement and agency in the meaning-making process. These ideas will be discussed in relation to Gioni and Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial tactics in their efforts to reimagine what a biennale might be.

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