OFF-Biennale Budapest is the largest independent contemporary art event in Hungary. It started in 2014 as a grassroots initiative, a “garage” biennale set up by a small group of art professionals in order to create a platform for exchange between art practitioners and other members of society. Our main aim is to strengthen the local independent art scene, to generate public discourse on urgent but often suppressed issues. OFF has been a continuous experiment to perform and prefigure a sustainable and democratic institution in the civil realm.
OFF-Biennale Budapest boycotts the Hungarian public art infrastructure: it does not apply for state-managed funding and steers clear from state-run art institutions. This is a political statement as much as a practical solution to protect the freedom of artistic expression. In lack of significant alternatives to the state infrastructure in Hungary’s art scene, this decision confronts us with serious challenges in sustaining the project; at the same time, it allows us to demonstrate that it is possible in Hungary to work on this scale without accepting the negative compromises state subsidies often entail.
After two successful editions in 2015 and in 2017, now we focus on a small number of complex projects that we co-produce and co-organize. The OFF curatorial team has worked in close collaboration with the local initiators on each aspect of their predominantly international projects; and by raising the visibility of these locally as well as internationally.
Inhale! Exhale!—Respiration is a basic physiological process that functions involuntarily but can also be controlled. We take a deep breath when we want to say something or when we brace ourselves for a difficult task. “Fresh air” is also a symbol of freedom: metaphorically it may refer to a place or a situation in which it is possible to breathe freely.
The third edition of OFF-Biennale Budapest, INHALE! takes the seminal political poem, “A Breath of Air!” by 20th-century Hungarian poet Attila József as its point of departure. The poem was written in 1935, a time when the social catastrophe of the Great Depression rearranged the political map of Europe, and Fascism overruled half of the continent. After the crisis of 2008, the political climate has, again, moved into a more xenophobic, fascistoid direction in Hungary as well as in other countries of the world. And it is not only the political climate that has changed: the climate of the Earth itself also underwent dramatic changes due to human activities. Thus, in our 21st-century reading of the poem, a “breath of air” simultaneously refers to the galloping climate crisis and the fundamental freedoms threatened by populistic regimes and by global capital.
What does contemporary art have to say when scientific facts are taken over by conspiracy theories, myths replace history, and creativity itself has also become subject to co-option? The presented projects not only point to problems: going beyond criticism, they deliver utopistic, playful, or very tangible suggestions and alternatives. Thus, INHALE! is neither a desperate call for help, nor a demand only, but rather an imperative pertaining to all of us. It is a direct reference to how we must take a deep breath and take action for clean air, for the protection of our freedom, for the liberation of our imagination—to create and preserve conditions and places for breathing freely.
April 24–May 31, 2020