Packaging: adding value or hindering access to the gift?

27 Mar 2010

I've become used to the steady ping of mails into the inbox announcing new or newly numbered biennials. Now that the flow has definitely slowed I wonder if they're disappearing or morphing into something else.

Flicking between tabs I notice a mail from Sharjah, home (since 1993) of a leading international biennial. Yet this comes not from the biennial administration, but from a foundation, a new MENASA-region initiative incorporating substantial open-submission grants that rings as a pledge of commitment to the arts in economically challenging times and, possibly, something of a re-branding exercise. The biennial is, of course, still in existence -- the locus of these developmental reverberations -- now a bullet point under a wider mission umbrella.

For all the Latin gravitas of the word 'biennial', the widespread adoption of this exhibition model has led to descriptive comparisons with clinical afflictions. As I mentioned in the last post, the cultural players of Bergen, in evaluating what a biennial event would mean for the Norwegian city, invited arts professionals to submit relevant research to inform their programming of a conference event built around the issue. While this wealth of international material is currently being compiled into two publications likely, as Laurie Anderson might say, “thick enough to stun an ox”another, 'Localised', was commissioned to coincide with the event exploring the 'local' view.

A handful of texts are available to view online and it's curious to note that authors Anne Szefer Karlsen and Arne Skaug Olsen use the Olympics as a comparative model for the impact and legacy effect of the biennial event structure for local cultures. In recent times, a boom period for many of the world's richest nations, the Venice Biennale has been described as “the art world's olympics”, so it's perhaps natural in a period of prosperity that a rash of marathons and fun runs would follow in its wake. And, maybe then, in marketing terms at least, when debate over the relevance of this format to global perspectives on the here-and-now become formalised, it might be time to shift focus. 'Foundation' implies block building, being in it for the long haul -- new beginnings based on firmly set cultural bricks.

While it's interesting to think of how the biennial might evolve as a result of trends in conceptual packaging, essentially the large-format exhibition, in whatever guise and with all its geo-, socio- and site-specific issues, will remain. The Tatton Park biennial, a temporary series of commissions situated within an historic site and between exhibition formats, may not have to worry in physical terms about the project skin it will shed, but its occurrence makes for a local legacy of another sort.

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 11:59 AM