06 Oct 2010

Chemical barrels artwork

After saying adieu to this biennial, I ran into another: the People's Biennial, a two-year American initiative which proposes a rather different (X Factor-meets-national-touring-exhibition) event structure. I was immediately (in a British kind of way) tickled by the contradiction set up by the event's name (however potentially tongue-in-cheek) and that of its organisers, ICI (Independent Curators International). A disparity that in a small way reflects the tricky position of the biennial and the curator, today

In French, for example, ICI simply means 'here' in shouty letters. On this island, however, the acronym is associated with, the now commerically absorbed, Imperial Chemical Industries – a company immortalised in the British consciousness via a long-running advert for household paints featuring a shaggy dog. Where the People's Biennial implies democracy, for a certain audience, ICI might describe its toxic political other.

This throwaway observation seemed pertinent given the curators' (Jens Hoffmann and artist Harrell Fletcher) obvious efforts to liberate the selection and other exhibition process from the traditional curator-dominated biennial structure. And, in the face of the recent editorial debates (to which Hoffmann has contributed) sparked by E-flux Journal editor Anton Vidokle's pithy assessment of the current curatorial state of play.

For in considering the future of the biennial, one is inevitably caused to consider the role of the curator. Naturally, once an exhibition timeline ('biennial' essentially means happening every two years) starts to develop its own international identity, it should be challenged. The same applies to 'curator', a word that having associatively broken through and stomped all over its definitive origins, as an adminstrative or custodial role, needs urgent re-evaulation.

And this is essentially what the People's Biennial is attempting to do, create a series of open-submission exhibitions that challenge the role of the curator and the biennial and describe the reality of local from the inside out, as opposed to inflicting the (often removed and non-invested) opinions of others on a given locality. There is no theme, basically anything by anyone goes and local debate encouraged as part of the process; it's certainly fraught with risk. The apparent transparency of the event's evolution is a clever strategy, more mirror than open window, for it remains difficult for the outsider to assess the weight of the curators' hands on the organisational tiller or imagine the shape of the events to come.

ICI, as a New-York based one-stop online shop for the practising and would-be cultural agent, on the other hand, seems to add fuel to the fires of those who believe curators have become far too big for their boots. Such as Vidokle:

“The necessity of going “beyond the making of exhibitions” should not become a justification for the work of curators to supersede the work of artists, nor a reinforcement of authorial claims that render artists and artworks merely actors and props for illustrating curatorial concepts.”

And while I agree wholeheartedly about the dangers of “curatorial power” and the identikit system of event-making the “illustrational” approach produces, Vidokle's reactionary stance makes me think of the rich collaborative territories that have opened up, since the advent of biennialism, between practitioners. It's not as if curators, artists and writers haven't been addressing such issues or generally doing it for themselves.

For a start, in London alone last year, we had the Zero Budget Biennial, a critics'/artists' initiative and writer/curator Tom Morton's Deceitful Moon, which used the anniversary of the lunar landings to illustrate the rise in easily marketable cultural-calendar themed exhibitions (and, by default, art-mag features) at the Hayward Gallery Project Space. Not to mention the fact that the self- independent-publishing phenomenon has increased to the extent of garnering its own annual fair at the Whitechapel.

Once, the critic's pen was the most powerful art-world tool. In more recent, market-savvy times the power balance has certainly shifted in the direction of gallerists and curators. While it is perhaps a little naïve to believe that the world of art is self-policing, it is certainly a place of flux. And at Tatton, with its boggy aboretum and steaming piles of crap for the gardens, a curator's boots can never be too big.

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 12:13 PM