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Contributing to Utopia

Reflections on the history of the biennial format stemming from a conversation with Richard Parry: An Introduction

The biennial as a concept has become a common phenomenon in the art world since its sudden growth in popularity in the 1990s. Glasgow’s iteration has been running since 2005, and with the close of new director Richard Parry’s first year on the job, here are a few thoughts on the nature of the format of the biennial, and the role GI plays for artists, organisers and audience in Glasgow and within the international context.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, generally agreed upon to be the format’s forerunner, has been referred to as ‘the first attempt to condense the representation of the world in a unitary exhibition space, where the exhibit is society itself in an a-historical, spectacular condition’.|1| This imperialistic spectacle was followed shortly after by the inaugural Venice Biennale, which was the first contemporary art exhibition of its scale.  Both large scale exhibitions offered their hosting cities huge civic advantages, encouraging trade and tourism, as well as affecting urban regeneration.

As a city state with a rich carnival tradition, the governing bodies in Venice would have had experience in organising and directing an annual event of this size. Carnival and the carnivalesque, a moment of celebration, of playful debauchery and liberation, occurring before the religious and moral restrictions of Lent every year, has been examined by Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin in terms of the spectacle, a utopian no-place, a strange temporal threshold in time, in which all bets are off, and everything becomes possible, if only for the duration of the holiday. The carnival provided a sense of rejuvenation for the city, a release from the everyday for the population, and was useful for governing bodies wishing to keep order the rest of the year round.|2|

In the worst case, the biennial of today’s Western art world has been decried as coming very close to the empty spectacle, a pacifying show-and-tell entertainment and nothing more. In best practice examples, the surge in biennials across the art world has brought about a shift in terms of how art is exhibited not only at a festival, but also in a gallery space throughout the year. The biennial offers a threshold for discourse and consumption, thus bridging the boundary between the work and the world, the audience and the work, and between different identities that make up the ecology of the audience.|3| Ideally, then, the present-day biennial should offer a glimpse of a critical utopia, created by the coming together of high and low culture in the carnivalesque; it should provide a momentary interface navigating between voices in contemporary art, and current social and political realities. This moment, as threshold, has the potential to be a utopian space precisely because it is a no-mans-land of possibility, providing a promise of emancipation, a glimpse of discourse into different modes of being and doing. And so the biennial must not merely entertain in order to be successful, not only bring rejuvenation, exchange and tourism to its hosting city, but must also provide a platform for critical discourse, both of the work shown, and of the moment in society which it inhabits.

Taking this into consideration, what kind of biennial has new director Richard Parry set out to create with this year’s Glasgow International (GI)? Coming from the Hayward in London via The Grundy in Liverpool, Parry arrived in the middle of the process, a point at which applications were already submitted to the wider programme, and some structures he would have liked to have changed from previous years were still in place (most notably his discomfort with the title of the Director’s Forum, as someone familiar with GI from previous years as a visitor, but not in terms of being the director). With 90 exhibitions and 268 artists across 78 venues, this year’s GI has arguably been a feat of considerable scope and effort considering its director’s late arrival, and can only be attributed to his involved approach and commitment to the city not only in terms of the festival, but also in terms of a new home.

Parry has demonstrated his preference for collaborative work and programming, stating that it was important to hear a plurality of voices in the process and involve others in the programming decisions for the wider programme. This mode of working is also evident in the different collaborations involved in the making of a number of shows this year, ranging from the use of a wide variety of venues, both established centres such as GOMA and Transmission, but also of alternative venues such as the derelict Caledonia Road Free Church; through to collaborations with GSA’s Widening Participation youth outreach programme, Year of Young People 2018, and Glasgow 2018 European Championship in Mick Peter’s The Regenerators at the Dalmarnock Gas Purifier Shed in the East End.

The discourse around the biennial and its uses are polyphonic. On the one hand there is the notion that the biennial creates a decentralising moment away from the monopoly of established artistic power centres, offers cultural diversity and artistic plurality, and creates spaces for emancipation and discourse. On the other, claims have been made of the individual director’s own agenda, of cultural homogenisation, of the fact that, as a largely publicly funded entity, it is beholden to those funding bodies.|4| Parry says of Glasgow that it has a well established critical foundation, which, as discussed above, is vital for the success of a biennial not only as spectacle of entertainment, but also as threshold for alternative modes of thinking in bringing about a discursive turn.|5|

But this is not one man’s festival, and Parry is the first to admit that. The range of artists, facilitators and collaborators present in the 2018 festival programme attest to a particularly rich fabric of discourse. I suppose the question that remains in my mind is whether the creators and artists still have a critical voice in the world in which, and for which, they make work. Any institutionalised festival can be seen as monolithic, but given a curatorial approach which is sensitive to the artistic ecologies of the place itself, given a struck balance between those local ecologies and the artists and modes of working that are brought in from further afield, the outcome needed in the times which we inhabit is a platform to contribute to a moment in time that is worth adding one’s voice to.

|1|Peter Sloterdijk. Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals, (Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 2009)

|2| Mikhail Bakhtin. Rabelais and his World, (Cambridge Mass., M.I.T. Press, 1965)

|3| Art Basel. Salon Panel with Ute Meta Bauer, Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Øvstebø, (Youtube, 10th December 2012) Accessed: 4th June 2018, Available:

|4| Pascal Giehlen. ‘The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art’, (Im)Mobility Accessed: 4th June 2018, Available:

|5| Paul O’Neill. The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse, from The Biennial Reader eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Øvstebø, (Bergen, Bergen Junsthall, 2010)

Loll Junggeburth is the founding editor of the poetry magazine RAUM.

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