An analytical comparison of the mechanisms and histories of both the Venice Biennale and the nomadic biennale Manifesta, seen in a socio-political and economical context, and the effect of both events on aesthetics and contemporary artistic practices in a politicized / globalized art world.
Presentation at the National Gallery, Kuala Lumpur 2019
I wanted my talk today to be less theoretical and more analytical, therefore I am presenting to you two different art events, which I was invited to curate together with our curatorial collective CPS, namely the Manifesta 8 in Spain 2010 and the Maldives Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
A little about our art and curatorial collective the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), which I co-founded in 2004. Some of our first projects were experimental TV programs for Copenhagen’s local TV station called tvtv. We produced several broadcast hours on critical topics adding a global flavour to local TV.
CPS is a network of artists, curators and cultural writers providing a platform for the kind of artistic expression that goes beyond what is recognized on the global art scene. Technically speaking – using constructed media, info-investigative-aesthetics, and aesthetic journalism – CPS started as a self-learning self-activation group that later became a participatory collaborative collective that uses and presents scientific research, critical theories, knowledge-based narratives, and concepts of discursive character in order to address central questions like:
- What does it mean to produce culture?
- How can artistic production positively contribute to our collective social behavior?
- Can cultural interventions help us to communicate better with the so-called real space?
- How can aesthetical practices guide us to understand or solve different issues related to our history and social complexity?
Since 2004, CPS collective has conceived and implemented art exhibitions, film festivals, radio and TV programs and documentary films addressing the position of art and media narratives, and the function and responsibility of both in relation to contemporary society.
CPS’ journey of collective curating
Around 2008-9 we started to get invitations to curate large institutional projects. The third Guangzhou Triennial headed by Sarat Maharaj was one of the projects we participated in.
Later on, we were appointed to co-curate Manifesta 8, and the Maldives Pavilion at 55th Venice Biennale.
In this regard and based on our experiences I will give a concise presentation to the conceptual approaches first of the Venice Biennale founded in 1895, and secondly of the European Nomadic Biennale, Manifesta, founded in 1994.
In April 1893 the Venetian City Council passed a resolution to set up a biennial exhibition of Italian Art (Esposizione biennale artistica nazionale) to help promote the marketing of artworks by Italian artists. A year later, the council decreed to adopt a by invitation system; to reserve a section of the exhibition for foreign artists.
Today the Venice Biennale is considered the most important and prestigious art event on the international contemporary art and culture calendar. Every second year more than 80 countries participate in the Biennale.
The Venice Biennale used to be only for recognized nation states that can secure a self-representation at the event. Next to the traditionally curated exhibition usually organized by the Venice Biennale foundation itself, lately, the foundation made it possible for private art associations, galleries and art organizations to organize their own pavilions; they called these self-organized pavilions collateral events.
The Venice Biennale doesn’t usually intervene in the selection of artists or artworks, this job is left to the nation state, or to the curators of the so-called collateral events. The Venice Biennale has a stretchy guideline for the exhibitioners to follow but that is all. Pavilion spaces are usually hired for a period of 6 months for the amount of 50 and up to 300 thousand Euros per space.
Since the end of 2nd WW the Venice Biennale went through an industrialization process, and it is now an event of commercial interest by all means. The biennial has become a source of income for the city of Venice and it has inspired the city to arrange similar events around the year, like the architectural biennial, and the film festival, and the children festival.
Still, the Venice Biennale remains an attraction for nation states and private art associations and galleries alike for many reasons.
For some nation states participating in the Venice Biennale can be politically motivated. Consequently, some countries use the VB as an international cultural platform to promote a new national image, especially if that image is not a very pleasant one.
There are also the countries that use the Venice Biennale as a platform to demonstrate and brand its national culture and heritage. They do so by selecting their best curatorial teams and invite the country’s best conceptual artists who are capable of representing the latest and most phenomenological artistic practices in the country.
How does the protocol of the Venice Biennale work?
Well, the nation state usually appoints a commissioner, who appoints the curators.
The curators then organize the logistics of the pavilion from A to Z, including finding a good theme, writing the curatorial concept, and selecting the artists who represent the latest artistic practices in the country.
Usually, the work of the appointed curators includes:
- Identify precise goals and values coinciding with the country’s visual culture and aesthetics
- Prioritize the interests of the country
- Consider the cultural aspects and values of the country
- Shape a rich and varied visual, artistic experience
- Encourage unique thoughts and stimulate sophisticated artistic and cultural discussions
- Offer a truly professional, independent and unbiased foreground for the local culture at the international level
- Represent the Ministry of Culture in every aspect of the planning, research, selection and installation of the artworks
- Maintain detailed financial statements of all income including expense accounts sorted by activities.
Finally, participation in the Venice Biennale is a powerful tool for a country to promote its culture abroad. Attendance at the VBiennale has grown significantly since its inception in 1895. Today, the Biennale logs over 500,000 visitors semi-annually. Many come from all over the world to experience the art and culture of individual nations dispersed in pavilions throughout the small island lagoon city.
Maldives Pavilion | Portable Nation |
Disappearance as work in progress – approaches to Ecological Romanticism
In 2012 I was the appointed curator of the Maldives Pavilion, and together with the CPS team, we curated the first Maldives Pavilion at the 55th VB in 2013.
Curating a pavilion for a politically polarized nation state like the Maldives at that time was a very difficult job, however we studied and understood the socio-political situation and decided to present an ecological project addressing the risk facing the country and how it may disappear as a nation state, which means that in 80 years’ time, the Maldives may become the first nation state without a land.
The Maldives Pavilion is an eco-aesthetic space, a platform for environmental campaigners, artists, and thinkers. Through inviting artists and contributors to the Maldives Pavilion the intention was to provide a meaningful aesthetic experience and extensive knowledge of the concept of Contemporary Environmental Romanticism in relation to the nature and culture of the Maldives.
The Manifesta Foundation
In 2009 I was appointed with two other curators to curate the nomadic European biennial Manifesta 8, in Spain.
Based often on socio-political motivation and arrays of conceptualized art systems, Manifesta – the nomadic European biennial, has built its own unique mechanisms of how to produce, read and communicate contemporary artistic practices.
Manifesta’s art robot was established by Dutch national Hedvig Figen in Amsterdam in 1994. Unlike other biennials, Manifesta takes place every second year in a different European country. Often Manifesta prefers to locate itself on border cities between two nation states – and sometimes between two tense regions within the same nation state.
Manifesta breeds best where ethnic, sectarian or social issues are at stake. Manifesta uses artistic practices as therapy to build bridges and to heal tense and unsolved-interrupted socio-political situations.
Manifesta has a different economic structure than any other art biennale we know.
Manifesta constantly negotiates new financial agreements with cities willing to host the biennale. The inviting city usually finances Manaifesta’s activities, on the bases that Manifesta employs local manpower for logistic work, and engages local citizens in Manifesta’s non-artistic activities. However, the host cities know in advance that Manifesta will bring its own audience (about 70.000 international guests). Those guests will naturally book their own flights and hotels and will contribute financially to the host city. So, economically it is a win – win situation.
At Manifesta, invited artists or curators can participate only once in the biennial, unlike the Venice Biennale.
Manifesta has its own education department and it campaigns strongly for this department. Manifesta regards its education department as a tool of knowledge production, which brings with it to local communities a global curatorial and artistic expertise. Conferences, workshops and seminar are also part of Manifesta’s knowledge machine, not to forget that Manifesta has a strong relation to the network of art journalism and media.
Manifesta changes it curatorial approach every time it moves to a new city. Through operating as a roving biennial, Manifesta must each time address and negotiate a different context with specific geographical, historical, aesthetical and political structures. In this way, its curators are offered the opportunity, and the challenge, to engage with local, global and networked communities using a variety of platforms and methodologies.
Manifesta 8, was built around collective curating. Our art collective CPS, together with ACAF and Transit.org, were appointed to curate M8 in the Spanish cities of Murcia and Cartagena, under the theme ‘Southern Spain in Dialog with North Africa’.
CPS approached M8 as a grand experimentarium and we decided to take the artists we invited out of their usual terrain and challenged them to produce works of different nature than what they are used to. CPS’s approach to curation encompassed (mass) media platforms such as television, internet, radio and newspapers, alongside other exhibition formats. Broadcast airtime, online streaming, printed matter, human relations, and physical venues were all ‘channels’ in which our artists presented different types of constructions.
CPS’ concept was called THE REST IS HISTORY?
The concept of: THE REST IS HISTORY? with a question mark was meant to reflect on the interrupted Spanish civil war, and on the shared history between North Africa and Sothern Spain better known as Alandalus. A real space where one history is told in two different stories.
In the vision of CPS, Manifesta 8 was a series of ‘transmissions’ that critically used artistic, relational and media(ted) strategies to explore ideas of what Spain / Europe is today and focus on its boundaries and relationship with Northern Africa while encouraging a questioning perspective from viewers. Within this context, CPS searched out dialogues, placing them in the public realm through the practices of media production, documentary, artistic research and aesthetic journalism.
These media(ted) channels were an extremely interesting place to situate a series of projects for Manifesta 8. By challenging artists and contributors to explore new terrains beyond their usual practice, we questioned the media’s relationship to the construction of local reality, how it relates to ideas of truth, fact and history, what are its possibilities for engaging with new audiences, aAd why do we need to expand the existing boundaries of art by introducing the notion of media?
In short, in/with Manifesta 8, CPS worked not only to expand media into art, but also art into media.