Why don’t we boycott all biennales?

This article was originally published in Artlink Issue 36:1, March 2016 Big Ideas edition.

Biennales, like war, are the continuation of politics by other means.

In early 2014 at the height of the brouhaha surrounding the non boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney I commented that I had boycotted the previous eighteen biennales so I would happily boycott the nineteenth as well but I wasn’t prepared to promote the delusion that artists boycotting an exhibition could in any way assist asylum seekers. Sure enough after Luca Belgiorno-Nettis had been scapegoated and the artists claimed victory as they hastily retreated it was back to biennale business as usual and absolutely nothing had changed for refugees.

With the 20th Biennale now upon us it seems the appropriate time to discuss the political nature of biennales. If the 19th Biennale of Sydney was tainted then so too are most cultural institutions, for more complex reasons than funding. I want to look more closely at this strained marriage of convenience between politics and the visual arts and then offer some suggestions about how we might get a bit more fun out of our subservient place in the relationship.

Biennales and triennales are an evolution of the international exhibitions that began with The Great Exhibition of London in 1851. The future pattern was set by its ideological program of internationalism dominated by British colonial ambition but also by the accommodation of a wide variety of class and political interests, except those of the radical working class. In fact the ticketing arrangements emphasised class, starting at £1 for the first few days reducing in stages to 1 shilling in the last months, effectively quarantining different social strata into different visiting times. By the end of the nineteenth century thirteen more world exhibitions were held in various international capitals including Sydney in 1879-80 and Melbourne in 1880-81.

Although the arts were a major feature of most international exhibitions the model for current art biennales was the Venice Biennale. The first in 1895 was, like the exhibitions, an unabashed exercise in political propaganda by the Venice City Council. Conceived as a biennial national exhibition of contemporary art, it initially celebrated the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy. Major foreign and Italian artists were invited but uninvited Italian painters and sculptors were also included by jury selection. Until 1920 the Mayor of Venice was ex officio president of the Biennale and in 1930 control passed from the Venice City Council to the national Fascist government of Mussolini.

The significance of the Venice Biennale as the first instance of a cultural meme lay in factors that continue to birth more biennales – nationalism, cultural tourism, urban regeneration, personal and institutional prestige, displays of conspicuous wealth. Biennales are enhanced opportunities for the rich and powerful rather than the artists whose quaint belief about their own centrality is soon disproven in practice.

Venice Biennale has been described as an art fair where nothing is for sale but it makes greater claims for its own cultural significance. Australian authorities have never understood this, treating it as a traditional world-expo-style trade fair where superior conventionality is paraded as a virtue. The fact that the best art at any time is invariably the least conventional is apparently not grasped by decision makers who feel most comfortable with the constipated virtuosity that may be admirable in say, a concert pianist, but makes for completely forgettable visual art. Their determination to gain approval by extreme conformism to dated international trends has been clearly seen and so in that way at least the colonial attitudes that underlie Australian culture are being honestly represented.

It is sad that so little has changed. Australia’s first Venice Biennale representatives in 1958 were Arthur Streeton and Arthur Boyd. Boyd may have been in his early thirties but his work was conservative and backward looking. Streeton was long dead by then and his best work had been done over fifty years earlier. Not a lot has changed as recent representatives have rung out variations on a conceptualesque approach that originated over fifty years ago in the late 1960s. Innovation has been limited to choice of commissioners where professional curators have been ousted in favour of business people, wealthy amateurs who now want the limelight for themselves.

But Australia’s approach to the Venice Biennale is only a minor example of the workings of our official culture. The Venice Biennale as a whole has been more adventurous and complex than its many imitators. The Biennale of Sydney, started in 1973, was the first biennale to be established in the Asia-Pacific region and with Venice, the Bienal de São Paulo (1951 ) and documenta (1955), is now one of the longest running exhibitions of its kind.

Biennales have proliferated in the last twenty years. The Biennial Foundation lists approximately two hundred biennales and triennales worldwide. Melbourne academic Chris McAuliffe noted last year that as they are staged in 46 different countries worldwide “it can be difficult to avoid them … almost a quarter of the world’s sovereign states offer one”. They have become an essential instrument of international diplomacy. The Biennial Foundation lists four in Australia: the Biennale of Sydney; the Adelaide Biennale (1990); Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennial (1993); the TarraWarra Biennial (2006).

The Biennale of Sydney grew out of the Transfield Art Prize, one of the most lucrative prizes of the 1960s which by 1969 received an unmanageable number of entries. The 1970 Prize was by invitation, selected by NGV curator Brian Finemore and judged by Sir Roland Penrose, a major international artist and writer whose presence reflected Franco Belgiorno-Nettis’s growing cultural ambition. The rumour was that Franco disliked the winning entry, Bill Clement’s Reading for August 6th, described by Penrose as “a visual poem based on the tragedy of Hiroshima” and so after one more prize in 1971 he upgraded to an international biennale.

This radical gesture is best understood in the context of Belgiorno-Nettis’s business ambitions. His steel fabrication and infrastructure construction company, Transfield, would expand into the naval shipbuilding industry in the 1980s. In some ways the Biennale of Sydney was Transfield’s first battleship, the public engagement vehicle for the family’s international ambition and networking.

Battleships are not built for the benefit of sailors and biennales are not built for the benefit of artists, a point which mostly seems to evade artists. Transfield’s biennale was loaded with political and social baggage. In the two decades since the end of WW2 Australia’s influx of Italian and Greek immigrants had often been vilified and even though many were highly educated they were herded into menial labouring jobs. In 1973, the Biennale’s founding year, the Whitlam Government enacted the first official multicultural policies acknowledging that many members of the Australian community originally came from different cultures and supporting their right to express their cultural identity. At that time biennales were essentially an alien institutional form and Belgiorno-Nettis’s proposal was a confident assertion of Italian and European values. As a conspicuously successful entrepreneur Franco was already well known for his art collection and for his willingness to help sculptors using his fabrication workshops. He had understood the value of the publicity generated by John Kaldor’s earliest projects and so it was a logical but brave step to extend his philanthropy to a large scale exhibition bringing international contemporary art to Sydney.

The Biennale of Sydney diverged from the Venice model by being a curated exhibition of international and local contemporary art. Initially comparatively modest, there were to be no national pavilions, no specially constructed permanent venue. But the political was still at the core with the first exhibition launched by the recently elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam as part of the Sydney Opera House opening celebrations. The second in 1976 was opened by the next Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, on November 11, the first anniversary of his overthrow of Whitlam’s reformist ALP government. Fraser was greeted by demonstrations outside the AGNSW followed by a walkout as he rose to speak, his speech ultimately cut short by problems with a sabotaged sound system.

The Biennale represented both personal achievement and self interest but also an attitude that has always run through the presentation of international art in Australia, that seeing more of it meant we could emulate it better. It is a view that has persisted since the European invasion, a settler culture belief that real art only occurs elsewhere, at the distant centre of empire, superior to us but something we can aspire to imitate. It is the notorious “cultural cringe” which by this time was being rebadged as “internationalism” and was soon to morph into neoliberal globalism but right from the start it implied that culture was something to be consumed rather than created.

The triennial schedule of the early Biennale of Sydney – 1973, 1976, 1979, 1982 – somehow captures the makeshift nature of the project, the mimicry of externals of a remote source culture while missing an essential point. The themes and art works have not mattered, the art about as memorable as the Archibald Prize and the themes no more relevant than battleship names, but what has mattered is the way the biennale framed a certain cultural relationship with the rest of the world. That was a problem from the start.

Belgiorno-Nettis was rather shocked when he found that many artists did not see his new biennale as an innocent act of beneficence and were not as grateful as he expected. Vague grumbling around the first Biennale grew into full scale demonstrations around the second in 1976 and organised resistance to the third biennale in 1979.

Control and purpose were the issues at the heart of the 1970s protests and they focused on the selection of artists. The key demands were equal representation of Australian artists and equal representation of women artists. While younger Australian artists welcomed the opportunity to see more international art, a new found confidence meant they felt their work was equal to anything being produced elsewhere and deserved equal representation. And although it was not raised at the time, the original Venice Biennale model itself had provided spaces for both Italian and international art. Theoretically the protesters demands could easily have been met by the organisers but they exposed the ideological nature of the Biennale’s intent, that the exhibition was in part a weapon in a debate about multiculturalism and the acceptance of migrants into the power structure of Anglo Australia. Although disguised by a certain amount of diplomatic obfuscation, Biennale organisers made clear their belief that there was no room for Australian contemporary artists in their grand plan, our role would be to applaud.

The protesting artists ultimately lost, but the organisation that grew out of the Biennale protests led to the formation of the Artworkers Union which fought for artist fees, occupational health education, and improvements in a range of similar industry conditions. In 1992 it amalgamated with Actors Equity, the Australian Journalists Association and the Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees’ Association to form The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA). None of the Union’s original Biennale objectives had been achieved. There has never been a biennale with equal Australian representation and the first with gender balance was not until 2006, thirty years later.

But the 1980s were the return to order after the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 marked the beginning of the neoliberal ascendancy. Early Biennale curators were Australian or British but later they were predominantly junior members of a roving international curatorial elite generated by the global proliferation of biennales which also generated a class of biennale artists. Early Sydney biennales exhibited the typical contemporary art of their time but by the 1990s biennale art was developing into an entertainment genre in its own right, characterised by vacuous spectacle and a restless search for extreme novelty and momentary shock value. Participation by Australian artists, initially regarded as a straightforward opportunity to exhibit, slowly came to be seen as a hopeful audition for the international biennale circuit but the links between funding bodies, biennales and commercial galleries combine with the limited knowledge of fly in fly out curators to ensure that selection is limited almost entirely to artists represented by major galleries.

By 2014 the 19th Biennale of Sydney was shaping up as one more iteration of the type, mildly entertaining tourist bait with a pinch of faux controversy for publicity purposes. Now more a clapped out cruise ship than a battleship the Biennale had long outlived its original purpose as the cultural flagship for Transfield although it was still partially funded by a Belgiorno-Nettis family foundation. The organisers were complacently ill prepared for the hijacking that occurred. As in the 1970s the artists were ultimately irrelevant to the course of events, proven by the fact that the small left sects that issued demands for an artists’ boycott achieved enormous publicity without any boycott ultimately occurring, other than the withdrawal of two artists.

As I said, Biennales do not exist for the benefit of artists and even if Trotskyist pirates momentarily swarmed over the rusting hulk of the Biennale of Sydney it was soon back to business as usual. Despite bitter art world infighting, defamatory accusations, much symbolic posturing and a change of benefactor, absolutely nothing was achieved that materially benefited asylum seekers. I suspect the Belgiorno-Nettis family, on reflection, were happy to be excused their obligation to provide ongoing funding that they could distribute more usefully elsewhere. The most tangible effect was the later substantial cut to arts funding by an arts minister gleefully pointing at the boycott publicity as proof that ungrateful artists who rejected corporate funding did not deserve public funding.

Nonetheless, it seemed puzzling that the art world had suddenly developed a political conscience about one “tainted” biennale when all cultural institutions had long been equally tainted instruments of neoliberalism. Transfield may have been managing detention centres while indirectly funding the Biennale but a more important art funder, the Australian Government, had not only set up the camps but had joined the aggressive wars that had driven the refugees from their homes in the first place. And a Hans Haacke style probe into the trustees and benefactors of any Australian art museum would have turned up far more alarming specimens than the comparatively benign Belgiorno-Nettis family. The bubble world of Australian art had remained blind to the larger social forces swirling around it for several decades and the anti Transfield protests were more about maintaining cloistered purity than the beginning of an engagement with appalling political realities – as far as I know there was little ongoing artist activism for asylum seekers as a direct result of the protests.

What are those realities? A history of biennales as part of the infrastructure of power is only part of the story. Biennales now fit neatly into a global cultural industry model demanding maximum audience appeal via maximum inoffensiveness. At the same time the underlying driver of art, the memetic innovation that is essential to human survival and cultural evolution, has abandoned the traditional art forms for other media, particularly the internet and social media.

The traditional art institutions can host peripheral activities but they are no longer the main game and as their preferred forms have lost significance these forms have been redeveloped as consumer art in the same way that inner city warehouses have been redeveloped as over priced “artist styled lofts”. The resulting forms, zombie formalism and crapstraction for instance, are over hyped, over priced and over produced but without cultural significance. The appearance in biennales of the commoditised version of an art movement is now a certain signal the movement is completely dead, whether it was the YBA’s conceptualism-for-dummies in the 1990s or the currently fashionable social practice art that parodies the activist art of the 1980s.

A lot has been written in the last ten years about this restructuring of art from a cultural enterprise into a form of globalist manufacture. The product takes many forms – entertainment, decoration, tourism, gambling, money laundering – and the producers are only notionally artists. International mainstream “Art” is now the same fake product as the mainstream media where false news is now industrialised on sites like Fox New or other Murdoch media outlets, or online where innumerable sites publish fictional news designed to appeal to every possible demographic of prejudice.

All this fits a familiar neoliberal pattern seen in the big box stores filled with cheap but barely functional pseudo products that force more substantial products out of the market. Neoliberalism has triumphed but its program of monetarising every human activity while reducing all social interaction to forms of consumption is taking place in the context of a creeping crisis. It is no longer possible to pretend that infinite economic growth is possible in a world of limited resources and possibly apocalyptic climate change. The global financial crisis of 2008 exposed the system’s failure but it also drove neoliberalism to tighten its grip while it still had the power to enforce corporate control.

The backlash has begun with voters already swinging to the left in Greece and Spain, the UK and even in the USA. Naturally some artists also have recognised the growing political emergency but most have shown little understanding of their own predicament. While we rightly deplore the short sighted behaviour of corporations there is little evidence that the art world thinks beyond the next few exhibitions or the next grant round. The strongest reactions have taken the form of more politicised subject matter, an oppositional tactic that simply plays straight into neoliberalism’s hands by widening the product base without challenging the actual production and distribution system. As a consequence it has recently become fashionable to fill biennales with political and social practice art, ironic but hardly disruptive.

So let’s ask the question, why not boycott all biennales? What do you as artists expect to gain by participation? What do you as viewers expect to see that makes attendance worthwhile? Would it really have mattered if the Biennale of Sydney had collapsed as funding was withdrawn? If there was a moral imperative to make symbolic gestures in support of imprisoned refugees then surely there is an even greater moral imperative to fight the forces that created refugees, that are destroying civil society world wide? Where better for us to do that than by opposing the neoliberal takeover of cultural activity? Now that art as we once understood it has been dead for decades how do we as an art world “collect up the trash of the anthropocene and the exterminism of the capitalocene to something that might possibly have a chance of ongoing” as Donna Haraway recently said?

Institutional art is now effectively decoupled from cultural innovation. Those of us more concerned with cultural innovation than institutional compliance have a range of possible tactics. I have always said that there was no reason good artists should not be capable of taking the enemy’s money and using it against them and as recent biennales have become more politicised there are attempts to do this. Richard Bell’s Tent Embassy in the current biennale is an example of this. By recreating a major activist event that had real world consequences he sidesteps the usual flaw in political art. In most other cases it would probably be a poor tactic and an illustration of appropriation as repressive tolerance, while in Bell’s case it illustrates how context is everything and how the institutions might redeem themselves by returning to an earlier role of historical conservation and interpretation. This is one of the few points where institutions and activist politics can safely meet but it is a tactic only open to the few artists who also have long standing activist histories outside the art world, who use art as an extension of their politics rather than use politics as a fashionable art world posture.

As biennales have evolved into a branch of the entertainment industry I have expected that eventually the most successful will be taken over by corporations like Disney or Fox, an outcome Banksy seemed to be predicting in his recent Dismaland installation. But debasing the biennale currency is another viable tactic, to permanently hijack the term by creating so many biennales that their individual impact is completely blunted. This is an alternative model that has been developing worldwide, the most prominent examples being Haiti’s Ghetto Biennale and the Havana Biennale which both mix international contributions with focused local activities. Australia already has four official biennales and many other biennial contemporary art exhibitions, like Kandos cementa and Mildura Palimpsest Biennale, a revival of its influential forerunner, the 1960s-70s Mildura Sculpture Triennial, founded even earlier than the Biennale of Sydney. Smaller again is the Redfern Biennale, displayed in the streets of the Sydney suburb. Kandos, Mildura and Redfern break the model, they have no galleries but street art, environmental art and online art. Only occasionally international, they demand engagement with their local community and have limited audiences and resources, something seen as a feature rather than a failing. They are occasions for rethinking community, not mass entertainment.

If we took it further and broke up the Biennale of Sydney into fifty mini biennales distributed around the Sydney suburbs we could create the art equivalent of rooftop solar, promoting a distributed community level culture in contrast to the current model where the Biennale is the equivalent of a belching monstrous coal fired power station. It would only need a few international artists and a few nationally known artists randomly jumbled in with a lot of local artists then spread across the whole of Sydney.

But in the end boycotting biennales or repurposing them or cloning them ad infinitum are all just tactics for fiddling around the edges. I’m in favour of more ambitious cultural boycotts, like the unorganised but widespread boycott that has speeded up the structural decline of the right wing print media in Australia. My personal lifelong tactic, wandering in and out of the art world while doing other things entirely, using it when it suits but showing it little respect, is echoed in a recent essay by the Italian marxist writer Bifo Berardi who argued that the most radical act now available is passivity rather than activism, a refusal to participate or consume or compete, above all a refusal to be driven to exhaustion by relentless work and careerism. He advocates a decline rather than growth: “Decline and de-growth imply a divestment in the midst of frenzied competition, and this is the paradox that may bring us out of the neoliberal double bind.”

Our job now is to participate in rescuing the whole world. If a few biennales get killed or roughed up in the process it’s a small price to pay, we didn’t need them anyway.


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