The Critical Importance of Pedagogy for Biennales in the Global South
Having just co-curated the 9th Gwangju Biennale, this essay will draw on my Gwangju experience and will focus on certain non-exhibitionary dimensions of a biennale and why these are especially critical for biennales societies situated in the global South.
By reason of its ubiquity, scale, flexibility and festive character, the biennale is certainly the most widespread and accessible platform for the global dissemination of contemporary art. It poses a powerful challenge to the stable institutions of the art world. It is faster than the academy and the museum in its ability to capture and convey art historical shifts: shifts of reading, interpretation and judgement of relevance. It is more effective than the academy and the museum at redistributing critical value, retrieving eclipsed histories and exploring neglected cultural scenes, whether across a country, or within a subculture or discipline.
However, these same advantages of the biennale are attended by deficits. By its nature the biennale is characterised by speed of execution, temporary duration and programmatic or instrumentalised research. Therefore what can often fall by the wayside are archival depth, speculative repose and analytical rigour.
Precisely because they are stable institutions, the academy and the museum can continuously reproduce and consolidate the objects, methodologies and outcomes of their research. By contrast, much of the knowledge that is produced in, through and around a biennale can often be evanescent; it can be lost or remain suspended in the economies of rumour, hearsay and project documentation. In a word, the biennale – transforming itself from one place to the next, one edition to the next – often produces orphan knowledges that are not systematised or aggregated in more enduring forms.
Besides this, biennales situated in the societies of the global South must contend with the vast gulf that separates contemporary art from the audience at large, since art education and sensitisation to culture do not form part of the normal processes of socialisation and pedagogy in most of these societies. This means that the biennale is often received in the global South as a space of curious, enigmatic, often incomprehensible experiences, neither reducible to ‘entertainment’ nor amenable to being consigned to the realm of the ‘intellectual’ (these extremes marking the major cultural options in such locales). It is almost imperative, then, that the biennale in the global South must carry its own reading strategies alongside its exhibitionary complex.
A model that I have been working with, in an attempt to address the twin problems of orphan knowledges and the gap between the biennale and its audience, is that of the ‘discursive biennale’. By which I mean a biennale typology where knowledge production is not relegated to a satellite event or deployed as an add-on, but woven into the very warp and weft of the biennale process.
Accordingly, the first event that I conceived for the 9th Gwangju Biennale was a gathering I called a Workstation. In my curatorial practice, I find it very important to embed the production of discourse in a replenished sociality, rather than treating discourse as a narrowly academic activity set at a remove from everyday life. This is why I chose the term “Workstation” to name this form of thinking, speaking, and working together, which descends from a genealogy of prior forms of discoursing together, including the academy, the symposium, the workshop, and the platform.
None of these words originally had an academic connotation—not even the word “academy.” The Academia was the garden in Athens where the philosophers of antiquity, Plato and his disciples, took their walks. The symposium, originally, was a drinking party. The workshop, of course, was the place where artisans made things. And the platform was either an improvised stage, a speaker’s corner in a park, or a place where you waited for trains. Or where you waited for history’s nightmares to come to an end, or for the last call to resistance or freedom.
In all these cases, a site of anticipation is denoted. My concept of the Workstation continues the dynamic play of conceptual activity that characterizes the intellectual sphere while also acknowledging and including its Benjaminian opposite – “felt knowledge” – as well as physical effort and social interaction. The lineage of the discursively oriented biennial, may be traced to Catherine David’s 100 Days, 100 Guests (Documenta 10, 1997), Okwui Enwezor’s Platforms (Documenta 11, 2002), and before these the 1989 edition of the Havana Biennial, which brought together knowledges from the global South that were, as Arthur Danto might have said, not part of the conversation of biennial culture. This typology has the potential to counter what Elena Filipovic has justly critiqued as the “global white cube” dimension of the biennial. Against such a bulwark of generic global art production, the discursively oriented biennial embodies the hope that the discourse generated can leak outward from the art world to form communicative engagements with the arenas of civil activism and political protest.
David’s 100 days of cogitation at Documenta 10 acknowledged the importance of foregrounding voices from outside generally acknowledged global cultural centers, but the exhibition proper included few such artistic practices. In Documenta 11, on the other hand, Enwezor integrated his postcolonial preoccupations into his curatorial praxis by producing five discursive platforms, of which the exhibition was only one. The platforms accomplished their mandate not by making a token inclusion of African, Asian, and Arab artistic and theoretical positions, but by exposing to view a post-Cold War landscape in which the countries of the hegemonic North were as susceptible to sharing the fate of “transitional” societies – and their incomplete projects of equity and democracy – as those of the former third world.
However, it would it would be useful to recall the originary moment when the insertion of discourse into the warp and weft of biennale-making changed the rules of exhibitionary engagement forever. The organization of a major international conference as part of the 1989 edition of the Havana Biennial represented, according to the critic Rachel Weiss, “a decisive step toward conceiving of biennials as discursive environments, in which the actual display of artworks is part of a much broader project of research and knowledge production”. At the conference, the notions of internationalism and contemporaneity were reformulated and interrogated from very diverse starting points, puncturing the ersatz solidarity that “third world” countries were purported to share uniformly under the banner of resistance to global capitalism or U.S. neo-imperialist ambitions.
The Workstation at the 9th Gwangju Biennale was called “Self-organisation as Ethic” and included participants such as curators Gerardo Mosquera, Charles Esche and Bassam El Baroni, cultural theorist Taek Gwang Lee, artist Minouk Lim and collectives such as WHW and Chto Delat?, among others.
It performed a two-fold function. Firstly, it traced a moment of rupture within the Gwangju Biennale history – the 2002 edition of co-curated by Charles Esche and Hou Hanru exhibited self-organised artist run spaces in Asia and Europe bearing witness to art practice embedded in a new kind of sociality in the age of globalisation. In addition, Mosquera gave an account of the 1989 edition of the Havana Biennial. The point was to tap into genealogical reserves of models of practice. Secondly, the Workstation looked at the relationship between art and participatory politics, with Bassam El Baroni taking on a contrarian view about why Arab Spring or Occupy may not give birth to new art.
For me the Workstation evolves from what I have elsewhere proposed as a mutable model of “transient pedagogy”, one that has an in-built, self-disruption device. Rather than founding an institution and then instituting pedagogy within it, we would begin in reverse, with a pedagogy that can be constantly re-evaluated and refined. While conventional pedagogies are based on master narratives, transient pedagogy would encourage the production of what, following Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, we would call “vast narratives”. These are a cross-media phenomenon, evolving through the translation of material from one medium to another, extending in duration across considerable spans of time, and re-distributing memory over a series of caches. Vast narratives, in our framework, would be forms by which deep memory can be relayed and kept in play by diverse means, so that the hybridities of the past can be transmitted into the present.
In the process of developing a transient pedagogy, we could also consider a variety of prior models of the production of knowledge, including oral transmission (the Upanishads), peripatetic journeys (Socrates, Plato), dialogues (the Buddhist Milinda-panha or The Questions of Menander’), so that we may remind ourselves that academic inquiry was originally meant to free knowledge and make it available and refine the self, not to lock it down and hoard it. The methods of pre-modern philosophy may have been provisional and mercurial, but they were intended to transform the consciousness: these are values worth recovering for our present confrontations with the world.
By braiding the exhibitionary and the discursive together, the biennale can find ways of giving back – in the mode of what Komu has called the “gift” – to the sites and practices on which it draws, such as the life of the artist in the studio, the life of the artist as constituted through intellectual exchanges and collaborations with interlocutors, and the archive. In my own contribution to the 9th Gwangju Biennale, this took the form of producing the artist Ala Younis’ book, Tin Soldiers, which brought together artists, curators, soldiers, photographers, and others, to develop a complex meditation on the predicament of militarisation; revisiting Fouad El Khoury’s Atlantis (1982), a rare historical document which portrays the escape of PLO leader Yasser Arafat from Beirut on the eponymous ship; producing a retrospective for Noh Suntag whose photographs work in the interstitial space between facticity and abstraction and an archival revisitation of Sheba Chhachhi’s activist photographs from the women’s movement of the eighties. These, among other things, constitute the afterlife of the biennale, its continuing even if modest or unnoticed legacy.