This text is bound in multiple and dynamic ‘temporalities’; it summarises my contribution to De Appel Curatorial Programme’s Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? April panel discussion a few days after the opening of documenta 14 in Athens. It is re-written two months after the event for the purposes of this publication, with the documenta 14 opening in Kassel underway, and primarily draws from my experience in co-founding and running the Athens Biennale (2005-2016) from which I stepped down exactly one year ago. Working against ephemerality is intrinsic in curatorial practice. Thus, in that sense it could be read as an effort to write ‘with’ and not ‘on the occasion’ of exhibitions.
My points are empirical and deliberately inconclusive and I will start with a set of intertwined issues in the format of open-ended questions: ‘how is the curator defined within the post-museum, biennial sphere?’, ‘what is the relationship between curatorial power and responsibility (ethics, engagement, detachment)?’ and ‘does our work contributes to maintain the influential position of art and artists in society?’
I am going to briefly describe the modus operandi of the Athens Biennale while, at the same time, attempt to address the issue of guest/parachute curator via different angles and sometimes indirectly.
The Athens Biennale is an independent art institution that was founded with an equal interest in the exploration of the biennale/large scale exhibition phenomenon as well as the established canon of the operation of independent art institutions. From the beginning we treated the organisation as a model which could be modified by peers. In that respect we fostered activities and approaches that allowed for the creation of the conditions for the re-evaluation and the assessment of alternatives within the contested field of large-format exhibition curating. At the same time, we did not exemplify the preparatory stages but opted for a round-the-clock operation, utilising each edition’s opening as the concurrent start of a new phase of new operation, which was informed by the previous and shaped working processes both within the exhibition and the organisation. Behind this commonly found biennial approach,2 which treats the exhibition as a research tool itself, was a potential practice for testing ideas that would not otherwise be possible was the aspiration to establish more than a curatorial precedent. In our view, this eternal return of the same,3 could claim not another perception (content) but eventually, via persistent repetition, another practice (context) for cultural production and overall operation.4
Therefore, appointing a ‘biennial curator’, which is or used to be the norm, was not necessarily an issue: firstly, because it started to look ‘restrictive5’, with one obvious argument being that international curators of that status usually have a clearly set agenda (thematic premises and artists to name just the basics that attest to professional consistency) and cannot ‘afford’ to spend time in the city6. Secondly, the practicalities of such appointment could hardly be met by the organisation7 i.e. making her/his ‘relocation’ a possibility, based on our unstable financial condition.
Throughout the development of this text the term biennial ‘is inappropriately used to refer also to triennials and even the quinquennial survey exhibition, documenta’.8
In my opinion, the ‘biennial’ stands for a specific kind of ‘art institution’ which conveniently hides behind its much debated, albeit intrinsic ‘temporality’, ‘autonomy’ and the ‘guest’ artistic director. More and more, the notion of ‘temporality’ is perceived as having a ‘punch and run’ effect, the ‘mobility’ as ‘parachuting in and out’, while the over-determined curatorial concepts that once offered unique opportunities to bring forward and on an equal footing artistic production, culturally inclusive discourses, and critical articulations on the new world order, are treated as suspicious and speculative. This is because, at a time defined by the growing mistrust in power structures and its institutional representations, they seem detached from, or indifferent to, the politics of the institutions they are bound with. This is providing the main ground for the ‘biennials’ dismissal as cynical, superficial and inadequate of evoking ‘real’ change, even if the majority of art production and curatorial practice advocates, polemically or poetically, a ‘trenchant commitment to the social’9. After all, continuous attempts to remodel the biennial into something other than (at least) its previous edition, is almost as old as the biennial institution itself, with curatorial concepts largely aiming to go beyond the ‘business as usual’ performed by museums or (larger) institutions. In that sense, I suggest that facing up to the politics of our own position within an established institutional sphere and questioning our presupposition that we can operate simultaneously within and on ‘the other side of power’, which might allow us, for starters, to feel less “aesthetically predictable, politically vacant and intellectually stagnant”10 when exhibitions are over, and even less self-confident when embarking in new endeavours.