18 October 2011: Discussion of the XV Biennale de la Mediterranée and Carlos Basualdo’s text “The Unstable Institution” at Warehouse 13
Two international biennials taking place simultaneously in a city of roughly one million inhabitants sounds strangely like an art world parody. And yet this fall, amidst sounding alarms of Greece’s imminent financial ruin, Thessaloniki was the stage for just such an unheard-of occurrence, hosting both the Thessaloniki Biennial 3 and the XVe Biennale de la Mediterranée (also commonly known as The Young Artist’s Biennial), in conjunction with the city’s world-renowned Film Festival, still going strong after over 50 editions. To underline this unusual (one might almost say cosmic) cultural alignment in a city with a somewhat less than dynamic art scene, Société Anonyme chose to dedicate its fall programme to visiting various biennial projects as a means of researching, discussing and documenting to a certain extent and from a particular vantage point the impact of this confluence on local practitioners.
At this point, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably clarify that as much as we generally claim non-partisanship, we were closely involved – as most local practitioners – in these events: I was one of the co-curators for the main visual arts program of the XVe Biennale de la Mediterranée while Lydia (as part of Artbox) was responsible for the coordination of the same biennial. Also, as previously mentioned, Société Anonyme was invited by Areti Leopoulou and Theodoris Markoglou to give a presentation of its activities as part of the International Young Artists’ Workshop “Domino”, which they co-curated within the framework of the Thessaloniki Biennial 3 (see previous post). Thus, we saw it as only fitting to kick off this season’s bi-weekly meetings by convening at Warehouse 13 in the port, used as part of the Biennale de la Mediterranée as a venue for related talks and events.
It was a rather modest start. But our first meeting nonetheless provided those of us present with an opportunity to reflect upon our own implication within these events. Our discussion mainly revolved around the use of display strategies. Perhaps owing to our very recent involvement in the biennials and hence lack of critical distance, it seemed more natural at the time to discuss practical concerns rather than examine the suggested reading: Carlos Basualdo’s text “The Unstable Institution” on the proliferation of international biennials (the latter nonetheless remained an on-going reference for subsequent meetings).
That the question of display strategy should figure so prominently on everyone’s agenda came as no surprise. Many of the chosen biennial venues were rather unorthodox exhibition spaces. These included an old Jewish mansion, decaying commercial maritime warehouses, an abandoned hotel, a disused mosque and Turkish bathhouse, as well as a decommissioned military camp. Moreover, from the brilliant and imposing architectural restaging of the white cube by architect Andreas Angelidakis for the Thessaloniki Biennial 3, to the use of free-standing panels and suspended works in Warehouses 9 and 15 as part of the XVe Biennale de la Mediterranée, exhibition devices abounded in both biennials, articulating very different contextual narratives in relation to the spaces and the works.
In the case of the main visual arts program of the Biennale de la Mediterranée, the decision not to renovate the spaces and suspend the works from the rafters at a height well above museum norms, as opposed to hang them on the walls, came from a will to frame the unusual spaces as distinct elements within the exhibition rather than allow them to recede as mere support structures. In the open plan layout of the exhibition, these sites were made to function as covered public plazas to allow for uncommon constellations, synchronicities and perspectives to come to light in keeping with the biennial’s crossroads mission and organizational structure.
Of course, the latter was only one among a number of different approaches that were employed within the context of the biennials, and over the course of the next couple of weeks, we look forward to pursuing this conversation by visiting other venues and speaking with young local curators about their own projects and involvement as part of these events.