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Curatorial Practices
Interview with WHW Collective
by Nancy Garín

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Nancy Garí­n: Within the curatorial process, how have you managed relations between artists and the institutions?

WHW: The operation of the Biennial is further away from the ideals of self-organization than any museum institution Robert Smithson might have had in mind in 1972 when in his text "Cultural Confinement" he described a museum as a prison and curators as its wardens. In these circumstances the sheer scope of the project makes it impossible to have control over all its operations, which had the unfortunate consequence of having artists too often being 'handled' by the institutions. The biennial as a format is not only about the exhibition, it is also about a number of external maneuvers geared towards cultural tourism through which cities attempt to use their benign and internationally communicative regional specificities to position themselves on the map of the globalised world. The possibility of self-governed politics whose horizon goes beyond the neo-liberal mantra of professionalism is completely endangered within the biennial system, and that is the element we underestimated when we took on the task of curating the biennial. If we are to assess what we achieved in this project we have to take into account probably more failures than successes. But as Brecht once said: “In art there is a fact of failure, and a fact of partial success. Works of art can fail so easily; it is so difficult for them to succeed. Defeats should be acknowledged; but one should not conclude from them there should be no more struggles”.

NG: What were the relationships between public practices and their subsequent installations within the exhibition spaces of the Biennale?

WHW: The question of the role of art in society for us is closely tied to the exhibition format. Of course, this does not imply that the fundamental questions about art should be exclusively formulated in relation to this format, though we do think about exhibitions as specific sites where art is critically presented and knowledge produced and disseminated. How we use exhibitions for rethinking, not only the questions of production, definition, and presentation of art, but of socialized action in globalized world remain open to different approaches. It seems, that despite the difficulties and possible traps we easily fall into while investing in that direction, the desire to attempt to create such a platform, in our case, is very strong. This is not a priori positive or negative, this is the field we have chosen to try to be faithful to and to utilize to its possible limits. The question how to visualize the gathering, juxtaposing and fermenting of complex trans-generational and trans-cultural dynamics within the medium of an exhibition, which is in many ways a simply inadequate framework, is not about nostalgia for the symbolic function of the museum, which continues to be inseparable from the notion of public space and democratic culture, but a desire to provide a temporal arena which orders the politics of self-representation and self-reflection. It basically boils down to our belief that the space of representation - the despised class-race-patriarchal-authoritarian notion of an exhibition - has to be rethought again as a public space. As we know, the white cube of the gallery, »the archetypal venue of modern art«, is not a timeless, neutral frame, dedicated to the »production of autonomous objects of art«, free of the burden of the »invisible« outer signifiers that denote the institutional and ideological character of such a representative conception. Still, for us the answer to the question why contemporary art production still refuses to abandon the questionable »classic« exhibiting venue, lies not only in its dependence on representational mechanisms of the art system, but also in the fact that, apparently, the exhibition itself can create and acquire different forms of temporary modulations of the social frame and its creative redefinition. Those redefinitions are transforming political and emotional perceptions of the environment and offer differing and uncontrolled judgments of our social reality.

NG: Could you describe your biennial experience in these 3 different sites: artists, local political spaces, and the institution.

WHW: Cooptation of critical discursive potentials into the dominant economic discourse of neo-management is one of the most prominent signs of exhaustion of critical practices. The problem we are facing now on a more general level is how to critically examine social, temporal and spatial limitations of a representative 'event' culture, in the field of contemporary art, paradigmatically exemplified by biennale exhibitions. How to rethink the questions of production, definition, and presentation of the work and of artists' identity in a globalized (art)world. We tried to think of the biennial as a possibility - transient and temporary - but still a possibility for establishing a platform for artist and cultural workers from supposedly shrinking but still corporeally very real geographical margins. Even if today one feels that there is no region excluded from the international art circuit, the issue of control still remains - the unresolved and continuing play of inclusion and exclusion. In that respect, we took the biennial as a possibility of a counter-position to general weakening of any institutional safeguards that determine (cultural) standards outside the marketplace. We understood “biennial” as a process and active site for exploring the rules of conduct established in the Western art system. How is the circulation and reception of information regulated and how can we (and can we really) challenge it, focusing primarily on regions of the Balkans and former Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa, where relationships with Western "mentors" and validation from the Western art systems still largely define the context of contemporary art. It developed across two interconnecting trajectories, one responding to a hegemonic western model of the role and position of contemporary art and its history, as perpetuated by globalized system of art institutions and a network of markets that regulate them, and the other to artistic and cultural practices that are critically assessing commercialization that tends to dominate life under conditions of neo-liberal capitalism.

When working on the Istanbul Biennial, we specifically tried to use the burden of its visibility and highly representative character. We set up the exhibition with a clear political position 'in the heart of the system' that regards the biennial as 'important', and thus unlikely to ignore the questions we posed. We displayed some of the budgetary and organizationally related information that usually stays invisible, facts that are telling signs of the situation in which cultural workers are operating nowadays, even at supposedly prime events like the biennial. For example, out of the biennial budget, which just before the opening was estimated at some 2 mil euros, only 14% are artist related costs, while operational and promotional costs amount to 27%, and 49% to exhibition related costs, or that artists receive no payment, or that the curatorial fee is 1.95% of the budget, or that in this particular biennial only 1% of the budget is provided by private galleries, or that more than a quarter of the budget was provided by international public funding bodies, or that in this particular biennial there are 30 women and 32 men, or that 28% artists are coming from the West, and 72% from what we termed the 'rest'. These facts relate to this particular edition of the Istanbul Biennial, and they should be understood against the homogenous view of what a biennial is, and what an exhibition is, and what it might be. Of course it

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About the Author
Nancy Garín holds a degree in Journalism and Social Communication, and in Art, Aesthetics and History. She completed her education with the Vanguards in the Twentieth Century doctorate seminar directed by Ana Longoni and Marcelo Expósito in Buenos Aires, and in MACMA's Independent Studies Programme. Member of the Etcétera... artists' collective since 2001, and of the Internacional Errorista.

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