The Coming Commons
by Linda Carroli
Published by Arts Hub, July 2011

There is an estimated 300 biennials presented around the world. Art biennials and other cultural festivals are evoked as a stamp of cultural relevance, and strategy for the development of cultural industries, tourism and regional/metropolitan economies. Increasingly, they play a role in revitalisation, indicating interaction between local and global cultural politics: a biennial is contradictory in its specificity as a global locality or destination within a locality.

The curated biennial is often referred to as ‘a model’ (or ‘format’) – top down, conventional, organisationally generic, and driven by the rarefied and reified vision of a curator or curatorium. This normative idea of ‘the model’ seems stifling, complicated and inured as a bastion that beckons tactical incursions and grassroots interventions. Perhaps it’s not a matter of rethinking the model or disrupting the model, but rather exploring exhibitionary typologies that offer specific, flexible and locational strategies. There is a tension between what a biennial does and what it could or should do – the curator is a pivotal, almost cultish, figure answerable in some fashion to government, funders, boards, sponsors, project teams and committees. The biennial serves masters. There are those who endeavour to imbue a critical curatorial approach that offers alternative exhibitionary pathways, a different kind of interrogation of curatorial practice including consideration of legacy.

Art and cultural events promise regeneration and renewal in the face of decline and disaster, called to the service of political, social, environmental and economic priorities beyond the exhibition itself. Do they – can they – really deliver on those promises and demands in that instrumentalised way? Disasters strike at many speeds; some are slow and steady, barely perceptible until a moment’s realisation of what has passed, while others are rapid cataclysms erasing so much of what once stood its ground. An earthquake shatters Christchurch. A hurricane obliterates New Orleans. A slow depopulation of rural Japan. These regions and cities are rising from ruins, in part aided by cultural events: Prospect Biennial in New Orleans, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in Japan and SCAPE’s shifting attention to rebuilding both itself and its city.

Prospect was established to aid the rebuilding efforts after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina as well as to galvanise the arts community. The organisers of Prospect.1 raised $4.5 million, 75% outside the state of Louisiana, to produce the biennial, and invested more than half on local hotels and restaurants, renovation of exhibition spaces, and contracting New Orleans artists, musicians, designers, artisans, publicists, art installers, security and transportation. Fundraising shortfalls (due to the financial crisis and ongoing economic hardship in the US) will mean the next biennale will be presented later this year. Sue Bell Yank refers to a post-disaster arts movement and observes the need to “connect artistic activity to a greater social rebuilding process, along with the compacted changes to the redefined and renegotiated arts sector in New Orleans”. Yank also noted that the artistic community in New Orleans aimed to link with a global rather than regional dialogue. It seemed like an experiment in articulating a resurgent identity that would do more than express a post-disaster condition; the kind of identity that attracts community, visitors and tourists.

Recently, GOMA hosted a lecture by Fram Kitagawa, General Director of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial. Kitagawa discussed how the event sought to create an opportunity for regional independence in the form of an art festival with artists’ involvement. In an aging rural community, steeped in tradition, rice growing and history, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial created dialogues and engagements with people and place. The region was clearly experiencing a steady decline and beset by economic and social problems, particularly social isolation of the elderly who could no longer work the fields. As Kitagawa writes on the Triennial website: “The artworks created in rice paddies, abandoned houses, and closed schools by collaboration and exchanges between local residents and urban supporters, artists and the Satoyama nature, elderly people and young people have told us the endeavours of our ancestors who have been engaged in the earth through agriculture and brought many people sympathy with Echigo-Tsumari full of local elderly people’s smiles.” The relational and participatory dimensions of artmaking and exhibition have primacy and there is an obligation for communication. For the Kitagawa this means a new iteration of the concept ‘civil’ where art mediates between ‘place and people’, ‘people and people’.

Shortly after the earthquake struck, SCAPE celebrated the survival of several of their commissioned works, writing on their blog “Despite the difficult road ahead towards recovering the inner city let us look to these works of art as beacons of hope shining through the rubble.” The March incarnation of SCAPE was originally intended to open in September 2010 when an earthquake struck. The loss is doubled, just as the effort to rebuild is redoubled. Director of SCAPE, Deborah McCormick said that the many of the planned artworks will be installed in Christchurch and Auckland later this year to coincide with the Auckland Art Fair, Christchurch Arts Festival and Christchurch’s The Body Dance Festival. Several large-scale artists’ works are now confirmed for Christchurch.

 “The artistic provocations that were developed by the 6th SCAPE curators and artists in early 2010 are very relevant to the city rebuild issues in post-earthquake Christchurch and to New Zealanders in general,” McCormick said.

“Artists were asked to explore the city as a collective civic space and to consider how we could achieve a more viable, populated and environmentally sustainable inner city. We expect that these artworks will inform and stimulate discussion, feeding into the process of developing and replanning our cities that are currently underway.”

Taking cues from the examples and critics cited here, the potential of the commons has emerged as a networked space of creative and generative possibility and risk. There is recognistion of these types of events as public goods. In shaping the commons, Jay Walljasper states that we “recognise some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all. The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.” To recover is to reclaim.

Clearly, these events are ‘doing something’ for culture and for recovery beyond the repartee of creative cities and the culture industry: beyond normative ideas about biennial models. They express a belief in the future and fill the space of the bereft with an alternative practice of creative community. Cultural capital is mobilised at a number of levels – across industry, city, region and community – catalysing rebonding in fragmented localities. These examples cultivate a sense of responsibility for social relations and inclusion. They evince the biennial as situated, a platform for gathering and exchanging. A legacy of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial is “The idea of using art to create a unique community has attracted attention around the world as the ‘Tsumari method’.” This indicates an event that is not wholly concerned with fidelity to a model or format and is evident in some of the relational and participatory projects that focus on gardening, crafting and cooking. Artists actively breathe life into the commons as reinvigoration of social and cultural relations in the face of all kinds of opposition, censorship and antagonism. These post-disaster cultural events take this idea of the commons seriously. They convey the potential of both the coming commons and the ‘becoming commons’ through cultural exchange.

Make a Free Website with Yola.