[-empyre-] From Emergency to Emergence

linda carroli lcarroli at optusnet.com.au
Fri Jun 17 21:47:08 EST 2011

There is much to learn or note from these initiatives cited in earlier
messages, and there is a need to shift our thinking from the idea of
‘emergency’ to that of ‘emergence’. Goldstein defines emergence as “the
arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the
process of self-organization in complex systems”. There are an estimated 300
biennials presented around the world and Hou Hanru observes that “everyone
is trying to find a new format or new ideas”. Claire Doherty also proposes
that “The unstated aim of any curatorial endeavour is to produce a situation
like no other”. O’Neill’s proposition of curating as ‘becoming discourse’
has bearing here as does the idea of ‘tendency’ via Georg Lukács. I am
inclined to extrapolate this further as ‘ethos’. If we want more than ‘a
model’ or an imposition (and I do) then we need to attend to the conditions
of emergence. Emergent structures, via Wikipedia, are patterns that cannot
result from a small set of rules or events ... Rather, the interaction of
each part with its immediate surroundings causes a complex chain of
processes leading to order in some form ... Emergent structures are more
than the sum of their parts because the emergent order will not arise if the
various parts are simply coexisting; the interaction of these parts is
central. Let patterns emerge.

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 curatorial group. 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 posing
exhibitionary typologies, or genres as Ferguson, Greenberg & Nairne propose,
which might offer specific, flexible and locational strategies. One model
never fits all. It seems like a design problem in which identity, purpose,
politics and narrative are confluent. Part of that problem is funding,
especially the funding for artists. In The Art Newspaper, Ben Luke
http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Biennial+or+bust/23809 explores this
and other criticisms of biennials. Critical comments abound: “no one is
going to pay you for your time or production”, “people rest on their laurels
and their reputations”, “it is an art fair”, “it is an exhibition that is
somehow about objects and not about people”. 

Consequently, there is a sense that, despite their ambition, biennials don’t
realise potential or expectations, perhaps attributable to their serving
many masters. The ‘biennial model’ is a constraint that, according to Luke’s
informants, exploits artists, pushes cultural product to market, patronises
communities and wastes potential. (Sounds like any other corporate or
industrial workplace.) 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. 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. I was quite interested by a point on Echigo-Tsumari
Art Triennial website: “The idea of using art to create a unique community
has attracted attention around the world as the ‘Tsumari method,’ and has
been discussed in the West and in Asia by curators and other art
professionals, local government study groups, international meetings, and
symposia.” This indicates an event that is less about fidelity to a model or
format, and more about other aspirations – a kind of trusting letting go, an
invitation, an opening or, even, a flowering. This is also evident in some
of the projects that focus on gardening, crafting and cooking. 

Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø state that “although
the biennial cannot be precisely or absolutely defined, it nonetheless
demands that we examine it”. Such an examination recognises the biennial can
do something else, as a platform – “a site for experimentation, contingency,
testing, ambiguity, and inquiry”. However, fundamentally, this view tends
towards intervening on a model rather than shaping typologies that are
complex and inclusive of those interventions and incursions. So when
curators talk about engaging the local community and responding to local
conditions, it still sounds like a top-down institutional concession,
gesture or imposition: a biennial is contradictory in its specificity as a
global locality (destination) within a locality.  

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