“GIBCA: Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art”

Markus Öhrn
Markus Öhrn, Magic Bullet, 2009, image: Markus Öhrn

It’s best to not only approach GIBCA’s main venues but to explore the satelite program over the course of the next few months to determine if the event supports its stated position.

Göteborg’s International Biennial for Contemporary Art: PLAY! Recapturing the Radical Imagination official opening was September 6-8, 2013. As the press release remarks, GIBCA «starts with a desire to investigate and critically reflect on the notions of play and radical imagination, as two important ingredients of the artistic and political discourse.» This initiative is an admirable ambition. Somewhere along the way, many lose their ability to think creatively and tinker with found or given materials; we become conditioned, adopt a defined role, and the space we find ourselves in becomes more confined with each decision—much like a tree diagram, many tend to resign to only one of its delicate branches, as we make our way from the roots to the sky. But some of us never forget: we can burn down the tree and plant a new one. The late David Foster Wallace was no stranger to this concept; in his New York Times essay «Roger Federer as Religious Experience», he uses the human body and physicality as metaphor for the confines of our own lives, and adulthood’s entrapment surfaces in his Harper’s story «The Depressed Person».

Complex collaborative structure
Many complicated questions arise. The event highlights the transformative powers of play, the political potential of curatorial practice, the relationship between politics and play, the meaning and significance of words like ‘poetics’ and ‘humor,’ the value of ‘democracy,’ steps both citizens and artists can take to alter our world, and how artists and curators can work within established institutions to express institutional critique. But whether or not the chosen artists and curators reached their potential in addressing these questions is left to be discovered; GIBCA is still underway.

Four main venues—Röda Sten Konsthall, Göteborgs Konsthall / Hasselblad Center, Lilla Bommen / Drömmarnas kaj and Stora Teatern—were curated, respectively, by Katerina Gregos, Claire Tancons, Joanna Warsza and collaboratively: artists-as-curators Ragnar Kjartansson & Andjeas Ejiksson. Each curation exists under the same thematic umbrella, yet the curators possess distinct perspectives that only partially overlap. The shows’ subtitles: «The Politics of Play», «AnarKrew», «Art & Crime», «Weight» and «Leisure, Discipline and Punishment»— the latter being an EU supported collaboration and, perhaps, an afterthought to the rest of the event due to its complex collaborative structure and peripherally positioned contributors? There is also a satellite program September 7-November 17 titled «GIBCA Extended» providing additional opportunities to engage in screenings, exhibitions, installations, talks, ad nauseam.

An archival tendency
Whilst perusing its main venues, many works appear strong and determined, some being Jorge Galindo & Santiago Sierra’s video Los Encargados (2012) carrying juxtaposed heads of Spanish political figures on a caravan of limousines reminiscent of a funeral procession with the intent to highlight corruption, Olav Westphalen’s selection of illustrated comics from A Junkie In the Forest Doing Things the Hard Way (2012) inviting one to reconsider their standard for political correctness, Spanish artist Núria Güell’s decision to hire an individual awaiting legal status clearance to play ‘Hide-and-Seek’ with visitors along the ‘Quai of Broken Dreams’ during the biennial, and Markus Öhrn’s 49 hour-long-film Magic Bullet (2009) which is an excessive montage of censored film scenes removed from the public’s eye by the Swedish State Film Censorship office. What makes certain works inevitably timeless and relevant is always a question. Is it based on the viewer’s subjective opinion or feeling, or the artist’s talent for harnessing the sublime? The sub-qualities which support both sentiments and excellence are slippery; yet for many, without them, any given work will not withstand the test of time. History can be brutal.

A observed problematic of Scandinavian biennials appears to be a stubborn reluctance to fairly rotate energies amongst and between newly emerging artists and already established ones. Many practicing curators, already-existing institutions and cultural organizations are more apt to incorporate older, finished work from an established artist or artist group, opting for a historical or archival approach, rather than inviting more fresh faces to contribute to an event by responding on call—to the moment. When an artist exhibits a work from their finished folio, they obviously avoid abiding to more difficult time constraints or being forced to work within the confines of a more stringent budget. This archival tendency exists on a spectrum; some biennials conquer this issue better than others. Unfortunately, many biennials are guilty of recycling known artists who have been conditioned to give both curators and the general public what they need (or think they need)—we’ve discovered from the simplest of childhood games that it’s easier to fit the shape of a square or rhombus into a rectangular peg, instead of a triangle or circle.

Limited access
One can detect when a biennial chooses ‘default’ works; for both critics and art lovers who regularly attend these large-scale events, we are bound to view exact pieces displayed within radically different contexts. For instance, consider the Danish artist group Wooloo; they previously exhibited their music video We Need You Now (More Than Ever) in the exhibition «Newtopia» in Mechelen, Belgium in 2012. Other works which appear either outdated or recycled: Tania Bruguera’s Lecture-Performance (2009), Guerrilla Girls’ mélange of previously created posters, books and anonymous protests for situations which do not appear to address a specific immediate here and now but, rather, more universal feminist conflicts such as discrimination towards women in the art world. I desire to see artists be even more specific and better informed regarding their political complaints and discontents. Generalized complaints do not instigate change; screams get lost amongst other livid voices. Instead: deliberate a plan.

If words like «radical», «politics» and «play» are bravely integrated into a theme, let us see such words in action. It is difficult to be an artist, no doubt, but if a chosen artist responds by placing older, previously historicized or contextualized work into an international art event, should the public overlook the fact the many other qualified artists are ready and willing to respond with the energy and fervor it takes to instigate a more current approach or challenging direction? There exists a profound list of qualified artists which desire inclusion in these biennials; in parallel, there also exists a high number of proficient curators and project organizers sitting on the sidelines, observing with their hands tied these questionably elitist, large-scale schematics in Scandinavia; it is time to stop turning our heads to the fact that only a limited number of individuals have access to these supposedly participation-based events. Where is the general public, the lesser recognized artists, the immigrating creatives, the authentic audience? Choosing to include one or two creatives who fit into these aforementioned categories is not enough.

It’s best to not only approach GIBCA’s main venues but to explore the peripheral components of «GIBCA Extended» over the course of the next few months to determine whether or not the event supports its stated position, as well as how its centralized venues communicate with its surrounding milieu. In short: shift from the old to current, from the universal to specific, from the complaint to solution—then the real fun begins.
To see the review in context, click here.

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