Interventions taking on unusual guises have often proved more effective than ones with predictable schemes. This realization must have been a starting point for Belgian curator Niels Van Tomme when conceiving the 7th edition of the Bucharest Biennale for Contemporary Art with limited resources and support. While the summer opened with a high concentration of cultural events like the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, the 19th Berlin Biennale and Manifesta 11, fuelling on-going discussions of these large-scale exhibitions’ virtues and pitfalls, their agendas and common strategies, little attention has been paid to the BB7 which has taken a more modest, perhaps more invigorating approach to an all-too-comfortable format.
The BB7 is not your usual biennale. It doesn’t invite visitors into white cube venues or decrepit warehouse spaces full of art, nor does it include a thick exhibition catalogue or a packed programme of side-events. Instead Van Tomme commissioned twenty artists to produce billboards, which were dispersed throughout Romania’s capital city, some of them located in remote locations. This simple and straightforward concept could have worked very well if it weren’t for the very long walking distances in between each billboard. To help us navigate to the different locations an online application was developed but it doesn’t tell you how to get there most efficiently. After having walked to two bicycle rental shops only to discover that both no longer existed, I had no difficulties hailing a cab which seems to be the way to go in this city full of large boulevards; where everything moves quickly and nothing remains the same for long. In fact, as we drive through Bucharest’s different neighbourhoods, the city unfolds as an extended sum of countless particulars. The urban environment is an honest expression of competing histories and adds to a more full understanding of the biennale's conceptual framework. By titling his biennale ‘What are we building down there’, Van Tomme ambiguously points to the perception of a marginalized Eastern-Europe shaped by ideology, myth and propaganda, while simultaneously opening up a collective conversation on processes of construction in an eclectic urban setting.
This premise puts to mind Harvard economist Eward Glaeser’s observation that we should turn away from our tendency to see the cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete. A conversation with my cab driver is a reminder of exactly this. Driving past the People’s Palace, the man recalls life in late seventies socialism, remembering his adolescent years when witnessing a large, steel wrecking ball swinging against the walls of a 16th-century hospital where many inhabitants of Bucharest, like himself, were born, nursed, and taken care of for centuries. It took a couple of tentative swings before the building’s solid walls would finally break to make room for Ceausescu's gargantuan edifice, only slightly smaller than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Today, businesses seeking economic benefit are exploring possibilities for repurposing the large heritage, while real estate speculation causing higher prices for housing make it difficult for many Romanians to take part in a future that was never planned for them.
If processes of top-down urban renewal, entrepreneurial spirit and burgeoning corporate development have increasingly marked the city’s social fabric, turning it into a space where dreams quickly dry-up, how can we build differently? Or, if the inhabitants of the city have any purchase on the future what would it look like? What new things could arise from this hybrid configuration of the city where the line between public and private increasingly evaporates? These are a couple of questions the biennale asks, conveying a conflicted responsibility to locate agency in alternative practices of building and entrepreneurship.
Positioned alongside a busy boulevard Merve Bedir’s billboard asks “What is it that you want?” The pronoun is highlighted in yellow, provoking passers-by to reflect on their own subject position within the urban fabric. Metahaven’s contribution Checkpoint Truth located by Unirri Parc in the city centre, comments on the role of propaganda as an instance of fiction, suggesting we should move beyond fixed notions of truth.
On the outskirt of the city, Adelita Husni-Bey depicts a group of drowsy leaders, alluding to political stasis and dormant instances of power in need of an urgent wake-up call. Then, there’s Christian Bors & Marius Ritiu’s billboard displaying a carefully designed bottle of holy water, playfully commenting on religion as the institutionalization and privatization of faith. By the train station, Andrew Norman Wilson’s billboard presents a dried-out Humpty Dumpty, its luxurious egg-shaped body slowly deforming under all sorts of pressure. Although some of the billboards are straightforward and clear, others are more cryptic and allegorical. Using both images and text, these different surfaces revolve around similar issues, prompting us to think about the current state of affairs, and re-think our role within processes of decision-making in a context where a sense of publicness has nearly become extinct.
The biennale’s use of billboards is, of course, no coincidence. Instead of displaying a reactive posture towards the corporatization of space, the biennale operates as a sort of parasite within the distribution of advertising billboards that permeate the urban infrastructure, piggybacking on the visibility of its repetitive 2-D surfaces. Yet, however pertinent the questions they ask, the billboards are hardly noticeable in the pervasive commercial net that covers the city.
Driving from billboard to billboard, I wonder whether this biennale should be visited in such an intentional way, or perhaps be experienced as a set of statements unexpectedly manifesting from the city’s infrastructure. Van Tomme seems to be more engrossed in option two, and in contrast to an art event like Manifesta, this biennale doesn’t have the pretence to change or solve anything. Rather, it explores how a position of refusal can subtly make visible certain realities and mechanisms that shape everyday life; how it can uncover the fallacies of a society that its leaders and managers have failed to address. In addition, the biennale underscores how Bucharest can be considered to be central--rather than marginal--to critical thinking about the affiliation between art and societal issues. While for some, the BB7 might have benefitted from more interaction between the artists, the public, the inhabitants and the organization, there is no doubt that this biennale’s experimentation with modes of non-oppositional dissent is a worthy and valuable endeavour in its own right.
Bucharest Biennial 7
26.5 - 30.6