Share Article   
Submit to Facebook

December 28, 2013

Connecting (Metaphorical) Spaces.

A Thought Experiment on Spatial Theory and the Role of Biennials as Power-Political Relays.

Written by Marie Egger

‘Why (still) biennial?’ is the question posed recurrently at symposiums, conferences, talks, panels and gatherings not only in Bergen, but also in Istanbul and every other biennial-city worldwide. To find a path towards a more fruitful answer, one should perhaps rather pose the question: “Why do biennials function the way they do?”

In a rural meaning of the word topology describes the condition of being related to (a) space(s). In this article, biennials will be understood in the perspective of a space-theoretic topology, as flexible hubs that are able to adapt to locations and their surroundings. The greatest potential of biennials still seems to lie in their capability to re-tie abstract international discourses and networks to a specific real location.

When examined against the backdrop of spatial theory, we immediately notice that biennials play a part in a de-territorialized network, in an understanding of space which does not merely deal with the circumscription of physical localities. Rather space, in this sense, can become an ideological community, an episteme of social relationships, interactions etc., and is in its essence a metaphorical category. Furthermore, this point of view defines space as an entity detached from the actual location. For example, Irit Rogoff (2009) coins the term relational geographies as she investigates current artistic practices, and defines this as ‘aggregates of intensities, of national or ethnic loyalties, of insurgencies, that link and empathize and spark off each other, of generational loyalties to great moments that cross boundaries, histories and languages’ . In addition to these links between parts of the (art) world, Rogoff observes circulations, exhibitions and forums with the potential to re-write a global map of art. Accordingly, biennials do not only need to be defined as a certain format of exhibition-making; they also function as cultural hubs and metaphorical spaces, and their purpose correspondingly consists in connecting a virtual space (network, art world) to a real location. Undoubtedly biennials are part of this metaphorical space themselves. In other words they become a tool to facilitate the creation of relations in which they themselves take part.

How can we define this process? Practically, the stimulus that is generated by a biennial can occur via two directions: (1) By activating the venue of the event. (2) By placing the city or the event (exhibition) in a wider setting of the art world, the art scene or the art network. This interconnection of the global and the local in one format emphasizes the definition of the biennial as a  simultaneously real and imagined place. Since spatial theory acknowledges both existing and metaphorical spaces it now becomes possible to see the global scene of contemporary art as both a mixture of physical encounters, sites and people as well as the set of connections and relations mentioned above, and institutional networks or co-operations.

A biennial - as the incorporation of these addends – thus conjuncts both types of spaces, and can be understood as a thirdspace or as a real-and-imagined place. This comprehension of space, proposed by Edward Soja (2003), is set within an interdisciplinary concept of spatiality, which is characterized by tremendous openness. Hence, biennialisation can be defined as the development of a virtual or metaphorical space with the potential to fluently develop and dock where required.

The ability to inscribe a location to the art world or vice versa also provides biennials with the power to re-organize and influence future development of artistic practice worldwide. Biennials serve as relays with a significant effect on, whether a connection is established or not. Precisely as Rogoff points out, they are reifications of ‘manifestations of current mobilities and paradigm shifts in the relations of subjects, processes and institutions to places’.

Hybrid qualities like these lead to processes that have recently been observed in form of mapping or re-writing. Traditional centers of artistic practice such as western cities like New York, London or Paris now range in line with cities such as São Paulo, Shanghai, Doha and others. The origin for these no longer young developments is most certainly not only the exhibition format of the biennial. Nevertheless, the main potential of periodic exhibitions seems to lie in the capability of triggering impulses to connect with a worldwide community within the metaphorical space. If a biennial’s particularity can reach further than its actual venue, relations should also be able to stretch further than the artistic and cultural centers that have temporarily determined the biennial’s location. Links between places in the periphery unfolds precisely such a potential to bypass established art centers of artistic practice and discourse. They hereby create not only ‘ new regions of broad identity, but platforms of shared concerns'. (Rogoff)

Precisely because they are equipped with such a potential, periodic exhibitions of contemporary art have also proved themselves apt to be exploited for purposes of city marketing, urban development and sidekicks for the art market. The successful placement of a biennial within the surroundings of the glocal contemporary art scene rewards sponsors, organizers and participants with valuable attention. The question remains, however: to what extent does the biennials’ hybrid and flexible nature make them suited to exert an international political influence?

Based on the discourse around New Institutionalism a definition of institutions emerged that understands grown cultural organizations as critical, organized, flexible networks, that can positively influence smaller ones. These big institutions will still possess their current hierarchical superior position but smaller/ independent institutions can also feed from the collective network and survive (Jacobs, 2013). Biennials, or biennialization understood as a network and virtual space can be defined as a stage in the development towards such an institution and its political agency – initiatives such as the Biennial Foundation are evidence of that. In the meantime, the supposedly shallow and apolitical art world appears to perpetuate its hierarchies via means of institutional environments that yet need to be put to the test.

By contrast, the legitimization of a biennial is a function of its double, real-and-imagined connection to both the local and the global; to both discourses of contemporary art and goals of local politics.

On the basis of spatial theory, a possibility thus seems to emerge that in the future, biennials may also experience legitimization as institutions and can function as power-political relays in the still not entirely streamlined space of the contemporary art world.

Marie Egger is a cultural producer based in Berlin. She practices as a curator, editor and writer and has recently worked with Carson Chan on biennials in Marrakech (2012) and Denver, Colorado (2013).


Rogoff, Irit: Geo-Cultures. Circuits of Arts and Globalizations, in: open magazine No.16/2009, p.106-115.

Soja, Edward: Thirdspace. Die Erweiterung des Geographischen Blicks, in: Gebhardt/Reuber/Wolkersdorfer (Eds.): Kulturgeographie, 2003, p.269-288.

Jacobs, Marc: Institutions with an Attitude, and Networks. Toward a Republic of Arts in a Spiked World and toward World Art History, in: Gielen, Pascal (Ed.): Institutional Attitudes. Instituting Art in a Flat World, Amsterdam 2013, p.181-199.