Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala on the curatorial framework of Gwangju Biennale

The Artistic Directors of the upcoming edition of the Gwangju Biennale talk about the ideas of evolution through cognitive and lived experiences as the theme for the event.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Dec 10, 2020

The 13th edition of Gwangju Biennale, themed around Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning, aims to bring in focus on artistic practices that enable “mutating, itinerant, hybrid, and at times undisciplined alliances”. Layered with the ideas of evolution, artificial intelligence, and survival strategies, Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala created the event to be presented across online and physical displays. Inspired by philosopher Catherina Malabou, the works at the biennale investigate organic and cybernetic intelligence and notions of cognitive experiences through the histories and philosophies of Asian communities. Ayas expands the basis of selecting practitioners for the exhibition, “Involving artists who have a holistic vision of ‘life’ and strive to understand past and future life forms as well as modes of spherical thinking to channel toward a world ethic that is socially and ecologically desirable…”. The biennale will also have contextual focus of Korea, the host country, “This will be the first ever Gwangju Biennale that actively draws from the visual culture of Korea beyond the terrain of contemporary art…,” adds Ginwala.

I interview the Artistic Directors on the ongoing programming and the biennale itself that is scheduled to launch in early 2021.  

EightOS session | 13th Gwangju Biennale | EightOS | STIRworld
EightOS session Image: Adrian Kunzel, Courtesy of the artist

Rahul Kumar (RK): What triggered the basic curatorial framework for the biennale – that of including “practices that go beyond the binary framings”?

Defne Ayas (DA): What is the ‘real’nature of intelligence? Where are we heading in our co-evolution with artificial intelligence? How do we learn survival strategies from living organisms and microbial agents? What is foreign in us that also benefits us? These were questions we laid out in our proposal, and believe it or not, before the pandemic (!). In our exhibition we set out to examine the entire spectrum of intelligence, with both the organic and inorganic intelligence in mind. We were inspired by philosopher Catherina Malabou’s work that encourages a dialectic understanding between organic and cybernetic intelligence and has consistently worked on the notion of plasticity, for more than two decades now, and not only drawing from Hegel and Freud, but also from the cognitive and neurosciences. Especially mobilised were we on the notion of collective intelligence, and on what is to be said about the labour of the brain today. We wanted the biennale to be a platform to sense further pathways into the sciences that transcend the inquiries only rooted in western modernity and that can harness deep tissue work in humanities that is inclusive of advances in molecular, cellular and neurobiology.

A Hard White Body, a Soft White Worm (installation view) | 13th Gwangju Biennale | Candice Lin | STIRworld
A Hard White Body, a Soft White Worm by Candice Lin (installation view) Image: Portikus, Frankfurt, Courtesy of the artist

Natasha Ginwala (NG): Across Asian visual culture, lived histories and philosophy, we witness that there is a forgrounding of the indivisible connections between mind-body; human and non-human cognitive experience; and ways of ‘worlding’ that draw together spirit beings, practices of healing and reparation, queer desire, as well as indigenous knowledge cosmologies. The binary imperative or structual dualism that ruptures this webwork of embodied intelligence has led to false universalisms spun by colonial modernity and human science. With Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning we seek to draw out aspects of the ‘communal mind’ and its artistic as well as restorative potential in the present struggles toward social justice. While there are growing challenges emanating from augmented reality, technological inequity and algorithmic regimes in governing our socio-political lives, the kernel of organic intelligence that we tap into is adaptibility, sociality, marked experiences of trauma, but also vocabularies of dissidence.

03 mins watch Multimask, 2020 | 13th Gwangju Biennale | Ana Prvacki | STIRworld
Multimask, 2020 by Ana Prvacki Video: Courtesy of the artist

RK: In continuation, why the focus on “traversing ancestral knowledge, augmented intelligence, and healing systems?” Why is it important for the art at the biennale to be “locally relevant while being connected to our shared planetary conditions today, transcending generations and geopolitics”?

DA: You have two questions here. In addressing the production of cognition, we proposed to direct the curatorial programming towards an expanded approach to ‘living processes’: aesthetic, high-spirited, historically conscious, ever-more inclusive, and mind-expanding. Involving artists who have a holistic vision of ‘life’ and strive to understand past and future life forms as well as modes of spherical thinking to channel toward a world ethic that is socially and ecologically desirable. In this regard, immediately Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Infinity Engine (2011–18) came  to mind, an artwork that is about fluidity, revision, mutation, and the impulse to recreate life itself through genetic engineering and the re-editing of DNA patterns.

To me, every exhibition is an unnamed resistance where we can divine our futures. The Gwangju Uprising holds global significance, as a mother protest site, and therefore we see it as a prism to understand some of the urgent questions that solidarity movements ask today. The biennale functions as a way to honour its uprising, its democratisation movement, the citizens whose bodies still have not been honoured, every two years.

As co-curators, we have committed ourselves to engaging with the lineage of these traumatic events and set our intention to recognise similar citizen movements that have taken place since 1980, reflecting upon current, ongoing struggles in so many parts of the world—from Turkey, Hong Kong, and Brazil to India, Tibet, Chile, and Lebanon. We attempt to do all this via the agency of contemporary art, which is by its very nature nonconsensual. We work with a consensus-driven official system, but also with the aim of capturing the bottom-up energy of the protest and reparation movements.  See the challenge?  Yet, we see the biennale as a space of conceivable reconciliation, repair, rematriation (a term borrowed from Samí scholar Rauna Kuokkanen), and potential transgenerational encounter. As such, however, it is a unique platform to find connections, between local and local, but also connecting them globally, making connections between that, what does not yet exist for publics yet to come.

Kaleta Power | 13th Gwangju Biennale | Emo de Medeiros | STIRworld
Kaleta Power by Emo de Medeiros Image: Courtesy of the artist

NG: Defne has covered several aspects of our collaborative approach here. I would like to highlight the work of artists such as Sahej Rahal and Ana Maria Millán who work with gaming, live action role play, sacred philosophies, and virtual world building as a means of social commentary. Their projects animate protagonists who embody a temporal experience, and spatialise a narrative logic chronicling present-day realities of ecological precarity as well as state and militarist violence. We are also working with several Korean artists, from seminal painter Min Joung-Ki, who is a pioneer of the Minjung art movement and Korean landscape to Sangdon Kim, who conceives complex installation works that mobilise elements from Korean shamanism, digital technology and circuits of hyper consumption.

Room no.55_699-7 Duklimdong Gwangsangu Gwangju| 13th Gwangju Biennale | Hyuntaek Cho| STIRworld
Room no.55_699-7 Duklimdong Gwangsangu Gwangju by Hyuntaek Cho Image: Courtesy of the artist

RK: Please elaborate on the partnership with The Museum of Shamanism and The Gahoe Museum of Folk Painting in Seoul, and the significance of the manuscripts and paintings from the Wellcome Collection, in curatorial inquiry of the event?

DA: Our exhibition and programming actively evoke ancestral wisdoms and shamanism, specifically linked to female shamans referred to as Mudangor Manshinin South Korea and beyond (some of whom we met or watched during ceremonies during our research trips), and indigenous life- worlds. From the outset Natasha has done an enormous research into private collections in Korea with a focus on shamanism, sacred artefacts and ritual paintings. 

To me, a deeper inquiry into shamanism is highly revealing of various histories and forms of organic intelligences/ knowledges that have been suppressed or ostracised. It also works as an interface to understand gender issues and class in South Korea. We are convinced that access to spirit-worlds can help us to move beyond linear and hierarchical genealogies of knowledge that has been shaped by and through extractive forces and colonial modernity. We see our involvement rather as part of our mission to connect the many visions and practices across the world, as we try moving towards a world model that relies upon more hybrid alliances, that can help us unleash practices of care and renewal in the face of collective and individual traumas in the nation-state constructs that we are stuck in.

Mirror Pavilion Straw Work (Corrib)| 13th Gwangju Biennale | John Gerrard | STIRworld
Mirror Pavilion Straw Work (Corrib) by John Gerrard Image: Courtesy of the artist

NG: This will be the first ever Gwangju Biennale that actively draws from the visual culture of Korea beyond the terrain of contemporary art, and sets up relationalities to focus on oral culture and labour forms in rural life, anti-systemic kinship, contemporary indigenous artistic forms and matriarchal vocabularies that challenge heteronormative power. In addition to folding screen-paintings, amulets and ceremonial objects from the Museum of Shamanism and the Gahoe Museum, through a selection of manuscripts and paintings from the Wellcome Collection (London) mappings are projected of the diseased body and personified organs, from a Tibetan bloodletting chart to the lord of death, from Hindu cosmology, Yama holding the wheel of life. The biennale integrates these broader cultural ontologies of health and systems of cure throughout the gradient of life and death. We ask how these modes of intelligence addressing the cleansing of energies, protection of the ailing body, and forces of renewal toward frayed and toxic relations may be harnessed through sacred and ancestral forms of representation, beyond their surface readings as an aesthetic practice.

Soldado | 13th Gwangju Biennale | Fernando Palma Rodríguez | STIRworld
Soldado by Fernando Palma Rodríguez Image: Ed Mumford, Courtesy of the artist and Gaga, Mexico City and Los Angeles

RK: You have planned digital programming along with physical exhibitions at the biennale venues in South Korea. While most other fairs and art events have been cancelled or postponed, do you anticipate participation and viewership at this event, given the pandemic conditions?

DA: Having an online journal and centralising the public programming area within the exhibition site is something we have considered from the outset onwards as part of our joint commitment to the creation of various zones for thought- experiments that are not inherently separate from the exhibition proper. In keeping with the communal ethos of the biennale, we had proposed two interpretive summits to unlock the possible agendas and quandries inherent in the concept of the biennale edition.  As soon as the pandemic broke out, we moved these online.

As curators we also always rely on audiences to come. In this case, by mobilising our public programs online, we reached about 1000 unique viewers in the first two months - we would not otherwise have achieved this if we had organised the events locally. We will continue our programs through January 2021 as well as during the biennale opening days.

Ghostdance (video still)| 13th Gwangju Biennale | Theo Eshetu | STIRworld
Ghostdance (video still) by Theo Eshetu Image: Courtesy of the artist

NG: The online journal ‘Minds Rising’ has a tripartite focus: artistic/literary, scholarly and theoretical. Some examples include a questionnaire from artist and smell theorist Sissel Tolaas to acclaimed South Korean filmmaker and director of the award-winning film Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho, on the role of smell as a form of emotional intelligence while reflecting on class divides; and artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña’s Rain Dreamed by Sound, a poem dedicated to the work of Korean American conceptual artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and many more. There are also video-based commissions which invite artists and choreographers in the biennale segment ‘Live Organ’ that focus on corporeal knowledge, the body as stage and means of extending performativity amidst isolation protocols world over.

The ongoing public forum ‘Rising to Surface: Practicing Solidarity Futures’ marks the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising. Online and on-site sessions have included Ruha Benjamin addressing algorithmic violence and race; filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam addressing the Tibetan guerilla resistance during the Cold War period, journalist and feminist activist Reem Abbas highlighting the role of women leaders and feminist organisers in the Sudanese Revolution, and one of the upcoming sessions will address current struggles to protect land and waters from extractive infrastructures.  

The Death of a Tiger and Other Empty Seats| 13th Gwangju Biennale | Timoteus Anggawan Kusno | STIRworld
The Death of a Tiger and Other Empty Seats by Timoteus Anggawan Kusno Image: Courtesy of the artist

RK: Lastly, how did both of you collaborate to arrive at the final artist selection? For instance, Defne, you have experience in opera/performances while Natasha you are an author. Further, beyond work experience, you both come from varied cultural backgrounds. How did this disparity percolate down to a rich and diverse presentation plan?  

DA: From different countries perhaps, Turkey and India respectively, but we both come from strong background in social sciences (and strong matriarchal lineages!).

Natasha and I both have been engaged in conceiving biennale formats within contexts as diverse as Berlin, Taipei, Venice, Vilnius, and Moscow, in different scales and capacities perhaps, but in each instance, carefully considering the process of commissioning artworks. What unites us is our commitment to producing models and layers of understanding that are rooted in specific social or geo-political realities. As for me alone, whether initiating exhibition and publishing platforms that address the various conflicting historical legacies (at formerly known as Witte de With); commissioning live work that enables artists to reveal their muscles for justice and truth (Performa), or jumpstarting collaborative transcultural research initiatives that look at the legacy of former Ottoman empire (Blind Dates) or Silk Roads (Arthub Asia), I ground my work in engaging in specific contexts, but always with a historical perspective.

We have known each other for ten years now, we met in Shanghai in 2010, we collaborated in Rotterdam in 2013-14, and we are familiar with each other’s curatorial trajectories, inquiries, and energies. In year 2017, without realising, we embarked on collaborations with the same artists, Natasha in her capacity as the curator of Contour Biennale 8, and me as the Director of (formerly known as) Witte de With at the time. A colleague, Övül Durmuşoğlu, has described us “as two sides of the same moon.” It is so true!

Our shared interest in artists with commitment to political issues all around the world, and our field work allowed us to move very organically and intuitively on our choices.

Garden of Regrets | 13th Gwangju Biennale | Sylbee Kim | STIRworld
Garden of Regrets by Sylbee Kim Image: Courtesy of the artist

NG: My practice has evolved through working simultaneously with larger-format institutional projects such as biennales and documenta 14 alongside non-profit, grassroots cultural initiatives and this has lent versatility and dynamism to processes of artistic research and links to cultural theory at various crossroads, without resorting to trend spotting or restricting one’s activity to a power nexus from one arts scene.

At the 13th Gwangju Biennale, there are artists we have individually and collectively been working with on previous occasions such as Judy Radul, Karrabing Film Collective, and Theo Eshetu but we also initiated a transformative dialogue with several practitioners, such as indigenous Mexican artist Fernando Palma Rodríguez who draws on Aztec cosmology and robotics. Our work has been sustained with members of our curatorial team (Michelangelo Corsaro, Kirsztina Hunya, Joowon Park, Producers Davide Quadrio and Charles Gohy and architect Diogo Passarinho).

As you have mentioned, writing forms an integral element of the curatorial process for me and this has resulted in elaborate exchanges with artists, public intellectuals, activists, and scientific researchers toward our publication programme for the biennale with the bi-monthly journal Minds Rising (developed with managing editor Young-Jun Tak) and a reader on feminism Stronger than Bone (co-edited with Jill Winder and co-published with Archive Books) that includes new and anthologized texts around women’s resistance-building in uprisings and labour strike from Gwangju to Fiji, digital feminism and self-optimization in Korea, gaming culture from a gender and race perspective, as well as how algorithmic regimes interlace fembots and tech-bro culture.

You and I New Tribe - King Mountain Eagle Crocodile series | 13th Gwangju Biennale | Sangdon Kim | STIRworld
You and I New Tribe - King Mountain Eagle Crocodile series by Sangdon Kim Image: Courtesy of the artist

(Gwangju Biennale will take place from February 26–May 9, 2021.)

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