Oslo Biennale to rethink art production and dissemination over a five-year timeline

STIR in conversation with the curators of osloBIENNALEN, Norway, which will explore new formats in the arts ecosystem over a course of five years, from 2019 to 2024.

by Sukanya Garg Published on : Jun 26, 2020

STIR speaks with Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, the curators of the Oslo Biennale in Norway. It is an evolving five-year programme of art, from 2019 to 2024, in public space and the public sphere that explores new formats of art production and dissemination if the art world were to move away from the traditional event-based biennales. Having opened with 26 projects by Oslo-based and international artists, the osloBIENNALEN curators have been collaborating with artists and partner organisations to rethink the cultural ecosystem of art.

osloBIENNALEN First Edition (2019-2024) curators Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho Bodero | Oslo Biennale| STIRworld
osloBIENNALEN First Edition (2019-2024) curators Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho Bodero Image Credit: Richard Ashton, Courtesy of osloBIENNALEN

Sukanya Garg (SG): How has the Oslo Biennale evolved over the course of the last year till now? Could you talk about the progression of ideas and conceptual themes?

Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk (EGSB and PGET): This first edition of the Oslo biennial is curated by the same curatorial team who designed the model for the biennial during the project we named OSLO PILOT. The original brief was to set up a new approach to running a biennial concerned with public space and the public sphere. In other words, this first edition (oB1) is a structural curatorial proposal, the creation of a set of tools for use by artists working in public space. It will also be for the use of all agents involved in art production in public space and for the public, as well as for the reception of the arts within a working context, where the audience includes passers-by, as this relation between art/artists/context/audiences is complex, changing and unpredictable. One of the parameters defining our structure has been time and temporality, which are clearly quite different from the temporality that conditions the ‘traditional’ exhibition space (the museum or art gallery). Public space is not determined by the same premises as an indoor exhibition space, being firstly and foremost characterised by contingency, polysemy and conflict. It is a complex project because it involves setting up a structure capable of accommodating the endless variability to which public space is subject. This constitutes a paradox, how to build a structure that is both clearly defined and highly adaptable – how to hold variability? Only time will tell whether this is attainable. Ultimately, we hope to influence cultural policy in some of the aspects involved in working with artists in public space, which traditionally have been largely rooted in commissioning regimes, something we have set out to transform – in our case, the project consists of ‘invitations to artists’, not commissions.

osloBIENNALEN First Edition 2019-2024 (oB1) opened with 24 projects with very different tempos, forms, and media, ranging from performances lasting a few hours to longer pieces programmed with life cycles of up to five years and beyond.

Visitors listen to Øystein Wyller Odden's ‘Power Line Hum (Composition for the Organ in Oslo City Hall)’ at Oslo City Hall during osloBIENNALEN | Oslo Biennale| STIRworld
Visitors listen to Øystein Wyller Odden's Power Line Hum (Composition for the Organ in Oslo City Hall) at Oslo City Hall during osloBIENNALEN Image Credit: Niklas Hart, Hartwork / osloBIENNALEN

SG: What kind of artist projects and collaborations have been seen? Could you talk about a few highlights?

EGSB and PGET: oB1 is very much interested in analysing the quasi-non-existence of operating structures capable of supporting contemporary art practises in public space, including immaterial works and intangible artistic processes. We have set out to overcome the difficulties of taking care, institutionally speaking, of the chain of production of immaterial art practices, starting with ideation, followed by display, reception and even extending to the potential inclusion of the resulting work in public collections. When dealing with immaterial or performance-based works in public collections (to give an example, the case of the Dadaists and later the surrealists), this has generally tended to limit itself to documentation, archives (of wanderings, actions…). We are interested in the possibility of reactivating these proposals through “protocols” or collecting “gestures” for subsequent reproduction.

Ed D Souza, Migrant Car | Oslo Biennale | Ed D Souza | STIRworld
Ed D Souza, Migrant Car Image Credit: Niklas Hart

SG: Given the current situation of COVID-19, how has the global shutdown and the ecological crisis affected the Biennale and its artists? Will the Biennale be addressing the issue in the forthcoming period? If yes, how?

EGSB and PGET: It is essential that we address these issues. For us public space is not exclusively the physical space of the city. The public sphere covers radio, television, newspapers, the internet. The pandemic has forced us to accelerate our thinking on how to provide new tools for working on these platforms, which, in many cases, we were already discussing before the health crisis. Nevertheless, the current situation has radically modified the definition of what public space is. The online sphere can be a very exclusive platform. How many people have been excluded from education or from social interaction by not having internet access? It is very important for us to find ways of operating effectively in the public sphere under its new conditions. This does not mean simply documenting existing projects.

Marianne Heier, And Their Spirits Live On, performance, 2019| Oslo Biennale | Marianne Heier | STIRworld
Marianne Heier, And Their Spirits Live On, performance, 2019 Image Credit: Kristine Jakobsen and osloBIENNALEN 2019

SG: How do you think the global shutdown will affect the arts scene altogether in the coming year? How do you think arts can be a catalyst for change during this time?

EGSB and PGET: Art has always reflected reality. Confinement hasn't prevented artists from thinking or working. Rather cultural agents have been placed in lockdown at home, a new kind of “atelier” that many of us were not used to. In some cases, artists were already working in this way before the virus. What has changed is the context to which artists and their work must respond, one that is now very different. An example could be, not being able to travel to the other side of the world to participate in a seminar or give a talk. For us, the question also could be, how the artist can now deal with specific situations, which she/he will not be able to confront directly unless she/he is able to travel to Oslo. The invitation to local and international artists to spend time exploring specific contexts has been at the core of our biennial project from the start, and, at the moment, this is no longer possible.

  • Knut Åsdam, Oslo, film still, 2019 | Oslo Biennale| Knut Åsdam | STIRworld
    Knut Åsdam, Oslo, film still, 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist
  • Knut Åsdam, Oslo, 2019. Installation view at Grønland Bazar | Oslo Biennale| Knut Åsdam | STIRworld
    Knut Åsdam, Oslo, 2019. Installation view at Grønland Bazar Image Credit: Peder Blümlein. © osloBIENNALEN 2019

SG: Since the Biennale is unprecedented in its objective and approach, what do you think is the way forward for biennales in general?

EGSB and PGET: We hope that this project will constitute a different structure for artists to work with, that the different infrastructures we are working on, such as setting up film and radio production units, could form a legacy for the city of Oslo and its arts communities. We hope this could also allow audiences to approach artistic proposals under optimal conditions. We would like to contribute to the enrichment of the arts by means of the more sensitive and flexible tools and modus operandi we are setting in motion.

  • Oliver Godow, Oslo 2014- 2019. Installation view at Majorstuen station in Valkyriegata | Oslo Biennale| Oliver Godow | STIRworld
    Oliver Godow, Oslo 2014- 2019. Installation view at Majorstuen station in Valkyriegata Image Credit: Peder Blümlein. © osloBIENNALEN 2019
  • Oliver Godow, Oslo 2014- 2019 | Oslo Biennale| Oliver Godow | STIRworld
    Oliver Godow, Oslo 2014- 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist, Hatje Cantz and © osloBIENNALEN 2019

SG: Is there an outcome the Biennale is moving towards or is it an organic evolution?

EGSB and PGET: The biennial is an ongoing exploration that tests out different approaches to, and understanding of, art in public space. This exploration happens through the production of concrete works of art and through the setting of infrastructures that can facilitate these.

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