Kochi-Muziris Biennale artists write a collective open letter

The global artist community that is part of the 5th edition of the biennale pen this open letter sharing their concerns and views.

by STIRworldPublished on : Dec 24, 2022

Open Letter from Artists of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2022-23

We are invited artists to the 2022-23 edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), which was officially postponed the night before the opening on the 12th of December 2022. This 5th edition of the Biennale - delayed twice due to the pandemic and four years in the making - has been a labour of love for many of us. It has now opened on the 23rd of December 2022.  

The KMB has been a unique space for creative expression, conversation and dissent that we have come to value over the last ten years. Equally treasured is its diverse and engaged audience. However, we want to express our concern and shock at the way the Biennale has unfolded this year.

We write this letter in the spirit of wanting the KMB to thrive, as a forum for contemporary art and ideas. The experiences of the invited artists from this year and past editions offer an opportunity to radically transform the KMB as an event and institution. Changes that are clearly, urgently needed.

We stand in solidarity with this edition’s curator, Shubigi Rao, who has worked through challenges well beyond her purview as curator. We also stand with all of the production workers, volunteers, electricians, carpenters, fabricators, and craftspeople who have brought their skills and energy to this year’s Biennale.

First, we must address the last-minute postponement of the Biennale’s main exhibition. As artists arrived for installation in the weeks and days prior to the opening, we were overwhelmed by many problems: shipments delayed in transit and at customs past the opening day, rain leaking into all the exhibition spaces impacting equipment and artworks, lack of steady electrical power, shortage of equipment and an insufficient workforce on all production teams.

Artists were drawn into daily struggles with the Biennale management, whose organisational shortcomings and lack of transparency while facing them, had made a timely and graceful opening impossible long before it was postponed. The considerable challenges that participating artists would encounter upon arrival were never communicated, so none of us could make an informed decision as to whether to travel to Kochi or indeed to participate under the circumstances. While artists produced projects in good faith, our commitment to the Biennale was not reciprocated, and responsibility for the many problems that surrounded it, evaded.

The day before the scheduled opening, less than ten percent of the exhibition was ready. 

At 3pm on the day before the official opening, the Biennale Foundation management invited those artists present in Kochi (about half of the total number invited) to an emergency meeting. The management informed us of their intention to delay the opening by a few days, but still open one of three venues despite the exhibiting artists clarifying that even this venue was not ready. We made clear our desire to stay united in the face of the challenges that many artists faced in installing their work, and asked for a realistic date when production issues could be viably addressed and ALL venues could open together. After consulting with their production teams, the Foundation decided to postpone the opening to the 23rd of December, 2022.

We believe the Biennale Foundation should have made the decision to postpone weeks earlier when many of the failures were already apparent; well before thousands of art lovers travelled for the opening days, and most artists themselves had to return and could not stay on to see their own works installed, or engage with the work of fellow artists and visitors.

Our overall analysis, drawn from many individual experiences, is that the way the KMB is currently organised hinders artistic process, and closes down opportunities for artists rather than enabling them. Concerns have been present over the past editions as well, but have only become greater in this 2022-23 edition. The issues are organisational and systemic; what is important here is this Biennale’s ethical relation with artists and their work, including but not limited to transparency, accountability and the duty of care. This is certainly not a problem exclusive to this Biennale alone.

We summarise below some of our understandings of how and why, too many things have gone wrong here:  

1. Shockingly poor communication. Many of us had no replies to calls and emails over the course of months leading up to the Biennale’s opening, and there was little clarity on who was looking after what, in Kochi. False commitments were continuously given, “it will happen tomorrow” was always said but not done. Rather than a frank and honest assessment and response to questions and issues raised by artists, empty promises were made.

2. Opaque financial planning and last-minute fundraising. This led to delays and uncertainty in artist productions, inability to confirm materials and technical equipment for venues. Despite this edition taking place two years later than originally planned, funding, contracts and financial planning has been chaotic. At the same time forty new commissions were announced. The scale and ambition of the Biennale should be attuned to its financial situation. Institutional optimism that “it will all work out” is not a viable strategy for producing such an ambitious event, and artists and production staff should not bear an unreasonable burden for it.

3. Absence of capable people at the appropriate time, despite the curator’s and artists’ constant call to find them. Production teams were hired 2, 4, 6 and 8 weeks before the opening date. This led to innumerable problems including unprepared exhibition sites, missing expertise to deal with international shipping, technical and AV issues, missing contracts, and in general everything related to exhibiting artwork. A decade of experience did not translate into a better prepared situation. While there are excellently organised events of this scale in Kerala, the Biennale Foundation has constantly passed blame around, rather than identifying and addressing actual causes.

4. Production staff continually moved between various main Biennale and collateral and “invited” exhibition sites. The same teams of people installing across multiple such venues meant that workers were regularly called away to deal with issues at sites far away, resulting in constant work stoppages and artists left stranded waiting for things to resume.

5. Imaginary of an ideal Biennale. The KMB wants to project a large-scale event with all infrastructure and programs in place, even as the reality on the ground is constantly receding from this fantasy. This is why perhaps so much energy went into beautifying the main venues, and painting the stairwells again and again, and so little into ensuring that the art could go up, or that toilets worked during installation.

6. Collective stress. The difficult situations everyone faced in the weeks and days leading up to the Biennale combined with ad hoc decisions meant that no time or thought was left for what an event like this is surely about: exchange, sociability, dialogue between artists from the region and beyond. “Our Biennale” the sign on the exhibition site proudly reads. Despite this claim the KMB failed to connect us even to each other, except in solidarity over its repeated failings.

It is from this possessive ‘our’, first written in the name of the artists’ participating in the Biennale, that we now claim and write. We reject the notion that was put to us that the ongoing dysfunction is a consequence of the special regional conditions here, from unionised labour to weather systems. We reject the notion that chaos is inevitable with artist-led endeavours.

The form, scope and scale of the Biennale could take many different approaches, from more modest architectural refurbishments, differently scaled or timed exhibitionary modes, to more considered production that is locally developed on-site. This would mean that some of the extensive shipping and contracting efforts are simply not needed, allowing the  KMB to focus on what is realistically possible in Kochi, rather than always fighting its context. “‘Our biennale” implies a different imaginary, a different way of working. This calls for a complete reform of the Biennale’s conduct, and of the current team in charge.

On December 13, 2022, a group of 40 artists present in Kochi met with trustees, advisors and management of the Biennale Foundation and expressed our significant concerns for the ways things had unfolded and subsequently been handled, in many cases simply ignored. In doing so we highlighted many of our individual as well collective experiences and also presented some ideas. We emphasised the need to urgently overhaul the management as well as the approach and intention of the Biennale Foundation, for the sake of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s survival. We have appealed to the Board to conduct a thorough review of the current Biennale with respect to the many issues raised. We will await their analysis and response.

As we write this, many of us are working to support each other in realising the new opening on the 23rd of December. We are also aware that our recent experiences are not entirely unique and that previous editions also faced similar struggles. Nevertheless each time, artists believe that the next one will be better. Now real changes must be realised institutionally, creatively and as a community.

We ask the Biennale to move away from a system of acceptable dysfunction, structural helplessness and fear of failure, towards an environment of mutual respect, honesty and care towards artists, curators and all production workers. This is what we expressed in our crisis meetings with the Biennale Foundation, and we remain committed to these demands.

We hope that the issues we have raised help to ensure that the coming months focus on positive encounters and meaningful dialogue between all, via this exhibition that has indeed, brought us all together.

Signed

Ali Cherri, Lebanon/France
Amar Kanwar, India
Amit Mahanti, India
Amol K Patil, India
Ana Hoffner, Austria
Anushka Meenakshi, India
Archana Hande, India
Asim Waqif, India
Basma Alsharif, Palestine/Berlin
CAMP, India
Claudia Martínez Garay, Peru/Netherlands
Debbie Ding, Singapore
Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, Palestine
Disnovation.org, France/Poland/Canada
Forensic Architecture, United Kingdom
Frances Wadsworth Jones, United Kingdom
Gabriela Löffel, Switzerland
Gabrielle Goliath, South Africa
Haegue Yang, Germany/ South Korea
Hilde Skancke Pedersen, Norway
Iman Issa, Egypt/Us
Ishan Tankha, India
Jackie Karuti, Kenya
Jason Wee, Singapore
Johannes Heldén, Sweden
Jumana Manna, Jerusalem/Berlin
Ketaki Sarpotdar, India
Lawrence Lek, United Kingdom
Martta Tuomaala, Finland
Massinissa Selmani, Algeria/France
Melati Suryodarmo, Indonesia
Min Ma Maing, Myanmar
Neerja Kothari, India
Nepal Picture Library, Nepal
Philip Rizk, Berlin/ Cairo
Pio Abad, Philippines
Priya Sen, India
Priyageetha Dia, Singapore
Rita Khin, Myanmar
Ruchika Negi, India
Sahil Naik, India
Samson Young, Hong Kong
Sandip Kuriakose, USA
Shikh Sabbir Alam, Bangladesh
Shwe Wutt Hmon, Myanmar
Susan Schuppli, United Kingdom
Tenzing Dakpa, India
The Orbita Group, Latvia
Uriel Orlow, United Kingdom/Portugal
Vasudevan Akkitham, India
Ximena Garrido-Lecca, Mexico
Yohei Imamura, Japan
Zina Saro-Wiwa, UK/Nigeria/US

The above text has been sourced from the artist group of the biennale and reproduced verbatim without any edits from STIR.

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