FOR FOUR DAYS in December 2005, art-world luminaries, city officials, and academics gathered in Venice at the stunning Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, just off the Ponte dell' Accademia on the Grand Canal. Mission: to debate the future of large-scale international exhibitions in general (and, by implication, the Venice Biennale in particular). Art historian and critic Robert Storr, next curator of what Italians call, simply, la Biennale, had been charged by the institution's leadership to organize the event, which he attempted to democratize by opening each session to discussion with the audience. But with a tight registration policy, eagle-eyed badge checkers, row after row of riservato seats, streaming media broadcast behind the panelists (input, creepily, from Palazzo surveillance cameras), and microphones handed preferentially to those in the riservato section, the event was never going to be as Storr might have hoped. Indeed, it served as an inherently nondemocratic emblem of biennials themselves. Based on some kind of selection process, and consisting of delicate loans, artist contracts, deals with gallerists, and last-minute curatorial coups, the global exhibition relies on stealth, tact, and a heavily vascularized art world. The symposium could only mimic the pseudo-egalitarianism that is the art world's favorite scam, masking the much larger geopolitical structures that are actually at play, which routinely demonstrate (pace Clausewitz) that biennials are global politics by other means.
"Where Art Worlds Meet: Multiple Modernities and the Global Salon" felt crowded with some four hundred attendees (of whom about thirty were speakers): Biennale officials in dark suits, artists in black jeans, curators in funky furs, historians and critics in scarves or tieless button-downs (apart from one notable exception in Prada taffeta). Did we accomplish anything? Certainly the topics covered (among them "Culture as Event," the role of criticism; how local conditions "Prompt and Shape the Spread of the Global Salon"; and not insignificantly, "What's In It for Artists ...") have never been more pressing. Naturally, it was curators and critics who were most in touch with current anxieties. The underlying question was unstated, but everywhere: Has the Venice Biennale (the "mother of all biennials" according to symposium literature) become obsolete?
The first day's "Official Welcome" crackled with tension, as various more or less articulate, passionate, and pin-striped officials either defended the Biennale or--more surprisingly--articulated their dissatisfaction with "business as usual" (a business in which the same visitors were counted three times to get an attendance stat of 900,000: once at the Arsenale and Giardini [265,000], once again at off-site pavilions [370,000], and another time at "collateral" events [280,000]). The Biennale audience is dwindling, defeating its purpose since the massive international exhibition was invented in 1895 to produce a secure and returning public for the Lido-based tourist industry. The real pressure on the Biennale, of course, is not the weight of this III-year history (which counts as one of its few remaining advantages). Rather, it is the slew of startlingly vital bantamweight challenger exhibitions that is rocking the gondola--such as the sprightly Istanbul Biennial, or the openly alternative Manifesta Foundation that intentionally decoupled itself from nation-states and is now promising to abandon even the exhibition form to become an experimental art school.
Storr is exquisitely aware of such pressures, as evidenced by panels designed to reveal to the Venetian power brokers a broader postcolonial scene and brave new worlds beyond the borders of "old Europe." Discussions included younger movers and shakers such as curators Carlos Basualdo (Documenta II) and Vasif Kortun (9th International Istanbul Biennial), artist Steve McQueen, as well as New Delhi-based curator Geeta Kapur and former Havana organizer Gerardo Mosquera. …