Voices from the osloBIENNALEN: Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“A biennial in public space and the public sphere would need to involve itself in new art production, while reflecting on what already exists or has taken place. It also means operating beyond established definitions of temporality and permanence, production and participation, ongoingness, activation, or perhaps even disruption, of public space. This requires special thinking about the parameters of the art field in relation to society.”
- Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk
What are your most important objectives as curators of the Oslobiennalen?
To set up a structure capable of offering artists other ways of approaching work, production and intervention in public space and the public sphere; this includes exploring and critiquing the parameters that prescribe the public space/sphere.
What principles are guiding your work?
The desire to create a model that can – if only partially – respond to the nature of public space, which is determined by its contingency and all sorts of other parameters, which are complex and must be examined in each specific case.
The application of a series of ethical principles, for example realistic payment for the work – both material and immaterial - involved in production, and the provision of optimal working conditions.
Participation in the local arts scene, as a pre-existing context and backdrop to the Biennial.
What was your initial intention when you started OSLO PILOT, and what are the main insights that you collected as the project unfolded? What has changed since you started?
In 2013, an announcement made by the City of Oslo Agency for Cultural Affairs sought a curatorial team to conceive the format for a first Oslo Biennial of Public Art.
OSLO PILOT was our initial response: a research-based project carried out between 2015-2017, to provide a definition, vision, and modus operandi for an art biennial in public space. From its inception, OSLO PILOT initiated manifold collaborations with artists, poets, curators, writers, and other specialists working in diverse fields. This enabled us to explore new ways of creating a critical framework and a long-term strategy for future production. It also offered a chance to engage with Oslo’s existing art scene, to gain a better understanding of its interests, dynamics, and inner workings, and to involve artists and cultural workers in the processes and events of the forthcoming biennial. OSLO PILOT produced approximately 40 projects during its two-year lifetime. These included large-scale works of art, performances, interventions, research-based projects investigating the ongoing urban development that characterizes the city, and a symposium. In addition, OSLO PILOT initiated much research focusing on the life cycle of the artwork in public space, generating new considerations of temporal specificity in a field that has usually privileged examinations of site.
OSLO PILOT initiated four lines of investigation: Reactivation, Periodicity, Disappearance, and Public to investigate the phenomena of time and temporality. These interrelated areas of enquiry were conceived as open-ended problematics aimed at outlining considerations too often overlooked in art vocabularies formulated around (public) site on the one hand, and exhibition on the other. The four terms – each underpinned by a reflection on time –were explored directly or obliquely in all works produced and presented during the pilot project and are also reflected in a publication consisting of 38 previously published texts spanning the past 80 years, and 19 newly commissioned texts exploring ideas about art in the public realm.
OSLO PILOT allowed us to reach our main goal: to gain knowledge and understanding of the object and subject we were asked to work with and for: public space. It quickly became clear that we couldn’t limit this to the physical space of the city. Public space stretches into other mediatic realms, so our project needed to encompass both public space and the public sphere. It also became clear that we needed to pay careful attention to the contingency and varying parameters – marked by time, temporality – to which public space is subject. A work of art in public space is not set against a neutral background but is obliged to stand in relation to a constantly changing context. Access to it cannot be guided by the same means employed in the art gallery or museum.
A biennial in public space and the public sphere would need to involve itself in new art production, while reflecting on what already exists or has taken place. It also means operating beyond established definitions of temporality and permanence, production and participation, ongoingness, activation, or perhaps even disruption, of public space. This requires special thinking about the parameters of the art field in relation to society.
How and why the dimension of the public space became central for your vision?
The brief was to define a new model for a Biennial of art in public space. We immediately extended the concern beyond the physicality of the initial frame we were invited to work with, and set a concept for a Biennial in and for the public space and the public sphere.
As curators, we have both been concerned with public space and the issue of art production in earlier projects.
Formulating a definition and a vision for a biennial in public space, one that engages with the particularities of the city’s public ambit, also means designing an institutional framework that embraces the instability that characterizes public space both as a premise and as an artistic possibility. One of contemporary art’s distinct qualities is its non-confirmative relation to the formats within which it operates. As a system, art deals with contingency as a matter of course, whereby everything is possible but cannot be foretold with certainty. Contingency is also one of the dominant characteristics of public space, often caused by conflicting social and economic interests. Public space is—and should be—the place where the existing order is contested. The unforeseen and precarious nature of public space will perhaps best be met by embracing these premises instead of fighting them.
Public space cannot be thought of as an extension of the conventional exhibition space. First and foremost, there is the question of the term public. Who says the works, objects and situations we encounter in the space of the city are “public”? Would it be more public, or less public, if the works were purchased for public collections and kept indoors in a public museum? Or does the word “public” refer to the outdoors, the city, urban open spaces? Or does it refer to the audience – the citizens, the users of public space, the public? And is public space really public? What is at stake when we call the city streets “public space”? In fact, public space is defined by a complex matrix of legislation, cultural conventions, and social interactions, which have developed over centuries and are subject to constant evolution and modification with no end in sight.
What specific challenges and opportunities does Oslo offer?
There are hundreds of Biennials in the world, but only a few taking place in public space. This is a challenge in itself, especially in light of the transformation the City of Oslo is currently undergoing.
This biennial represents another step in Oslo’s long tradition of major art projects in the public space. The brief we received from the City involved a series of components that were not for us necessarily interconnected: “The first Oslo Biennial of Public Art,” as it was termed in the initial announcement (which we changed to “Biennial of art in public space”), encompassed a range of ideas and possibilities: the biennial as event; art in public space; the city itself as a place, an urban community, and a site for artworks and experiences. Of course for us public space does not only consist of physical features, architecture, urban design and other artefacts; it involves communication and social interaction, different publics and spheres—the press, mass media, and social media—operating beyond spatial arrangements. Public space is a field where many agencies, identities, and interests constantly meet and are made visible. It is therefore characterized by shifting realities, constant negotiation and renegotiation. It is the backdrop of multiple human or social events and activities, both foreseen and unforeseen, routine and extraordinary, that take place in regular rhythms and cycles, or as isolated outbursts or catastrophes. Public space is characterized by changing conditions, complexity, and unpredictability.
A biennial in public space demands new approaches and premises for art practice and curating, capable of encompassing the full potential of art in the public sphere. Oslo could be the subject matter of works of art, with its historically configured internal relations, as the main urban centre in Norway and as a node in a global network, subject to macro processes of urbanization and adaptation.
Who are your most important partners and interlocutors?
Artistic and cultural institutions operating in the art field, but also libraries, universities, school programs…
What parameters are you considering for your evaluation of the impact of the Oslo Biennalen?
It is hard to measure the impact of a Biennial in public space. The usual ways in which art events, exhibitions are evaluated – how many people attended, target groups – do not apply. Many members of our audience are random passersby going about their everyday business, perhaps not expecting to view a work of art on their way to the bus stop. To respond to this situation, we needed to think about how we could provide information and monitor the reception of the works by this unknown audience of passersby, although this is not easy and it remains to be seen how effective our strategies prove to be, and what feedback we receive.
Having said that, an important and positive outcome would be for us the legacy that the Biennial leaves behind.
We want the biennial to leave something permanent in its wake, in terms of long-term resources. And to establish a relationship with the vibrant art scene that already exists in Oslo. This is why, for instance, we set up the biennial headquarters in a building with enough space to accommodate artists’ studios, which are let to Oslo-based artists on subsidized leases. This has placed the biennial’s nerve centre in close contact with local art production and allows many opportunities for an open informal exchange between the biennial staff, biennial artists and locally-based artists about all sorts of shared interests and concerns. We are also setting up a film production unit and radio station, which we hope will continue to run as resources for art and artists long after the biennial has come to a close.
What excites you most about this project?
Outside the more controlled environments of museums or art galleries, the conditions of public space will inevitably alter our experience of art. Viewed and understood within this context, the meaning of an art intervention in public space is essentially time-related, a fact that makes it difference from art displayed in more specialized and controlled exhibition environments. It will be conditioned to a greater or lesser extent by the fluctuating and volatile life of the city, and so become highly mutable. The issue of art’s ephemeral or eternal nature will come to the fore. In other words, to make art in and for the public space is to engage with the precariousness that both defines and threatens our experience of it.
As curators, our understanding of public space is not that of an enclosed and defined physical space—square or park—waiting to be furnished with a work of art. Public space is not just a possible site for exhibiting art. It is a concrete situation, a context, and a material for making art, with particular properties that the work of art may engage with or fail to address.
What is most important for you when working in team?
OSLO PILOT and its outcome, the development of Oslobiennalen First Edition 2019-2024, has been the result of our work as a curatorial tandem, a long journey that started back in August 2014. We have designed a new working model, which has now been put in motion. Creating new ways of working has been a real challenge and a tremendous opportunity for us as curators.
OsloBIENNALEN FIRST EDITION 2019–2024 is not a themed Biennial. Instead, it has been designed to foster ways of making art in public space, ones that would be as diverse as the audiences. We needed to think about how art in public space is made, produced and displayed, how a collection of art in public space might be run, how we could approach the challenges of outreach, information and education aimed at an unknown audience of passersby.
So this first edition has involved designing and setting in motion a new institutional model capable of supporting the production, display, public outreach and possible formation of an art collection in public space, and the launch and ongoing development of a series of art projects realized within this structure.
Where do you see current shifts in the evolution/transformation of the role of curators, art managers, cultural institutions, artists and big events like art biennials? Where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
Increasingly, the curator has to act as both curator and art manager, taking many things into account. This involves real risks and can be exhausting. The curator takes on a role that engages in the creative thinking behind the construction of each project and this demands time, careful research and sensitive analysis.
If you were able to change two things in the area of responsibility of arts curators, cultural producers, cultural institutions, what two things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?
Artists and curators mainly need sufficient time to develop ideas and projects. Time is the real political commitment. This is part of our statement. Institutions should offer more time and better working conditions if they are to host good quality projects. We often have to accelerate the different processes involved in our work, including thinking about and producing art.
What forms of artistic proposals and contaminations do you think are particularly representative of current transformations and challenges taking place in modern society?
Those that encompass an awareness of people’s capacity to act.
What is one cross-sector collaboration that you find successful, inspiring or interesting and why?
We have just started and it is too soon to speak of success. But the work initiated via different branches of libraries in Oslo might have strong, rhizomatic repercussions among Oslo communities and neighbourhoods.
Which artistic proposals currently catch your attention and why?
Most of the works that we are supporting in the Biennial, of course.
osloBIENNALEN is not only about the City. It poses broader questions about the nature of public space, and ways in which art can intervene in it, and about relations between art, artists, their work and the rest of society. In this sense, the biennial has adopted a specific interpretation of the term “public” by presenting projects that often have to do with co-authorship, co-production, collective memory, in some cases completion of the work by the audience, group practices, and with proposing possibilities for action.
What I did not ask you that you think is important to mention?
How much money the Biennial has cost. We are glad you didn’t. Value for money is hard to assess in a project of this nature, whose outcomes are partly immaterial and unquantifiable and may only become clear in the long term. As said before, part of our intention is to leave a legacy in terms of future potential, infrastructure and long term cultural policy.
Can you think of three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the topics we just talked about?
Commitment, artists, city, time, transformation.
Eva González-Sancho Bodero has been director and curator of several art institutions and initiatives: MUSAC, Leon (ES) ; FRAC Bourgogne, Dijon (FR) [2003–2011]; and Etablissement d'en face projects (Brussels, 1998–2003). She has curated numerous projects and exhibitions, usually involving the production of new work. González-Sancho Bodero was also co-curator of Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) 2013 (alongside Anne Szefer Karlsen and Bassam El Baroni), and curator of Dora García: Where characters go when the story is over? (CGAC, Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo, Spain, 2009). Over the course of 2015–2017, González-Sancho Bodero worked as co-curator together with Eeg-Tverbakk, developing and concluding OSLO PILOT, an experimental two-and-a-half-year research project to conceive the format for the first edition of osloBIENNALEN.
Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk co-initiated and was the director of Kunsthall Oslo from 2010–2012. He was project manager for Artistic Interruptions – Art in Nordland, Nordland County from 2003–2005 and was co-curator of the 2004 Nordic Art Biennial Momentum, Moss (alongside Caroline Corbetta). Eeg-Tverbakk was deputy director of the Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo from 2000–2001; co-curator of the 1999 Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) (with Tor Inge Kveum); exhibition manager at the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art in Helsinki in 1999, and director of the Otto Plonk Gallery in Bergen from 1995–1998. Over the course of 2015–2017, Eeg-Tverbakk worked as co-curator together with González-Sancho Bodero, developing and concluding OSLO PILOT, an experimental two-and-a-half-year research project to conceive the format for the first edition of osloBIENNALEN.