Originally scheduled for this autumn, the Gwangju Biennale was postponed in the faceof the pandemic and will now open on 26 February next year. Artistic directors Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala talk to Canvas about the impact of the date change and what lessons can be drawn from the wider crisis.
How will you engage audiences that are unable to travel?
The biennale sets out to examine the entire spectrum of intelligence – the extended mind – through artistic and theoretical means. We have mobilised a programme that allows audiences all over the world to engage with the key themes through an online public programme of talks and events, an online journal and a publication. Some new commissions were always meant to be digital and the bilingual online journal, Minds Rising, is a thought-through initiative that acts as the ‘extended mind’ of the biennale. Our online public forum, Rising to the Surface: Practicing Solidarity Futures takes the Gwangju Uprising as its prism and will cast a critical lens on places such as Turkey, Hong Kong, Brazil, India, Tibet and the Philippines.
How has the pandemic changed the artviewing experience?
Biennales are important in the way they transact and create a cultural imaginary, and in the way they mobilise artistic alliances, tap into a planetary ‘pulse’ and experiential knowledge. This can also be done (in part) digitally, of course. That said, we s till believe in the importance of materiality and physicality.
After the initial lockdown, the first days of museum reopenings in many parts of the world provided a renewed purpose to experience art, with few people around, in quietude and as an intimate activity – but also a privileged one, as millions globally face daunting challenges and joblessness.
Do you think that the nature of largescale art events like biennales has changed forever?
We understand and acknowledge the precarious and sometimes problematic nature of biennales all over the world, and are wary of their tendency to be all-encompassing platforms with a unilateral message. The Gwangju Biennale remains a remarkable cultural platform, yet we recognise that it requires infrastructural revamping in order to stay relevant in these volatile times. Now more than ever, the hierarchy of knowledge is being shaken, and we are concerned with what sort of civic models and practices of care will emerge in the aftermath of COVID-19. Will we be able to move forward from this global experience to reimagine and re-engineer systems, institutions and protocols in ways that might be relevant to the 21st century? We very much hope so.