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Gwang Ju Bienale

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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 DefneAyas and Natasha Ginwala talk to Canvas about the impact of the date change andwhat lessons can be drawn from the wider crisis.

What impact has the pandemic had on the planning process for the biennale?
We started work 18 months ago, which meant that when COVID-19 hit we were able to build on what had already been done. The pandemic obviously meant that certain artists’ work was delayed or postponed and if we had not made the decision to reschedule the biennale, we might have had to drastically reduce the number of new commissions. The postponement has helped artists to feel confident about the new timescale and also allowed us to listen to and learn from our peers working on other biennials and triennials across the world – it has been a valuable time as we all navigate these extraordinary circumstances together.

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.

What about your relationship with local communities?
This is a huge priority for us. This edition of the biennale is particularly significant as it marks the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising – a violent and tragic event that paved the way towards the democratisation of South Korea. The biennale was founded in 1995 to commemorate these events and, as such, it sparks passionate interest and discussion from the local community every two years. We are committed to honouring this history, and to anchoring the biennale in th is very specific local context.

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.

Have any particular issues come up that you had not anticipated?
It is unfortunate that many artists will be unable to travel, due to strict quarantine requirements. Shipping costs also all of a sudden tripled, plus we couldn’t make contact with shipping companies in some countries, a process which is very slowly stabilising. We also had to deal with a huge amount of bureaucracy, as we worked from our remote desks on different continents, in very disembodied ways: the team is based in seven different locations from Hong Kong to Indonesia, Sri Lanka to Berlin, Marseilles and Milan. A more local audience is inevitable for this international platform, but the cultural ecology of Korea has demand for art, and that’s hopeful.

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.

Amit Varadrajan is a staff writer at Canvas, covering news, politics, and culture

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