Cecilia Alemani is artistic director of the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, which will take place in 2022. Since 2011, she has been director and chief curator of High Line Art, the organization that curates exhibitions in New York’s elevated park. Born in Milan, Alemani first achieved wide acclaim as a curator in 2009, when she directed the X Initiative, which staged cutting-edge exhibitions by top artists at the Dia building in Chelsea. From 2012 to 2018, she oversaw a section at the Frieze Art Fair that was devoted to projects by emerging artists, and in 2018, she organized a city-wide exhibition in Buenos Aires under the aegis of Art Basel. In 2017, she curated the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, showing work by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Roberto Cuoghi, and Adelita Husni-Bey.
A veteran of the international biennial circuit, Natasha Ginwala organized, in collaboration with Defne Ayas, the 13th edition of the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, which opens on April 1. In 2017 she served on the curatorial team of Documenta 14. She was on the curatorial team of the Berlin Biennale in 2014. She was born in Ahmedabad, India, and her curatorial credits also include an exhibition of artists from the Indian subcontinent held in tandem with the 2015 Venice Biennale and the 2017 edition of the Contour Biennale in Mechelen, Belgium. She is currently an associate curator at the Gropius Bau museum in Berlin.
In January, Alemani and Ginwala spoke via a Zoom call from New York and Sri Lanka, respectively, about what it means to organize a biennial during a pandemic and why in-person exhibitions will never be a thing of the past.
ARTnews: How did you get interested in biennials in the first place?
Natasha Ginwala: For me, strangely enough, the Gwangju Biennale in 2010 [curated by Massimiliano Gioni] was actually the first major biennial that I visited. I was at the De Appel curatorial program—we were this hive of five, six young curators, and we had this huge exposure. I still think about certain works, like Jakub Ziolkowski’s Story of the Eye, Guo Fengyi’s SARS Virus, and Emma Kunz’s Healing Drawings.
Cecilia Alemani: I think the first biennial I saw was Venice, just because it was just around the corner—I’m from Milan. I didn’t have a full understanding of what the job [of a curator] was like back then. But I remember the excitement, even as a nonexpert, of walking through the Giardini. I started understanding what an exhibition of that scale could do.
ARTnews: Cecilia, have you been influenced by any biennials in particular since then?
Alemani: To me, the most groundbreaking exhibition in the early 2000s was definitely Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta [in Kassel, Germany]. It was not just about exhibiting great artworks. It was also about building communities and offering viewers completely different viewpoints. It was especially about thinking of a biennial like Documenta, which happens in a small place like Kassel, through the eyes of the people who live there. Every five years, they see this incredible array of artworks and talents coming through. I hope that is something that can be seen on the other side as we curate biennials—that the format of the biennial is not static, but can be completely reinvented and turned upside down if needed.
Ginwala: Documenta 14 [which took place in Kassel and Athens in 2017] and the work that we did as far as this enormous collective effort that it always is, was something that shaped me profoundly in the last few years. It felt like a time stamp for one’s life, this Documenta. Being in two locations, it makes me think about how the unitary contract of a biennial can be broken down and questioned. It’s a kind of ghostly doubling, and a way to also think about the dual politics of Europe. I feel like that is still very valuable for me.
ARTnews: Do you view your Gwangju Biennale as being flexible in that way?
Ginwala: The Gwangju Biennale is something that really stands as a reference point for what one can do with this exhibition format. One can continuously open it and take it apart, and then remix it. So there are those possibilities. I don’t feel that the possibilities are foreclosed.
Alemani: When you look at the proliferation of biennials and triennials—I’m thinking of something like Manifesta, an itinerant biennial that moves city to city, and often takes place in contested territories or places that have a specific political and social history. It’s thinking about how a biennial can maintain its soul and its DNA while changing radically. It’s about both the curatorial team and the artists, but especially the place, where you are supposed to put down roots. When you approach Venice, as a viewer you don’t expect necessarily to go see Italian art or art from that region, because it is a highly international show. But with local biennials like Manifesta, you’re supposed to go deep into one scene. As a curator, I’m interested in the friction between these two models. And it is complicated, because of course the surroundings change, and the model of the exhibition itself changes, but I think those are questions that are really important to keep in the back of your mind as you approach an exhibition like that.
Ginwala: There is now this conflation of a hyper-localism and a forcefully detached globality. Both of these feed into the cycle of biennial production, right? The fact is, the Gwangju Biennale has always had an immense following, locally and regionally. It has such a broad audience base. It had this kind of octopus-like feel in the city, really reaching out. What we’ll miss [because of Covid] are those audiences from across Asia. It was not purely [meant] for the international art commuter.
ARTnews: What are some other ways that the pandemic has altered how biennials function?
Alemani: Biennials have demonstrated the ability to be very resilient. I was able to go to the Berlin Biennale in September, and it was incredible to see an exhibition still happen in the midst of Covid. The exhibition was able to raise some of the themes that are in the back of our minds without clearly being illustrative. I’m also thinking about what happened with the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, where the curator [Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel] was so incredibly smart, not giving up and instead turning the show upside down, commissioning a film to be shot instead of doing the actual biennial.
I’m sure in the long run—in the next three to five years—some biennials will unfortunately disappear. But I also feel like, in a way, we have witnessed this already. The proliferation of biennials began in the 1990s. Everybody was saying there are not going to be biennials anymore [after that]. I don’t know how many biennials are around now, but here we are, with plenty of exhibitions still. Biennials have demonstrated that they are flexible organisms that can adjust to different conditions.
ARTnews: Natasha, your Gwangju Biennale was originally supposed to open in September 2020, and was pushed to April 2021. Did the pandemic have a major impact on it?
Ginwala: Surprisingly, by January 2020 we had already invited 80–90 percent of the artists, so we just carried forward. The question of cybernetic intelligence or augmented intelligence is very much part of our concept. We don’t see it as a prosthetic, where suddenly you just turn something into an online work—we actually had plans for it, which we did manifest in the form of an online journal, Minds Rising. And also, there were commissions that artists would be doing online-only, and this was, again, pre-pandemic. In a sense, we were perhaps already responding to certain ways of artists’ mobilizing their practices differently.
Alemani: What you’ve been doing with the magazine and the newsletter is amazing. You could really see that it wasn’t something that you just decided to do during the pandemic, as a result of travel being impossible—it was so much deeper and more profound. It is really wonderful to see those projects because I think they will stay [available]. And I think as a result of Covid, we will all work more with these sorts of digital tools.
ARTnews: Natasha, how did you and Defne Ayas come up with a theme for this edition of Gwangju?
Ginwala: We made a proposal to the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and Sun-jung Kim, president of the foundation, who has worked on previous biennale exhibitions as well. We had the working title “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning,” and it stuck. We were very much thinking about what it means to interrogate this intertwining of different forms of intelligence. When organic and cybernetic or augmented intelligence are so intertwined and enmeshed, like in Korea, for instance, what does that mean? What has colonialism done to the mind? What kind of intelligences has it eradicated, suppressed, overturned? And also mind-body relationality, as seen in Korean culture and as seen across Asian philosophy—different ways of mapping the body itself.
We’ve been thinking about a whole host of people. There’s been Catherine Malabou, of course, with her work on plasticity, in terms of thinking intelligence and in terms of the living labor of the brain. What does that mean in a time of pandemic? Massive disembodied labor, sort of. At the same time, we’ve been thinking about Ruha Benjamin, who has written about race and technology being intertwined.
ARTnews: Not being able to travel, how did you conduct studio visits with the artists?
Ginwala: Studio visits are something that I missed extremely last year. By the time the pandemic hit, we had already done most of our research trips. For instance, we went to Finland. We went to a Sámi Indigenous music festival [Ijahis idja], where we met Outi Pieski, who was part of the Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. It was really about thinking through the landscape and Sámi relationships to it by being there and listening deeply to the music and stories that were shared.
I cannot imagine, for instance, not going to New York and meeting Cecilia Vicuña and her handing me a copy of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, which she has now made into a sound installation. That is not something that would have manifested over a call because it required a very, very special conversation that led her to that book on her shelf.
Or someone like Jacolby Satterwhite. We only met that one time going to New York, and we later went and saw his show at Pioneer Works. When I went [to his studio], he showed us his mother, Patrice Satterwhite’s, drawings. That is something, perhaps, that happened in the moment, for the artist to open up. One does not see that on a screen, of course. There have been those moments which really give shape to what one is doing.
ARTnews: And what about you, Cecilia?
Alemani: I was appointed to the Venice Biennale in January 2020. In May, it got postponed for one year, so instead of happening in 2021, it is happening in 2022. Everything changed in five months. I decided to press pause and dedicate as much as I could of my time to talking to artists. Of course, I have to do it through the screen, which you know, at times is tiring. But I have to say, it has been actually totally OK, and I feel like I have actually been able to have in a way more intimate conversations with artists. I don’t know, maybe it’s less pressure than having a stranger coming into your apartment or into your studio. In a way, it’s been weird because most of the time I’ve been sitting at my desk [laughs].
My team and I did very expansive research. We worked with colleagues and what I call advisers—curators and artists from different places in the world where I was supposed to go but couldn’t get to for at least six months. I would spend half the day talking to artists and I would say that in a way, the best part of those conversations was talking about how their practice is somehow shifting, changing, absorbing, or reacting to this moment. Of course, there is an element of learning about their artistic practice, but also understanding how they are internalizing this pandemic and these global shifts that are happening, and how that is going to affect their practice and their thinking. Those conversations, which I’m still having, are the most exciting ones, and I hope I can be good enough to be able to absorb them and translate them into the exhibition—not only to predict what the next few years of art making will feel and be like, but also understand and imagine that.
ARTnews: You’ve been working on a different in-person Biennale-related show too, right?
Alemani: Yes. In Venice, because the Architecture Biennale was postponed, we put together an exhibition called “The Disquieted Muse.” It was about the history of the Venice Biennale.
ARTnews: Have either of you had to think about social distancing?
Ginwala: Yes. In Korea, there is so much daily surveillance through the mobile app [monitoring Covid positivity, which people within Korea’s borders have been required to download]. It is not like in Europe, where you can choose whether or not you want to download this on your phone. If you enter Korea, you’ve got to have the app. The country has had a lot of experience with Covid since the first wave, and at this point, relies a lot on that experience. Jumping on a plane to install your show is a health risk. There used to be champagne and dinners, and now there is none of that. It is stripped back. You’re reconciling to a lot, both internally and with your team. And there is no manual for that. There probably never will be.
ARTnews: Air travel has long been important for curators of biennials. Do you think it will continue to be after the pandemic?
Alemani: We have all realized that we were traveling way too much. The idea that in two years I will get invited to do a talk in Amsterdam and have to go on a plane—that doesn’t make any sense, because I can actually do it pretty well with Zoom. But I think, eventually, regardless of the digital tools that we develop and how good they get, I want to see exhibitions in person. There’s no way I only want to see exhibitions in a digital form. I mean, I tried, and it sucks.
ARTnews: When it comes to an exhibition, there is nothing like the real thing.
Alemani: I can do a studio visit digitally. I can do research. I can do phone calls. But the exhibition itself, there’s no way it can be replaced. I think that is the most important thing that I have learned in these months. There is no way I can imagine a future where your body is not in the exhibition space, because it just doesn’t work. If that were to happen, we’d have to rethink everything. But I’m positive that that is not going to happen [laughs]. But yes, we will scale down on trips—on those smaller, useless trips—and I don’t expect that there will be a million people at the opening of the Venice Biennale. And it’s totally fine if we scale back on that. But I do think, eventually, that the experience of being in the show, in the biennial exhibition, is irreplaceable.
ARTnews: And what about when it comes to remote installs? How will that work, going forward?
Ginwala: At this point, we’ve done everything we can digitally. We’ve been managing the teams virtually for over a year. But, personally, when it comes to installing, it doesn’t feel like a remote installation for a biennale of [Gwangju’s] size is conducive to success. I think it would result in a sort of mental meltdown. It does feel that being on the ground is critical at this point. Also, the artists have made new productions from so many parts of the world, and we can’t wait to see how the works sort of converge in Gwangju, even with extremely limited audiences.
It does feel like there is—or, at least, it feels this way for us—a different sense of solidarity and companionship in the arts community. In general, there has been social ferment and upheaval, and there is such polarization that it feels like we are relying on each other much more than we have in perhaps a long time. It’s the fact that you have this network of artists and art and cultural workers from Bangladesh to Lebanon to Chile. We need to hold each other, through the precarity, collapses and contingencies, together.
Alemani: There is also an understanding that, instead of competing with each other—because these exhibitions end up overlapping—it is more stimulating to try and collaborate in different ways by co-producing works, and through other forms of partnerships and collaborations. I think that’s a new frame of mind that will likely be very visible and necessary as we move forward [from] the idea of these ivory towers of exhibitions that nobody can touch.
ARTnews: Do you think people will return to biennials once the pandemic ends?
Alemani: Regardless of whether it is my biennial or someone else’s, all I know is that I want to go. So, I think yes. Hopefully, this will be remembered as a very dark parenthesis in our lives. I think there will be changes for sure, but I do think people will want to go back and see biennials. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that because my show is in 2022, and hopefully there’s going to be a vaccine, but for me, as soon as I can travel, that is the first thing I want to do—take a plane and go see an exhibition. Maybe we scale down on the trips, but that is why I am in this profession, to be able to spend time with artists across the world.
Ginwala: Defne asked me a really critical question at the beginning of our working process. She said, “Can you imagine the afterlife of this biennale, and can we start working from there?” At that point, I was like, “What do you mean, the afterlife of the biennale? We need to do what we have been assigned to do, and then wrap up, right?” The pandemic challenges that relationality.
Alemani: It is very interesting what you said, Natasha, about how you can imagine the afterlife of this. That is something that I ask myself quite a bit: how will people in 20 years look back at our exhibitions and understand, also, their circumstances? I think that is very, very important, because sometimes it just feels like the only tool you have is a catalogue, right?
Ginwala: I like to think at least that there’s maybe more hybrid models that await us. And I don’t feel that the biennial as a single formation needs to be the dominant mode of the large-scale exhibition. I see a lot more collectivity, a lot more ways of imagining platforms that are plural, that are challenging established norms of institutional policy, that are doing so many different things—and maybe artist-made biennials. There are just numerous possibilities, and I would like to bask in those possibilities. The audiences will have a lot to teach us in the coming time as well.
Alemani: People have gone through similar times of crisis. You know, the Venice Biennale went through two World Wars, other pandemics, and devastating floods, so this is definitely not the worst that Venice has seen. We also don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. We can always look back and see what the humanities have done before us in similar moments.