The debut edition of Budapest’s brand new biennale OFF is ready to set off this weekend. It involves more than a hundred projects by 200 artist at various venues in and out of Budapest and in several cities all over the world. Tijana Stepanovic, member of the curatorial board of the biennale, talks about everything we have to know about this entirely state-independent initiative with Dóra Maurer, István Csákány, Attila Csörgő, Société Réaliste, János Sugár and other cutting-edge artists and curators from Hungary and from the CEE region.
Tina Kaplár: Let’s start at the very beginning: how, by whom and when was the biennale initiated? Tijana Stepanovic: The first time the idea popped up was in December 2013 by Hajnalka Somogyi, who is an independent curator and was previously my colleague at the Ludwig Museum Budapest. In that December, she organized an event with a couple of colleagues where she raised the idea of organizing an biennale which reacts to the local situation. The principal idea of the biennale was to have it based on a collaboration between local people and professional artists, curators, cultural NGOs, galleries, cooperatives and art venues in order to create a really wide platform instead of a hierarchal biennale with one or two lead curators. We all immediately found the idea absolutely relevant as it touches upon the problems and the context of the Hungarian art scene. When we shared this idea with other actors of the art scene we were in a way surprised and touched at the same time how happily and positively everyone responded to it.
The term ‘OFF‘ might implicate different things, what was your intention with it? In our case, OFF refers to something positive, we can draw parallels with the Off-Broadway. It is not ‘anti-‘, i,e. it is not aimed against anyone or anything. It simply diverts from the mainstream, from solidified routines, and ventures to find its own path, establishing its own form of operation. It finds its own drivers, resources and locations. It may be smaller, more spontaneous and have a tighter budget, but it makes no compromises in quality, and is less constrained by unchallengeable protocols. In other words, ‘going off’ does not mean turning off. Quite the contrary: it means the start of something different. Who are the core organizers of the biennale? There is a curatorial team of 7 people: Nikolett Erőss, Anna Juhász, Hajnalka Somogyi, Tijana Stepanovic, Borbála Szalai, Katalin Székely, János Szoboszlai. Besides, throughout the preparatory year we have managed to set up a kind of “parainstitution” as we call it: It is called “para” as it is – such as the whole biennale itself – based on pro-bono professional work by everyone and is not a real institution in legal terms. But it can be claimed that by now we have an equally big organization as Ludwig Museum has. We have a professional team for production, communication, fund raising, the OFF-projects team and the international relations and programs. All these teams are led either by members of the curatorial board or by professionals of the related field. For example, the fundraising team is led by the prominent collector couple Kati Spengler and Zsolt Somlói and gallery owner Gábor Pados.
What is the curatorial idea of the biennale? The curatorial idea is an interesting question as in fact we did not want to push a thematic focus. The idea itself is the structure of the biennale and how it is organized. The trick is that we are constantly thinking of creating a network-based format, so instead of inviting artists as it usually happens in case of other biennales we decided to invite either other curators or other collectives or NGOs to propose projects. Later, they were responsible to invite artists to work with on the given project. So the main idea and the importance of the OFF-Biennale lies in the structure and in the way projects are realized. Still, we do have a very slight thematic focus: we have asked our colleagues to react to the current Hungarian socio-political situation. Apart from that, the curatorial team has a project within the biennale “Check your head” and, of course, we do have a thematic focus which is primarily based on artistic practices that aim to contribute to the development of civil society, secondly those that form a really engaged relationship with their audience and thirdly artistic practices that use very limited material means and have the DIY approach. The reason for the three criteria upon which we have selected is that we do believe that in the near future we might not and will not count on huge financial support from the state for these really critical art practices and we thought we have to investigate those artistic practices where artists create relevant artistic projects without massive means. For the Check Your Head! – project of the OFF’s curatorial team we have invited: Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, Ágnes Eperjesi, Petra Feriancová, Igor Grubić, Kendell Geers, Eva Kotátková, Little Warsaw, Mladen Miljanović, Svätopluk Mykita, Ivan Moudov, Dan Perjovschi , János Sugár, Tomáš Vaněk, Gyula Várnai
You also launched an open call earlier this year for artistic contribution to the biennale, what were your selection criteria when evaluating the proposals? The entries were basically selected upon the same three criteria I have just talked about.
The majority of the most prominent artists and curators in Hungary have projects and exhibitions, can you highlight some of the very lengthy list? The solo show of Dóra Maurer, or that of Attila Csörgő, curated by Barnabás Bencsik could be mentioned first. Curator Kati Timár opens a new apartment-gallery during the OFF-Biennale Budapest. Isolator is the project of András Blazsek, István Csákány, Adam Kokesch, Beatrix Szörényi and the Randomroutines where they use Hugo Gernsback’s Isolator machine as the starting point, which creates a fertile state of isolation for its user. History Restaged is curated by Edit Molnár and Lívia Páldi, who work with artists – Susanne Kriemann, Zbigniew Libera or Clemens von Wedemeyer among many others, who revisit historically significant events and unsettle our conventional notions of reality. A wonderful exhibition, Horizontal Standing, about the problems of migration is curated by Kati Simon in her own abandoned apartment in Budapest. Kati – like so many other colleagues – moved abroad a few years ago, it is very symbolic that she uses her own apartment, which she has left behind, to curate this topic.
János Sugár: Fire in the Museum : there will be an OFF-Biennale fire during the entire time of the Biennale, it will be guarded 24hours/7days (in hourly shifts) by the participants, organizers and audience, anyone can sign up to be the guard of the OFF fire. If you feel like it, you can also do it! Ágnes Eperjesi’s project involves Hungarian parliamentary representatives who will give / repeat famous political speeches of foreign politicians in power about important societal problems (i.e. feminism, modest life standard of politicians, importance of collaboration of political parties). Société Réaliste – Universal Anthem where the artists calculate the average national anthem of the 193 member states of the United Nations to create a universal anthem. There are several interregional and international collaborations if we browse through your impressive list of participants, programs and venues, could you name a few? Being local and reacting to local issues does not mean we do not find it extremely important to integrate the biennale into the international art scene: the best way is to invite curators and organizations from the region to curate projects. To name an Austrian participant first: the Blind Spots’ exhibition at Supermarket Gallery will be curated by Margarethe Makovec & Anton Lederer from < rotor > center for contemporary art, Graz. We have invited Alenka Gregorič and she has chosen to work with Fokus Grupa. Dobrila Denegri contributes to the biennale with an extremely interesting presentation of inedited video-works by Serbian and Croatian conceptual artists, realized in 1976. It has never been screened anytime or elsewhere, OFF digitalized the tape that features artists like Mladen Stilinovic or Goran Trbuljak from 1976. We have also invited Łukasz Ronduda and Aleksandra Kędziorek from Poland, their program is entitled Me, You, Us and Them. Exercises on Collectivity includes films by Piotr Andrejew, Paweł Althamer, Dominik Jałowiński, KwieKulik, Paweł Kwiek, Piotr Wysocki, and Artur Żmijewski. Tevž Logar works with Ulay and the core of the exhibition is an action performed by Ulay in 1976 when he basically stole a Carl Spitzweg painting from Neue Nationalgalerie, which is the “symbol of the German soul”, and installed it in a Turkish family’s living room in Kreuzberg. Daniel Muzyczuk curates a group show that investigates the renewed meaning of abstraction as uncannily unstable and political. In Tomáš Pospiszyl’s “It Never Happens twice”, contemporary Czech artists – through reenactments – return to performances from the 1970s in order to spotlight the problems of today. There will be several events outside Hungary as well: Andreas Fogarasi’s exhibitions in Bratislava and Paris, Sári Ember’s in São Paulo or I curated a project in New York. I also wanted to highlight the Satellite Prague and Brno which will happen at various venues in the Czech Republic. It was initiated by Edith Jeřábková, she approached us because she wanted to react to the OFF Biennale by creating a Czech OFF satellite. So we have now listed all the major venues abroad but what about Budapest and its outskirts: will OFF be present in other cities in the country? Before answering your question properly there is something really important to know about the OFF Biennale: We do not use any Hungarian state money and this is also true for Hungarian venues owned and supported by the state. This is the reason why you will not find any projects at any of the major state-run exhibition venues, only in independent spaces. Here it has to be mentioned that several among them have never been used for artistic purposes. It was a huge challenge to find that many spaces and make them ready to display artworks or host projects as several of them have never been used for artistic purposes. Obviously we do collaborate with commercial galleries in Budapest (acb, Inda,Kisterem, Knoll, Trapéz, Viltin, Vintage) but apart from themthere is a big variety in venues such as public spaces, theatres, abandoned shops, cultural houses, the Kelenföld power plant, a hairdresser’s salon, private apartments, cellars, the Pest quay and of course in the virtual space. Apart from Budapest, we are hvaing projects in cities Eger, Esztergom Miskolc, Nyíregyháza, Pécs, Perbál, Szeged, Szombathely and Veszprém, too.
As you mentioned state funding and state-run venues are not integrated in the biennale, what are your main financial sources then? We have three main supporters: the Norwegian Civil Fund, Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE), and Erste Stiftung. Besides, many of the cultural institutes in Budapest have decided to support us. We do not have a corporate sponsorship but what is absolutely important for us is that we have managed to involve a high number of private, individual sponsors. And we should not forget that all the participants and organizers are our supporters in a way as we all work on a pro-bono basis. This is the reason why it was extremely surprising and touching to involve that many people without any financial compensation. The reason why almost everyone was very enthusiastic to join and support the biennale is the fact that they simply felt that finally something relevant happens and they wanted to become part of it and create this important momentum together. This is a huge chance for our art scene and we are very happy to see that so many people have understood this principle.
Could you give us some insights into the program itself? The upcoming opening weekend (24-26 April) will be the busiest: exhibitions will open every single hour, from dawn to dusk so in a way it will be the not-to-be-missed weekend of the entire biennale. There will of course be exhibitions running from the beginning to the end of the biennale but we will also have many temporary events : performances, time-based projects. For instance, Kendell Geers’ performance Ritual Resist will take place on 26 April at 8pm, tranzit.hu have invited Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus for an ongoing action, Igor Grubic will make subtle public interventions in the city. In case of such a grassroots biennale we did not want to force our partners to keep high profile exhibitions open throughout the entire biennale. So many exhibitions open either only for the first or the second half of the biennale. I find it a very organic program from this aspect as we never wanted to impose constraints on our participants.
How international will the biennale be language-wise? Our main communication channel is our website and Facebook page which is bilingual (Hungarian and English) where you can find all the programs, venues, artists etc. and we are going to have a map as well. As we have a very small budget for such a huge event we have decided not to spend money on a printed catalogue but to focus on our professional online channel. As for the venues, there will always be translation provided.
What is the Biennale’s future, do you already have plans for the next edition? As both local and international reception of the biennale is overwhelming already, we definitely want to continue and expand it. The plan is to base our long-term plans on the experience and conclusions of the biennale ahead of us. The beauty of the biennale is that it reacts to the current situation so we are quite positive that the best we can do for the next edition is to honestly evaluate the outcomes of this first edition and to see how to fit the next one to the actual context. So I will only be able to answer this question after this biennale has taken place…
OFF-BIENNALE BUDAPEST Independent. Contemporary. Art. 24 April – 31 May 2015 www.offbiennale.hu