Biennalicity Redux

A conversation with Jack Persekian

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Jack Persekian. Photo by Martin Lebioda

Bidoun: First of all I’d like to ask you about the theme you have given to the biennial you are curating, that of ‘‘belonging.” Could you tell me about this idea and how you are putting it into practice in the biennial?

Jack Persekian: The theme came out of my investigations into the issue of identity, partly due to the place I live, a place that is quite problematic — Jerusalem — a place that has been involved in years of war and conflict. It is about the different forces that are at play for a person who has taken the place as their home. The whole notion of “home” versus “homelessness” in relation to refugees — this is the idea on one level, and being part of a fast-moving world, and because the whole economic necessity of requiring people to move from one place to another is urgent. There are places people do not necessarily consider to be part of their formal identity, they are places that they move to and eventually settle in just to make a living. With that you end up as a person in the world being in more than one place, trying to weave yourself and your identity. Eventually the question is always there — who am I? Where do I belong? This is reflected in the art world, as I have seen in many of the artists that I have worked with. It is quite an important question they are all being asked to address, issues of nation and home.

Bidoun: This idea of “home” existing simultaneously alongside a sense of “homelessness,” or a double identity, particularly when talking of issues of immigration, do you think this is a new idea, or something that has historical context, but has been given a new focus with the rise of globalization as an a dominant issue in biennials?

JP: It is not only immigration. I think many of the artists sense some kind of alienation. They feel that they are somehow living on the periphery of society. They are critical of many things, critical of the overwhelming financial and political power. The most important issue is the move from artists being relegated to the role of the person who is concerned with aesthetics and form and shape, to being more socially conscious of the pressing issues, of being more involved in society and wanting to address that; playing more the role of a critic, intellectual, and thinker, the person who challenges dogmas and who answers questions that have been swept under the rug. They are more conscious of society. I see that as what the artist’s role has become.

Bidoun: I have read in official text on the biennial that you like to think that the biennial could use art to “overlap with history.” Could you explain what you mean by this?

JP: History, in my opinion, has been somehow written by people in power, and subsequently this delineated that history. A lot of people read history, and eventually the whole conscience of society has history constructed on their behalf. There is a hiding of the truth of what really has happened; truth is quite an elusive thing, and this changes what reality is. Artists can somehow intervene and address history and take in many levels. This is why I thought the word “overlap” is an appropriate description of how artists’ trajectories come in at tangents. This develops a weave, which for me creates an interesting history when I reflect upon it. It is no longer a linear construct, but more layered.

Bidoun: How will this be put into practice within the actual biennial? Are there specific examples of artists that you think are offering this?

JP: Take the whole issue of perceptions and stereotypes. For example, artists for many years, beginning with the whole Orientalism thing, have been portrayed in a certain way by the West. For the biennial we have artists like Olaf Nicolai, which flips this and brings quite a stereotypical image of Italy — such as the hanging clothes lines like they have across balconies there — and transports that to be installed in Sharjah. It’s a reversal of a stereotype, by taking a preconceived notion of Italy in the West and relocating it within Sharjah. This is an interesting example for me.

Bidoun: Could you say a little bit about what your process was for selecting artists, in light of the theme you have given for the show? Did the artists come out of the theme or did the theme come out of the artists?

JP: I invited Ken Lum and Tirdad Zolghadr, who was initially to do a symposium, then I decided he could have curatorial input into the show. The three of us formed a team, bringing our own experiences, and worked in close collaboration on the whole show, giving a much wider perspective than if I had been working alone. Part of the curatorial process was to try to have artists react to the theme and to the location. We tried as much as possible to get artists to come for a period of time and work in Sharjah and produce work especially addressing this context. We thought that this engagement would really affect the whole biennial as a hypothetical intellectual discourse on the theme, but in real space.

Bidoun: Very often with biennials, many of the artists that are selected have an emphasis on social representation, and employ an ethnographic framing of subject matter. Very often lens-based media such as video or photography are used, particularly since Documenta XI. We’ve reached a specific point where lens-based media, due to its visual immediacy, has become the most common effect for documenting social reality. I recently heard Nicolas Bourriaud, speaking specifically about practitioners such as Anri Sala or Emily Jacir, describe video as having become like a form of Esperanto — an easily understandable and a globally common language. I wish to ask whether this was an issue and whether there are also artists you are presenting that are offering alternative methods for dealing with important subject matter.

JP: I understand what you mean, and I think I can take it a bit further. It is the language that is now becoming very common. It is the medium that the media uses, which has taken over the world. We are relegated to people who are getting most of our information from television. So yes, it is about speaking a common language, it is an Esperanto in a way. But yet, in the show you will see artists who are still challenging and are still working and utilizing different ways and means to engage with context and environment. The actual notion of representation is what the show is about. Again I go back to Olaf Nicolai as an example. His whole approach of deciding on a venue in between the two museums, that particular street, and the whole transformation of that place from Italy to Sharjah; all that is about a certain action that is not trying to capitalize on lens-based art and its immediacy. It’s more about working conceptually on things and transforming those into experiences.

Bidoun: To what extent do you hope the biennial will reflect arts practice from the Middle East and the Arab peninsula?

JP: There are several artists participating in the biennial from this region. Yet in doing this I’m being aware of this as not about solely showcasing Arab artists. I’m perhaps the person most involved in that, but this is not about Arab representation. It’s about being an international show, about bringing in people from all over the world, bringing artists, trying as much as possible to create a platform for the exchange of ideas and experiences that take place in between these people no matter where they are coming from. I’ve always stopped myself from saying I want to give preferential treatment to any artists coming from any particular place. This is something I’m very much aware of.

Bidoun: The biennial experience, generally speaking, is very much a particular kind of experience. It’s very different from what you get in regular rolling programs in museums and galleries. They have almost become by definition a kind of overkill, offering a psycho-geography of global proportions. How do you think you position Sharjah in relation to these ideas of biennial experience and in relation to other biennials?

JP: It’s important to remember that Sharjah has the only contemporary art biennial of its kind in the whole Arab world. It’s not like there is an overkill here, even though there are so many around the world. Having something there for the people and the audience from the region is a unique opportunity. It is one of a kind and when we ask people about the biennial, their exposure to art events is almost nonexistent. In that sense it is not in any way to be looked at locally like other biennials in certain parts of the world, where they have competition. This is quite unique for a deprived audience, and I think there needs to be more effort put into biennials to make this whole practice more accessible to people. Biennials for me work on two main levels. One, to provide a platform for artists, intellectuals, critics, and writers, to come and engage and interact and provide means and resources and opportunities for them to do what they want to do — a creative engagement. On another level, it’s so much about taking it out to the public and about engaging people.

Bidoun: Could you describe what strategy you are taking in terms of engaging with Sharjah citizens?

JP: Sure, I can give you a few facts. We are trying to be systematic and scientific about it. We have prolonged the duration of the show, so now it is two months long. It is for free — anybody can come. There is an education program; we have a team now whose main job is to bring in, hopefully, each and every child in the Emirates to the show. This is by firstly organizing it with the Ministry of Education and in coordination with all the schools and universities to organize a visit to the biennial. So, basically, as much effort as we are putting into getting artists and art professionals to come, is going into getting people from the Emirates to come to Sharjah. We are also engaging a whole new promotion and marketing strategy in order to bring the biennial to the people, to make it understandable, and to be enticed to come and see it. Lots of promotion! We think it is such an important thing, something that is really lacking in the whole Arab world and needs to be taken to the doorstep of every person.

Bidoun: When I talked earlier about a biennial being a kind of overkill, I meant in terms of visitor experience, because of the sheer amount of work and information that someone may take in. How have you been able to balance creating a biennial that presents a critical mass for curators, artists and writers, but at the same time make it coherent and accessible for an uninitiated audience?

JP: It is through the effort of three curators. Through the several meetings we had and through our discussions we had about the artists, we decided right from the beginning that we would not have as many artists as the last biennial, and we would concentrate more on a project that draws on that particular environment. It’s so much about when you have an audience, it not about them seeing something that has been parachuted in, but about developing a real sense of engagement over time.

Bidoun: Some of these people that are involved here such as Okwui Enwezor and Jean Fisher, who I understand is writing a catalogue text, are very much involved in a postcolonial discourse. Do you think this is the major issue within the Middle East? And do you think it will be the main issue for the foreseeable future?

JP: I think it is an issue that is addressed by several of the artists and intellectuals I am working with in the circles of art. I don’t really know when we are going to move beyond this in the sense of coming to terms with ramifications in society, where we are at and who we are now. In a way it’s not over yet to us. Where I come from there is so much at issue with the materialized creation of Israel, the situation for the Palestinians, and the situation we are at now. Maybe in the West they are over it, but here it is still there. It has evolved and transformed itself into new shapes.

Bidoun: To what extent do you think the biennial will impact upon Sharjah as a cultural capital in the Middle East?

JP: Sharjah has been recognized by UNESCO as a cultural capital in the Middle East, like Cairo. If you see how much the government in Sharjah spends on cultural events, artistic activities, symposia etcetera in terms on GNP in comparison with other governments it is immense, there is no comparison. It is amazing how much investment for culture there is in Sharjah. It is definitely an established cultural capital. It is the only contemporary art exhibition of its scale and recognition internationally in the region.

Bidoun: Do you think other nations and cities will respond to it? Will it develop a bit of creative friction in the region?

JP: I think so. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year more contemporary art events come up somewhere else. To me this would be very interesting. It would provide more possibilities for artists and art professionals to do what they do. The West has the means and the venues and the possibilities, which attracts those intellectuals. The more we have in the Middle East, places like Sharjah that provide possibilities, the more we have lively, intellectual, critical discourse. This surely reflects on society and education, and politics even.