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Mining the Biennale

In late 2012, two contemporary art exhibitions opened in the same country, with the same themes and bearing the same title. Cédric Vincent* exposes the tangled web of intrigue, political rhetoric, trash talk and cyber manipulations that caused all the chaos at both Benin biennales.

*translated by Dominique Malaquais

Everything was looking good for the second edition of the Benin Biennale. But then, on 6 November  2012, the e-flux announcement appeared. E-flux puts exhibition organisers in instantaneous contact with thousands of subscribers the world over, without any need for mediation by the specialised press. For events taking place outside the Euro-North American corridor it is a boon. So, when the announcement appeared in my inbox, it made sense, but only up to a point.

There was a problem. The event announced on e-flux bore the exact same name as the exhibition that was going up right before my eyes: “Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen”. Same artistic director, identical dates, but a few incongruities: the organisation chart had changed, as had the show locations and, most importantly, the list of artists had been totally revised. Moreover, the event as a whole had undergone a slight but significant name change. It had been called Biennale du Bénin (Benin Biennale); now it was titled Biennale Regard Bénin (Benin Gaze Biennale). Unless some serious last-minute changes had occurred, there was only one conclusion possible: one event had now turned into two. Indeed, such was the case. From 8 November 2012 to 13 January 2013, two contemporary art biennales bearing very similar titles and centred on the exact same theme took place in Benin.

 Inventing the World

 For visitors who weren’t aware of the double-dutching going on, the Biennale du Bénin was a one-highlight event, taking place in a disaffected supermarket called Centre Kora. The artistic director was the Moroccan curator, Abdellah Karroum, who was assisted by three other curators, namely Béninois Didier Houénoudé, Norwegian Anne Szefer Karlson and Olivier Marboeuf, who hails from France.  Till then, Karroum had served as co-curator on several major exhibitions worldwide; now, with this under-exposed event, he was moving front and centre – a neat way of working out the kinks without having to deal with the hassle of big-time spotlights. That said, Karroum’s plans for the show were quite ambitious. His goal was to go beyond the habitual, casting his gaze beyond Africa and its diasporas – a laudable intention this, and a most effective way of positioning the Biennale du Bénin vis-à-vis Dak’art and SUD (Douala), both of which have a resolutely pan African focus.

Two years earlier, the first edition of the biennale had been a fairly modest affair. No major group show, but a mobilisation of Cotonou’s principal arts institutions and a series of open studios. Though unspectacular, the event allowed visitors to discover diverse arts spaces and cultural associations scattered around the city. And, as it coincided with Benin’s celebration of 50 years of independence, it benefited from quite a bit of media attention.

The second edition brought to bear a fairly conventional approach: a group show presented as an international undertaking, bringing together some 40 artists. Title: “Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen”. Much has been published on the subject of the artist as citizen, from T.J. Clark to Ariella Azoulay, but it was not from this literature that Karroum drew his inspiration. The intention note published in the first issue of the Biennale Journal offered little in the way of explanation: “The artist as citizen,” wrote Karroum, “takes upon himself the task of transmission that gives meaning to his work, in an extension of research in/on the domain of art, toward societal action.” Despite the convoluted writing, a few key themes emerged: a sharing of forms of knowledge, a determination to transcend borders, and a focus on art as linked to, or in service of, the social.

Imagine a show staged in a space where the original supermarket cash registers remained in place, shelves once used to display goods lingered on and the absence of air conditioning rendered the atmosphere suffocating. Most of the artists involved had done a good job of working within the parameters of the space. For financial reasons, and because shipping is complicated, a majority (though not all) of the pieces on view were small and some had been created in situ. Generally speaking, the focus was on imagined/imaginary cartographies, interconnected histories and related “metacultural” experiences, to borrow a turn of phrase from the French artist, Jean-Paul Thibeau.

Unsurprisingly, the largest pieces were by Béninois artists. Dominique Zinkpè’s Africa Arrives (2012) was a case in point. In this monumental installation, crowds of wooden statuettes were arranged in three clusters, each depicting a mode of transportation: a plane, a boat, a car. An installation made of thousands of cigarette butts and assorted found materials, forming an apocalyptic landscape midway between a slum and an internment camp, Aston’s Final Solution (2012) was massive as well. In addition to participating in the show with his installation, Voyages (2012), Meschac Gaba had staged a performance, adding, in the process, a new chapter to his well-known Art Museum of Active Life (MAVA) project. For this performance, a procession of 60 zémidjan (motorbike taxis) had been organised, each bike bearing a licence plate on which a phrase/slogan relating to the art world had been inscribed.

Activist, or politically engaged, readings of the notion of “artist as citizen” were nowhere to be found. It became clear very quickly that the averred theme of the show was to be understood metaphorically. Indeed, one sensed that Karroum was more interested in the first part of his title, “Inventing the World”, than in the second. More than anything, the goal sought seemed to be an exploration in visual form of Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation.

It would be a mistake to attribute the Biennale du Bénin’s organisation to Karroum alone. Interviews with Beninois artists and cultural actors point to Zinkpè as the event’s true maestro. A key figure on the local arts scene, he was one of the initiators of the biennale’s first edition and was executive director of its second iteration. The whole thing was in fact coordinated by the Consortium, an entity run by Zinkpè comprising two contemporary arts spaces, Unik and Tchif, and Agence Méribu, a cultural events outfit. His role as mentor was made particularly visible at openings in Abomey, the biennale’s other site. There, we visited one of the city’s many palaces, in whose courtyard we encountered works by Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon), Freddy Tsimba (DRC) and Zinkpè himself. Most interesting, however, was the visit to Unik. Spreading over 100 hectares, and created by Zinkpè, Unik is likely to become one of West Africa’s most important arts residency, teaching and exhibition spaces.

Other shows and presentations were expected. However, as a result of logistical problems, budgetary difficulties and what turned out to be increasingly visible tensions between the artistic director and the team coordinating the biennale, these did not materialise. Two key projects – one entitled Rencontre des Mers et des Océans (Where Seas and Oceans Meet), the other a web radio initiative – fell by the wayside. The catalogue, for which texts were commissioned, written and translated in preparation for a bilingual English/French publication, was set aside. So, yes, there were problems. And then came that other biennale, Biennale Regard Bénin (Benin Gaze Biennale).

 The Artist as Citizen

On Wednesday 7 November 2012, a press conference was held at Centre Artisttik Africa. On that occasion, the centre’s director, Ousmane Alèdji, expressed relief that the (or a) biennale was being held under the name Regard Bénin. One was left with the impression that the name was what mattered most. The first (2010) biennale, as well as the association that resulted from it, had borne that name. A central actor in both was Stephan Köhler, a cultural operator who has been living in Benin for several years. Together with his close friend and associate, Béninois artist Georges Adéagbo, in 2005 he founded an association called Kultur Forum Süd-Nord, which played an active part in Regard Bénin 2012.

The challenge for Regard Bénin 2012 – lest its organisers lose face – was to propose a quality programme on the same theme as the Biennale du Bénin, but on a far smaller budget. For a sense of how serious the challenge was, in budgetary terms, it proves useful to review some of the numbers. The Biennale du Bénin had serious money: 260 million CFA (almost €400,000) coming primarily from Institut Français (€163,000 €), the government of Benin (€73,000), the European Union (€70,000) and other institutional partners (the Zinsou Foundation, the French embassy in Benin and the Office for Contemporary Art in Norway, among others). Regard Bénin had 50 million CFA (about €76,000), plus €20,000 from the Prince Claus Fund and help in kind from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which chipped in with airfare for a group of students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg.

The Regard Bénin organisers chose to follow the model used in the 2010 biennale. By partnering with a range of local institutions and businesses, in whose spaces they exhibited works, they mounted a decentralised event. One key location was the Kultur Forum Süd-Nord’s workshop-cum-residency space, located on Togbin beach in Cotonou; another was Centre Artisttik Africa. As for the artists, they were just as impressive as those brought in for Biennale du Bénin. Some 12 creators, hailing from Japan, Sweden, Germany, France and, of course, Benin, were invited to contribute works centring on the fragility of the planet’s ecosystems and the stakes involved in protecting them.

Another key site was the national printing works in the capital, Porto-Novo. Pieces by several artists were on show in the building’s historic rooms, amid disused printing presses. For those who were looking, there was a nice little parallel: Regard Bénin’s printing works set-up echoed Biennale du Bénin’s Kora supermarket arrangement. In both cases, an abandoned locale had been turned into an exhibition space.

The theme was taken quite seriously – articulated around issues such as the over-exploitation of non-renewable resources and over-consumption, with a strong focus on sensitising visitors by way of works meant to shock them into action or, in any event, realisation. Given the fact that they both bore the same title, one is tempted to compare the two biennales as iterations of a single theme. Although the Kora/Biennale du Bénin installation was more convincing from a curatorial point of view, the use of independent structures and the deployment of site-specific installations by the Regard Bénin curators were quite effective as civic gestures. This was so not only because spaces to show art are few and far between in Benin, but also because the theme lent itself well to a performative treatment.

That said, the decision to use the same title and theme is so crude that it suggests a desire on the part of the Regard Bénin team to present to the world the face of a single, unified biennale. Some observers, in fact, thought that they were witnessing an ‘in’ and an ‘off’ section of the same overall event. Only those in the know could tell where one biennale began and the other left off. Indeed, there was quite a bit of confusion. The Regard Bénin curators had displayed works in storefronts; given Biennale du Bénin’s decision to show in a supermarket, people likely thought that these exhibits were an extension of the Kora installation. By the same token, the media attention paid to the Kora show in all likelihood drew spectators to Regard Bénin’s in-the-city interventions. At the end of the day, Regard Bénin could position itself as the action-based complement to Biennale du Bénin.

As Alèdji’s comments at the press conference suggested, the challenge was less to offer an alternative event, or a counter-biennale, than to create a set-up that would ensure the survival of the Regard Bénin label, lest it disappear in the face of the other event’s name. If this, indeed, was the goal, the gambit proved successful. Go to your browser’s search engine and enter the words “Benin biennale” and you’ll end up on the Regard Bénin site. No hacking involved – it’s just that the Biennale du Bénin site is down. Further confusion: go onto www.biennialfoundation.org, the platform of record for archiving data about biennales worldwide, and you’ll find an odd conflation. Above Abdellah Karroum’s portrait is the poster for Regard Bénin 2012. Unless they were official partners of one or the other event, it must have been exceedingly difficult for media outfits to figure out what was what. More troublesome for the Biennale du Bénin organisers was that in the second issue of the Biennale Journal, the program of events appeared under the title “Regard Bénin Biennale 2012”.

Frictions

There were not supposed to be two biennales. To clear things up, an official decree was published in late September, signed by none other than Jean-Michel Abimbola, the minister of culture in Benin. The decree stated unequivocally that Dominique Zinkpè was the executive director of the 2012 event. From that point forward, in the eyes of the Benin government, the Consortium was the sole entity in charge. This might have discouraged the organisers of Regard Bénin, but it did precisely the opposite: embittered, they took to working even harder.

Back at the press conference, Alèdji resorted to the hackneyed rhetoric of cultural dispossession in order to defend his biennale:

For the sake of our country, we wanted this international market to be grandiose. Yet – nothing here you don’t know – it has suffered due to attempts at recuperation, or, worse, appropriation. We have always sought, and we will continue to seek, to explain to our partners, even the most important, that the market of which I speak is Béninois and that it is legitimate that Benin and its people should remain in control of it. To say this is not to pick a fight, but to express a conviction. This market is ours and we will continue to claim it as long as others seek to take it over.

The vindictive nature of Alèdji’s comments was even more striking in an open letter that he addressed to the president of Benin, titled “Another way of selling off this country”. Reacting to the ministerial decree, in this missive Alèdji sought to draw the authorities’ attention to what he presented as the neo-colonial stance of the Béninois cultural actors working with Institut Français. A few excerpts follow:

The Regard Bénin contemporary arts biennale is a project of the Regard Bénin association, a fully and legally registered association. However, for reasons that escape us, some members of our board have defected. These individuals are mounting the same project, to take place on the same dates, and are funded by the Institut Français, an entity that remains a member of our association, even if its representatives no longer attend our meetings…

It had been our hope that several international partners who had announced they would support us, notably Institut Français, would accompany this project as a group, rather than privatise it to the benefit of a single entity among them. This has been our position throughout, in an attempt to maintain control over a market that we developed and in the name of patriotic duty. We said no; we refused to kneel down, hands and feet bound: that was our mistake. Because of this, we have been targeted and have run into all kinds of problems…

Institut Français and our brothers who side with them are certainly not going to do a better job of defending the interests of our country than we are. Those who have hidden this from you have hoodwinked you and those who tell you the contrary in order to fleece the Béninois taxpayers insult you: they doubly cheat our nation and our people.

Positioning himself as an opponent of cultural imperialism, Alèdji called on the president to “protect and defend the interests of our country” in the face of foreign powers. To underscore the point, a giant poster for Regard Bénin was pasted on a billboard fronting the French embassy. The letter, however, was not officially published. Instead, it made the rounds on emails and blogs, which is how I came to read it.

Then the director of Agence Méribu, a key member of the Consortium, resigned: “I could not conceive of the fact that there would be two events,” he stated, “after so much effort – months of discussions – had gone into finding common ground. Further, I did not really agree with the direction in which the official event was going.” His criticism concerned both sides: he objected to Alèdji’s “will to exist” and to Abdellah Karroum’s aesthetic choices, which he deemed “disconnected from the idea of showcasing Béninois creativity”.

Meanwhile, everybody was talking trash. From some, one heard that Alèdji was being opportunistic by seeking to barge in on a field – the visual arts – that he knows little about, as his area of expertise is performance. For these commentators, only Zinkpè was legitimate. One side accused the other of incompetence. The other fired back with accusations of family favouritism, or, worse, of corruption and nepotism. Attempting to tease out individual strands – to make proper sense – of this situation is hopeless. Let us simply say that Zinkpè’s project, which was originally the outsider, won out, becoming the official event, thanks to its ability to attract foreign brokers. As for the rest, it is the story of an entity – Regard Bénin, founded in March 2011 as a federation of associations in order to ensure an on-going biennale in Benin – gradually falling apart and then collapsing altogether as dissident members came together to form the Consortium.

In the tense atmosphere that resulted from all of this, the reaction of the Béninois and French authorities was as one might have expected. Abimbola, as minister of culture, and the French ambassador, Jean-Paul Monchau, could hardly ignore the electricity in the air at the Kora opening. Monchau called for “an assessment, uncompromising but open and constructive, whose goal should be to position the Regard Bénin Biennale as a must-attend event on the contemporary arts circuit”. Note the slip of the tongue: what he meant to say, of course, was “Biennale du Bénin”. Meanwhile, even as the minister spoke, the Kölher-Alèdji team was busy distributing brochures to spectators massed in front the Kora supermarket. At the opening at the print works in Porto-Novo, the minister of culture was in attendance. A point worth noting, and hardly a detail in this context: at the Biennale du Bénin opening, he wore a suit and tie; for the opening of Regard Bénin he appeared in customary Béninois garb.

The second edition of a biennale is a delicate affair. Indeed, a biennale only becomes what its name suggests after it has happened a second time and, with this, comes the pressure of making it happen again and again and again. Also, the first edition’s success must be not only repeated, but also surpassed. It is in this context precisely – in this phase of turning one into two – that tensions began to mount among the project’s stakeholders. The conflict, we are told, was due to the naming of an artistic director who was to run the whole affair. But in fact, in the background, something else entirely was going on: a battle between two key actors on the Béninois arts scene, Zinkpè and Alèdji, each of whom was intent on protecting his turf and retaining his partners. There was little room for Abdellah Karroum in this mess of competing interests; all he could do was look on from the sidelines. Others stayed away entirely, most notably Romuald Hazoumé, a major figure on this particular playing field. So too, the Zinsou Foundation, which had initiated and been a partner in the first biennale, while it did not entirely disappear, stayed at some remove.

The whole episode, then, smacks of a parish-pump quarrel. Or, alternately, it could be spun as proof of something positive: to whit, the existence of a vital arts scene, active both within Benin and without, with key Béninois actors at work on an international level (Adéagbo, Gaba, Hazoumé and Cyprien Toukoudagba). Both takes, however, fail to take into consideration something essential. What happened in Benin in 2012 is anything but anecdotal. Rather, it reveals the ways in which a scene is shaped by the stakes brought into play by a globalised art world and how that scene is constantly being redefined by the artists, curators and critics who take part in it. The second Johannesburg biennale, held in 1997, is a textbook case of this. Celebrated by numerous international art magazines, the event received a cool reception locally.

The term “biennale” has a charismatic effect, but it is also – and one tends to forget this – a normative appellation. It lends a conceptual, readily definable air to any and all arts events thus defined, wherever they take place. Associated with a core cluster of concepts – notions of experimentation and contemporary genres of exhibition linked to a global art world – it shapes expectations. The case of the second Benin biennale underscores how careful we need to be when dealing with this type of undertaking.

The organisers of Regard Bénin actively resisted, or altogether rejected, international standards. Glossy on the outside, the official biennale seemed to operate in the opposite manner. On closer examination, however, it turns out that, behind Karroum and his team, far more complex issues were at stake than at first appeared. Many an international observer minimised, or simply ignored, Zinkpè’s role in the making of the Biennale du Bénin, focusing instead on the intentions of its clearly identified artistic director, Karroum. To remark upon this takes nothing away from the latter’s fine work, but it does point to the need to look at such an event from a wide variety of angles simultaneously. One such angle is Karroum’s ambition for international recognition; another is Zinkpè’s more locally-focused ambitions; and still another is the resistance opposed to both by Alèdji and Köhler alike.

In sum, the 2012 edition might well be the manifestation in broad daylight of the quarrels and manipulations that are part and parcel of just about any biennale. In this sense, the two-biennale snafu was a welcome deviation from the expected – a shift away from the ‘appropriate’ spectacle we were meant to witness.

e-flux Tactical

 Bearing in mind the foregoing, let us return to the 6 November e-flux announcement about Regard Bénin, so as to understand its implications. In the communications chain, it was a vital link: a means of giving the event visibility not only on a local scale, but internationally as well. The announcement, however, was something else too: a challenge to the other side. The Biennale du Bénin team had sent in its own announcement on 6 October, one month earlier to the day. From a tactical point of view, it was essential for both teams to be present on e-flux: to launch any international event in the art world these days, you need to advertise on the e-flux platform. It has 90,000 subscribers who receive daily communiqués about exhibitions, publications and colloquia. Though the overwhelming majority of ads published in specialised magazines stem from private galleries, e-flux.com privileges news from public institutions, museums, biennales, fairs and non-profit organisations.

The November announcement was meant to restore balance vis-à-vis the Biennale du Bénin, ensuring thereby that, in the eyes of international onlookers, the latter would lose its title as the “official” event. The text reads as follows:

“Inventing the World” is the modest theme of the first official edition of the Biennale Regard Benin, which had formerly premiered in June 2010 on the 50th anniversary of  Independence of the Republic of Benin. The Biennial Regard Benin breaks with the conventions of curatorial branding by renouncing the vertical structure of inviting a general commissioner with a top-down curated exhibition. Purposely risking the label of dilettantism, the event will be unfolded by a local team of operators who will have occasional exchange with distant, yet close advisers. The noble sense of Lévi-Strauss’s term bricolage might be the most appropriate way to describe this new format. Based on the successful, innovative nature of [the] pilot event, participating members of a federation of a dozen independent art spaces and their activities founded the non-profit association Biennale Regard Bénin in March 2011, which organizes this edition with a balanced network of partners. Therefore the name of this event remains unchanged as Biennale Regard Bénin, as decreed by the Minister of Culture of Benin in May 2012.

First observation: the text proves useless for readers who were hoping to learn something about the theme of the event. The focus, rather, is on pragmatic considerations. First, the ad provides historical background, meant to re-establish the order of things. The opening sentence presents the 2012 event as the first biennale, with the 2010 event as a trial run. This allows Regard Bénin to position itself both as a precursor and a guarantor of continuity. As for the closing sentence, it references none other than the Benin government to prove Regard Bénin’s bona fides as the sole, legitimate biennale. Uninitiated readers would no doubt be completely confused.

Second observation: the text’s insistence on pointing out the absence of a vertical structure, with one artistic director controlling the whole of the event’s programming, is presented as a significant departure from the norm. The reader’s gaze is directed instead at a team of local operators working in tandem with international actors: a plural set-up, which, the authors claim, is highly original. The end-result is striking to say the least. Abdellah Karroum and Didier Houénoudé (a co-curator of the Kora event) are listed as artistic directors alongside Stephan Kölher, and Dominique Zinkpè and Ousmane Alèdji as executive directors – all within the framework of a single, overarching project.

Understandably, Karroum took offence with the audacity of the protagonists in instrumentalising both his name and Zinkpè’s. One’s first reaction is to read all of this as an operation meant to disinform and destabilise. That, however, would be too simplistic. For it must be recognised that the operation does something else as well: it projects a certain vision of what a biennale in Benin could or should be. In this sense, a third way may be seen to open up here: a set-up in which a re-unified team comes together to revive the original, federative nature of the 2010 event. Seen in this light, the biennale as it appears on e-flux blurs the sharp edges of a conflict-ridden situation.

It is important to point out that, while enrolment in e-flux is free, when placing an ad one is expected to pay, on a sliding scale according to one’s status. Payment itself, however, does not guarantee that one’s ad will be retained. A tacit editorial process is involved. The ad is presented to the e-flux team, which either accepts or rejects it. This process acts as a form of validation – relatively minor, in the scheme of things, for an event like the Venice Biennale, but quite important in the case of a fledgling biennale such as Benin’s. In this context, e-flux’s inclusion of the Regard Bénin ad had the powerful effect of inserting Regard Bénin in a vast network of contemporary art events. The impact of this might appear ephemeral, but it is not, for e-flux is more than a platform for listing events – it is also an archiving mechanism. On its internet site, e-flux archives all of the announcements it has received since 1999. A book has even been published, titled The Best Surprise Is No Surprise (2006), which is a compilation of selected ads.

 In this sense, we are not looking here at a misuse of the e-flux listserv, but rather at an instrumentalisation of its strengths and weaknesses alike. The goal is to render unclear the identity of Biennale du Bénin and to bring credit to Regard Bénin by relying on the fact that no immediate information is available. It works because of a disjunction: subscribers who do not witness the event(s) in person are all the more likely to believe what they are reading. The whole thing reminds me of a project launched by South African artists Ruth Sachs and Robert Sloon, titled I’ll Stop Believing in You if You Stop Believing in Me (2007). This took the form of a fake exhibition catalogue that was used to approach European galleries little informed about the South African art scene. In both cases, geographical distance and lack of concrete knowledge regarding art scenes about which the ‘big boys’ have little information are deployed as assets to game the system.

E-flux plays a key role in diminishing spatial and temporal divides in the geography of art. It is significant because it transmits information that does not appear in other media and that, in the process, reaches people who might otherwise not have access to it, due to economic, geographical and/or geopolitical reasons. In an interview, e-flux founder Anton Vidokle once admitted to having published a fictional ad for a Kosovo Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. To my knowledge, this has not happened since, but is of little consequence here: the Regard Bénin ad was neither a hoax nor a fiction, for it referenced an event that actually took place. In fact, in what must have looked like a provocation to the other side, the brochures distributed by the Regard Bénin team reiterated the reference to Karroum and Zinkpè as partners in their event. Only in the official press communiqué was the situation ‘rectified’.

What is interesting about all of this is that the reference shifted the conflict onto new terrain: the e-flux listserv. Hiding behind the message of the ad, and unbeknownst to the e-flux team, was a second, quite different message. What looks like a press communiqué is, in fact, a statement of principle, the expression of an artistic and political stance meant as a direct rebuke to the intents and claims of the Biennale du Bénin team.

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