This article was written as part of the East Art Mags residency programme, in partnership with Magazyn SZUM (PL). Programme supported by Visegrad Fund.
Martyna Nowicka: What made you choose to join the OFF-Biennale?
Nikolett Erőss : I am, by education, an art historian, but I work as a curator. I’ve worked for art institutions in Budapest, the last of which for me was the Ludwig Múzeum. I was employed there until 2013. Then came the climax in the long-lasting process of disintegration of the Budapest art institutions. It was at that point that I chose to work on the OFF-Biennale. Orban, back then, had already been in power for three years and began to make all of the art institutions dependant on himself. The aspects we valued, such as social commitment or criticism, were being wiped out. Then, Hajnalka Somogyi [originator and principal curator of the OFF-Biennale – ed.note] came to the conclusion that since we had a local artistic scene, numerous ideas, the necessary knowledge, and skills in holding exhibitions, it would be worthwhile to make use of them. And so, we began to work outside the existing institutional structures.
New endeavours can start in a number of ways, not necessarily cutting ties with the things that already exist. In this case, however, we found it important to create something completely distinct, without any deals, neither big nor token ones, with the government, the institutions, or any authority figures. That approach was reflected in our work: we wanted to come up with a framework for independent artistic activity. We had to take the first steps by ourselves and create a transparent basis. Perhaps, in the future our approach will change. Maybe in two or four years we will want to make us of the government-managed infrastructure, even for the simple reason that museums have at their disposal their impressive collections paired with archives and knowledge. For the time being, though, we want to remain independent.
Eszter Szakács: Besides my work at the OFF-Biennale, since 2011 I have also been a curator at the Tranzit.hu gallery which is a member of a larger Central European network. I wanted to join this new idea from the very beginning, but for personal reasons it wasn’t immediately possible. My contribution to the first edition was minor, only during the second one could I commit myself to the fullest. It is no secret that I could afford to do so thanks to working for an independent NGO. My boss at Tranzit really facilitates my work on my projects: many people make their contribution because they want us to succeed.
OFF-Biennale interests me a resistance movement. Between 2012 and 2013 Hungarian artistic circles held numerous protests and demonstrations, which eventually proved futile. The OFF-Biennale is not another protest, but an effort aimed at producing concrete results. We’re building something, trying to defend something, and we’re taking responsibility for what we’re doing.
Nevertheless, I was wondering why you decided on this particular form of activity?. In a world where a biennale of some sort starts every other day this format tends to be heavily criticised. Why go for a festival and not, e.g., open your own permanent gallery?
NE: We do realise, of course, that the biennale format is widely criticised. On the other hand, though, that format met all our requirements. The very term „biennale” is generally known and understood: everyone knows it is a series of events taking part every two years. Besides, a single biennale is not a proper biennale yet: this format relies on a promise of repetition. That, in our case, was very important, because this way we committed ourselves to organising the next edition. It is now a simple matter of responsibility: we’re doing something now, and we’re about to continue in two-, and in four years time… We wanted to state that our commitment is a long-term one. Another factor was that a biennale can adapt itself to current circumstances. Today, we have one hundred people working on the event, but in two month we will just be needing our curatorial team of six.
Maintaining a permanent institution is out of our reach, but this flexible form might work. We haven’t got our own space and we have no regular financing, so every two years we’ll have to thoroughly think through what we’re doing. Perhaps, the framework will stay, but will be filled with different content two years from now. Another thing is that a biennale does not have to be a huge institution with an impressive budget and an overloaded programme. It does not have to be subsidised by the city or the state, nor needs it to take the shape of an institution (we are not one). Biennale is indeed a flawed format, but we can hope to remove the bad spell.
ES: What makes us exceptional is our grass-root model. We always start at the very bottom, and only then grow to achieve higher layers and levels of organization. Our biennale is not a facsimile of one of the foreign events; it was launched with different principles in mind. We want to serve the local community. We begin with thinking about what Budapest artists and curators need. The Biennale is not our last word, nor the ultimate expression of our work. It is just one of the means we apply.
Does that mean you count mostly on the local audience?
NE: We do, but are also prepared for hosting foreign visitors. Cooperation with international institutions is crucial for us: this year our partner is the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst located in Leipzig which coproduces most of the works being commissioned. The international character of the Biennale is important, because of the fact that we invite artists from all over the world, and mostly because we tackle problems which are significant not just from the Budapest point of view. We witness similar crises in all of Europe, so similar solutions can be needed in a number of places. We begin with a local context, but our focus crisis-wise is much wider. That is why we start with local participants, problems and audiences, but remain connected to the outside world.
ES: As Nikolett said: Hungarian problems are similar to those witnessed all over Europe. The difference here is that our political situation is rather acute and for seven years now we’ve been learning to deal with it. That experience can be especially interesting for European visitors. From the Polish perspective, I reckon, you can notice that just too well…
I am also curious about the second part of the event’s name, the „off” bit. The very use of this adjective suggests that there is a mainstream you situate yourselves outside of. What is it like?
NE: „Off” means a lot o things. We do not mean to stand against pro-government institutions; what we care about is creating our own niche, a different cultural institution model. We do not want to follow the main road, we prefer to stay off the usual paths. Still, we’re not about demolishing the buildings standing next to those paths. For years now, in Hungary there has been abelief that it is the state that should take care of the arts: it is not a question of this government or any other. Such belief has prevailed since the Second World War. Now, we aim to verify if it is possible to work in a different way.
ES: To my mind, choosing the „off” does not implicate moving to the woods and living far away from any existing structures or institutions. It is, I think, rather an attempt to create a new space for oneself. The same applies to our current exhibition: it may seem utopian, but it is a utopia that can be turned into reality. We are interested in resistance movements and amazingly simple solutions. It is sad that some perceive them as models which are not feasible. The works of art we display within People’s players aim to piece the available puzzle in a new way, thus creating a new image: a different reality.
But you keep creating that different reality at the biennale of arts.
NE: We do, but we do not reproduce the hierarchic structure of other festivals. The OFF-Biennale is rather a network, a whole comprising a number of teams (curatorial, educational, administrative, documentary, and communication management). We, the curators, are in touch with everybody else. On the other hand, our actions can be successful, because we all have experience in institutional work. So, even though we’ve adopted a grass-root and independent model, we remain disciplined, and no one questions the need to fill detailed Excel sheets.
ES: Thanks to that, we could work without a permanent office. Everything is uploaded to a cloud, documents can be accessed from anywhere. That makes everything a lot easier.
What about the funds? You’ve said on many occasions that you do not apply for any state money.
NE: This year’s OFF-Biennale is possible thanks to the support from the already mentioned Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst of Leipzig, as well as the German Kulturstiftung des Bundes, ERSTE Stiftung, the Goethe Institute, the Adam Mickiewicz Insitute, the French Institute, or the Czech Centre. Apart from their support, we have managed to attract sponsors, mainly form Hungary, both companies and private contributors. We are very glad that we have ever more friends. It seems that our interest in creating a new world on the ashes of the old one, reflected even by this year’s title, is a subject that many people care about.
What story does this year’s OFF-Biennale tell?
NE: The main theme of the second OFF-Biennale is Gaudiopolis, the children’s republic founded by Lutheran parson Gábor Sztehlo, and established mostly for children who became orphans during WWII. The Gaudiopolis operated in Budapest between 1945 and 1950. Today we are revisiting that concept in order to reflect on how to create new structures, talk about one’s personal past tragedies, build new reality, and also: how to enjoy life and being together. What seems especially important today is reminding people that we have already been through similar crises: ones in different circumstances and of different form, but crises nonetheless. Some tendencies visible now already appeared before the outbreak of WWII. People need to remember that there may be light at the end of this tunnel we’re now walking through.
ES: Gaudiopolis was founded at a very particular time: already after the war, but before communism had had enough time to establish itself around here for good. It was a brief period when people were able to make utopias reality, and it is worthwhile to look back at it. After all, it is experiments and utopias coming true that we so much need today.
Cover image: Detail of the Hidegszoba Gallery, Budapest. Photo: Zoltán Dragon / OFF-Biennale Budapest Archive