The following pages are from a Skype interview with Charles Esche, of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Esche is a museum director and a professor of curating and contemporary art, and he’s been a biennial curator for Jakarta, São Paulo, Istanbul, Ramallah, Prishtinë, London, Ljubljana, and Gwangju. Two graduate colleagues in the Arts Administration and Policy program at SAIC, Taykhoom Biviji and Asha Veal Brisebois, prepared an interview of complementary questions last March, to speak with Esche and engage our respective interests in the potential of biennials as a political and social, and economic, force.
The full conversation is divided into two parts. Although constructed to be able to stand alone, parts one and two are most whole when read together.
Charles Esche, director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
TAYKHOOM BIVIJI: In considering the economic impact of biennials, is the most substantial benefit to the art market itself—or to the city hosting the biennial?
CHARLES ESCHE: I think there are two forms of capital that art plays with, and they used to have a relationship. One is symbolic capital, and the other is real capital, if you like, financial capital. And so these two forms of capital combine very much in the biennale, because on one hand you have the symbolic capital that promotes the city and it says that the city is exactly what we’re talking about. So the ‘liberal,’ ‘open minded,’ ‘connected,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘connected to world cultures,’ ‘global…’ all these sort of buzz words that we hear, which are good for the Lonely Planet guides, and good for tourism, which is an amazingly strong part of the economy today. So it’s a kind of idea of objects that are enriched by the symbolic capital that they accrue; but this symbolic capital has an effect on the real capital. In other words, their value also goes up for the galleries. So an artist that takes part in the Venice Biennale can expect his prices to rise by 20, 30 percent, after taking part in that biennale. So there’s a direct link between that symbolic capital and that financial capital. What’s interesting I think at the moment, is that they are drifting a little bit apart. In that the real places where that symbolic capital is translatable to financial capital are diminishing. And they are also generating their own symbolic capital through these big galleries. So now having an exhibition [in a major gallery] actually carries its own symbolic value as it raises the financial value.
“IN OTHER WORDS, THEIR VALUE ALSO GOES UP FOR THE GALLERIES. SO AN ARTIST THAT TAKES PART IN THE VENICE BIENNALE CAN EXPECT HIS PRICES TO RISE BY 20, 30 PERCENT, AFTER TAKING PART IN THAT BIENNALE. SO THERE’S A DIRECT LINK BETWEEN THAT SYMBOLIC CAPITAL AND THAT FINANCIAL CAPITAL.”
CE: You can, as an artist, have an exhibition and as a result your prices go up. But when the purpose of having that exhibition is to raise your prices, there’s nothing outside of that cycle anymore. There’s no reference outside. There’s only a reference to the financial circuit itself. And of course that’s exactly one of the prime mechanisms which you create a bubble economy. It’s exactly what happened in 2008 to some extent. The banks could create their own money, which meant that they had more money, which meant they could create more money, and this cycle went round and round until somebody realized that there’s nothing behind this except a very small cycle, which is, once you look at it, you say, ‘Well, it’s valueless.’ And you have to unwind the whole thing. And when you unwind the whole thing then there’s hardly any real money there behind it. Also I think the art market might be heading for a crash because of that, because it’s been detached from the symbolic capital. At the same time still, if you show in Venice or at the documenta in Europe, or in the Whitney Biennale in the United States probably, or have a solo exhibition in MoMA, then you can expect your prices to rise. So there are still a few places which have this symbolic capital value that can be translated into real value capital. But they’re getting less, is my sense. So the collectors somehow only value very few places, and then they value the art system itself. So they go to the art fairs, which are designed to raise the money. And being in the art fair raises the money. So it’s a very, very tight circle. So I think that there are these two values, and I think within a biennale those two values play a role, but as I say I think it’s really only very few biennales now where that’s really effective. So there’s a narrowing of the spaces where that can happen, I think. And movement toward the internal cycle of financial capital, so you can generate your own value.
TB: Are some of these changes taking place because the number of biennales are increasing?
CE: I think it might be, but it’s also because the art market itself has felt rather less happy having to be dependent on these independent positions of curators and this independent system, which they can’t quite control. So a gallery that wants to have a hundred percent control over its artists…it wants to know exactly how to structure the value. And the biennale is something that it doesn’t quite have control over. And that I think is very disturbing for somebody that wants to have this level of control. So they’d much rather say, ‘OK, let’s build these big galleries, let’s have these big exhibitions in our own galleries, let’s have it be like our own biennale that we can control in a certain sense.’ And that can build the value up. Which as the historic model, depends on recognition from art critics, or from museums, or from international exhibitions and biennales. And then as sort of the result of that, those artists go into the gallery and those prices go up. That was the old system, where that relation between symbolic capital and financial capital was very, very close, and you really needed symbolic capital in order to build financial capital. Now there are artists like these sort of zombie abstractions, talked about a couple of years ago in New York, these painters. They basically never ever appeared in biennales, nobody took them seriously within that biennale circuit. Which the market might see as pseudo intellectual, political, ‘not interested in real art, like we are in real aesthetics.’ Those are old-fashioned values. Those are modern values that they carry in.
“… IT WANTS TO KNOW EXACTLY HOW TO STRUCTURE THE VALUE. AND THE BIENNALE IS SOMETHING THAT IT DOESN’T QUITE HAVE CONTROL OVER. STILL.”
CE: There’s more biennales, and that dilutes the value. That’s true. But I think a lot of it is the mechanisms of the market themselves to create their own sustainability without having sort of ‘maverick’ moments, like a Tate or a MoMA determining their market. They want to control that. They don’t want to hand it over to the director of MoMA. I mean, they can buy the director of MoMA and they do buy him. There’s a lot of corruption that goes on, what would normally be called corruption, insider dealing and all that. All that’s very permissible in the art market in a way that wouldn’t be on Wall Street. But nevertheless they still want to have more control. And the biennales and the museums just don’t give them quite the hundred percent control that they have within their own circuit. That’s what I would say. So I think we have to distinguish these two types of capital. I think that a lot of the time we’re investing in symbolic capital. And we do our projects of exchange, exchanging groups and trying to create this meeting of difference. I think we’re also building symbolic capital, but that’s increasingly not translated into financial capital. Particularly that part, the socially engaged part. I think it’s kind of irrelevant for them. But, the optimistic part is that I think that bubble that’s going round and round is actually going to crash soon. I hope. And then things will get interesting.
TB: Following the recession in 2008, didn’t the art bubble also burst?
CE: No it never burst. It was very interesting. If you look at the prices in 2008 when everything burst the art market just continued growing. Because there’s all this surplus capital that the oligarchs have. This sort of ‘1 percent’ you call it in America. That oligarchy money was still around and they needed somewhere to invest it. Basically art was a very good way to invest it. One, because it’s a relatively good investment. The prices continue to rise. And two, because it’s really controllable. There’s really only around 500 people that are really collecting. And there’s so much insider dealing. So corruption, more or less. That you can more or less guarantee to keep the value of something. Because the auction house will buy the work if a collector doesn’t buy it. The artist will buy the work himself in order to keep his prices. Mostly ‘he.’ To keep his prices up. Or the gallery will buy it. So there’s lots of protections there which in the stock market wouldn’t be. That’s a much riskier investment. So therefore the art market became a popular place to invest. However, it developed this loop which is self-destructive. Which capitalism always develops in the end.
TB: Moving towards the socially engaged, the Dharavi Biennale in India in 2015 saw artwork made by the people who live in the ‘slums’ in collaboration with artists. I think it was a great event, but, I feel it failed in engaging with the rest of the citizens of Mumbai, likely because of the slum stigma. What would you say the role is in these types of exhibitions, within the wider biennial landscape?
CE: That sounds great to me. I mean in the sense that you then work with the community and you have to understand, think about what happened to that community in that process, which is a very difficult question. Because these things can have a long, long repercussion. There can be a kid in the slum who sees this and gets interested in how to think about the world differently and ends up becoming an entrepreneur rather than becoming someone who works in a factory, you know, whatever. You don’t know what the consequences are. They could have these consequences, and you could never trace it back to that moment. But I think the idea that the project was mainly for a public which was not seen to be significant for the art world, the market world particularly, bringing money for whatever, that’s great. That’s what you want to do it for.
When we were working in Indonesia we were working with a community that lived along a river, and it was actually illegal because it was too close to the river. You’ll know this from India as well, when people just move into an area. They were always fighting to stay there, and the city was always trying to remove them, but not really removing them. You know how these things, the battles can go on for generations basically, so they were in the middle of that. And then we worked together with them to tell their story in Jakarta, and so we sort of displaced them into Jakarta. But then we also worked with two or three artists on projects there, where for instance one project group worked on cleaning the river water so you could drink it. [The water] is basically quite polluted because there’s industry further up river. But these indigenous tree seeds, which you can put in, filters the water in a basic way. They were working on that, in the place. And nobody really knew if it was art or not.
“I THINK THE IDEA THAT THE PROJECT WAS MAINLY FOR A PUBLIC WHICH WAS NOT SEEN TO BE SIGNIFICANT FOR THE ART WORLD, THE MARKET WORLD PARTICULARLY, THAT’S GREAT.”
CE: There wasn’t that sort of discussion, but you saw that the community really came together at that point. The fact that they could act together. I think we helped facilitate that. But at the same time it was great when one of the leaders of that community wanted to be in a conference or a symposium, in Jakarta. For the first time he could speak about his community to people who normally wouldn’t hear that story. And through exhibition, to have their story represented from an artist group from the Netherlands. So I can imagine that taking that work, and showing it elsewhere, if that dialogue continues ‘between the slum and the palace,’ if you like. If that dialogue continues, then it could be worthwhile to take it to these other people. Probably the thing I would be least interested in is bringing those people to the slum, in a way, because that’s sort of that ‘poverty porn’ or ‘poverty tourism’ or whatever. Which isn’t constructive. In the end it’s about people getting kicks out of seeing, getting entry, to somewhere that they think is a bit dangerous. So I feel that the one thing that doesn’t matter at all, is that nobody from the elite in Bombay, in Mumbai, actually saw the exhibition. I think that’s kind of good in a certain way. Because so much is excluded from the people in the slum. So many doors are closed to them. It’s kind of nice when a door is closed to the other side.
TB: Art and biennials are considered to be a representation of the liberalness of a place, when the reality may not necessarily be that. Is this something that disturbs your own travels and work?
CE: We’re sort of at an interesting point that we’re seeing, and also in the election campaign in the United States, the country you’re living in, that the process of the governments being able to be liberal on the surface in order to justify repression underneath is becoming less and less sustainable for them. Turkey is turning its back on liberalism, because it can’t sustain its liberalism while it conducts the kind of repressions that are going on. I think the same is happening in many places. If you look at Modi in India, that same process is happening. Where there’s much more of an overt repression on the surface now then there was, say, ten or fifteen years ago. So I agree with you, with your analysis that in many cases it was an excuse. And Israel is perhaps the greatest example of this, a country that has a liberal surface even a strangely leftist cultural environment, in which that leftist cultural environment is completely ineffective in changing anything in terms of Palestinian oppression, completely ineffective. To the point that, most people who genuinely see that ineffectiveness, have left Israel because they realize they can’t work within that system anymore. Five years ago I was worried that Israel was very much the model for what would happen, there would be a sort of continued attempt to support liberalism within the cultural field, while everything else becomes more and more repressive. Economic inequality rises. Politically, there’s more imposition of one-party state systems, through a sort of joke democracy. Where the media controls the democracy anyway. If not, the votes are fixed. In the United Kingdom now there’s about a million and a half people who’ve been forced off the electoral role because they’re not registered properly in their houses and things like that. And of course in the United States they’re constantly trying to do that. I think part of that attempt to defeat democracy is to take votes away from people.
“…IN THE UNITED KINGDOM NOW THERE’S ABOUT A MILLION AND A HALF PEOPLE WHO’VE BEEN FORCED OFF THE ELECTORAL ROLE BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT REGISTERED PROPERLY IN THEIR HOUSES AND THINGS LIKE THAT. AND OF COURSE IN THE UNITED STATES THEY’RE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO DO THAT. I THINK PART OF THAT ATTEMPT TO DEFEAT DEMOCRACY IS TO TAKE VOTES AWAY FROM PEOPLE.”
CE: Whether it’s China, or the United States, or Europe, or Turkey, culture seems to be less and less of an excuse. The governments seem less interested in defending it as a kind of veil to hide their own repressive characters, they seem to now be more repressive about culture. We had problems with the biennale in São Paulo because of some of the people we brought in. There will be problems with the Istanbul Biennial, I think, in the future. There will be problems I think increasingly with those cultural organizations. Even in hardcore Western Europe or United States, there’s going to be cultural problems ahead. So in a sense we’re all participating now in this sort of renewed, it’s hard not to call it fascism, this renewed fascism that the world is going through. And I can’t imagine that Trump, if and when he becomes president, is going to be particularly sympathetic to the National Endowment for the Arts. They’ve already almost cut it to nothing. I don’t think he’s going to be the one who’s going to liberate it. Neither is Clinton or Sanders either. Not that there’s that much difference. But it’s going to get harder. He’s going to be less concerned with pretending that he’s a liberal. I can imagine that that happens also in India. With the Modi government, how much is he going to tolerate critique from the cultural field? I don’t know. If you look in Poland, they’ve now announced a huge festival, diverting a huge amount of funds to a festival celebrating the 950th anniversary of the baptism of Poland. So it’s a huge Catholic Church subsidy, to celebrate the religious Right. And they’ve taken funds away from museums and arts centers and music halls, and they’ve put it into this. So that’s effectively saying ‘fuck this liberalism, we’re going to get on with our own cultural agendas now,’ just like they’ve been doing in the economy or politics for some time. It makes it more obvious which side we need to be on. I think within India I wonder how much that is going to sustain itself, is the question. But I suspect that states in the world, governments in the world, are moving away from that support.
TB: In your sight, what are the biggest benefits of the biennial format? What are the potential ‘harms’ done by this format?
CE: I think we’ve spoken a little about this, but I think the biggest benefits are simply the capacity or the expectation a biennale has of bringing people together from very different locations and from very different social or political positions. So this idea of a meeting place. There’s an expectation that it should be that the artist should come together, the thinkers or theorists should come together, there should be a moment when discussion takes place. And the fact that format exists is great, because we can take advantage of it and we can use it. The dangers are the dangers that you’ve mentioned. Which are instrumentalization by the market. But I don’t think the market needs it so much anymore. So that’s good. The market sort of leaves us alone. Like in São Paulo they were very, they weren’t really interested in the fact that we had this exhibition. It didn’t affect them that we didn’t work with them. They weren’t too aggressive against it, because it didn’t really have too much effect on them. They didn’t need it.
“SO WHAT’S THE ETHICS OF THAT?”
CE: But I think obviously the dangers are instrumentalization, and the dangers maybe also are what you said, if you carry on working with maybe the kind of topics that I’m interested in, you could end up with this sort of poverty tourism for Westerners. Where people go to South Africa, and they get a tour in the townships, because that’s what you can do with the Johannesburg Biennale or whatever. And obviously there’s a danger. My question would always be, what kind of legacy does it leave and what kind of change might it provide. And it can be very small. Those changes can be very small. But they should be tangible. And if they’re not tangible then it’s a kind of instrumentalization of the people that are participating. We should be wary of that. We should be critical of that.
So what’s the ethics of that? You go in, you take, and you then divert the money. To the centers of power. So it might seem as though it’s global. It might seem so though it’s addressing a colonial question, a growing colonial question of colonial exploitation, but actually where the money is going is not at all in the direction of a sort of de-colonial process. It’s actually just reinforcing colonialism. We have to look at that. And that could also be a consequence of a biennale. You could do it really wrong. And that’s always a struggle.