Zippora Elders and Prem Krishnamurthy
Triennials Out of Time is a series of short conversations featuring artistic directors and curators of cyclical exhibitions organized by James McAnally for the Counterpublic 2023 civic exhibition. Across disparate forms, Triennials Out of Time considers whether the slow build and release of multi-year, cyclical exhibitions may offer a more humane pace that allows proper engagement, inquiry, and reorientation to one’s place and publics.
In this fourth conversation, Prem Krishnamurthy, designer, author, educator, and Artistic Director for FRONT International 2022: Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, speaks with Zippora Elders, Chief Curator and Head of the Curatorial Department & Outreach for Gropius Bau in Berlin and Co-Curator of sonsbeek20→24 – Force Times Distance: On Labor and Its Sonic Ecologies, about their experiences curating large-scale cyclical exhibitions.
Prem Krishnamurthy: Both of us have been involved in curating large-scale cyclical exhibitions recently: FRONT International and sonsbeek20→24. We both had the ambition to continue for a longer time frame. How did that idea of changing the time frame of an exhibition like this emerge for you and the team you were involved in?
Zippora Elders: It’s both something based on experience and thinking, of course, but also intuition about what was needed at that time. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the Artistic Director of sonsbeek20→24, was appointed in early 2019, and he took four curators on board, including me – and it was already pretty clear that it was difficult to make it to the summer of 2020 in one and a half years. Often art projects that I’ve been involved with, that we all have been involved with, had to move very fast and produce something without having proper time to go deeper into the things we want to bring to the audience (the place, the locality, etc.); to be in actual conversations.
We decided it would make sense to make a double edition with four years in between so that we could work with the same topic, Labor and Its Sonic Ecologies, alongside the full title, Force Times Distance, which is the formula for labor. We divided it into a double edition (2020 and 2024) to work with the same topic, theme, and program lines – frequencies, as we call them. We announced that in early 2020.
Of course, Covid also hit the Netherlands, and then it made sense to postpone. So, the first edition happened in 2021 and that’s where we are at right now – because we regrettably had to resign last fall, which means that we are not doing the second edition. But the whole concept was still around this idea of slowing down, decelerating, and making a double edition with four years in between.
PK: Well, I guess by resigning you’re really slowing it down then . . .
ZE: We had no choice at some point, unfortunately, because of organizational structures that weren’t sufficient for providing healthy, fair, and productive working conditions for artists and art professionals. It was with great sadness that we resigned after more than a year of asking for and proposing better circumstances. So far, we haven’t had a proper response or conversation, let alone reparation. Of course, this is in line with thinking about labor – what is reasonable, what is feasible, what is doable, and what makes sense. How do you genuinely make a collective gathering and a cyclical exhibition not only a commodity, as capital for whatever city, or as some kind of reputation that’s needed for something or someone, but actually something that’s worthwhile for a lot of people?
PK: I think this is endemic to the entire endeavor of making cyclical exhibitions. I remember in the summer of 2016, I visited something like five biennials or triennials. I would talk to artists and uniformly they would say how terrible the experience was. The artists might have been happy with the results and the opportunity to make new work, but they all talked about, forgive my language, what a shit show the exhibition-making process was.
ZE: That’s very sad and worrying. No, it’s perhaps not surprising, but still.
PK: Yeah. And it wasn’t totally surprising because I had already worked as a graphic designer on nearly a dozen exhibitions like that. But it made me wonder: Why the hell are we doing these things if they’re so terrible for artists on some level and we don’t even always know who they’re for? Somebody else said to me, “Yeah, after I curated this biennial, it took me about six months before I was able to look at art again.” Everybody has some kind of burnout, myself included. So it really makes me wonder about the reasons for mounting such shows. I’m curious what your experience with doing other exhibitions like this has been and how it compares to what I’m describing.
ZE: Obviously, when becoming a curator, or an artist historian and then a curator, you choose to work with artists. You want exchange, to make things possible, to care for the art, to care for artists, to care for the audience. Then it’s frustrating when it’s not working out somehow and collaborators are not content or artists are not happy. I guess when you work in an institution, you always have to find compromises. That’s part of being a curator in an institution – that you find a ground that cares for as many as possible. But you have to search for that and you have to figure things out together. But with these biennials or cyclical exhibitions, it’s a very short amount of time. There’s often not a clear framework. Often, there’s not one space. That, of course, makes it super complex in terms of production and figuring things out respectfully. I think managers of organizations or the boards or commissioners often neglect or don’t acknowledge the fact that such a manifestation needs proper money and proper time to do something in a reasonable and valuable way. At the same time, these shows are a huge form of capital. Everyone gets on an airplane or train to get to these events. It’s a big thing for the art world, but there is a lot of struggle, as you were saying, underneath it.
PK: You’re right about the time frame. The first time that I was artistic director of a cyclical exhibition was the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial 01 (2018) in Sharjah, UAE. I had been in conversation with them for several years, but from the moment they said, “We’re really going to do this,” to the exhibition opening was approximately ten or eleven months. It was wild. The first thing I said was: I can’t do this alone. I’m going to invite Na Kim and Emily Smith as co-artistic directors. We then ended up inviting a number of other curators and designers to be part of it – but the time frame was still intense. I had never even been to Sharjah before. I’d barely been to the Middle East. So, it was a massive learning curve.
ZE: Yeah, it’s interesting what you’re saying because often cyclical exhibitions invite curators or artistic directors from far away, which is interesting because they bring in another perspective. But at the same time, it’s a question of how you root that – if you want to root it in the local community or art community, or the structures of a city or place or country – and if the institutions are as supportive to other perspectives as they say they are. It’s the organization, the inviting party, that should step up their hospitality game there.
PK: You’re from the Netherlands. I’m curious how curating this edition of sonsbeek relates to your own experiences with the exhibition in the past, I assume having witnessed some part of its history.
ZE: sonsbeek has been held in Arnhem since 1949 (the edition we did was the 12th edition), and it was actually conceived a bit like documenta; so postwar, bringing healing or soothing or comfort in a big park [Park Sonsbeek], with outside art and collaborations with institutions. Arnhem is a city in the eastern part of the Netherlands, close to Nijmegen. I grew up in Nijmegen and know Arnhem very well because my family is from there. My parents actually had their first date in Park Sonsbeek.
ZE: Yeah, it’s true. That’s a very nice part of the story.
PK: You actually wouldn’t exist if not for Park Sonsbeek.
ZE: Ha. They’re both from immigrant families, the Moluccan and Indonesian diaspora, and it comes together there. There are a lot of folks from these diaspora in Arnhem and in the Netherlands in general, so, for me, it was a very emotional connection, a personal connection. That made sonsbeek stand out for me, and it was wonderful to work with this team: with Bonaventure, but also with the other co-curators, Antonia Alampi, Amal Alhaag, Krista Jantowski, and Aude Mgba (and partly Vincent van Velsen). It was kind of a relief to work with predominantly Brown and Black curators in a team rather than trying to settle in a Dutch white art world, which I’ve done for the past fifteen years. It was both international and “diverse.”
I was happy that Bonaventure really thought about who was based in the Netherlands, but also who had ties to Arnhem. I had this tie through my background, and one of the other curators, Krista Jantowski, had an amazing bookshop and meeting place [Walter Books] in Arnhem. It was valuable to have this connection. Yet, some other local people kept commenting, “They are not locals,” and that was hurtful because they just looked at us and assumed we weren’t from there – that’s the only explanation I can give. If they had actually read the catalog, our personal biographies, or the things we said about the history of labor in our own lives, then of course it would’ve been clear that we have these connections, very tight connections, locally. My whole family is still in that region. It lies underneath the theme of labor and workers as well: who is allowed to be “local” and who gets a voice in the newspapers.
PK: For me, it’s totally the opposite because both Ohio and the UAE were unfamiliar places. I guess there were advantages and disadvantages. The advantages were that we could reimagine the exhibition in some ways – though you also totally re-imagined what sonsbeek does. There was little institutional history. But the disadvantage was that the team on the ground was still learning a lot. Again, that might be the case for many biennials and cyclical exhibitions, even when they’ve been happening for a long time – there’s so much turnover in the field. Yet with FRONT, the founder and executive director was also aware of this because he said, “Well, you’ve already been to Cleveland several times [as a designer]: you know the context and that’s an advantage.”
Actually, I remember the first time that familiarity played into a project. My studio created the graphic design for the Whitney Biennial in 2010. Most of the time, with something like the Whitney Biennial, each exhibition is a reaction to the one before. It tries to define itself as being totally different and it doesn’t want to show any of the same artists. In 2010, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari were the curators and they decided to take the opposite approach. They said: We want to look at the history of the Whitney Biennial and think about it as being continuous. So, we developed a part of the catalog that had the history of all the past Whitney Biennials (and Annuals as they were originally called) and all the artist lists and all the catalogs. What we found was that in the early years of the Whitney, many of the artists repeated from edition to edition. It was only in the 1980s or 90s, I believe, that this started to change; the idea of novelty became important. It’s interesting to see that these kinds of exhibitions weren’t always about reinventing and newness and a kind of capitalist speed.
ZE: I feel this resonates somewhat with what others had done in editions before us. ruangrupa did the 2016 sonsbeek edition and they came as a collective to Arnhem, like they did in Kassel, and stayed there for quite a while. They connected with the place and the people, and they set up a ruru huis – a house where people would gather and get information. That Ruruhuis later became the bookshop WALTER books run by Krista Jantowski, who was part of our curatorial team. It’s a very interesting bookshop, but it’s also great that it has served as a gathering place for activists, thinkers, feminists, queers, students, and passers-by.
Apart from the big artist names that we procure in editions, a cyclical exhibition is also about the positioning in a place. The work that ruangrupa had done in that previous edition resonated because some of the artworks are still there, such as Slavs and Tatars’s work. Then you really see this history of the development of perspectives on sculpture or outdoor installations. It’s amazing when something exists for such a long time in a park.
PK: That’s quite beautiful. It makes me think of the fact that the park itself, not only the artworks, is a long-term thing. A park grows and develops, and that’s not always visible. It’s under the surface, but it’s always part of how the park lives. I wonder if these past editions are visible for people who only see this one exhibition. Whether or not they’re apparent in a direct way, they inform the process and the team. I started this conversation on a kind of negative critical note, but that actually sounds like a positive thing. Are there other parts of the exhibition or the process of making the exhibition that you thought were particularly positive or successful?
ZE: In the end, apart from the horrible situation of having to resign and not being able to make the second part of our edition, the day-to-day frustrations kind of go slowly to the background. What remains is the connection you make with artists and the visitors that actually reacted with surprise, openness and happiness to works. And, of course, paths collide again. At Gropius Bau in Berlin, where I am now the chief curator, we just had the opening of Indigo Waves two days ago, and some artists there were also in our sonsbeek edition.
PK: It’s great that you point out how these exhibitions seed not only the future editions of that exhibition but also other exhibitions. I always think that even when an exhibition is done, it leaves many traces in the relationships that come out of it. We also had the ambition that our show wouldn’t be disconnected from the first one and that it would continue in some form to the next edition of FRONT in 2025. I guess we’ll wait to see how that emerges.
ZE: When you were talking, I was also thinking about how I experience curating or making. I was in Arnhem for one month for installation and went from place to place, cycling around, often alone. It was lonely, but also there was beauty in it. It was hands-on and hardcore labor. Not bad at all. I wonder how you did it with FRONT. How did it feel?
PK: It was intense. What you’re saying really resonates. In the three or four heavy weeks of installation, my intern and I drove between every site, checking things and juggling fifteen things at once. The three cities [Cleveland, Akron, Oberlin] are about forty-five minutes to an hour from each other, which adds a whole additional level of complexity. We strategically split up the venues and cities roughly between me (as artistic director) and Murtaza Vali and Annie Wischmeyer (as part of the curatorial team), as a lot of exhibitions do. But I think I might be the only human who actually visited every single site. It was challenging. It would take a person many days to see the entire show. That’s already a question of scope and scale – if I, as artistic director, can barely see everything!
Fred Bidwell, FRONT’s executive director, called me a couple of weeks ago – the visitor numbers show that although there were fewer visitors overall than at the first exhibition (due to Covid and other factors), the people who came this time visited more venues. To me, that is encouraging. I’m not a funding body and I care less about how many visitors there are than how deeply they engage with the exhibition and how much they learn from it. So for me, that number was really heartening
ZE: How were the responses to FRONT? Were they fair?
PK: We had a lot of thoughtful responses from the press; I feel good about them. Some were positive, and some were critical as well. I really appreciate feedback. I think of any of these processes – for myself and for an institution – as a learning process. Each of these exhibitions is a rehearsal for the next exhibition, so when there’s substantive critical feedback, it helps us to think about what we might do differently next time. I’m quite happy about that. How was it for you?
ZE: I’m also always grateful when there is interaction and exchange between different perspectives, and I think it was generally okay. But I do think that somehow in many pieces there was a prejudice or bias that art works should be “accessible” to “everyone.” Accessible and to whom are very subjective notions, of course. The assumption is that it should be more like exhibitions that people are used to – let’s say, sculpture that’s recognized as sculpture or art as autonomous art, with wall texts telling you what to think, feel, and understand. Whereas, we worked with a lot of interdisciplinary approaches and intuitive encounters with art. Not everything can be spoken about, or is even unspeakable. It was about frequencies, echos, and the sonic, and bringing in crafts and materials from all over the globe – which also resonates with the history of Arnhem. The city has the Rhine running through it, which crosses Germany and half of Europe – it’s also related to colonial trade. So, it makes sense to connect to labor from all across the globe and all across history. It’s accessible in a different, refreshing, and more open form. What’s more accessible than the frequencies of labor?
PK: Given that sonsbeek has existed for seventy years, people are comparing it to past editions and other exhibitions. There’s a normative sense of it. With FRONT, it’s only the second edition. And most people in Cleveland don’t even know what a triennial is, right? To them, it’s totally new.
To be fair, I noticed something when I worked on Carnegie International (2018) as part of the Creative Team. Even though that cyclical exhibition has existed since the 1890s, I never met a taxi driver in Pittsburgh who had heard of it before! Although perhaps that’s also because it takes place in a museum, not in a public space.
With FRONT, the local press was extremely excited. For them, it brings a whole different kind of art and experience. They’re not comparing it against other museums or editions. Maybe that’s one advantage of the newness of a cyclical exhibition: it can stand a little bit outside of comparison with the past.
ZE: Are these biennials and big cyclical manifestations emblematic of the privilege people have in the art world? I mean, it seems like a huge privilege to be able to visit all these exhibitions. I feel at this point there is a cringe element to that as well. Are we really going to take a plane again to see a show but ignore the working conditions and climate issues in a certain country or place or even within the exhibition? There’s much that is contradictory in doing these things.
PK: Right. Of course, I am absolutely super privileged to be able to go see these exhibitions, as well as being a person who has the opportunity to make exhibitions like this. So I’m coming as a hyper-professionalized viewer. My job, for better or for worse, is to go to these things, to meet artists, to experience artworks, and then to think about how those practices or ideas might resonate in the projects I’m doing in other places. But one of the aspects with FRONT that was important – especially with the pandemic having taken place – was that we realized we needed to pivot the exhibition to be much more locally focused. We knew that people wouldn’t necessarily fly in to come see it, or at least not as many as came to the first one. That’s one of the futures I see for biennials and triennials. Until now, at least since the 90s, they’ve often been thought about as these drivers for tourism from outside. And one thing that I’m seeing in different models is really thinking of cyclical exhibitions more as capacity-building (to use a business term) within the local communities, both the art communities and other communities. That, for me, was as important in FRONT as the people coming from outside; the way in which it created or supported collaborations between the artists and institutions in Cleveland so that hopefully they can continue with their future projects in a more meaningful way. All that stuff is pretty invisible to the people who come from outside, but I think it’s what resonates and maybe stays in that place.
ZE: I find it very beautiful what you’re saying because I think, in general – not only in cyclical exhibitions – a lot of the invisible work is what resonates in the long run. I mean it in a hopeful kind of way; that not everything has to be or can be measurable or commodified in the end. But that it will resonate.
Zippora Elders is the Chief Curator and Head of the Curatorial Department & Outreach for Gropius Bau in Berlin. Previously, starting in 2016 she was director of Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen in the Netherlands, where she increased the visibility of this UNESCO heritage site as a thriving retreat for contemporary art and ecological exchange under the themes of Science Fiction and Enchantment, Healing, Fertility. In 2019, she became co-curator of sonsbeek20→24 – Force Times Distance: On Labor and Its Sonic Ecologies. Formerly, she was curator at Foam, a museum for photography in Amsterdam, editor of Foam Magazine, Master coordinator at the Sandberg Instituut and curator in training at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, a.o.
Prem Krishnamurthy is a designer, author, and educator. His multifaceted work explores the role of art as an agent of transformation at an individual, collective, and structural level. He received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Communications Design in 2015 and KW Institute for Contemporary Art’s “A Year With . . .” residency fellowship in 2018. He has curated several large-scale exhibitions, including FRONT International 2022: Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows. His book-length epistolary essay, On Letters, was published in 2022. He currently directs Wkshps and the Department of Transformation.