Nikolett Erőss, Hajnalka Somogyi, Tereza Stejskalová and Eszter Szakács
OFF-Biennale Budapest is a unique organization that was born out of the resistance of the Hungarian independent art scene against the way the conservative and nationalist Fidesz Party, which has ruled the country since 2010, has taken control of cultural institutions. Founded in 2014 in Budapest, OFF-Biennale is a socially-engaged grassroots initiative that is more interested in the immediate needs of its local communities and translocal coalitions than caving to the interests of the global art world.
In this third Triennials Out of Time conversation, Tereza Stejskalová, who is a representative of another similarly focused biennial, Matter of Art based in Prague (Czech Republic), engages with curators Nikolett Eross, Hajnalka Somogyi, and Eszter Szakács of OFF-Biennale Budapest about the different meanings of the word “biennial” in the Central and Eastern European context. OFF-Biennale and Matter of Art, together with Survival Kit (Riga, Latvia), Biennale Warszawa (Poland), and Kyiv Biennial (Ukraine), are members of the East Europe Biennial Alliance (EEBA), the aim of which is to redefine the role of biennials as new forms of international solidarity and means of expanding social-political imagination.
Tereza Stejskalová: Both of our institutions are members of the East Europe Biennial Alliance. It is an association of contemporary art festivals that ascribe a specific meaning to the word “biennial” and that understand themselves as something different from what we usually imagine under this term. What does the word “biennale” mean in your name? What were the political, artistic, or economic reasons you chose that format in particular? What limits and what possibilities does the format offer in your opinion?
Hajnalka Somogyi: In 2014, OFF-Biennale started as a way to resist the takeover of the cultural scene by the then relatively new Fidesz government. It was not only to resist, but also to present a counter-proposal: to drag the progressive art scene out of a state of despair and to actually do something that is proactive and not only reactive to what the government is doing, changing, or introducing. Also, in the midst of this continuous aggressive takeover came an announcement by the government that a new Budapest Biennale was in the making. Our proposal was to “steal the show”; If there is a biennial in Budapest, it should be done by the actual cultural workers connected to the international discourse who are capable, experienced, and thus have the mandate to launch such a project. It was not supposed to be this empty political gig. Initially, we did not think that it would be a long-term project. It was more like a protest, a statement project to demonstrate the strength and resilience of the local scene. The government made sure that none of the cultural institutions were against their political agenda and that they were led by people loyal to them. We felt that the art scene needed reassurance that there was still energy, art, thought, and social commitment and that it could be presented despite the government’s aggressive agenda that attempted to suffocate it.
The first edition was quite a mess. It was more like a movement. There were many venues and many participants, both local and international. We felt pressure, in a good way, to continue. We gave in very willingly, seeing how much the scene needed and appreciated it. We thought the biennial format was useful in the sense that it was suitable to garner attention without us having to pull off a continuous program – something we would have been unable to do. So, in that sense, we did follow the attention economy of the art world. We thought that every second year we could do something large-scale with our modest means, using our energies and the energies of the participants. We figured it would be simply more effective than doing little things regularly.
Budapest has obviously always had a number of low-budget experimental art spaces doing great stuff for a small community. We wanted a game changer: to reactivate our international connections, an asset that political power cannot give you, and to make space for the Hungarian scene through that. Plus, we wanted to show ourselves and the Hungarian public that you do not have to accept the bad compromises that the system pushes you to swallow. These goals needed a large, strong, visible project, so we stayed with the format of the biennial.
At the same time, we are not so interested in producing one-off events. We try to work with people, issues, approaches, practitioners on a longer term. While continuing the biennial format, there is no blank page every second year – we don’t wipe the slate clean, but create new constellations, conversations, and productions around a set of long-term engagements. One example is our ongoing project RomaMoMA. In 2019, we started a collaboration with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) that aimed to address the invisibility of the Roma heritage, experience, and contemporary viewpoints in the institutional art scenes, and to think about possible institutional solutions in the context of decolonization. In 2021, OFF-Biennale had a section that posed the somewhat provocative question: If it existed, what would a museum of Roma modern and contemporary art do in Budapest in 2021? In the course of this project, we started to work with specific artists and researchers; a collaboration we continued and reconfigured in the frame of documenta fifteen in a global context. Moving on, we would like to ask questions like how to decolonize our cultural systems by initiating dialogues between the Roma experience and other similar minority struggles from around the world, some of them probably more researched and discussed in this global discourse.
Tereza: OFF-Biennale is a form of political and organizational agency in the political climate you find yourself in. The biennial format empowers you as well as the local cultural scene. How do you understand your approach in the context of the ongoing conversation about the problematic structures of the biennial – how these big international events often have good, emancipatory intentions, but in themselves, as infrastructures, are more part of the problem? There seems to be a tension at the heart of every large-scale, socially-engaged biennial.
Hajnalka: Well, OFF-Biennale remains very deeply grounded in the local scene. It grows out of and responds to the needs of that scene. For each edition, we reshape the biennial according to what we sense the community needs and what our current situation enables us to do for it. So the format is always different. And we always try to find those situations or themes that we feel should be put in the spotlight. We always ask questions about what is happening in this region, in this country, with this art scene. So it is a different situation than the standard global art festivals.
Eszter Szakács: Problematic structures in the art world and the question of arts funding are at the heart of every art project and every art institution, not just the biennial. One of the main differences between most biennials and ours lies in the practice. It is not about themes. It is not that, for instance, one edition thematizes “decolonization” and the other addresses “climate change.” Instead, we see OFF-Biennale as responding to urgencies and issues more in the ways it is organized and practiced – so we invest in the groundwork rather than the facade of the project. Another difference between us and biennials in general is that each team member has a full-time job elsewhere; at the same time, OFF does not have a single full-time employee.
Hajnalka: It wasn’t a large-scale institution, a ministry, city government, or museum of contemporary art, that initiated this project and would stand behind it. It is a grassroots project. In order to maintain our professional integrity, we do not apply for Hungarian public grants. Also, it is quite decentralized moneywise. Funding comes from various sources, in relatively small amounts: the largest grant we ever got was around 70,000 EUR. Money sometimes comes through the participants and the organizers themselves, too. This is different from the usual biennial recipe. There is no main sponsor, someone who provides the majority of the money, and it’s very low-budget. OFF is decentralized also in the sense that we are not in control of all the aspects of the project. There is no chief curator or mastermind that defines everything. The curatorial team is more like a think tank that sets out directions, a broad theoretical framework; and then each project we present is curated by someone else and the whole thing is coordinated.
Tereza: We all work out of dedication, to different degrees. In a way, this is the definition of an arts professional, at least in our context. Is dedication sustainable in the long-term? Where do you find resources to maintain this dedication?
We are applying for funding together. In one section that each of us had to fill out, you [Nikolett] wrote that you have a high percentage of women in your team and a low fluctuation of people in the team. You explained that you create a working environment that accommodates various difficult life situations and caring obligations. I liked that a lot.
Nikolett Eross: Starting with financial resources: OFF is a collective without a stable infrastructure background, without stable funding. We fundraise for each edition. The proportions of the sources always vary, and it is always a challenge to maintain even a small managerial team that is active between the biennial editions or to find resources for the long-term, however basic.
Hajnalka: There is a difference between the curatorial team, which is the think tank, and the management team. There are, however, personal overlaps. It is the management team that works more continuously – sometimes it is paid work, sometimes it is voluntary work.
Nikolett: Indeed, OFF has created a working environment that is welcoming, a safe space for us, that is balanced in the long-term. It is based on friendship; it is our gold-reserve, a very powerful resource. We enjoy each other’s company as humans, as women, as professionals, and it means a lot.
Hajnalka: OFF-Biennale has been a labor of love from the start. It remains important for us as it provides a framework to achieve things that we cannot achieve at our respective workplaces. Of course, we are women, we have families and difficult life situations. We divorce, we experience deaths, births, all kinds of things. But, as Nikolett said, we have created a very supportive environment.
Tereza: I would be interested to know how you combine OFF-Biennale, as a free-time activity, with your regular work duties and things like caring obligations. To me it sounds very difficult.
Hajnalka: Well, OFF-Biennale becomes a caring activity in itself, in a way. It is our way of caring for the art community, for our friends and colleagues, but also for each other.
Tereza: I also feel that we care for the institution itself. For instance, when we engage in activities that are often quite banal, boring, or repetitive in order to socially reproduce the institution – like applying for funding, cleaning the office, or going to the post office; what we do apart from the “creative” or “conceptual” work. We do it because we believe in the organization and its mission. It is not unlike caring for children. As with human beings, you may socially reproduce the institution so that it conforms to the status quo, but I guess there are also subversive ways of caring for the institution. You already referred to documenta fifteen, convened by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, in which you participated last year and which created all kinds of hot debates and conversations in the art world. Some people see it as a sort of a turning point, pointing at a possibility of a different art world. Did that encounter influence your way of thinking about OFF?
Eszter: It was indeed a very formative experience, both in terms of being a lumbung member and of working within the framework of documenta as an institution. It was really amazing to connect with like-minded collectives and initiatives on this scale. At the same time, due to the various geopolitical paradigms we are embedded in, the differences between us in the lumbung also became apparent. For instance, traveling to Kassel for some members meant applying for a visa. For us, it was easy, as we hold EU passports. We are at the periphery of the European Union, but still we have this privileged status. Also, it seemed that many lumbung members and artists, including us, are invested in infrastructure-building: organizing, initiating, and playing with the format of schools, archives, kitchens, museums, histories, and so on. Yet, OFF’s infrastructure-building art practices takes place in a different context than many of the lumbung members’ – in Hungary, there is still an existing art infrastructure, which we, as OFF, decided to step out of.
Hajnalka: Well, it is a dysfunctional infrastructure. A zombified infrastructure.
Eszter: Yes, but still an infrastructure. In Indonesia, for instance, there is not even a zombified infrastructure. In a great conversation between Nuraini Juliastuti and ruangrupa’s Ade Darmawan, they referred to bottom-up institutions in Indonesia as “fixers.” They are filling in the holes. This proactive approach is also similar to what Hajnalka mentioned in the beginning.
Hajnalka: As Eastern Europeans we always compare ourselves to the West. And in the past ten years, with all the political and social changes our region underwent – Hungary in particular – in many conversations abroad, I get the feeling that we have less and less in common with our colleagues from Western Europe, in terms of common concerns. And then, in the framework of documenta, we met people from entirely different cultural contexts, we spoke about their struggles and about the ways in which they are doing cultural work, and I had the feeling we have so much more in common. So yes, the experience revealed to us our privileges, which are hard to be aware of when you only speak with Europeans, but also gave us strategies, models, and ideas that seem adaptable to our situation.
Nikolett: There is one more aspect of the lumbung experience that should be mentioned. In the midst of all successive crises we have to think twice about what we invest in, which project we initiate or stay in. It has been confirmed that we should invest in alliances that blur the line between art and society, or are at home in both areas. If we have limited resources, we should make sure to invest them in issues and fields that are socially relevant and make sure that the new partnerships are also based on this very reinforced social engagement.
Hajnalka: This is one of the important lessons of the documenta experience, the core of the proposal that you mentioned, for the new art world. If you do not have the elite institutional system of contemporary art that the West has and that we have in a corrupted state, then art has no evident status socially and it can only survive or gain legitimacy in relation to other fields, such as education, activism, or agriculture. The practice of art then becomes much more embedded in these other social or cultural activities than in other societies where it has its own “ivory tower.”
Tereza: Did the war in Ukraine deepen the schism between the “Global North” or the West on the one hand and Eastern Europe? After all, there is a heightened sense of urgency and threat in our region. We have many colleagues who remained in Ukraine or moved abroad as refugees. Does it in any way affect the way we do culture and with whom we collaborate?
Nikolett: With the war, the weight of our decisions has multiplied. In Hungary, we all experienced how small NGOs, initiatives, and individuals have taken upon themselves the functions of the state, how quickly and professionally they organized help while the state was still hesitating. They are still on the frontline. Our government has a strange, slippery, and in some respect pro-Russian policy, as a result of which the efforts of civilians active in helping the refugees and the other people affected have doubled. The government is loyal to the aggressor but also playing a double game with the EU. The state slowly withdraws from the areas of care, be it for the homeless, the migrants, and whoever is in need, leaving this burden to individuals, families, NGOs, and the church. The war became the ultimate reason for everything. It covers inexplicable financial operations; it is something where sentences start and end. The war, the economic crisis, and the inflation in Hungary are completed by the general anti-civilian rhetoric and distrust of the civil sphere. All this is topped with measures such as the government’s abolition of a very favorable tax category where most small businesses, including cultural workers, belonged. As a result, these small businesses partly quit their activities or exist in a legally uncertain terrain. This vulnerability is not new, but the war reinforced it. We need to focus on empowering those who are not in the good graces of the government, and the only way to do that is to come together and forge new alliances. The ongoing Russian military invasion of Ukraine makes the differentiation of the often homogenized image of Eastern Europe and the reassessment of Russia’s imperial role inevitable. When we speak of new potential allies we are also talking of the Central Asian and the Caucasian territories that were previously less known for us. In this alarming and sobering situation, our attention is also turned more intensively toward those who have been left out of the narratives shaped by the West.
Tereza: I would say the specificity of the cultural initiatives in Eastern Europe like ours, or the other members of the EEBA alliance, is that we find it urgent or somehow unavoidable to tackle the completely failing state infrastructure. We are stepping in, or filling in, or undertaking functions that we as cultural organizations, in a way, are not supposed or expected to do – and we are necessarily also somehow always failing due to the scale of the problems, in the face of limited resources. It is tricky because sometimes it is also imposed from above; it is top-down, like in the case of EU cultural policies that like to stress things like social inclusion, environmental sustainability, etc. Sometimes I feel this is done without respect for the particular needs and knowledge of particular affected communities. In an ideal world, we would just be doing exhibitions, I guess.
Hajnalka: Certainly, the task is disproportionate. In the case of Hungary, it is not only that the state does not support or trust civilians, but it works against them in many ways. It ostracizes them, stigmatizes them, and creates an atmosphere of disrespect and suspicion through its rhetoric and administrative means, such as the sudden disappearance of the tax scheme favorable to independent workers that Nikolett mentioned. Since the refugee crisis in 2016, Hungary has been in a continuous legal state of emergency – first due to the refugee crisis, then Covid. And now it is another war that allows the government to keep us in a state of emergency and circumvent the regular legal processes.
Nikolett: It creates this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. We live in a country that has been in a state of emergency for five years already – and new chapters are coming.
Eszter: There is a continuous war mentality. Hungary is always fighting against something.
Hajnalka: Yes, we always have enemies, inside or outside. The basic rhetorical recipe of authoritarianism.
Eszter: To your comment, Tereza; at documenta fifteen there was a lot of discussion about security and in what ways documenta provides security, or not, to its own participants. In response, many of us were quickly eager to self-organize it ourselves. Someone rightfully asked why we were self-organizing something like security. It should be the job of the institution. It seems that we often have this compulsion in us: if something does not exist, we create it and organize it ourselves.
Tereza: Where do you imagine OFF-Biennale in ten years? Do you plan to grow old with the biennial?
Hajnalka: We don’t see an immediate ending to the state’s tendency to withdraw from sustaining cultural life or civic life. It feels like the disproportionate amount of tasks to be done in the region is going to grow, which means that the importance of civil and cultural collaborations will increase locally as well as translocally. These civil networks are also structures that can transcend the nation-state structure that the European Union is still very much reliant on. I guess what we are interested in is supporting such networks that go beyond the nation-state frameworks and represent an alternative to the national politics that are becoming more and more pro-Russian and right-wing populist. I know it is not that simple, but there is a tendency in EU politics that might put culture more center stage, which could mean more support on an EU level.
Tereza: So, is the EU our hope?
Hajnalka: No, not really. We are each other’s hope. But it is crucial that the alternative to state funding be more accessible to smaller, independent structures and networks of such organizations. In terms of our sustainability, it is also important to think about how to generate income ourselves. I see a potential to do that in networks and alliances, too. This was one of the challenges that lumbung interlokal set for itself, with moderate success so far. But once our activities are more embedded in the social reality and once our connections with creative, social, urban practices are more wide-ranging, it becomes more possible for us to generate income and not solely rely on grant funding. This would mean more autonomy and independence. It is part of the paradigm shift discussed in relation to documenta fifteen.
Eszter: And, in the next ten years, I would also like the East European Biennial Alliance to grow into something that would encapsulate all of the biennial members. It would represent the individual biennials but also the entire Alliance at the same time. If this could be a working infrastructure, that would be very nice.
Nikolett Erőss is a curator based in Budapest, Hungary. After years of working for major institutions in Budapest (including Trafo Gallery and the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art) she joined the curatorial team of OFF-Biennale Budapest in 2014. She was a lecturer at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and co-editor of the online magazines exindex and Mezosfera. Currently, besides her engagement at OFF-Biennale as co-curator and head of programming, she works as the head of Budapest History Museum – Budapest Gallery.
Hajnalka Somogyi is a curator based in Budapest, Hungary. Since 2014, she has worked as leader and co-curator of OFF-Biennale Budapest, which she initiated. She is also currently a professor in the Art Theory department of Budapest Metropolitan University. From 2001–2006, she was curator at the Trafo House of Contemporary Arts, Budapest, and from 2009–2012 at the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest. She was editor of Artmagazin in 2013–2014. She has also co-founded the independent art initiatives Dinamo and Impex, both in Budapest.
Tereza Stejskalová is a curator and researcher based in Prague, Czech Republic. She is the director of tranzit.cz and a co-founder of the Biennale Matter of Art. From 2018–2022 she worked as a researcher and lecturer at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. In 2017, she initiated Feminist (Art) Institution, a coalition of cultural institutions in the Czech Republic and Slovakia around a code of praxis. She has collaborated on many exhibitions and projects all around Europe. She publishes texts in academic and non-academic journals and is an editor of several publications. She is a member of the Prague City Council Grant Committee in the Field of Culture and Arts.
Eszter Szakács is a curator, researcher, and Ph.D. candidate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) at the University of Amsterdam, where she is taking part in a project IMAGINART—Imagining Institutions Otherwise: Art, Politics, and State Transformation. Eszter is on the curatorial team of the grassroots art initiative OFF-Biennale Budapest, with which they were lumbung members at documenta fifteen. She was a team member of the East Europe Biennial Alliance – co-founded by OFF-Biennale Budapest – that collectively curated the Kyiv Biennial in 2021. Eszter worked as curator and editor at tranzit/hu in Budapest between 2011 and 2020. Her research and writing revolve around grassroots art organizing outside state art infrastructures.