The aim of this text is to start a discussion about OFF-Biennale Budapest 2017 from a feminist perspective without claiming whether it is a feminist endeavor or not. My starting point is the discovery that the word “feminist” is not mentioned in the program once. Nevertheless, examining OFF-Biennale from a feminist point of view seems especially important in light of new announcements about sexual harassment in the media almost every week and vivid discussions going on internationally in the social media. The recent revelations under the hashtag #MeToo are not about individual cases but about making a point about a widespread macho culture suppressing equality that has been unheeded for a long time. I do not want to state that it is a feminist endeavor. I am interested in the notion of how a curatorial commons can be conceived as a feminist strategy and that the curatorial practice of the OFF-Biennale could therefore be seen as a feminist form of practice or a feminist counter-institution.
OFF-Biennale Budapest began in 2014. It was initiated by the curator Hajnalka Somogyi. The grassroots endeavor, with its first edition in 2015, was to try to survive and resist the nationalist cultural policy of the current government and form new alliances. OFF-Biennale aims to establish its own structures, resources and temporary locations to continue contemporary critical art practices. Its premise is to not cooperate with any state arts institutions and not to apply for or accept any support from the Hungarian government. After spending the first years of the Fidesz government protesting against official policies and actions, people from the art scene became tired because nothing changed and no dialogue with the government could be sparked. In its first edition, OFF-Biennale showed 200 programs by more than 350 artists in more than 100 venues. The curatorial process for OFF-Biennale 2017 was started by an open call for contributions, but in contrast to the first iteration, the curatorial team set a thematic frame: Gaudiopolis 2017 – The City of Joy. While the first edition came together from a joint struggle against the “illiberating” tendencies in Hungary, the second edition wanted to move forward and offer other perspectives.
The curatorial team of OFF-Biennale 2017 was comprised of six women. While meeting a group of them, I could feel some resistance to envision the biennale as a feminist endeavor. “We have more important issues,” is the strongest comment I heard. Is feminism a luxury problem? I understand OFF-Biennale as an initiative to protest the transformation of the local art scene, and by extension, that of the liberal-constitutional democracy to an illiberal state in an entanglement of power dynamics that are also structured along gender categories. “Can there be a left-wing alternative to the neoliberal political and economic order without considering feminist aspects?”—asks Hungarian political scientist Eszter Kováts.1 “What interrelations are there between growing right-wing populism, and the relationship of left-wing and feminist politics to neoliberalism?”2
OFF-Biennale Budapest, in terms of its legal form, is an NGO, and thus part of civil society. Andrea Pető, Professor of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest and Weronika Grzebalska, PhD candidate in Sociology at the Graduate School for Social Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, describe how in Hungary and Poland gender equality, civil society, and minority rights are portrayed by the government as an existential threat to the survival and the sovereignty of the nation by framing them as foreign-steered. Advocacy groups for minorities are presented as state enemies rather than democratic adversaries just because they get international funding. Thus human rights issues become depoliticized. Parties like Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland as well as AfD in Germany promote nationalist ideas about “traditional” family values over equal rights for women, LGBTQ and other minorities. “Underfunded, demonised, and operating outside a system of liberal checks and balances, feminists and progressive NGOs are unable to influence government policy through previously existing channels – advocacy, consultations, or media,”3 state Pető and Grzebalska.
Thus, I understand the curator’s resistance towards a feminist position as a reluctance to be “depoliticized.” Nevertheless, while OFF-Biennale does not address feminism on a thematic level, its modus operandi can be considered feminist. For art historian Angela Dimitrakaki, to assume a feminist curatorial position in a post-socialist transnational context is to curate politically. “To curate politically – to curate, that is, so that oppressive power structures become exposed and contested—requires a shared strategic vision which must carefully consider the conditions provided by globalization.“4. Dimitrakakis suggests that feminist curatorial practice must pursue more theoretical analysis of curatorial practices as a feminist intervention; reflect on its own conditions of existence and connect feminism in the art world to the discourse of institutional critique. She proposes to imagine a curatorial common as something, “not only as building on feminist knowledges but also as exceeding feminism.” For her, a curatorial commons also means the rise of autonomous counter-institutions. It is against this backdrop that I want to claim that the curatorial practice of the OFF-Biennale could be seen as a feminist (and political) practice towards a curatorial common, a feminist counter-institution, because it is a patriarchal authority against which OFF raises its voice.
The 2017 OFF-Biennale took place over the course of five weeks, from September 29 to November 5, showing 24 exhibitions and an extensive public program of events at various venues in the city of Budapest: from private studios, a coffeehouse, commercial galleries to research institutes and cultural centers, seeking alternatives to state-funded art institutions. It presented more than 140 international artists and artist collectives. Every proposal of the open call had to be financed and realized by the proposing person or institution, forming a decentralized network of independent initiatives. In addition, an umbrella program was put together by the curatorial team of OFF-Biennale. In 2017, OFF-Biennale’s main partner was Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig, Germany. This cooperative project was funded by German Federal Cultural Foundation. A major part of the funding was used to support the production of new works by Hungarian artists, because progressive or critical artists do not have many opportunities to produce new works in the present political situation.
The curatorial concept used the story of Gaudiopolis, a children’s republic that existed in Budapest in the years 1945–1951, as a metaphor to think about how to learn democracy and to reflect on processes of community building and the role of play. Gaudiopolis was founded after World War II by the Lutheran pastor Gábor Sztehlo (1909-1974). It gave home to more than 200 children, mostly orphans from the war of different religious, national, or social backgrounds. The children formed their own government by election, developed a constitution and laws that applied to children equally as to teachers; they had their own currency, police, judges, and a newspaper. The principles of Gaudiopolis were welfare, care, and cordiality. Sztehlo’s education aimed at “independent, self-conscious, practically trained, and theoretically qualified citizens striving for better self-understanding and self-criticism.”5 The residents of Gaudiopolis also included girls, but they had no political rights and could not stand for political appointments.
The context and the history of this self-organized children’s republic, which served as a reference point for the whole biennale, was documented in the exhibition Somewhere in Europe at the Galeria Centralis, Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. Curated by Katalin Székely—also a member of OFF-Biennale’s curatorial team—the exhibition borrowed its title from the 1948 film directed by Géza Radványi that also reworked the theme of Gaudiopolis, and in which many of the residents of the original orphanage took part as actors. The research and exhibition project presented archival material of Gaudiopolis and similar initiatives alongside contemporary works of art reflecting on the ideas of a Children’s republic.
The umbrella program Hide and Seek, by the curatorial team of the OFF-Biennale, followed the thematic thread of Gaudiopolis by assembling different works and events that discuss aspects of education, play, and community-building as means to initiate democratic models. How are we to implement models of democracy in society? What is the role of play in finding solutions? How can we build up communities to resist the crisis of democracy? What are the different values expressed in models of social living? This umbrella program of the biennale consisted of a group show presented at the café Három Holló and individual projects and presentations at several venue across the city. The group exhibition People Players, presented in the premises of a (at that time) not-yet officially opened Három Holló café, showed works by Zbynek Baladran, Johanna Billing, Ex-artist’ Collective (Tamás Kaszás and Anikó Loránt), Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Ádám Kokesch, Eva Kot’átková, and Joanna Piotrowska. Many of the works in this exhibition dealt with ideas of childhood as a state of resistance and playfulness.
To me the group exhibition People Players together with the exhibition Taking Time—that I only got to see after my return to Berlin in the Neukölln project space Zönoteka (run by Hungarian expatriates) formed a central node of the OFF-Biennale. Taking Time was on view at ImagineBudapest during the OFF-Biennale and comprises three video works by Giulia Bruno, Nicoline van Harskamp and Zsolt Vásárhelyi & Kati Simon, also curators of the exhibition. All three works approach social experiments that follow democratic principles. In her video “Artificial Act. Research for a Film” (2017), Giulia Bruno takes a close look at the artificial language Esperanto as an attempt to establish equal rights in the use of language. Nicoline van Harskamp’s “To live Outside the Law You Must be Honest” (2007) focuses on issues of self-government, freedom and participation in the consensus democracy of Christiania, a free town in Copenhagen founded in the early 1970s. Zsolt Vásárhelyi & Kati Simon’s film “Die Insel” (2017), with a strong link to Gaudiopolis, examines the school farm Insel Scharfenberg, a boarding school on an island in Lake Tegel in Berlin, which is a reform pedagogical experiment that started in the Weimar Republic and is still running. Vásárhelyi & Simon explore the history of the school and its operation following democratic principles under changing political conditions.
While Taking Time addresses means of democratic processes, People Players approaches playfulness as an essential mode to find ways of how to live together. The works in both shows exemplify the role of play on the one side and democratic principles as conveyed/imparted in communication structures or common decisions on the other side as cornerstones of a society based on freedom, self-development, and care for everybody.
I met Orsolya Bajusz in a café. She is an artist, a PhD student in sociology, and also a divisive figure in the Hungarian cultural scene. Her work was shown in the group exhibition Holiday in the 2017 OFF-Biennale, which I could only see on her mobile phone as the exhibition closed before my visit. Even even though there is an overlapping period for most of the venues of the biennale, some exhibitions ran shorter due to the individual availability of the locations. This exemplifies the organizational structure of the biennale as a network of individual institutions and people.
Holiday addressed how in recent years young artists were forced to take on an exhausting position of reaction against cultural policies. It emphasized the role of free time (holiday) as a sphere where it is possible to escape from this forced positioning and live outside the rules of the system. Orsolya Bajusz, in her video “A Világ legemberségesebb embere“ (translated as “The Most Humane Person of the World,” 2017), envisions a utopian world: a liberal Budapest where only people who dress queer are allowed to enter. In the Olympics of the oppressed the inhabitants compete for “the most oppressed person on the planet.” In a humorous DIY-aesthetic the artist translates the academic discourse about virtue-signalling 6 into a 2d computer animation somewhere between South Park and Windows Paint drawings. The artist engages in the entanglements of identity politics and post-capital neoliberal politics. In another article, published in Open Democracy, which addresses “gender, sexuality, and social justice,” she states that Hungary implements some of the EU’s strictest and most complicated policies around abortion and access to contraception. This, she states, “reflects the impetus of a neoconservative backlash against permissive gender roles alongside neoliberal ideas of gendered consumption.”7 It’s the old story: the personal is political—which was also the title of the program of that Orsolya Bajusz organized in conjunction with the exhibition. Similarly, the political intrudes upon private space.
Bajusz’s work was the only outspoken feminist approach that I saw at the OFF-Biennale. When I came to Budapest, I was curious to hear if a feminist position played a role when a group of six women curators form an alliance to create a space to enable Hungarian artists and curators to continue to work. Feminism was not an explicit reference point of the curatorial team. Still, OFF-Biennale 2017 was initiated by a group of women that had in mind to create a sustainable sphere in an increasingly illiberal environment
The pressing questions when the OFF-Biennale was conceived were: “How can artists and curators in Hungary continue to work? What kind of sources can be activated? How can we form networks? How have we worked in situations like this before? How can we draw from our own experience? The questions can be answered by looking at the strategies applied to the OFF-Biennale. The support of cooperation partners seems crucial for the OFF-Biennale—be it the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig, the café, the institutions that enabled curators to engage in the organization of the biennale by giving them more free time. A juxtaposition of the evil institution and the good initiative is not applicable here. I want to suggest that the organizational structure of the biennale can be seen as a (feminist) counter-institution: transparent in its means, a reconciliation of the public and the private, of work and life and therefore, an endeavor towards a curatorial common.
Cover image: Endre Tót, Gladness Demonstration, Amsterdam, 1979. Courtesy of the artist and acb Gallery, Budapest.
OFF-Biennale 2017 took place from September 29 to November 5, 2017 in Budapest.
A selection of the exhibition in on view from March 10 until July 1, 2018 at Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig. (GfZK).
* Another version of this text, entitled “So What’s the Play ere? A review of OFF-Biennale Budapest 2017″ appears in the art journal 365° published by the Slovak National Gallery in 2018.
About the author
Nadja Quante (*1977 in Leverkusen) is the artistic director/curator of Künstlerhaus Bremen. She studied Cultural Studies and Art Theory & Visual Studies (M.A.) at the University of Lüneburg. From 2008 till 2015 she worked as assistant curator and exhibition coordinator and from Feb. 2013 until April 2014 as interim director at Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe. From 2016-2017 she worked as an author and independent curator in Berlin as well as editor for the exhibition and research project “Untie to Tie – Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Societies” at ifa Gallery Berlin. Together with Bakri Bakhit and Anna Voswinckel, she is currently working on the exhibition project TOUCH that will be presented at NGbK in Berlin in autumn 2018.
- Eszter Kováts, Solidarity in Struggle. Feminist Perspectives in Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe (Budapest: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2016): 5-6. ↩
- Ibid, 6. ↩
- Andrea Peto/Weronika Grzebalska: “How Hungary and Poland have Silenced Women and Stifled Human Rights.” The Conversation, October 14, 2016. https://theconversation.com/how-hungary-and-poland-have-silenced-women-and-stifled-human-rights-66743 (last accessed December 9, 2017). ↩
- Angela Dimitrakaki, “Feminist Politics and Institutional Critiques: Imagining a Curatorial Commons.” in: Working with Feminism: Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe, ed. Katrin Kivimaa (Tallinn: Acta Universitatis Tallinnensis, 2012), 30. ↩
- Quoted in the program booklet of the OFF-Biennale that freely cites Gábor Sztehlo’s biography. ↩
- An academic article on the same discourse was published by the artist under: Dalma Feró/Orsolya Bajusz, “Virtue-Signalling as Route to Social Status: Instances from the Semi-Periphery,” Open Democracy, April 28, 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/orsolya-bajusz-dalma-fer/virtue-signalling-as-route-to-social-status-instances-fr (last accessed December 9, 2017) ↩
- Orsolya Bajusz, “Hungarian ‘Women’s Health’: Stigma and Coercion,” October 29, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/orsolya-bajusz/feminine-health-stigma-and-coercion-hungarian-study (last accessed December 9, 2017). ↩