This Spring, in response to the increasing encroachment of Hungary’s right-wing government into the running of the country’s cultural institutions, Budapest held its inaugural OFF-Biennále: a ‘grassroots initiative’, as the organizing group of seven curators described it, which ‘does not use any state funds, stays away from state-run art venues and relies on pro-bono professional work’. This was a biennial as government protest, community-galvanizer and international awareness-raising campaign. Exhibitions and events were hosted in over 100 shops, warehouses, apartments, project spaces and commercial galleries. The artists, mainly Hungarian, were selected by OFF’s curatorial team, together with a set of Hungarian gallerists and curators, as well as curators invited from Poland, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Germany.
This purposefully diffuse structure seemed to dictate the biennial’s unspoken themes: self-organization, self-reliance and the challenges of political dissent. Across the shows, there were numerous references to protests and events in Mexico in 1968, in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in London and Egypt in 2011. Several projects restaged or re-performed events and artworks from earlier politicized heydays. ‘Bookmarks’ – a collaboration between three Budapest galleries – presented works from Hungary’s 1960s and ’70s ‘neo-avant-garde’, including Dóra Maurer and Miklós Erdély, effectively creating a temporary museum and unofficial national art history. In the group exhibition ‘It Never Happens Twice (Performance Re Enactment in Recent Czech Art)’, the Rafani collective made this retroactive glance more playful in their silent, parodic black and white video Pavement Above the Beach (2012), in which they re-enact various ephemeral outdoor performances while being pursued, Laurel and Hardy-style, by an outraged policeman. This kind of conscious re-tracing of history suggested that the theme of the biennial was the public staging of organization and dissent rather than a consideration of the specific aims or effects of any particular movement.
This isn’t to say that OFF didn’t have its quiet or intimate moments. Like wandering around the former apartment of the Berlin-based curator Kati Simon, where she had organized a group exhibition, ‘Horizontal Standing’, featuring videos and drawings that dwelled on the blurred lines between different types of migration. Or the dense ‘opera’ of theoretical fiction that played throughout the Polish curator Daniel Muzyczuk’s exhibition ‘Map Ref. 41°N 93°W’, forcibly and playfully animating the works gathered there. As a grassroots, unsanctioned arts festival, OFF was pretty well behaved, with a professional tone and largely frictionless content. In this sense, it reflected its organizers’ backgrounds as former employees of the state institutions they now circumvent, as if subconsciously trying to re-institutionalize themselves (though this time without the wages).
Their efforts raise the question: what is the ‘best’ artistic response to a state of emergency? On the one hand, you have the French collective Société Réaliste staging their Universal Anthem (2013/15) in front of the controversial memorial to the Hungarian victims of the Nazis – a small orchestra giving a pointed performance of an amalgamation of national anthems, laying out nationalism as a jumbled, farcical spectacle. On the other, you have the South African artist Kendell Geers’s vapid Ritual Resist (2013), in which a naked white man and woman balance a mirror between them for an excruciating hour, recasting political struggle with prettified, bombastic symbolism. Despite Eastern Europe’s particular relationship to state-funded art in the wake of communism, it’s hard not to see OFF’s activities as playing directly into the neo-liberal system of affective labour and private funding that is becoming prevalent in the UK and other parts of Europe: everyone loves a free public programme; so much the better if you don’t have to pay the artists or the its organizers. The first OFF-Biennále was a necessary, timely riposte but, if it returns, its curators will also need to reckon with the wider repercussions of how they organize their dissent.