“Experience the city differently”
Three Questions for Sydney Biennale director
Stephanie Rosenthal

It is primarily thanks to Stephanie Rosenthal that art aficionados eagerly await the twentieth-anniversary edition of the Biennale of Sydney, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, in the spring of 2016. She has been Chief Curator of London’s Hayward Gallery since 2007, having previously worked at Haus der Kunst in Munich for more than ten years. She will give the Bienniale new, global impetus. For Sydney, Rosenthal appointed thirteen international curators, authors, and theoreticians as “attachés” who will work with her on the show. The joint project could be one of the most groundbreaking art events of 2016.
ArtMag: The title of the 20th Biennale of Sydney is inspired by a quote from science-fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Indirectly this speaks about both utopia and injustice. While the future is only available to a few, others are stuck in the current conditions. How can art help to distribute the future more equally? Does the Biennale develop a political approach?
 
Stephanie Rosenthal: I wouldn't say the Biennale has a specifically political approach, but certainly every work shown in this Biennale has political relevance. 
The title speaks to the fact that the exhibition is about the now (the future has already arrived), but more than that, perhaps we’ve already bypassed our own ideas about time conceived as yet to come. In thinking through this edition of the Biennale I asked myself, “if each era has its own view of reality, what is ours?” Today, many artists are trying to access a sense of reality that exists somewhere between virtual and physical, perhaps one could call it the space between utopia and heterotopia; that which French philosopher Michel Foucault sees represented in the mirror. Through conversations with artists and colleagues, I arrived at one of the key concepts this Biennale explores – how the distinction between the virtual and the physical has become ever more elusive. Moreover, there is now an in-between space where these overlap, or are folded into each other. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s description of an “infinite fold” is useful here, which he says “separates, or passes between matter and the soul, the facade and the sealed room, the interior and the exterior.” This focus on “in-between spaces” is key for this exhibition: in terms of our interaction with the digital world, displacement from and occupation of spaces and land, and the interconnections and overlaps between politics and financial power structures.
The second part of title, “it’s just not evenly distributed,” is a constant reminder of the fact that many people still have no access to the internet and other more basic resources that other parts of the world take for granted, and that these conditions of uneven distribution play out geopolitically.
I used to think that we are all constantly online; each time I heard myself say this, I had to correct my assumption. I’m not sure that we are really fully aware that only a small percentage of the world’s population inhabits the digital realm. A number of artists in the Biennale explore this realm in different ways. Such circumstances however are not inevitable and are largely the result of historical decisions, current geopolitics and the economic values and powers explicitly and implicitly driving these situations.

While the Biennale with new venues and performative projects expands into the city, you have called your advisors’ “attachés,” and the venues “embassies (of thought).” In the press release it says: “An embassy traditionally functions as a state within a state: a host country characteristically allows the embassy control of a specific territory, a system that enables the occupation and creation of new spaces in other lands.” You also are talking about “safe spaces for thought.” This sounds a bit like diplomatic immunity for art. Why does this Biennale need embassies?
 
This Biennale is structured around several thematic clusters, conceived of as “Embassies.” The idea of Embassies emerged from an urgent need to create safe places for thought, not just for art. Art can reflect reality or the current state of the world, but it also has the capacity to imagine and propose alternatives, to dream up other visions for the here and now and also for the future. The Embassies can be understood as temporary missions rather than fixed locales; I do want visitors to perceive these places as transient homes where different ideas congregate during the Biennale. One of an Embassy’s functions is to disseminate information so that peaceful relations can be maintained during difficult times, as well as to establish relationships with other states. I would hope the Embassies in the Biennale function as spaces for ideas within a particular physical location, where people come together – not united by passport, color or background, but by the ideas and the potential they offer. The concept of relational identity that Édouard Glissant’s explores in Poetics of Relation resonates with my own hope for what the Biennale’s Embassies can be: linked not to a creation of the world but to the conscious and contradictory experience of contact among cultures; produced in the chaotic networks of relation and not in the hidden violence of filiation; not devised according to any legitimacy as a guarantee of entitlement; not thinking of land as a territory from which one projects onto other territories, but as “a place where one gives-on and-with rather than grasps.”

The artist list and the themes for the different Embassies were just announced at the end of October. Artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection are also represented, for instance Dayanita Singh at the “Embassy of Translation” and Nilbar Güreş at the “Embassy of the Real.” Can you tell us a bit about the curatorial process of connecting artists, works, themes and locations? How would you describe the experience that awaits visitors to the upcoming Biennale?
 
The different Embassies have emerged from conversations with artists that took place in the lead-up to the Biennale and thus represent specific, contemporary sets of concerns or urgencies – different topics as well as methodologies that seemed the most pressing to explore in this Biennale. I look to work collaboratively with artists and this edition has an artist-centric approach; in some cases we have been able to focus on an artist’s practice in depth by showing several works by that artist, in other instances whole spaces have been allocated to artists.
 The themes of the different Embassies are strongly connected to their physical locations. I’ll give you one example: in my early research for the Biennale, it took me three visits to Cockatoo Island before I realized that one aged-looking brick wall was actually fake, part of a leftover film set. The island exhibits very visible traces of the period in its history when it was a convict settlement and then an industrial shipyard, and the wall is a more recent relic from a Hollywood film shoot. This is then the perfect space for artists to explore how we perceive reality in our increasingly digitized era. So the Embassy of the Real plays with this somehow theatrical, “real” and “not real” aspect of the island, with artists considering the spaces between the virtual and physical, as well as the physicality of the human body.
 Alongside the Biennale’s more institutional venues, a variety of other sites of historical and cultural significance will present aspects of the exhibition, ranging from a disused train station, to a cemetery, to a library; other kinds of in-between spaces. Bringing the idea of the in-between to the fore and transforming this into a physical experience in the context of the Biennale has been a primary objective. This relates also to my desire to spread the exhibition out into the city in order to more closely mirror the architectural, cultural and ethnic diversity of Sydney: to take the emphasis away from the harbor area and central business district and open out into inner urban areas that are rapidly changing as a result of gentrification. There will also be a focus on performance, with a view to blurring the boundaries between art forms. Performances in unexpected spaces offer another recurring element and a way of claiming and choreographing space.
My hope is that visitors experience each Embassy individually, but at the same time will be drawn to discover their interconnectedness. This may be through recognizing shared concerns among artists coupled with an understanding of how the theme is presented in various ways in and across the different venues. I also hope the citizens of Sydney and visitors to the Biennale experience the city differently – and discover new ways of understanding it in the process.
 
20th Biennale of Sydney
18 March — 5 June 2016