Issue 2/2021 - Artscribe


April 23, 2021 to May 30, 2021
Diverse Ausstellungsorte / Budapest

Text: Flóra Gadó

Budapest. This year’s edition of the OFF-Biennale Budapest, the first and so far only grassroots biennale in Hungary that does not accept any governmental funds, had to open a year later due to the Covid-19 crisis. Meanwhile, the curatorial team is already preparing for participation in documenta 15 as members of the so-called lumbung community, initiated by the Indonesian curatorial collective ruangrupa. One of the strong points of OFF is that it is renewed for each edition. This year, for the third time, the curatorial team decided to work with only a few projects, selected via an open call in 2019. The Biennale also took on the role of producers: All the projects had a significant budget, and the concept was to work more closely with them. The starting point for the framework of the biennale was a 1935 poem by Hungarian poet Attila József titled A Breath of AirThis was also the source of the striking title: Inhale!. As the curatorial text suggests, the aim was to raise awareness for how we can acknowledge our changing world in crisis and to propose alternative solutions for this situation. Of course, the expression “inhale” has also taken on new layers of meaning with the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. The question was thus whether the third edition of the OFF-Biennale was able to overcome the obstacles of transforming into a hybrid biennale with various events (podcasts, lectures, conferences) held online but many projects also happening offline. I would say the answer is yes, but let’s take a closer look at the most interesting exhibits and installations.
Two main directions are evident. First, there were projects dealing with our understanding of the past, for example how to address the parallels between the interwar period of the 1930s and the present, such as in the online exhibition Order and Dreams organized by the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. Eszter Szakács’s and Zoltán Ginelli’s research-based exhibition Transperiphery Movement examined the connections and networks between Eastern Europe and the Global South throughout the twentieth century. The Little Melting Pot project by Bence György Pálinkás and Judit Böröcz was an audio walk in which the nineteenth-century concept of nation and the role of minorities came to the fore, and the RomaMoma projects addressed similar issues while focusing on the representation of marginalized communities.
Secondly, the most characteristic projects all evolved around the question of our current ecological, economic, and social crisis but approached these issues from various perspectives, often using playful, speculative, fictive, and imaginary scenarios to create some unusual situations. The artist group xtro realm came up with a fictional agency called ACLIM! Agency for Climate Imaginary and emphasized the role of imagination in conceiving new solutions to address climate change and the anxiety connected to it. The exhibit not only presented new works—ranging from rethinking the tradition of shamans to the disappearance of the Echo of Tihany—but also emphasized the artists’ research-based working method, showing various interviews conducted with experts from the field. This comes as no surprise given that xtro realm have from the outset placed a major emphasis on interdisciplinarity and knowledge-sharing, connecting art and science. Can art help us to envision new, imaginary narratives of the future and move away from ecological anxiety? The installation MENU Imaginaire also focused on such relevant issues as the future of alimentation, as emphasized in their subtitle: What do you eat when resources are limited? This urgent topic was addressed with an ironic, humorous, yet eye-opening perspective that blurred the border between art, design, and science. How can we understand our most basic human need, which is eating, from the perspective of speculative futurology? What will the role of artificial intelligence be in relation to the food industry?
Speaking of the future, the Hungarofuturist group, who under the title Those Who Are Not With Us Are Also With Us organized an intriguing online conference and published a magazine (Xenotopia), were also in charge of the exhibit created by Igor and Ivan Buharov. Through an immersive installation and various films, the artists examined what revolutionary potential plants could take on and the liberating effects they could have on our lives in connection with healing and relaxation. The artists’ hallucinatory, magical display was in stark contrast with the PAD group’s project Everyday Shortcomings, which focused on living conditions arising from a lack of public services, and the difficulties segregated communities face when it comes to such “everyday tasks” as using hot water for taking a shower. The group’s research into segregation in Hungary and the housing crisis is not an easy topic to present in an exhibition format, yet they devised a playful yet stirring way to do so. In the installation the visitor can try out and “live through” an ordinary day for someone living in such difficult conditions and can learn for example how much water must be brought from the well to wash clothes. The projects of PAD not only raise awareness but with their sociological background also present interviews and propose possible solutions (like heating wells) to face this situation.
From research-based projects to speculative fiction, these works all address the current crisis from various angles yet argue for a concept of radical imagination in order to start a dialogue about change. Rather than falling into the trap of agonizing over the crisis, they underline how art can be seen as a catalyst of change if the participants in the field collaborate and work together with other experts. This is why the project Alone with the Bees by the architecture group AU Workshop may be seen as an epilogue for the Biennale. The artists are interested in the architectural object of the beehive and created a solitary space for observation. Viewers can sit in a cabin in the woods and observe the movement of the bees and how they build their honeycomb. Maybe this is all we need after such a turbulent year: some slowness and relaxation, alone with the bees.