On the Question of a Toronto Biennial (2010)

A panel presentation at From the Ground Up: A biennial platform for international contemporary art in Toronto, April 17, 2010, on the question of a Toronto biennial held at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.


On the Question of a Toronto Biennial

At the Art Gallery of York University, when presented with a problem, we always ask ourselves, “What would Neil Young do?”
[I held up Jeremy Deller’s AGYU commissioned poster that read “What would Neil Young do?”]


I think he’d probably offer the audience a choice.
So I’ve written two presentations. Would you like Nasty or Nice?
[I held up two signs; “Nasty” and “Nice.” The audience chose “Nasty.”]

We are faced today with the proposal: To biennale or not to biennale, that is the question.

The issue it seems is not a question of biennials in general but a question of a biennial for Toronto, a question that seems already to be decided.

Are we being asked today to take sides on this issue in what has been billed—I quote the press release—as a “vision of bringing voices together to address this idea collaboratively”? Or is this a discussion for which an agenda has already been set—and for which there will be an “aftermath”:

“Aftermath: Peggy Gale will author a 3-4 page report for potential funders and other stakeholders based on discussion at the event and ideally signed by all participating organizations.”

Let’s hope that there will be no backroom plenary strong-arm tactics on these signatories.

Then again, not to be petty, there is the organization of today’s sessions, structured on the past and future. Those local players of the past speak in the morning; the visionaries of the future address this biennale to come in the afternoon. Then, at the end of the day, the big boys step up to move it forward and make it all happen. (Of course, you realize that I am saying this all tongue-in-cheek: I can’t do nasty for long.)

Nonetheless, I think that it is important to look at the language by which this proposal is phrased. After all, the news release I quoted earlier also mentions the institutional collaboration between the Power Plant and MOCCA as being: “This sort of leadership through collaboration [that is, between the Power Plant and MOCCA] is exactly what is needed to bring an internationally significant and highly credible biennial to the City of Toronto.”  To bring to Toronto, it says. Thank you, Gregory … and David. Toronto always has to be a place to which things are brought, not valued for what originates here, it seems! This is a classical colonial attitude, I might add. Well, bring it on!

Not that I feel left out since these two have declared themselves leaders, left out—out there. As an aside, I am so much a man of the past that I am practically posthumous—in the Nietzschean sense; posthumous meaning that I can haunt you even before I am gone! But enough self-aggrandizing…

Speaking of time and relevance, though: shouldn’t we address the phenomenon of belatedness? Why is Toronto always belated? Why a biennial now? What solutions does Toronto always imagine to combat this problem? And what does this really say about this city and its elite?

I’m sure we’ll be looking at Nuit Blanche and Luminato.

But I am thinking now of the Olympics model. In the rush up to any Olympics, the journalistic question always arises: Can a city get it together: can China get it together; can Delhi get it together for the Commonwealth Games?
My question, then, is: Can Toronto get it together to put on a biennial? Has Toronto had a history of getting it together? That is: the art community? This is the same art community I presume Gregory Burke speaks about when he is quoted in the press release as saying:  “the outstanding arts community we have in this area.” Area?

A posthumous man tends as well to be a diagnostician, so I don’t expect to be popular when I say… that Toronto is a sick scene—or a dysfunctional scene, to use a less harsh word. So my question here today is: Will this biennial be part of this sickness or a way to its health?

Let’s look at some local problems as I see them as they might affect any possible international biennial.

Collectors: Galleries exist here, so there must be collectors. But can there be an international biennial in a city where there are no international commercial galleries? Collectors would rather be stroked in New York, London, or Berlin than buy international art here. That’s their prerogative. Using private resources, they are not obligated in any way in how they purchase. But this is a problem for the overall scene and always has been.

Institutions, however: Each of us has been brought here as representatives of sorts, not of institutions, though, but of communities. For instance, in my case the invitation letter reads:  “For your presentation we look forward to you drawing on your extensive curatorial and critical background to address visual art legacies in Toronto, particularly queer, artist-run, and activist endeavours.” I’m flattered to be down with the queer art community. But it is a problem when you try to cover off these constituencies by their representation here through me—of all people—when Toronto public art galleries (and I’m not condemning all) seem to assume little responsibility in representing this history in their exhibition programming and cumulatively adding to it: Toronto history in general. This lack of interest or obligation or responsibility seems to me to show contempt for local context. The real obviously is elsewhere.

Criticism: When it comes to criticism—and I mean not what is published but what purports to be a public discourse, that is, as what takes place in public—frankly, this critical discourse in Toronto today is at a juvenile level. Ju-ven-ile! It’s embarrassing.

Toronto art—or criticism—has no knowledge of itself: who it is, where it comes from. This is why the critical situation here is so confused (and regressive): no one knows what is at stake. Again, a perennial Toronto problem.

Artists or the so-called art community:  There is not one art community but several fragmented ones that do not communicate with each other. For instance, there is no exchange or overlap between the art community and the media arts community. Let me correct myself, there is no overlap from the art community to the media arts community; it is different the other way around. What is this evidence of: a lack of interest or support? Or the assurance that one’s own privileged clique defines what is relevant within an art community … and worthy of an international biennial? I might add that the Queer art community operates differently.

It seems to me that an art community implicitly comes together to look after its own history. What’s wrong with us?
In general: I am always distressed by the lack of generosity in this community—a lack of generosity that extends to a lack of obligation and responsibility to develop our history.

So, in conclusion, I can imagine a biennial that might be a giant love-in for Toronto, with representations and cameos from a less colonial past, such as Marshall McLuhan making an appearance as he did in Annie Hall, Trudeau too. Or I can imagine it as a public group therapy session of the art community documented by the late filmmaker Alan King. Whatever this biennial will be, the international art community is not interested in our problems. If only we were! We can’t have an international biennial here until we change our attitudes being here—because this biennial will never be from our point of view.

Oh … and thank you for listening to “nasty,” my little allegory of choice. You should have heard “nice”: it was nice and nasty.