‘Biennale Creates a Platform that Encourages Critical Thinking, Debate’

Kochi: It is the story of taking on challenges to create an alternate space, of sacrifices and solidarity to build an art ecosystem in Kerala, a new aesthetic that integrates both the past and the present.

Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu founded Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) in 2010. Against all odds, they co-curated the first edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) in 2012. But, the organisers went bankrupt and the event ran into controversies over various issues. However, the unique event earned the moniker ‘People’s Biennale’, drawing nearly four lakh visitors and helping change the prevailing notions of art. Riding on this confidence, the duo went ahead with the second edition with financial assistance from individuals, art and cultural institutes and corporate houses. Now, it has become one of the most important venues for international museum curators and artists. It is expected that around one million people will visit KMB 2016. (This is equal to that of the world’s 20 art fairs put together, according to Skate’s Art Market Research)

Speaking to Destination Kerala, Bose and Komu get candid about the way in which KMB is redefining Kochi as the capital of contemporary art in India.

What can we expect from the ‘People’s Biennale’ this year?

Komu: People will get to see another side of the Biennale – one that is also spiritual to an extent. A meditation on what it means to be contemporary; which is why Sudarshan has chosen, and in a way, expanded ideas, practises and themes that are well outside of what we generally call ‘contemporary art’. I think it will create conversations that will be resonating in the years to come.

Bose: I hope visitors can carry back with them a kind of freedom. This freedom is a space of separation from our usual ways of perceiving, doing and making. KMB cannot put forward prescriptions for change, cannot set programmes. What it may be able to do is to present this moment of freedom.

What will be the bearing of KMB on the political and social domain of the country?

Komu: I do not think we should look at KMB as (or having) the solution to all our problems. Of course, big money and corporations have always been influential in politics. They cannot be separated from the rupturing political systems in India, but unlike in many other countries, most notably the United States, our politics is not driven by big money and corporations. Privatisation and corporate influence are, however, affecting our commitment to public education, affordable housing, and almost every other form of civic infrastructure. Along with this, in the public imagination, most political parties and political movements have become that of the ‘same old.’ I think one of the main problems that we face today is that people (especially the youth) have increasingly become apolitical. People are happy to consume news and ideas without being part of the process. Or, if they become part of the process, it is mostly limited to the ephemeral action of ‘liking’ a FB page or ‘forwarding’ a Whatsapp message. That cannot be the only things that happen in terms of political or social engagement. At the same time, secularism and rationalism are under increasing ideological assault. In India, it feels like we are in an endless cycle of taking one step forward and two steps back.

Since its ideation, KMB has given precedence and critical importance to the act of making; not just of production but also insofar as it becoming social and civic spaces for looking, and learning. The aim is then to move away from parodically simplified images and to instigate ‘thoughts’ and ‘discussions’ in society in full awareness of the context in which this is to take place.

In that context, the Biennale and the themes explored in the Biennale create a platform that encourages critical thinking and debate. And this engagement is not limited to political process, but also extends to the moral, social and cultural. So, in a way, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale prompts you to think again, or better yet, to think differently.

Are you expecting KMB to provoke any real change among the visitors?

Komu: I think the Biennale has already provoked some changes, especially in the way the public approach art and how it has widened its access to art. But, of course, that is just a small step in a long journey. I do not think you should come to the Biennale and expect to be enlightened by a single visit. I think what it does is to create ways by which you come to question many of the things you think you know. I am not talking about ‘understanding’ an art work, but more about changes in perspectives in your approach to viewing and engaging with art itself.

There is no approach that breaks barriers, connects across cultural differences, and each of us, and engages our shared values, like the art. So yes, I expect people to be provoked. Provoked not as a protest or to rile against something, but to be provoked by the very act of what they are seeing, by what they are seeking, and to be provoked out of their comfort zones.

Bose: The artwork is, by its nature, an incomplete thing. It attains its fullness only upon contact with the viewer or reader or audience. So yes, anyone anywhere is capable of responding to the artwork. One of the functions of the curator is to become a third presence in relation to the art and the viewer. At the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, we will not only have guide-texts to provide visitors with points of entry to the art, but also an interpretation support corps.

How interested is the State Government in supporting the event?

Komu: The Government has been supportive throughout and it has helped in building an ecosystem. In terms of marketing, I do not think there has been a great effort and most of its growth has been organic. But we have been getting tremendous support from the Tourism, Finance and Cultural Departments to ensure that the event opens on time and reaches a lot of people.

Once it is over, what would you like the Biennale to leave behind?

Bose: I hope the Biennale can continue to grow into the lives of the people of Kerala. It is to an extent already part of our calendar – Biennale Season! I expect that each edition of the Biennale convinces people of the significance of the place art has in our lives.

Komu: The Biennale is not just a space to see art; if it is, then the Biennale becomes nothing more than a spectacle. I think the Biennale is uniquely positioned to move people – to inspire them, to incite new questions and to provoke curiosity, critical thinking or outrage. We cannot necessarily claim (just like how a book or a film cannot) that the Biennale will move people to action – but the experience expands their imaginations and creates a space for critical engagement with thinking, creativity and knowledge. In that context, what will remain of the Biennale is the new thinkers, artists and cultural producers it will have inspired.