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Weaving Solidarity

Renata Cervetto and Duygu Örs


An integral part of this edition of the Biennale is the exchange program. What do you mean by “exchange”?

Duygu Örs: The idea of “exchange” is basically a holistic approach to a public program that understands and acknowledges that there are different publics with different needs, experiences, and wishes. What often happens in the context of a museal setting is that there is a hierarchy between an event program for the public and an educational program for everybody else that seems to not be considered part of the public. These two programs comprise different notions of and approaches toward knowledge, experience, education, mediation, and enjoyment. Who is considered to be in need of education; whose knowledge is valid; who has experience in museal spaces; who “has to” acquire experiences and toward which aim? With these and many other questions in mind, the exchange program endeavored to find practices of engaging with different publics and facilitating moments of encounter and exchange.

Renata Cervetto: In other words, we understand “exchange” as a dynamic and attitude toward ways of communicating within a cultural-institutional framework. It is a horizontal form of communication that considers participants’ input in equal parts. This is why we decided not to organize the programs around age groups but rather to provide a platform for intergenerational learning and debate. Also, an exchange can be quite informal: it doesn’t necessarily happen within a proposed time. While working at ExRotaprint over the course of the experiences, we enjoyed many spontaneous encounters with visitors, which also created opportunities to mediate the content on display.

Could you describe the process of developing the exchange program?

DÖ: The program included a variety of formats, all of equal significance: from artist talks to workshops, to public and focus tours, artistic performances, specific city dialogues, and many more. On formats that have an explicit mediation and outreach approach, we—Isra Abdou, Renata Cervetto, Laureline van den Heuvel, and I—devised a loose framework that was later adapted during the lockdown. The approach and vision of the program stayed the same, but we had to adjust to the new reality by thinking of new modes of encounter and exchange that would allow us to safely be together in many different settings. The team of ten mediators—Rüzgâr Buşki, Barbara Ida Campaner, Samira Ghoualmia, Hannah Kirmes-Daly, Adi Liraz, Alexia Manzano, Riako Napitupulu, Carla Veronica Romero, Viviane Tabach, and Joshua Weitzel—filled this framework, individually and collectively, with concrete ideas. The program took shape around their different backgrounds of practices and interests. We also had guests, such as the Jugendgremium Schattenmuseum or the young art historian Jeanne-Ange Megouem Wagne, who expanded the program with their contributions.

RC: Besides leading guided tours, they were free to propose workshops according to their interests and backgrounds. Many of them also collaborated with one another, and the results were amazing. Most of the activities and projects we developed required that visitors be especially engaged. The smaller groups resulting from the pandemic offered the possibility for deeper, more focused conversations. Rather than dealing with large audiences of silent visitors, we were given the opportunity to engage with those five or six people who organized their visits in advance and were looking forward to having a more personal experience. This completely modifies one conventional manner of approaching “educational” activities, which are generally considered successful when many people purchase a ticket to attend. This new situation has shown us that this particular definition of “success” is completely superficial, as smaller groups work much better and offer the possibility of creating novel ways of learning and exchanging. In addition, all exchange programs were free, which was very important for us to be able to offer, especially during this strange time we’re living through now.

In what way was the project affected by the outbreak of Covid-19 in Berlin?

RC: The outbreak here in March caught us during a very intense work period; we had just opened the doors to exp. 3: Affect Archives. Sinthujan Varatharajah – Osías Yanov in ExRotaprint and were already deep in the production process of the works and public program for the epilogue. All of this collapsed with the lockdown. We had to pause activities for a full three months without knowing what would happen. Ultimately, the entire public program had to be reconsidered.

DÖ: Yes, the lockdown brought a lot of uncertainty: would the 11th Berlin Biennale still happen, what would the experience of visiting the exhibition look like, how could we still come together? Everything, especially the mediation projects of exchange, had to be rethought, but how do you rethink something when you’ve never experienced a situation like this before? This process required a lot of teamwork beyond existing departments: from hygiene concepts to crowd management, it was a joint effort. But with all the measures that had to be taken, we realized that the exhibition spaces would become even more exclusive than they were already. Possible visitor numbers became smaller: for a visit you would have to reserve a timeslot when purchasing an online ticket. This meant that visiting the exhibition with groups had to be planned and calculated very precisely. All of this preplanning creates a certain atmosphere, which for some publics with few or no exhibition experiences is an extra barrier. To address this, we thought of ways to take the exhibition—its topics, aesthetics—outside. Rüzgâr Buşki and Hannah Kirmes-Daly, for example, set up their Şipşak Druck, a mobile silk print station, in a public park, with motifs by Berlin Biennale artists like Cansu Çakar, Edgar Calel, Serigrafistas queer/Mariela Scafati, and Rüzgâr Buşki themselves. This happened unannounced, as biennial channels would have only reached certain publics; this mediation moment was for passersby who perhaps wouldn’t normally attend a workshop or visit the exhibition. With Adi Liraz and Riako Napitupulu, we worked on movement and memory, in a public park, with children of the Wedding-Schule. Projects like these displaced the Berlin Biennale from its stationary rooms and opened its themes up to engagement with a broader public in places where they probably felt more at ease. We also thought about ways of self-mediating within the exhibition: for example, through a set of questions prepared by Barbara Campaner and Viviane Tabach that extend the exhibition space and the information provided within it. In general, we attempted to use the situation created by the pandemic as an opportunity to critically reconsider ways of engaging different publics by trying out some new formats that could be further developed.

What did it mean to expand from ExRotaprint to the three other venues that opened in September 2020? Which kind of public have you engaged with? Do you feel the 11th Berlin Biennale has been able to create a different kind of public?

RC: The expansion to four venues had always been planned; we knew that beginning the Biennale earlier by opening ExRotaprint would require much more work and additional resources. The uncertainty that came with the coronavirus was an additional strain on the team, but it also brought some positive unexpected turns. As mentioned before, it motivated us to make greater use of public space, where it is now safer to congregate than inside an exhibition space. This also provides the opportunity to recover something of what is happening inside (the exhibition) and transform it into something else.

DÖ: All venues have their own dynamics—their own established visitors as well as their own non-visitors. Additionally, given that the Biennale is a nomadic, multivenue exhibition, it attracts certain publics but goes unnoticed by others. Prior to the epilogue, the 11th Berlin Biennale was based at ExRotaprint and was organized around three different experiences with various artists and programs. We could see that the program always engaged different publics—for example, Spanish, Portuguese or Tamil speakers—so it’s important to note that there were already varying dynamics and atmospheres even before the epilogue. But when it came to the neighborhood, which was always at the forefront of the curatorial concept, I don’t know if we managed a real engagement in that setting. With a predominantly English-speaking team, English-language program, a space with a doorbell, and concepts and goals largely unfamiliar to this particular neighborhood, how outreachable was all of this in a neighborhood comprised of people who mostly have no previous experience with art spaces? Who was this space for anyway, and why did it need to be here? For some of the mediation projects, we wrote letters that we hung on the entrances, made the formats accessible for neighborhood children who could register on WhatsApp, or we picked up the children we knew directly from their homes. But when the space became a conventional exhibition venue, the dynamics changed. So, what about the few ties we built and maintained during, for example, installation periods? I think these are aspects that need to be further reflected upon.

RC: The question of how the audience is created—whether the institution creates its public or the public shapes the institutional process—is particularly relevant to our edition of the Berlin Biennale. Since the very beginning, we were surprised to see how many young Latin Americans attended our events. These groups were not the same that went to SAVVY Contemporary or other art spaces in Wedding. After a few months, children from the neighborhood began coming to ExRotaprint to play or just hang out. They used our space in ways we hadn’t anticipated, as did the schoolchildren participating in workshops offered by Mirja Reuter and Florian Gass. Some of them later returned with their parents, which was also a nice surprise. The artists-in-residence we hosted during the experiences—Die Remise, the Feminist Health Care Research Group, and Sinthujan Varatharajah—also brought their own networks and communities with them, and this instantly influenced the way the exhibitions were received and processed by the audience.

With the arrival of the lockdown, we began engaging with many people who normally would not attend exhibitions or biennials. They approached our activities with curiosity, and engaged with them in very unique ways. Families, people spending time alone in the park, students—anyone who came was made to feel welcome. It was our intention to establish an ongoing dialogue with the city in order to build long-term relationships with our visitors and the surrounding communities. The pandemic, despite its tragic effects, has opened up other channels of communication that we are just now beginning to see and understand.

This conversation is part of an upcoming publication on the 11th Berlin Biennale’s exchange program titled The Shared Languages of Exchange.

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