Beyond Institutionalism

OFF-Biennale Budapest

The entwining of political and economic power, the gradual hollowing out of the democratic process, increasing segregation and inequality provide us with numerous reasons to feel distressed. As much as one may have hoped to believe it for a period of time, contemporary culture has not escaped attention either: 2012 saw the centralisation and power-oriented reorganisation of the institutional and financing system of contemporary culture, increasingly jeopardising the professional autonomy of institutions. Strongly affected by the lack of options for safeguarding their interests and by the lack of a social base, several groups opted for resistance, and began studying and applying democratic forms of protest. The actions of the groups Free Artists and United for Contemporary Art, the protests on the stairs of the Ludwig Museum, the action days, the university occupations organised by the Student Network and the Art Students Network were covered by the Hungarian media, but the issues raised (just like so many acute problems) failed to be thematically addressed in the public domain. With the passing of the initial momentum, one had to concede that the protests were unsustainable, both because of existential conditions and the absence of dialogue. As the problems, however, continued to exist, certain groups working within the local cultural sector embarked upon elaborating strategies that could be viable in the long term. It is in this context that OFF-Biennale Budapest and its realisation may be positioned as a political act.

A major aspect of political action is that it is not aimed at soliciting changes (merely) on a personal level, but at modifying the established framework. Its motivation is to act for the benefit of the community or the commonweal, which is not identical to serving self-interest or the interests of a particular group; however nor is it in conflict with the latter, since an individual actor is also part of the community. (1) While compliance with formal bureaucratic routes does not constitute political action, the endeavour to re-articulate the prevailing forms, rules, possibilities, power structures and mechanisms may definitely be defined as such. Action may take various forms, as can be read, among other insights, in Gene Sharp’s proposals for 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. (2) When the traditional channels for asserting a group’s interests prove to be unviable or inaccessible, the group chooses nonconventional ways to assert its intentions. (3) In this case, the process of realising the Biennale itself, the need to gain visibility, along with negotiations, coordination, self-organisation, collaboration, the reconfiguration of personal professional networks, and the occupation of public space and private places, altogether served as a means to achieve this aim.

Publicity is an indispensable condition for political action, to which OFFBB contributed by creating a temporary topography of a novel structure (active between 24 April and 31 May 2015). In addition to media surfaces and conventional exhibition venues, it implied inhabiting private, public and undefined spaces (such as the vacant building of MEO—Contemporary Art Collection, unused business premises and buildings under renovation), as well as rooms and venues belonging to existing communities, for shorter or longer periods of time. The final form of this topography depended on two factors. One of them was limited access to public space, as is evinced by the small number, and the nature, of projects realised in the public domain. András Király’s communication campaign, MMAHír, (4) planned for public space, illustrates the difficulties that had to be faced: it was eventually realised in the display window of a design shop, considerably taming the original provocative content.

Only one single project was realised in public space as a visible, accessible object: Endre Koronczi’s Ploubuter Park, an installation bringing into being a memorial for a momentary sigh of relief, a likeable and appealing work, in the micro-world of Népsziget (a peninsula, once an island, on the river Danube). Due to the lack of official permission, however, the majority of artworks planned for public space had to make do with the introduction of minor interventions, such as Beton (Concrete), a long-standing Workshop, whose participants reflected on the usability and ways of using the city, or Attila Szabó’s Improper Use, pen drives containing (modifiable) information on the local art scene, walled in at a public place in the city of Nyíregyháza. The occupation of the public domain was also realised through performative strategies, making an attempt at linking individual and collective activities, such as the parlour game Urbanity, or the live performance of the Universal Anthem created by Société Réaliste from the national anthems of 193 countries of the United Nations.

Another element shaping OFFBB’s topography was the involvement of private apartments and studios, the living space of artists and curators. The productions on view at these venues had a specific role to play, in that they often revealed how the artworks and exhibitions were created, as well as the circumstances and existential situation of their makers. Through the following subjective selection, I intend to examine whether such transparency, the opening of personal space, is able to position the functioning of contemporary art in ways other than in terms of a professional problem. Obviously, the answer has to be approached differently in each case, based on the artists and curators’ intentions, through the way they and the scene sought to present themselves and through the connections that they mobilised.

Under the title Vario, Péter Szabó and Csaba Szentesi opened their studio, and through re-arranging the objects accumulated there, made an attempt to define and reconfigure their position and the relationship between art and society. They transformed the space, a former apartment with several rooms used as a studio, into a series of installations. An idiosyncratic system of contemporary art may be deduced from the seemingly chaotic medley of objects (pieces of furniture remaining from the preceding generation, the requisites of studio work, notes, scraps of refuse and completed artworks) through their points of connection. The status of the artworks becomes ambiguous, while the residue of diverse times and diverse functions emerge as objects. Such an intended uncertainty, of course, does not expressly function to reflect the unprocessed prehistory of the art scene and its attempts to position itself; it is rather an imprint of the social conditions, allowing us to recognise a fragmented relationship to a partly unreflected, partly unprocessed individual past and collective history, brought about by personal emphases or obliterations.

The installation itself is based on various states of equilibrium, in which the risk of turning something off-balance, the impossibility of removing or shifting loosely fixed parts (as the whole construction would topple down if you removed a single element) brings into being a living organism. Attesting to different starting points and methods in processing the past, Péter Szabó experiments with the creation of objects or new constructions built from found objects, while Szentesi overwrites pictures and walls with his own marks. The working process relies on differing relationships: Csaba Szentesi re-articulates his attitude to art-making through personal and family remembrance, through the legacy of his grandparents, while Péter Szabó places them in a new system of relations through his experience with the objects.

The goal, however, is identical: the act of inhabiting the space and working together is an attempt to bring the participants’ relationship to a new level, in which art is integrated as a working process. In effect, the artists seek to find a solution to existential problems. Evidently, Szentesi uses the studio frequently and regularly, giving rise to a multitude of artworks, notes and sketches, which can be seen leaned against the wall, making it obvious that the works have not found their way either to the public space (of art) or to commercial circulation. What is conspicuous in Szabó’s case is the relatively small number of artworks, as well as the situational, provisory nature of objects and installations, revealing an artistic existence focussed on the exhibition situation and inspired by the given occasion, which means that the studio is not his terrain of subsistence.

The opening performance also centred on the social and existential role of art: Péter Szabó held two smoking torches on the balcony facing Moscow Square, while Csaba Szentesi, in the wake of the artist-activist group W.A.G.E., proclaimed that every profession (that of a baker, a marketing manager, etc.) needs everybody else. Not only the word “artist” included in the original text has been exchanged for “human person”, but the role of work in social life has been reversed: just as everyone needs a baker, a baker needs every human person. The (original) work calling for the acknowledgement and remuneration of an artist’s work turns into a manifesto of solidarity and reciprocity. For the casual passers-by, however, the performance may have not meant much more than a momentarily spectacle, something happening, but the significance or the ambition of the action was probably not decipherable.

Similarly to Vario, the use of personal space authenticated the exhibition Horizontal Standing, curated by Katalin Simon and Zsolt Vásárhelyi, which focused on immigration, a much discussed issue in the Hungarian public discourse, as well as the private-family sphere. Packaged objects of the artist-curator couple, who have been living outside Hungary for a couple of years, provide the installation of the exhibition, including non-transportable artworks covered by dustsheets (in a few instances giving rise to ambiguity as to where certain objects belong, such as a photo by Péter Szabó Pettendi; while the artist’s name is not included in the list of participants, and the photo is not labelled, the series Have You Ever Been to Budapest? has a contribution to make to the subject of migration, through peripheries existing within our country, segregation and the difficulties of mobility).

The structure of the apartment and the route offered by its furnishings modify the meaning and interpretation of what one can see: the works visible in the anteroom are predominantly approaches of a general validity to the individual existing under constraints, exposed to expectations and compulsions and, by the time you revisit them on leaving the apartment, eventually transforming into a metaphor for an intermediary existential situation, that of immigration. In Hilla Ben Ari’s Horizontal Standing, a video from which the exhibition took its title, a woman can be seen poised on a gymnast’s beam with her muscles stressed, concentrating on retaining her position of balance. The seemingly easy gymnastic exercise, however, is challenging in more than one way: sustaining balance requires physical exertion in any situation, but here, the gymnast’s injured body – with a leg amputated below the knee – involves an increased risk of losing balance.

Such a strict composition, the placement of the body in a coordinate system, is also characteristic of Eva Kotátkova and Clara S. Rueprich’s works. All three artists reflect on the social programme of modernity, in which the individual, along with the body, has become a variable, alterable, disciplinable and trainable product, entangled in a network of mutual dependence, power mechanisms and surveillance systems, with various actors and groups (family, school, science) laying claim to its shaping and control. Kotátkova and Rueprich’s works articulate the individual’s helplessness and defencelessness. Kotátkova presents society’s controlling and disciplining function as an intrinsic feature of the system (in the end, we exercise control over one another), while in Rueprich’s video it is posited as a power relationship, in which a man disciplines a pack of hounds by depriving them of food, i.e., by curtailing substantive physical needs.

In contrast to their works, the individual in Hilla Ben Ari’s video is active: despite being apparently motionless, she has set out to play an active role; and moreover, she discloses her injury, precarious state and strength. Although on view in the inner room, in terms of its thematic, Attila Csörgő’s work could be discussed in relation to Hilla Ben Ari’s video; by its scanning of the 360-degree space surrounding the individual, the human person is replaced once again in the centre of the world. Another work in the anteroom is Zsolt Keserue’s collection of drawings made by secondary-school students on his request (Ten Years After Selfie). In spite of the fiction, the series renders a characteristic picture of this generation’s relation to their own future, to immigration, and to the values they wish to attain.

The works presented in the inner rooms are based on real immigration stories, as they utilise found documents or documents of situations the artists brought about, as well as personal experiences. As a telling sign, none of the artists presented, except for Péter Forgács, lives and works in his or her native country, which explains why the works tend to pose questions regarding the possibility of integration. A sense of rootlessness, accompanied by anxiety and emotional lability, becomes manifest in Krsto Papić’s documentary film on Yugoslavian guest workers departing for Germany and in Katarina Šević’s collection of immigrants’ dreams, as well as in Zsolt Vásárhelyi’s photographic series (f.v.c. 8-1).

The latter work is comprised of portraits of casual passers-by on the street, identified by the artist as immigrants. Such an intrusion into the private sphere generates a confrontational situation, which implies observation and provoked eye contact, gestures that belong to the time-honoured means of oppression and surveillance. However, as the observer himself is also an immigrant, the artistic process may serve self-examination on the one hand, and the analysis of the artist’s situation on the other. If the artist chooses his models based on visible signs and gestures, then could he also be identified on the grounds of his appearance? Do the two parties recognise the difference between one another, or will the phenomena of discrimination and subordinative relationship emerge between the visibly non-European and European immigrants?

Katarina Zdjelar, Adrian Paci and Péter Forgács have focussed on the cultural practices of integration. Paci documented houses left behind by Albanian immigrants, and subsequently photographed the families in front of the paintings that he made based on these photos. The discrepancy between the environment and the people depicted not only visualises the distance, but also creates it. Katarina Zdjelar’s video (The Perfect Sound) documents a young man practicing the pronunciation of English words. The meaningless syllables, the obscure articulation, the changing intonations and rhythmic repetitions provide a truly musical experience as you stand in front of the still black monitor. The subsequent video footage, in a very narrow cropping, makes the situation and the strained effort visible, showing that in addition to the instinctive, unconscious layers of tone and intonation, there are culturally conditioned, learnt elements, which one is not necessarily able to conceal or eliminate, even with conscious effort and hard work. While analysing what we hear, we also reiterate the discrimination that is generated through language.

Péter Forgács has created a tableau of Central European people who emigrated en masse to America between 1890 and 1921, using archival film footage, visual and textual documents and interviews. Through presenting the immigrants’ former and new lives, financial and social status, as well as the process of integration and assimilation, the film reveals the close connection that exists between poverty and social segregation. Many personal stories and interviews are interwoven with the narrative of attaining equal rights – obtaining citizenship – through stories about the experience of free time, the life of social clubs and the organised forms of safeguarding interests. It is not through a better economic status that the connection to the new homeland is articulated, but on the basis of the experience they gained of the freedom of decision and rights.

As you are leaving the apartment, you cannot avoid returning to the work in the anteroom, from which the exhibition takes its title. By then, you feel that the act of balancing has been made to expand to a fundamental experience, pertaining to natives and immigrants alike. In the space brought about by the exhibition, the sense of existential defencelessness and diminished social acknowledgement affecting Hungarian arts professionals emerge side by side with the existential precariousness and discomfort experienced by wider circles of society. Péter Pettendi Szabó’s photo, forgotten on the wall, makes our thoughts move on to a phenomenon within our own society, showing that relatively small distances may prove impossible to cover or bridge as a result of existing social disadvantages.

Presented in an almost empty apartment, the exhibition Recollection, (5) curated by Flóra Gadó, informs us about the process of collective remembrance through the functioning of personal memory. The lack of personal objects – as a result of the apartment’s present function as temporary accommodation – brings into relief those layers of memory that are attached to objects or places, as all the three artists use objects of memory, or their representations, in their exhibited works. A characteristic feature of the appropriated objects is that they are informal, only slightly formalised, constituents of communicative memory (a term drawing on Jan Assmann’s typology), in which the relationship to the past is still directly linked to the self-image of the present, and the vitality of the past can be still felt.

The objects in Martin Piaček’s works are witnesses and vehicles of historical experiences emerging in the framework of individual paths of life; therefore, they convey strong emotional relationships and specific interpretations. The objects are evidences of meanings assigned to them by their makers and users, preserved in their original form by the artist. Great-Grandfather’s War explores the connection between the individual and the official politics of memory, the relationship of communicative and cultural memory, through the great-grandfather’s memorial relief from World War 1. The artist placed this object in a glass case that is half filled with sand. As the case is rotated, the grains of sand move and cover different parts of the relief.

Can the great-grandfather’s experience of war be compared with the formalised image of the relief? Is such a representation able to activate personal experiences in the case of the grandfather, and is it able to help one relive the past? The fragmented image that becomes visible as the piece is rotated brings the spatial and temporal perspective of those reminiscing into the focus. In this way, the work visualises the shift between communicative and cultural memory, i.e., the moment when the stories, passed down from one generation to the other, still preserve primary experiences concerning the event, but when a formalised narrative has already emerged in cultural memory, as well. Having become superimposed, these two types of memory continuously alternate and contest with one another within reflections on events of recent history.

In another object integrated into Piaček’s next work on view (Subtle History II), the historical past is brought into a direct, ongoing interaction with the present. The original object is a chess board, or rather (adhering to the original concept’s pun with the homonyms, Czech and check), a checkerboard that Piaček’s grandfather (who himself was born in America) made in the USA, with an inscription on its reverse, celebrating the historic event of the Czechs and Slovaks being united in Czechoslovakia. Later, when the checkerboard was returned to the Slovakian branch of the family, the words for ‘Czech’ and ‘long live’ were erased. Piaček re-framed this checkerboard and placed it on a revolving console. The multiple transformations that the object has undergone rely on personal experiences within the family that span generations: the mode of its realisation, the vague lines, the uneven form of writing, its transformations, and the directness of the line that connects the participants up to this point in time endow the work with a strong emotional charge.

This object has the capacity to integrate into itself the shifts of identity over time in a direct form: the additional transformations not only evince reinterpretations of events and personal identity, but put them in national, historical and geographical perspective, as well. Having lost its ground and stability as it appears in the exhibition space, this heirloom accentuates the situational elements of identity. A similar arch is drawn between personal and national identity in My Non-Slovakian Blood. Blood belongs to the discourse of national identity born in the 19th century: blood is the vehicle of the ethnic identity of a “folk”, creating the direct connection between the mythical “ancestors” and the community of the present time. Piaček divided a wooden disc into eight even circular sectors, and according to the nationality of his great-grandparents, painted the non-Slovakian parts with his own blood. In this work, blood is present both as personal and symbolic matter, querying the very definition of identity based on parentage.

For Ádám Albert, objects of memory are aids used to survey obscure segments of the past: the edges of knowledge. The objects at hand are tools of his childhood, without, however, bearing any sign of interaction between the past and the present, between memory and the person remembering. The artistic process lies in examining and re-creating this relationship. The childhood tools for measuring and categorising things and the objects that he once made for technology projects at school have been kept by his mother, but have lost their meaning for their one-time maker and owner. The stories belonging to these objects have been unravelled through the analysis and examination of the objects, while the precise survey of details has been completed in the process of visualisation.

Albert’s chosen medium of re-creation is photography which, despite its queried objectivity, has retained its role in social usage as a means of documentation, preservation and remembering. The impersonal and rational representation that has resulted from the process of photographing is counterpointed by the sensuous, grainy texture chosen as the background. A single object is present in the exhibition space to complement the photos: a toy wheelbarrow made of wood, sitting on top of a partition wall above its photographic depiction. Seeing that the toy wheelbarrow is a model itself, the Constructive Fragments series is also a critique of pictorial representation: it gives rise to uncertainty as to the objectivity of the observer and the observed reality, as well as querying the existence of scientific representation based on categorisation. This is how the artist has created the continuity between the one-time schoolboy and the present-day researcher-analyst artist, who embraces these objects in his life story as antecedents of his artistic practice.

Áron Kútvölgyi-Szabó’s installation visualises research into family history. The point of departure for this research was provided by the discrepancy that the artist discovered between A Grey Life, the memoirs that his grandfather wrote towards the end of his life (and addressed to his children and grandchildren) and the family stories about him. The objects and copies of documents integrated into the installation represent various stories (family history, curriculum vitae, the history of the local church and postal history), which Kútvölgyi retraces through threads attached to pins on the wall. As the different stories intersect at several points in space and time, the threads bring about a thick network. Points of intersection and divergence generate nodes, where the different narratives either confirm or contradict one another. Kútvölgyi has produced a map, illustrating how the life-story narrative, family history and history make their selections at given moments in time. Correspondingly, just as the narratives, the cardinal planes of time also shift and become superimposed within the process of recollection, for events of the past are always embraced, interpreted and evaluated in light of the present time.

The first layer is comprised of synchronous imprints of events, documents and written sources from archives and other official records. The second plane of time is that of the ageing grandfather, the time when he constructed a coherent (and differing) story to tell to his progeny, based on the story of his life as he lived it. While the grandfather was writing his story, he selected, categorised and periodised events, assigning certain interpretations and contexts to them. The third plane is given by the fragmented oral histories about the grandfather, mediating the family history through several generations to the grandchildren. The narrative of this plane of time is partly related to the roles that individuals or the family as a whole played against the backdrop of the great narratives (the war, the persecution of the Jews), and is partly based on those elements of the family’s self-definition that convey certain values and attitudes. Kútvölgyi’s work presents recollection as a process, which organically develops in tandem with the events, and which is dependent on one’s interpretive position. In this process, the artist also constructs his own interpretation, in which the well-known first narrative becomes completely unfamiliar, and then a new one is construed from it.

Exploration and reconstruction of the past as a method also emerged at another exhibition, in another private apartment. In its present state, the project gallery that was originally founded under the name 115–106 is a transitory site for the survey and winding up of a bequest, full of promises. The walls still preserve the traces of pictures, furniture and utensils, but the space is open to artists and visitors. Just as in the project realised by Péter Szabó and Csaba Szentesi, the working process here is also aimed at inhabiting and putting into use a space laden with personal bonds, and making room for new connections and roles.

The installation, Interim, made by László Hatházi and Antal Balázs introduced a minimum number of interventions, literally scratching the surface, to explore and reveal this situation. Using the peculiar sgraffito technique that they applied in several earlier works (scratching through layers of paint accumulated over the years), the artist duo created a mural: a linear drawing of a scene of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The active and the passive participants of the scene are in direct physical contact, as artificial respiration is aimed to re-activate the passive party. Despite the indeterminate outcome of the process, the effort has to be continued until there is the least chance of resuscitation. In such a situation, the one who has the necessary knowledge and capabilities to act has a serious responsibility. This work and the exhibitions discussed earlier in this text call for active engagement, an attitude that is indispensable if you are to define your individual and collective past, present, identity and social status.

Politics and culture are inseparable. The processes that underlie the education, practice, distribution, funding, presentation, reception and usage of art are not neutral; they are shaped by historic, economic, power and social mechanisms. (6) Had anyone had any doubts about it so far, the political dimensions of contemporary culture and the underlying political orientation have manifested themselves in the reorganisation of the institutional system of contemporary art through the force of power politics. In spite of all these endeavours, the ambition to influence social processes and cultural practices cannot be monopolised by a single group, as it inevitably requires the participation of different voices and agents, a collaboration, in which the participants mobilise various intentions, points of view and discourses.

The exhibition as a public form of letting voices be heard has a political dimension, as well: it contributes to the production of meanings, in which cultural and social narratives, stories and roles can be actively represented. In the case of the exhibitions discussed above, their survey of, and critical approach to, the prevailing narratives, their multi-layered exploration of certain issues, the values they mediate, their action strategies and individual choices have been validated by their operating beyond the formalised space of the institutional environment. This is how these exhibitions have brought about or confirmed certain artistic, national and social relationships and choices, whether they concern identification with a community, legitimisation of forms of life regarded as peripheral, or the multiplication of identity.

The cultural practice of OFFBB cannot be seen as independent from the activist initiatives which make an effort to create autonomous venues, and which may provide those who wish to join them with a “different” experience of politics and the rediscovery of a community. The phrase “different” is a key term in the vocabulary of activists who propose various social models; its meaning may be approached through the semantic field of free, democratic, fraternal and just. It is also closely linked to the social movements of the informational society, which Manuel Castells describes as “a networking, decentered form of organization and intervention”, the practice and norm of autonomous organisations. (7)

Castells optimistically contends, “It is in these back alleys of society, whether in alternative electronic networks or in grassrooted networks of communal resistance” that the new cultural rules are produced and distributed. (8) As regards OFF, the constraints leading to an urge to become independent from institutions and the critical stance against the prevailing social system bear the political potential of a grassroots organisation; however, its viability poses numerous questions and points of criticism, which are yet to be addressed.


Translated by Andrea Szekeres

(1) Zsolt Boda: Homo Politicus – Towards a Theory of Political Action and Motivation. In World Political Science Review, 2013/1, 71–96.

(2) Gene Sharp: The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 2: The Methods of Nonviolent Action. (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973). Albert Einstein Institution:

(3) György Csepeli: Politikai antropológiai előadások [Lectures on Political Anthropology]. (in Hungarian).

(4) MMAHír is a pun with the acronyms for MMA: Hungarian Art Academy and MAHIR, Hungary’s largest advertising agency, with HÍR standing for both ad and news. (Translator’s note.)

(5) The artists: Ádám Albert, Áron Kútvölgyi-Szabó, Martin Piaček. Curator: Flóra Gadó.

(6) Julie Ault, The Exhibition as Political Space, In Julie Ault – Martin Beck: Critical Condition. Ausgewählte Texte im Dialog. Dortmund: Stiftung Industriedenkmalpflege u. Geschichtskultur, 2003.

(7) Manuel Castells, The Information Age – Economy, Society and Culture, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Vol. II: The Power of Identity (1997), 362.

(8) Castells, Ibid.