The 5th Riwaq Biennale

June 2014 - June 2016

The Riwaq Biennale is named after an institution, not a place. It was initiated in 2005, to expand upon Riwaq’s approach aiming at the revitalization of historic centers of 50 towns and villages throughout Palestine. In other words, this biennale comes with an agenda. It is invested in Riwaq’s efforts to clarify the growing political and epistemic significance of architectural heritage in local towns and villages.

With its concrete political outlook and its durational, discursive approach, Riwaq has always challenged what a biennale can be. This time, the 5th Riwaq Biennale (RB5) will span an entire two years, beginning in June 2014 and ending in May 2016. Its condition is chronic, as opposed to sporadic. A “chronic” condition – from the Greek chronos (time) – is persistent and enduring. There’s something about a two-year cycle that strikes a chord. Two years is the part of a relationship before things get harder; but it is also the standard warranty for consumer products.

Moreover, RB5 is unusually enmeshed with its context. A two-year schedule is a worthy experiment anywhere, and several biennales have tested comparable premises – Manifesta 2006, Taipei 2010, Berlin 2012, for example. But the idea of the “chronic” resonates differently here, as do notions of “sustainability”, “persistence” or “borrowed time”. To even mention Gaza is to invoke an unimaginably violent two-year cycle in its own right. If biennales always produce tensions between autonomy and history, art and language, these tensions mean something very different when the terms at hand are colonialism or ethnic cleansing.

Rather than rely on artistic representations of these issues, RB5 aims to realize a limited number of modest proposals. These include promoting and complexifying Riwaq’s agenda, tracing regional genealogies of cultural production, and structuring RB5 around existing public events in Ramallah and beyond -– as well as developing an educational program and catering to the needs of emergent practitioners in collaboration with local art institutions. The venues for these and other activities are being developed by Riwaq, in collaboration with artists, architects and students.

Our curatorial premise is to think “through” the structures at our disposal. Thinking through structures is not the same as thinking “about” or “against” them. This project does not see structures as topics, or as objects of critique necessarily. It aims to exemplify the agency of structures per se, and to help shape the audiences these structures produce.

This includes the biennale as a structure in itself. In light of our context, other formats may seem more adequate. But a biennale is, first and foremost, a process of accumulation. Over the years, its editions inhabit the public eye as a succession of motifs and stories, highs and lows. On the other hand, a biennale also enjoys a privileged relationship to outreach and volume, limelight and suspense. It is these aspects – a sense of duration and constituency, and of spectacle and ceremony – that form the distinct advantages here.

In other words, RB5 focuses on bodies in space: who was here before, who’s still around, and what could structures like Riwaq have to do with that. So if RB5 may not prioritize exhibitionary display, it does nonetheless emphasize materiality. It approaches objects as aesthetic touchstones, historical pointers and functional infrastructures alike. It addresses the look of thought, the traction of theory, the promises of sustainability in contemporary art, within Palestine and beyond.

The 5th Riwaq Biennale in Five Ingredients

Ingredient 1: 50+

50+ refers to the aim of the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation to engage with “fifty villages throughout Palestine”. The village setting is thus inscribed within the Riwaq Biennale’s very mandate. Rather than serving as mere arenas of intervention, the villages proactively test the artistic and political possibilities of a biennale. In some cases, they help reimagine these possibilities from a context far removed from familiar city surroundings. Having reached its fifth edition, the Riwaq Biennale is also gradually building on a growing working relationship with the village communities in Deir Ghassaneh, Dhahiriyyeh, Jaba’, Birzeit, Ebwein, Rantis, Beit Eksa, Yatta among others. But Riwaq itself is equally a promising terrain for the RB5 objective of “thinking through structures”. As an institution, Riwaq doesn’t necessarily focus on settings that are in most need of material protection, nor does it rely on a working formula based on its many success stories. Instead, much of the focus is on areas of unresolved tension and collective disappointments, where the role of an architect, an urbanist, or a public intellectual remains complicated and unclear. This is where RB5 is hoping to join the conversation; hoping to assess what contributions cultural production or a political vision can possibly make.

Ingredient 2: Settings

Thanks to its affiliation with the Riwaq Center and its two-year time span, RB5 will partake in the revitalization of a select number of historic venues across Palestine. These will be the settings for RB5 activities, and will later accommodate activities far beyond the Biennale. RB5 will be renovating, redesigning and reassessing these spaces carefully as it goes along, in collaboration with architects, students, and commissioned artists such as Can Altay, Kris Kimpe and Phil Collins (among others). Hoash al-Etem in Birzeit, for example, will serve as housing for various Biennale participants, Deir Ghassaneh as a venue for 50+ programming, while Beit Assa’ in downtown Ramallah will function as a project space. Project spaces are still missing in Ramallah, a town with its fair share of museum projects, galleries and art schooling, but lacking in a venue for artistic trials and errors and conversation, with a smell of mujadara in the air and espresso stains on the floor. Beit Assa’ will house a string of minor and major events over time, sometimes offering the solemnity of a classroom, sometimes pulsing with the intensity of a small casino.

Ingredient 3: 1990+

A series of informal conversations, some public, some private, all meticulously documented, with the aim of assembling a concise history of cultural production in and around Ramallah since the 1990s. The nineties mark a conspicuous generational shift among cultural producers and the institutions they created. A surprising number of shared ideological, professional, even architectural parameters emerge, most of them underexamined. These commonalities seem to exist far beyond Ramallah - in Jerusalem, Beirut, Amman, Sharjah, Cairo and Istanbul alike. What were the key decisions leading to these common grounds, and vice versa? What are the “What If” scenarios here? With luck, an archive of amnesia will gradually emerge. Our interlocutors thus far: Adela Aidi, Nabil Anani, Rema Hamami, Jamil Hilal, Sandi Hilal, Suleiman Mansour, Alessandro Petti, Alia Rayyan, Rawan Sharaf, Tina Sherwell, Vera Tamari, Lisa Taraki and Inas Yassin.

Ingredient 4: Traction

The public program of RB5 is situated firmly within the cultural landscape of Palestine, in that it is structured as a series of responses to local events and programs. Possible examples might range from Qalandiya International, to the curriculum at the International Academy of Art Palestine, to the Home Workspace Program in Beirut, to the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) and others more. Responses will be polemical or supportive, discreet or rowdy, simplistic or subtle. In doing so, Traction will resort to panels, roundtables, lectures, translations, documentations, interior decorating, reading groups, barbecues, TV dinners, boycotts, artist commissions - or anything else that proves useful. Traction also addresses the Biennale as a structure in its own right. It revisits RB history by critically revisiting previous initiatives and re-inviting previous participants. And it persistently asks what you can do with a biennale that you cannot do with anything else. In sum, Traction aims to push RB5 to fulfill its specific potential, well beyond that of some complicated group show that briefly hogs the limelight every other year.

Ingredient 5: Nadi

Nadi is an informal, one-year educational program initiated and monitored by RB5. It is a response to an educational landscape in Palestine that is missing an infrastructure for graduate students. Our aim is to offer tuition-free training in the language of contemporary art, an exploration of its theoretical and political dimensions, and an introduction to its practical working premises. Thematically, coursework will be closely tied to the working premise of RB5 itself, thinking through the structures of art and culture today. Another aim, however, is to foster a sense of professional solidarity within a small collective of emergent practitioners. The five members of the Nadi will form a core audience for RB5, perhaps the only constituency that sees the event in its entirety. The group will also partake in a number of sessions reserved for them alone: from artist-run workshops to research assignments, from study groups to social occasions. It bears mentioning that Nadi group expeditions are currently being developed with several institutions abroad. Nadi members are currently being identified in partnership with Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, the Media Studies Department at Al-Quds Bard College, A. M. Qattan Foundation, Birzeit University Museum, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), Idioms Film, International Academy of Art Palestine, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Palestinian Art Court - Al Hoash and Riwaq.