Robert Storr, Keynote Lecture

Biennales in Dialogue Forum
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
11 July 2008

On the one hand, this talk was an introduction to Storr’s curatorial method and an argument for ‘dialogue’, and in general about the practice of curating biennales. On the other, it was another episode in the ongoing public debate between Storr and critics of the 2007 Venice Biennale he curated – in particular Okwui Enwezor who was also there on the night. This meant that nearly everything Storr said couldn’t help sounding like it had a vindictive tone, even though it was delivered in the professional, neutral language of academia – and in the end it really did turn into an exercise in personal and professional restraint gone wrong.

Storr wanted to use the idea of dialogue to discuss the experience of audiences, especially the non-specialist art audiences, and contemporary art; to discuss exchanges between artists; to show how this also relates to the ‘aura’ of an artwork; and how it is finally a political moment in which two or more antagonistic parties may find some common ground through the unpredictability of exchange. His big claim is that dialogue, in the context of biennales, is a fundamentally democratic experience in a globalised world.

For a start, biennales attract large numbers of the non-specialist public, and artists often get to meet one another at them. Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘aura’ is that it is the result of an encounter of a viewer and artwork in a specific place and time; it is a personal experience but at the same time a social one. This means that ‘aura’ is made in a dialogic setting, again, provided by the biennale. But the political meaning of dialogue was not much more concrete than the example of a potentially beneficial meeting between socially conservative groups and provocative artists and/or curators. Maybe it was this political weakness of the talk that added fuel to the fire in Storr’s tirade during question time, which was aimed at Enwezor’s highly politicised talk of a couple days previous. Enwezor himself responded that Storr had repudiated everything he just said, and from there they both tried talking over the top of one another until Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, taking the microphone, asked them to continue the ‘dialogue’ outside.
Michael Ascroft
see Natalie King's interview with Carolyn Chrystov-Bakargiev
and on the theme of the Sydney Biennale


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