In strict terms of definition, Experimenta is a biennial: it occurs every two years. But what we have come to expect of any art event branded with the Biennial/ Biennale tag is something that far surpasses this definition. A Biennial is supersized – hundreds of artworks from the who’s who of the art world gathered in such volume that it may take days or even weeks to appreciate the multitude of work carefully selected by a suitably renowned celebrity curator. Not to mention: Parties! Champagne! Shenanigans in the multimedia installations!
Stepping into the modest doorway of the host institution RMIT Gallery in Melbourne for Experimenta, these thoughts did not float into my head. Instead, the title of the 5th Experimenta Biennial of Media Art was blared into my senses: Speak to Me. The gallery's antechamber and glass doorway is currently home to the latest work from Seoul-basedartists Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Young-Hae and Marc are in a town for a few days doing something or other, if you’re interested. Flashing stark black lettering on a white screen, the work laments a general absence of manners in the world, set to the tune of a punchy original jazz score. The mix of the two elements is an appropriate gateway into a space which places multi-sensory engagement at the fore.
Curator Abigail Moncrieff wishes to examine platforms of engagement at Experimenta. Citing Bourriaud’s theories on "the introduction of the social space into the gallery" in her catalogue essay, Moncrieff discusses how the shift in focus from art object to viewer has resulted in more collaborative, participatory art practices and an interruption to the notion of the singular author. This curatorial concept is not revolutionary but still works as a broad and tangible idea which can, and does, unite a space. This relationship between object, individual and stranger is best demonstrated through artistic duo Scenocosme’sLights Contacts. This is an artwork you cannot view alone, with two or more people having to touch a metal ball and each other to activate the installation space. The catalogue description for this work indicates that the audience is required to stroke, caress or touch one another. I doubt that the poor invigilator who had to help me out with the installation would think that we stroked or caressed but it did demonstrate very beautifully the engagement that Moncrieff is striving for.
As far as Experimenta being an international Biennial, this is not very apparent in the representation of artists this year. Moncrieff states that the Biennial has a focus on the Asia Pacific region – unsurprising as Moncrieff has come fresh from the MCA – and many of the artists in Experimenta are Australia’s young and fabulous up and coming artists. Whether this focus is intentional or due to limitation does not really matter, as we find Australians talking more and more about the Asian Century investigating the ways in which we speak to each other throughout the region seems highly appropriate.
Situated within a year of uber-exhibitions including the Biennale of Sydney and finishing off in Brisbane for the Asia Pacific Triennial, my expectations for Experimenta were high. And although pleasing – in fact, I had a fantastic time – Biennial it was not. But maybe that's just my Sydney-sider 'big and brash' mindset talking.