Reluctant Nomads: Biennial Culture and Its Discontents

Claudette Lauzon


Since the mid-1990s, the embrace of what is now referred to as “biennial culture” has precipitated a series of questions connected to the ways in which international exhibitions interact with and intervene in global society’s uneasy (and uneven) processes of neoliberal globalization. In this article, I address the biennialization of contemporary art in the context of geopolitical conditions of migration and exile. I ask: Does biennial culture offer a utopian vision of transnational harmony? Or does it simply epitomize the colonizing tendencies of global corporatism? I argue that large-scale international exhibitions tend to engage in a kind of complicit critique: they participate in and profit from the “deterritorialization” of the global marketplace, but are therefore also uniquely positioned to address its excesses. Introducing the term “reluctant nomadism” to refer to artists who challenge biennial culture’s romanticization of itineracy and transnational mobility from within, I spotlight three artists—Tony Labat, Yto Barrada, and Ursula Biemann—all of whom subtly interrogate the assumptions of transnational mobility that attach to biennial culture. I argue that Labat, Barrada, and Biemann, who participate in biennial culture while drawing often elided connections between its nomadic tendencies and the barriers and exclusions engendered by global capitalism, are reluctant nomads whose complex mediations on the migrant experience compel us to consider the traumatizing realities of exile, migration, and forced relocation that characterize the lives of those involuntary nomads who cannot boast the beneficence of a global art world underwriting their travels.


Biennial exhibitions; reluctant nomadism; Doris Salcedo; Tony Labat; Yto Barrada; Ursula Biemann; art and geopolitics

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