Who's in and who's out? Central or peripheral? Market-driven tourism or anti-institutional experiment? The biggest mistake in analyzing the tangled network of biennials would be to simplify their motives and effects into such reductive binaries. Biennials are notoriously layered events, with many pop-up, OFF, collateral, or dissident exhibition projects taking place in tandem with the official event structured by the government, museum, foundation, or private patron. Biennials eschew facile categorization, and a single edition in a particular city can make great strides in connecting regional artists to larger currents of influence, even as it promotes a self-deprecating anachronism in the name of identity-building. As a structure, the biennial is an unnerving, unwieldy hydra … and who would want it any other way?

Long before the so-called globalization of the art world in...

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