Looking at the environmental, social and economic dynamics of the last decade (or, to put it bluntly, "the end of the world as we know it"), it is increasingly clear that the imperative of continuous growth and development is no longer a sustainable vision for our future, if we want one at all.
But even though more and more individuals come to this realization, the greater systems that govern our world and our societies seem less willing to change their ways. Sometimes it feels as if we are caught in a current against which it is pointless to fight, but swimming upstream seems more important than ever as we do not have as much time as would normally be needed for such fundamental cultural shifts.
The role of art in this context is problematic: should it serve as a means of to develop sensibility and empathy for a deeper understanding of these questions? Or would this be a restriction of artistic freedom and an invitation to propaganda? Is art a luxury of the developed world that should be abolished first when we reduce our consumption and limit our material needs? Or is it, on the contrary, the most important tool to survive and maintain our hopes in an otherwise hopeless and frightening world?
The OSTRALE Biennale in Dresden is the third largest international exhibition of contemporary art in Germany, which took place every year from 2007 on during the summer months and was changed into a biennale in 2017. It is not a sales exhibition per se, which gives us the freedom to discuss socially relevant topics regardless of market developments.
As "venue pioneers", the OSTRALE opens up unused industrial and cultural brownfields. First the exhibitions have taken place at various venues of the former slaugtherhouse complex of Ostragehege in Dresden, as well as other similar post-industrial venues all over Europe. After leaving the Ostragehege area, the OSTRALE Biennale in 2019 took place at the Historical Tobacco Factory f6 in the Striesen district and at 5 other decentralised locations in Dresden. This last edition welcomed more than 30.000 visitors in just over two months, 9.000 of them being students from Dresden and all over Saxony.
For the OSTRALE Biennale O21, thanks to the generous support of the real estate company Gerchgroup AG, a unique chance has been given the organizers to present the exhibition for the first time in the very heart of Dresden in 2021. The building is a witness of the Eastern Modernism („Ostmodern") and an often overlooked part of the architectural and social history of the city of Dresden.
The Robotron Kantine is the former company restaurant and one of the last standing buildings of the already demolished Robotron computer factory complex, once a crown jewel of technological innovation, but also of architectural optimism, in Dresden and in the whole DDR in the 1960s and 1970s. However, after the closure of the factory, its fate has been somewhat troublesome. For a while, it has served as a venue for various cultural activities and also as a rehearsal room for the nearby Semperoper, but in the last few years it has been standing empty in an ever deteriorating state. The discussion about its possible reactivation gained more momentum during the preparation phase of Dresden's application for the title of European Capital of Culture for 2025, in frame of which several new concepts were developed for the building. Now, as the city of Dresden is no longer in competition for the title, the future of the Robotron Kantine remains uncertain. Opening it up through art can pave the way to revive it as a cultural venue.
The year 2021 will see the first important steps in this direction, as Dresden's two leading organisations for contemporary visual arts, the Kunsthaus Dresden and the OSTRALE – Centre for Contemporary Art are staging temporary events in and around the building. First, artists invited by the Kunsthaus Dresden will activate the facades and the outer areas of the Kantine with their international art project North East South West. Then during the summer, the Kantine will serve as the main venue of the OSTRALE Biennale O21, presenting artworks from around 160 artists from all over the world, selected by an international team of curators from Croatia, Lithuania and Hungary, with the leaders of OSTRALE accompanying the jury.
Another important venue of the OSTRALE Biennale O19 will be the Stadtentwässerung Dresden (the city's waste water facility), right in the vicinity of the OSTRALE Center in Dresden-Übigau. The fascinating sites of the facility will serve as an exciting backdrop to the exhibited artworks, bringing science, industry and visual arts into an unusual dialogue. With its long-time engagement in environmental and climate issues and its programs to engage and educate young generations about the responsible handling of wastewater and natural resources, Stadtentwässerung Dresden comes as a natural partner for OSTRALE's current program, which also deals with the questions of our relationships to rivers, water, sustainability, and the broader connections between society, environment and the arts.
This theme is also the focus of Flowing Connections, a cultural cooperation co-financed by the Creative Europe program of the European Union, that plays a vital role in the organisation of the OSTRALE Biennale O21, especially when it comes to the curatorial process, the preparation and the opening of the exhibition. It also enables us to take a selection of the artworks presented in Dresden to exhibitions in Budapest, Rijeka/Split/Zagreb (Croatia) and the European Capital of Culture Kaunas (Lithuania) in the year 2022. The exhibitions are accompanied by other activities such as an artist in residence programme, workshops and symposia on issues of digitalisation, sustainability, communication strategies and inclusion.