Rethinking a Utopian Future for Art and Biennales
Rethinking a Utopian Future for Art and Biennales

Biennales, of which today there are hundreds around the world, have become an established method or an apparatus that relocate art from the conventional gallery spaces – which have an otherwise limited outreach – to more publicly accessible venues albeit short-term. They situate art in refreshed contexts and reach not only a wider audience beyond the creative circle but also take an opportunity from the scale of the event to broadcast the kind of art being produced in the host city to the entire world. Originally derived from Latin, the word in Italian means ‘every other year’ and was initially used for the Venice International Art Exhibition in 1895; the first biennale to take place in history that eventually gave rise to many others.[i] Today, the term commonly refers to the many large scale international contemporary art exhibitions held in various cities around the world every two years. It is widely recognized as a viable tool and one of the strategic global events that facilitate broadcasting the evolving identity and experiences of the city and in doing so, positioning it on the world art map. The mechanism of biennales promotes a cultural-economic transaction that favours a globalised centre while maintaining the local relevance to the city.[ii]

Biennales stand apart from regular exhibitions since they use multiple venues or ‘pavilions.’ They are also different from art fairs since the artworks, often produced specifically for the Biennale but not always, are not for sale. With startling speed over the last century, biennales have taken place of mediators that connect production, the dissemination, and the consumption of contemporary art.

Practices of cultural production and consumption have been typically neglected from research and critical discourse but biennales bring visibility to these topics and grant space for these discourses to take place. They function as key sites for both the genesis of discourse and where that discourse is applied through expressions of the display to incite a general appreciation as well as constructive critique.[iii]

The Karachi Biennale launched in 2017 with an inaugural theme of ‘witness.’ While the event was an exceptional debut, the few shortcomings and criticism such as its exclusivity and inaccessibility did not go unhighlighted. A further ironed out framework was mapped for the second Biennale. With Karachi enlisted as one of the most vulnerable to climate change and Pakistan placed as the 8th most impacted country in the last two decades[iv], the theme of KB 2019 ‘Flight Interrupted: Eco-leaks from the Invasion Desk’ was a timely awakening towards the detrimental effects on the coastal city that have already begun to appear and are expected to worsen. Venues for the first biennale were primarily historical buildings and academic institutions, whereas the second biennale used the few parks and green spaces present in the city as its venues. Still, in its infancy, it is remarkable the amount of attention and applause the Karachi Biennale has secured in a very short time.

The Third Karachi Biennale is set to take place in 2022 owing to the current pandemic. The KBT (Karachi Biennale Trust) has yet to announce the theme for its third iterant but it has disclosed the wider premise which shall inspect the intersections of technology and art and how that fusion manifests in contemporary art practices. While it is understood that the event, like all biennales, will be a celebration of the city, its history, and its inhabitants, the third Karachi Biennale will also look onward to a promising future for Karachi as a leading hub for innovation in art and technology, and aims to call attention to the potential it truly embodies through the event.

The KBT has also recently announced the renowned New Media artist Faisal Anwar as the next curator for the third edition. Anwar studied at the National College of Art, Lahore and later from The Habitat New Media Lab at the Canadian Film Centre, Toronto CA. With a distinct practice that explores emerging technologies and employs data produced and collected in real-time, Anwar is arguably the only Pakistani artist who is adept and well informed to assess the hybrid nature of art where art, technology, and other disciplines collide. We sat down with Faisal Anwar, who divides his time between Pakistan and Canada, to map his practice, learn what ‘New Media’ entails, and discuss the futuristic vision with which he plans to head the curation for KB 22.

(Fig. 1) New Media artist Faisal Anwar announced as curator for the third Karachi Biennale (October,2022)

Numair Abbasi: Could you introduce us to your practice and map the trajectory from its genesis to where it stands now?

Faisal Anwar:  I was always interested in storytelling and in developing non-corporate ideas. I questioned how the role of the designer in contemporary times could seep into and extend beyond just making aesthetically pleasing surfaces. I had the inclination to make art even when I was studying design at the NCA. I spent most of my time in the company of artists such as Quddus Mirza, Anwar Saeed, Salima Hashmi, during which I got to closely observe how they developed their artistic practice. I was also actively pursuing theatre and puppetry during that time.

My fascination to develop connectivity with the narratives amongst the audiences was fuelled further during my post-graduate studies in Canada in 2003-04. I looked into the diversity of mediums and various cross-platform disciplines. I realized that there were these interesting gaps between disciplines in the industry even in the west, and that pushed me to figure out a hybrid nature of these disciplines where artists, designers, poets, techies, filmmakers could come together to develop experience and narrative driven ideas and conversations.

During that time, I also practiced with experimental theatre. I participated in a project called Diplomatic Immunities that was conceived by Darren O’Donnell, a prolific playwright and novelist who believes in a non-linear process of script writing.  A group of us went out on to the streets with our cameras and recording devices and posed random questions to passers-by that addressed larger themes of emotional scars, life after death, and other subliminal thoughts that we carry with us every single day throughout our lives. We documented, recorded, and met interesting personalities whose stories were often quite troubling and dark. It made me realize that we all live in our own bubbles; blissfully unaware of whatever is happening in the lives of people around us and it is only once we interact and dig deep, do we discover their struggles. We gathered all the information and returned to the theatre to build a narrative by connecting these ideas. We were essentially telling their stories. We used a lot of digital media, videos, and projection-based interventions into the performance. It became a very hybrid and experimental project which I continued for 3-4 years. This project changed the entire perspective towards the art practice I had been doing up until then. I began to explore themes of connectivity and the means to engage with the communities. What I observe about my current practice is that it looks at ways to use technology creatively, and as a tool to express and reach out to the audience.

NA: What facet about the digital, as a medium, attracted you to employ it in your art practice in order to engage with the audiences?

FA: If we inspect the various art practices in history, we will notice that they have always been a reflection of their contemporaneous time. Artists have demonstrated this constant need to experiment with the existing mediums and have held this fascination to push its peripheries be it sculpture, paintings, photography, etc. As an artist living in this time and space, I was looking at the palette which existed around me. For me, the medium of today’s time are these 24/7 digital transformations that happen across the globe because of the constantly generated data. It has become a parallel universe where we can live without borders and can transmit information faster than the speed of light. That once upon a time prophesized idea of globalization when things can instantly travel and create a worldwide ripple effect; we are living that moment. A single incident that occurs anywhere in the world impacts the entire globe. Technology has become incredibly accessible in many ways. These thoughts catalysed my interest to use this medium and to generate meaningful conversations around it. I have also been addressing the climate crisis in my work for which I collaborated with several scientists. The climate crisis is nothing new and for eons, scientists have been accumulating data and pressing on the urgency of the situation. Somehow the information does not reach us. While denial is a major reason for this, another is the exclusive vocabulary they employ in their research.  It is too scientific and complex for any layperson to understand. My latest work collaborates with scientists to build a bridge between scientific knowledge and common information by intersecting technology and art to create a hybrid conversation.

NA: The digital serves not just as a medium but also as a site. What are your thoughts on this?

FA: I am a Pakistani immigrant living in Canada and I have family spread all across the world. For me, it becomes a natural inclination to view things like time zones, geographical distances, cultural differences, and digital connectivity. It became my initial framework.

Once I moved to Canada in 2003, my father who was living in Lahore, would always ask me about my lifestyle. In retrospect, I think he was trying to fulfill what he was devoid of since he could not be physically present with me. I consequently tried to fill that void by creating a series of ‘Letters to my Father’, which was a form of digital storytelling to him about my environment. Through these experimental narratives presented as videos, I wanted to empathise and sympathise with his apprehensions because I thought he felt very vulnerable and concerned about my life.

In 2007 I was part of the BANFF New Media Residency, during which I was looking at mundane public spaces like elevators and hallways in which we travel for a mere ten to fifteen seconds. During those moments we are often joined by a complete stranger who we make the journey with. I was very interested in those awkward exchanges and brief encounters and I wanted to understand how physical connectivity and proximity can influence our perception. I decided to recreate those experiences, except the person standing or waiting next to us does not physically exist with us in real time and instead has virtually joined us from another part of the world. I wanted to see if the element of them not being physically present would make us more comfortable in building a dialogue. This project was also realized in 2008 in an event organised by Vasl Artist’s Association called ‘Odd Spaces’. I travelled between Karachi, Bangladesh, and India and connected three gallery spaces in real time for a week using whatever limited technology we had available at that time. I kept whiteboards, paper, and pens for visitors to share their reactions and I observed how people respond when they are put together in these odd configurations.

I see these digital spaces as opportunities to engage in any conversation; at least that is how I use the architectural space of it. Every architectural space has its own energy and purpose such as hallways, parks, public washrooms, etc. and I like to devise the energy of connecting people. Using technology to facilitate dialogues is what excites me the most about the digital medium. A lot of my works (such as Tweet Garden, CharBagh) try to experiment with these three levels: how we can engage the community, what type of conversation can we produce, and how we can further push a particular experience. I like to make my work as immersive and exciting as possible so that it encourages people to express whatever they are interested in. That is why I extensively use social media apps like Twitter and Instagram since it has become a comfortable space for all of us to hold conversations.

NA: You spoke about incorporating an immersive and interactive element into your work. Do you think that once it conflates with the digital space, they may provide some drawbacks or benefits which perhaps distinguishes it apart from other mediums?  For instance, you as an artist may lose some authority and your audience may gain agency in navigating the meaning and experience of the work. And for that reason you may not be able to anticipate the outreach, comprehension, and reaction to your artworks. Your thoughts?

FA: For me the conceptual process remains the same as any other artist working in their studio. We all undergo the exercise of contemplation, self-analysis, and introspection when we work. And we all get that soulful sense of accomplishment once we have finished the making. The amount of time you spend making a sculpture, print making or a miniature painting and the amount of satisfaction you get right after remains similar for any interactive / responsive new media artist. Instead of the brush and pencil, we use codes to create and respond to our own ideas. The difference for me is that the collaboration begins right after ideation, as I often work with software and hardware experts during the creation process, and later the audience interaction and collaboration is vital. I deliberately am creating moments to give the audience the agency, to shape my work and the conversation around it. I see my work as an open conversation, so yes, like any spontaneous conversation, once it’s out there, there is always ambiguity around what the reaction, perception and participation would like, and that is where the excitement is.

NA: For a lot of the readers who may not be familiar with the new media, could you explain what the term means?

FA: New media, in a nutshell, is an overhead term for any artwork that is developed using the code. However, that is only a part of the definition. New Media has been around for over two decades since the global IT boom. The rise of Information Technology created a somewhat parallel universe in the form of the digital. This led to the birth of digital art, which over years evolved into new media art, trans-media art, hybrid art, and immersive art. The definition is malleable and will evolve with time and the kind of technology that will be present then.

NA: So if we look at the term, “New Media”, 20 years into the future would it still be called ‘new’? Which is why I am wondering where it stands in today’s time, and how ‘new media’ will evolve and expand in the future?

FA: New media is a very generic term which can be projected on any time and space. Maybe it will be AI driven or perhaps it will employ augmented reality. If we map New Media with the evolution of industry running parallel to it, then we will notice how the two continuously inform each other. I feel that the definition will keep evolving with the time, depending on the kind of work and mediums being explored. There are very interesting immersive artworks being made globally today which for me tread into the hybrid nature of art. They not only create an environment but they also influence the cognitive behaviour of the users and perceive their body as an interface. It has become this multi-level, multi-faceted participatory experience and the artists draw us into those experiences by toying with our senses, emotions, and viscera. If we look at the trajectory of these artworks, the definition of new media will change entirely. I would even go further to say that in the future these terms will become meaningless. Everything will become so fluid and hybrid that it will only complicate the way we view artworks and the way we express them.

NA: While we don’t know the theme, we know that the biennale will look into the intersections of technology and art. How and why did this idea come up?

It was already decided by the Trustee which is why they approached me in the first place; since they know the sensibility of my work. They approaching me was a sign that perhaps we will be looking into the experimental nature of art and other disciplines. Further conversation with them consolidated that this will be the premise of KB 22.

NA: A lot of people are also speculating that this may be a reflection on the effects of the pandemic, during which we have become reliant on technology and where everything has gone digital. What are your thoughts on this?

FA: That assumption is bound to occur. This past one year has changed everyone’s lives. All of a sudden, we were forced to use technology to remain connected. However, the ideas and evolution of the industry that we are discussing has been present and evolving since the last two or three decades. This parallel stream of experimentation and innovation in technology has been happening irrespective of Covid. What the pandemic triggered was a realisation. We all became aware of the value of technology and were provided with an opportunity to acknowledge our dependency. I think the pandemic will definitely facilitate in creating a larger conversation around technology; but as I said I have been working on these ideas for most of my career and there are many other artists who have been doing so as well. The biennale is going to be a reflection and an appreciation of the parallel industry that has been growing for eons and continues to evolve.

NA: As the curator, are you looking at it as a concept for artists to reflect on, or are you also looking at it as a medium that they would employ.

FA: Honestly, it’s too early for me to comment on that. I definitely have ideas and visions which I would like to see come to fruition.

NA: I am curious of how it will unfold in Karachi where a lot of artists do not work with such tools. And how this unfamiliarity with technology as a medium in the local art scene may create some challenges for you along the way.

I also thought about the selection criteria for the KB venues that befit the theme. The theme for the first Biennale was ‘Witness’ and most of its venues were historic buildings which had witnessed the evolution of the city over decades. The second Biennale addressed ecological issues and we saw it employ parks and green spaces as its venues. I wonder what buildings or sites would reflect the broader, thematic premise of technology. Is that something that you would be addressing?

FA: Absolutely. Space is a big component, but as you said, it is slightly premature to provide a concrete response. What I can say is that by and large we need to abandon this conversation of us having limitations and that we are under-resourced, and, as a result limited to certain mediums only. Perfection does not exist anywhere in the world. Every place has its own problems and we have to configure how we can live with those constraints and deliver despite the limitations. That is what my vision primarily is.

Another thing which I am interested in, and it stems from my practice, is collaborations. You will be seeing a lot of collaborations between artists, poets, designers, filmmakers, techies who consequently build an experimental space.

NA: And these could possibly include remote collaborations as well? Where individuals from various parts of the world work remote?

FA: Definitely. One of the key roles for the biennale is to have an educational component that engages in, or at least probes new questions. I shall give an example. We all use WhatsApp and over the years it has become a consolidated platform to circulate fake news and dark journalism. How does that impact our culture? What are the privacy and ethical drawbacks within this mode of communication right now? We blindly consume, generate, and share content completely unaware of how it influences our perception about each other and about the world. We must ask these questions now and initiate these dialogues. This is just an example of one of many such contemporary dialogues which need to happen. Majority of Pakistan’s population is youth and Pakistan is one of the top ten countries in the world that generate the most data set of images, text, etc. That is the space which I am interested in.

NA: How do you see yourself spearheading the curation, considering the fact that you are based in Canada. Will you be dividing your time between Toronto and Karachi? Or are you going to pursue it virtually?

FA: The pandemic has made everything has accessible. We have progressed from physical connectivity to digital. If members of NASA can land a spacecraft on Mars while corresponding on Zoom from different time zones, then I think curating a biennale should be pretty manageable. A lot of industries have already evolved and barely anyone goes to offices anymore. I already work with people from across the globe while sitting in Toronto. And I actually find this to be an interesting and challenging prospect to be able to curate this project which teleports me into a space where I can create dialogues, partnerships, and collaborations, all while living in Toronto. Of course, when the world gradually opens, I will definitely travel to have a physical conversation.

NA: Covid has reset our lives. Every aspect has been upended and redefined, including art.  For instance, OVR (Online Viewing Rooms) was previously unheard of but is now common knowledge. There is a global realization that one does not need to be physically present for any procedure and everything can be performed and addressed remotely. Do you see any changes happening in Biennales generally, that may perhaps completely redefine its infrastructure and dynamics?

FA: I completely understand what you mean and that will definitely be reflected upon in the works. Like everything else, the biennale will – and perhaps should – also be impacted. This opportunity will be used to contest and redefine the way we approach an engage with the work, re-configuring our entire experience as an audience. It will also restructure how we shall engage with the local Pakistanis and the Pakistani expats around the world. I once wrote down, ‘If people cannot come to Karachi, then we shall bring Karachi to the people,’ wherever they may be. Covid has provided us with this opportunity, and why should we not use it?

NA: Is there anything else that you would want to put out there for the readers?

FA: Art practices are a product of the artists’ circumstances and their institutions. We previously spoke about a lack of local artists working with digital or hybrid mediums and about the unfamiliarity with New Media. The onus for this lays not on the artists but on academia; which in my opinion is the primary source of knowledge and learning for the professional realm. Art institutions do not necessarily reflect the current times, and continue to pigeonhole students in various disciplines. This deprives them of opportunities to steer across platforms and blend disciplines into something that perhaps cannot even be categorized. We do not train our students to look at the futuristic vision. I think we need to have a larger conversation in Karachi on the role of academia in providing spaces to students where they can experiment, hybridize, and venture into the digital media.

I would also like to take the opportunity to seek out support from the local art community. I wish to see a willingness to support and collaborate with the KB. I am very excited and honoured to have been invited to curate the third KB, and I wish to see the artists equally enthused about celebrating Karachi on an international level.


[i] Government of Australia, Australia Council for the Arts. Venice Biennale: History and Impact. (accessed March 09, 2021).
[ii] Patel,Shwetal and Manghani, Sunil and D’Souza, Robert. “Extracts from How to Biennale! (The Manual).” On Curating.Draft: Global Biennale Survey No 39 (June 2018): 9-14.
[iii] Sassatelli, Monica. “Symbolic Production in the Art Biennial: Making Worlds.” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 4 (July 2017): 89–113.
[iv] Hasan, Shazia. “Karachi among cities ‘most vulnerable’ to climate change”, Dawn, November 16 2019, (accessed March 09, 2021).


Government of Australia, Australia Council for the Arts. Venice Biennale: History and Impact. (accessed March 09, 2021).
Patel, Shweta and Manghani, Sunil and D’Souza, Robert. On Curating. Draft: Global Biennale Survey. Issue 39. (2018): 9-14
Martini, Vittoria. On Curating. Contemporary Art Biennals: Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency. Issue 46. (2020): 479-481.
Sassatelli, Monica. Theory, Culture and Society. Issue 4. (2017): 89-13.
Hasan, Shazia. Dawn. (accessed March 09 2021).
Markin, Pablo. (2016). Global Art Biennials, the International Art World, and the Shanghai Biennale. 10.13140/RG.2.1.2725.2883.

Shah Numair Ahmed Abbasi is a multidisciplinary artist and a freelance writer who lives and works in Karachi. He completed his BFA with a distinction from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 2014 where he specialised in sculpture and photography. Abbasi has since exhibited both locally and internationally. He was the recipient of the Gasworks Pakistan Residency 2018 in London, and Antropical Artists Residency 2019 in Steinfort. He was a Visiting Artist Fellow of the Laxmi Mittal South Asian Institute at Harvard University, Cambridge in 2020. Abbasi currently teaches Art and Design at a private O level institution.

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  • Very well written Numair. As a Karachite I’m very excited to experience a digital space where these expressions and conversations will take place. I have a question: how will we keep this dialogue going after KB 22?
    To extend the benefit of collaboration and not just limit it to the artists but also the audience as part of an ongoing conversation, would be a real achievement. Any thoughts on that? After all the Biennale will also be building a new audience having its learning component.

    Farah Shams

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