Gerald McMaster with co-artistic director Catherine de Zegher

This year’s 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations, is all about collaboration and conversation. Its co-artistic director, Gerald McMaster, speaks with arts interview about how he helped bring together more than 100 artists from around the world to exhibit across five iconic Sydney venues.

Interview by Heather Jennings

What are the challenges in working with artists and other stakeholders from around the world for a major arts event?

Communication is the most complex issue, though it’s partly solved by the latest generation of computer connectivity, something old-school curators had to live without from the 1970s to the 1990s.

We worked with over 100 artists from all parts of the world, each with challenges unique to their project: whether it was trying to raise additional monies to realize a large-scale idea; managing the complexity of shipping works from across the globe; or finding enough volunteers to help install the works in Sydney.

What sort of cultural differences have arisen in developing and implementing the event and how have you overcome these?

Cultural difference has been particularly interesting, especially in addressing contemporary art from different regions around the world. We visited at least 44 countries, so you can imagine the cultural differences we encountered. What helped along the way was talking with local curators, who often provided not only logistical assistance, but also conversational support to explore ideas and intellectual connections.

We assume today that cultural diversity is much more accepted worldwide. John McDonald of The Sydney Morning Herald recently said this is the “least Eurocentric Biennale”, which speaks to the fact we wanted to show great work from unusual sources. Australia prides itself on being a multicultural society, but this isn’t the reason we made the selections we made. The world is changing rapidly so it is counter intuitive to stick to old paradigms.

What time management methods have you employed to successfully travel and work in different countries in the lead up to the 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations?

I would have to say that recent trends in social media usage have reified our notion of collaboration and conversation. Without it we would not have been able to do an exhibition of this scale. Time has shrunk so much of what we do that many more details can be handled at once.

The Biennale staff were exceptional. They were organised in all aspects of creating a large and complex exhibition, so that helped to take away much of the worry from the artistic directors.

How does spending time in different countries inform your curatorial practices and ideas for future projects?

I find it almost obligatory to be in the country where the artists have lived most of their lives. In some instances, artists now live elsewhere, which made it difficult for me to visit, but on the whole it was important to visit the many countries if only to acquaint myself with the art and culture of the region.

“How much did I learn from others about their regional artistic practices?” and “What is it that I’ll take away from all this?” are questions that have guided me along the way, that will have a profound effect on how I see artists living and working in various parts of the world. I saw a lot that made me take notice.

The thing I take away from each of my visits is the many stories that were exchanged. Storytelling is such a beautiful human quality, and this is an idea that formed the basis for the exhibition.

The Biennale of Sydney: all our relations runs until September 16.