“A Breath of Air!” – cried the poet and along cried with him all those who felt the social-political atmosphere tighten around them, choking their civil liberties, all those who rejected the power that imposed surveillance, prohibition and restriction on them instead of resolving the problems of the broader social strata. “A Breath of Air!” – we cry today when surveillance is taking on global proportions, social inequalities are greater than ever, and all of these are accompanied by a new peril: beneath the looming shadow of the climate catastrophe, inhaling fresh air has become the privilege of a select few. When we chose the 1935 poem “A Breath of Air!” by the acclaimed Hungarian poet Attila József as our point of departure for the third edition of OFF-Biennale, little did we know what new layers of meaning our title would gain throughout the year 2020. Nor did we suspect that we would have to postpone the biennale by an entire year on account of a global pandemic. Since then we have witnessed the agony of millions fighting for their lives gasping for air. Meanwhile the outcry “I can’t breathe!” – the last words of Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, Elijah McClain and George Floyd, the African American people killed in the course of brutal police action – has become one of the most important slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It appears as though the metaphor of air – and along with it, breathing – marks an imperative that is at least as powerful in 2021 as in the mid-thirties, when the poem was conceived. Then the social catastrophe of the Great Depression rearranged the political map of Europe, and Fascism overruled half of the continent; whether still in the development stage or in the process of becoming ever so mighty, totalitarian dictatorships or authoritarian regimes amidst fragile international treaties foreshadowed a new war that would be more extensive and horrid than ever. We have every reason to be pessimistic, as well: since the Great Recession of 2008, the political climate has once again shifted in a xenophobic, populist direction, not just in Hungary, but also in several other countries all over the world. In fact, it is not only the political climate that has changed: due to human activity, the climate of the Earth is also going through dramatic changes. Therefore, in our 21st century reading of the poem, a “breath of air ” refers simultaneously to the galloping climate catastrophe and to the threat posed on civil liberties by populist regimes and global capital alike. To the vital substance that is more than a token of our survival: “fresh air” is also a symbol of freedom, it can refer to a site or situation in which it is possible to breathe freely.
What does contemporary art have to say when scientific facts are taken over by conspiracy theories, myths replace history, and creativity itself has also become subject to co-option? The projects presented do not only point to problems: going beyond criticism, they deliver utopistic, playful, or very tangible propositions and alternatives. Thus, the title “Inhale!” is neither a desperate cry for help, nor a mere demand, but rather an imperative pertaining to all of us. It means that we must take action for clean air, for the protection of our freedom, for the liberation of our imagination. It means that we must take a deep breath and get to work. Collective engagement is the only way to preserve and create conditions and places for breathing freely.