The People’s Biennial: Resisting the Monoculture of Consumption.


                    Bob Newland.  ”Keepin’ kids off drugs in South Dakota”, 1983. 

The People’s Biennial: Resisting the Monoculture of Consumption. By Grace-Yvette Gemmell for Artlog.

The second interview in a series exploring the current state of major survey exhibitions, People’s Biennial curators Jens Hoffmann and Harrell Fletcher discuss their search for new talent in an effort to create a more democratic biennial. Check back for a new interview each day this week, and read the previous interview with the the deCordova Biennial curators here.

Let’s talk a little about the curatorial approach to the People’s Biennial.

Jens Hoffmann: We went for an open call option and met with hundreds of artists in the five cities that we visited. We narrowed down the large list to about eighty and than looked at what works we had in front of us to make a selection that would be diverse in terms of the age of the artists, their social and cultural background, and of course, the style and medium of the works.

Harrell Fletcher: We worked with a local arts institution in each of the five regions that we visited. During our visits we did a public lecture and Q&A about our past work and the project. For the most part we held an open call event or events so that anyone could bring us work to look at. Along with that we explored on our own and used local sources to try to find work and artists who weren’t aware of the open call. From all of the work we saw, we selected six to eight artists from each location to include in the exhibition.

Are there any overarching themes that emerge in the exhibit? Was there a theoretical framework in mind during the early stages of the curatorial process?

HF: We were just looking for the most interesting work we could find. We didn’t have any particular themes in mind.

JH: But there were a lot of ideas that came up. I was interested in the old avant-garde idea of the creativity of the masses and how to present work that was not done by professional artists. Amateurism and regionalism became terms we spoke a lot about. Both signal in my understanding a form of resistance to the monoculture of consumption in the art world at this point in time.

A lot of invitationals this year claim to be subverting or reinventing the idea of the genre itself. Could you perhaps speak to the shape and intention of putting on a large group show and what might distinguish the People’s Biennial from others?

JH: We worked closely with the local institutions and the curators there to make sure we had support on the ground from people who knew the sociopolitical realities of the cities we visited. I am not sure if we aimed at reinventing anything. We were just curious about the artists we met and what their work and their artistic approaches could do to further development of art as a whole. The project represents an alternative not a reinvention. We had no desire to show the works in a mainstream context.

HF: We too wanted to operate in some ways that were not conventional, while at the same time keeping some more traditional structures. I don’t think it has to be all or nothing—totally conventional or not conventional at all. But some of the ways that we deviated from the standard approach as I know it are that we went to locations that are oftentimes left out, we created inclusive ways to see as much work as possible even from people who didn’t have any art world background like MFA degrees, commercial gallery representation, exhibition track record, etc., and then we designed the show so that it would travel back to the places where the work came from instead of only being shown in an art world center like NYC. We also let the artists write about themselves and their own work (whenever possible) and that information was provided in the exhibition and the book. I think just those fairly simple approaches made for a pretty dramatic difference from more traditional biennials, like the Whitney Biennial.

Do you see the pieces producing interesting conversations together as they are juxtaposed in the show?

HF: Yeah, all of the work is doing that, and it changes from location to location, and each time I view the exhibition I see new connections. One example is the relationship between the photographs of Jorge Figueroa and the paintings of David Rosenak. Both sets of work are black and white and realistic and focused on the artist’s direct community and location, but the styles and contents are totally different.