Walking into the People’s Biennial 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) feels more like stumbling upon a hidden neighborhood than entering an art exhibition. Clusters of colorful shanty-like structures with open pitched roofs preside over the newly renovated Main Gallery. Each “home” evokes its own personality, representing collaborative projects produced by 17 artist/non-artist teams, curated jointly by artist Harrell Fletcher, Associate Professor of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, and Jens Hoffman, Deputy Director and Head of Exhibitions and Public Programs at The Jewish Museum, New York, and Guest Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
As reverberations from a band’s early evening sound-check filled the gallery with an unassuming tone, this particular art viewing experience began to feel distinctly different. In an effort to make a visual, tongue-in-cheek comparison to traditional biennials or art fairs, each lean-to structure occupies the same amount of space as the next, similar to the kinds of gallery booths that line the aisles at commercialized art expos. Consistent with this democratic layout of art, whimsical illustrations of each collaborative pair can be seen on the exterior wall of each mini-pavilion, providing the viewer with the rare opportunity to see artists as people.
Currently in its second iteration, the People’s Biennial was founded by Fletcher and Hoffman in 2010 in an effort to diversify the art world and respond to “the homogeneity and insular aspects of other biennials today, as well as the spectacular nature of many of these exhibitions.”1 The mission of the People’s Biennial is to showcase the creative potential of communities that exists outside of major international art centers, in America, primarily the coast-bound enclaves of New York City and Los Angeles. The curators aim to empower people to appreciate art’s relevance outside the art market and beyond institutionalized visions of what is valid.
Conceived as an ongoing project that can adapt to multiple models, the inaugural People’s Biennial in 2010 assumed a different structure than the current Detroit version. Four years ago, Fletcher and Hoffman engaged Independent Curators International to assist with the research and selection of artists from five American communities far removed from major art centers: Haverford, PA; Scottsdale, Arizona; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Portland, Oregon. Through open-calls for artists, wandering through libraries and conversing with the locals, the team assembled a group of six to eight representatives from each region to participate in an exhibition that then traveled to their five hometowns over the course of two years.
Met with overwhelming enthusiasm, the People’s Biennial 2014 continues in a similar, if perhaps more humble vein: the objective here is to examine art and the creative process of not only those who identify as artists, but also those who don’t. This time around, an “art world” established artist, bearing a sanctioned curatorial stamp of approval, selects one partner as a representative of “the people.” Through means of a collaborative project, each team takes a distinct approach: some create an entirely new series of work while others showcase pre-existing work in a fresh context or format. As they should be, themes are a many, ranging from confronting institutionalized racism to infrastructure and counter-culture radio.
Dara Friedman and Ishmael Golden Eagle’s captivating project is housed in a sky blue shanty. The viewer first comes across a brilliant orange plinth proudly displaying a massive stone artifact, undoubtedly resembling the shape of a cork. Inside the enclosure, a video flickers on the plywood wall, chronicling the series of events that led to the archeological excavation of Ishmael’s backyard in downtown Miami, which is surrounded by skyscrapers. Ishmael speaks with proud grace, demonstrating the purpose of the stone cork: to protect the sacred well. At one point there are quick, rhythmic cuts between shots of the bustling Miami skyline, Ishmael, and the stone cork, as if the viewer were circling all three environments simultaneously, visualizing the fantastical nature of discovering such a site in one’s backyard. Friedman’s honest documentation of Ishmael, filtered through her concise aesthetic, makes for a physically and spiritually illuminating experience.
The collaboration between Carson Ellis and her son, Hank Meloy, could easily be described as every child’s dream brought to life. Watercolor portraits of surreal creatures are displayed on purple walls: an octopus-squid hybrid with a mouthful of spiral sharp teeth, an ominous black figure with glowing red eyes, a humanoid sporting a sun-eye for a head. With precise detail, Hank has verbalized to his mother Ellis how a sampling of creatures from his world might look, carefully specifying how many arms and eyes they have, and what roles they bear on their respective planets. A recording of this conversation plays above the shanty, allowing the viewer to construct his/her own interpretation of the creatures, directly from the source. Beautiful in its simplicity and thoughtfulness, this project is the product of a mother publicly inviting her son to share his unique realities with the rest of the world.
Overall, the People’s Biennial 2014 demonstrates a certain cohesiveness while still allowing for deviations, as seen by the blob-shaped cut outs of Scott Reeder and Xav Leplae’s project. Consistent with MOCAD’s commitment to serving its community, the programming for People’s Biennial 2014 has been nothing less than extensive, with programs of all different modes and varying intentions. Yet with all this engagement, still the act of exhibiting these projects within an institution recognized by the art world feels somewhat in opposition to the objective of the People’s Biennial. Presenting these projects at a community arts center or other public space would engage a still wider audience, but could potentially remove its legitimacy as “art.” That said, this question of context doesn’t necessarily interfere with the exhibition’s success. The People’s Biennial provides a refreshing and open perspective of what art-making means, proving accessible to all ages, demographics and backgrounds. So, I ask you, who would you chose?
Thea Spittle is an Admissions Counselor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and also runs seasons project space, the sunroom, in Cleveland Heights, OH. View more articles by Thea Spittle.