This interview was originally published on CURA magazine in the winter 2011 issue. It is not otherwise available online and the hard copy editions of those glorious, early issues have all SOLD OUT. http://www.curamagazine.com.
The conversation was about their collaborative project, “People’s Biennial”: a traveling exhibition that seeks to explore the work of overlooked, marginalized, eccentric and under-recognized artists. The project was organized and supported by Independent Curators International (ICI) and has been presented at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, The Dahl Art Center, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
We, The People
Jens Hoffmann: Our intention is very much to look for art made outside the main art centers of the US. We feel that there is a certain artistic language that dominates what people get to see in the main museums and galleries and we want to diversify that, break the status quo. We want these artists that we have worked with to have a platform on which they can exhibit their work and have it seen by a larger audience through out the country. Creativity, artistic innovation happens in Rapid City or Scottsdale just as much as it does in Los Angeles and New York.
MA: Who are the “People”? Do you identify the participants to this project with its audience? What kind of public (and/or reactions) do you expect/anticipate at People’s Biennial shows?
Harrell Fletcher: The point of using the word “People” is to emphasize the role of the people who have made the work and the ones who will be experiencing it, as opposed to putting the importance more on commercial or fashion concerns. Yes, the participants have a connection with the audience of the show because the work is being shown in the places where it came from, so that in each version of the show there will be a set of local artists and a set of local people connected to those artists. We are hopeful that the public reaction will be positive; that they will find the work interesting and engaging.
MA: What do you think the “People”‘s approach to and understanding of art (and art-making) is and what kind of value do you see in its difference (if any)? Are art world audiences so desperately narrow minded?
JH: Desperately narrow minded is a good way to describe it. We were interested in artists who make work not because of career reasons, or because they want their work necessarily to be shown, but artists that make art because of a creative impulse to talk about the world around them. All of this is to sit outside the commodified art world of galleries, collectors, large museums and so on. The trend towards more and more commercialization in the art world contains the danger of eliminating creativity and artistic innovation. We want the world to understand that there are a million ways of making art, not just the three or four that we see in the main art centers all the time.
MA: The project’s tenets include a characterization of “curatorial models” as a foil to what I perceive as an ideal of free and unmediated artistic presentation/reception, a way of rejecting art world-sanctioned definitions of art and art values … Can you explain this approach in light of the fact that the project also labels itself as a “curatorial experiment”? And considering the sizable art world cred that both of you enjoy?
JH: I am not sure about the idea of a “curatorial experiment”. The art world credibility that you describe is something that we utilize here to bring attention to these artists in People’s Biennial. In a way we are trying to undermine the system. It is a virus that we are trying to spread. Almost like a Trojan horse, we enter the mainstream, and now that we are part of it we unleash these kind of projects to make people think and change their ways of looking at art.
MA: Harrell, in an interview to you (published on BOMB magazine) Alan McCollum, remarked how the meaning of your practice doesn’t reside in any one piece but more in the practice itself… (I agree with that observation). Are the selections presented in the PB going to be discussed at depth (as artworks in a “regular” art exhibit would…) or are you trying to focus on the operation as a whole? Did you ever perceive the risk that this project might be read more as an extension of your artistic practice (and of Jens’s creative curatorial strategies) than an actual investigation of under represented talent?
HF: I think the show and the works in the show can be considered in many different ways, which I think is good. It is a complex project and people can approach it from various angles. I think that it can function both as a part of our practices and an investigation of underrepresented work at the same time.
MA: How did you work to “discover” the participants to the PB and what strategies and criteria were employed in selecting and curating the final selection of works?
HF: We had open calls in which anyone could recommend artists to us and anyone could come to show us work, almost like in the popular TV program “Antique Road Show”. That may sound crass to some people, but we didn’t want to use the traditional method of consulting with commercial galleries to determine who to have studio visits with, so we had to use a more open system that would allow us to meet a lot of people and see a lot of work in a short period of time, and it actually worked out very well. The open calls were advertised on the radio, in local papers, on the web etc., so that a wide variety of people would hear about what we were doing. When it came time to make the actual selection of the work we used the same criteria we would for any other show – we picked the work that was the most compelling to us.
MA: Why separating the non-professional artist from the professional? Does this choice reflect an intention to create a context or maintaining a niche?
JH: We did not really make a separation between professional and non-professional artists. This is a very diverse group of artists that includes non-professionals, artists with gallery representation, artists with and without degrees…they come form all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds and from all generations. All we really cared about was that the work would introduce something new and different to the state of the arts at this moment of its historical development and was not part of the overall mainstream.
MA: PB is going to travel to many museums and institutions, far from institutional artistic/cultural capitals like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago… What inspired this choice and how do you think it will contribute to the communication and reception of the project?
JH: We wanted the cities to be evenly spread through out the US and we did not want them to be art centers, in fact we wanted them to be as peripheral in a geographical sense as possible. We also knew from the start that we did not want this show to travel to any of the main cities in the US where its reception would have been really different. In the five cities the show will travel too people will actually look at the art, in New York people would perhaps see this as a freak show or a meta-curatorial project, neither of which this exhibition is about.
HF: The process of working on the project has changed our understanding of it, so some of the ways that the project was written about before we started have now been adjusted in various ways. One new addition to the project is that Jens and I are opening a temporary gallery in San Francisco called The People’s Gallery and will have solo shows of six of the artists from the PB. We decided to do this because some of the work felt like it would work really well as solo shows and it will give us a chance to spread the word about these artists to an even wider audience. There are various other shifts and additions that have happened along the way and I think that is a very good thing because it makes the project more dynamic than if we had just illustrated a simple idea through the creation of the show.