Below is a short and smart critique of the Denver Biennial of the Americas from Paddy Johnson writing for L Magazine.
What does a biennial look like when it’s run by a group of businessmen and politicians? If Denver’s Biennial of the Americas (July 16-September 2) is any indication, like some awful, biennial-length franken-conference in the service of multinational corporations. Art, when it was given a place at all, was used primarily as a branding tool for the event; it’s not surprising then that it has little to offer art lovers or businesspeople. Even the Biennial’s expressed aims—idea exchange, and looking to booming economies in the north and south—weren’t achieved.
In the inaugural discussion forum “Unleashing Human Potential,” the only time anyone looked to the north was when Google’s Eric Schmidt observed that some snow was melting up in Canada, and that might reveal new sources of revenue. He later proclaimed that poverty would be eliminated thanks to mobile devices, and he cited The Huffington Post as a publishing model that might one day help writers get paid. (The Huffington Post does not pay most of its writers!)
Needless to say, I left that panel praying that the exchange of ideas would stop, and the Biennial did its best to make sure that it would. Whereas most such exhibitions would host contemporary art that could spark exchange, this one blew its resources on high-profile panelists like the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown and the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington. Art was so clearly an afterthought that half the audience had already left “Unleashing Human Potential” before we were told we should sit back down because the organizers had forgotten to announce the cultural programming.
That was a missed opportunity. Denver’s art community, while not yet mature, is growing and ready for the kinds of challenges a national event can bring. The Biennial commissioned only four architectural pieces, two small art shows, and a smattering of billboards across the city. For context, Prospect One, the widely lauded 2008 biennale in New Orleans, showcased the work of 81 artists in 24 venues across the city while offering an array of cultural and educational programs to the local community. Though underfunded, the art program has its moments. The citywide billboard project curated by Paul Andersen, Carsen Chan, Gaspar Libedinksy, and Cortney Stell is probably the most successful, as it requires people to tour Denver in packs. You get to know the city, which is enjoyable. I spent the better part of a day looking for all 31 of these commissions, each by artists well-known (Michael Snow, Julieta Aranda) and emerging (Amalia Ulman).
Daniel Jackson’s “Respect the Moustache” was among the strongest, a colorful digital collage of the city’s horse statues now with Photoshopped unicorn horns and hovering over a long strip of car shops, motels and fast-food restaurants. It’s a simple subversion of an overtly masculine symbol, and I liked that even visitors could easily recognize the altered statues. It will have meaning for everyone.
That’s likely not the case for Corina Copp’s, whose text looks like it’s half written in HTML and reads like sexualized broken poetry. “I want to be alone.>> <>Please no dogs. Please no dogs. <>” Text like this is hard to read, let alone read on a billboard, which is designed to be glanced at quickly.
Far more annoying though is the small text on the side of the poster that advertises the Biennial of the Americas. Normally, I wouldn’t take much issue with this—I’ve never bought the idea that art on billboards subverts advertising, because it’s such good advertising for itself—but in the context of the Biennial of the Americas, the ad rubbed me the wrong way. Organizations invested in the arts don’t slap advertising all over their art, because most artists don’t want their message co-opted for a brand. For all their so-called interest in “idea exchange,” somehow the Biennale of the Americas failed to talk to the artists and curators long enough to learn that.
Photo c/o Biennial of the Americas