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People's Biennial 2014

Academic journal article Afterimage

People's Biennial 2014

Article excerpt

People's Biennial 2014


SEPTEMBER 12, 2014-JANUARY 4, 2015

People's Biennial at the Woodward Gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) housed seventeen freestanding structures that, according to the curatorial statement, displayed work of "the little-known, the overlooked, the marginalized and the excluded." Co-curated by the artist Harrell Fletcher and curator Jens Hoffman, People's Biennial represented a diverse array of creative practitioners in America today: everything from wedding photographers to woodworkers, "alienologists" to designers. The gallery space was divided into a maze of multiple huts, each a different color with slight variations in form. Each hut was accompanied by the names and illustrated portraits of the artists and their collaborators, as well as a brief description, interview, or story about the body of work exhibited inside.

As a collaborative project, People's Biennial paralleled Fletcher's hallmark work, Learning to Love You More (2002), a crowdsourced online artwork created with the artist Miranda July. Similar to the latter project, People's Biennial addressed the exclusionary and insular curatorial culture of the mainstream art biennial world by extending the scope of exhibition sites and including nonprofessional artists. For People's Biennial 2014 (the first edition was in 2010), Fletcher and Hoffman extended invitations to seventeen recognized artists to create work in collaboration with a nonprofessional creative individual, and chose Detroit as its setting.

In an interview, Fletcher explained that the use of the term "people" as a way to frame the biennial relates to an emphasis on "valuing people." (1) Detroit was chosen both because of Hoffman's relationship to MOCAD, and because the city is outside of the established biennial circuit. Fletcher also noted that although the city constitutes "a place with an interesting and complex cultural history and current dynamic," the exhibit was not intended to engage the local community. Ultimately, as he put it, the stress of the biennial was on the "personalities" and the "relationships" between practicing artists, and between artists and non-artists. On this note, some of the most striking works in the exhibition highlighted the personal as a sphere for creative impetus, as well as raised questions about the project's declared focus on developing pluralistic cultural spaces, and about the ways "relationships" were materialized within the space itself.

The collaboration between Wendy Ewald and Denise Dixon was one of the first exhibits one encountered upon entering into the gallery space. A wedding and maternity photographer, Dixon first met Ewald in the 1980s when Dixon was a young student in Ewald's photography class at Campbell's Branch Elementary School in Whitesburg, Kentucky. In her book entitled / Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children (2002), Ewald describes a class assignment she did with Denise Dixon at the time:

   I asked my new class in Kentucky to talk about what dreams were,
   where they came from, and to narrate some of the memorable ones. To
   establish a receptive atmosphere for these sometimes frightening
   fantasies, we turned out the lights and sat on the floor of the
   darkroom. Denise Dixon dreamed of herself with a snake around her
   neck. (2)

Some twenty years later, Dixon came across Ewald's name on the internet and sent her an email. …

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