Recorded in New York during Armory Arts Week 2014, this episode features Franklin Sirmans, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We’re talking about Prospect New Orleans, an exhibition the size of a city. Franklin is artistic director of this year’s U.S. Biennial, AKA Prospect.3, or P.3. With the biennial now 6 months away, Franklin shares his vision—a curatorial concept that spans decades and oceans.
To set the stage, Franklin talks about books, the City of New Orleans, and two historically important figures: French artist Paul Gauguin and Brazilian artist Tarsila Do Amaral. The P.3 curator explains the ideas behind several 2014 projects and introduces the participating artists whose work is represented in this Fresh Talk photo gallery: Los Jaichackers, Theaster Gates, Mary Ellen Carroll, Glenn Kaino, and Hayal Pozanti. Click on these artists’ names to learn more about their projects.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Photo Credits in Captions | Episode Sound: Los Jaichackers, A Fuego Lento/Slow Burn II
CATHY BYRD: Today I’m in New York, with Franklin Sirmans, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We’re talking about Prospect New Orleans, an exhibition the size of a city. Six years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Curator Dan Cameron launched Prospect New Orleans. In 2011, Franklin was appointed Artistic Director of this year’s biennial. With the citywide exhibition now six months away, Franklin shares a concept that spans decades and oceans.
FRANKLIN SIRMANS: First and foremost is that the exhibition and the project really began with Dan [Cameron] in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That major, catastrophic event played so much of a role in terms of the art and discussion around the exhibition at its founding. I believe that, at this point further removed, we can do something quite different, so we draw upon a thematic that includes aspects of New Orleans, but not necessarily that one event.
CB: Franklin intends for the exhibition to evoke an ambiguous sense of place.
FS: The exhibition, for me, might be subtitled Somewhere And Not Anywhere. So, there is this very strong focus on that place and it can’t be done anywhere else, by any means. But it is also wide enough to encompass many different ideas and many different places and artists. I’m hoping that’s what rings true and that’s what people are left with.
CB: What would be considered your curatorial vision or the philosophy that’s behind how you’re organizing this exhibition?
FS: Well, the philosophy very much comes out of research and experience in thinking about these types of biennial exhibitions and how they have been used historically, so I think the approach begins there.
CB: Franklin says that books are often where his curatorial projects begin.
FS: For me, literature always provides a sort of jumping- off point. In this case, I had been thinking about several different epic kinds of novels, if you will, because that’s what I do and that’s kind of where the approach often begins. I have settled on a book very specific to New Orleans called The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which takes us back historically, of course, to the late 1950s and early 60s. That plays a really important role, and I think that although there are artworks that span all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, that our discussion is very much in the here and now.
CB: The 2014 biennial in New Orleans is about existentialism, exoticism, and other idiosyncratic ideas.
FS: I would say that The Moviegoer provides inspiration as a sort of existentialist, discursive kind of text in which things happen very subtly and perhaps poetically, and that the surface of that book is in New Orleans, but again, it could be anywhere. And really, at its heart, it’s about people and how people see each other. So, for me, visually, that relates back to two artists. One is Paul Gauguin, and the other is Tarsila do Amaral, a Brazilian artist. There’s a conversation between those two that’s happening, and it has to do with how we choose to see each other. I think that comes out of a reading of the book, perhaps. With Gauguin, there is, I think, an interesting side where he’s trying to find himself in this sort of other, this exoticized other. And then, with Tarsila, she’s trying to define another, as in define what it is to be Brazilian in the 1920s.
CB: Franklin talks about a 1928 manifesto that shaped Tarsila’s perspective and introduces some of the 21st century views in the biennial.
FS: That relates very much to a manifesto called the Cannibalist Manifesto or Antropofagia, and this idea of eating the other in order to show one’s true self. She’s talking about the Brazilian identity around Africa and Europe, and it can’t be one without the other. They’re coming at these ideas about the other from two different viewpoints, from two different places in the world, from two different cultural experiences. I think there’s something interesting in that dialogue. Moving forward from there, there are several nodes of sustained thought or interest that artists will address. You have artists who are interested in crime and punishment, for instance, in a very universal way. Artists who are interested in the South. In fact, there is a smaller exhibition that is part of the general exhibition called Basquiat and the Bayou, which is very much about the American South, about the Mississippi River and the area around New Orleans. And then there are other ways of addressing that idea, and to think about the Caribbean, to think about South America, to think about Central America, to think about Latin America as a node, and not as the margin, but as a center.
CB: The Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina, was the focal point of Prospect.1 interventions. I know that Prospect.1 and Prospect.2, as well, had a relationship with different communities. Mark Bradford did a project within a community and Wangechi Mutu did the project in the house that was missing [had been swept away in the flood], and I’m wondering—how are the artists working in communities or within environments this time?
FS: Well, in the past, those specifically were all in the Lower Ninth Ward, and we have something going on there, but it’s not by any means a central focus of this exhibition. The show will take place in most of the institutional venues, including the Contemporary Art Center, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Newcomb at Tulane, and then there are these other positions around the city that artists have been working on for quite some time as far as site-specific projects.
CB: Franklin introduces several of the artists involved in neighborhood projects.
FS: There are several of those at play. One is with the duo Los Jaichackers [Julio Cesar Morales and Eamon Ore-Girón]. Another is with the artist Theaster Gates. Another big one is with the artist Glenn Kaino. Mary Ellen Carroll has been working on one for a long time. And all of these are kind of spread out, and I think that they are part of the sort of surprises, the poetry. I don’t know exactly, in some cases, what we’re going to see. And one of the ideas behind that though that touches upon, I think, what you’re mentioning of the Lower Ninth Ward past experiences, is that there is a concern within this exhibition for leaving something in New Orleans and not just doing a biennial that comes and goes. For instance, there are a couple of ephemeral works that are going to change people’s lives, like literally, like entrepreneurial setups that will allow some people to become entrepreneurs long after the biennial is gone. Mary Ellen Carroll’s project is to provide Internet in a neighborhood that doesn’t have it, which is almost unheard of at this point in the game, in this country.
CB: We talk about the challenges that come with the biennial model, among them sustainability. I’m thinking that globally, the biennial is a problematic platform.
FS: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s the circumstance. Each one is specific to its circumstances. Support comes from different places in different ways. I think it’s a matter of being able to work from a standpoint that allows for the form to grow and to change and to be dynamic in the way that it relates to its host city. So we are tapping into the cultural life of New Orleans. Like, you can’t do a show there and not think about music and not think about food. I mean these are important aspects of it. And I believe that plays an important role in that those kinds of ties are important to sustainability.
CB: Where does Prospect fit into the international conversation of biennials?
FS: It’s a pretty amazing city in terms of its uniqueness, not unlike a Venice. It’s a city that has a lot of cultural activity. It has a lot to offer as a site of disruption in some ways or as a site of interest in terms of American history, in terms of American politics, in terms of right now, and so it has something to offer to a conversation that is not only about contemporary art. It’s built into the city and has been situated, at least in the prior exhibitions, as an international biennial that came about in the wake of Katrina, but with an eye on Venice, an eye on Documenta. So that is the foundation that Dan [Cameron] set that I’ve tried to use as a platform. I think it can be a really viable voice.
CB: Finally, I’d really love to know what you hope to leave behind as your own curatorial statement, so to speak.
FS: Just one good show that people want to see and that makes people experience that city more. And I think that, with the mix of artists that we’re working with, people will be really curious about coming to see the exhibition. And that the platform provided is one that honors the city in which it takes place while also opening up a dialogue or a conversation with everywhere else. So I hope that’s what people are left with.