Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2008, Image via: The Times Picayune
Looking for someone to scare this Halloween? Art nerds might consider a trip to Prospect 1, New Orleans, as what may be one of the largest art events of the year opens tonight. I say this because I’ve been receiving tips and press releases virtually by the hour here from galleries, artists and journalists participating in Prospect 1, the largest biennial in the US to date. It’s hard to know precisely what shape the opening ceremonies will take not being there myself — I have to admit I’m a little jealous of everyone who’s down there right now — though the onslaught of press coverage I’ve noted over the last couple of days should provide a few answers.
Meanwhile I did a little research on my own in an attempt to figure out what all the fuss was about. Prospect 1 curator Dan Cameron unabashedly labels the biennial a blockbuster; he's invited 180 extremely well known artists to participate — Janine Antoni, Sanford Biggers, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Shirin Neshat, and Nari Ward to name a few — so the city wide event has this, (as well as the much needed post-Katrina art as economic stimulus) as its draw. Even knowing this though, I still wondered how they were attracting self absorbed city slickers out there, so I spoke to Gail Dexter Lord, co-founder of Lord Cultural Resources Planning, and co-author of multiple editions of The Manual of Museum Planning. “Really in the last 15 or 20 years the number of biennials has increased dramatically and there's an arch of tourism that goes with it.” she told me recently, “So I think that the phenomenon of contemporary art tourism and I use the word advisedly but I don't know any other way of describing it; [demonstrates that] people will travel quite a ways to see important art in interesting places. And the success in the more recent times of art fairs, [a similar time based event, but entirely commercial in nature] is also very very remarked. Art Basel in Miami, who could have imagined it would have been as successful as it is?”
Fair enough. Even this New Yorker made it to Miami for the last two years running, though my travel was largely informed by the fact that the entire art community relocates for a week. Certainly, when I first heard Art Basel Miami was launching in 2002, the idea of successful fair in a locale wholly unknown for fine art seemed laughable. Also, it wasn’t like the Armory at that time, was a huge phenomenon either. I suppose the questions about to be answered regarding Prospect 1 run something along the lines of, have the already 15 years of biennials been enough to satiate viewer interest and are we not also tiring of art fairs and is this contributing to event based fatigue?
Dan Cameron expressed a few thoughts to me in response to this question, “If the art fairs become the standard for how art is presented and digested, how it is consumed lets say, whether it's actively or passively, then I think we're entering into some truly problematic territory,” he began, “because and any dealer will tell you or any curator or director, the one thing that happens in art fairs is that nobody looks at the work. The setting isn't made as in a gallery or a museum for looking for just the simple act of contemplation. Maybe that's appropriate for a short attention span society, but to me it would seem like we're going to see a backlash pretty soon in which the thrill of the deal as far as art as concerned starts to diminish and people start asking themselves; What is the purpose of art? What is the function of art in society? Why do artists spend all this time and energy making work simply in order to have it traded like a commodity? It's into this gap that Project 1 is really rushing.”
Cameron’s words transcribed sound like PR, but talking to him, there was a real excitement in his voice. As if anticipating my kind of response all along — knowing that only the experience of New Orleans itself could do the convincing — Cameron explained to me passionately, “What's going to happen, is when people see Prospect 1 they are really going to understand that getting in touch with the city is truly a process, that they're not really going to be able to see the exhibition without delving into the city of New Orleans as a special historical place.” and though I’m not there now, I believe him when he tells me, “I think that's different.”