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Left to right: Lucia Sanroman, Irene Hofmann, Janet Dees, Candice Hopkins

A New Biennial at SITE Santa Fe Spotlights the Americas — and Alt Strategies

Four curators plus five advisers scout new art by scouring geographies from northern Canada to southern Argentina. This through-line on a map that is organizing a new contemporary art show had me recently holding open and sideways a British Airways magazine. Reliably in the back were the grayscale maps printed behind the duty-free and movie selections (there’s a skinny country and a gordita one; where are there pampas?).

As a north-south axis, a perception of vast surface area or a problem of naming, the Americas in quotes confer an organizing principle and traveling arc upon SITElines, the title sui generis of SITE Santa Fe’s new edition-based biennial. “Unsettled Landscapes” is this summer’s inaugural event (opening July 17-19). It will feature 45 artists (or artist-collectives) from the full longitude of the Americas. Over the next six years a total of three “American” biennial shows under the SITElines umbrella will take place here.

Not only timing but time is key to the enterprise.

Irene Hofmann: “Biennials generally compress time so much one has to curate very quickly, the artist has to respond very quickly, the institution has to respond quickly, and we’re actually trying to avoid that. We spent almost four years researching this first one. We now have a network throughout the Americas, artists we’re following and will continue to follow.”

This marks a key way in which this exhibit is a “radical rethinking” of the ubiquitous biennial format whereby curators and artists deplane in one “local” context after another, the world over. Even though the international biennial first organized by SITE Santa Fe in 1995 put Santa Fe on the international map for contemporary art then, the exponential growth in biennials meant less freshness in the format by the time of Irene Hofmann’s arrival at SITE Santa Fe as chief curator. She made it in part her mission to conceive an alternative to the “parachuting” curators and artists’ model that spelled an eternal recurrence of biennial-same.

On the institutional side of SITElines are Irene Hofmann, Phillips director and chief curator of SITE Santa Fe, and Curator Janet Dees. The two curators of “Unsettled Landscapes” who articulated the program are Candice Hopkins and Lucía Sanromán.  In future editions that curatorial pair will change, but Hofmann and Dees will be the regulars from the SITE side. With the exception of Sanromán who hadn’t arrived yet in Santa Fe, the rest of us connected in late May to touch on many issues including biennials, this new American show, and what “landscape” conveys.

Janet Dees: “Why Santa Fe for the Americas? [It] came from looking at the local situation and a history of a network of different cultures.”

Candice Hopkins: “Santa Fe is a nexus for all these ideas. In considering the local there’s a starting here and moving outwards.”

As to landscapes, that noun gives title to the show but also finds the curators defining a point of difference as they express that the show’s “artists . . . . relieve the [landscape] genre of its historical burden of identification with western forms of imaging and seeing.”

Hopkins avers that several immediacies are at work:

“Landscape quite broadly affects all of us. It’s a kind of urgency.” And: “The way landscape has been framed is not neutral.”

So it may be inevitable that a show bearing the title Unsettled Landscapes mixes aesthetics and agitprop, revelation and subterfuge, sly gaming and overt re-conditioning. Futurefarmers was in the house in June for a SITElab which is a project that offers SITE as ongoing site of exploration for artists in residence. I am now carrying around in my car the vaguely alchemical, silver-ish 1943 penny they handed me during a week that involved a casting call to build a table, a visit to blacksmith Tom Joyce’s local studio, and an idea hinged (bad pun) on a note from nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer about needing a nail on which to hang his hat in his Los Alamos office.

If the atomic bomb is that inevitable thing in New Mexico landscape, we also today have the landscape unsettled by UN reports on climate change and artists in the act of “decolonization” (a curatorial term), perhaps in reference to once-colonizers establishing the genre as a pseudo-documentary interpretation of places they might have been treading without regard.

Janet Dees: “I think back to that first roundtable. [Ed. Note: The curators first met at a roundtable meeting in Santa Fe to ideate the new biennial format.] A lot of different perspectives started to come out in those early conversations. We even had some moments of tension when we had to work through understanding ‘What is a map and how does it function?’”

Some of these formal issues in art, the way art goes about making its pictures, deal in curatorial terms with updating “western forms of imaging and seeing” and making sure there’s an honoring of indigenous perspective.

Candice Hopkins: From the outset we were trying to think of landscape differently . . . and something that came up over and over again was this idea of mapping and cartography and how that, depending on what perspective you come from, can be a gesture of power.”

Irene Hofmann: “Hierarchy.”

Candice Hopkins: “Hierarchy. Power.”

The show is ambitious as it defines anew “local” 
conditions in which local can mean local to an artist practicing in Suriname as well as in Santa Fe. Hofmann stresses that, despite how unfamiliar many other countries in the Americas may be, even here in Santa Fe, the other thing this biennial won’t do is follow the Venice Biennale model of devoting “pavilions” to specific countries featuring artists thus identified by their passports.

Irene Hofmann: “I think it’s really not about pointing out where everybody is from and what their cultural perspective is. It’s very visually rich.”

Also, if typically in the past biennial artists got reified — appointed as new kings or princes of the marketplace in part because of their biennial appearance — that’s probably unlikely to be a driving factor now. The curators seem proud to mention they even chose some artists without gallery representation in a selection mode that was rigorous, ideas-driven, and not at all in the Top-40-hits style of curation.

Whether six years will mark an end to the SITElines format also remains an open question, Hofmann adds.

“I actually think we will realize [after six years] that we have only just begun and, in the process, have laid the groundwork for an ongoing deep engagement with the region.”

(During biennial opening weekend, AdobeAirstream will conduct a media residency to create podcasts by interviewing members of the public about their reactions to works by artists in the show. Please follow us on Facebook for more information.)

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