Expert Eye

Prospect New Orleans Curator Franklin Sirmans on the Purpose of Biennials

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Prospect New Orleans Curator Franklin Sirmans on the Purpose of Biennials
Curator Franklin Sirmans

When the curator Franklin Sirmans was hunting for inspiration for the third edition of Prospect New Orleans, the quasi-biennial group show of contemporary artists that founder Dan Cameron designed to sprawl across the Big Easy, he looked to a literary beacon: Walker Percy's National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer.

Published in 1961, the book centers around John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, “the last and sorriest scion of noble stock.” Bollings is on an existential quest—a “search” as he calls it—that drives him to wander New Orleans in an continual attempt to escape the everyday, often bringing him into the cooling darkness of different movie theaters around the city. As a result, he explains, “All movies smell of a neighborhood and a season” depending on when and where they were seen. It is the specificity of place, and of New Orleans in particular, that centers his existence: “If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically.... There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville.” 

Like Bolling’s movie theaters, Prospect has venues around New Orleans—and at 18 in total, it's a greater number than the show has seen before. Visitors are invited to set out on their own search, meandering the diverse neighborhoods of a city brimming with cultural legacies. Artspace spoke with Sirmans (whose day job is running the renowned contemporary art department at LACMA) about his curatorial approach, and the ways in which the biennial has developed over its origins in 2008.

I want to thank you making me pick up the copy of The Moviegoer that I've had on my shelf for years.

Oh, cool.

I really enjoyed reading it. What led you to look at the novel as source material ?

It was totally easy in a way. I tried to be open during the first years, thinking about artists for the exhibition and just going on studio visits—but going in with the idea that, in order for these shows to be successful, they have to do a couple of things. For one, they need to address the local contexts where they take place geographically, socially, and culturally; on the other hand, they also have to be about international conversations. The book does both of these things. It's so specific to New Orleans at a single point in time, but it's also written by somebody who was moving around the world and studied Camus and was very much interested in a existentialism.  So, you have this worldview that's about people in general and not necessarily about the inhabitants of any place in particular, but it's also rooted in a city that is somewhere and not anywhere.

You've organized the show into nine curatorial umbrellas: "The New Orleans Experience," "Seeing Oneself in the Other," "The South," "Crime and Punishment," "Moviegoing," "The Carnivalesque," "Abstraction," "Visual Sound," and "All Together Now." How are these sections distinct?

They aren't, so much. I think some of those divisions are definitely still there, but I don't know how much those things come through in the show.

Oh really?

It depends. I think there's an ebb and flow and a rhythm that involves all of those things, but I don't know if any of them really stick out.

Were they in your mind as you were thinking of the roster of artists?

Yes. Those are the kinds of things that came out of studio visits.

You've included a number of artists who you've worked with in the past.

Yes, definitely. You have to have some sense of familiarity sometimes, I think, in order to see certain projects through, especially those kind of projects where in the beginning you honestly don't know what it's going to look like at the end. So, the familiarity of some people was definitely good for me. I don't know about comforting, but definitely a point of strength, I think.

You included work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose art you have worked with extensively, as well as older artists like Paul Gauguin.

Yes, who I have not worked with. [Laughs.] Not even with the work, though—I don’t think we had anything at the Menil.

Was it important for you to look both backwards and forwards when you were selecting artists?

Definitely. That idea of Bolling's search is something that led directly into the nature of what these kinds of exhibitions are, which come up every two, three years with the idea of trying to address the big topics Gauguin was after in his 1898 painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which is in the MFA Boston. That led me to look much more closely at him, and then I started to think about his work in a larger context and see him as an interesting, transformative kind of character. It also just so happens that the New Orleans Museum of Art owns a really special pair of glass French doors that he made when he first got to Tahiti. It's super cool.

This is the first time that Dan Cameron hasn't overseen Prospect. Was he involved at all?

I don't believe officially, but, yes, very much so for me. We probably spoke and had dinner at least every few weeks when I first started thinking about the show.

He's been quoted as saying that he wanted the biennial to create enough activity to sustain artists over time so that the young and talented don't leave to go to New York or Los Angeles as they have been doing. Is that something you've thought of as well going into the show?

No, because I entered at a different plane, and what he foresaw has already happened. There was a big article in the New York Times a few months ago about all the artists here. There are almost too many of them, but it's a good thing. There are also a lot of artist-run spaces—New Orleans is unique, I think, in its percentage of artist-runs spaces. I can't think of another American city quite like it; it reminds me of Canadian cities. There are so many, and they're very strong.

I didn't realize Canada was known for it's artist-run spaces.

Yes—Montreal, Ottawa, they all have really strong artist-run spaces. I didn't even know Gallery 101 was an artist-run space until somebody told me. They don't stick out in that way—they're premier destinations.

This third edition of Prospect was postponed for a year. The first one was delayed as well, for financial reasons. Was that the same reason for the delay of this show?

I don't know.  For me, I came on when Jane Farver was the acting director, and Jane was always wanting to retire. She had just retired from her position at the Queens Museum. There was a big transition there, and I think the extra time was very helpful for [Prospect New Orleans executive director] Brooke Davis Anderson to come on board.

Do you think Prospect will continue to try and operate as a biennial?

I think we might move it to a triennial.

In the beginning, Hurricane Katrina was the ghost haunting Prospect, which opened in its aftermath. How could it not be?

It was very much the foundation of the whole conversation. I think, Dan was thinking about it in the same way that we've seen other biennials attempt to furnish something in those kinds of troubled times. I think he sited the Gwangju Biennial after the student movements there in Korea. Everybody knows the origins of dOCUMENTA [as a reaction against the censorship of contemporary art under the Nazi regime]. Biennials often come out of that sort of situation.  Johannesburg probably was part of that conversation as well.

Has it still been part of your conversations with artists?

No—for me, it's not. I mean, there are references here and there, but, no, it's not an essential schematic or anything like that.

It seems to me that several of the artists in this show are reacting to that history.

I don't think so.

No?

No. We do have the Shigeru Ban installation, and some of its documentary material references the house he made in 2009 with Brad Pitt in the wake of the storm. But I don't think any other artists make that kind of reference. I could be wrong.

I was thinking of Lisa Sigal, who was looking at the citys empty homes, and of Marie Ellen Carroll, who is working with themes of energy and the Super Wifi in her new work Public Utility 2.0.

Katrina might be in there somewhere, but I think Mary Ellen is really pushing toward things that reflect all of our cities and the ways that somehow these sites that are distinguished as being for people of lower incomes often have less services. It's at the exact site where Interstate 10 crosses through what was once a vibrant market and community.

Have you seen changes in the city as you've worked on Prospect?

No, not so much. I've been down maybe onece a month, so I don't know. I guess you see the cost of construction, and you know that it's one of the fastest growing cities that there is—there's no doubt about that. But I don't spend enough time here to really see that, to notice the fabric of it changing.

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