Originally conceived of as a survey of contemporary art “from the tip of Tierra del Fuego to the Northern Hudson Bay,” Denver’s Biennial of the Americas continues to morph into something entirely different and unexpected. When Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper announced plans for Denver to premiere the Biennial of the Americas in the summer of 2010, an “ideas pavilion” that would explore such themes as science, education and urban planning was to be a secondary component.
A year later, the “ideas pavilion” has become the primary focus and Vancouver design guru Bruce Mau has been chosen to direct the Biennial, named and themed “In Good We Trust.”At a town hall meeting on February 3, Mau said that the intent of the Biennial was to promote Denver and its assets, which include business innovation, research, environment, education and healthcare. He described Denver as a place with a “can-do spirit.”
“What is a biennial in the 21st century?” Mau said. “There are 200 biennials around the world and we didn’t want to be just another one, biennial 201.”
Well, that’s good, because the initial idea was fully poised to be just that biennial 201. Now, it’s unclear what’s on the agenda. Requests for interviews were declined until an official launch announcement coming sometime later this summer.
Mau promises that the Biennial of the Americas will break down old categories and boundaries and explore what is going on in the world relevant to Denver and the cultural and geopolitical climate. What can Denver offer the world? But there was little mention of the reverse question, what can the world offer Denver? For Mau it’s no longer this for that. It is something more.
“To inspire people we need points of entry. We have to get rid of the audience as a separate thing and build a platform off of which we will launch action and create a new kind of dialogue and engagement,” Mau said.
The Biennial will be organized around seven themes: health, energy, environment, habitat, economy, education and technology. The design team will create one international research lab and seven immersion experiences activated by seven weeks of events that launch seven possibilities for the future. Lucky number? Go ask SITE Santa Fe.
But there’s a method to this sensibility of seven. In 2010, seven Latin American countries will celebrate the bicentennials of their independence from Spain: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela. All these countries will be invited to participate in In Good We Trust.
Yet, it is unclear what role the visual arts will play. Erin Trapp, director of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs said at a press conference: “This isn’t a biennial of contemporary art in the traditional sense. Our goal is to reinvent the notion of a biennial and take it a step further.”
Some of her opening comments: “…While the Denver biennial will be infused with art our goal is to connect artistic expression with the most salient issues of our tim, creating an event that is truly of the Americas and one that will resonate throughout the world. . . .This really is about action.”
The Biennial of the Americas took a sharp turn to its new picture during the Democratic National Convention when Mau was invited to participate in Dialog:City. He mediated The Green Constitutional Congress and presented a talk called In Good We Trust that posed the question, “Can we create a sustainable America?”
The panel featured Charlie Cannon, Jonathan Greenblatt, Majora Carter, David Orr, Bill Becker and Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky). Mau referenced this event as inspiring him and opening his eyes to what Denver has to offer. He also referred to his Massive Change project in Vancouver and Guate Amala! as the most informative projects to prepare viewers for what the Biennial of the Americas will look like.
“This is a cross disciplinary practice,” Mau said. “How do we foster an open dialogue and collaboration? It’s not what would normally be considered an art biennial, but it does embrace a holistic creative cultural practice.”
Then perhaps we shouldn’t call it a biennial? Maybe what is being proposed is so different that a completely new title is necessary? The language here is different. There isn’t talk of testing the limits of what art can be or how spreading art out into a city puts it in a unique context to create perhaps even a new world.
Mau and the City of Denver are asking questions about where we are going and what is happening, but the answers may not come from visual artists. The answers may come from the thinkers and the doers, those who will take action and create something other than art.