This weekend I had the opportunity to be involved with a unique event in the Los Angeles art community, the Venice Beach Biennial. Presented by the Hammer Museum as part of the first Los Angeles Biennial, Made in L.A., the VBB was a playfully irreverent and light-hearted take on the “real” Venice Biennale in Italy. Curator Ali Subotnick chose a roster of 80-some artists she thought could hack the conditions of this weekend-long festival that tested not only creative bounds but also physical stamina. Subotnick imposed one simple constraint on the invited artists, they had to play by the rules of the Venice Beach Boardwalk, a grueling world where vendors arrive at 5am to vie for the best spots and sit in glaring sun and driving winds to sell their wares to an often-critical and apathetic audience. Needless to say, this was a new world for these nationally and internationally recognized artists, but it also turned out to be quite a culture shock for the collectors who ventured west-ward in the hopes of meeting and buying works from their personal darlings.
I personally had several roles in the event (hence my relative silence on this blog for the last month) but the most enlightening was my experience standing in the info booth at Windward, directly behind Barbara Kruger’s contribution, directly in front of works by Jason Meadows, Liz Craft, Alex Israel, Pentti Monkkonen, John Geary, Mark Grotjahn, Nery Gabriel Lemus and directly next to Kenyatta Hinkle’s performative installation. Surrounded by art, the first question 80% of info booth visitors asked was, “Where’s the art?”.
The entire experience was, of course, a little overwhelming for visitors who faced traffic, parking scarcity and heavy foot traffic to even find the starting line. These patrons of the arts often searched through a boardwalk filled with art, crafts, and, yes, some crap, searching for their idea of “fine art” and were often unable to see it directly in front of their eyes. Work given the blessing of fine art museums worldwide, when presented in the context of the boardwalk craft fair, seemed indistinguishable to people supposedly versed in the field. This says something important about three separate aspects of the art world: connoisseurship, curation, and contemporary art work in general.
Art today, and specifically works created intentionally to fit into this
particular environment of a packed boardwalk filled with working artists and tourists, is meant to blend, to say something about our experience from the inside rather than the distanced gaze of the onlooker that so often characterizes art output historically. Many contemporary artists are interested in the subversive, the unexpected, the interventions into established memes of experience and convention, but perhaps they overestimate the general population’s relative environmental attention. Without traditional didactics and other viewership cues, interventions went completely unnoticed even among an audience with an expectation toward viewership and familiarity with the artists.
Perhaps our sense of connoisseurship is overrated? Without a price tag attached, it seems many collectors of contemporary art don’t have any idea the value or worth of an artist’s output. I wondered throughout the weekend why it bothered people so much not to know which art was brought in to the boardwalk by the Hammer and which art was created by veteran boardwalk artists. Perhaps collectors, having a stake in their “eye” for art, were wary of putting that expertise on the line by unintentionally enjoying a work of little value. Is it so frightening to look for the sake of looking, to buy for enjoyment rather than investment? Perhaps I sound a little skeptical here, and I certainly count myself among those who value the curatorial filter in my viewing experience, but I think it is also a valuable learning experience and life experience just to focus my eye upon the world and see what I find.
Thirdly I think the Biennial highlighted the value of curators in the museum context. Just as so many museums are consolidating and downsizing their curatorial departments (hello MOCA Los Angeles), the Hammer has given us a perfect example of what curators do and why their interventions are so essential to viewer experience. The word is overused today from pinterest to music shows to food, “curated” is used to modify a variety of groupings made by the uninitiated to suggest anything that is selected rather than the academic rigor and archival function of the trained museum curator. Collectors are not curators just as a reader who dog-ears the pages of a decorating magazine is not a designer. Curators like Ali Subotnick spend years training their eye through historical research and personal interactions with artists and art works, to be able to see the gems in the crowd and put them together in a cohesive unit which is then cared for and presented in a way that allows for dialogue between and within space and works. An environment like that of the VBB allows us to truly appreciate an exhibition like Made in LA, where similar artists are given the full and traditional curatorial treatment.
Overall it seems the reception for VBB was positive among outside art enthusiasts, artists, and the Venice community. I hope more patrons of the arts put themselves in these positions, there are a lot of great artists out there who haven’t yet been given the blessing of major institutions and we shouldn’t shy away from enjoying and even purchasing and displaying their works. At the same time, let’s all remember and take a moment to appreciate the environment and experience we are treated to in the museum!