SITE Santa Fe was founded in 1995 as an institutional platform for the only international biennial in the United States, and one of only a few dozen internationally. Since then the number of biennials worldwide has proliferated. In 2011, SITE took a strategic hiatus from the biennial model in order to re-imagine what the SITE Santa Fe biennial could be. In July 2014, SITE returns with Unsettled Landscapes, the first of the exhibition series SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas, a six-year commitment to three thematically linked biennials. ArtSlant was able to catch up with three members of the curatorial team of Unsettled Landscapes: Irene Hofmann, Phillips Director and Chief Curator of SITE Santa Fe, Janet Dees, Curator of Special Projects, and visiting curator Lucía Sanromán.
Lauren Tresp: SITElines marks a return to SITE's biennial mission after a strategic hiatus. Can you talk about the genesis of SITElines and particularly the focus on geography as a framework?
Irene Hofmann: At SITE, we had done a lot of thinking about the biennial and what its future might be. In studying our own history, and acknowledging the importance of the curators that had come before us, we recognized that the art world was quite different now than when SITE first launched.
It was so important and bold to bring an international contemporary art biennial to Santa Fe, and the format and the players that were part of SITE’s beginning served SITE well and really put the institution on the map. However after nearly twenty years and a totally changed contemporary art landscape, the very format that we had adopted was feeling like it had been exhausted. And we were not the only institution that was asking these kinds of questions about the nature of biennials, how they fit into an institution, how they fit into a place, a community, and their relationship to the community.
So we set out on a process where everything was open for discussion and consideration, and as we began to look at what SITE’s future might be relative to staging biennials, we began to really focus on two areas: one was the decision to rethink the biennial model, and the other was the decision to give it a geographic focus. That came very early on in my time in Santa Fe, and it came from being here and this cultural mix. I’ve been in many very diverse cities in the past, and diversity is not what I am talking about. I am talking about a population here that still exists and that tells the very story of the Americas.
In this place there is this vibrant mix of Native peoples, of Spanish people, of Mexican people. Each here from a time when this land was, for lack of a better word, theirs. New Mexico was, and in large part still remains, Native land. And then it was a Spanish kingdom, and there are many people who live here that trace their families back to when this was Spain, and then a Mexican province, and there too, there are so many families that trace their history back to that critical moment.
That is one piece of it, and the other piece is the simple fact is that Santa Fe sits very close to the Pan-American Highway. When we talk about the continent we are not talking about North America or South America, but a shared continent. This is evidenced by the fact that there is this road that more or less links Alaska to Argentina. We are physically connected from here to the north, and from here all the way to the southern end of South America, by a network of 30,000+ miles of road.
All of these factors came together to inspire an exhibition series that has a geographic focus. It allows us to bring much greater focus, and at the same time have a much broader area of inquiry and research than our biennials ever had.
Andrea Bowers, The United States vs. Time de Christopher, 2010, video still; Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Projects
LT: One of the challenges of the international biennial is making a case for the regional to an international audience. Why bring that audience to Santa Fe?
Lucía Sanromán: Today we have hundreds of biennials, and some of them are in very exotic locales that are more attractive, frankly, than coming to Santa Fe, but we are not competing with that. That is not what we are trying to do. What we are trying to do is in every way create a deeper form of biennial: a biennial that really delivers on a kind of regional focus, and not just of Santa Fe, but every region across the Americas, that is both regional and international. We don’t want to get lost in this: the moment you say something is international, the local is diminished. We don’t even want to use that language; we want to think about what we can bring to this location that resonates here but also resonates elsewhere.
In the context of contemporary artists we are really focused on what people are doing, rather than searching for something that is brought here. We are establishing a platform here for presentation, for conversation, for production of really interesting work that is being done all over our continent. Each project and exhibition has the ability of articulating that by looking carefully and critically at landscape, per se.
IH: What we are trying to argue is that the contemporary art world and contemporary art biennials have also had a hemispheric focus, but on the Northern hemisphere. And those notions of "regional" don’t seem to apply to these Northern-hemispheric biennials. Also notions of homogeneity don’t seem to come up. And it’s fascinating, in thinking about what an exhibition focused on the Americas looks like, in some ways we are also trying to break down a lot of the assumptions and stereotypes and judgments that have been made about work from a particular part of the world.
If regional seems in opposition to international, that is something we really hope to upend. The artists we represent are, in fact, international, working in locations in the hemisphere that perhaps are more remote than so much of the art world understands. The kind of places we have visited have amazing and quite robust art scenes, and yet curators from the United States and Europe are not visiting them so much. I think we are bringing to light artists and art centers that certainly can operate in a dialogue with the international art world. I want to stress the notion that with this show we are shifting what is traditionally an East-West, Northern hemispheric focus of the art world to one that is North and South.
LT: One of the themes of Unsettled Landscapes is the representation of "lesser-known" narratives and challenging or disrupting the function of picturing the landscape in support of certain dominant experiences or values. Can you touch on this as a theme and how artists are engaging with it?
Janet Dees: All of the projects from the exhibition are really generated from the kinds of work we have been seeing. These thematics of the exhibition sprung from the work artists were doing. Particularly in thinking about other ways of engaging with landscape as a genre, one example is the indigenous narrative of history. If you think about traditional painting and the depiction of the West as a vast empty landscape, or highlighting natural beauty, this is something that is based upon an erasure of earlier settlements of indigenous populations. There are artists, both native and non-native, who engage with this. The show looks at both different approaches to the landscape and also artists who are critiquing a particular mode of picturing the landscape that is very much tied to the western tradition.
IH: So many of the artists that are in our show are mostly known from shows that frame them geographically. In other words, an exhibition that is "art from the Caribbean." So many artists from the Caribbean just seem to be invited to shows when they are looked at together as a group, or from Mexico, or even "art from Latin America." For us, those labels are not part of this. We are not selecting artists to represent countries, but rather looking at artists throughout the region, and putting together a very tightly curated exhibition where we have selected both the artist and particular works that bring out all of the different ideas about Unsettled Landscapes.
Kevin Schmidt, A Sign the Northwest Passage, 2010, Light Jet print, cedar framed. 64 1/4 x 49 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Catronia Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver
LT: What is SITEcenter, and how will it bolster the experience of Unsettled Landscapes and SITElines?
JD: One of the critiques of the biennial format that we uncovered in our dialogues with colleagues in different fields is this idea of a discontinuity, that each exhibition has very separate narratives.
SITEcenter is a structure that was generated out of this desire to work against this discontinuousness. So what that means is that the programming—public programs, dialogues, as well as artist projects that are housed within SITEcenter—is about the experience of these biennial exhibitions being present throughout the year, not only throughout the run of the exhibitions, but also in between. People who are visiting but also our local constituency will be continually engaged with the ideas of the exhibition and have more opportunities to have deeper engagement and deeper knowledge.
With the artist residency program, this means you may view programming in November of this year that engages with the theme of an upcoming exhibition, and then you come to the exhibition in the following year. It builds these layers of engagement that are happening for the visitors.
It is also beneficial for the artist; it gives them a longer timeframe to develop a project. Often biennials are created on very short time lines, so artists have maybe six months to do a project, and if you are someone that is interested in doing something that really engages with the place, that’s very difficult. With the artist-in-residence program there is the possibility to develop projects over the course of two or three exhibitions that allows artists that are interested in working in this way to really have the time to develop their work. The Center works to promote continuity on both these levels for the artist's practice, but also for the institution and the larger constituency.
LT: Reading Lucy Lippard’s essay “Invasive Species, Restlessness, Disturbances, and Other Events,” one of her comments is that there is a pervading feeling of both loss and resiliency throughout the biennial. Does that notion resonate with you?
IH: She’s great with words, isn’t she? Absolutely, and it’s great to have her perspective, because issues related to the land certainly speak about loss. Loss of resources, loss of water—these are especially powerful here. All of these notions related to the use of land and natural resources are particularly poignant here in the Southwest. But at the same time, this notion of resilience is the hopeful side. While so many of the artists in this exhibition are challenging past notions about land, land use, and landscape, they are also replacing those images of the land, the stereotypes of the West or of the landscape, with something new. That adds something quite hopeful.
(Image on top: Patrick Nagatani, Bida Hi /Opposite Views, Northeast. Navajo Tract Homes and Uranium Tailings Southwest. Shiprock, New Mexico, 1990, Chromogenic print, 27 3⁄4 x 35 3⁄4 inches; Courtesy of the artist)