Born in and from “the periphery,” the People’s Biennial, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), and their founding missions seemed destined to convene. SECCA was established in 1956 to provide exhibition space for southeastern artists who felt marginalized in a national context. Working as both catalyst and advocate, the scope of the organization subsequently grew to include thirteen southeastern states by the late 1960s. In more recent years that vision has become international in scope, but with an enduring concern for the issues and idiosyncrasies that shape the region. However, as previously under-represented Southern artists move fluidly into mainstream cities, the organization’s historical reason for being slides into question. Faced with redrawn territo-ries and proliferating galleries throughout the southeast, SECCA wrestles with questions of site-based identity, provincialism, and the imploding binary of center v. margin. Stand-ing inside and outside its namesake at once, SECCA’s peripheral predominance has consequently been replaced with the re-visioning of a “center” that – in geographic, se-mantic, and organizational terms – seems more elusive, and more fertile, than ever.
In this context, People’s Biennial is a timely, and very necessary platform to address the question of what being an “outsider” means today as an artist, an institution and a city. As a concept, exhibition and campaign, it navigates the ambiguous terrain between the Duchampian notion that everything can be art, and the hegemonic assimilation of objects made outside the discourse of “art.” As the co-curators of People’s Biennial step outside the usual parameters of the art world, their aim to find (and celebrate) people making/doing fascinating things unbeknownst as “art” raises captivating social questions. In an age of decentralized information/news, digital communication, self-publishing, and near instantaneous exhibition platforms on YouTube, FaceBook, personal websites and blogs, one no longer needs to wait for discovery. Bypassing the traditional (and often proprietary) enlistment of outsider artists by agents and galleries, the Enrichment Center in Winston-Salem offers a case in point – providing artistic training, exhibition space, and commercial opportunities for adults with disabilities. Flea markets, social networks and guerilla installations provide parallel avenues for other would-be artists – turning the in-side/outside binary, inside out.
Within the slurry, People’s Biennial plays out questions concerning authenticity, originality, and the often incestuous/imperial nature of art world dynamics. As SECCA has set out to actively solicit submissions from across the state, we’ve been met with a wide spectrum of reactions. For one, the rapid growth in the number of practicing artists has created a situation where competition for recognition is fierce. As such, the desirable opportunity given to purported “outsiders” to show work across the country (and have it included in a catalogue) has been met with disdain by “insiders” struggling to get a foot in the door. This response is especially understandable when considering the exotic value placed upon “outsider” artists by a system that covets the problematic nature of “purity.” The commercially-driven search for, and colonization of people making saleable artworks outside institutions has consequently led to constructed biographies, charlatans, and suspicions being cast across the entire enterprise. It has also created a backlash effect where many of those operating outside the system are doing so purposefully, and in active resistance to institutional discovery/exploitation. For these individuals, staking an “outside” position is more a matter of choice than circumstance.
At this ambivalent intersection, People’s Biennial opens up intriguing hybrids to individuals who had little previous knowledge about the co-curators, the biennial model, or Independent Curators International. Some are flattered by the invitation to participate in the project; some are bewildered; some are apathetic; others refuse. There is no discernable pattern at any point in the solicitation, but the fray we see unfolding says a great deal about the sometimes-contentious nature of this project. The events SECCA organized to introduce Fletcher and Hoffmann to the local community cast special light upon the People’s Biennial’s impact upon communal dynamics. Few participants from the pre-existing Winston-Salem art community attended, but the unifying theme that emerged at both the opening talk and ensuing “Show & Tell” event was one of camaraderie and exchange. With Hoffmann and Fletcher as catalysts, social clusters arranged themselves as finalists in the selection process shared their work with one another, as well as volunteers, passersby and a curious public. From traditional media (painting, photography, drawing, ceramics) to all manner of the untraditional – including dioramas, carved knife handles, custom designed shoes, facejugs, bicycle tricks, bottle labels, medical illustrations, and a Trojan Chicken made from stirsticks – common ground was found in, and through dialogue. No definitive answers regarding the role or place of “the periphery” emerged, but the questions surrounding them grew more compelling.
Beyond an exhibition model, a catalogue or a curatorial hypothesis, this is a social experiment where every action/incident/response is part of the ultimate project. As fodder for discourse, People’s Biennial has already succeeded before a single catalogue page is printed, or a single work goes onto the wall. Its anthropology, like that SECCA lives in the Southeast, will unfold outside conventional notions of “the outside.” Whether one is inside, external, on the fence, or passing through, the reaction to/for/against this project is a critical part of its evolving constitution.
Curator of Contemporary Art
Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art
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