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Brooklyn Gets a Neighborhood-Centric Biennial

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 20, 2014

The exterior of BRIC House (photo by Ryan Muir/BRIC)

Yesterday brought the news that Brooklyn is getting an art biennial. The host of the event is perhaps not the institution one would expect: BRIC, the local arts nonprofit best-known for the popular Prospect Park summer concert series Celebrate Brooklyn!, among other programming. Over the past year and a half, BRIC has been steadily beefing up its contemporary art offerings, particularly with the opening of its new 40,000-square-foot space in Downtown Brooklyn last fall, BRIC House. Now the organization is taking an idea that seemed inevitable — Brooklyn as brand, Brooklyn as biennial — and turning it into a reality.

There are at least 100 art biennials worldwide. If you add to that similar large-scale art exhibitions that recur at set intervals — every three years instead of two, for example — the number goes up to over 150. Some say the proliferation of such events has led to their homogenization — that they’ve become “part of a circuit” devoted less to identifying trends in contemporary art and bringing them into dialogue with a place and more to boosting the star (and market) power of certain artists and curators. The globalization of the art world.

Unsurprisingly, then, a backlash — admittedly small — seems to be brewing, the focus of which is site specificity and localness. SITE Santa Fe recently retooled its biennial, dropping the word from its official title and expressing a renewed commitment to its home and community. The Hammer Museum and LA><ART in 2012 launched Made in LA, “an ongoing series of exhibitions focused on artwork created in the Los Angeles region” (the show is biennial). BRIC’s new Brooklyn endeavor, the BRIC Biennial, follows suit, using its home borough not just as a location but as the impetus for the exhibition itself.

“I’m really interested in the way that Brooklyn has evolved into a place where artists make their work,” Elizabeth Ferrer, BRIC’s vice president of contemporary art, told Hyperallergic. “That has long been true, but it’s more true now than ever. What I want is people to get an idea of all these different ways of working — this is what contemporary art practice is like today. It’s not always those big spectacle-type piece that you see at major international biennials. A lot of biennials show really major works, major artists; what I’m really interested in showing, what I want to reflect, is what an artist community looks like.”

The “stoop” at the new BRIC House (photo by Kathryn Yu)

To that end, each BRIC Biennial will focus on a different area in the borough, beginning this year with Downtown Brooklyn and the adjoining neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Boerum Hill, and continuing in 2016 most likely with the South Brooklyn waterfront, from Red Hook up to the Navy Yard. This year’s show — organized by Ferrer, BRIC assistant curator Jenny Gerow, and guest curators Fawz Kabra and Leslie Kerby — pulls together a range of artists whose practices vary widely: from Scherezade Garcia and her socially minded multimedia work to Jenna Spevack, who’s interested in sustainable design, to Vince Contarino, who makes abstract paintings, to Martha Wilson, a performance art pioneer.

Homing in on specific neighborhoods “was a way of really giving artists their due,” Ferrer says. “We could have done a borough-wide biennial [such as the Brooklyn Museum's upcoming survey, Crossing Brooklyn], but I felt we never would have dug so deeply. If we had relied on that structure, we would have just brought our knowledge and contacts to the table. This limitation gave us an opportunity to look at artists we might not have otherwise.”

Detail of Jean Shin's "Crown" (2014) (via bricartsmedia.org)

Detail of Jean Shin’s “Crown” (2014) (via bricartsmedia.org)

Ferrer adds that themes emerged “organically” during the artist selection process — “memory and history, the body, place, and abstraction” — but “this show is definitely an experiment.” One thread she found to be fairly constant in looking at Brooklyn artists (and which seems in keeping with the larger setting of New York), is that they’re often “from many places, many different states and parts of the world,” which translates into “the idea of the here and the there.”

In more than one way, then, geography remains the linchpin of the endeavor. Whether that’s enough to hold together an exhibition of 27 artists will be seen on September 20, when the BRIC Biennial: Volume 1, Downtown Edition opens to the public. As for the word that’s become so loaded, “biennial,” Ferrer says “it really just means every other year,” providing a format that builds in a comfortable amount of time to organize this type of show. “We simply wanted to do something that reflects BRIC and our mission, and that reflects Brooklyn.”

BRIC Biennial: Volume 1, Downtown Edition will be on view September 20–December 14 in the gallery at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

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