NEW ORLEANS — While the curator Dan Cameron debuted the city-wide international art biennial Prospect.1 in 2008 on a grand scale — demonstrating the role of the arts in rebuilding the city following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and declaring New Orleans a city worthy of joining in on international art conversations — cost soared, workers were slow to get paid, and questions of Prospect’s sustainability arose. Then Prospect.2 failed to meet its biennial appointment, having slunk into New Orleans in 2011 with a few spectacular exhibitions but an overall lack of fanfare. Now, Franklin Sirmans, curator of contemporary art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), has replaced Cameron as artistic director for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, the biennial’s latest installment. So there is a lot riding on Prospect.3, which opens on October 25 — especially for Sirmans, whose role at the helm takes him beyond the museum and into the expanse of a multi-venue biennial for the first time.
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Adam Falik: The title of Prospect.3 is Notes for Now, yet at the press conference you opened with a quote from Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer, written half a century ago, which was followed up with an image by Paul Gauguin. How do these function as voices of now?
Franklin Sirmans: For me the discussion of contemporary art is not only about contemporary art. This is not a show that is going to be about the last two years in terms of its visual production, but is about the last couple years in terms of what it has to say within the now. That’s how I think you go from the 19th century to the 1960s to the present. Many of the artists in the exhibition, although they’re working in the here and now, are also very much connected to the 19th century, and also the 1960s. I think they find a lot of sustenance in those periods. Thus: “Notes from Now.” I thought that reference to a deceased European painter was quite interesting, especially a European painter like Gauguin who spent time in Peru and was about going out into the world. We talk about him searching for self in an exoticized other, and the idea of the search is also a good part of The Moviegoer by Walter Percy. The Moviegoer provides an interesting framework to think about New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and the southern United States. You have this conversation visually between Gauguin and a woman who is from Brazil, [P.3 exhibiting artist] Tarsila do Amaral, who is similarly concerned with this idea of defining another. So geographically, culturally, historically, I thought I had some sort of focal point there.
AF: How have some of the smaller themes evolved as you pulled P.3 together?
FS: The only way to truly understand ourselves is through others, that is something that comes across in many different artists. And then there’s the idea on movie-going in a very broad general sense. Our generation sees screens, this is a way we see the world, and film and video are such an important way in which we view contemporary art now, so I wanted to allude to that. Crime and punishment is something that comes up throughout the exhibition. I think that’s important now not only in a place like Louisiana, which is home to Angola [State Prison], but part of a much bigger conversation. Mohamed Bourouissa has a piece filmed in a prison outside of Paris, [but] would you know that it was Paris?
AF: There is this habit here of New Orleans-izing everything. When King Lear and Macbeth are performed here, they are set in New Orleans. Even the Basquiat show that is part of P.3 is “Basquiat on the Bayou.” Are you worried that you’re New Orleans-izing Prospect?
FS: That’s a line to walk, and I would say there’s a lot of people in New Orleans who say there’s not enough New Orleans in this exhibition. My gut was that it was about striking a balance. Around 20% of the artists are making site-specific work where New Orleans comes into play in a specific way. I think there are two things that are super important to this type of project: you have to be cognizant of where it takes place, and that context has to be an important part of what will be said. Liu Ding is making performative work that is specific to New Orleans, but he hasn’t spent time there before. It’s my desire that people walk away with a real sense of New Orleans and its city and its context, but they also walk away with: OK, it’s a show about international contemporary art right now and this is one possible way of looking at it.
AF: Do you think a curator should have a personal identifiable stamp on an exhibition?
FS: I don’t know if I believe it or not, but I think it’s inevitable. If I think about Documenta, and I know Carolyn [Christov-Bakargiev], that’s Carolyn’s show. If I think about Massimiliano [Gioni] and think about Venice, that’s Massimiliano’s show. If you are part of the conversation and can identify these things then it’s a part of the conversation. Does it necessarily need to be for most viewers? I don’t think so.
AF: You keep using the phrase, “the conversation.” I think I know what you’re referring to, but I’m not sure if I understand specifically. What are the conversations of P.3?
FS: There’s an overall conversation in terms of contemporary art, and you can focus that to a conversation on biennial-type exhibitions, so that’s the conversation I’ve been having with myself and my peers for the last few years in a really focused way. That’s the conversation I’m referring to. Then there are more intimate conversations one has with artists in studio visits, on Skype, via email, on the phone. So there’s that conversation. But metaphorically I would say the exhibition is about conversation. This idea of the search as a conversation, that the only way to truly understand one’s self is through others and therefore requires conversation.
AF: So we’re not talking about art as a conversation abstractly, but conversation as one of the direct themes of Prospect.3.
AF: How does all this connect to Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibal Manifesto,” which you refer to in both press and in your catalog notes? What does it mean in regards to Prospect.3?
FS: I’m piggy-backing on a conversation that happened in the 1998 São Paulo, a line that ran through it that was also about “The Communist Manifesto.” You have to understand all sides in order to function. And by that I mean very concrete things, like what is soul food, for instance? It’s a mix of everything. It’s leftovers. It’s making do with what you have. What is gumbo? We talked about the emphasis on New Orleans, but there’s an emphasis on the region as well. And so we must eat our African, our Native, our European in order to show our true selves. So that puts us on the other side of the world and it also puts us in a really interesting place vis-à-vis New Orleans, the most European city in this country, and probably the most African city in this country. Here we are at what can be described as the most Northern Point of the Caribbean rather than one of the most Southern points of the United States.
AF: So the eating of the other is a place where Europe meets America, where we meet our history, where we eat one another.
FS: Yeah. Where else can you have the Vieux Carre right up against Congo Square. It almost writes itself.
Prospect.3: Notes for Now opens October 25 at various venues in New Orleans.