Witness by Cassandra Davis, Springfield, Illinois as part of the Terrain Biennial, 2017. Image courtesy the the artist.
Witness by Cassandra Davis, Springfield, Illinois as part of the Terrain Biennial, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.
In Review: Terrain Biennial
Leah Triplett Harrington
In Review: Terrain Biennial
Leah Triplett Harrington
THE THIRD ANNUAL TERRAIN BIENNIAL
DIRECTED BY SABINA OTT
OCTOBER 1 - NOVEMBER 15, 2017
RECONNAISSANCE > MULTIPLE LOCATIONS
Tree-lined streets, where plainspoken people live in houses with front porches overlooking green lawns, all neatly ensconced in white picket fencing. People know their neighbors; they exchange daily pleasantries, send their kids to school together, and mingle at neighborhood-wide block parties. This is the picture of the Midwest, a “charming” place metaphorically and actually in the heart of the United States. The Terrain Biennial, founded in Oak Park, Illinois, can be described as replete with such charm, as the six-week multisite outdoor exhibition takes place on, within, and throughout suburban lawns, porches, and balconies. However, the Biennial doesn’t celebrate this romantic, white stereotype. Instead, it uses its foundations to question inherent social and political barriers while evaporating the parameters between public and private exhibition space.
“The front lawn is really a blank canvas,” Sabina Ott tells me over the phone about a month after the 2017 Biennial closed on November 15, 2017. Ott, who co-founded the Biennial in 2011 with John Paulett, is the founder of Oak Park’s Terrain Exhibitions, a project she started after moving to Chicago from Los Angeles as a way to build a community. Thinking of her neighborhood in Oak Park, Ott thought practically about how her artistic community could harness suburban charm. What if she used her lawn as something of a gallery? What if every house on the block hosted a site-specific, experiential object? What if the annual block party was part neighborhood gathering, part opening reception? Starting from the front lawn of her own house, Ott invited other artists and homeowners to reconstitute some of their green grass into the white cube.
"The front lawn is really a blank canvas."
Since then, the Biennial has expanded from the Midwest into Arizona, North Carolina, and Los Angeles. Last year’s iteration, the third since 2011, also reached Sweden and France. However, the Biennial retains a quintessential American-ness, its strength hinging in part on the country’s discomfort with contemporary art and artists. By recontextualizing (or “repurposing”) the stuff of Main Street, USA—the white picket fence, the yard, the modest single-family home—into an aesthetic experience, the Biennial gently upsets the tropes of stereotypical, idealized America.
In Peoria, Illinois, Gina Hunt presented Refractor, a four-foot sculpture composed of wooden frames and light-refracting fabric. Subjectivity and perception are central to Hunt, who investigates the mediation of images through abstract paintings and outdoor, temporary installations. Refractor, which rested under a tree in the front lawn of Project 1612, a home-garage-gallery space, relied on the topography of its site, as it registered changes in light as shifts in color and pattern. Centering on the screen (digital or physical), and how it mediates perception, Hunt is interested in how outdoor installations can affect experience. “I have found that dissolving this barrier between ‘high art’ and circumstantial experience very exciting,” says Hunt. Situated on the lawn of the domestic project space Project 1612, Refractor constituted more than its material parts, summoning the physicality of a suburban setting turned exhibition space.
Refractor by Gina Hunt at The Terrain Biennial, 2017. Images courtesy the artist.
Unlike many of its biannual counterparts, Terrain is a completely non-commercial venture. Relying on the generosity of homeowners who open their space to artists and curators, the Biennial also highlights the strength and growing numbers of exhibition spaces within domestic settings. “The Terrain Biennial is an example of how a community can create meaning through art, outside of an institution,” explains Hunt. “There is power in this, and it is rooted in the efforts and desires of neighbors and artists and people who want to add beauty and critique to the world.” Like artists anywhere else, Midwesterners face the closures of exhibition space and censure of artist freedom. And like their counterparts across the country, these artists are repurposing their homes and spaces to create spaces of exhibition and opportunity, where quality and community are paramount.
The Midwest certainly has the outdoor space that regions like, say, the Northeast where I live, does not. “Working in the Midwest, in ‘fly-over’ states, commands that you work to develop and foster and establish community, and that involves finding a way to engage your actual community along with your regional community of fellow contemporary artists,” says Allison Lacher, one of the founders of Springfield’s DEMO Projects, a project space within an house set for demolition early this year.
Recalling the phrase “good fences make good neighbors,” for their Terrain contribution, Lacher and fellow DEMO co-founder Jeff Robinson reimagined the face of What It Is, the Oak Park home and project space of Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes. Blue sandbags anchored the façade, while bright orange ribbon ran horizontally underneath purple-tinted windows with a blue awning. Literally and figuratively a façade, Good Neighbors was inconspicuously situated on the side of a front door. “We were interested in creating a site-based work that read as innocuous with some subtle cues that could call for more scrutiny,” says Lacher. Entreating the standards of neighborhood life taken for granted was central to the piece. Good Neighbors, explains Robinson, therefore asked “to what extent do we use our domestic spaces as a barrier between those who live with and around us?”
Install shot of Good Neighbors by Allison Lacher and Jeffrey Robinson at What It Is as part of the Terrain Biennial, 2017. Image courtesy the artists.
Lacher and Robinson also presented other projects exploring communication, transparency, and community when they brought Terrain to Springfield, Illinois. In the city’s Enos Park neighborhood, Hideous Beast (Charles Roderick and Josh Ippel) modestly placed pieces of red-painted wood on a small area of lawn at Historic Edwards Place. All Well (International Ground-to-Air Signal Codes) mimicked the cornices of the Italianate-style house by representing the set of globally understood signals to relay the code for “all well.” Painted fire engine red, the sculpture probed how meaning is encoded and communicated over time and place, shaping perspective, and therefore, boundaries. Locating her project in historic and contemporary racial tensions and violence, Cassandra Davis used an image from the Springfield Race Riots as the impetus for her project, Witness. Davis enlarged, dissected, and affixed the image to a stack of hay bales placed on an empty lot on Springfield’s Bergen Street, suggesting how power can erase memory, meaning, and community. With Screen Capture I + II, Amanda Bowles and Jesse Vogler covered two front windows of a Springfield home with an amalgamation of screen and fencing. Spray-painted in neon pinks and purples against orange fencing and black blinds, the piece exposed how personal spaces and narratives are mediated and distorted.
Screen Capture I + II by Amanda Bowles and Jesse Vogler in Springfield, Illinois as part of the Terrain Biennial, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.
The narrative of the Terrain Biennial isn’t didactic or oppressive, however. My experience of the Biennial was entirely facilitated through social media, where I saw community built through a DIY enthusiasm to enact change from the actual grass roots. Artworks were colorful, sharable, and engaging, but not in a cloying way as in a blockbuster museum show. Instead, the work I saw demonstrated the ability to surprise and yes, charm, in order to encourage conversation and, therefore, the possibility of change. “It’s [the Biennial] spreading because people are talking about it, and that’s power,” Ott tells me, describing how she sees the Biennial as inherently political, starting from its use of empty lawns that otherwise might waste water, energy, and space. Lawns have also long been central to public debate, as Jeff Robinson reminds me. “The front lawn serves as platform to promote the candidate of your choice, the flag pole asserts your allegiances, a sticker on your front door lets people know that you value this but not that, these spaces are ripe for the espousal of personal/private viewpoints on public matters,” he says.
Scrolling through images of Terrain online, I’m struck by how the open yard, a public-private space usually barricaded by the “charm” of a white picket fence, pivots personal ownership into community-oriented action. A source of pride, even the smallest of yards can represent the independence of homeownership, of owning your own plot of land. But open, suburban space is also fundamentally tied to urban “white flight” in the mid twentieth century. More recently, neighborhoods were gutted of their communities in the 2008-09 housing crisis, causing miles of suburban blight by way of empty strip malls and abandoned houses. In our current day, retail and domestic space alike are at a premium as rents swell across the country, encouraging artists to use space, any space, at their disposal to show work. This context also offers a complicated paradox, as formerly private, domestic spaces become “free and open to the public.” By capitalizing on the lawn, Terrain emphasizes its ambiguity as a public-private space. The recontextualization of lawns, as well as living rooms, garages, and basements into discursive exhibition space introduces the potential of proactive gesture, actions, and objects that politically challenge suburban context.
In 2017, 115 sites and well over as many artists participated in the Terrain Biennial. Projects include sites across Chicagoland, Springfield, Iowa City, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Marnay-sur-Seine, France. A guide to all locations and the dates of the openings for each neighborhood are available here.
Stacey Lee Gee
Rachel Dawson Hamaoui
J. Michael Ford
Heidi Wiren Bartlett
James Pepper Kelly
Jeffrey Michael Austin
Natalia Villanueva Linares
Founded in October of 2011 by artist Sabina Ott and author John Paulett, Terrain Exhibitions and The Terrain Biennial repurposes private spaces like front yards, balconies, porches and windows, turning them into public art spaces in order to foster dialogue between neighbors and provide opportunities for artists and viewers alike to experience new perspectives.
Leah Triplett Harrington is a Boston-based writer, editor, and curator focused on modern and contemporary art. Leah has contributed catalogue essays to CUE Art Foundation (New York) and Hashimoto Contemporary (San Francisco), as well as articles to a number of publications, most recently The Brooklyn Rail, Harper's Bazaar Art, and Hyperallergic. She has lectured on art criticism at Boston University, Montserrat College of Art, Stonehill College, and Tufts University Art Gallery. She works as Director of Programs & Exhibitions for Fort Point Arts Community and serves as senior editor of the art magazine Big Red & Shiny. In Spring 2018, she will be a visiting critic at UMass Amherst Department of Art. She is a co-founder of The Rib.
Reconnaissance is an in-depth examination of an event or history within the peripheral arts community. Produced by researchers not necessarily tied to the place or artists who were actively involved, Reconnaissance gives hisorical perspective to a major impact within the said community.