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Connecting over spectacle 

In the space of four years, Rochester Contemporary Art Center has taken the old model of the Rochester Biennial — which was essentially a presentation of the work of six selected artists — and transformed it into a collaborative effort between small and mid-sized art venues and curators. This year, RoCo developed that approach even further to create one of the most important and effective conversations about the state of the arts in Rochester, and about all levels of where we stand as a so-called arts city.

click to enlarge The Antiracist East-West Walk, part of the "Current Seen" biennial, brought people out to explore the city and its history together. - PHOTO COURTESY ROCO STAFF
  • The Antiracist East-West Walk, part of the "Current Seen" biennial, brought people out to explore the city and its history together.

An incredibly ambitious project, this year's biennial, dubbed "Current Seen," spanned an almost two-month period from early October to mid-November. It involved scores of artists and included dozens of curated art shows at formal art spaces, and non-traditional venues, as well as installations of public art at unspecified sites along the East Avenue and Main Street corridor.

This year's loose, over-arching theme was "current moment / our changing city."

But beyond presenting the spectacle of such a volume of art on display, the organizers of "Current Seen" facilitated conversations about equity and segregation by getting visitors to trek together from one side of the city to the other, and about the crucial supporting roles in the arts — including curation and arts writing — that must be stable and robust if the scene is to thrive.

The 2019 biennial is over now, with the exception of a couple of enduring installations that were either extended or will stay put indefinitely. But RoCo's executive director and "Current Seen" lead organizer Bleu Cease is not done picking at it, and is already rallying participants to think about 2021.

"The approach is for Current Seen to be a spotlight that can every two years shine on what's timely, what's pressing, what's interesting and challenging and engaging," he says. "There may be a whole different set of conversations that happen surrounding public art in two years or four years. There may be a whole different level of engagement from different kinds of venues at that point."

From the East End to the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood, there were formal art shows in established or borrowed venues. But the installations along the corridor had a stumble-upon, hidden-in-plain-sight nature to them, such as Michael Goldman's "Urban Pictograms," which are shaped like stop signs; and Thievin' Stephen's critical "Coming Soon" series of fake development project signs.

Other hyper-temporary art included work created from the ground in Parcel 5, where Nicholas Gurewitch and Jeffrey Stanin organized the massive "Midtown Mandala," which was the Flower City logo swept and raked into the gravel. "Parcel 5 is such an interesting venue," Cease says. "And we have to think of it a venue — though no one defined it, no one said 'okay now it's a venue.' A whole bunch of different things coalesced and so I think it's a very interesting touch point with respect to public art in our city."

The biennial emphasized open discussions about the often hidden armature beneath a functioning arts scene, such as its deep dive into different and new curatorial approaches.

"If we're going to talk about the health and vibrancy and sustainability of our art community, we have to talk about: What is curating?" Cease says. "What is this sort of nebulous role that some people have, some people just do it and don't claim to be, other people wear it as a proud title? For me, that is a major, international conversation that we can have with a hyper local flavor."

This also meant giving some artists who had never curated before the chance to lead in that arena.

For example, Sean Capone, who is known as a video artist, curated one of the exhibits at Rochester Contemporary. "He had this quirky idea of how this obscure film, 'Remembrance of Things Fast: True Stories Visual Lies,' influenced him and other video artists who are dealing with queer issues and use avatars," Cease says. "It's so specific, but he found five artists that he felt fit into this concept that he wanted to explore, in his first curatorial effort."

One of the talks offered during "Current Seen" focused specifically on curating and featured a handful of people who curated projects during the biennial. They discussed"everything from things that went wrong to micro-challenges that were faced, what kinds of decisions were made, and more abstractly, what does curating mean" to them, Cease says. And for those who are both artists and curators: do you curate your own work into a show?

These conversations don't really happen publicly in Rochester, Cease says. "I believe that a biennial like this — which is going to be Rochester-scale inherently because of the strata of organizations that it's committed to — it's going to be infused with national and international conversations, but it's going to be hyper-local, too."

At The Little Theatre, Hannah Lightbody and Elizabeth Cameron presented an exhibition titled "Visions of Public Art," which featured 30 proposals from more than a dozen artists answering a call for public art proposals.

It was an exhibition of those project proposals, but also "a nudge to the community to more publicly think about the process — what does it look like to have an RFP, and what do all of the proposals look like?" Cease says. "They exhibited almost all of the proposals they received — how often does that happen in Rochester, when there's a major commission?" This was the public's chance to put eyes on a process usually handled by a panel behind closed doors.

At the west side's Joy Gallery, veteran curator Erich Lehman presented "30 Years of FUA," a tribute to Rochester's oldest graffiti crew through artwork, objects, and photographs. This exhibit engaged with an often underestimated and overlooked part of Rochester's art history.

"We know that history in New York, because it's been written about by everyone, but it's actually kind of a parallel history here," Cease says.

Artist and curator Amanda Chestnut organized work for two spaces. At the Douglass Auditorium on King Street, she featured Mara Ahmed's "This Heirloom" exhibit of mixed-media work that considers local and international parallels regarding borders, segregation, and cultural separation. And at the Sagamore Building in the East End, she facilitated Megan Sullivan's video installation "Sister Moon," which provided space for viewers to experience cosmic, meditative moments amid the anxious, modern grind.

click to enlarge Artist and filmmaker Mara Ahmed discusses her work in "This Heirloom," a "Current Seen" exhibition curated by Amanda Chestnut at the Douglass Auditorium. - PHOTO BY QUAJAY DONNELL
  • Artist and filmmaker Mara Ahmed discusses her work in "This Heirloom," a "Current Seen" exhibition curated by Amanda Chestnut at the Douglass Auditorium.

That installation came together "insanely last minute," Cease says, which is why Chestnut was tapped for the job. When organizers finally got a commitment from the building owner, Cease chose Chestnut because of her prior curatorial experience, specifically in atypical spaces. "She jumped right in and took it on," he says, "and did something she knew could be accomplished in a shorter time frame."

While many of the venues were clustered at the east and west ends of the corridor, many single pop-ups were installed at sites between, such as W. Michelle Harris's "In Their Wake" video projection in the window of the Democrat & Chronicle's downtown offices. Harris created an animated video projection of names of early black residents of Rochester and encouraged the public to pause and meditate on those names. "Many descendants of the Middle Passage were born, grew up, and died here before the Civil War," says her statement in the exhibition catalog. "And most of their stories are lost to us."

The endeavor brought more attention and visitors to spaces that don't necessarily have the resources to have regular open hours. Rochester is a segregated city, and the arts scene reflects this.

"It's so glaringly obvious in the art community," Cease says.

Running through the center of the city, the "Current Seen" corridor "is both a dividing line in so many ways, and a connecting thread," he says. "It functions as a conceptual device and a line on a map and a street we all know about and a clear metaphor," which he says should be more fully explored in the future.

Cease says he struggled to find a few more venues between some of the established and pop-up spaces clustered on either end of the corridor, to create a more continuous line. The public art and non-traditional spaces filled in the gaps to some extent, but in the future he's hoping to have more participating sites along the way.

"Really, to have some true contiguous connection across this divided city, there's a lot more to do," he says.

Even with increased development, there is still so little foot traffic in the center of the city, which creates a profoundly felt void between the spaces where people do accumulate together. A long-term aim of "Current Seen" is to change that.

"Frankly I don't think we've explored that metaphor fully," Cease says. "I don't think we've utilized this thread fully. Also, the simplicity: It's f***ing Main Street. In so many ways that says it all. I want us to fully work with that as an art community."

Some of the biennial's extensive programming included moving people across the city with regular, curated walks to go out explore the city together, and not just in the sanctified arts districts of East Avenue and NOTA.

For example, the Antiracist East-West Walk, held on October 12, was presented in partnership with Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, and was led by FDFI president Kenneth B. Morris Jr. The walk helped build awareness ahead of "How to Be an Antiracist" author Ibram X. Kendi's November 18 visit to Rochester. It started at the Douglass home site, stopped at places that are historically significant to Rochester's struggles toward racial equity, and a few artists and curators gave talks along the way. More than 100 people attended that walk, Cease says, which was the largest attendance of any of the series.

"It was amazing at how well attended some of them were," Cease says of the walks, though organizers did hear what he calls "clearly expected concerns about bridging that gap: 'It's so far, are we really going to walk all the way?' Some of those hold-over ideas about scale, distance, about nothing happening, that illustrate the divided nature of our city. I would say we have more work to do, to more fully challenge our community to bridge the gap through a project like this."

Through attendance tracking at venues and events, and a rough estimate of the attention the public art received, Cease says organizers figure people viewed or participated in elements of the biennial 16,000 times.

The project shows Rochester's capacity to pull together something of this scale while also, crucially, indicating an issue with its practical limitations.

As a benchmark of what's possible with public engagement, Cease cites "Nuit Blanche," Toronto's annual free, one-night arts festival which includes both major, sanctioned projects, as well as many small businesses that host "unique installations and surprising little things," he says. "And it's all about the hunt and the process of rediscovering your city for one night."

Planning is underway for the 2021 biennial. In reflecting on this year's iteration, Cease says it's both proof of concept and not sustainable with just the limited resources it had this time around.

Specifically, he says some under-resourced venues and curators were strained to maintain open hours on the established Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during the biennial's six-week run. "That was a major stretch for some organizers and venues," he says.

He sees this as the whole community's problem to fix. "If we don't help organizations maintain some open hours — more than just an opening reception or by-appointment — any project at that venue is hamstrung by its own capacity."

In an effort to assuage that issue, Cease says he's proposed to the City of Rochester that next time around, it might staff some of the venues through some mechanism — possibly though some of the city's rec centers — by paying youths who are interested in the arts to work some venue's open hours.

In general, he says there needs to be more city and county support to make this a success. And that hurdle, Cease says, is education: making sure the local governments understand that this is meant to support the local art community, and the way that these endeavors function in other cities.

Throughout 2020, Cease says he plans to maintain some level of discussion and connectedness between the participating artists, curators, and venues, to keep the momentum both alive and visible to the public.

"The fact that I'm able to organize something like this isn't 'creating' so much as it is harnessing and galvanizing and uniting something that's already here," Cease says. "This is here, but it hasn't been unified. It hasn't been celebrated enough, and it certainly hasn't been financially supported."

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