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PROFILE: DAN CAMERON
SPEAKS WITH LARA TAUBMAN

AT a time when it feels like visual art is getting conservative in the United
States, Dan Cameronís Prospect 1 New Orleans Biennial stands out as
one that boldly prioritizes place, context and art, above all else. Leaving
his ten year position as the Senior Curator at the New Museum in New York
City, Cameron accepted the invitation of the Contemporary Arts Center in
New Orleans as Chief Curator and took on the enormous project of the
Biennial that opens this November, 2008. Having had a self-proclaimed
lifelong love affair with the city of New Orleans it was not a difficult
decision for him to make.

Presenting a major art event in the recently traumatatized region of
New Orleans has been a labor of love for Dan, committing his energies
and talents to a place that is still in great need of resources Ė but is long
on hope, creativity and a bright future. Dan has become one of the crucial
few who have joined forces to help the hurricane ridden city. Last year
Paul Chan ventured into the Ninth Ward in 2007 to present a widely
acclaimed and moving production of Samuel Beckettís Waiting for Godot.
As well as creating resources and recognition for New Orleans, the
performance helped to set the tone for the city as a proving ground for
the most progressive and experimental art happening in the United States.
Cameronís project builds exponentially on Chanís cue creating an event
that promises to be as comprehensive and vital as a Venice Biennial but
one that defines itself not by the art world necessarily, but by a realistic
view on life, maybe not so pretty Ė but true.





LARA TAUBMAN: This is one of the most exciting projects Iíve seen in the
United States for a long time. I feel like the art world and the market has
been plodding and it needs this shot in the arm.

DAN CAMERON: I agree. You know, Paul Chan set the precedent in
some peopleís minds for what a contemporary art interaction with New
Orleans might consist of. Even before then, I thought, ĎOh my God, heís
gonna steal my thunder!í In the end, what he really did was just pave the
way. He let people get a sense of, ĎOh, thatís why this guy is doing a
biennial there.í

LT: I think itís a new way for the art world and for people to think about art
in this country.

DC: Well, sure, because there is already so much invested in the model of
art having social relevance and connecting to peopleís lives, and art filling
in social and cultural gaps. And now hereís this city (it happens to be my
favourite city on the planet) that has given the United States so much. Such
a disproportionate part of our nation is directly derived from this poor little
city on the Gulf coast.

LT: What are the ramifications of this project in terms of the artistsí economy
here in the US?

DC: New Orleans is the perfect high-end convention city. It blows any
other city in the country out of the water in its ability to receive large
numbers of well-heeled tourists, make them feel well taken care of and,
most importantly, show them a goddamn good time and get them home
safely to bed. So with that capability and the heartbreakingly beautiful
buildings all over the city, many of which are doubly heartbreaking
because they are now empty, I think it allows America to have its first large scale
biennial in a city that seems to be designed for exactly this. New
Orleans could be an international arts showcase for the future, since it is
one of this countryís great monuments Ė itís our Venice.

LT: How much do you think the disaster as a context for a biennial has
played into your initial interest to do this project?

DC: I love this city and had always planned to end up here, but it would
never have occurred to me to make a biennial in New Orleans had Katrina
not happened. I was perfectly happy with the city the way it was Ė I didnít
want to fix it.

LT: How did the idea for the biennial first come up?

DC: A conversation was taking place with people who were coming back
from helping New Orleans after Katrina. There was a lot of discussion
about re-building the city. People asked me, ĎDo you want to come back for
that?í And I was like, ĎYes! Yes! Yes! Cut me in as soon as you can.í Then
in January 2006 there was a huge meeting at the Arthur Roger Gallery in
New Orleans, and everyone from the visual arts community was in town.
We sat down with Rick Powell from Duke and Doug Brinkley, the historian
who wrote that great book on Katrina. Doug said that tourists would be
the thing that saved the art world here, and I wasnít having it. We had just
done our tour of the Ninth Ward and it was too much to bear, and I wasnít
going to let somebody who was on my panel say something disingenuous.
I said tourists donít buy art! Collectors buy art, and if you really want to do
something to help the art world here you have to get collectors in Ė the real
art world. And that would mean an art fair, which I donít think is a good
idea, or a biennial, which could be a good idea.

LT: How long was the New Orleans Biennial in preparation?





DC: Since the year 2006. (Laughs) We got started right away! But it
took all of 2006 to figure out that this wasnít something that was going to
happen under the umbrella of a local New Orleans institution. That was a
tough call because you knew it was going to be complicated. I knew I was
going to have to organize this entire biennial from New York.

LT: Did you do that out of expedience?

DC: I couldnít get it done here, I couldnít find the money. Weíre producing
it in New York and importing it, although itís all happening here. I didnít
want to do this under the auspices of a New Orleans institution that was
struggling to get back to normal after the hurricane, and I didnít want to be
overly beholden to the public dollar in Louisiana.

LT: Why donít you think an art fair would have worked? Or why would a
biennial work better?

DC: First of all, there is the poverty of New Orleans Ė the reason Art Basel
ended up in Miami is because it was a refuge for New York collectors.
I think Art Basel plays to the strength of Miami, which is a corporate convention
kind of city that has a modern, almost post modern reality. And
I thought, New Orleans isnít like that, New Orleans is a place where
people take their time. At an art fair youíre always in a hurry, but at a
biennial the art has been produced and presented and selected. Itís about
having the opportunity to contemplate the work, to just be with it. Thatís
what New Orleans lends itself to. Finally, the geographical beauty of this
city Ė you have the Mississippi River and the Crescent that define the city
geographically. Itís fascinating that in New Orleans you can make an
exhibition that takes you through different neighbourhoods and districts and
has you wind up at the part most devastated by the storm, which now looks
like it could be the site of some important future activity.

LT: Iím interested in how you are integrating the biennial into the city by
using onsite installation.

DC: Thatís what a lot of artists wanted to do and Iím all for it.

LT: Are there any parallels between this project and the Istanbul Biennial?

DC: A lot! There are almost the exact same number of artists. I donít
have quite as much space, but itís a similar amount. The Istanbul Biennial
also doesnít have a fixed site so it expands all over the city. Each artistic
director is invited to come up with their own mťlange of neighbourhoods
and buildings and situations they want to create, and I felt confident after
Istanbul that you can use that kind of thing to tie a city together. Iím not sure
that my previous experience, which had been mostly inside defined spaces,
would have given me the feeling I could do it. Now I think this is the only
way to go.

LT: Itís interesting that both of these cities are so Creolized, for lack of a
better word Ėthatís literally what would define either one of them.

DC: Yeah, this is the city that gave us Creole culture, without question.

LT: What criteria did you use to build the artist list?

DC: It was pretty subjective. I didnít have time for a budget or research,
so my criteria was to make the list half national, half international, but big
enough to be of a certain scale. I wanted to invite a lot of artists whose
work would really fit into the meaning of New Orleans today. I also
wanted artists who would attract attention, but not ones who might create
some unwieldy situation. So there are certain artists who I trust and who
trust me, and we have a history of taking chances together. Iím trying to
insist on a broad distribution of media, but, fundamentally, thereís not an
artist in the show whose work Iím not crazy about.

LT: Have you noticed any particular obstacles or successes that are unique
to this project?

DC: Iím just amazed by how many people in the community are getting
in touch with me and saying: I think this space might interest you, or, I just
heard about this and I think you should check it out. When somebody does
that it means they actually get it.

LT: Thatís really special.

DC: Itís a special place. And then the way weíve been welcomed into the Ninth Ward Ė itís one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences Iíve ever had in my life. Theyíre making us feel so welcome, theyíre making us feel that our contribution is making a difference. Theyíve had such a terrible blow, and yet they see the need to rebuild from nothing, from dirt, that they can once again re-invent themselves. And historically, the Ninth Ward is the underclass of the city, where the workforce comes from and is low-ground. The way people in the city think about the lower Ninth Ward is too sad to think about: Ďthose poor, poor peopleí, but meanwhile those people are there and thinking, ĎAll right! What do we need to do?í

LT: So they understand what it will bring them?





DC: Oh my God, yes! Its almost as if they wrote the recipe and said, what we need is some way to attract attention.

LT: Itís a European city in the way that it understands how aesthetics are a part of daily life.

DC: Totally! They see the way to re-build the city as through art, especially the way to rebuild the really broken neighbourhoods. Thereís grassroots activism here everywhere you look, but not at the more refined levels of social interaction. Paul Chan got it instantly. You go to the area that is most overlooked and that is where you find hope.

LT: I think this event will become very important given the current situation in the art world in the United States, where the innovation taking place in the major cities is through commerce, but creative and aesthetic innovation is taking place regionally.

DC: During the late Ď80s, in the last art boom, it never failed to amaze me how mediocre things got when the market heated up. I do think when mediocrity becomes so prized it tends to drive talent to the periphery, because artists feel this is not the time for excellence to be rewarded. To the extent that that dampens gifted artistsí enthusiasm to be part of the art mechanism, that may be another reason I wanted to do this. It wasnít part of my consideration, but if the United States, one of the most market-oriented cultures in the world, is to get a biennial, it had better be now, because in a weird way you can market New Orleans.

LT: Youíve been very generous. Thank you.

LARA TAUBMAN IS A FREELANCE ART CRITIC AND CURATOR. KNOWN FOR HER WORK WITH CONTEMPORARY ROMANIAN ARTISTS, SHE IS ALSO A CURATOR FOR THE PEDRO MEYER HERESIES PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT THAT WILL OPEN THIS FALL
AT THE SCOTTSDALE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART IN SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA. SHE IS THE PHOENIX, ARIZONA CORRESPONDENT FOR CONTEMPORARY.

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