Installation view of 2019 Portland Biennial (Image courtesy of Mario Gallucci Studio)
This interview took place via video on December 7, 2019, following the closing of the 2019 Portland Biennial, which ran August 24, 2019 to November 3, 2019. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud: Tell us about each of your backgrounds as curators. What is your curatorial approach and how did it contribute to how you approached the Portland Biennial?
Elisheba Johnson: My curatorial approach comes from my lived experience being a black artist in Seattle. When I got out of college I didn’t know where to show my work and galleries tell you not to come show your portfolio. So I really didn’t know how to break in. So I started my own gallery [Faire Gallery Café-Bar] and through that space showed the work of artists of color, emerging artists, artists like me who are left out on the fringes. That’s been a cornerstone of my practice. To bring people in who are exceptional artists or have really interesting ideas, but maybe have not had a place in traditional spaces.
So I was selected because Blake Shell [Executive Director, Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center] came to a show that I curated with 19 Pacific Northwest black artists in Pioneer Square [CHARCOAL at the 101 during the Seattle Art Fair], and I think she was looking to have a different curatorial experience. Working with Yaelle and Ashley, I think we all have a social justice bent to our work and we are all interested in alternative histories.
Yaelle S. Amir: I had various curatorial jobs in NY museums for about a decade before moving to Portland to be the inaugural curator of a photography nonprofit. But other than that I’m pretty used to working and doing projects like the Biennial. Throughout my almost 15 years of curatorial work I have focused on ways of starting conversations around social issues with the artworks serving as a prompt. And that approach definitely continued in the Biennial.
Ashley Stull Myers: I would say even though my background is in curating and curatorial practice, I have this deep intense love for residency programs and residency opportunities. And so for me as a curator, I think of myself as someone whose primary job is to cull resources and create a container for artists to be able to make the things they want to make and have the conversations that they want to have.
That definitely became a part of the Biennial pretty quickly; we all agreed that we wanted the Biennial mostly to be a platform for the artists of the region to tell us what kind of space they wanted, what kind of conversations they wanted to have, and what they wanted the room to make.
We were all deeply skeptical of Biennial culture and regional Biennials, what they purport to do and if they actually do that. So I think we pretty quickly agreed to go hard on the prompt of de-homogenizing impressions of art in the region. That’s a strategy I try to employ in all my work.
Dan Paz: What was the process like of collaborating from a distance? How did you approach that, curatorially?
ASM: Well, speaking as one of the two Portlanders I would say that Liz’s inclusion was invaluable. Yaelle and I are both in it on a day-to-day basis with Oregon artists, particularly those based in Portland. So having Liz be part of the team (from Seattle) ended up adding so much because she’s the only one of the three of us that’s originally from the Pacific Northwest. Yaelle and I both are not.
She had a perspective that was really important to Yaelle and I to listen to and learn from. Also, because she doesn’t live in Oregon, she was able to contribute a perspective on Oregon artists that was a little bit different than what Yaelle and I feel like we know because maybe we’re too close to it in some way. So I think it was actually really smart of Disjecta to give us a wealth of different experiences between the three of us to leverage.
EJ: We had an open call and then we reviewed almost 300 applications on Submittable, which is just like any other process, whether or not I live in Portland or not, right. And we talked about it all over the phone and then whittled that down to 50 studio visits. So when you’re not from a place, you actually don’t know whether or not what you are seeing in an application is representative of somebody’s practice, or if they’re doing something new. Sometimes we went on a studio visit based on the bulk of an artist’s practice, but realized what they pitched might not be a good fit for the exhibition. So I feel like Ashley and Yaelle’s knowledge base of artists was really helpful. I didn’t have that expertise—everybody was pretty much new to me except for about a handful of artists, ten of them.
YSA: We really curated people rather than projects, so the push and pull between the objective and subjective played into that, because there were a lot of artists that we would have loved to work with but their project or practice wasn’t really touching upon the things we were trying to showcase with this exhibition. And then vice versa, there were people that we hadn’t even thought about that their practice really did work well. We took a leap of faith and ran with it to create something new that was going to give another perspective on the issues of place and Oregon.
EJ: I should also add: I was in some ways dropping into a community and I didn’t know the pain centers of local artists, not knowing the people who’ve been neglected by traditional institutions. I saw that the three of us as curators, reassured people that if they applied, they’d have more of an opportunity than they would’ve had in the past. So there were several people, who said “Oh, I would not have thought about applying for the Biennial, but when I saw your three bios, I decided that I would give it a shot,” which I thought was interesting about how systems work and who feels like open processes are really open.
DP: It’s interesting how your practices worked together, because you live in different places, inherently underscored the site specificity that runs throughout the show. That’s sort of collaboration itself.
JJM: The space was designed very thoughtfully. Could you speak to the geography choreography of the exhibition with particular consideration to how you grappled with video installation and sonic aesthetics? Did particular pieces ground each quadrant or area of the space? This question comes out of how Dan had really, really great commentary when we saw it together. Dan, you were speaking a lot about how when we were experiencing one installation you’d overheard sonics of other ones that made this a really embodied surreal experience. I felt like each artist had their own exhibition, but there was such thought and care into the embodied experience and surreal experience of being there. How did you think about how each installation was grounding space but also how they dialogued with each other?
YSA: A lot of that was happenstance. I wish we could take credit for that experience. I think some of it was very choreographed, obviously there were installations that we built walls for and we knew what they needed in advance. And then there were works that we just played with in the space and moved around to see what served them best.
We worked and re-worked projects in the space. Part of it was a consideration that there was a lot of sound bleed because there were several video projects and we didn’t know which videos would play into each other. We tried to balance out the different audios so that they didn’t interfere with each other, but also, we realized that the interaction of the audio from rubén [garcia marrufo]’s work and Lou [Watson]’s work was relational and didn’t necessarily interrupt the experience of the individual works.
ASM:I would add that we also had this conceptual thing going about history being rhizomatic and it was important that this not be laid out as a timeline in some strange way. We thought a lot about how certain historical events manifested very differently (with different repercussions) within different communities. They’re not read the same way, they don’t have the same stakes even though they’re grounded in the same foundation of events. We didn’t have any concern for laying the show out in a way that was legible in a hyper-linear fashion. Those historical repercussions ricocheted.
In some of the reviews that came out people loved to write, “This exhibition is all over the place and maybe that’s a commentary on Oregon art not knowing where it is or where it’s going.” But for us, it was antithetical to present an elevator pitch or concise thesis about makership in the region in a way that it doesn’t exist.
We didn’t want to make some sort of easy thesis statement about the history of this state, what it looked like hundred years ago, and what it feels like for everyone now. We didn’t feel like there was a straight line to be drawn through those things in a way that was honest. I think that in our organization of the exhibition and the map we were interested in positioning things in complicated conversations.
DP: Well yeah.
EJ: There’s all these things that you’re constantly balancing curatorially. We were charged with having satellite spaces, and we determined to have all the artists on-site for various reasons. Some of the artists who initially wanted to be in satellite spaces decided they wanted to be on site, but also as you talk about how you move through the work and the geography of it, you can experience the entire Biennial instead of going to several places and trying to figure out what the cumulative experience of the show should be. For this exhibition, you might have to go back several times and actually watch the videos at different moments. I don’t think anybody can digest it all once, but siting all the artworks in one space proposes the other challenges.
DP: For accessibility alone, it’s really cool to be able to go and see the entirety of it in a space.
EJ: And that’s what artists wanted. Another question we got a lot was, “Is it going to be all over Oregon?” They wanted to feel like their work was going to be seen.
ASM: That’s tough because we understood the last Biennial was this grand gesture of exhibition throughout the state, and I think that was a really beautiful, exciting gesture ideologically to encourage people popping around to different communities and being inclusive of rural parts of the state. It was a really cool, thoughtful thing to do. But in the end it ended up being an experience that I don’t think anyone had in full and that not all the artists benefited from. So yeah, Liz is 100% right. That both for reasons of resources but also thinking through what is it to make an experience that no one can truly have in a full and meaningful way was something that we thought about a lot.
DP: Right? Ashley, you were talking about the resistance to a clear timeline and in many ways the show resists a kind of linear read. Because of it I think in one space it houses the complexity of multiple spaces and while also, there’s not one route through the work, which I really appreciated.
ASM: Thanks for saying that. Some people did not appreciate that.
EJ: People kept asking, “Well what’s the theme?” And we kept saying, “It’s not a theme, it’s a series of questions that we have about place and the landscape and history,” and I think that shows up in the exhibition. Like you said, it’s not a timeline, it’s not a thesis statement. There’s a series of questions that you can see that these artists are posing different viewpoints or not even necessarily answers but perspectives into this inquiry that we have.
ASM: We would all agree that the artists dictated the theme. We had some guidelines for the sorts of conversations that we were interested in because we knew from the beginning we were interested in de-homogenizing and complicating the history of the region. But ultimately the theme or themes that emerged were completely dictated by the artists and us asking them what they wanted to use the platform of a Biennial to talk about.
DP: We so appreciate how you centered decolonial histories. What influenced your curatorial choices as they related to racism and decoloniality in Oregon?
YSA: Oregon’s history informed those projects. The artists were doing this work and we felt they were an important conversation to feature since that is the story of this place.
ASM: Yeah. I think there was some criticism of past Biennials that there was little to no presence of native artists, which seems like a huge oversight if you’re making an exhibition about the Pacific Northwest. We had a good number of Indigenous artists included in the show who had a multitude of things to say about what it’s been to have stewarded this land since long before it was Portland. We wanted Lynn Yarne in the show because she’s a multi-generational Oregonian, and her work introduces fraught conversations about the ways that the Asian community has been displaced. So we wanted to make sure that that was voiced in some way. Same thing with Sharita [Towne] and her work around the Black community. Again, her family’s been in Oregon for generations and Sharita, specifically, was interested in not just a conversation about Black geographies as they relate to Portland, but as they relate to the state as a whole (including rural areas) and the ways that Black communities have powered that landscape.
JJM: So this next question is related: How do you think about the resonance of the exhibition to Portland and to the broader Pacific Northwest? What does the Portland Biennial that you all curated mean for Portland and the broader Pacific Northwest?
EJ: This is where I’m like, “Oh, okay, I’m not from Portland.” I am a little bit low-key jealous that Portland has this type of exhibition for its artists because Seattle doesn’t. So I did notice a lot of our colleagues coming down. I was realizing in my work at Disjecta for the last year how different our communities are, even though Portland is much smaller in terms of population.
There’s more philanthropy towards the arts even though we have more money here in Seattle. And so that makes me feel like that’s how you can have a Biennial. So I wonder what it would mean for our local arts ecosystem in Seattle to kind of do something like that. Because even though I think biennials can be problematic, I think it’s important to do some type of large-scale regional display of art-making.
YSA: I don’t know if I agree with the assessment of Portland’s arts funding landscape being stronger…
EJ: Oh, it feels like it is.
YSA: I think it isn’t very strong anywhere in this region.
EJ: The Oregon Community Trust, right. They give out a bunch of money
YSA: It’s a hard question for me to answer because I’m fairly skeptical of Biennials and don’t relate to the anointing aspect that is usually attached to them. But I also see the appreciation that the community has for it. I think local art communities appreciate “statement exhibitions” and maybe that’s the value of this. This Biennial gave us the ability to have a conversation that pushes the boundaries of what people are used to seeing in these kinds of exhibitions.
ASM: I don’t know what, if any, resonance we can predict the show’s going to have, maybe none. But I would say at the moment what I’m the most proud of is just that when we released the artist list, we got a lot of people being like, “Who?” That was super satisfying to us as curators to have created a platform for some voices that weren’t the same ones that we always hear from within a conversation about regional contemporary art. Maybe that’s a smallish resonance, but creating a platform for some names that not everyone was already familiar with feels really feels big to me.
DP: As an artist, I think that’s huge.
ASM: We tried. There are names people knew for sure. But at least to not walk in knowing what you were about to see feels good.
DP: And there’s a more expansive space for the combination of works that you wouldn’t have if there was a set list of the same people that are exhibited often. So the next question: we were wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of working with the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice? What was that like? What were you thinking about?
YSA: We invited Lisa Jarrett, who’s one of the organizers of the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice. We wanted to work with her on the Biennial and she had just started up this program that’s an extension of the King School Museum of Contemporary Art project. We explored different ways of collaborating with the program and landed on them working directly with a few of the artists in the exhibition that the kids chose to work with, writing wall labels and doing interviews that were included in the catalog. Because the works were mostly commissioned, the labels were more an interpretation of the work as they had heard us talking about it and describing it a couple of months in advance, in addition to the research that the kids did of the artists’ work in general.
ASM: I think this is one of the most complicated factors in the Biennial. We invited Lisa, as Yaelle said, and she ended up choosing that she would rather include this work than work from her personal practice. We thought that had potential to be great because social practice, particularly in Portland, is still huge and it felt like it deserved a nod in a conversation about regional contemporary art. Again, it was one of the most complicated gestures of the exhibition because we were thinking around issues of access and inclusion and who art is for and who has a right to be publicly engaged with those processes and have those conversations.
We wanted to be really cognizant and aware of communities that are typically left out of that conversation, and I think that the King School and the Harriet Tubman Center for Curatorial Practice checked a lot of those boxes in a way that we thought would be really powerful and wonderful. So as Yaelle was explaining, [the students] got to basically have access to the process of making a Biennial. They got to do studio visits with artists and have conversations and give their impressions of the work in a really public way, and I think that we all stand by our hopes for that. But it ended up being a complicated gesture because there was some disagreement about the purpose that wall didactics serve – the way that language and its specificity serves not just the communities reading it but the artists that they are written about.
Not all the artists felt like the labels said what they would have wanted to communicate about their work, and so we had to think through that and be accountable to that, and I think that we’re still enmeshed in that process. But the origins of the gesture, again, are very much around expanding inclusion and whether Biennials actually serve the communities that they are built upon. We wanted to make sure that the Biennial wasn’t talking at people, but that it was alive and talking with people.
JJM: Are there any other thoughts that you want to add about this work and what it means?
DP: Especially with a little more time and reflection as the show isn’t open anymore. Is there anything else you’ve thought about?
EJ: Probably a lot. We worked on this for over a year of our lives, so I think when it closed I was like, “I don’t have to drive down to Portland this month.”
When I was doing my senior show in college and after our exhibition opened, our teacher was like, “Are people depressed? Is everybody okay?” And he was talking about this kind of nature of working so hard to put something together and it’s up for a month, and then it’s over, and then many artists go into a depression. I was not depressed, but I am speaking to this idea that we spent so much of our lives on a gesture. I was in Portland every month, for almost a year, to then have a three month exhibition and then it closes. It’s kind of just the temporal nature that’s interesting about all of that. There is an emotional thing that I just put out there. And now it is gone.
YSA: I think that there’s a lot of processing while the show is up because there was constant feedback and responses and opinions thrown at us, which was wonderful because it meant that people were engaged. I’m pretty grateful for just having the opportunity to do this, especially the collaborative process that has its challenges but many more benefits. Lately I’ve realized just how much I enjoy collaborating on exhibitions since the process challenges me in ways that I can’t challenge myself. I believe the project is better for it and I’m up for the difficulties that come with collaboration.
I think that’s just the nature of the work that I’m interested in. Socially-engaged work is made better by working through the questions with more people before presenting it to a larger public.
ASM: Yeah, I agree. This might’ve been the first Portland Biennial that was authored by a team instead of just a person. And so I think that that’s probably reflected a little bit in how it turned out. I think that it was better for it. This may sound a little overdramatic, but this is the most visible thing (with the largest audience) that I’ve ever worked on as a curator and I feel really sort of changed by the weight of it. Because this is the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on, I’ve never had an exhibition that had this level of engagement and criticism and everything else that comes with an exhibition that has this kind of sensibility, and it’s really reordered the way that I will work as an administrator and a programmer in the future. To echo what Liz and Yaelle said, I’m really grateful for that.
DP: What’s on the horizon for you all? What’s next?
YSA: I’m teaching right now and developing independent curatorial projects.
EJ: I run a Black arts center with some collaborators here in Seattle, called Wa Na Wari. So I’m learning what it means to run a nonprofit and it’s exciting. I’m excited about what I’m doing curatorially. I’m experimenting and growing. I think I grew a lot, like Ashley said, through this experience, I haven’t done anything this large scale either and it was a huge learning curve. I learned a lot from the two of them, and I’m pleased to take those lessons to the rest of my practice.
ASM: I think, not just for artists but also for administrators in this increasingly dire arts ecosystem that we live in where nothing’s living wage and nothing’s sustainable, talking about temporary contract work and “what’s next” is a big question. We had that Willamette Week cover that we’re really grateful for, but that was hysterically titled “The Successors” and we were like, “successors to what?” We all are sort of underemployed and so that was hilarious hyperbole that I think that we all are thinking through in relation to the what’s next question.
But to just give a literal answer, I’m doing a variety of contract work including an exhibition opening at the Alabama Contemporary in January [If You Have Ghosts] that I’m excited about.
EJ: I think now that Ashley said that I can actually formulate my opinion about the question you had asked earlier about the diversity of artists. I think it was a New York Times article where this guy was saying, “It’s the time for Black artists,” and then similarly, I was like, “What the heck? Black artists have been making art?” I think we all could have felt similarly with people saying, “The white guy is out and look at these women that are going to take over, and they’re bringing people of color.” Here is the truth, we are just open. We know artists of color and we curate them. And so that’s what it’s like. I think when it’s part of your practice to just be more inclusive, because of some of the communities that you’re from and your vantage point in the world, then that’s what you do.
When you have like trans folks in your community and people of color in your community, you’re going to just organically think about bringing them to the table because they’re your loved ones. So I think I felt tokenized in that way because traditional white curators don’t have their work pigeonholed in that way. There were people doing really important work and they weren’t picked because of their identities. We picked them because they were good artists. Does that make sense?
DP: Yes, and I think that is an extremely important answer to these questions. I know Jasmine and I left the show and were talking and talking, and then talked more. Both as makers and as people working in curation, also working at institutions, we really wanted to be able to ask you about all of these things. We think through these things as well. So I really appreciate your time.
Yaelle S. Amir is a curator and researcher with a primary focus on artists whose practices supplement the initiatives of existing social movements, rendering themes within those struggles in ways that both interrogate these issues and promote them to a wider audience. Yaelle’s programming has appeared in art institutions throughout the United States including Artists Space (NY), CUE Art Foundation (NY), The Elizabeth Foundation (NY), Franklin Street Works (CT), Holding Contemporary (OR), and Marginal Utility (PA) among many others. She has held curatorial and research positions at major institutions including MoMA NY, the International Center of Photography, and New York University. In Portland, she was curator of exhibitions and public programs at Newspace Center for Photography and most recently curated the Portland2019 Biennial.
Elisheba Johnson, who has a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts, was the owner of Faire Gallery Café, a multi-use art space that held art exhibitions, music shows, poetry readings and creative gatherings. For six years, Johnson worked at the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture where she was a public art project manager and worked on capacity building initiatives. Elisheba is currently a member of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Network advisory council and has won four Americans for the Arts Public Art Year in Review Awards for her work. Johnson is also the co-founder and curator at Wa Na Wari, a Black arts space in Seattle’s Central District.
Dan Paz is a Latinx visual artist whose research into image-making explores racialized identities, the complications of Latinidad, and the impact of migration in the Global South. Paz’s practice encompasses studio, curatorial, and education to work toward a more equitable future. Selected exhibitions include Hayward Gallery London, UK; Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Havana, Cuba; The Media lab, NYC; the MCA, Chicago, IL.; selected residencies with El Centro Desarollo de Artes in Cuba; Chicago Artists’ Coalition Hatch Residency; The Studios of Key West; The High-Resolution Media Artist Residency, Seattle University; The Luminary, St. Louis, MO; and ACRE, WI. Awards include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur’s Connection Grant, The Ann Metzger National Award for Prints, University of Chicago Arts Council, and the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition Grant. Paz was a curator of the transnational project Arte no es Fácil from 2008- 2016, and curated exhibitions at the Seattle-based Alice Gallery from 2017-2019.
Ashley Stull Meyers is a writer, editor, and curator. She has curated exhibitions and public programming for a diverse set of arts institutions along the west coast, including those in San Francisco, CA, Oakland, CA, Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR. She is currently Northwest Editor for Art Practical and has contributed writing to Bomb Magazine, Rhizome, Arts.Black and SFAQ/NYAQ. In 2017 Stull Meyers was named Director and Curator of The Art Gym and Belluschi Pavilion at Marylhurst University. She is based in Portland, Oregon.