Historical Blinds and SITElines: Unsettling the Biennial with Candice Hopkins
by Jenn Jackson
Curator Candice Hopkins tends to take an untethered approach to working with institutions, keeping one foot in and the other out. She often works in roles where she is an advisor to or resident of the institution. This approach enables an important perspective—one that gives opportunities to challenge normal or traditional institutional models. For Hopkins, there is a stability to not being entirely tethered. Her curatorial roles at documenta 14, SITE Santa Fe, the forthcoming Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale and her recently announced appointment at the Toronto Biennial are anchored in a collaborative and artist-centric framework of respect and reciprocity. And whether by choice or chance, Hopkins has found herself working with institutions open to structural shifts and change: both SITE Santa Fe and the Toronto Biennial are committed to re-thinking the format of the biennial. In particular, these two biennials offer great latitude around how, with what, where, when and by whom new institutional models are delivered.
Next to longer standing institutions, the biennial as a form finds its own stability by being untethered from traditional methods of exhibition, education and public programming practices. Rather than following previously successful models, the biennial projects in Toronto and Santa Fe have taken interest in challenging and expanding the ever-replicated structure of such frameworks.
SITE Santa Fe shows the possibility of shifting a successful institutional method into an unknown realm. When the SITE Santa Fe International Biennial was founded in 1995, it was the only international biennial in the United States and one of only a few worldwide. The two decades following the foundation of the SITE Biennial saw an exponential proliferation of biennials. In 2011, Irene Hoffmann, director of SITE Santa Fe, responded with a proposal to revise and rethink the SITE Santa Fe Biennial structure through a phase of intensive self-examination. What emerged was an open framework, with a greater focus on local audiences, a reconception of the roles and commitment of guest curators and a vision open to collective forms of contribution. Rather than replicate the typical power structures seen in artistic institutions at the time, SITE Santa Fe set into motion a biennial critical of institutional history, ideology and social responsibility. The resulting six-year commitment—to implement a new biennial model for three iterations in 2014, 2016 and 2018, with Hopkins on the curatorial advisory teams for all three— continues today with unprecedented awareness of cultural blind spots, colonial histories and legacies.
Hopkins was directly involved in the revisioning sessions of SITE Santa Fe, alongside curators and artists who had previously worked with the SITE biennial, people from other national and international institutions, including the Carnegie International exhibition, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Bienal de São Paulo. In these sessions, an idea came forward to consider what would happen if the biennial focused more specifically on the Americas—differentiating itself from what had come to be concentrated global biennial power structures. Under the name SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas, local geography and situatedness emerged as a central interest and framework. Through the collective vision of the think-tank group, the SITE Santa Fe Biennial was radically revised to reflect its geographic location and its attendant politics, whereby Santa Fe functioned as a microcosm of the history of the Americas: it was and remains Indigenous land, it was once Spanish territory and subsequently it was part of Mexico, all before becoming a part of the United States. Santa Fe also happens to be located along the Pan-American Highway, which was of particular interest to Biennial Director Irene Hoffman.
The focus on the Pan-American Highway, a road network that spans from Alaska to Panama, evolved to critically examine predominant international art perspectives of an east–west orientation to one of north–south. The relationship of north–south has remained a sustained focus for Hopkins. From her early visual arts education to her current writing and curatorial work, she has considered how the terms and conditions of a north-south orientation inspire different perspectives. For her, the relationship is both personal and political. Hopkins self-identifies as being from the North. She was born in the Yukon and, at a fairly young age, her family moved from Whitehorse to Mile 731⁄2 along the Alaska Highway. She has always been interested in how Canada narrates the North. The North as a national identity, for instance, is often pictured through projection rather than an understanding of actual economies and lives. From her earliest curatorial roles (including director of exhibitions at Western Front) to now, Hopkins has maintained this interest through relationships with artists from the Arctic.
In conversation with Hopkins, she reminds me that in the North, the arts provide a central economy; that the Arctic in Canada has more self-defined artists per capita than anywhere else in the country; and, yet, that the majority of artworks produced in the North are immediately sent south. The result of this migration is that most work from the North is interpreted by people other than the artists who produce the work. Although slowly shift- ing, the opportunity for artists from the North to speak for themselves has proven limited. Hopkins is part of a dedicated group of curators working to shift this inequity. She credits her experience working as a curatorial resident with Christine Lalonde, associate curator of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada, who strove to create platforms to bring artists from the Arctic to speak to and of their own work. For Hopkins, considering the relationship of north–south represents a way to have expanded conversations about art not only in Canada but also internationally. In 2017, the exhibition of Kananginak Pootoogook’s work at the 57th Venice Biennale marked the first inclusion of Inuit art in the Biennale’s headline exhibition. SITE Santa Fe has included Inuit artists in every edition of the reframed biennial program, featuring works by Shuvinai Ashoona, Zacharias Kunuk, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Ohotaq Mikkigak, Jamasee Pitseolak and Tanya Tagaq.
Hopkins was a member of the national committee that selected Inuit video-based production company Isuma—led by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn—to represent Canada at the 58th International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia in 2019, and she was later announced as co-curator of the project. Isuma’s participation in Venice marks the first presentation by Inuit artists in the Canada Pavilion. The collective media production company was co-founded in 1990 by Kunuk, Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq (1954–1998) and Pauloosie Qulitalik (1939–2012) to preserve Inuit culture and language and to present Inuit stories to Inuit and non-Inuit audiences around the world. In Inuktitut, the meaning of “isuma” translates to “to think, or a state of thoughtfulness.” The work to be presented by Isuma in Venice includes a feature-length documentary video titled One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2018), which revisits an encounter from 1959 when the first relocation of Inuit people to government settlements took place. The film calls into question both the initial and reverberating consequences of the mass relocation—consequences that continue to resound in the regional, national and international politics of today. The film speaks to the effects of forced displacement and the radical reconfiguring and restructuring of people’s lives in the aftermath of the transitional time.
In their work, Isuma is concerned with shifting perspectives of the North. Both Cohen and Kunuk have advocated for broadcast material within the media landscape of the North to include knowledge presented from the perspective of the people who live there. Reflecting on his time spent working with the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, Kunuk has said that even when they could show content from the North, it was required to maintain a certain level of political neutrality. Founding Isuma enabled the collective to talk about the impacts of censorship and provided a much- needed platform for bigger questions of displacement within the media landscape. In addition to extending Isuma’s reach to audiences of the Venice Biennale, the collective’s participation opens a broader question of reciprocity: Isuma has put forward the question of how being in Venice not only serves the very specific audience associated with the Venice Biennale but also the Inuit community in Canada. This is a question that will be collectively considered by Isuma, Hopkins and her co-curators, including artist, writer and curator Asinnajaq, leading up to the opening of the Canada Pavilion.
Part of Hopkins’ work with such a range of biennial projects includes a close consideration of who biennials are for and who they really benefit; as such, she is invested in thinking through how the biennial structure can be more beneficial for local artists. Her engagement with SITE Santa Fe was driven by an impetus to craft a mandate for an artist-centric biennial. The curatorial team initially did extensive local studio visits, creating an invaluable local resource for future curators of the Biennial. Each group of SITE Sante Fe curators has also engaged in extended historic and geographically rooted research as part of their curatorial process; both the 2016 and 2018 iterations of the Biennial developed from particular historical narratives from the area.
The 2016 exhibition, titled much wider than a line, featured the contested construction of Italian architect Paolo Soleri’s 1970 Amphitheater—located on the Santa Fe Indian School campus, previously the location of the Institute of American Indian Arts. The present-day ruins of the Amphitheater spoke to a very specific moment in Santa Fe’s history. An enlarged photograph of the original amphitheatre was mounted floor to ceiling on the entrance wall to the exhibition, introducing its entangled history—from its inception by the Institute of American Indian Arts to that institution’s contentious expulsion from the property in 1979 when the Santa Fe Indian School took over tenancy, and finally to its closure and call for demolition in 2010 by the Pueblo Governors of New Mexico. To this day—cordoned off by a gated fence while slowly deteriorating with exposure to unrelenting desert conditions—the fate the physical structure, continues to spark debates around issues of conservation. The inclusion of the Amphitheater as a historic anchor of the SITE Biennial brought forward the history of native theatre while introducing questions around authenticity. Artist Eliza Naranjo Morse notably produced a maquette replica of the Amphitheater made out of micaceous earth—a critique, no doubt, of Soleri’s claim to understand Pueblo architecture and his questionable decision to use concrete rather than the site-specific architectural practice of using earth itself in the construction of the Amphitheater.
The 2018 iteration of SITE Santa Fe, titled Casa Tomada, featured an equally captivating way into the area’s contested historical legacies, with reference to a 16th-century conquistador Juan de Oñate and the controversial 1993 equestrian monument that was erected in his name.
Located in Alcalde, New Mexico, the statue glorifies Oñate’s brutal assault on the region’s Pueblo inhabitants. In 1599, Oñate ordered the amputation of the right feet of 24 Acoma Pueblo prisoners. In 1997, the right foot of the monument statue went missing. In 2017, the New York Times ran an article featuring the story of the theft as told by the man who possessed the stolen foot. As with the Amphitheater, the inclusion of the Oñate foot links the biennial closely to place.
A cast of the stolen Oñate foot was presented as an object at the entrance of Casa Tomada. It functioned as both an artifact and a replication of an artifact, speak- ing to the complexities of New Mexico’s history. The foot was installed in a square window-like opening on a central wall, keeping it in constant proximity to the artworks in the adjacent rooms. All of the artists who had work in the rooms surrounding the replicated artifact were consulted about the Oñate foot being included. Overwhelmingly, the conversation surrounding it came to consider how such objects reappear at certain moments in time. The fact that the foot had returned, and that the return was shared with the world through a New York Times article furthered its mythical presence. The cutting of the foot linked to the re-evaluation of monuments and the contemporary moment of historical reckoning. This was important to Hopkins as a medium to question history and the dismantling of presumed neutrality surrounding historical narratives in relation to artworks within the gallery. Furthermore, the dismemberment of the foot from the body—the monument—became a metaphor for the fact that historic fragments can no longer stand in for the whole but as signifiers in considering particular moments in time.
The practice of creating space for different kinds of knowledge and telling the stories of place continues within the structure of the Toronto Biennial, which Hopkins is also shaping in her role as senior curator. Artists will be given the opportunity to work with a range of Toronto Biennial guests who will share their perspectives and areas of knowledge, creating an adaptive framework open to institutional risk-taking. It makes space for different kinds of knowledges: historical resistances, languages and the agility to continually extend to include further references. The Biennial will also take into consideration that Toronto is a city where more immigrants are arriving than any other place in Canada; it will be responsive to this and to the more than 200 languages spoken within the city. The gathering and exchange of these different knowledges will come together as a process of extended learning, with an ambition to posit alternative futures for Toronto.
The Biennial will sprawl across a number of locations in Toronto, with a focus on the waterfront, and the majority being sites that have never before been used for art. The proposal of these sites poses an intriguing relationship to the waterfront as a transitional zone. The Toronto waterline is one that has shifted and changed with the exposure of land by both the natural and industrialized retreat of the waterline. The fluctuation of this space brings forward many questions—in particular, that of Indigenous land claims. With reference to this geography, the Toronto Biennial, like the SITE Santa Fe Biennial, engaged early on with local artists to support research into the area. One of the Toronto Biennial’s first commissions is from the multi-disciplinary artist and performer Ange Loft, from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, who has undertaken a brief on the Indigenous history of Toronto. She has gone back thousands of years in projecting an idea of the land’s future. From her research came the realization that the site of the biennial replicates the original lands of the Toronto Purchase, and as a result Loft’s commissioned research has come to inform the broader framework of the biennial. As institutions and their vernaculars change, a window opens to consider how exhibition, education and public programs might look to the future, from not only the perspective of others but also from that of geographic specificity. Hopkins describes that in Toronto this shift can be as simple as offering an unexpected perspective of the cityscape from the water. To offer a reversal in the direction of looking. The option of being on the water— to move from looking out from the city to looking into it—also calls to question what is happening beneath the surface, not only of the city but the geography and bodies of water that it inhabits. These propositions look beyond art to broader cultural perspectives on economies of wealth and aesthetic systems, and expand the notion of institutional responsibility. They look at the rhetoric of this particular moment and create pause to ask bigger ideological questions. To ask, what can biennials and institutions offer? And, to realize the consciousness of institutions, of the people that make up institutions; to look at what has been missing or historically omitted because of unconscious bias.
At best the biennial as an exhibitionary or institutional model can offer a shift in perspectives and a shift of context. The emergence of multivocal biennial modes in recent years calls for a reframing of the roles and responsibilities of host institutions, staff and curators, such that biennials might breach zones of comfort and stability, forgo the usual rules or reject the usual language. These new modes allow a thinking through of broader social, geographical and historical contexts and offer an urgency around how language and words, artworks and biennials have started to stand in for much more complex discussions and even histories. Hopkins is dedicated to unravelling the bounds of historical amnesia. She has described her curatorial contributions as a knot with many strands. Each thread offers an opportunity to extend the conversation and provide alternate resources for thinking more broadly about the future. Hopkins acknowledges that although biennials, exhibitions, education and public programs offer an opportunity for conversation with different perspectives, they can’t always sustain them. She proposes that these conversations are sustained beyond these programs in different ways—through the bodies and minds that circulate beyond the original encounter or experience, whereby the responsibility rests on each individual to remain aware of the ever-shifting terrain of their institutions.