Architecture provides our daily backdrop of the city, and we tend to take it for granted as we walk each day through brick, glass, metal and concrete canyons and along orderly avenues lined with dwellings old and new. But Carson Chan, executive curator for Denver's Biennial of the Americas 2013 art and architecture exhibitions, sees how the rise and fall of urban buildings through time echo the progress of a city, as well as its setbacks.
That all fits in with the Biennial exhibition theme of Draft Urbanism, an exploration of how cities across the Americas are always in a state of flux...and where they might be headed in that act of constantly becoming. What does that mean for Denver? "When Hickenlooper first thought it up as mayor, his idea for the Biennial was, 'How can Denver become a hub of contemporary ideas?'" Chan notes. "The question of urbanism is an urgent one, and addressing Denver as a microcosm of that is extremely germane."
The Berlin-based Chan, whose curatorial background is rooted in architecture, which he studied at Cornell and Harvard universities, comes to Denver with a deep resume: In addition to serving in a similar role last year at the fourth Marrakech Biennial, he's curated dozens of exhibits and written extensively on art and architecture on an international scale. But don't expect stuffy from Carson Chan. Draft Urbanism, which he co-curated with Paul Andersen and Gaspar Libedinsky, is exceeding user-friendly, with an eye toward a more sustainable future, as well as creatively devised to create a citywide exhibition accessible to all.
One challenge for Chan was in curating architecture in an interesting way. "Oftentimes in architectural exhibits, you see pictures and mockups of buildings, but those are really representations of architecture, not actual buildings," he says. "I had to ask myself, 'How does one communicate architectural ideas in exhibit format?' But it's costly to build buildings."
His remedy was to first commission four thoughtful -- and sometimes fanciful -- architectural installations to be placed in different parts of downtown Denver (see Your Guide to the 2013 Biennial of the Americas for details). He's also taking advantage of architecture, much of it historical, already in place downtown, from the Daniels & Fisher tower to I.M.Pei's Sheraton Hotel building, by marking them with labels.
"The idea is to place museum labels around Denver to switch perception of those buildings," Chan explains. "A building we walk past becomes an object of scrutiny, like an object one might see in in museum, except that it's one you encounter or just happen upon by chance."
And the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park will be given over to First Draft, an exhibition showcasing an all-Colorado crew of emerging fine artists, which Chan characterizes as a local "welcome" to artists from across the hemisphere.
Also downtown, the Biennial will bring the celebration to the people in everyday settings with roving musicians and performances. In addition, an international cast of artists and thinkers, including many of Denver's own (as well as words from a poet, a philosopher, the author Douglas Coupland and the actor James Franco) will be represented on billboards and other signage both downtown and in unexpected places around the city.
"We want people to know about exhibition, but I'm most excited about the people who don't know about it and will happen upon the installations and billboards and say, 'What is this?' That moment of questioning is exactly what we want to happen," Chan continues. "We want to bring the art to the people."
And finally, Chan decided to have a little fun by playing with the many meanings of the word "draft." He'll bring the level even closer to the people by glorifying Denver's beer culture. "I realized that Denver's urbanism is directly related to the history of taverns and bars," he says. "They were among the first businesses in Colorado."
In homage to Denver's brewing past, present and future, which Chan describes as being steeped in in "beer, bars and politics," some of the artists involved in Draft Urbanism will play off of that theme, and an event, Craft Urbanism, will top off the Biennial week on July 20 with a series of four distinct pop-up beer gardens in the heart of downtown. (information is available at the Biennial website).
Carson Chan will be joined by local curator Cortney Lane Stell of the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, who was brought in to select local artists for Draft Urbanism and First Draft, for First Draft Urbanism: A Pre-Biennial Q&A tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. Admission is free; visit the Facebook event page for details.
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