The Pittsburgh Biennial

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

Beatriz da Costa, Jamie Shulte and Brooke Singer, Swipe, 2003. Mixed media, installation view.

The latest Pittsburgh Biennial just scraped by the economic cutbacks in the arts, even if its presentation was delayed by nearly a year. The 30 or so artists engaged in the show could thus take advantage of the luxury of extended fine-pointing. The curators, Vicki Clark and Robert Raczka, might have had a more difficult time of it, cutting a garment out of theoretical cloth. The biennial is a local showcase (its catchment area is restricted to Western Pennsylvania) but the curatorial mindset is wider than that. It concentrated on performance this year (that thing you usually miss if you don’t make the opening) but extended the concept more widely than the radical performance art of the ’60s and ’70s—a performative element was enough. That admits regular photography, conventional painting, actions-in-space, and site-specific work, as well as performance pure and simple. The visitor too, was often coaxed into some engagement with the art.

If you had been made aware of the curators’ intentions from the minute you entered the building you might have fully appreciated this excellent, if uneven show. Unfortunately the exhibition started outside the building, and the curators’ statement didn’t appear until after the first six installations—odds are many people didn’t spot it at all.

Beatriz da Costa, Jamie Shulte, and Brooke Singer, knowing that most driving licenses encode private information, set up a bar at the opening—free drinks, but your license was swiped through a bar code reader. A map leading to your residence popped up on a large screen. While the work was fun at the opening, for the rest of the show it was about as dynamic as the bar at a temperance convention. In contrast, the adjacent installation by all six members of the Prekop family, which was emptied of the artists but filled with evidence of their home life (a Pittsburgh Bloomsbury), continued to perform and inform.

Less complex work made the point equally well. Two architects, Gerard Damiani and Paul Rosenblatt, each brought the visitor into contact with simple building materials, in strange, austere and abstract encounters. Other works played with sound and other effects. Who Is Like God?S (sic), a collaboration between Michael Pestel and Michael Tolson, combined messily installed rehabilitated piano soundboards and surveillance cameras; with slightly too many elements, it encouraged a listless participation. Jeremy Boyle’s Eight Part Fugue, which was easy to miss, offered an engaging performance of raw, formal electronic sound.

“Look at me! Look at me!” becomes the inevitable refrain in a show devoted to the performative. Lance Winn’s self-portrait, playing Tug o’ War with himself, wittily avoided the attendant risks. It was more questionable whether Carin Mincemoyer’s Getting to the Point does the same. Jeremy Boyle’s video (Rotating) Self Portrait is a model of selfless egocentricity, even more detached than Andy Warhol’s screen tests.

The missing artist in the exhibition, or at the very least, the missing collaborator, was the visitor. Viewer empowerment is a critical element in such a show. Wall to Wall Studios, a design and communications company much involved in Pittsburgh arts, and an “artist” in this biennial, may have shown the way in their installation, which, in its surprise element, effected a remarkable engagement with the visitor. While this biennial’s broad compass was useful as a survey, its breadth diluted the notion of performance. But whisky is as well taken with water as it is neat.