The 2012 Whitney Biennial officially opened its doors today, and if visitors want to see the full roster of artists, they will not only have to cruise the galleries, but also sit in front of a movie screen on the second floor. The curators spent nearly a year scouring the country looking for artists who encapsulate the current state of contemporary art in America, and in their search, they found sculptors, painters, photographers, multimedia artists, and quite a few filmmakers. The Biennial has always included a selection of artists working in a variety of artistic disciplines, but this year, filmmakers are featured more prominently. The museum is calling it their “first proper film festival-style program.”
While experimental film has been a critical part of the Biennial since 1979, this year’s program highlights more feature filmmaking and documentary. Fifteen of the 51 artists who have been selected to present their work this year are filmmakers, and this includes five feature films, four documentaries, and over half a dozen experimental films. In the last decade, there have only been two feature films and 11 documentaries screened, and all but four were part of the 2006 Biennial.
“We kind of thought earlier on that we didn’t want to rule out a more commercial presence,” says Elisabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney, and co-curator of this year’s Biennial.
This “commercial presence” meant including films that contain a more traditional, plot-driven narrative, that is typically shown at a film festival or movie theater rather than at a museum. When Sussman and guest curator, Jay Sanders, began to map out the exhibit, they sought the help of Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, the founders of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, to co-curate the film program. Halter and Thomas provided an insider’s look at the breadth of filmmaking that’s happening across the country today.
“One of the things we were concerned with was showing a whole range of cinematic practices,” says Halter. “We wanted to include works of independent feature filmmaking, we wanted to show documentaries, we wanted to show experimental film, and we wanted show works that have been generated within the visual arts themselves.”
This is not to say that documentaries or feature films have been completely absent from past editions– Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” was screened in 2008 and the “Weather Underground” was one of the selections in 2004—but experimental film and video installations have been the focus of most Biennials of the last decade. Kent Jones, a film critic and the former director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, reviewed the 2000 Whitney Biennial’s film program for Artforum International and recalls thinking that, “It seemed as if they [the curators] were more concerned with choosing films that were the stamp of the art world, and that’s always a pitfall I think when you get into programming films in this context.”
One of the films selected for the Biennial is Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill, a story of a working class community in a neighborhood outside of Baltimore that comes together to pay tribute to a friend who has passed away. Porterfield describes the film as a cross between “documentary and fiction” that is part scripted and part improvised. Porterfield says that he was surprised that his film was chosen given the Biennial’s past selections, which have rarely included feature films. In a time though when independent filmmakers, like himself, struggle to finance their projects, he sees the Biennial as an opportunity to show his work to a broader audience, including the media and museumgoers.
“You’re not making big blockbusters so needless to say, it hard to finance your pictures. And then you play film festivals and you reach such a limited audience of just other filmmakers.”
Beyond the film selection, the curators were concerned about the structure of the program. Halter says the films were shown in a “patchwork way” with few screenings in the past, which often made the film program feel disjointed from the rest of the work in the exhibit. The four curators have revamped the schedule to resemble a film festival so that every film will be screened three times a day over the course of a week to give each filmmaker more exposure.
“I always had the impression that there was a careful vetting of the work to make sure that it fit some kind of abstract idea of what a film that would be included in the Whitney Biennial should be like, but with Ed and Thomas’ selection that seems to be effectively over,” says Jones.