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The Creators of the Dallas Biennial

Conceptual artists Michael Mazurek & Jesse Morgan Barnett are pushing the boundaries of what what a biennial can be.

by Hady Mawajdeh 29 Dec 2016
Michael Mazurek & Jesse Morgan Barnett

Conceptual artists Michael Mazurek & Jesse Morgan Barnett both studied Intermedia at the University of Texas-Arlington. That's where they met and how they discovered that both thought similarly about what defined art and how it could be made. Soon after graduation, they created the Dallas Biennial. The first iteration lived and evolved online over the course of two years. The second, DB14, featured 55 artist at 11 venues over four months. Now, they're taking things up a notch.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

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Contemporary art fairs like, New York’s Armory Show, attract thousands of art enthusiasts and potential customers every year. Biennials – also known as a biennale (pronounced [bi.enˈnaːle]) – are somewhat different. They happen every other year and they are usually about showcasing big ideas in art.

In Italy, the Venice Biennale dedicates pavilions to various countries and carefully curates the artists invited to show their work. The Whitney Biennial in New York is meant to survey the state of American art. But recently, there’s been a surge in new biennials. In fact,so many biennials have popped up in the past decade, there’s a magazine and foundation that track the biennials happening around the globe.  And though you may not know it, Dallas has one, too – and it’s taking place this weekend.

Michael Mazurek and Jesse Morgan Barnett hatched the plan for the first Dallas Biennial back in in 2011. They were both finishing their MFA at UT-Arlington.

“Jesse came up with the idea of the biennial, “says Mazurek. “I thought it was ridiculous. (He laughs.) I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? How on earth can we do that?’”

Barnett says that Mazurek’s skepticism was totally valid.

“The name itself was a little misleading, because it’s so grandiose. But it gave us a period of time that we could have an extended amount of activity forthcoming. We didn’t necessarily have to figure it out. Each year could be a new iteration depending on whatever our energy was and focus,” says Barnett.

As they thought it through, they realized something pretty simple, says Mazurek: “The platform of the biennial is a way for us to investigate art making.”

That freed the pair to challenge traditional ideas of a biennial. Including the most basic one – that it’s held every two years.

“We’re not really beholden to this structure which has to be repeated,” says Barnett. “It’s going to constantly be evolving and we’re open to that.”

And they showed off their open-mindedness from the jump with their first project, called DB12.

“So our first biennial was two years long and on the internet,” says Mazurek. “Most people don’t know that. But it literally lasted two years and we just continued to change up what was happening online.”

That first Biennial, DB12, challenged what an international exhibition might look like without the constraints of location and time. And interestingly, they came up with unique ways for the work they were showcasing online to be seen offline. Like having one of the phases published in a magazine that was distributed at 2014 Venice Biennale. But Barnett says a lot of the decisions made about the first biennial were really just them reacting to their environment.

“Its form early on was- I mean we can conceptualize about what we hoped it would be, but a lot of it was responding to invitations or certain opportunities that we had,” says Barnett.

DB14’s billboard art Credit: Math Bess

DB14’s billboard art
Credit: Math Bess

The biennials became an extension of their individual art practices. When it was time for DB14, the pair went in a completely different direction.

“So the last biennial, we had 55 artist, four months, 11 venues, says Mazurek.

 DB14’s roster of artist was littered with Texans, but they also showed work by award winning artists with international reputations. DB14 also allowed Barnett and Mazurek an opportunity to display their talent for turning non-traditional spaces into captivating venues. One show was set up in an office inside a non-descript building.

No surprise that there’s a whole new approach to DB16. Instead of challenging the format of biennials, the pair wants to challenge the audience.

“I think by far this has been the most complicated,” says Mazurek.

 The curators declined to give a preview or describe what’s in store at Saturday night’s exhibition. But they’ve invited two provocative – some would say controversial – artists, to show work at The Box Company, a giant former manufacturing facility turned gallery.

Teresa Margolles -Muro Baleado/Shot Wall (Culiacán), 2009 115 concrete blocks with bullet holes 83 7/8 x 156 x 6 inches (213 x 396 x 15.2 cm) Colección Museo Tamayo, INBA/CONACULTA Photograph by Nils Klinger

Teresa Margolles – Muro Baleado/Shot Wall (Culiacán), 2009
115 concrete blocks with bullet holes
Colección Museo Tamayo, INBA/CONACULTA
Photograph by Nils Klinger

Teresa Margolles, age 53, examines death in her work. Lately she’s focused on the impact of drug violence in her native Mexico. She has incorporated human remains and graphic images into her installations and performances. And Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch, age 78, explores religion and other themes in violent, often bloody, ceremonies referred to as actions.

“Both artist are working around this idea of a “real experience,”” says Mazurek. “They’re interested in how the experience relates to manifesting itself into a work of art. It’s about being an artist, living in this world and making work.”

UT-Arlington professor, Stephen Lapthisophon, has been a mentor to Mazurek and Barnett since they were students and he applauds the duo’s curatorial decisions. He says they’re bold, because they’re bringing in artists who really have something to say.

**No English title available.** passionen 1960-1990 aktionsmalerei und relikte, st.petri, lübeck

**No English title available.**
passionen 1960-1990 aktionsmalerei und relikte, st.petri, lübeck

“They chose both of these artist for the spirit of what’s going on in the work,” says Lapthisophon. “And while it may not be directly saying things about legislation or immediate things, I think it’s a good moment of resistance to the spirit of compliance or acquiescence to whatever going.”

 Lapthisophon says the work will show audiences that art can offer another way of seeing things in the world. Mazurek and Barnett believe this year’s biennial will advanced their goals as artists and curators hoping to advocate for big ideas.

7o2a6095-editHow does being in North Texas effect the production of your art?

MM: Being in North Texas has no effect on my art. I am going to make the work that I make no matter where I am at. I don’t see location or region as defining who I am as an artist.

JMB: I agree with what Michael said. Its role is probably quite limited in what I do as an artist. But logistically thinking and considering finances, I spend a lot of time driving. I live in Irving, so going to and from work while maintaining a family life means I spend a lot of time leaving or arriving to an epicenter of activity. But when it comes to my work, it’s a difficult question.

MM: I think you would do what you regardless.

JMB: Yea. Culture is global and I think media has become an avenue to experience ideas through, so I don’t necessarily feel super overwhelmed by the region.

MM: We’re looking at things that are happening around the world in our art. I mean at times I make things that deal with Texas, but in general I don’t think my drive to make work is affected by location.

Both of you have day jobs. What do you do when you’re not working on the Dallas Biennial or your individual projects?

JMB: For almost two years now, I have been at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as the assistant curator of education for academic programs. That means I work with visiting artists to curate different workshops around exhibitions or works from within our collection. I help come up with a thematic approach that deals with what we do at the Modern.

MM: My days are spent at the Goss-Michael Foundation where I am the director and the curator. I’ve been there for about two years and the Dallas Biennial is what led me to the position. In 2014, we proposed one exhibition at Goss-Michael for DB14 and about eight months later the Goss’s offered me the opportunity to curate for them. Now I oversee the day-to-day and curate exhibitions.

You’re both artists. You both have families. You both work jobs that involve the arts, but that are separate from your individual practice. How do you maintain balance?

MM: For me, going to school taught me how to maintain balance. I mean, having a daughter that was one year old, I had to maintain balance. Like I couldn’t have survived if I didn’t have balance. So I had to find time to be in the studio and be making my own work. Find time to be with my family. Find time to be with just my daughter. If I am unhappy, then I have lost the balance. So I have to maintain a cycle of work, family, art and making art. And to me, DB is part of making art. I have two days a week that I separate to make art. Sometimes I create. Sometimes I don’t.

JMB: Finding balance is an ongoing challenge. I don’t think you can ever find it and keep it. So it’s a management of different intensities in terms of responsibilities. A day is not a day equally throughout the year. So I have to find a way to balance responsibilities. But people are procrastinators. We put things off. As I get older, it feels like life gets more difficult, which is a strange realization.

MM: Yea! We’re not 20 anymore.

JMB: Yeah. So sometimes I feel as though I have failed at finding a balance, but I have a good support system. My wife is a nurse and we have one son. And when she’s off of work she likes to have some alone time to read or just be, so I am allowed to sneak away to work on my art. So I am thankful for that. But sometimes I am very frustrated, because my art career – which can feel like the most meaningful thing that I have developed over the years – doesn’t get the time I wish I had for it. But when you feel like that, that’s when you know your balance is off.

Well since balance is a fleeting feeling that can be hard to maintain, does that mean you’re not creatively satisfied?

JMB: I am not sure I am creatively satisfied. I think that having a vehicle of to think about creativity and put something out is satisfying. But it goes back to time. I wish I had more of it to pursue my artistic goals, but if I had more of it, I would probably do more of other things too. Not having enough time interferes with goals of visibility or success, but once something has been created and shared it can be very satisfying. So sometimes I am satisfied and sometimes I am not.

MM: Yea. I think that if I was ever satisfied, I would be scared. I am always seeking it. I think as you create a thing and it expresses an idea you get this moment of satisfaction, but I think that I am always looking. Always digging. I think you can be satisfied in pieces, but am I fully satisfied? I think that if I was, I would be done.

What have you had to sacrifice to pursue your art?

MM: Time perhaps? I didn’t go to art school until I was 40, so maybe time? It’s a tough question.

JMB: It is a tough question. I think I’ve sacrificed a social relationship with people. I am not sure to what degree, but there’s a lot of internal, isolated events and conversation as an artist. Sure you collaborate with other people. You share a community of ideas through culture, but there’s a lot of self-directed alone time. And at some point, you might feel like you missed out in social interactions, but it’s again about balance. As an artist, you’re so connected to culture, time and history, but at the same time you’re a little bit detached from it.  You’re interpreting it within your own mental space.

MM: I think monetary sacrifices happen. I could totally make more money doing something else, but I am not motivated by monetary stuff.

JMB: This is really tough, because it’s like you’re asking us about an exclusive sacrifice that we’ve made. As if there’s some sort of hierarchy to the sacrifices we’ve made that any person picking art as a passion wouldn’t have made. What sacrifices have you made to be in a relationship with someone or have a certain job?

MM: It’s really just decisions. Not a sacrifice.

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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