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CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: PROSPECT.1 NEW ORLEANS

International biennials of contemporary art have long ventured into the cities that serve as their hosts, but perhaps none has reckoned with so loaded a locale as PROSPECT.1 NEW ORLEANS. More than three years after Hurricane Katrina wrought its devastation, much of the city remains in grave disrepair, making it a setting where critical designations such as “site-specific work” and “socially committed practice” can seem tenuous at best. Curator Dan Cameron and the eighty-one international artists he invited to participate in the first New Orleans biennial were well aware of this dilemma, and they often addressed the challenge by directly involving local communities across the city. The nearly three hundred works on view through January 18 by no means obviate the complexities of staging an exhibition in such a deeply troubled place, but they necessarily suggest heightened and far-ranging questions about how a biennial—or any work of art—might truly engage its context. Artist GLENN LIGON and Artforum senior editor ELIZABETH SCHAMBELAN headed to the bayou to survey the results.

Chandra McCormick, Jammin’ at the Shop in Treme, 1986, black-and-white photograph, 23 x 29". From “Gone,” L9 Center for the Arts, New Orleans, 2008.

I ALMOST MISSED one of the most affecting presentations of Prospect.1 New Orleans. Wandering into a small room at the back of the L9 Center for the Arts, I discovered “Gone,” an exhibition of flood-damaged photographs assembled by the center’s founders, local artists Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. Hung salon style in their ruined mats and mud-encrusted frames, these black-and-white documentary photos of weddings, block parties, and second-line parades in the Lower Ninth Ward are a devastating reminder of what Hurricane Katrina swept away and what a courageous and determined group of artists, community organizers, and local residents are working to restore. The problem is that “Gone” is not actually part of Prospect.1. L9 Center for the Arts is the host of a wallpaper installation by biennial artist Anne Deleporte, but Calhoun and McCormick seized the opportunity to

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