Fall Arts Preview: Cincinnati’s FotoFocus Biennial Returns in October

The month-long series celebrates lens-based art with 100+ projects.

click to enlarge Ian Strange, “Twenty-Five,” 2017 - Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Ian Strange, “Twenty-Five,” 2017

When you hear or read the phrase “world record,” what comes to mind?

That’s the question more than 600 artists and curators are exploring during the regional 2022 FotoFocus Biennial, a month-long series featuring more than 100 artistic exhibitions, installations and events centered around photography and lens-based art. This year’s biennial, which takes place in October, is the Cincinnati-based nonprofit’s sixth iteration and represents the largest event of its kind in the United States, according to FotoFocus.

FotoFocus was founded in 2010 with the mission of “inspiring conversations about the world through the art of photography,” and it launched its biennial in 2012. Kevin Moore, FotoFocus artistic director and curator, tells CityBeat that more than in other artistic media, photographs can lead to discussions of what people care about. It makes the biennial — a signature program of nonprofit, which also supports other lens-based art programming, exhibits and artists in Greater Cincinnati — an ideal opportunity to engage in topics around us through art.

“One of the things I think FotoFocus does so well is that we do things quickly. If you’re trying to do contemporary shows — things that relate to what’s going on in the world — museums are planning two or three years in advance. By the time they cross the finish line, there have been, like, 50 more gun shootings or a major upheaval in a country or some kind of climate issue,” Moore says. “A year in advance [of the biennial], we try to think about what’s really going to be on our minds when we arrive at this point.”

This year’s theme considers photography’s extensive record of life on Earth. Under the banner of “world record,” audiences can expect to see artwork that prompts conversations about nature, science, climate change, humanity, energy and utopian and dystopian visions of man in nature, according to a release from FotoFocus.

Moore says the theme has double meaning: The planet has been experiencing world-record-breaking environmental events of late, but also, photography and lens-based art records the world through documentation of people and events. He says it’s important to remember that “world record” is also “about social life.”

The FotoFocus Biennial’s core “Program Week” takes place from Sept. 29-Oct. 8. It includes not only art exhibits but also keynote lectures, screenings, receptions, tours and panel discussions with artists, curators and collaborators at museums, galleries and other venues across Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Dayton, Oxford and Columbus. Locally, there are more than 50 venues participating, ranging from the Cincinnati Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center and Taft Museum of Art to Wave Pool, the Michael Lowe Gallery and Somerset. Many exhibits will remain on view throughout October and beyond, but the main lectures and panels — including a keynote from Makeda Best, the Harvard Art Museums’ Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography — take place during that initial week.

A few of the local shows encapsulate what this year’s biennial theme is all about.

Moore and Best are curating On the Line: Documents of Risk and Faith (Sept. 9-Jan. 15) at Contemporary Arts Center, a series of photographs that “address a range of topics, spanning performance and the body, climate change, power, colonialism and identity, heritage, and territory,” per a description. Two other exhibits will be on view at the CAC to coincide with FotoFocus: Images on Which to Build, 1970s-1990s (Sept. 30-Feb. 12), which is a photographic exploration of the interconnected LGBTQ+ movements of the 20th century, and Baseera Khan: Weight on History (Sept. 30-Feb. 12), a solo exhibit that uses video, photography, sculpture and performance to explore “capital, politics and the body,” per a description.

Other major museums also are participating in the biennial this year, with FotoFocus-curated shows at the Cincinnati Art Museum and Taft Museum of Art. The CAM will mount Natural World (Sept. 30-Jan. 15), a collaborative exhibit of photos, films, textiles and more from artists David Hartt and John Edmonds, poet Jason Allen-Paisant and curator Nathaniel M. Stein. The Taft Museum of Art’s Craft and Camera: The Art of Nancy Ford Cones (Oct. 1-Jan. 15) will explore the innovative photographic works of Loveland resident Cones, who was alive from 1869-1962. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is exhibiting ‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory (Sept. 30-March 6), which “considers the historic and contemporary role that photography and film have played in remembering legacies of slavery and its aftermath and examines the social lives of Black Americans,” per a description.

‘Free as they want to be’ is very much about how we remember things, how artists deal with historical artifacts to maintain history,” Moore says.

Moore also is curating Ian Strange: Disturbed Home (Oct. 1-Dec. 9), which will be on view at Art Academy of Cincinnati’s SITE 1212 and Annex. Strange is an internationally acclaimed Australian artist and photographer whose work incorporates elements of cinema, architecture and site-specific structures. Per FotoFocus, he is known for “provocative transformations of damaged or abandoned homes” and worked with Art Academy of Cincinnati students and the Hamilton County Landbank during a three-month residency for this exhibit.

Disturbed Home features locally produced photographic works, drawings, film and light-based architectural interventions, including a site-specific installation at the Art Academy Annex, to generate conversations about how environmental concerns and economics have changed the populations of Cincinnati neighborhoods over time.

Moore says the exhibition will be “very striking.”

In Northern Kentucky, The Carnegie will present a group exhibition titled These Things Are Connected (Oct. 1-Jan. 28), which is guest-curated by the venue’s Exhibitions Director Matt Distel. Distel explains that part of The Carnegie’s curatorial mission over the past few years has been to introduce and integrate local artists into the larger arts industry. The FotoFocus Biennial provides a unique gateway for that to happen.

Distel is bringing together five curators from Minneapolis, Atlanta, Columbus and New York to select artists to feature alongside those working in the Cincinnati and Covington area. The exhibition will include a wide range of photographic styles from observational to photojournalistic to historical to sculptural, reflective of the range of curators and artists themselves.

“The way that we felt like we were connecting to ‘world record’ was a kind of criss-cross intersection of traveling, [with] the curators conceptually and physically and artistically traversing a large geography, which takes up a good chunk of the Midwest and the South,” he says.

This year’s biennial also includes a first-ever collaboration between FotoFocus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Sun Dogs is a live program which will take place at Music Hall Oct. 14-16. Four composers (Daniel Wohl, Arooj Aftab, Rafiq Bhatia and Dev Hynes) and two filmmakers (Josephine Decker and Apichatpong Weerasethakul) have created three compositions to be performed by the orchestra while their accompanying films are projected onstage. Composer Wohl tells CityBeat each of the three pieces explores extra-sensory ideas — a record of things that are felt but unseen.

Although Sun Dogs is a ticketed event, many venues included in the biennial are free and open to the public. FotoFocus also offers a passport that can be obtained for free on the organization’s website and includes access to exhibitions during the month of October, members-only events and the FotoFocus Biennial Program Week. The website also offers descriptions of each exhibit and a map to help plan your experience.

The events highlighted here only scratch the surface of the FotoFocus Biennial; hundreds of artists and curators are contributing to a far-reaching series of artistic experiences. The expansive nature of the biennial aims to prompt endless conversations about a variety of topics, which Moore has said is always the goal of photography. As he described in an April 2022 article for CityBeat, “You don’t show art as only a kind of solitary, contemplative experience. You show it to have a conversation.”

The 2022 FotoFocus Biennial takes place throughout October, with core programming Sept. 29-Oct. 8. Info: fotofocus.org.

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