Fall 2015

Art, dance and music make up DU’s contribution to Denver’s Biennial of the Americas

Chris Coleman and Laleh Mehran put the finishing touches on their Biennial exhibit. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Chris Coleman and Laleh Mehran put the finishing touches on their Biennial exhibit. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Since its launch in 2010, Denver’s Biennial of the Americas has sought to forge ties — via art and ideas — among the dozens of countries and two continents that make up the Western Hemisphere. The Biennial’s 2015 edition — held July 14–19 — offered a full menu of exhibits, performances and topical discussions. And the University of Denver was part of the mix.

To bring some south-of-the-equator moves to Denver, DU’s Newman Center Presents performing arts series sponsored the regional debut of Brazil’s street-smart Companhia Urbana de Danca. The Rio de Janeiro-based company fuses hip-hop, contemporary choreography and Brazilian social dance with a smattering of sociopolitical commentary.

The company kept a busy schedule during its Biennial appearance, offering a number of public workshops around the city and an evening performance with Denver’s Wonderbound dance company at a special Biennial Night downtown.

Companhia Urbana de Danca’s Biennial headquarters was the University of Denver campus, where the dancers offered a free workshop to the University community and performed a ticketed show at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts. The evening featured the troupe’s much-hailed “I. You. We… All Black,” a piece that reflects Rio’s complicated race and class issues.

Meanwhile, the Playground Ensemble, artists-in-residence at the Lamont School of Music, paired four professional composers with four young composers from around the Americas to write short musical “postcards.” Each “postcard” addressed one of the key themes of the Biennial and how it relates to the composer’s life.

Insightful commentary also was on the menu at “Now? Now!”—the Biennial’s central visual arts exhibition, staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. It featured a new media installation by Christopher Coleman and Laleh Mehran, professors in DU’s Emergent Digital Practices program.

Watch a slide show of the creation of Chris Coleman and Laleh Mehran’s “Unclaimed” exhibit

Known internationally for their innovative use of emerging media, Coleman and Mehran were among the 31 artists from throughout the hemisphere who caught the eye of curator Lauren Wright. Wright personally selected the participating artists and tasked them with exploring present realities.

“They’re such important, really groundbreaking members of the art community, not just here, but internationally,” Wright says of Coleman and Mehran. “They use technology to make us look at things in different ways.”

The Coleman-Mehran submission, titled “Unclaimed,” explored the idea of airspace — the atmospheric zone that a nation claims as its own, though the air in Denver on one day may well be the air in Montevideo the next week.

“It’s space that nobody has domain over. Everybody has the right to use it, but nobody has the right to control it,” Coleman explains. “We were interested in the problems of the commons, something that is owned by everyone.”

In other words, Mehran adds, “nobody can plant a flag on it.”

To communicate this point, “Unclaimed” utilized a full room at the MCA. The ceiling was lined with 200 tiny fans covered by a thin sheet of plastic. When the fans were on, the cover undulated with the airflow — movement that was depicted on two nearby video monitors. Underneath this air system, Coleman and Mehran created an expansive cityscape, with roughly 200 buildings generated by a 3-D printer. A light system showed the city through a 24-hour cycle, with a full day completed every few hours.

Viewers were invited not just to examine the airflow, but to contribute to it. If they leaned over the city and blew, they could get a sense for how air circulates and of where it goes. When several people were blowing at once, it was easy to see how human behavior in one locale can affect the air downwind.

Coleman and Mehran consider the work both a technical and an aesthetic accomplishment. Engineering the installation took months of round-the-clock research, and construction began the minute classes ended in late spring and continued until moments before the opening.

“They were practically residents of the museum for two weeks,” Wright notes.

For their part, Coleman and Mehran were honored to participate in the Biennial, with its growing stature and mix of world-class talent. Although creating the installation left them no sleep time for weeks, Mehran says, “We were crazy excited to be here.”

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