Whether West Kendall or South Dade, parts of Miami-Dade County have a particular sense of place that isn't conducive to the sexy Miami Vice vibe. And while neither version of Miami is more essential than the other, each adds its own value to the city. That became apparent to Laura Randall, founder and head curator of the inaugural Knight Foundation-sponsored public art exhibition Commuter Biennial while she was driving long distances to and from work.
"It was a lot of time spent sitting on the highway in my car," she reflects. "I noticed a discord between the way arts impacted the urban core and the stretch between that space [and] the suburban realm where the arts kind of fall off. I thought those spaces in between — the retention ponds, long stretches of canals, and the advertising visuals along my route — were ripe for artistic intervention."
"The sort of theme and concept behind [the Biennial] is bringing art to where so much of the Miami population lives and connecting more of the whole county to contemporary art," assistant curator Courtney Levine says. "We live in more of a megalopolis than a metropolis. There is so much sprawl, and the way the county is planned — or, in some cases, not planned — keeps a huge percentage of the local South Florida population in transit a lot of the time."
Since July, the Biennial has taken projects to locales across Miami-Dade County. Boat tours by artist Marie Lorenz often used natural tides to steer riders through ignored parts of the city's bay and canals; textile pieces by Lily Martina Lee became abstract memorials at the sites where unidentified bodies were found in Hialeah Gardens and the Hammocks; and Terrence Price II and Michelle Lisa Polissaint are displaying photographs for bus passengers in Miami Gardens/Carol City and South Miami Heights, respectively.
"We wanted particular attention to works that were driven by the context of the place where they were going to be seen. That makes it a very South Florida show," Levine says. "Context matters, and public art should be considerate of the context in which it takes place. Not all of the projects are quite so literal, and there are a lot of different ways in which people and animals and things commute."
Though the approaches to movement and place vary in each artist's work, there is one local maker who was an early shoo-in for the Biennial. According to Levine, "He’s got his finger on the pulse of what we are really thinking and having in mind in putting this show together."
His name is Juan Alejandro Landaverde. The piece he's contributing to the Commuter Biennial will be installed close to where he grew up in Homestead. Landaverde used to work at Schnebly Redland's Winery, which is adjacent to the field where his work will live. The Redland winery will host an artist talk with Landaverde Sunday, September 8.
"I met Juan just after he completed his degree at FIU in 2015," Randall says. "I liked Juan's work immediately. He was an artist who was very engaged with the community. He showed me some of the sculptures he made in Homestead that were all set in the agricultural fields. When I received the Knight Foundation award, I knew his work would be included in the show."
That early work drew directly from Landaverde's experience as a kid working with his father in fields in Homestead. They lived at a labor camp in South Dade and benefited slightly from subsidized housing, albeit in less than ideal conditions. Today those benefits are dwindling as the community adapts — in Landaverde's words — to new development in the area. And although he admits he hated the work his father dragged him along for, he was still shocked to see how his neighborhood changed as the landscape shifted from agricultural to suburban.
"You don’t notice it from one day to another, but from fifth grade to now in college, [I] see a huge difference," he acknowledges. "All of this development coming up and new homes and new businesses... these development sites are taking over spaces of what used to be potato fields or sugarcane or cornfields or green beans and okra and tomato. Growing up, I knew what used to grow there."
For the Commuter Biennial's next feature, Landaverde will take the main component of the parking lot — a now-ubiquitous sight in his neighborhood — and juxtapose it against okra sprouts. To him, it's partly a nod to the workers who have built and continue to build that area, whether they be agricultural or construction workers. But he also hopes viewers ponder the consequences of these movements and fluctuations.
"Look what used to be here, and now look what’s going up," he explains. "Look what the ground used to grow and now what’s growing out of the ground."
It's an especially poignant piece considering recent news surrounding development in the Redland. The Treo Group recently attempted to change zoning laws for a piece of property across the road from the beloved fruit stand Robert Is Here. According to the Miami Herald, the developers have offered to make a percentage of their units "workforce housing," or property affordable to households making $70,000 a year. It's worth noting, however, that the 2018 median annual pay for agricultural workers was $24,620, and the median annual pay for construction laborers was $34,810.
Is it an accident that the people who are priced out of their neighborhoods and forced into long commutes or migratory lifestyles are from the same communities ignored by large arts and cultural institutions? Probably not. But the Commuter Biennial, in aspiring to be what Levine describes as "a true biennial, albeit an unconventional one," seems to be poking at those value systems. At least four other activations from both local and visiting artists will continue to do so until the end of October.
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"The hope for us would be that this does get international and national attention, but the primary focus is public art that really serves the public," Levine notes. "We’re activating art throughout months that might have otherwise been considered dead months. But locals still live here; life still takes place here."
Artist Talk With Michelle Lisa Polissaint and Terence Price II. 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 20, at Bakehouse Art Complex, 561 NW 32nd St., Miami. Admission is free with RSVP via eventbrite.com.
Artist Talk With Juan Landaverde. Noon Sunday, September 8, at Schnebly Redland's Winery & Brewery, 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead. Admission is free with RSVP via eventbrite.com.
Commuter Biennial. Through October 31 at various locations throughout Miami-Dade County; thecommuterbiennial.org. Admission to artist talks is free.