In Good We Trust

June 8, 2009

In the summer of 2010, Denver will host the first Biennial of the Americas titled “In Good We Trust.” A citywide international cultural event, it will include exhibitions, public programs, and signature art installations. John Hickenlooper, Mayor of the City and County of Denver, and Bruce Mau, Creative Director of the Denver Biennial of the Americas, presented the event at the Gates Center at the Denver Zoo on May 26, 2009.


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Be Possibility. © Denver Biennial of the Americas.

Mayor John Hickenlooper’s presentation

The difference between your studio and others is that you take risks in everything you do, Thank you all for coming, we appreciate your interest. I want to express special gratitude to the Boettcher Foundation, they have from the beginning been strong supporters of it and have given the entire concept a reality we would not otherwise been able to have. We had a number of other early supporters, the Bonfils Stanton Foundation, Brad and Kathy Coors, Coors Brewing Company, the Kemper Foundation, and others. We are really just beginning to get that momentum and we certainly need to make sure that we have good word of mouth and begin the kind of viral spread into the broader culture.

Richard Florida talked a lot about in the Rise of the Creative Class how creative people are going to drive the economy of the future, how they are going to be engine of the new economies. They are talking about the clean energy economy, or the alternative political economy and they are all going to have a component of creative people. Certainly when you look at all the measures, and certainly the rates of changes or creative indexes, Denver is growing and evolving at one of the fastest rates of change in the country. We know we have an active area, a robust, entrepreneurial spirit here, and a very diverse population with a strong sense of cultural and recreation opportunities. At the same time, we are in the West, and the West is really transforming, I think not just our region, but also the country and how we look at what is possible.

Almost anyone, when I am in New York, Washington, or round and about, and I see a person who was here for the DNC [Democratic National Convention] and they were disoriented by what they found here. Not just that our city has grown and expanded into a real major city—it was that combination of infrastructure, built environment, cultural vitality, and integrity that we had, tied in with this interesting western sense of hospitality, for lack of a better word. You use all those high fluting words and you come back to a word like hospitality, but it is a big part of it. The DNC showed us that we can host a very, very powerful event and connect with a huge number of people, not just here, but beyond our state borders, our country and really around the world. And our ambitions are no less expansive for the Denver Biennial of the Americas. We have shown at the convention that we can bring people together, that we can have provocative discussion and exchange of ideas. We showed we can engage our community on the broadest possible level—thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers—and we also showed we could have a hell of a good time. Don’t for a moment think we won’t have a strong component of fun in everything we do here. Fun will be a big part of it.

I think that legacy is what we are trying to build upon here and that we continue to find relevant and appropriate ways to showcase what we have become and who we are. That our innovations, whether it is in business, or education, or recreation, that we are beginning to find solutions and come together and collaborate in ways, and the process of creating those solutions, that most other cities, even outside the United States, aren’t doing at the same level we are.

We are aiming the Biennial of the Americas to be a genuinely international, cultural event, with exhibitions, public programs, and satellite exhibitions in cultural organizations all around the metro area. You know, there is this great part in the Broadway musical, “Guys and Dolls,” where they talk about the “only perpetual floating crap game in the world.” Perhaps this is not the right way to think about it, but the programming will all celebrate the power of ingenuity and imagination in this hemisphere, and have programming around art, ideas, and action all taking place in the Americas. The notion is that every two years we bring some of the worlds greatest innovators, thought-thinkers and artists, together in one place, and that we tie that into our local dynamic in such a way that we begin to galvanize a citizen movement; one that expands beyond just here, towards a cross-cultural understanding and great global corporation. Over the last two years, I have meet with ten or twelve ambassadors and without question, every case has been genuine flat out excitement, “If you guys can pull this off, we can help you pull this off.” If we can bring to the Americas that sense that we shouldn’t always be looking to Europe, or India or China, that we have a whole universe, right here, connected with far more cultural and legacy connections than we have to these other parts of the world, then we can begin to create the bridge—these ambassadors and their counties want to do it. It is amazing how provincial we have been to our closest neighbors.

I think the process to addressing some the largest social issues and really trying to forge some solutions, from everything from health to education to environmental challenges, that notion that we can bring art and ideas together and galvanize them into a really cathartic event. It is not new, but I don’t think anyone has done it like we will do it here. We are going to try to go back and forth, change the lens from micro to macro and macro back to micro, and really push this sense that Denver is a place that is really willing to do things in a different way. Hopefully we create the modern day equivalent to a World’s Fair, a World’s Fair of Ideas and Art, a World’s Fair that does bring all these elements together with exhibitions and large-scale public art, live lectures and symposia, and of course, the great parties. All the concurrent events that help define large extravaganzas like this. Hopefully we will be able to appeal to a broad, broad cross-section of audiences. We don’t want something that will just be for, you know, the intelligentsia, the graduate students of the world, or the rulers and thought-leaders. We want to make sure there are parts of it that get everybody, that attract everybody, and that it will be something with everybody embracing it.

We have a number of our higher-education institutions on board with this, 100%, really pushing to be part of it. We have demonstrated again we really have some the best cultural institutions in the country. We are the 18th largest metropolitan area and yet we have the 4th most visited zoo, where we are now and we want to thank the Zoo for hosting us, and the 4th most visited museum of nature and science. We certainly have one of the most talked about art museums, and we have the 2nd largest performing arts center. We have different capacity and infrastructure relative to our population and size than another city in America. I think when you step back and squint at our cultural renaissance, it is going to have a huge economic impact down the road. And people always say that Denver seems to be talked about; Joe Biden was here three hours ago with a number of sectaries, Secretary Vilsack, Secretary of Education, Secretary of H.U.D., Deputy Secretary of Energy, and another one as well, they all were saying, “Denver seems to be doing so many things right and seems to be address so many of these things in an innovative way.” You look at all the cultural facilities we just built, not just the Fredrick Hamilton Building for the art museum, and not just the Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Elle Cochran Opera House, or the Kirkland Center for the Visual Arts, those things coming on the heels, one thing after another, really create a drumbeat and define us in a way we aren’t used to. The Biennial is going to take the recent momentum and let us build on it.

The Central Exhibition of the inaugural biennial is going to be curated by our great Canadian-born, I am not sure what we call him, “Design Innovator” is what they put here, but that doesn’t do him justice. He has an expansive mind that refuses to be brought back into confines and yet every time he moves around, he takes me to a place, at least in my conversations, “Ah, why didn’t I think of that?” He was very much involved when we did the installation “Dialogue City,” here when we had the DNC—really the first citywide art events—he was very much involved in that making sure it was a citywide arts festival.

I think the notion that we can do something like this would be impossible to people without people like Bruce, without people like yourselves. Because this is a very ambitious notion: that we can really create something. The reason the Ambassadors from Latin America are so excited, is because we are expressing to them the opportunity to change the way, not just the way Denver and Colorado feel about Latin America, and Canada—the Americas, but really change the way the world thinks about the Americas and how they see us. And to see it in a much more holistic and respectful way.

We will formally launch the Denver Biennial of the Americas on July 21 with a daylong celebration with a number of events, a roundtable discussion, and make sure we will have a rollicking party in the evening.

The one thing people said again and again, when they talk about Denver and the Democratic National Convention, and I mean Metropolitan Denver, was the level of collaboration and cooperation and how our city rose to the occasion in a way people just didn’t think possible. That same level of commitment and investment is really what we asking from all of you. We really want to make sure that this is not limited to one or two parts of Denver. We want outbreaks of culture and ideas all over the metropolitan area for these seven weeks. We need your ideas, your resources, we need your feedback, we need your criticism. We are committed to this but know we won’t get half way there if we don’t have the real buy-in from all of you. I saw many of the city council here and they are emblematic of the cooperation that happens on a whole citywide and metro wide basis.

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Be Possibility. © Denver Biennial of the Americas.

Bruce Mau’s presentation

I think the definition of the job as the world’s biggest floating crap game makes it a lot more fun…

What I want to do is go through a little bit of development so far, and give you examples of what you are going to see here in July, and ultimately in the Biennial in 2010.

I think the term that the Mayor used of “outbreaks of culture” is exactly what we are hoping to achieve. You will see what we are trying to do.

I first came here as part of the “Dialogue City” project that the Mayor mentioned [earlier] and I have to say that the experience here was, as the Mayor described, really extraordinary. The energy and optimism and the kind of outlook of that moment and what was going on here was really extraordinary. My participation was around the notion of the Green Constitutional Congress and, essentially, what we tried to explore was the prospect of a sustainable America. I have to say, when I first said those words, they came out and kind of fell to the ground. What we wanted to say was, “Look, if we are ever going to get there, and we must, then we have to start to imagine it. We can’t get there if we don’t imagine it.”

That started a discussion and I have to say, I met Mayor Hickenlooper, this is the Mayor performing political karaoke that was one of the projects that was part of “Dialogue City” and I was really struck by this entrepreneur, who really wanted to engage possibility. He made a clear personal commitment in his own life to service and wanted to explore entrepreneurially what the possibilities were. It was quite an experience being here.

Now, I just wanted to say a few things about where we come from. I have a design practice, Bruce Mau Design, and we been exploring that in the broadest way. We did a project called Massive Change that was commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was really about answering the question “what is the future of design” but really, “what is the future of possibility, what are we collectively doing.” And what we saw in the project that was so extraordinary—was that all across the world, and especially in the Americas actually, we are working collectively to make solutions to challenges that in some cases have vexed us since the beginning of time. In other words, we are distributing possibility, connecting in new ways, solving problems together and sharing that. That is what we described as Massive Change and notably it says, “It is not about the world of the design, but the design of the world”—our capacity to look at the world and understand how to make it more equitable, really a better world.

The Mayor asked this question when we met, “What is a biennial in the twenty-first century?” and he was very clear, he said, “We have 200 biennials around the world, we don’t need another one, we don’t need number 201, we need a new thing, a new biennial, we need to redefine it for the twenty-first century. Would you be interested in thinking about that problem?” At the time, he didn’t mention the world’s biggest floating crap game.

I said, “Look, I think, this is the context if you are going to answer that question”. This is a graph shows… the redline shows population, from 1750 to today. All the other lines are Environmental Impact and Resource Consumption. That is what’s going on. We have a new world, it’s an extraordinarily challenging world, and we are developing new capacities around this world to confront the challenges this represents. What we saw and what we talked about when we came here as part of the Democratic National Convention was the idea that the image you see every day is often quite negative. What citizens are actually doing, what citizens on the ground are doing collectively, is extraordinarily positive.

Since the beginning of the century, what we have seen is that we have started a movement, all sorts of new solutions, to exactly confront this. And one of the examples we used was Wikipedia. If you think about what happened in Wikipedia: we started a project that employs five people, [and now] it is the 10th most visited site on the internet and it distributes free access to global knowledge in 264 languages. That is what citizens are really doing, so we developed this concept of In Good We Trust. The idea that collectively, in fact, we are committed to this world and it is important to us to and to our future that we actually see it and understand it and in fact visualize that commitment.

We began our work with the mayor and DOCA (Department of Cultural Affairs) to look at what that would mean, and we developed this structure. It’s for us, it is a way of understanding the overall project. Seven themes, the seven key issues and ideas we should be thinking about. Seven experiences, seven things where you can walk into that space and change your understanding of what’s going on. Seven weeks of events. So it’s over a seven-week period, and you can think about how seven themes can play out over seven weeks, where every week we focus on one of those themes but connect to all of them. Finally, seven possibilities for the twenty-first century. Ultimately, this is about launching new things, not just about showing what is already happening.

One of the things we do in our work consistently is to foreground constantly what we are actually trying to do. Because so often, we start trying to do something and then make a task list. We want to do an exhibition, so we make a task to do the exhibition and before long, you have forgotten what you actually wanted to do in the world. We want to change the way we live. If people come to the show and consume it in a passive way, and say, “cool,” walk away, go home and are not woken up to these new possibilities, we will count that as a failure. We are designing this very deliberately to be a transformative engagement—high possibilities. And for us, it is all about participation. It’s not about the show and an audience; it’s about making a collaboration where we collectively produce this new thing. And no one knows how to do that, and we are figuring it out as we go.

We structured our project around these two ideas: Proof and Possibility. In Massive Change we met a man named Stewart Brand. He said, “If people think things are bad and getting worse, they behave selfishly, they do exactly what we don’t want.” So it is important for people to know what is actually going on. Our approach is to say, I will show you 50 people in each one of those themes that are changing the world. You walk in there and you will meet 50 people who are transforming the way we do things. You will have no doubt that this is underway. We are not going to leave that to chance. The second piece of it is that we want the people of Denver, the people of Colorado, and the people of the Americas to collaborate on launching new concepts, new possibilities from Denver, from the Biennial. So we have structured our project in this way.

The example I use on Proof and why it’s so important, I would just love a show of hands of who knows about Larry Brilliant. This is a very well informed group, because usually it’s one or two, and we have about seven or eight. But seven or eight out of this whole group know about a man who took a disease off the face of this planet. Larry Brilliant led the charge to eradicate smallpox, a disease that has killed hundreds of millions of children, and we don’t know about him! We know more about Britney Spears than Larry Brilliant and we want to do something about that. It is critical that we understand that that is what we are actually doing—that Larry Brilliant is hard at work and is now working on polio.

These are the themes we have focused on: Energy, Education, Health, Habitat, Environment, Economy, and Technology. What are the key ideas that are relevant here and are also relevant and pressing around the world? These are the seven we have focused on. And of course, one of the questions that were asked at an early meeting, “How do you fit things in?” Often things in Energy are actually about the Environment and about Education, and we know ultimately it is about a holistic worldview so we are going to work to help allow people see the cross over.

So that is the reaction we have had so far. When we show people what we are doing here, consistently, really almost to a person, people are like, “Oh my goodness, we have to go to Denver, how do we do this?” It has been an extraordinary experience over the last few months as we really have focused on finding the people that we are inviting to be part of this. And what I want to do is go through a few of those, and you will get a more concrete sense of how that structure gets applied.

The first one is a local group, Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute based in Boulder, Colorado. These guys are absolutely emblematic of this new kind of energy. This is Amory, and the reason he is eating a banana is because here in the mountains, he has this institute, and in there, he claims it is so energy efficient that it is heated by his dog and he grows bananas. He grows crops of bananas in this place and always savors the particular quality of them.He and his group, when we talked to them, they were just supercharged to say look, “We want be there, because we fit into all those categories.” But we are working with them to create a new project that they will launch really from Denver. Slide 16 This is a recent project, it’s a plug-in hybrid they have been involved with. This is their most recent project announcement. Just recently, a few weeks ago, they announced that they are redesigning the Empire State building to be energy efficient. That is the kind of thing that is going on. When you think about how much building there is in the world that needs to be made efficient, that is old stock we don’t want to lose. So for me, Amory Lovins and his group are absolutely emblematic of this spirit.

“!GuateAmala!” is a group out of Guatemala, and I should say I had an initial work with this group several years ago. They launched a movement in Guatemala. They said, “Look, people in our country, when they think about the future, they can’t imagine a positive future. We have had thirty-six years of civil war. When we think about the future, it is dominated by poverty, violence and corruption. Could we work on a new way of reimaging the future of Guatemala?” They put an extra A in the word, which became Guate(A)mala, which is the “Love of Guate.” This is an event they did to launch their project in Guatemala City. They are going to take this to Denver, they are going to bring this. They did this installation about the Culture of Life. They had thirty-six years of the culture of death and we developed this concept of the Culture of Life. They said, “You cannot have this kind of change without building the Culture of Life and we need to build nine foundations, nine cultures: the Culture of Innovation, Culture of Respect, Culture of Justice, Culture of Education, and others.” They just spent a few days in our studio in Chicago and they are supercharged about what can happen here. In fact, they are talking about launching a biennial in Guatemala that would happen at the same time that would connect to Denver so that we can communicate and connect with their hundreds of members.

This was an extraordinary event that reached across the cultural, socio-economic divides that plague places like Guatemala. As you went through that exhibition, you went through nine experiences and you came to the center of that forum. And there you saw the 200 leaders whom were featured in the exhibition. So here you saw in one perspective the 200 people who were changing Guatemala. And of course, similarly they did a ten-day conference on these cultures. They are going to take that whole enterprise, bring it to Denver, revise it, and launch the next phase of “!GuateAmala!.” And connect through to Los Angeles and Chicago, which are the second and third largest Guatemalan cities in the world. It is quite extraordinary, and in some ways again, they really represent this new type of spirit and energy.

Glenn Kaino is an artist, an extraordinary young artist, who was featured not long ago in the Whitney Biennial. He just published this book, or hasn’t quite published but will publish it shortly, by Cantz. This is a project he did, where he made a new object out of an Aeron chair. He designed a vase by spinning it at high speeds, to turn it in to a new and quite extraordinary object. So you never actually see it still, and when you go into the gallery you see a vase. He described to me a project he had been working on called “Uber.” “Uber” is a platform he designed for young people all over the world. It is a super simple, drag and drop platform for kids to launch media websites. So they can very easily use this platform to pull things off the web to create a new project site around a new subject, and it got wiped out in the crisis—the financial crisis. I said, “You know, this is exactly what we are trying to do with our project in Denver. Could you imagine doing this as your work for the Biennial?” Twenty-four hours later, we had a website mockup, and you can see essentially what he has done is to structure it around Proof and Possibility and the seven themes. The whole idea is that people all over the Americas can put their projects on, and citizens all over the Americas can vote those projects up into the exhibition.

It allows us the ability to access all that energy in online world, all these people doing this work, because they can see one another, which has a profound effect, and secondly, we can find them. We can see these people innovating these new things. It is quite an exciting new project. In July, Glenn will be in Denver to launch this and to demonstrate, to do a kind of a live demo, for young people all across the Americas. We are organizing a series of audiences across the Americas of people who want to do this.

Michael and Jennifer are two young people, who at the ages of 17 and 19, started a website of people who are doing this kind of thing—especially kids. Kids who are doing it, who are not being seen, who are not sharing it, and who are not aware of other people who have solved the problems they were struggling with. So they started a website called “Taking It Global,” and when we talked with them about being involved in Denver, they were absolutely thrilled. They have 225,000 members and 4.5 million unique users a year. And they have already started organizing events across the Americas. I will be going to Brazil in a couple of weeks and they have organized all the membership in Brazil to be part of a presentation there about the Denver Biennial. And again, they are coming in July and intend to bring as many of their members as possible to the Biennial. Andrew Zuckerman is a photographer we are talking to, and we discovered he did an absolutely beautiful project called “Wisdom.” It is about the perspective and the ideas of people over 65 years old. He is one of the most extraordinary photographers working today. He went around the world and photographed these people and what he proves is something we really, truly believe, which is that there is an generation of people emerging that is not defined by age. That these people have a perspective on the world that is optimistic, positive, and about possibility, and they see what is going on and they are just as excited about it as my fourteen year old daughter is. So he went around the world, photographed extraordinary people, just a really beautiful body of work, um, yeah. [Laughs]

You can see it gives you a sense of the kind of nature of the people, and the diversity and breadth who will come together in this spirit. And when we talked with Andrew, we said, “We would really love you to be part of this project in Denver. Your work is extraordinary, it is absolutely consistent with our ideas.” He said, “Do you think I could come to Denver and spend seven weeks photographing all the people you are going to feature? So, what if I spent seven weeks photographing 357 of the world leaders who are setting the new agenda for the new era, who are coming Denver over those seven weeks? I could set up a studio, photograph seven a day, and over the seven-week period I would have done them all.” For me, that is exactly the energy and spirit of the project. Our intention is to publish the project. I mean, image what that will be, it will be a landmark of the new era of the new energy and thinking.

So this is where we are going, this is the kind of people, and this is an unorthodox list of course. One of the things we are focusing on is this notion of “Artscienist.” There is a great book called “ArtScience” that is about how these cultures that were taken apart and developed their own specialized language and culture, are now coming back to a new relationship, and building new things, and creating a new kind of dialogue and development. If you think about design, everything we do must be about art. It must be about making things beautiful and compelling, but it also must stand on a foundation of innovation and technology.

So then we looked at “What is the experience?,” and again, our methodology is to develop this overtime, based on what the opportunities are. It is very entrepreneurial. But we are starting to understand what those opportunities are, or at least some of them. This is sort of the concept of connecting people across the Americas when we have these extraordinary people here, to have discussions with them. We don’t want to cut that off from kids in Brazil or Chile, or Guatemala for that matter.

One of the things we will do, as the central exhibition, part of that actually experiencing these new things, and how we do that is still in development. But we know that there will be physical objects, images, cinema, and sound. Basically, every technique that we can use to make it the most compelling. Because ultimately it is about making those things easily understood. And the mayor has obviously set an agenda that it is a citywide event, that it has a presence in the city.

One of the things we are looking at is how prizes can be effective in mobilizing innovation. That simply awarding a prize makes people take that next step to actually do something.

One of the things we are looking at is partnership with cultural institutions. This is the Museum of Nature and Science and, for me, this is where it really gets interesting—where you have this whole other membership, program and objects. To imagine the kind of intersection of those programs with what we are doing is really exciting.

Finally, the whole is thing is really about fun. By action, we mean fun. Hence the worlds biggest floating crap game.

The whole idea is a spectacle, a party and a celebration. In fact, one of the concepts we developed is called “Parties with Purpose,” and it is really giving the people the tools to have their own Biennial event and make things happen. And I can tell you the GuateAmalan’s are already doing it, they are on their way home right now.

There was a wonderful dinner with the Mayor the last time we were here, and on every place setting was a little card with a quotation from Goethe. This is a shortened version of it, and essentially that quotation said, “It is amazing when you do something, that suddenly, things that seem impossible become possible.” That providence moves with you, in his words, that in fact, when you commit to action, all of a sudden things open up that you never would have imagined. The Guatemalans couldn’t have imagined sending “!GuateAmala!” to Denver before we committed to action here in Denver. This, for me, is absolutely a critical idea. I am going to end with this little video that we developed.

I hope you get a sense of the excitement that we are feeling in our work and the possibilities that are emerging. For me, if you can think about what can happen when you put the 30,000 members of “!GuateAmala!” together with the 225,000 members of “Taking it Global” and introduce them to the people of Denver, what might happen here, that’s only the beginning.