Whitney Biennial

Recently I was fortunate enough to see the Whitney Biennial. What follows are my thoughts and impressions.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin
7 min readAug 31, 2022


image from the stairs up to the Biennial, featuring space poems by Renée Green

As I entered the darkened floor of the Whitney Biennial, I found myself in a nearly silent room. The only noises are muffled sounds in the walls and a glass vial with a dim light on it. This is a part, we must assume of the same practice as Raven Chacon’s sound installation Silent Choir (2017). At first glance, the piece does not appear to feature very much at all, aural or otherwise. A wall text reveals that the low, muffled sounds heard within were recorded during a protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Native American communities said would contaminate the water they consider to be sacred. The only object in the room is a glass vial that is said to contain the last breath of Thomas Edison, a cruel reminder that some final gasps get memorialized and others do not.

Ravon Chacon

From the curatorial statement of the biennial Curatorial Statement

By David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards:

We began planning this Biennial in late 2019: before Covid and its reeling effects, before the uprisings demanding racial justice, before the widespread questioning of institutions and their structures, before the 2020 presidential election. Although underlying conditions are not new, their overlap, their intensity, and their sheer ubiquity created a context in which past, present, and future folded into one another. We organized this Biennial to reflect these precarious and improvised times. Many artists’ contributions are dynamic, taking different forms during the course of the exhibition. Artworks change, walls move, and performances animate the galleries and surrounding objects. The spaces of the Biennial contrast significantly, acknowledging the acute polarity of our society. One floor is a labyrinth, a dark space of containment; another is a clearing, open and light filled.

This dark and light, polarized, solarized landscape helps to contextualize the artworks, which share many of the iconic aesthetics and themes. These pieces may be speaking explicitly to the events of the last two years (the ones that have felt like a decade). The pandemic is beginning to make its way into literature, television, and art curations and we are seeing an artistic mirror of what the hell happened. The answer is, well, it’s complicated.

Emily Barker

Los Angeles-based artist Emily Barker created a kitchen you may find in a basic apartment. However, this kitchen is a little bit different. That’s because it’s made at a scale that an average guest walking through the Whitney would find to be too tall. Barker made this installation to depict the experience of a person in a wheelchair navigating a world designed for the able-bodied. The cloudy and light transferring objects take you into what it would feel like to be the architect in a CAD program making those decisions and having only one perspective.

A talk by Emily Barker, video


Alia Farid Born 1985, Kuwait City, Kuwait, lives in San Juan, PR and Kuwait City, Kuwait

I love when the sculptures reach for the city and change the landscape. I have seen this skyline (and how it changes) my entire life in NYC. I remember when I took a friend from out of town to the old Whitney Museum to see the Dan Graham sculpture on the roof. I still see the many reflections of my friend around me when I go onto the roof of the new Whitney Museum building, even though now it is a new generation of artists the two buildings are connected deeply in my mind. This was a fantastic use of this method.

Rose Salane, Born 1992, New York, NY, lives in Queens, NY

As teens in NYC, we heard stories of people using fake coins to ride the subway for free. This was when the subway still had tokens. They had a hole in the middle (I would put mine on a string under my shirt so when I was robbed, which happened frequently, I would always still be able to make it home). I had a friend who had his coin and would put his coin into the slot and wait for the machine to turn the turnstile. Then, and with a quick flip, he would yank it back up. It seemed like a magic trick, and I suppose it was.

Riding the subway in NYC as a poor teen felt like pure freedom.

I didn’t need to ask for a ride or wait for a friend I could simply go anywhere. Sometimes I would get horribly lost as a train went from local to express, or I absentmindedly took the train in the wrong direction.

I would end up in whole other worlds.

That is what NYC is for me, a place you can start in one place and enter the subway and exit and you are a different person, you have seen something and get to be a part of another person’s dream.

This piece the artist bought at a public auction illegitimate means of accessing this dream space by people using play money, church coins, and random objects. A system that has another system beneath it. I do not know why we have to pay for the subway which comes from taxpayers' money and famously cannot account for millions and millions of dollars it spends a year. I like to see this small lot of illegal tender as the people’s accounting to those misses dollars paid as offerings to humble freedom beneath these city streets.

Many of you have read my pieces on decentralized storytelling and antecedent technology, in which I talk about indigenous weaving with wampum as a form of decentralized government and economies.

Dyani Whitehawk

Here, we have Dyani White Hawk taking traditional weaving styles from her nation to new mediums and scales. The shiny surface feels to me both like a woven contract as well as a motherboard. Beautiful and simply impossible to capture on film.

Dyani Whitehawk, video

This Video by Coco Fusco

This video by Coco Fusco includes footage of the artist traveling by boat around Hart Island, the site of New York’s public cemetery that was operated by the city’s department of corrections until October 1, 2021. Since 1869, prison labor has been used to bury more than a million New Yorkers in mass graves on the island. Many individuals have been buried anonymously — especially during epidemics. Fusco’s video features a meditation she wrote on the conditions of the current pandemic and is performed by poet Pamela Sneed.

Coco Fusco, Video

Describing the origins of the project, she has explained: “Feeling defenseless made me want to understand how others had responded to being overcome by invisible forces. I began to research how artists of other eras had visualized plagues and epidemics. . . . Death often appeared as a character looming in the sky, disease as a storm. Many peoples of the world toss flowers into the sea in memory of the loved ones they have lost. I left mine for the castaways.”

I spent the most time in this section of the museum, which felt like home, an installation for A Gathering of the Tribes / Steve Cannon

Founded 1991
Steve Cannon: Born 1935 in New Orleans, LA
Died 2019 in New York, NY

A Gathering of the Tribes installation

Founded in 1991 by poet, playwright, novelist, and former Medgar Evers College professor Steve Cannon (1935–2019), A Gathering of the Tribes began as a literary magazine that incorporated as a nonprofit arts organization in 1993. Tribes programs grew to include a reading venue, artist salon, online literary magazine and art gallery in Cannon’s home on East Third Street in Manhattan. The organization continues to provide a platform for diverse, traditionally underrepresented artists and writers, amplifying the emerging and established revolutionary voices of our time. Today, Tribes continues to host literary readings, and publishes a robust online literary magazine as well as a biennial art and literary print journal.

This installation is drawn from Cannon’s personal effects and the Tribes archive held in special collections at New York University, and was organized in close collaboration with Tracie Dawn Williams and Chavisa Woods, Tribes’s archivist and executive director, respectively. The floating red wall and hair sculpture — two works by David Hammons, Cannon’s friend and collaborator — were a fixture in the gallery-apartment. Cannon, who was blind, held court from a couch in front of the crimson wall, and with the assistance of a dedicated group of friends he provided a space that empowered artists and writers of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ individuals, and people from diverse class backgrounds, who regularly came together bonded by a singular passion: love of the arts. Cannon’s gatherings fostered an open space for experimentation and rigorous intellectual debate.

Check out an audio-only interview with the current Executive Director of A Gathering of Nations from the Whitney Archive here.



Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Banks Endowed Chair AI and the Arts, Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida | USDAC: Honor Native Land | studioamelia.com | She/Her | Artist