BY LONEY ABRAMS
Something we’ve talked about before is your aversion to the market. How do you see the relationship between the museum and the market?
The gallery circuit and art fairs are just a small part of the art world and it’s a real mistake for people to think otherwise. I think there’s a major problem in the way in which this very hyper-capitalist environment has monetized educations into what has become something only for the privileged, which then leads people to believe they have to sell their work. When I started out, but even recently, no one expected to sell his or her work. Selling work was like if you got a good tax return; it wasn’t something you aimed for. You aimed to make important work. If you aim to make money through your work you’ll never make art that’s important or of interest to us. Why is that relevant? And the price of an artwork bears no resemblance to its importance. It’s just about the desire of a particular collector. There are a lot of very successful artists who are not art historically important at all. They have great market value and good for them! I’m not against the market at all. What I do question is the way in which something gets deemed important just because it’s successful in the market. It’s a real problem!
So where do you go to see art that’s outside of this market-driven gallery scene? How do you find the young artists that you end up championing?
I mean, I’m part of the artist community in New York. Most of my friends are young artists, I spend most of my time with artists, and I listen a lot to the things that are important to them, what they’re talking about, who they’re looking at. Sometimes I’ll check something out because an artist friend mentioned it or they’re in a show where I’ll meet other artists. It’s viral in a way. I go to galleries in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island City…. I’m interested in places like the SculptureCenter, which give many young artists their first showing; I think the program is very strong. I think MoMA PS1 does really good curating of very young artists. I go to Hotel Art PAVILION, Motel, Orgy Park, SIGNAL, Secret Project Robot, Interstate Projects… I go to a lot of one-off, one-night-only events in backyards or someone’s studio, new galleries, pop up galleries… I go to pretty much everything I can find and I like being very low key. I don’t see what I do as some kind of scouting; I see it as part of an ongoing dialogue with artists that are not in the world yet but are in college, training, thinking, exploring ideas.
I also am interested in the rawness of what happens before people are really paying attention to an artist, because the mechanism of the art industry is something I don’t like, and I don’t like the way in which we all have the potential to just become cogs in a very commercialized machine. There’s the whole problem with mid-tier galleries not being able to afford to continue, and also younger galleries getting frustrated with the system and the way in which art fairs have taken over. My approach to young artists is very much about trying to avoid those traps. I’m not interested in hype, I’m not interested in the cool „next thing“ because I’ve seen, having done two biennials and being around for a while, that that just disappears. I’m not interested in the mechanism by which artists are paid too much attention and then everyone moves on and forgets about them. It’s a very corrosive and unhelpful way of treating artists and art and it doesn’t mean anything. Art is a very long game. Not everyone can produce art into their 70s or 80s and that’s fine. I think if you produce a body of work that’s very strong for a decade—whether it’s in your 20s or your 30s or 40s—that’s enough of a contribution to art history already. I think that if you look at the reality in which art history is written, all good art hopefully ends up in museums because everything else disappears. Museums are the only place where art stays and lasts and can be seen way beyond its time, 300 years from now.
That’s why there’s a deep responsibility to the way in which you’re writing art history or histories. Like history itself, art history is constantly being rewritten so you make mistakes, you ignore things, you realize something, you correct something, etc. I’m thinking about the Dana Schutz situation. In 30 year’s time, everyone will say „Well, that was an interesting art historical moment“ just as it’s hard to understand now why the 1993 biennial got everybody so upset. The Whitney, even if it makes mistakes and can be very clumsy sometimes, is at least trying to deal with things. It’s like America itself.
I’m from London but this is a museum of American art in its broadest sense: art made in America. So what does that mean? America is a big social experiment. It’s very anarchic, it’s very corrupt, it’s very extraordinary and freethinking. It’s so many paradoxical things, things that have nothing to do with the market or what’s hot and what’s not—that’s irrelevant. All I’m looking for is strong art that says something about our time that will also carry through time. You can show something in a biennial because it says something about a particular moment, for example, but you might not want to bring it into the collection because eventually that becomes historicized and then in ten years time, or even three years time because things are moving so rapidly, people are talking about things in a different way. I’m also interested in the speed in which things are moving, which is partly because of social media. Part of our hyper-capitalist decline is this need for another stimulating image or event. It’s just overwhelming. It’s so intense. I’m interested in both extracting interesting things from that to show now and to talk about now, but I’m also interested in the sediment of what happens when that dies down and people move on to the next hot thing. What stays? What stays when the charisma of the artist or the person showing the work or the values of the collective community change?
So what are artists talking about now? What are the things that characterize our current moment in art history and can you articulate what sort of “period” we are in right now?
I think that we can say that there’s an art historical period that maybe began in 2008 with Occupy and the economic collapse, and ended when Trump was elected. I think what’s important to artists in this period are things like global warming, the Anthropocene, A.I., and the shift from something that’s human into something that’s almost post-human and interspecies. And obviously political activism, whether it’s Nick Faust with health care and AIDS and Act Up, or Black Lives Matter, which has been an issue for a long time but has really taken off as something very urgent in the last 18 months in a way that I find very exciting and I think institutions are really realizing it. Also Indigenous, Native American voices are really coming up; Standing Rock really brought that too a head. The Women’s March had a big impact as well.
Museums move more slowly than a small alternative space because they’re big ocean liners and there’s a structure, which means they can’t respond as fast—but given all that, I think institutions have been responding fast, relatively speaking. Look at the way MoMA rehung its collection after the immigration ban. That was a great hang! And the question is: why wouldn’t those works be there all the time next to the Picasso and everything else. And I think they probably thought so too, like „Wow, this has also really taught us something about the way in which we need to rethink and show our collection.“ We’re learning all the time. There’s an openness which is accelerating as we respond to artists and the public and what the community is saying—as you can see with the recent Dana Schutz situation where people are going, „Uh, excuse me.“ You listen as an institution. It’s not monolithic.
All of these activist issues were going on in 2008. Occupy came out of an anti-global movement that was in the early 2000s immediately around 9/11 but it’s got a new urgency now because of the very repressive political environment we’re in now. That’s come into the community and the culture in a newly urgent way because the situation demands it. That’s going to continue, I think, until something changes in the political situation. I think that with the taking over of the city by large glass buildings and unaffordable rents and the homogenization, commercialization, and commodification of social space, people are trying to think of alternative ways to show work, to make work. Like everything in the city, it’s all about physical space and real estate—everything is driven by that and money and power. How do we operate? How do we operate as an artistic community? I think an interest in breaking binaries on every level from gender, politics and sexuality to space and space for showing work, the dialogue is diversifying in a way that I think is really healthy.
Are you at all worried for the future of the art community in New York? If rents continue to rise, and it becomes harder and harder to live in this city, are artists at risk? Or is there a breaking point to all of this?
I think something will break but I don’t think it will be the spirit of the artists or the community. I think it will be the stranglehold that breaks. Most people cannot afford rent beyond a certain point and you can only have a certain number of roommates and you can only go into debt for a certain amount of time. I think what’s in the future is A.I. and universal income. I think that we’re lacking political leadership from a younger generation. Bernie Sanders broke the mold because American politics has been consistently marked by the fact that the presidency can be bought and always has been bought, and what was remarkable about Bernie Sanders was the fact that he’s a much older white male who appeals to a very young generation of voters through a New Deal kind of politics and who had a real potential to be elected without being bought. That indicates to me that that’s a kind of practice run or beginning of a shift that might occur in politics as the young generation starts to become really powerful political players who can take on the interests of big business and corporate control. I think that there will be a breaking point but I think when A.I. really takes over people’s jobs in 20 years time, and universal income is something that appeals to the right and the left, it’ll be really interesting to see how that impacts artists and rents and real estate and all the rest of it. What will happen to the community of young people as a whole and anyone who can’t afford expensive rents?
As I said before, there’s a limit to how many roommates you can have and how many jobs you can work in order to pay the rent. When it becomes untenable, something will implode because it always does. Something will shift or there’ll be a crash—something! I think that the current artistic community is too strong in their determination to just allow everything to crush them. So we’ll see. I think another turning point is going to be education because this level of student debt is just untenable and to my mind, as a European, it’s absurd that you’d monetize education. It’s just immoral actually. There’s already been a drop in higher education applications to universities in England because fees have gone up. People are starting to think, „Well maybe we don’t need college. Maybe we’ll just read books at home. Maybe we’ll form another alternative system of educating ourselves because we can’t afford to go into debt of $50,000.“ The education system may be shaken up by that. There are people who are already young adults who were brought up by parents who are very democratic and allowed them to have a great say in the decision-making around the family. So they come into the market place or into the work world as young adults not wanting to work in this very hierarchical, very alpha male, competitive system and they want to work in a different way. They might start to create alternative models.
I think we’re on the cusp of very radical social changes and therefore cultural changes. We can’t anticipate what they are but we’re in a very transitional moment. I think it’s every bit as exciting as what was going on in the ‘60s and every bit as problematic politically, culturally. I like the fact that people are feeling very angry about it and determined to try to figure out ways of counteracting it. That necessitates a level of collaboration and community that goes against (in a good way) the attempt to homogenize and monetize everything that the art fair structure of the commercial end of the art world (and the art world in general) has been pushed towards. And that’s why here in the museum, we feel very strongly that we really need to emphasize research and a direct dialogue with artists—something that’s beyond „the next name.“ We’re building something for the long-term.
This is an excerpt from the article originally published by Artspace Magazine.