An interview with Adam Kleinman

July 9, 2010

Nicola Trezzi: You decided to use the historical background of New York as a starting point for your show “Avenue of the Americas,” which is the name that was given to 6th Avenue in 1945 by Mayor LaGuardia to glorify “Pan-American principles”. Why so? Is it an attempt to continue the legacy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council?

Adam Kleinman: Well, it’s very simple actually. Generally I believe you should start any program, be it a exhibition, lecture series, or whatever, from a position of unknowing so to speak. That is, each project should venture out to new ground so as to learn something in the process of making. Now, the idea of an exhibition on the history and themes of the “Avenue of the Americas” was born by just looking up at the street and asking, hmmm, why is this street called this, and for that matter, why does it have two names? After a little research, everything just fell into place.

NT: All the artists — Julieta Aranda, Carlos Motta and David Sanin Paz, Judi Werthein and Carla Zaccagnini — were born in different South American countries. Was this desire to directly connect the lineup to the title of the show in your mind since the very beginning or did it come out organically during its preparation?

AK: Mexico is in North America. I’m glad you made this mistake as this is something I hoped to comment upon — to be honest, I misspelled Colombia as Columbia, which considering my ties to Columbia University, is a somewhat understandable mistake. What is more interesting is that that error was not picked up on after several proof-readings. It was ultimately caught and corrected by Carlos Motta thankfully, and can be read as a curious flag on contemporary worldviews.

Well, as I was saying, part of my goal in making a project is to learn something new. And the best way to do this is to listen to people. I had my own agenda of course, which focused more on the history of New York urbanism and public art and how that could be read as a mirror or an artifact of an expended geo-political history. I think I covered much of this in the exhibition essay, which I feel is really my contribution in some regards. As for the artists in the show, I had been following their work for sometime. And from this, it was easy to read certain themes in their work, which explicitly address the subject of the show. This then became a bit of a no-brainer, considering their practices and content. Getting back to the idea of listening, I felt comfortable with their work and their person, and just sent each a few themes to play with, as they liked. From there, I placed the trust in each, and tried to be more of a facilitator than anything else, as best as I could be. I suppose, after this point, the rest just unfolded as it would in a conversation.

NT: You are occupying an outdoor empty block between Canal Street, Grand Street, Varick Street and of course the Avenue of the Americas. The show has something to do with the idea of playground. Would you agree? What kind of audience was in your mind when this space became suitable for LMCC?

AK: Well, hopefully the work and the site are popular, however, I do not think they are populist. These histories are very serious, as is any debate about the public sphere in general, not to mention that I was working with professional artists and architects who are building a body of work that must be respected first and foremost. So the crux really is, how can the work be approachable to a vast audience without diminishing its rigor, aims, and so forth? This is an issue I’ve been thinking about in general when it comes to all presentations, that is, how can something complex be communicated in an intelligible way to a lay audience without expecting that audience to posses a dense pre-requisite system of knowledge, or even more bluntly, how not to bore people. I think this bridge quite literally happened in “Avenue of the Americas” through the use of text and icon in each piece, and thus offers something recognizable on face value. This is particularly fitting for this exhibition as its center deals with issues of cross-national dialogues and the like, not to mention an obvious language barrier between Anglophone and Spanish speaking America. What is nice about each artist’s reliance on language though is that by reading these signs and symbols, the audience is only introduced to one level of the work. Hopefully after attention and curiosity is piqued, a viewer will develop his/her own subtexts. And it is this kind of playground, a place of exchange as well as leisure that I hope, and I think many artists do, try to encourage.

NT: How do you contextualize this show with the others you have curated so far? Let’s say compared to Oscar Tuazon’s project or the fence, which you told me, is designed by Tobias Putrih.

AK: Again, I think this has to do with listening to the site itself and by paying close attention to artist’s practices. As mentioned, “Avenue of the Americas” deals with a very real context and history of which the site is now part of. The first exhibition called “Points & Lines dealt with issues of trespass, and included artists whose work looks at the forms, vocabularies, and uses of architecture. This was the theme as the site is not a public space, but a private development site open to the public on which we were building. As a private site, the landlord required that it be fenced and have hours of operation, dawn till dusk more or less. Instead of being cynical, the architects, Interboro, and I, began by asking the questions, what kind of public interaction can a fence create, and for that matter, what should that fence and its interior look like? As an added commentary, I centered the first exhibition on this line of questioning by looking at the idea of boundary and control, yet did so in such a fashion that the artworks, like the site itself, occupied a dual position of showing ownership and regulation while also allowing for some sense of opened use. Oscar’s piece, Use It For What Its Used For, 2009, which was a collaboration with his brother Eli Hansen, sat in the site as a quasi -abandoned structure that could be both looked at as a sculpture, but also could be entered as a kind of event space or stage. That is to say, it was occupied as a pavilion where people sat and talked, as a platform where some impromptu performances happened, and the like, however, this occupation had to end when the larger site was closed and cleared at night. Yet, the work did not only have a diurnal life, as a light feature would turn on and highlight this “void” at night when the site was locked, and when activity was bared. This ghost spotlight so to speak could only be experienced from outside, where a very real fence, the actual security fence which enclosed the site, prevented the audience from going up to the work. Likewise, Tobias Putrih’s very large installation, Canal/Varick (2009) comprised of oversized chain-link fence sections acts as a parody to this same security fence, which was also made out of chain-link. Yet, instead of occluding passage, Putrih’s work has gaps, which frame and create passageways across the site as well as creating a smaller room-like court in one section. That is, instead of defining the perimeter of the property, Putrih’s work actually defines the interior space by regulating its circulation, and as such, fosters a promenade replete with different views and experiences as well as uses, such as allowing the work itself to become a scaffold in the next exhibition for Carla Zaccagnini’s piece, Alfabeto Fonético Aplicado II (2010), or as support for vines from the garden to grow on, all with Tobias’ permission of course. The plan for the 3rd exhibition would have been to tackle the subject of public art itself directly, which is the actual program of the site, by asking artists if they would like to make work addressing the histories and theories of public art. This way, these exhibitions could be treated as a trilogy addressing contemporary land use, local history, and program respectively.

NT: Some of the works, especially the one by Aranda, look like a real monument. How do you feel about contemporary monuments? Thinking about Krauss’ introduction to her text “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” recently this seems to be a very actual issue, from the Carrara Biennale to “Unmonumenal” at the NewMuseum and “Fractured Figures” at the Deste Foundation. Not to mention the fact that to celebrate the new name of 6th Avenue they obviously built a monument…

AK: Funny you should bring that up, before the partners approved ‘LentSpace’, my working title for the whole project was ‘The Expanded Field’, as a pun and homage to Prof. Krauss, whom coincidently enough lives near the site. Part of this was based on the fact that I think many people misread Krauss’ landmark essay, which turned 30 last year—probably the reason why the text is in the air again. But more importantly in the case of something like “Unmonumental”, which is a nice show on the formal principles of collage and assemblage, exhibitions are now presenting a kind of aesthetics of decay, of detritus, of the abject and the like, however divested from the political frameworks which lead Smithson, Matta-Clark and even other movements of the time such as Arte-Povera, Support/Surface, BMPT, and so on — I of course do not mean this about the artists, as it is the exhibitions, which try to ascribe this reading. So in many ways, there was an attempt, especially in “Points & Lines”, to apply some of Kruass’ actual categories such as ‘landscape/non-landscape’, ‘architecture/non-architecture’ so as to bring the debate back to the political ramifications of de-categorization and the like—in the context of an urban space over that of a neutral gallery. In particular to this show, the works also addressed real issues of ownership such as property lines, rules of conduct, and the like. However, this too happened rather synergistically as Oscar, Eli, and Tobias responded to the fence and the construction of the site themselves, and probably are familiar if not with Krauss’ text, but with the work of Matta-Clark for example, and so on…and thus the ball started to roll. But getting to your question of monuments, well that is a pretty big subject. Take for example that when Gandhi came to France he remarked that the EiffelTower was simply a toy and a waste of money, or even better, how Guy de Maupassant often eats lunch at the base of the tower since it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to look at it! What I find interesting about monuments is that in many ways they can be one of the most conservative actions possible, conservative in the sense that some power decides to place x object in one place hopefully until the end of time. This occupation is something that isn’t at play in other artworks that are traded from place to place, or placed in storage and the like.
In many ways, the neutrality of the contemporary gallery helps to safe-keep a certain reading of a work, by critics, historians, and the like, to control the reception of the art object through the act of letting it be on show. A monument on the other hand tends to be in public space and on display at all times. And not only does a monument not have a network of guardians constantly re-defining its space, the power structures that first put it there may have long faded into history. Also, the reception of many monuments, especially minor ones like statuary, is done through a rather incidental and casual means, or is made instrumental as a way of finding a device like: “meet me at the big red cube”—of course I mean Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube (1968) at 140 Broadway—or as a backdrop for photography, which is also a form of place making. It is this aspect, the conservatism of trying to place an object in one site for time immemorial, which sort of creates its own kind of blinders and states of amnesia where the casual visitor, not invested caretakers, are the people who re-inscribe the meaning of the work. I know that memory and its construction is a subject, which Juileta delves into often, but I have never spoken to her directly about monuments per se. As I understand it, her piece on view, Tiger, Tiger(The Institutionalized Revolution) (2010), is meant to be a kind of derelict corporate statue featuring the first logo for Grupo Televisa, the largest Spanish language media conglomerate, and deals with the construction of memory though mass media, but you’ll have to ask her about her thoughts on monuments as a genre.

NT: Carla Zaccagnini started her career as a curator and now she is working as an artist. Do you see any difference between making art and curating shows? What’s your personal position, how do you feel while curating a show? I know you are planning to write a reply to Anton Vidokle’s text about curators, which was published in the issue #16 of e-flux journal. Give us something to anticipate.

AK: Well, for one, I cannot speak for Carla, and I do not make art myself, although I am trained in architecture. As for your question, I will have to answer it a little obliquely as I don’t want to present too many spoilers.

Yes, I do think there is a difference between making a show and making an artwork, after all, this is why there are different words and different roles ascribed to each process. At present, I find that contentions arise when these specificities encroach upon each other and these roles comingle, rightly or wrongly. One thing to keep in mind while curating is that you are always acting as a host to the work and the artist. As such, the curator can leverage his/her control of the “house”, be it an exhibition, a publication, the budget, and so on. So the real question is, how is this power executed, and to what ends? Taking your question out of the abstract, this situation fosters a very real power relation, and is probably the reason why the “position” of the curator is a hot topic of debate today. As for my position, I believe that the curator needs to entertain some sense of propriety over a sense of ownership or co-authorship with the artist. Conflating the issue is that the curator is a co-presenter of the work, and is often asked to interpret the work to others — there is a third actor of course, which is the institution, and it should be noted that a curator is not simply in a position of management, but is in the position of middle-management in a larger framework, and this is where the issues of presenting work conflate even further. Often, the ‘ego’ generated in the process of presenting is where things can really get out of whack, however, in the case of say Alfred Barr, this is not a given. I hone in on Barr here since his structuring of MoMA placed, or better yet, entrusted, a hitherto unusual sensitivity to the pedagogy and form of the work he was presenting — and this was revolutionary. Now to skip ahead a bit, I think this and other histories, have lead to a heavy reliance by curators on the literary arts, that is the pedagogy aspect, be it writing, art history and the like, while at the same time, it has become too easy not to look closely at the art as a tangible, speaking object. As a consequence, the physicality of work, that is the work itself, is eschewed for some tangential literary idea — another outcome of this is that potentially good shows are often poorly hung. I think as a prerequisite, most curators should take a good foundation class on drawing for example to learn how to think in languages other than simply letters. I bring this up to return to the idea of context and specificity I spoke about. Curating a show is not about generating a press release, nor an essay, which is were the curator as the real author gets to sign his/her name. These texts are supplements, and the bulk of curatorial activity should be invested in actually putting the show itself together. In relation to the exhibitions we are discussing, “Points & Lines” and “Avenue of the Americas”, didactics where cut to credits, and the essays were relegated to a newspaper distributed on the site to be found if desired, or to be discarded. Does this work; who knows? But it’s an example of one way of thinking through this issue of where to place the voice of the curator so as allow the voice of the artists to sing loudest. As far as the work itself, I think a lot of attention was paid toward materiality, typology, technique, placement and so on, so as to make these histories as legible as possible without supplements.

NT: This is your last show at LMCC. Why are you leaving? Any upcoming project you can tell us about?

AK: Basically, after 4-years, we decided to go our separate ways. Right now I am focusing on writing, but I am hatching together some other projects… but its way to early to spill the beans on those.

Find more stories