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Nato Thompson. Photo by Derek Schultz.

Pigeons on the Grass, Alas: Nato Thompson

Pigeons on the Grass, Alas: Nato Thompson

Nato Thompson. Photo by Derek Schultz.

Pigeons on the Grass Alas: Contemporary Curators Talk About the Field lived on the The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage website as an ongoing series between 2011–13. The culmination of the series is now a publication, which is available through the Center. Below is the text of one our original interviews, conducted with Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time, New York.

Whose curatorial practice has inspired your own work and why?

Strangely enough, with the current debacle at LA MoCA swirling in the artworld press, I must say that one of the first exhibitions to truly turn my head was Paul Schimmel’s Out of Actions. Being introduced to such profoundly aggressive work such as Viennese Actionism, Gutai, Chris Burden, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, and Lygia Clark blew my mind. I had not considered art in this way before. But the work in this exhibition contained such a radical approach to performance and more than anything, an everyday experience of being in the world. I was in my early 20s at that point and never considered the idea of being a curator. It wasn’t until graduate school that I even remotely considered this field a vocation.

In graduate school, I experienced the exhibitions and projects of the collective Temporary Services. They were extremely important in my thinking. Heavily influenced by the work of many Scandinavian utopians like N55 and Superflex, Temporary Services introduced me to the exhibition as a way of thinking through the world. They managed to include the insane and the political, the international and the deeply local. They had a profoundly ethical practice that was still strange and beautiful.

Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta also radically shifted my conception of what was possible in the arts. Perhaps on the furthest end of the spectrum from the project space approach of Temporary Services, Enwezor took seriously the proposition that art, particularly in the documentary vein, could take in terms of shifting the landscape of politics itself. Using the platform of Documenta, he invited some of the world’s greatest minds to weigh in on some of the world’s most pressing issues. It made a large impression on me.

There are many curators at this point who I pay attention to. It is sort of split between formal curators and artist collectives that put together projects. Here is a short list for the fun of it: everything Sina Najafi and crew do at Cabinet magazine, the goings on at Mildred’s Lane, the projects, journals and exhibitions by the great collective E-flux (Anton, Juliete, Brian), the entire Occupy movement, Philly’s own Basekamp—in particular the Plausible Artworlds project, Charles Esche, Maria Lind, Chus Martinez, Jens Hoffmann, Ralph Rugoff, Sofia Hernandez, my ol’ colleague Mark Beasly (a great curator), the experiments and levity of Joseph Del Pesco, just recently the people at Weeksville Heritage Center, the awesome constant rethinking of Kate Fowle at ICI, at times the experimental approach of Hans Ulrich Obrist (the man has so much energy), the education programs at the Walker and the Hammer, the projects of Christine Tohme at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, the work of Fulya Erdemci and Theo Teeglaers at SKOR, the writings of Sue Bell Yank, Shannon Jackosn, Gregory Sholette, Yates McKee, Jahleh Mansoor, Boris Groys (though I don’t usually agree with him), and Claire Bishop (though I don’t agree often with her either, haha).

How has your thinking about exhibition-making and the role of the curator changed since you first started the field?

It has changed in the extreme. The major shift has been moving into the field of public art and with it having an entire paradigm shift in front of me. I remember distinctly recalling when I worked at MASS MoCA that the major impasse in terms of a general public appreciating exhibitions was that they couldn’t figure out why these things were art. I realized the question was a dull one and that the only real problem of people appreciating art was the frame of art itself. You don’t need to know something is art to appreciate it. That seems sort of obvious but the truth in that has been made more evident the longer I work at Creative Time.

The artist Tania Bruguera said to me, “I don’t want an art that points at a thing, I want an art that is the thing.” The frame of art often prevents things from being the thing. The bracket of the museum or gallery often shifts the lens of a project away from its being toward a traditional mode of representation. It is a shift that I find often in the way of the artists’ intent.

Working in the public sphere can allow projects to escape the bracket of art and often they can simply exist as unexplained phenomena in the world. The more unexplained an art project can be the more it can hum in that special zone relegated to art. It is all rather paradoxical but tangibly real. Some folks out there think that I am against the autonomy of art (a sort of dumbing down theory that tends to only circulate in annoying art circles), but in fact, I am all for rescuing art. I want to find cultural spaces that open up its ideas and resonance on a broader level.

Illustration by Sarah McEneaney from Pigeons on the Grass, Alas: Contemporary Curators Talk About the Field, published by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2013.

So that is transformation number one. The other profound shift is that I am quite convinced that what many people think of as art is pretty much a modernism that has lost its relevance somewhere in the early ’70s. The high end of modernism (the kind that Hal Foster wrote about in The Return of the Real) has gradually lost its relevance. At this point, cultural production is the language of life. The skill sets of art (the task of representation and making) were long ago evacuated as necessary requirements of art, and the idea of art have also escaped its grasp. All that art has today are its surviving infrastructure that must replicate itself in order to survive. But as opposed to thinking that this is a tragedy, the good news is that culture is the language of life. Art has finally won!

Taking a step back to appreciate the complexity of what this moment means for curating and for the organization of aesthetic shifts across numerous demographics, means in a sense of thinking through the complexity of meaning production today. It is exciting and in fact, possible. The trick is making new platforms that can contend with this contemporary moment.

Can art exist outside of the art world?

There are many art worlds and there are many definitions of art. It almost makes the use of the term art more misleading than helpful. If we asked, can the skill sets of representation exist outside of the art world, we would clearly think it was a rhetorical question. If we asked, can video exist outside the art world, the same. So what is it we want out of this word art since it is clearly not anything specific.

There are spaces where different things pass as art. I tend to appreciate the Cabinet approach that is more ‘arty’ than about art. They might address questions of electricity but they wouldn’t do it specifically and solely from the perspective of an artist. They would instead recruit the perspectives of numerous curious types from scientists to poets to historians to photographers. It is more of a style of curiosity than specifically that of the discourse and infrastructure of art.

I tend to follow institutions, artists, project spaces, magazines and blogs, that I think have a sense of purpose, integrity and vision. These are the spaces where I think art is possible and I watch it come to life on a daily basis. They are few and far between though. Many just replicate the conservative values of the art market or the boring studio practice being churned out by bad MFA programs. I think that art comes out of a thrilling melancholic engagement with the world and some places, in the art world, are able to demonstrate that.

Why do curators still need artists? Has the curatorial field evolved to a point where artists have become redundant?

Each project has a different set of dynamics. More often than not, when working at Creative Time, I work extremely hard to simply keep an artists dream intact. I try to defend it from compromising conditions that I see as unnecessary. That said, I also have to act as an arbiter of reality and let the artist know when certain pragmatic constraints will effect the work. Sometimes when I work on a single artist project, I wonder if the artist actually needs the curator. And frankly, sometimes they don’t. It really depends.

That said, sometimes the artists we work with are far more collaborative in nature and we work together. Like anything, these aesthetic endeavors are relationships and all relationships are versatile. I wouldn’t say that artists have become redundant. That seems silly to me. I mean as long as there are people with amazing ideas and skills with something to say in the world, there will be a need for people to help them out to make their dreams a reality. That is just the way the world works. Whether or not we call these relationships one between a curator and artist is sort of beside the point.

What can curators do to counter the perception of art as a luxury asset of the 1%?

Perhaps art needs to stop being a luxury asset of the 1% in order to dismiss the myth that it is. Frankly much of what goes for art in the art world is just that. It is just window dressing with a thin veneer of concept. I like to think of it as metroceptual art. You know, like a lot of art that looks like jewelry or something someone with money might want to own, but has just a patina of concept thrown on top. Much of what is in Chelsea is like that.