In Betweenness: State of Place, Art & Mind

Museums and commercial galleries appear to be a straight-line star generating system for artists and curators. But in looking for stardom, we lose sight of art as a power struggle over voice and position. Whose voice is heard as words? Whose voice is marginalized and defined as peripheral noise? Power lies in the margins waiting to be awakened. To challenge and redefine borders, curators, artists, and organizations have to be catalytic vectors, triangulating and mediating between power and marginalization. As Homi Bhaba has written, ‘in-between’ spaces are the terrain where new identities and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation are elaborated in the act of defining society.
I began my art career as Director of the small but influential New York Willoughby Sharp gallery. After a circuitous path of teaching and obtaining my MFA, I came to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, (MCA), at the time it was attempting to reposition itself and contemporary art by broadening its audience.
Museums have a conflicted relationship to audiences and the “rise of the audience” is a relatively new phenomenon, one which I have championed. Many of my MCA shows focused on the immaterial – performances, audience interactions, or sound. Although these mediums were accepted as contemporary art in the 1960s, by 1999 when the new MCA was built, silos had formed, even in its architecture. Since borders are spatialized, contesting them requires reconstituting how space and objects are utilized.
Artists’ books – often marginalized as art objects since they are usually small and inexpensive – are filled with voice. Truly democratic, visitors can interact with an artist’s thoughts over time, like video. Compact, they can fit in any space. For Sol LeWitt’s retrospective and for the main exhibition artists Ed Ruscha and Cathy Opie, I transformed the MCA’s introductory video space into companion artists’ book exhibitions. Ruscha greatly appreciated the show because most curators ignored his artists’ books, even though he thought his books at the time were more conceptually advanced than his paintings.
Since the MCA was grappling with criticism of rarely featuring local artists, this space became the site for a new monthly series for emerging Chicago artists. 12 x 12: New Artists/New Work was a rare entry-level museum show. Aiming to catalyze a new ecosystem of young artists, audiences, and collectors, it caused a bizarre role-reversal since artists such as Curtis Mann and William O’Brien were given gallery shows after their museum show, rather than typically the opposite.
The work I was most interested is that which hinged upon the audience for its fulfillment, so the audience became the mediary. Many underutilized spaces are liminal passageways, perfect for audience engagement. Upon entering the MCA in 2005, you could see Tania Bruguera’s Study for Endgame #7. Microphones were placed on the atrium’s balconies for people to speak into, but not hear (unless next to the speaker) people speaking across the balconies. Audiences, particularly teens, flocked to the balconies. In 2007 in the Lake gallery, Tino Sehgal presented Kiss, where visitors crossing through to the Collection show were thrust into an intimate encounter between two dancers.
This unmediated encounter is highly contested. Before a viewer even steps into a gallery, layers of institutional mediation from marketing to press, deny an unmediated experience. The curator balances the needs of the institution, artist, and the audience in writing labels and gallery guides, which Tino’s work eschews. His strategy concerns immediacy and the environment, unlike a knee-jerk assumption that people should simply “get it.”
I see myself not just a mediator between artists and audiences, but a triangulator between them and the art world. I have no problem with people who do this and call themselves curators. People who do are defending boundaries.
Because of the then bias against performance, the Here/Not There series asked emerging performers how to present performative work – even when they were not present – within a visual context in the gallery and throughout the MCA. Neither purely visual art nor performance, this in-betweeness opened up options for performance artists to work within a visual context and vice versa. Theaster Gates’s work is a perfect example of in-betweenness, his work was not considered art for 2 years by the Curatorial department. Theaster’s 2009 Temple Exercises, his first museum exhibition, was an installation and performance that also traveled to the South and West side, forcing the MCA to go to community. When Francesco Bonami directed the Whitney Biennale, he included Theaster’s Temple Exercises setting him on a new trajectory, further advanced when we hosted Mark Bradford’s residency donor event at Theaster’s studio. When vectors, institutions, and those on the edge align, they triangulate to shape new possibilities.
But the center was not pleased. Some saw these series as preferential to young artists and in 2011, when the 12 x 12 series changed and ‘Here Not There’ ended, I developed 6018North, located in a former mansion slated for demolition. The space asks how a home can be a site for collaboration between artists and audiences to build community and advance new modes of artmaking. 6018North’s first events were not exhibitions or performances, but dinners. We wanted to literally bring to the table emerging and established sound, performance, and visual artists, with writers, non-and for profit programmers, collectors, and funders to discuss needs.
Whether curating the MCA’s smaller spaces or large galleries or 6018North’s projects, I look for boundary busting art and unique, intimate encounters with the viewer. In many ways, 6018North does what the MCA aims for: to directly connect art with the public, but with no fee barrier.
On the flipside is 6018North doesn’t have the MCA budget and the corresponding staff. Nevertheless, we currently have Sara FitzSimons’s House on Ohio St. beach, Amanda Williams’s and Chelsea Kulp’s mural at the Lawrence red line viaduct, and at 6018North, accessible from the street are Jim Duignan’s Seesaw and Luftwerk’s window light installation. All are unmediated intimate artistic encounters. Money is a boundary, but in-betweenness is transgressive.

Tricia Van Eck

Tricia Van Eck is Artistic Director and Founder of 6108North (in Edgewater). Previously, Van Eck worked 13 years as a curator at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 pp 18-19

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