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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Interview: PICA Visual Art Curator Kristan Kennedy (On All Things End Things)

Posted by Matt Stangel on Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 8:52 PM

When I met up with PICA Visual Art Curator Kristan Kennedy, beyond digging into TBA:12's pared-down visual art program, End Things, I wasn't sure about where our conversation would go.

Kennedy showed me to a cluster of comfortable chairs in PICA's swanky new office and event space, and, without much build-up, began speaking very candidly about her work from TBAs past. We discussed exciting art that can get lost in the hustle and bustle of festival environments (a consumptive issue Kennedy hopes to solve with year-round programming— now reserving six of PICA's twelve visual art budgetary allotments for use outside festival week). On top of the organizational and curatorial maturation, she gave a thorough account of the thinking that went into designing End Things, drawing thematic connections between the six included projects (useful if you're looking for a little guidance as to how the projects can be read together).

For the Cliff Notes, check out my piece from last week's TBA print guide. The full transcript of our conversation is after the jump. (The opening reception for End Things takes place tonight at Washington High School from 10 pm to midnight, and additional projects are on view at PICA's downtown office through September 29.)


[Audio starts mid-conversation as Kennedy talks about embracing the idea of the exhibition rather than presenting disparate projects from disparate fields of thought under a loose banner.]

Kristan Kennedy: I describe [End Things] as an exhibition because it's something people understand. So if I were to say, 'A series of artist statements under the banner' and I put a title over it, people would still talk about it as an exhibition. And because it's in such proximity to the performance and for the last three years, to all the Works stuff— which I also have a heavy hand in putting together— I like that really serious focus on one subject but also a diffuse approach that could bump up against other mediums and have accidental associations with things in different disciplines. And so I tried not to tighten things too much, like an academic exhibition.

Portland Mercury: So what would you say that theme is?

KK: For this year I started to see that some of the work that I was doing with artists that I really believed in was getting lost in the bustle and the mania of the festival, and I really wanted to make a focused exhibition of sorts of only the artists that are speaking to each other about this concept of End Things.

I'm also spreading my programming throughout the year, so I opened with Glen Fogel and I started the resource residency program, and then we had the symposium and I brought in A.L. Steiner and A.K. Burns to screen a film and talk about their work. And so, some of the activity that people are normally used to seeing on the festival, I'm pulling out to go through the year— to make it more visible, to give artists the chance to have solo representation, to do greater work in residencies and all that stuff.

PM: That makes sense. And I appreciate that as an arts writer. TBA is always that, 'Fuck, what am I going to do?' week of the year.

KK: Right. And to be frank, I was also frustrated with being criticized for PICA not having a strong visual art presence when I was presenting so many massive projects and investing so much in local and international and national artists. I think the issue was that […] we didn't have a space. And the second we said we were opening a space, everyone said, 'Are you making a gallery?' People associate space with gallery. People associate gallery with consistent programming, which isn't always the case [laughs]. So, in my mind, I was really proud, and I have been proud, about all the work we've done in TBA and all the work leading up to TBA and afterwards that's about commissioning and residencies and the development of new work and presentation.

And so I knew that if I had spread all those twelve [festival] presentations out during the year, that would be called a vibrant visual art series, but because I put them all during this one concentrated time period, it was seen as, like... I was hearing a call for more throughout the year in a more focused way. And so I'm sort of answering that call.

After ten years of working in the festival format, of saying, 'Okay I get it, we get it, we're ready ourselves to move into a space that's a hybrid space that presents lots of different things in lots of different ways'— some of that will be visual work, some of it's lectures, some of it's performances, some of it's things that're spontaneous, some of it's a party— we were trying to make a space that felt more like what it feels like to go to The Works on any given night, that it's shape-shifting and could hold lots of different things and may not be perfect for everything, which means we still have to go out in the world and find spaces for artists' projects, which is a challenge to us and to them. So that's really where I started, like, really paying attention to where we are, and where I am even as a curator all these years after from when I started.

I focused in on these six projects, and the exhibition title, End Things, comes from several conversations I've had over the year. It's almost like every program riffs off the next one, and I would say that Storm [Tharp] is a big part of this exhibition in that we started with him. Before I started his [TBA:10] exhibition, we had about two years of conversation about his work and all the different mediums it went through. And I would go to his studio and I live next door to him and I would see all these arrangements he was making and we had all these deep conversations about things. Why do we keep things around us and what do they mean? And I myself am this sort of occasional animist, where I believe a stone has a feelings or something. So I have a sensitivity to objects and I believe they should exist. And I was also last year in one of the lectures for the Occupation/Preoccupation installation with Anne Marie Oliver, and at the end we started to have this really sort of erratic but exciting conversation about animation. And she was talking about, and I'm paraphrasing, about how Grecco-Roman sculpture with all their flowing robs, that was proto-animation, like, all that was to show movement, and now we're in this sort of hyper-animation state of the world. And she also paraphrased some famous philosophers in saying that, if something is moving it can't be understood...

PM: I don't know if I agree with that.

KK: I don't know if I do either, but it's a theory.

PM: I feel like if I see something moving I can understand it, but if something's not moving, if something's not happening, that's tougher. Non-action is the thing that's hard to understand for me.

KK: That's the uncomfortable space that I'm talking about. Like, why do we keep things around us? And especially art things? That's really what I'm talking about. Why is there sculpture? Why are there antiquities kept in museums? Why do we go and look at them? What are they telling us? What's the meaning? What's the meaning of all of it? And I think there's this double entendre thing happening with 2012 and the end of the world which, to be completely honest, I didn't think of until afterwards. I was like 'Oh, End Things, that sounds so ominous.' But really it's about an assertion that objects should exist in the world and that our flattening of our understanding, and our misinterpretation of things is causing sort of irreparable damage in the world. We don't have a tactile sense of things, we don't have an empathy for things. (And the second you start saying things, you can't stop saying it.)

A thing is like an abstract concept and then it's actually something very real that you can hold. In conversations with artists, like with Erika Vogt, I went and had a studio visit with her... [and] I was really interested in the sort of like unexplained catalog of objects and symbols that she made which looked like... [a key] to something, like a key on a map, but had no answers.

PM: What kind of things did she make?

KK: She makes lots of different things. For this she is making cast sculptures, an installation of cast objects that are suspended from pulleys, and the viewer is invited to manipulate them. And to what end is not understood. But in that studio visit we were having a conversation about her objects and how she wanted to see them moved into a space where the viewer could touch them, because she was thinking about that missing link between art and humans or object and humans, like, that tactile, the touch, explains a lot, and she just read an article about how when you're holding something in your hands you're more empathetic. Let's say you're having an argument with someone but you have an object in your hand. Suddenly you're more empathetic because you're holding something in your hands.

I think a lot of the artists are playing with this idea, some more overtly than others, which is always the case. I'll say to someone, like, 'I don't know if I have a thing,' meaning a particular style, and those closest to me say, 'No, you definitely do,' in terms of the artists I select. I'm always looking for the really literal translation of this idea, and then to the abstract, to the subversive interpretation.

PM: I can see that. Erika's thing with animating the objects is super literal.

KK: It is literal, but when I started talking to Erika I didn't know that's what she was going to purpose. So it gives you an understanding that you're on the right track, but it also gives you pause sometimes about, you know, what is it about things in the world that artists are really concentrating on right now? And I think that if we look at what's going on, we can see that they're interpreting the current state of the world. That's pretty obvious. I think as curators we use that phrase a lot: 'Artists interpret the world.' It sometimes rolls off the tongue a little bit too easily. 'Artists are future forecasters.' Artists are this, artists are that, and it sounds a little bit too mystical and not linked to fact. But as cultural workers, when we're seeing what is produced, it becomes very obvious that this is the same as writing an editorial or political manifesto or fashioning a garment that protects you from something that has a very strong and intended purpose, even if it's an abstraction of an idea.

So, in this case, Erika is sitting there talking to me about how she reads this article about how when you hold an object your empathetic, and I'm trying to explain to her the concept of an exhibition and somewhere we meet in the middle. I realized she's the right person to deliver this concept to people through a visual language. So I think that room will be really simple and sparse.

We've also talked a great deal about when you invite that kind of conversation with your viewer, what happens to the work? Is it destroyed in the process? Is it taken care of? Like, do you actually succeed in communicating anything just by letting someone touch it? I mean, a lot of the things you won't be able to touch in the exhibition, but I'm still asking for people to pay attention to what they're saying. I still want there to be an exchange.

PM: So each artist is getting their own room?

KK: Yes!

PM: So it'll look a lot like past TBAs?

KK: Don't be worried. I think that people won't really notice a difference. I did station two of the artists projects here [at PICA's downtown office and resource center]: Isabelle Cornaro and Morgan Ritter. Morgan has a room at the high school, but she's also making a fountain for the deck. If you wanna talk about animation, water flowing over a fountain sculpture really is gonna be amazing. And I can show you some of Isabelle's work because she came here to make it a few weeks ago. I'll talk about the other artists and then Isabelle last, since she's here.

PM: Sounds great.

KK: Alex Cecchetti, who's an Italian artist living in Paris, is doing a ten-day performance called 'Summer Is Not the Prize of Winter.' We had a conversation about a novel that he wrote that was selected by open submissions by this publisher Gas Works, and it's called The Society That Breathes Once A Year, about two people trying to start a society in Canada. It's a really beautiful novel. And we spoke about what images and things the novel conjured, and also his practice of using books and language to create sculptural performances, and I was really interested in having him come and do something along those lines. So his piece is, for the first three days, he's in a class room, he tells a story, and in order to illustrate that story he is making things and drawing things and kind of moving around the room, and he's telling a story to the audience, but specifically one person in the room who then for the next three days is the performer, and that person is telling it to someone else— so it's sort of like this game of telephone— and on the last day of the festival Alex returns to the room to hear a story that's no longer his own. So that, in this performative way, and in a collective way, talks about how we illustrate things or how we define things together.

PM: Is it audience members who become performers?

KK: It's cast. They're cast. And they're other artists, other performers, and other writers. He's really specific about who he wants to work with. I'm quite excited about that piece because I don't know if he's presented much in the United States and I feel like there's this great confluence between his work and some of things that are happening on the stage during the festival. And I like the idea of the body, a sculpture, and he'll be there in the room as will all of us together listening to him make work. So that's Alex's piece.

I'm co-presenting a piece with Cinema Project by a Dutch collective, van Brummelen and de Haan, and their piece has been presented before— so there's a lot of information on it. It's a 16mm film. It was important to us to have the machine, the projector, the film— and that's a particular mission of Cinema Project— but also I don't have a lot of video happening in the exhibition the year, so, there will be projector operator there running the 16mm film in the room, and it's of a frieze, a Turkish frieze that is now in Berlin, and it illustrates sort of like 'the gods fight with humans and animals on earth.' The artists wanted to make a work about the piece, but were denied access to it because there was fear from the governments of both, I think, Germany and Turkey that it would erupt an argument about reparations and return of the frieze. What they realized is that, for hundreds of years, there's been images produced of this frieze, so they pieced it back together inch by inch from all these reproductions of it. So they're re-animating the frieze, giving it a sort of sculptural quality, panning over it slowly even though it's comprised of thousands of little bits.

Morgan Ritter is a really young artist. She graduated from PNCA last year, and she made this book at Publication Studio. I really loved her thesis show, and I have included some of her video work in programs that I've showed outside of PICA, so I've been watching her even while she was an undergraduate student making ceramics and video and performances and some music sometimes. She is making these precarious sculptures and they're all made from clay that's been pulled from different sites around Oregon. She is the one I credit in this short essay where I say, 'I spoke with this artist about the idea of flattening the world.' The aggressive act of an artist of pulling clay out of the earth that's been smashed down and you pull it out and refashion it into something for people to contend with. So her sculptures might be resting on beanbags and they're in this kind of like pastel environment, and they all have a sort of relationship to the human body that made it and ground it up and pulled it up, and they have this relationship also I think to classicism, like again this sort of beginning idea that I was speaking to Anne Marie Oliver about,—classical sculpture and it's animation and place in the world.

So we're doing that installation but she also had told me that it was one of her dreams to make a fountain, and we both sort of fell in love with this idea of producing this thing that has this, like, moving stuff of life in it, water. And that will be out on the deck, on the PICA deck. That will be interesting, too. So that's what Morgan is doing.

Through the book that she made through Publication Studio, one of the things that I picked up on with her work was that she was selling the books with sculptures on top of them. And when I spoke to her about it she was saying the book was really a way of outlining her ideas, things that she aligned herself with conceptually in her work— literary illustration of her sculptures— but then putting the sculpture right on top of it was again this sort of assertion that the object was more important, that the object could tell you everything that's in the book, that the two things sitting on top of each just as a beautiful relationship was really thrilling to me, and we took the conversation from there.

And then I'm working with Claudia Meza who we've worked with many times before and I invited her to be one of the artists for the resource room residency program, and we knew that we wanted to ask her to do something for the stage this year. We thought that maybe her piece that she's been working on —a composition for percussion and video— could move into a venue, but it quickly became one of these conversations with an artist that was very expansive and she's doing three projects for the festival. One is called Sonic City where her and bunch of other artists are doing field recordings, and then it culminates in a concert under the bridge of musicians performing original compositions based on field recordings. And then she's doing the resource room residency. And then she's making a piece [for End Things]. Claudia is really dedicated to sort of Cagean philosophy and action, composition.”

PM: What aspects of that philosophy?

KK: Chance, and using the field recordings, and constructing instruments... So she's making basically a giant instrument out of 30 Califone tape recorders that have original compositions on each but that people can play and make new compositions with. So there's also this interesting relationship between her work and Erika's work, and I really wanted to include someone who worked in sound because of the synesthesia aspect of creating images in the mind and that guttural and visceral reaction to music that is often times way more effective than physical artworks... I don't know how to describe it, but I like the idea these things talking to each other, and thinking of sound as an object.

And then there's Isabelle Cornaro who's a Paris-based artist who I saw one of her wall paintings— very similar to the ones we have up— and immediately read it as film, and then I said something to the person who was showing me her work and he said, 'Oh, it is of a film.' So she makes sculptures and she makes films and the films that she makes are often of objects, or are interpretations of objects, and she also uses 16mm film, so there's physicality even though the films are more temporal. And projected. And these paintings are reproductions of film stills from particular films. So she is making the piece, it's recorded in film, it's projected, and then it's re-made and manifested as an object, as a wall painting applied directly to the wall.

PM: Is that to animate the art process or something?

KK: I think it's about the diffusion of meaning, about taking something in and out of concrete form and how it transmutes that space and becomes meaningful and emotional and evocative but also formal— color-wise, shape-wise, all those things. So, we started wanting to do a really modest installation together and she wound up making thirteen paintings, and we installed three of them up here and ten downstairs in the space that Glen Fogel was in. We're also going to be showing four films. So it turned out to be quite a major solo exhibition and if I had just had that I would've been happy, golden, but I love that her work that will anchor the space while Washington High School will have a life of it's own over there.

I think that's it! I don't know how it sounds to you, but in it's more focused form it felt really good to me.

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