Other People and Their Ideas No 20: Lauren Cornell, Ryan Trecartin and Sarah O'Keeffe

Ahead of the third New Museum Triennial, the curators talk to Tom Eccles about their experience

By Tom Eccles

Lauren Cornell and Sara O’Keeffe. Courtesy New Museum, New York Juliana Huxtable, Untitled, 2014. Courtesy the artist

Organised by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin, with Sara O’Keeffe, assistant curator, the third New Museum Triennial, which runs from 25 February through 24 May, is titled Surround Audience and will feature 51 artists and artist collectives from over 25 countries. Previously executive director of not-for-profit new-media platform Rhizome, Cornell is a curator at the New Museum and cocurated its first triennial, titled The Generational: Younger Than Jesus, in 2009. Among the artists featured in that exhibition was Ryan Trecartin, whose exhibition Site Visit is on show at the KW Institute, Berlin, through 11 January.


The title for your Triennial is Surround Audience, a term coined by artist Ryan Trecartin that suggests a double bind: one in which we can surround others, making ourselves visible and empowered by such visibility, but at the same time one in which we are, in effect, encircled by others through technology. You also chose to collaborate with Trecartin as a cocurator of the show. Why collaborate with an artist and why Ryan Trecartin? Does his work crystallise a moment, is it a watershed beyond which the Triennial chooses to explore?

Lauren Cornell  

I wanted to cocurate the show with Ryan for many reasons. First, the fact that I’m inspired by his work and have hada long relationship with it, as I’ve worked with him many times. His work, as you know, is seen by many as iconic of our era. And yet I find there is actually a dearth of good writing on his videos, because critics seem to go into a kind of ‘generational shock’ when they see them and spout vague words like ‘millennial’ and ‘Internet’ in rapid sequence. His work is so much more complex and deep than these terms, for it reflects the psychological and social effects of new technologies, not in themselves, as gadgets or tools, but as they intersect with our world.

For instance, his film K-CoreaINC.K (section a) (2009) took up the politics of globalisation: in it, entities called ‘Global Koreas’ such as ‘Iran@-itzerland Korea’ and ‘Mexico Korea’ attend a meeting in which all they do is evince egomaniacal bratty behaviour and cat-fight. His characters are like applications, constantly retooling and rewriting themselves, a fluidity that is apt in an age in which our identities are increasingly managed by ourselves and across many different platforms (state, media, corporate). (Actually, I proposed the title Identity Management for the exhibition but he discouraged it because it was too dark, and I think he was right.) The ideas in his work did very much inspire the research in the show: when I was travelling and meeting with artists, I always had his works on my mind and would, ultimately, return to a dialogue with him and, later, Sara [O’Keeffe, assistant curator], when she joined the team. (The process was such that I did the research, internationally, but always shared artist portfolios with him for final consideration.)

The second reason is, frankly, that Ryan is a great person, with whom I knew sharing an incredibly huge project for over two years would be a positive experience, for myself and the artists. There is a reason that the actors in his films recur: he’s wonderful to work with. He’s generous, collaborative, totally open to everyone’s ideas, and he honours everyone’s investment. These are ideal qualities in a curator. When I invited him into the show, it struck that chord of generosity in him: he told me that his astrologer (Morgan Rehbock, who also helped us choose the date of our opening!) had told him that, in 2015, he would play more of a producer role, rather than solely that of a creator. I don’t believe in astrology but I was so glad he readily accepted! Sara joined a year ago, as part of a broader position at the museum. In her interview, she expressed a desire to work closely with artists on realising their works. And indeed, besides working to co-wrangle all aspects of the exhibition, she has worked with me rigorously, onsite, with all the artists. About half of the work in the show is new or commissioned, and our dialogues (sometimes even soul-searching debates) with all participating artists have been really extensive.

Sara O’Keeffe 

To add to what Lauren has already said about Ryan’s work, I feel Ryan addresses the hybrid ways identities are managed, performed and channelled today, at times in an exhilarating (and dizzying) cacophony, and always against the backdrop of capitalist forces. These issues inform the research for the show, but the works in the Triennial do look very different from Ryan’s works.

Working with an artist as curator set in motion our thinking about the ways artists could drive other aspects of the show, traditionally managed by the museum. Surround Audience, the title Ryan coined, also speaks to the ways some artists in the Triennial conceive of their works for audiences beyond the museum walls. We found that a number of artists are choosing to bypass the gallery system or think beyond it. For instance, Casey Jane Ellison, an artist and comedian, will film episodes of her comedy show, Touching the Art (2014–), for the Triennial, which will air on Ovation TV; artist collective K-Hole works as a ‘trend forecasting’ group and will produce the exhibition’s ad campaign.

AR  Ryan, what commonalities do you share with the artists in the exhibition?

Ryan Trecartin 

I think many artists in this Triennial are actively inventing space for themselves in culture – rather than creating work that functions solely as an act of rejection or, conversely, making work that just accepts the status quo or well-worn art-historical narratives, their work operates as an act of invention, drawing freely and widely from diverse aspects of culture and multiple histories. I think that I’m naturally drawn to artists who care as much about form, craft and skill as they do about concept, ideas and vision. Many of the artists in the show assume a position that attempts to push past tired and reductive binary logics, while finding more expanded ways to explore social and political ideas.

AR  How do the commissioned projects differ from others in the show?

Most commissions started to arrive at their final form during the summer of 2014, in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Hong Kong, the Ebola outbreak and events in Gaza. In response to those events, we found that many artists were thinking about the body as a nexus point, a site where questions about visibility, safety and agency are staged

SOK  In one sense the commissioned projects root the show firmly in a particular time. Though we were in conversation with artists for years, most commissions started to arrive at their final form during the summer of 2014, in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Hong Kong, the Ebola outbreak and events in Gaza. In response to those events, we found that many artists were thinking about the body as a nexus point, a site where questions about visibility, safety and agency are staged. There were periods when the artists we were in dialogue with in Hong Kong and Israel became mute on email – they were deeply involved with the protests, and our projects with them had momentarily to go on pause. One of these Hong Kong-based artists, Nadim Abbas, is constructing a series of chambers, replete with comforts of a domestic space on their interior – beds, posters, books – but completely sealed from the outside world. Viewers can feel inside these chambers by placing their hands into medical grade gloves on the glass walls. While Nadim’s works spur questions about locating a safe space for the body, we found other artists were working through questions about their own bodies in space.

niv Acosta, a transgender Brooklyn-based artist has been in residence with us since the autumn, and speaks about ‘impossible bodies’, a term he uses to describe the lived experiences of people whose bodies do not conform to the ideals promulgated in mass media. niv is developing a performance for the Triennial with a cast that includes Monstah Black, Alexandro Segade and André D. Singleton (aka Sista Bublz aka Brohogany), titled DISCOTROPIC, which attempts to situate a Black American experience between the genres of science fiction, astrophysics and disco. niv has spoken about feeling ‘impossible’ in spaces outside of his community, and DISCOTROPIC draws from archetypes in film, music and literature to develop a space for empowered expression.

At times, developing these new commissions has been an emotional journey; we faced impasses – material and otherwise – but it has been deeply rewarding. Lauren and I were floored by the generosity with which the artists welcomed us into their processes.

AR  The main difference between a biennial and a triennial is of course that you get an extra year to develop your ideas. Can you tell me about your research methodology for Surround Audience? I know you travelled fairly extensively in what sounds like good old-fashioned ‘boots on the ground’ international curatorial research with studio visits, etc. What does that extra year afford you?

LC  I would say the real benefit of a longer lead was that it gave us time to fundraise for and facilitate new commissions. We built the list over the two-and-a-half-year lead-up, but we started working with some artists – Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, DIS, Onejoon Che, Aslı Çavus¸oğlu and Luke Willis Thompson among them – quite early, and their projects have germinated over a long time. That said, you’re right, it did also provide time for traditional ‘heels on the ground’ research. I visited over 30 countries, and developed a team of incredible curatorial advisers on the way. Sara also visited Johannesburg, and Ryan focused on the US. My past work may associate me with ‘all things digital’ but my preferred way to encounter a work is in the studio with an artist, to talk with them and see the work (or past work) in person, to truly grasp the work and commit to it.

SOK  As Lauren mentioned, we did do ‘heels on the ground’ research, but having this additional time also allowed for an additional step: we were able to invite artists who Lauren met in these countries – New Zealand, Turkey, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, among others – to come to New York and develop new pieces here. We hosted Triennial artist residencies for extended periods, allowing time for artists to research and develop new ideas. The show is international – artists hail from over 25 countries – but because some pieces by international artists were developed against the backdrop of New York, they also feel rooted in a local context.

For instance, New Zealand-born artist Luke Willis Thompson was in residence last summer, when the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner took place. Of Fijian descent, Luke developed a piece in homage to the Floyd v. City of New York case, in which a group of men filed a class action lawsuit against the city and repealed NYPD stop-and-frisk policies on the basis of racial discrimination.

AR  The last two New Museum Triennials (The Generational: Younger Than Jesus in 2009, curated by Massimiliano Gioni and focused on artists born after 1976, and The Ungovernables in 2012, organised by Eungie Joo and which profiled artists born between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s) seemed to privilege so-called generations, particularly younger generations of artists. I know that you considered older artists for your project and in fact made some reference to the work of pioneers Nam June Paik and Stan VanDerBeek. The mid-1970s seems the cutoff point for Surround Audience. In simplistic terms, these are all artists that grew up in the digital age. What common traits would you say emerge from the artists and their work that you have chosen?

LC  As a museum initiative, the Triennial is dedicated to ‘emerging artists’. Successive curators of the show have dealt with this differently. Surround Audience doesn’t have an age cutoff; at the same time, most artists are young. Personally, I don’t believe that generations are always bracketed by age: the ‘contemporary’ is clearly a sphere composed of multiple timezones and differing social influences that create connections between artists, internationally, across their date of birth. At the same time, I didn’t want to replicate the convention of ‘rediscovering’ older artists, who’ve already had careers, within this context.

All to say, instead of age as a strict marker, we organised the show around connections among artists we felt strongly about. These connections or lines of inquiry included: how are representations of the body and persona evolving in an image-laden culture in which surveillance is widely dispersed and editorialising one’s life in public is the norm? How does the seepage of state and corporate power into our intimate spaces (say, via social media) change the terms of critique (ie, if we can no longer stand outside of the powerful forces, how do we resist them)? How are artists reconsidering the boundaries of fine art through activism and engagements with an expanded popular culture? Many of the artists in the show are engaging with the notion of what we are casually calling a surround culture – Josh Kline’s installation reflects a dystopian world in which we are wilfully surrendering our private data; Exterritory Project seeks to find space for the circulation of images outside of potentially censorious networks; Juliana Huxtable’s self-portraits are inspired by her work on social media in which she consciously constructs an evolving persona for a growing audience. In these works, we see the possibilities of a culture in which we are increasingly ‘surrounded’ as well as emergent anxieties about being invaded or overseen. Again, these are only a few of many themes.

SOK  Another that emerged was artists attempting to combat and slow down the accelerated flow of information today. For instance, in a piece for the Triennial, Tania Pérez Córdova asks a friend to lend her a SIM card from their cell phone for the duration of the exhibition. It becomes embedded in a terracotta wall on view, and for this period, their phone is rendered useless. Our hope is that work in the show feels like it addresses critical issues of our time, but isn’t strictly confined by age brackets.

AR  K-Hole’s branding/poster campaign for the Triennial has a couple of slogans that stand out. One is ‘Sex. Gossip. Success.’ The other is ‘Nothing lasts forever’. I hope this doesn’t sum it up?

LC  K-Hole’s ad campaign developed out of a long residency with us, and a mutual desire to consider how artists could inhabit sites outside of dualistic in the building/out of the building, online/offline options, such as its many channels of communication and self-promotion. We invited them to develop a campaign that offered a kind of institutional critique, one that would inject humility and provocation into the marketing effort, and respond to the show’s parameters. Their resulting campaign is titled Extended Release and features text statements – besides the ones you listed, other examples are ‘No Past No Present No Problem’, ‘Everyone Dies at the End’, ‘I’m Not U’ and ‘Don’t Look Behind You’ – accompanied by anthropomorphic illustrations of pills (here, as sordid and colourful characters screaming into cell phones, playing tennis, riding cars off the road, etc). It pinpricks the artworld’s celebrity and career obsession, in which any large show of this kind inevitably participates, and also alludes to some of the show’s themes.

K-Hole represents an alternative model for an artist collective – one that seeks to get outside established conventions of art presentation (the gallery) and patronage (selling objects). While some question the commercialism in their project, I find their honesty – their explicit while still critical embrace of the market – to be super-refreshing.

AR  I was taken aback most by how many of the artists you have selected actually make ‘things’: sculptures, installations, even paintings… My surprise is maybe because of your (Lauren) longstanding notoriety as a foremost curator in the digital realm but also because I didn’t think that so many younger artists continue to work with objects as such. Among video and photography, the ‘plastic arts’ seem alive and well in this Triennial. Did that surprise you too?

A binary between online and offline, object and ephemera, is out of date in a society where online platforms mediate our lives, our social relationships, and our existence, and artworks exist within a chain of materialisation, dematerialisation and rematerialisation. Our show includes works that move easily between the gallery and other platforms

LC  I think there is an anticipation that, with our backgrounds, Ryan and I might organise a show that would be made entirely out of holograms, or only be online, or be on one heavy app, but I think this comes out of a misunderstanding of our work and how artists engage digital tools today. It’s true that Ryan and I are both very interested in contemporary culture and emerging media; and many people see his work as emblematic of the ‘digital age’. But those interests are not separate from objects. A binary between online and offline, object and ephemera, is out of date in a society where online platforms mediate our lives, our social relationships, and our existence, and artworks exist within a chain of materialisation, dematerialisation and rematerialisation. Our show includes works that move easily between the gallery and other platforms, for instance social media and performance, showing that a kind of versatility between disciplines and cultural spheres is a way artists take advantage of an expanded cultural terrain. Let me ask you, because I genuinely want to get a better grasp on this expectation, what did you imagine the exhibition would look like?

AR  Given your history as the director of Rhizome, with which you are perhaps overly associated given your track record of many more exhibitions (like Free, in 2010, at the New Museum, or the first Triennial), it’s not outside the realm of possibility to anticipate that the Triennial might be a transformative moment in which art, as it is produced and distributed through online platforms, would be ‘delivered’ through the gallery space. What might that look like? Well, one would probably imagine very video and media heavy. A cross between Ryan Trecartin and a Harun Farocki installation? I know this is a parody, but you did ask!

LC  I think that transformative moment you describe happened during the 1990s and early 2000s with online work being shown in galleries – primarily on computers. Today, we have a different challenge: online platforms surround us, as extensions of our bodies and integral parts of society. Commenting on them or using them is not an activity reserved for a certain group of artists, nor can it be done in isolation. Writing in The New York Times in 2010, William Gibson, who coined the term ‘cyberspace’, wrote: ‘Cyber-space, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.’ One aspect of Ryan’s work is that it points to this physicality or embodiment.

AR  What is interesting to me is that you have brought together a truly international group of artists, many of whom make work out of quite specific local contexts but which speak to a larger whole. You commissioned the artist team Exterritory, Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela, for example, who you describe as addressing ‘the potential to get outside existing territories of image production and reception through a process they call “image smuggling”’. For the piece Blockade they envisioned transporting controversial (and perhaps forbidden) images across the Rafah strip in Gaza by carrier pigeon. It’s quite a good metaphor for the whole show.

LC  Exterritory Project proposes ‘extra-territoriality’ as a mode of being and thinking – trying to imagine our lives out of national territories and their accompanying belief systems. Its new video for the Triennial examines how tightly movement is policed, by surveillance video that tracks individual passage, around the borders of Gaza. Its work raises questions about visibility, such as how to protect or manage one’s image or presence when surrounded by cameras seen or unseen, that other artists in the exhibition are mulling over.

AR  If you had had four years rather than three, do you think the exhibition would be different?

LC  If you read through the catalogue, I think it’s clear that many of the works began crystallising into final form last summer. While I don’t want to reduce the formal complexity of the performance, installation, painting and so on, within the exhibition, I think it’s clear that international events – the conflict in Gaza, the potentially racist shooting in Ferguson – provide a backdrop to artists’ concerns. Several works also engage tools that are emerging now: as we write, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané is working with the University of London to situate a work within the Oculus Rift, and Frank Benson’s sculpture of Juliana Huxtable is being printed with the latest 3D printing technology. These things would inevitably shift with another year. Perhaps I would have also taken a little more vacation.

Surround Audience, is on show at the New Museum, New York, through 24 May 2015. This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.