Kaytie Johnson is the Business
Posted: 9/9/12

On a clear bright day last February I sat down to speak with Kaytie Johnson, the newly appointed director and chief curator of the galleries at the Moore College of Art and Design.  The idea being to author some sort of bio piece, introducing this fresh curator to the Philadelphia art community. But to be honest the article never found its driving force and the project was shelved in the recesses of my desktop.   Now, nearly a year after she arrived in Philadelphia, Johnson is mounting an ambitious and covertly complex exhibition. Part film festival part meditation conference, "The Long Now" sets out to examine and perpetuate stillness in nine works of film and video.  I took this as an opportunity to resuscitate my conversation with Johnson and learn more about the curatorial moxy that went into "The Long Now." 

The first thing you should know about Kaytie Johnson is that she is organized.  The décor of her office seems honed for the maximum amount of Norwegian inspired efficiency.  The most striking feature is a massive, classroom scale white board with the next several months neatly gridded out.  Did I make it on the white board?  I didn’t check.  On the opposite wall was a collection of printouts logically tacked and arranged in evidence of some serious brainstorming.  On the Docksta Ikea table, which we spoke, was a small bowl of dark chocolate candies.  In February, she apologized to MFA faculty member Paul Hubbard for their sweetness and general low caliber.  The aggregate effect is something akin to the interior of a European think-tank quite room.  It just needs a few medicine balls. 

But I do not blink an eye at any of this.  Looking at "The Long Now" it is easy to imagine the progenitor, not as the emcee of a talent show but as the author of an essay—a researcher building an argument though exposition and evidence: “I’ve always wanted to curate an exhibition that is the form of an essay in the way that Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil is an essay film.  In a way this exhibition is an essay.  Every single example is supporting a thesis—like paragraphs in an essay.“

Like a mix tape, Johnson handpicked all nine preexisting pieces in order to illustrate the intersection between photography and video.  Inherit in this encounter is an uncommon stillness. It is a tempo of visualization not often encountered in a world of back-lit screens, .GIFS, banner ads, and furious birds.  If this exhibition is expository it is also intentional: “I’m trying to get people to sit down and just look at things.“

To this end the show will facilitate a sort of viewer ship endurance training. The more succinct and palatable works such as Mark Lewis’s four-minute video North Circular will inaugurate the exhibition.  These will give way to works that will increasingly test the gallery goers perception of image as video and video as image.  The final challenge for only the most Zen marathon viewers is Warhol’s eight-hour, single shot, black and white, go-out-and-get-a-water-ice-and-come-back, Empire.

The first time I met with Johnson I wanted to talk to her about the challenges of curating within an academic institution. Who is your audience? What role does education play in your position? But as it turns out, the mission statement of your institution is about exactly where ambiguous questions of direction and audience end.  The “forcefield of academia” as Johnson puts it, while sometimes limiting, offers a degree of stability and relative freedom for her projects.  Not dependent on herding paying customers through the door her vision can extend uninhibited into the realms of the challenging, the confrontational, and the provocative.  The Long Now double-dog dares its audience to reap the rewards of intense prolonged viewership and disregards those too chicken to buy in. 

But is this brazen worth it?  

Answer: Looking out of Johnson’s office window last February I can just glimpse of another Philadelphia Cultural institution. Spanning the Franklin Institute’s towering Corinthian pillars were 60 foot banners: CSI: The Experience.