SRSLY?: An Interview with Whitney Kimball

Over the past month I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with Whitney Kimball, the current curatorial fellow at AUX. Whitney and I met for tea to discussed her programming. The Q&A here is an extension of that conversation. Whitney’s writing and curatorial projects have me thinking about an essay by Irit Rogoff, that I read and circulated among close friends last year. Rogoff’s essay is structured around an experience that she had in applying for a position at an art institution. This application and interview process raises all sorts of questions for Rogoff about the character and construction of seriousness – which she then shares with us. It seems to me that Whitney Kimball’s writing and curating addresses Rogoff’s most pressing – and for me most compelling – question.

“I would like to know if we can have a seriousness that is not constituted out of pomposity, earnestness, or “performances of expertise.” And if so, if we can have it without these tedious characteristics, than what would it be?”

-Suzanne Seesman

Suzanne Littell Seesman: As a writer and curator, it seems that your work pushes back on some still ever-prevalent assumptions that art works and the artists that make them fall into dichotomous or mutually exclusive categories. Here in Philly, it can often feel like shows or works are organized by scene and are separated out by medium, genre, or tactical approach. To some extent it seems like artists and galleries here have their territories laid out. One gallery will show meditative works from studio based artists, while another might show overtly “political” work by established artists, giving room to another space to show “new media” or net-based artist.2

In addition to your stated intent of looking at groups that “collaborate with non-artists and community groups,” it seems your writing and curating highlight projects that defy or willfully ignore the divides that set “socially engaged” art against gallery work, irony against sincerity, or humor against seriousness. Is this something that you think a lot about in choosing what to write about? How has this informed who and what you’ve included in your programing for AUX?3

Whitney Kimball: I do think the “social practice” category can be limiting, in that any kind of institutional sanctioning shapes our ideas of what methods of creativity are valid. And, after reading enough press releases, you begin to realize that that kind of validation and brand-building happens to feed right into the market and institutional trends. This is not to say that movements don’t need leaders, and art doesn’t need reference points, but categorizing artmaking naturally pares down options.

I interned briefly for the New York Observer (see next answer). Sensing that I wanted to write about subjects other than art, the newsroom editor told me, “You live in New York City! Just go out and talk to people, the stories are everywhere!” I wish I’d see more of that it’s-all-fair-game ethos in art.

SLS: When we met last week, we discussed some of the events that shaped your writing and curating. You mentioned that you studied painting at RISD. You also mentioned a film that you made about (and with the help of) your family, you mentioned the onset of the occupy protests in Zuccotti park, and you talked about your experiences covering the art-handlers strike at Sothebys. While I realize that these types of things never follow straightforward narratives, I’m wondering if you would mind sharing a little bit about each of these events and how you think they have shaped the work that you are currently doing here at Aux and more broadly.

WK: Well, it all started junior year of art school, way back in 2010…*fluttering harp*…

I had been studying for two years in RISD’s illustration department, basically making photorealistic paintings of anything that was around: paintbrushes, self portraits, master copies, live models. The only goal I think I’d hoped to achieve from my art education, to this point, was technical virtuosity (in my mind, being able to draw realistically).

This got boring. After a certain point, I realized that I was repeating the same exercise over and over, and my crits were all the same. The real variety and experimentation seemed to be coming out of the painting department up the hill, so I switched majors. Suddenly, everything I knew about quality went out the window; people were encouraged to think only about content, to build things, even to make anything BUT painting. A friend of mine had married a pair of mice (to each other) and called it a “painting”. This was incredibly liberating.

But with great freedom, comes a great sense of intellectual superiority. We were required to take a seminar “Contemporary Art and Its Discourses”: a class taught by unforgettably articulate professors, but an overview of the entire art narrative from Gauguin to Hirst. As I watched one movement systematically destroy the last– DeKooning, to “Erased DeKooning”, to conceptual art’s strident intellectual interrogations, to Warhol’s chilling mirror-like rejection of inner life, to image reproduction like “After Walker Evans” and Richard Prince’s Marlborough men– I started to feel that this linear narrative of mostly-male whites picking apart the art image left few options but, say, shoot the artist in the gallery. In place of the illustration department’s maxim for diligent realism, we were being indoctrinated into another kind of formula. Neither of them had much at all to do with my experience of life.

I had a crisis; I threw away every painting I’d made and ended up with nothing to show for my four years of school.

As it turns out, that was the most important thing I ever got out of art school. With about two months left to graduate, I decided to go back home and get back in touch with something that mattered to me. My mom was going through a divorce at the time and also happened to be throwing away a lot of her stuff. She was getting ready to sell our childhood home, an old Victorian house in Boston, to condo developers.

So, I went home with a film camera and documented the house. My mom had decorated it herself, and I began to notice how much of the antique furniture contained carvings of naked women on it; women were prostrated as candlestick holders, armrests, in paintings hanging over the toilet. I paired this footage with interviews with my little sister, my mom, and my grandmother about how they saw themselves, their political views, and how they envisioned their role in society. The whole process, I think, was really empowering for all of us. Suddenly, I was taking an interest in them, as people, and wanted to put them into an artwork. This was the single most fulfilling thing I had ever done.

Anyway– I moved to New York right after graduation and, having no portfolio to acquire an art job, sent a cover letter to my favorite critic Paddy Johnson. I viewed her as a folksy, down-to-earth, no-bullshit answer to the wishy-washy non-opinions you’d find in a lot of art reviews. And given my art school confusion, I needed to be around somebody who had a strong sense of direction.

As our old editor-in-chief Will Brand used to say, “art is like a bunch of people trying to find their way in a sea of whiteness”, and Paddy was planting a flag on the North Pole. Not everybody is going to agree with that flag (maybe that flag is racist, or it’s lazy, or it’s based on faulty theory) but at least now, everybody knows where they are in relation to that.

Soon after I got my first big story as a new “reporter” (an art school graduate with a cell phone audio recorder, ha, ha), when the auction house Sotheby’s had just locked out its union art handlers. They’d refused to negotiate a new contract in an attempt to basically dismantle the union for future employees. Naive and hungry for a real story, I became kind of obsessed with this case.

Months into the lockout, there was one protest in particular, outside a major Sotheby’s auction, which Occupiers had joined in solidarity. Teamsters had brought out the giant inflatable rat and noisemakers, while Sotheby’s guarded its collectors which a wall of security guards. Teamsters booed, and a few collectors turned around through the glass to stick out their tongues or flip us off. Tensions reached a pinnacle when the police picked up a barricade and started kind of battering the crowd with it, and beating down and arresting Occupiers who’s stepped over the police line.

It turns out, that was the highest-netting contemporary art auction at Sotheby’s since before the recession.4 Speculation even had it that aggressive spending was fueled by that night’s protests.

The New York Observer headline read “Class War”. The New York Observer’s art blog headline, though, read “Clyfford Still Painting Sells For $61 M. At Booming Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale”.

Why was there such a gaping empathy gap between the news and the art context, I wondered? I had written about the story myself for Art F City as part of my ongoing coverage there, but I thought that, maybe if I could slip in the door of an art publication with a bigger collector readership, perhaps I could shift the tone a little bit. I mean, how could a company regularly boasting multi-million-dollar record-breaking auctions dump its bottom-level workers on the street with no pay? Surely this egregious behavior would be obvious to people if somebody just explained it properly in the reporting.

So, I got an internship with the Observer’s blog GalleristNY, and they allowed me to give the story some provisional coverage (say, if a celebrity like Robert F Kennedy, Jr made a statement) but I had, of course, hilariously miscalculated what a 23-year-old intern is going to accomplish at a major newspaper. Eventually, somebody told me to stop coming in because they weren’t hiring.

SLS: Last February when the Queens Museum highlighted the work of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) you wrote about them for Vice Magazine and you interviewed Henriëtte Brouwers. As part of your residency at AUX you have invited the Videofreex to show some of the work they made and to discuss their experiences of making television together in the small town of Lanesville, NY.
As unique as these two groups are, it seems they share some really crucial things in common. They are both groups of artists engaged simultaneously in community building and experimentation. Both groups are concerned at once with employing methods of from democratic and social justice movements and methods of art creation that involve formal and technical play.

WK: I’m simply interested in this kind of work because it comes from a place of genuine exploration and interest in people.

There’s also, obviously a political bent in picking out and highlighting alternative histories. The recent project BFAMFAPhD, which has collected some pretty staggering statistics on art school debt and lack of art world diversity, offers a proposal for escaping the art school debt trap: “we can honor artists and cultural workers who do not have art degrees”. All too often, I think important projects are overlooked and forgotten because their creators haven’t “networked” properly. As Alan Moore, a co-founder of ABC No Rio, who is now a historian, said to me in a 2011 interview, you have to record your own history, or you’ll be forgotten.

So, not to get too moralizing here, but, I really believe that the job of the critic and writer isn’t to just to take what’s provided to you by the gallery system (though that’s part of it). But if you’re going to bitch about it, then the onus is on you to get outside, talk to people, and look for alternatives.

Peter Schjeldahl is one of my favorite writers, period. I used to count down the days til I got my new issue of the New Yorker so I could savor his salient descriptors and concise poeticism. I relished my three-subway commute to work, just to imagine a time when I might someday express myself as beautifully. But eventually, like any addictive HBO show or guilty pleasure, the day came when I had to put my addiction aside for something that would lead to healthier kind of growth. The dude never leaves 5th Ave!

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of interesting work coming out of the museums and the Chelsea gallery system, but I think we’ve got that covered by now. Let somebody else write about that.

1. Rogoff, Irit, and Gavin Butt. Visual Cultures as Seriousness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
2.Readers can’t see me pouring a bit of hot toddy out on the floor next to my desk in remembrance of the excellence (specific as it was) that was extra extra. So, let it be known.
5. Kimball, Whitney. “Tales from the Los Angeles Poverty Department: A Gentrification Story.” Vice 25 Feb. 2014: n. pag. Web.

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