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Program Notes

By Tim Griffin

Dec 27, 2013

A good question to pose of The Kitchen at the end of 2013 is a relatively straightforward one, revolving around the art world’s continuing, even painfully familiar institutionalization of dance and performance. Just where is The Kitchen situated within this context? What are its goals?

Along these very specific lines, it’s best first to frame The Kitchen in terms of the past decade’s need to build another language—both in vocabulary and practice—for contemporary art. And this need, if we look at the contemporary landscape more broadly, requires in turn a brief step back from The Kitchen’s mission, in order to recapitulate a contrapuntal relationship between performance and dance in art, and culture more generally.

Such a proposition will hardly come as a surprise to anyone reading this post. At this juncture, relatively neat categories can be drawn up for performance’s growing role in artistic theory during the past couple decades. (Although this umbrella term, performance, must be broken down, across types and historical times.) Recounting art’s relationship to the experience economy is well-worn territory, for example, as is the notion that artistic production necessarily has ties to prevailing modes of production in society—meaning, more explicitly, that audiences who encountered objects on display in institutions during the industrial age would find “experience” displayed as object (and the “object” can also be representation) in a postindustrial age. The performance can thus now be “installed.” And, very possibly, it can be rendered representational and/or pictorial. (Such a mediated distance between performer and audience in a gallery space might have larger social implications.)

Turning to artistic production more specifically, we also find that dialogues around performance in the office place and service economy—in addition to increased ambiguity around authenticity and inauthenticity (and then an increased valuation of affect) given incentives for creative expression in the marketplace—gave rise during the past decade and more to an infatuation with the “performance of the self.” And this interest was only amplified by a historical trajectory for artists’ practice of adopting personae, to say nothing of how such interrelated threads have been woven into modes of institutional address to audiences, particularly as the former seek to be as alluring as possible to the latter in ever-larger numbers.

All of these theoretical perspectives demand that we consider whether “performance” as typically used in art—even not taken as a monolithic term—is in fact more pertinent to an era prior to our own. The word might operate as camouflage, speaking to the past and not the present, even while suggesting a kind of continuity. In a changed cultural context, performance’s role and character has been radically altered.

Yet in precisely this respect, the question of address remains most important for our understanding of art. Looking to scholar Tony Bennett’s 1995 The Birth of the Museum, we find in his chapter “Museums and Progress” an argument that an art institution necessarily scripts and shapes behavior, becoming a place of organized walking, illustrating and narrating an identity in relation to the processes of progress’ ongoing advancement. (Recall Tino Sehgal’s 2006 This Is Progress at the Guggenheim Museum as a turn on this postulation.)

And so, against the backdrop of all this recent history and shifting context for performance in art, a more useful rephrasing of the question for The Kitchen (and more clarifying for our understanding of its role) might be, Who is being posited as an audience member by performance in the art world and its institutions? What sort of staging is taking place?

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The Kitchen is an interesting place to surmise such questions because of its history, in addition to how that history meets real space—which is more complex in this instance than one might anticipate. Started in 1971 in Soho, The Kitchen moved to its present location on 19th street in 1986. The building has had many lives: as an ice factory, sound stage, artist studio used by Robert Whitman (on loan from Dia). Significantly, when it opened the building was in clubland. Its current reputation revolves around this move. While Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Jack Goldstein, and Robert Mapplethorpe had early or even their first exhibitions at the Soho location, the subsequent disappearance of the gallery as such with the institution’s move to Chelsea has made it so the public perception of the place is steeped much more in the stories of, say, Robert Ashley, the Kipper Kids, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, or Eric Bogosian’s various engagements. It is, for example, this particular story of The Kitchen that is retold in the exhibition “Rituals of Rented Island,” currently on view at the Whitney Museum.

And yet from the beginning at the 19th Street location there was real flexibility between two spaces, a theater on the first floor and a performance space on the second floor. (Notably, and a little ironically in light of recent political theory, our offices on the third floor once were also a performance space.) In fact, at the very start, the theater was employed as a setting for such art installations as Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall . The second-floor space was used for dance and theater—indeed, Richard Maxwell has said that the room there remains his favorite theater space in the city. In 2005, walls were inserted there so that the space could operate as a gallery—a DIY move at the time re-energizing The Kitchen's legacy in the visual arts, and yet nearly a decade later an incredible literalization of our contemporary moment, with a gallery set within a performance space, with the black box effectively crowning the gallery walls. Consider Virginia Overton’s exhibition here last year, which was remarkable in part for using theater lights behind the walls to bring out this latent use of the space visually.

So at The Kitchen there is a remarkable opportunity to introduce mixed use to spaces that are nonetheless rooted in specific disciplines. Artists may wield the institutional context as part of their work. (And programmatically, especially attractive here is the fact that The Kitchen has a rich history across disciplines, so one can wear the clothing of such disciplines lightly. One is not newly migrating to a discipline, or introducing a foreign institutional space as an entirely new ecological setting or work). Yet as if not more important is how, even when subjected to mixed use, disciplinary roots remain evident in these different spaces, so that the architecture of the building itself allows for a compressed juxtaposition of temporalities between theater and gallery—just a short stairway away. One can give over both spaces to single artists, so that the same practice can manifest in variegated ways that are contiguous nevertheless. Alternatively, performance as installation can be presented in the theater—as in Bender this past fall, or as in an upcoming work by artists Gerard & Kelly this spring—retaining the properties of theater while having doors open to what is the street level of a gallery district.

And, due to the small scale of the place, one can curate through time and across disciplines. Looking to last season, consider Elad Lassry’s Untitled (Presence) . This artist is noteworthy in this context for often speaking of his photographs as objects, aiming for that moment when they assume physical presence in the space—inviting, say, anthropomorphization, on the one hand, and underscoring how frames generate meaning on the other. (A Judd-like sculpture as vitrine put this forward most blatantly.) But here, he sought to create for himself a new interplay, wanting to render physical space pictorial, while asking how contemporary encounters with performance are intrinsically mediated. Lassry used historical portraits of performers in dance and theater and juxtaposed them with images of current dancers from the NYC Ballet and American Ballet Theater. And then he created a system of walls with “apertures” that made even viewers walking among the images seem like representations to others in the space.

Most significant, however, the artist put forward a weekend of pieces by these dancers in the theater, moving among a similar set of mobile walls with apertures—using choreography from Balanchine and elsewhere, not espousing choreography (anyone looking for “dance” was going to be horribly disappointed—and dance critics were) but instead a kind of portraiture in space. The configuration of the piece was essential, with gallery doors opening at six, and performances at 8:30, after which audiences could return to the gallery. There was no sound. When lights came up, there was no ostensible cue for applause, no bows. It was actually somewhat awkward, as if one was looking at a photograph in a theater, not knowing precisely when to stop looking. (As important, the relevance of figures such as Sherrie Levine would become evident as one would return the gallery and “re-see” figures form the theater. One’s own history with images became palpable, as was the figuring of an audience—performers in the apertures of the gallery versus those onstage downstairs).

To recapitulate, by having the gallery and theater right next to each other, open to exchanged uses, one can gauge how such spaces are geared for very different kinds of temporality, and different kinds of attention. This was great for Lassry’s project, where people could visit the exhibition, go to the performance, and return to the exhibition—making the piece in the theater just another piece in the exhibition. In fact, we saw a portraiture vocabulary placed in a theater performance’s syntax. And so, to return to the possibility for a changed vocabulary in art, my hope is that, if a different kind of choreography and a different kind of composition is arising as artists are appearing in different settings and realizing that there is a whole spectrum of temporalities at their disposal, The Kitchen can accommodate that.

I immediately wish to underline a continuity last season with Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero , where the playwright sought to make a conventional play as unmediated (“degree zero”) as possible—building a frame that recalls Lassry’s. (The juxtaposition on our calendar is intentional.) And then there was Matt Keegan and Eileen Quinlan’s YOGA exhibition, in which they show themselves inhabiting the roles of every day living. Or an electronic music series, Synth Nights, inaugurated by Oneohtrix Point Never and Musica Elettronica Viva, with the genre chosen for the undercutting (cited as early as Adorno) of the institutional frame—even physically.

And then this season, Olivier Mosset presented a similar kind of panorama for his own oeuvre, wherein the artist’s interests in the politics of abstraction were interwoven with the importance of audience and, more specifically, context for the meaning of his any work. Calling his effort a “group show,” Mosset moved from paintings fashioned after Duchampian terms—underscoring their own readymade quality, whose significance was to be articulated only in their very reception—to a Serge Bard film featuring the artist’s very first exhibition opening and, finally, concerts by musicians from his current home of Tucson, Arizona. The questions of time and audience became the basic substance of his project. Each work arrives at its signification only through the group. Indeed, each work is only a figure of the group.

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The ideal for The Kitchen now is similarly to look at work in light of the group, and to generate its own context in real time by putting forward discursive terms for such juxtapositions. Put another way, in the manner of Mosset, The Kitchen should be an institution continually in the process of reading itself. (The urgency of this task cannot be overstated: Even media outlets are generally so stratified at present that they cannot reasonably be asked to tell the story of art across disciplines.) And to this end we are still developing the architecture of The Kitchen L.A.B.—the letters serving as an acronym for Language, Art, Bodies.—which takes place on a monthly basis. For each session we invite a core group of artists to consider a single artistic term, responding both in conversation and collaborative artworks, creating hybrid events that underline not only points of commonality but also, as important, real differences among disciplines.

Last year was devoted to considering the term presence, with each invited participant—including Ralph Lemon, Tere O’Connor, Jacob Kassay, Shannon Jackson, and Lynne Tillman, among many others—asked to respond to a brief from our curatorial team regarding “presence” and its contemporary and historical meaning within her or his individual practice and disciplinary field. (Such attention to periodic shifts in the term’s significance acknowledges the significant changes in the role of and context for performance in art since the 1960s.) This season, in turn, has been devoted to the idea of audience, prompted by writer Lynne Tillman’s telling an anecdote during a Kitchen L.A.B., in which the critic Fran Lebowitz recalled how the AIDS crisis during the 1980s saw the near-disappearance of an entire generation of nuanced viewers—underscoring the imperative of reception for the generation of any work’s meaning, to say nothing of its very legibility.

This particular thematic cuts to the core of what The Kitchen engages today. Elaborating on this idea, one may underline the question of how the significance of a given work—whether or not it crosses disciplines—might ever be legible to an audience. Further, against the backdrop of contemporary art production and criticism, one may ask whether a coherent public sphere exists, within which a work can resonate strongly. (Put another way, in what ways does the idea of audience as meaning-making community persist today?) Finally, whether one considers the question of audience in political or phenomenological terms, one may ask today how art in different fields currently positions the individual: What is the prevailing mode of address among the arts today, and how do we see the audience positioned differently now even in physical terms? To wit, a recent conversation between architect David Rockwell and composer Nico Muhly noted that audiences are commonly mobilized in Broadway productions, in a manner correlating with changed ways of walking through urban space today, as the grid gives way to such prominent, choreographed walkways as the Highline. What, then, might be the most resonant implications of such examples for art-making, or for the very configuration of space in art?

In this regard, one notes that the L.A.B. merely underscores questions being posed throughout The Kitchen’s program, from artist to artist, whether Jay Scheib and Heather Kravas this month, or Aki Sasamoto and Liz Magic Laser later this spring. For as much as creating a language for art-making now is significant here, creating a public—of artists and audiences, and both at once—is perhaps most essential, and most relevant. To program a season is not to present work alone but to begin a process. Which is another way of suggesting that making a work of art in this context is inevitably also a way of making an audience, an active engagement with whom is the fundamental premise of an alternative venue today.

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