AP: Have you ever curated an exhibit before?
KM: I have. Two other times, but that was a while ago. We will be curating another show in in New York in the spring.
AP: How did you come up with the idea of doing it in your apartment?
KM: I think that idea just came out of the space itself—seeing the space. And also the fact that there’s just not a lot of gallery stuff happening here. There was a need for a space—both socially, within the community, and literally. And when I first came in March and saw the building when it was empty, I thought: these places look like art galleries.
AP: So now you’ve been living inside of a gallery …
KM: That part’s great. [Laughs.] It’s really nice living with the work.
AP: Does having a gallery inside your apartment complement the pieces of work you’re doing yourself?
KM: Well, that’s a good question. The whole show was about information exchange. We proposed this exhibition to people that we knew, our network of people, and the whole idea of the show was for them to send us either media or instructions. But no objects. No artworks. Just the material to make artworks. And, so, that meant that we had to make everything here in Abu Dhabi.
So we had to find the stuff, and one positive aspect of the show was that it made us go out and figure out where stuff was in town. Where the wiring cable was—where to find that, where to get tools … what were the minimum tools we needed to get the job done? Everything was really the minimum—in a positive sense. Back in New York, we’ve got the big studio full of boxes of gear. This was a different kind of situation.
AP: Were you expecting any particular reaction from the audience?
KM: I certainly didn’t know what to expect. The show was meant to be a kind of overture. We don’t know the community particularly well. And we just decided to put something out there. Make a kind of offering. That was part of the reason that we stayed within our network of peers in New York, because it was a way of reflecting our world here. It’s like, “Here’s where we’re coming from. Here’s what we’re doing.” That said, the work in the show is very diverse, and there’s many people working in ways that are very different from how Jennifer and I work. But, still, it’s within a community of artists that has been our community for a long time.
AP: Following e-mailed instructions to create art for someone else—what would you call that kind of practice?
KM: Outsourcing is a commercial term that we use now to talk about having production work happen elsewhere. But the idea of having other people work on artwork has been around as long as there’s been artists. There’s always been groups of people—an atelier, for example—helping to make paintings. So the idea of collaboration within the arts is not a new idea. And certainly, with other art-making forms like theater and film, it’s built into how it works.
So with this, there is an idea that could be called instruction-based art, where the artwork literally is a set of instructions that are meant to be executed. There’s a kind of poetry or a kind of practicality that can go along with that. It’s like a recipe. There are examples of that in the ’60s down to the present day—this type of work emerging. It comes out of conceptual art and performance art—at least in the U.S. and in Europe.
So, some of the pieces were more about this kind of an instruction-based art. But others were more or less traditional media art projects like photography or video. They just needed us to put them up. But that meant dealing with questions like framing or not framing, and different print sizes, and they were depending on us to have access to some kind of equipment to handle that.
AP: How does the curator’s work contribute to the effect of the work of art?
KM: For me, these artworks are the work of the artists whose names are on them. It’s their projects, and we were there to produce those projects. Those artists knew us and had faith in our ability to do it correctly and do it right. Because we’d been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Even if we’re not curating shows, we’ve been producing shows, producing our own exhibitions.
AP: Why did you name the show “No Customs”?
KM: It’s kind of a pun or double entendre. At first glance, it’s a way to name the fact that nothing physical was transported. Nothing had to go through customs in sense of customs and a customs agent. So the name brings up issues of content, if there’s something that’s problematic culturally, skirting those things. But beyond that is this question of globalization and what happens to local customs, local traditions at a given place when anything in theory can be can be transmitted. The subtitle is “A Global Exhibition of Transmissible Ideas.” For the artists, the challenge was to come up with something that was transmissible. They had to think about this format of transmitting to us some idea that could then be turned into material. Or they had to be producible—manifestable—in some way. The title refers to this era of endlessly, globally circulating ideas.
AP: Your show might well produce many different reactions depending on the cultures of the people who come to see it.
KM: Yeah. Definitely.
AP: How did you decide what to include?
KM: It was a fairly intuitive process. Or perhaps “practical” is the better term. We didn’t have very much time to do this. We thought it would be great to do a show in our apartment. But then we realized that the Abu Dhabi Art Fair was coming up in early November, and we decided to synchronize our exhibition with that because there’d be a lot of people coming through town, and maybe some of them would come and see our show. Then, once we realized what that date was, we realized we only had seven or eight weeks to do it. So, we thought about who we could write to. We had a big list of people, and we made a little announcement that we sent out to them. And then we just waited to see what we would hear back. And stuff started trickling back in. And we kind of started putting pieces around.
There were some things that we rejected, things that were just impossible or stuff that came too late. There was a kind of unofficial, cut-off date when we realized that we just kind of couldn’t show any more stuff.
AP: What were your expectations for the work that you were receiving?
KM: That’s a good question. It was more about a kind of curiosity than expectations. I was curious to see how people in New York or in the U.S. would respond to this situation of showing work in Abu Dhabi. None of the people that were involved in the show had ever been here. There was a big kind of cultural question mark: What is Abu Dhabi? Perhaps you experienced this when you told people that you’re going to study in Abu Dhabi, and everyone was like, “Wow.” They just start talking to you about it and the fact that they don’t know anything about what’s going on here: “Can you do this there? Can you do that there? Does this happen there?” All those sorts of cultural questions. And, so, I think that people were trying to respond to the situation here in the way they were thinking.
So, for example, the MTAA’s project “Completely Random Aesthetic Object #1 (Abu Dhabi version)” was an instruction-based art project: Take a picture of the most colorful place in Abu Dhabi. Drop it into our software. The output of that software process is the artwork. And that can be done anywhere, right? We can make a version of that piece anywhere.
Other things are more culturally specific, like the piece “Prohibitions” by Jennifer Dalton and Susan Hamburger, where people are putting marbles into the jars in response to certain potential cultural prohibitions. That was their direct attempt to pose their questions about Abu Dhabi. They were testing out their stereotypes. Or the wall-based pieces, “Process, Smith Street” by Sara Hubbs or “Untitled (I have to tell you)” by David Grubbs, which are very much about a specific place: they have to happen right there, constructed on the wall.
I think the artists were trying to think about and respond to different kinds of cultural issues. At the end of the day, we’re artists working with other artists. Most artists are going to be up for anything and just curious to see what’s gonna happen.
AP: Did you have one piece in the show that you liked the most?
KM: It really varies. But it was interesting to hear the responses to the show during the opening and during the first couple of days when a burst of people were coming through the show. The responses made me re-look at pieces. And just the act of living with them allows you to look at them over and over again. One of the first pieces that we had up was the one by David Grubbs. That piece just was so great to live with. When that was the only one up, it really was like, “Wow, this is a great, great piece.” But, then, as other pieces came up, they also got to be really interesting.
Another is Anthony Discenza’s video ‘The Future Has Not Yet Been Written.’ The video present 3 films that star Charlton Heston simultaneously, producing a kind of kaleidoscope. When I saw a 5 minute preview that the artist sent initially I thought “Oh, man, [chuckles] how do I deal with this?” But, now that I’ve been able to see the whole 96-minute piece, it’s amazing. It’s great.
So, I guess, the benefit of living with the works is that you really can see what they have to offer, what they have to say. And so, you start to like all of them.
AP: I think that people often go to an art gallery to look at pieces. Generally you can’t touch things. In “No Customs,” though, there’s the “Prohibitions” piece where people vote with the marbles or Jonathan Schipper’s piece, “Million Dollar Walk,” where people walk around with a briefcase of money. You’re asking the public for a lot of participation.
KM: For us, that’s kind of second nature. We have always been doing media-based work, and we have done a lot of works that have been explicitly interactive. And many of our friends have as well too. So that’s not radical for us. That’s just kind of how it is for us.
AP: That’s just the way you like it?
KM: Yeah. I guess that’s the way we like it. [Chuckles.] But I like paintings too. I like good paintings.
AP: Which is the one piece with which you enjoy interacting the most?
KM: I think that Vito Acconci’s sound work “Antarctica” is a really unique piece. We thought a lot about what to do with it, and had different locations in mind. And then, in the end, we put it in the main room. The piece itself is very well recorded. They recorded it in a very controlled way. So when you put on the headphones to listen to it, you really hear his voice. His voice is so present. He’s describing this place, Antarctica. It is the opposite of here. But then similarities emerge between here and there, because Antarctica is also a desert. Suddenly the hot and the cold become kind of interchangeable in a way.
And, so, you’re looking out over the whole city of Abu Dhabi and all the new construction that you know is going on here and thinking of the architectural future of this place, while listening to the piece. It really is engaging: while you’re looking out over this landscape, it becomes the soundtrack of your experience of the moment. That’s a really interesting type of participation.
There’s a lot of us in the show: a lot of decisions that we made to really amplify the artworks or contextualize them in a in a certain way. For instance the staging of Schipper’s “Million Dollar Walk.” We added some elements to that. Or just how to situate the Vito Acconci sound piece to really create a context for it. There was a lot of opportunity for us to have a dialogue with the artists about their work and to figure out how to turn up the color, pump them up. I think that’s part of our job too: to make the artworks say as much as they possibly can say. Because we work a lot with video installation, installations where you’re setting up equipment, we know that everything has to be brought together like a tuned instrument. You try to tune everything together just right.
There have been times as an exhibiting artist, where I have known that my piece can say more than it has been able to say because of limitations with the exhibition space. Lighting isn’t right. Or the projector isn’t right. Or the sound system isn’t right. Or something’s not quite optimal. And then there are times when everything comes together, and it’s just like, “Yeah. Great.” I want that kind of attention to detail to happen to my work, so I’ve tried to bring that attention to detail to these artworks.
AP: The piece that I really liked was “Prohibitions” (above), because it forces you to interact with it. And it made me think about where we’re living and what you can do. How were you expecting your audience to react to that?
KM: I really wanted many people to interact with it so that we could get a real sample, in the scientific sense. [Chuckles.] I wanted a lot of people to come and vote. I wanted there to be enough marbles so that there was enough data in the piece for the jars to be like bar graphs. I know the artists wanted that as well. I really like that one too.
AP: Can you talk more about working with the million dollars?
KM: “Million Dollar Walk” by Jonathan Schipper. That is a really amazing artwork. It’s the first piece we got back, the email just said “Have a suitcase with a million dollars that people can walk around with along a prescribed path.” We read that and thought: “No way. [Laughs.] What are you talking about?” It was ridiculous. So we sort of set it aside, but we never took it off the list. And then as time went along, we slowly realized that were ways that we could get everything together that we needed for that piece. We did have access to people with the resources. And so, we reached out to the the people we knew that had those resources that the piece required. The artist wanted people to have this kind of quasi-cinematic experience of walking around with money, to really experience that. In the end, it all came together, and we could create the experience that the artist wanted. Of course there were constraints, he wanted people to walk around the city, able to go almost anywhere. It’s not his money. He didn’t care. [Chuckles.] So we had to say, “No, that’s not gonna really happen. It’s not your money, and we’re responsible for this piece. And, so, we’re gonna frame it a little bit.”
We proposed system of the sign-out book with signatures and fingerprints of the visitors. That system tied into other things that pertain to immigrating to Abu Dhabi: the fingerprinting and biometric scanning that goes along with it. It was a very practical matter: if somebody ran off with the money, we really could identify them because everybody is fingerprinted here. But from what I hear, even though we’ve limited it to walking around on the 37th floor his goal—what he wanted to achieve—is there. People have the experience, and it affects them somehow. So, I think that the piece is working.
AP: And what about “ The Green Revolution”? When you first walk in, it’s so ordinary, just a piece of green fabric. Why expose something like that?
KM: We have a lot of faith in the artist Mark Tribe, who made that piece. We’ve known him for a long, long time. His career has gone in lots of different directions artistically and we have a lot of respect and support for what he’s doing. I’m going to always be happy to take a look at what he’s making and really consider it. I also know the cycle of work that he’s been producing most recently. When I look at that piece, I can situate it within an arc of other projects and that becomes part of my background in understanding the piece. The work is about asking the viewer to imagine actually participating in a revolutionary movement, to imagine being placed there.
It is a piece in development for him: it’s the first time that he’s putting it together, and he may still be thinking about it. And, so, it could be that the form that it takes will change or will evolve. I see the piece as the relationship of elements, each of which bring their own meaning, but together produce something different, like an equation. One element is the loop that is playing over and over. That loop is suspended in time. It’s as if it’s stuck in a moment of anticipation. Which is a kind of interesting place to be. Then there is the chroma key screen, the green screen. In video production filming a subject against a green screen allows you to put in any other kind of background you desire. The viewer is invited to imagine these different backgrounds. Mark himself said the piece is asking a lot of viewers. People need to know about chroma key, how it works. He is also relying on the lyrics of the song from which he has taken the sample: The Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is about a kind of skepticism of revolution. I think he’s banking on those two facts.
In terms of the form of the piece, having a green screen laid out with a soundtrack playing counts as a sculpture as far as I’m concerned. But It is an abstract piece. It’s probably the most difficult—the most subtle—piece in the show because you have to know about chroma key, and about that Who song in a culturally specific way.
Plus, it was really hard to get a proper Chroma key screen in Abu Dhabi. Normally they are much wider than what we have presented here. In the end, we just went to one of the fabric stores nearby and worked with what they had. That became an interesting thing, really. It’s the Abu Dhabi version.
AP: Are you expecting to do more shows in Abu Dhabi?
KM:’ I’d like to. We ended up getting more work for this show, There are at least six other pieces. We could easily have a second show just like this one.
The other show idea I have comes from going to a lot of shops in the area, like little refreshment stands and the laundromat — things like that. I would like to do a distributed exhibition, in which there’d be one work located in shops all around the neighborhood. Visitors would have a map indicating the participating stores and would go from shop to shop to see the work. I think it would be great as a video art show. In our current show we are presenting Jason Robert Bell and Marni Kotak’s “Double Face Fantasy” on a small screen in the bathroom. I’d like to continue with that format and have small video monitors on the walls of different shops. It would be a great way for me and all the visitors to interface with shop owners and business people in the area. And I think it would be unpredictable and fascinating to juxtapose the shop activities with the work of different contemporary artists. I also think artists would be quite interested in considering these unique environments while making their work.
There are a lot of challenges. For example, the display: it really has to be a self-contained unit, because you can’t be sure there’s going to be wall space or conveniently located power outlets in these shops. It’s really problematic. So I’ve been thinking about trying to design a kind of free-standing station that we could fabricate and just put in there. It would be self-contained in terms of power, and it would turn itself on and off according to a schedule. It’s turned into a kind of engineering thing. [Chuckles.] That’s my next show idea.
Kevin McCoy is Associate Professor Art and Art Professions at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, NYU New York, and a member of the affiliated faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi. Alejandra Pinto is a first-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi and a member of the Electra Street editorial collective.
[Photo credits: Alejandra Pinto]