The Institution as Sanctuary: 2018 Queens International Biennial

Essye Klempner. Photo: Queens Museum

‘What cordial hours we spent with our guests there, looking out from the terrace into the beautiful and peaceful countryside without suspecting that on the Berchtesgaden mountain directly opposite sat the one man who was to destroy all this!’

-Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

Stefan Zweig and Count Harry Kessler are much on the mind, as before us pass sinister frames of the slow-motion train-wreck: yet another failed utopia, this time of a liberal, borderless world of benign, self-regulating markets. We live now in an environment tinged with xenophobia and fear, increasingly akin to the late Habsburg and Weimar years.

Culture suffers — and flourishes — when madness sets in.

An institution that had a torrid 2018, with the controversial departure of director Laura Raicovich, summarised here and with Raicovich’s response here, has recovered its poise with a focused Queens International biennial that combines formal and material rigour with a commitment to urgent conversations surrounding ecological collapse, the built environment, and of course, identity, the American cause célèbre in perpetuity.

The museum already had a charged history, as seat of the U.N. General Assembly (1946-1950), and site of the Resolution 181 (1947) which partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab States. Built in 1937, expanded successively by Rafael Viñoly Architects (1994) and Grimshaw Architects (2013), it is a brooding structure of glass facades amongst massive masonry piers, sort of a cross between the Palais de Tokio (Paris) and the Piazza Augusto Imperatore (Rome). It sits atop a bluff between the vaguely dystopic park of the 1939 World’s Fair and a dual carriageway. Yet the space! Here, work breathes and people flow easily in the generously proportioned, high-ceilinged galleries.

The museum, with almost no permanent collection, is unburdened of a legacy that might otherwise force exhibitions built around art loans and tortured curatorial visions. As an institutional priority, it chooses to engage heavily with a local community that includes families of diverse extraction: East and South Asian, Latin American, East European. Many in these groups live under a shadow of a challenging current political climate, involving deportations and reduced access to public health and nutrition assistance. The boundary between management’s (self-imposed) moral obligation, and its board’s fiduciary obligations to patrons and society-at-large, not to mention potential legal jeopardy arising from well-intentioned political action, led to the Raicovich contretemps. The Museum’s predicament is the more important as it is hardly unique: echoed by cultural institutions elsewhere, say Brazil under the 1960s-1970s dictatorship as well as today, or in the controversy currently enveloping the Volksbühne here in Berlin.

The biennial primarily included artists working in the light-industrial Queens districts of Long Island City and Ridgewood. Sophia Marisa Lucas invited as co-curator Baseera Khan, a New York-based performance artist, to develop a show that, while acknowledging the specific complexities facing the Museum, created a critical dialogue with the (contemporaneous) Carnegie International around the meaning of the word ‘International’ in a time of sprouting biennials. The Queens show, containing forty-three artists, cross-generational and multi- ethnic, can’t be done full justice here, hence this review presents a few highlights.

The exhibition website is itself an artwork created by software artist and writer Ryan Kuo (recent resident of the Museum’s respected Studio Program). It has bios and interviews with the artists, and essentially uses the architecture of the building, as well as the plans created by Exhibitions Manager John Wanzel, as raw material for a dynamic ‘walkthrough’ of the show. Kuo’s site, besides providing a point of engagement for viewers outside New York, explicitly foregrounds the fascinating tension between localised / experienced / architectonic space and online / simulated / flattened space.

Kim Hoeckele (b. 1980) also engaged directly with the building’s architecture. Her work, centrepiece of the 7 October 2018 opening, featured performers who weaved in and out of the galleries and balconies of the Museum, reciting variations of the Homeric epithet ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. The saffron-tinged performance came to a climax in the principal atrium of the museum, under Essye Kempner‘s (b. 1984) suspended azure cyanotype. Kempner’s ecological practice embodies a critique of capitalism’s effect upon the built environment, and the cyanotype itself acts as a record of sorts: at a dinner held in the Museum, each artist was asked to place an object on the emulsion-coated tablecloth. The tablecloth was exposed to the gallery’s natural light at dusk and dawn, creating a photographic imprint of the collected objects and table settings. The suspended fabric, by virtue of its scale and in the context of Kempner’s practice, reminds one of Susan Schüppli’s ‘dirty pictures’: climate-change is leaving a quasi-photographic imprint on the Earth (1).

The large east gallery is one of the most exciting, with Milford Graves’ (b. 1941) collection of exuberant sculptures that allude to his varied interests, including the effect of rhythm on the human heart (related to which he is named on a U.S. patent). Meanwhile, around the corner is the quiet intervention of Slovak artist Peter Kašpar (b. 1983) that poses a minimal plywood sculpture impregnated with fibre-optic red lights, which in turn, are powered by solar panels. In this, and other work, he has questioned systems of knowledge that are commonly accepted as shibboleths in our culture.

Asif Mian (b. 1978) approaches systems from the perspective of surveillance, with a thermal camera in the main atrium observing polypropylene garments, stand-ins for visitors…or migrants, as they are cyclically heated and cooled. Thermal cameras are used on borders and by military drones, and are intensely politicised instruments, as eloquently documented in Richard Mosse’s 2017 show at London’s Barbican. Continuing on this vector of the weaponised Capitalocene, Kanad Chakrabarti (b. 1974) explores how intense consumerism and the military-industrial complex have intertwined into a Gordian knot that is slowly strangling us all. He does this through a video installation that questions the place of the essay-film in a time when smartphones and social media have relegated cinematic collectivity to an elite sport.

In the same gallery, Beatrice Modisett (b. 1985) and Arthur Ou (b. 1974), work with the materiality of the flat image. Ou’s photographs, which re-physicalise ‘filters’ through an archaic process of hand-tinting, are intensely concerned with time, meant as both process- time and as the viewer’s subjective, elastic time. Perceived time and the absorbed viewer have been theorised in connection with both photography and painting, most notably by Michael Fried(2). Modisett’s paintings too are based in process, but here it is the physical flow of paint, under conditions of restraint and constraint, that drive the final outcome. In doing so, she continues to mine the rich tradition, to a certain extent specifically American, of treating paint as a quasi-sculptural medium that, again, at its best, prompts a sense of absorption in the viewer.

One of the potentially most joyous works is itself an exercise in spatialised time, in that it unfolds over the show’s five-month run and over the entire museum. The curator and theoretician Brian Droitcour (b. 1980) and artist Christine Wong Yap (b. 1977) are collecting responses from comment boxes distributed through the galleries, as well as libraries that are sites for the biennial. The responses are disseminated through Instagram and a publication. In doing so, Droitcour and Yap are gently, humorously questioning the professional critic’s stranglehold on received opinion in the Artworld. Often the crowd- sourced reviews are written by children, and thus have a certain freshness of vision that, after all, artists from Picasso onwards have been trying to access. Equally, they appear to want to re-establish the museum as an space for healing and reflection, a resonant goal in post-religious societies (at least from a U.K./European perspective).

This edition of the biennial has also involved the Queens Library network, with installations at the Jamaica Central, Lefrak City, and Flushing branches.  Patrick Killoran (b. 1972) made a barely-noticeable intervention in the library, creating a sight-line of receding voids through a section of emptied book-shelves.  His work raises the question of ‘where’ the ‘artwork’ actually lies – in his view, his grey plywood frames frame the actions of viewers, many of whom are not in the library to see art, as they bend down to peer through nothing, at nothing.  He creates a situation that ‘proposes the useless’ in a space institutionally defined by goals (research, internet access, warmth).  At an spatial-architectural level, his work presents a binary: the library as ‘visible index’ of what it contains.  This is emphatically different from the way books, and information are increasingly accessed, via the web and search engines, which effectively obscure the index behind an algorithm and down-play the lovely serendipity of a wander through the stacks.  Killoran’s work is quiet, possessed of minimal materiality, combined with conceptual tightness, and recalls a certain European  transcendental sensibility very much opposed to the voluptuous, identity-riven and market-orientated flavour current in the New York art scene.

In particular, the Killoran and Droitcour/Yap projects also implicitly take us back to the underlying political/social conditions that the Museum, and to a certain extent, many other cultural institutions find themselves in – in an environment of political threats and intimidation, how do institutions retain theoretical rigour and historical awareness, while avoiding accusations of elitism? How do museums, particularly regional ones, remain relevant for the local, non-specialist communities, who are, after all, tax-payers and voters?  To what extent do they have a critical role, to lean against the prevailing wind, even at institutional risk?  On this note, in any way, presuming to compare a (still) comfortable and safe New York context, with the more-or-less forgotten, yet still deadly, plight of the Occupied Territories, it was a bittersweet thing to read of the Qalandiya International, currently underway in Ramallah and Jerusalem, covered here.

‘Today I have sold my beloved Weimar house. How many memories and how much of my life vanish with it.’

-Count Harry Kessler, The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1937

(1) Schüppli, Susan. ‘Dirty Pictures’ in Living Earth Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project 2014-2016. Eds. Belina, Mirna and Arie, Altena. Amsterdam: Sonic Acts, 2016.

(2) Fried, Michael, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Kim Hoeckele. Photo: Instagram @guiaer_and_runzhong
Milford Graves. Photo: Instagram @sculpthead
Peter Kašpar. Photo: Instagram @peterkaspar
Asif Mian. Photo: Instagram @doosan_gallery
ephedra 1
Kanad Chakrabarti. Photo: Instagram @ukc10014
Emmy Catedral, Umber Majeed. Photo: Instagram @notadancingbear
Brian Droitcour and Christine Wong Yap. Photo: Instagram @thepeoplesguideqi
Emmy Catedral, ray ferreira, Cullen Washington Jr. Photo: Instagram @notadancingbear
Beatrice Modisett. Photo: Instagram @jandrewarts


Planetary Fluff: On e-flux‘s Supercommunity Day 29


I picked up e-flux’s elegantly produced Supercommunity online journal with considerable anticipation – the topic was ‘Planetary Computing (Is the Universe Actually a Gigantic Computer?)’.  This idea, of course, has been quite fashionable for a while in cosmology circles, and I briefly return to it below.  But I was particularly interested in what light we as artists, and arts writers, could shed on the conversation.

It started promisingly enough – the header ( wrote that 3-D modelling software basically simulates the laws of motion, so as to realistically model movement. I would add: fluid dynamics (to model explosions or water), light’s interaction with gas, solid, and liquid, 4-D complex numbers (to better model rotations), and fractals (to get that natural look of ‘nature’).

Allora & Calzadilla and Kader Attia had great contributions – poetically wandering around the brief. Attia considers the idea of repair, as in, fixing things that are broken or dealing with mistakes and failure. These are inherent in the process of making physical art.  In the digital realm, ‘Ctrl+Z’ is so powerful that mistakes rarely are visible, and leave little permanent trace.  Attia somehow linked repair to cosmology and mathematics – I don’t get it, but I like thinking about it.

Reading on, I came upon Adam Kleinman’s essay.  This essay evidenced extensive research and the broad erudition of its author, a respected curator associated with dOCUMENTA (13) and the Witte de With Center.  It also highlighted certain features of art writing that I find a noxious cocktail of viewpoints that are both painfully orthodox and right-on, and that don’t really offer much insight into the world, or art.

Random Associations

The essay starts with an anecdote about a DARPA project: a 1.8 gigapixel surveillance camera with 368 lenses. It then quickly makes an associative leap to another programme that funds solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for five years.  The connection is via an aside on the Greek myth of Argus, Juno, and the peacock’s feathers, and the section ends with an obligatory rhetorical question (presumably accompanied by theatrical hand-wringing)

‘How did such terrors come to pass?’

Backatcha…or…an Essay About Nothing

As I read the essay, I noted a remarkable feature – the number of times (three, by my count) Kleinman, in a rather self-conscious tone, brought up the e-flux brief:

‘Coming back to the concept of cosmology though…’

‘In the brief for this meditation, I was asked: Is the universe a gigantic computer?…’

‘If a universe is a supercomputer, then…’

Yet, for all that repetition, the portentous question remained unexplored.  Each one of these statements leads to a flight of fancy, and, in one case, simply somersaulted into three questions back at the reader.

‘Is the universe a gigantic computer? Instead, I would like to ask: Are supercomputers universal—in the sense of equality or universal justice—or are they simply ubiquitous?  Furthermore, do they have a cosmology? And lastly, what is their nature when we train them on our planet?’

WTF ?? how does one even constructively think about that? These are strings of words that are grammatically and syntactically correct but convey little, or no, sense.  I’m not sure they even read well as poetry.

Art Writing Shibboleths

The essay then goes on to give a potted account of how the Internet developed out of various U.S. Defence Department and corporate projects, and somehow jumps from that hackneyed topic to the following non sequitur:

‘And like the rise of the drones and the rise of the bots, the rise of secretive and proprietary inter- and intra-nets, which link both private and secure supercomputers, needs more discussion today.

‘If a universe is a supercomputer, then we should be able to zoom in and check whether differing galaxies and solar systems are contained within it. On a low level of magnification, we might eye the so-called internet and its “evil twin,” the darknet.’

Things continue in this vein, making the obligatory stops to hammer Facebook, high-frequency trading, and the section ends with an anodyne statement about how computers replace human and human labour.  If one substituted ‘technology’ for ‘computers’, this reflection on the relationship between machines and the labour of man could easily date back to the shutting of U.S. steel factories in the 1980s, Detroit’s car factories around the same time, extinction of market-makers today, maybe computer programmers tomorrow….neither novel nor insightful.

Finally, proving that if you trawl broadly enough, you will catch some decent fish, Kleinman relates (or rather, quotes copiously) an interesting story about the Soviet effort, in the 1960s, to network factories and government bureaux, with a view towards increasing efficiency and reducing personnel.  The Soviet experiment never got off the ground, but may have inspired American efforts to develop what would eventually become the Internet.  Kleinman doesn’t really explore the political implications of this – or what this anecdote had to do with the universe or art. All we got was another gnomic utterance:

‘Juno stripped of the state is simply the goddess of the family, or, more directly, the goddess of motherhood. As we continue to nurture more and more supercomputers, and possibly populate not only the earth, but the entire sky with them as well, we have to ask: Are we really going into this whole thing as responsible and mature adults?’

Simulation (or Simulacrum)?

But rather than continuing to pick apart that essay, I wanted to gloss the nominal topic of this e-flux module, since none of the contributors seemed to do so: the thought experiment that our universe may, in some sense, be a great simulation running on some rather advanced computer.

Nick Bostrom is the best-known advocate of this position.  His hypothesis, strictly speaking, one part of a group of three statements, all of which cannot be untrue (, is that there is a good chance that we (humans singly and collectively) exist as simulations within some sort of computer.  The creators of the simulation are ‘post-humans’, that is, entities that are our descendants, who, for some reason, want to simulate what the universe was like in the time of flesh-and-blood organic humans.

In this view, the universe is a simulation ‘running on some computational substrate’ (Ray Kurzweil quoted in Is Our Universe  A Fake? and ‘physical laws are sets of computational processes’ (ibid).  The philosophy, and physics, involve fall out of scope of this essay, but an immediately interesting question arises: how we might be able to tell if we are subjects in a simulation.  It might be possible to test the laws of physics to work out whether there are slight errors, inconsistencies, or unexplained phenomena that might be evidence that the world we live in is not quite ‘real’.  These traces may be left by the programmers unintentionally, or may be ‘back doors’ intentionally left in the programme, to be found by the inhabitants.

As an analogy consider a 3-D CGI simulation: if an advanced (say artificially intelligent or self-aware) character could somehow look behind a wall, at a so-called hidden-surface, and find that the programmer, to reduce rendering time, had chosen not to model or ray-trace light reaching the hidden surface (because the surface is invisible to the camera), he/she might interpret that as evidence of a simulated environment.

A readable article on this topic, that, given it is in The New Yorker, is as equally about Bostrom as it is about his philosophy, may be found in the November 23, 2015 issue. There are a number of researchers who take issue with Bostrom’s arguments, and indeed, the very idea that the mind is at all computable: see Sir Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) or Ken Wharton, in The Universe is Not a Computer ( ).

On Poetry

Judging by the trouble I have had in concisely summarising the Simulation Hypothesis, I do sympathise with the approach taken in the e-flux essay: essentially repeat the question, then talk about something else.  Whatever it is trying to say, I would, inelegantly, summarise it as

‘The military-industrial complex is building (lots of) spies in the sky that are watching over us (all the time). Something like this has happened before in the 1960s and led to the internet.  The Soviets might have done it first but it would have trashed the Worker’s Utopia. Oh dear, I’m not sure where all this technology will all lead.’ [more vigorous hand wringing]

Perhaps a certain type of art-writing is not to be judged on content, but rather, as poetry, on style.  A style of writing where one strings together fancy words, quickly jumps from topic to topic, throws in some truisms, garnish all the above with a splash of Greek mythology, and nod sagely in an auburn haze of profundity and critical-engagement.