Alan Ruiz

Alan Ruiz reimagines the boundaries between artist and institution

View of “Container and Contained,” 2021. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle.

Premier among the fabled artist-run institutions of the 1970s, the Kitchen stands today on New York’s West Nineteenth Street, its home since 1986, now hemmed in by blue-chip galleries, luxury boutiques, a starchitect office tower, and outrageous pieds-à-terre for the jet-setting elite. On a recent visit, Alan Ruiz’s elegant but spartan installation there—uncharacteristically sited in the building’s ground level theater space, rather than its second-floor gallery—suddenly erupted in sound and reflected light as a composition by Philip Glass, a veteran affiliate of the Kitchen who now serves on its board, played from the rafters. This unexpected pageantry saturated the nearly vacant space, as if colliding end-of-empire decadence with today’s post-plague renascence—a spectacle suspended. Below, Ruiz talks about his show, “Container and Contained,” on view through July 31.

FOR THE CENTRAL WORK in this exhibition, Transfer II (WS-B690-L40), 2021, I’ve leased the Kitchen’s remaining 300 square feet of air rights—the cubic volume of air over an existing structure that can be legally developed based on zoning laws—at one dollar per month for one year, radically below their market value. The lease is registered with the city and can be viewed on the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS). Permanently and publicly recorded, it may depress the value of this asset in the future. Among other interventions, the building’s doors are kept open to the street; an architectural structure partitions the theater space; four air scrubbers pump purified air into the back of the theater; Super-Soflites that simulate daylight switch on at the end of every hour, at increasingly longer intervals; and a recording of Philip Glass’s Dance IX, 1986, plays just before closing to the public at 6 p.m. By amplifying certain boundary conditions, I draw attention to containers for work of various kinds—the work of the organization and of the art it displays. 

Two angular, aluminum-clad armatures that cut into the theater’s black box at symmetrical diagonals form the exhibition’s main visual component. The work WS-C-62A; WS-C-62B (2021) features a series of standard steel tracks set at 70-degree angles. Were they flush with the frame, these vertical beams could support drywall or other cladding, but my positioning renders them nonfunctional. These structures contain apertures that echo the tapered window design of the luxury high-rise across the street and draw on the absurdist grammar of the surrounding building envelopes. The Kitchen, which hasn’t expanded since it moved from its original location in Soho to the former ice warehouse in Chelsea in 1986, only has two exterior windows—its remaining windows were occluded when the adjacent property (to which the Kitchen sold part of its air rights) was developed as condominiums.

View of “Container and Contained,” 2021. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle.

Historical comparisons have been made between my art and that of post-Minimalists working between sculpture and institutional critique in the ’70s, such as Michael Asher, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Dan Graham. These artists came up in an economic and material environment very different from ours, in a period often referred to as deindustrialization. This phenomenon led to a kind of re-culturalization in which the city was rezoned (literally and metaphorically) and earmarked for future development. Since the ’70s, we’ve witnessed the expansion of neoliberalism, the rampant gentrification of cities, and the commodification of virtually all forms of life. In my work, I try to reflect on these infrastructural dynamics by engaging practices of enclosure—such as real estate speculation on immaterial assets like air—as well as the repeatable forms, formats, and cultural techniques associated with these prevailing systems. 

In conjunction with “Container and Contained,” I co-organized an online group relations forum in the Tavistock tradition. Group relations is an experiential methodology, developed at the Tavistock Institute in England in the 1960s, for studying authority and the unconscious within a temporary institution. Emerging from the work of Wilfred Bion, it combines psychoanalytic and open systems theoretical perspectives to reflect on the dynamics of an organization and participants’ role within it in the here-and-now. This study takes place during conferences, typically held over several days. I have been in training as a psychodynamic consultant and have served on staff at several conferences. Through his study of groups, Bion considered the notion of “the Establishment,” or the institutions groups create, in order to allow us to make sense of the roles we take up in the world. Institutions serve, in part, to hold the irrational parts of life. Often, they are containers into which we project fantasies, anxieties, and the things that we love, hate, and fiercely protect. For Bion, a group may produce “a mystic,” as in the case of religion, or the field of art. The artist is symbiotic with the institution––one contains the other.

Containment is an active process, rather than a static position. As a counterpoint to Transfer II (WS-B690-L40)’s implication in market speculation, which is oriented toward an unpredictable future, my exhibition also deals with the question of institutional memory, and my own position within it. The Philip Glass composition that marks the end of the working day in my installation is also a reference to choreographer Sarah Michelson’s work Devotion, which was performed at the Kitchen in 2011. This dance was my first encounter with Michelson’s work, and my first visit to the Kitchen. In my installation, the speakers are mounted in the exact location in which they were hung for the original work. Devotion is also invoked by the play on physical thresholds in my exhibition: In one part of Michelson’s piece, the doors to the theater open, expanding the framework of the performance space to include the foyer, the lighting and sound booth, the marquee, and the street. Michelson incorporated Glass’s Dance IX into her performance, as did Twyla Tharp before her in her ballet In the Upper Room, 1986. What’s important to me is not the citation of Glass, Tharp, or Michelson, but the accumulation of the here-and-now with the there-and-then that this music holds. I worked closely with two staff members of the Kitchen who had also worked with Michelson, and considering the particular institutional memory they each embody is something I find compelling. My work is about illuminating these existing dynamics through form and structure, but also at the interpersonal and group level. I want to consider what an institution contains, both consciously and unconsciously, which in a way, is its own kind of formalism.