Larissa Harris

Left: A Survival Research Laboratories advertisement from Boulevards Magazine, November 1978. Right: J. Morgan Puett, HumanUfactorY, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view. 

Larissa Harris is a curator at the Queens Museum of Art and has recently organized “The Curse of Bigness” with the curatorial counsel of Jodie Vicenta Jacobson. Here, Harris discusses a few of the projects in the exhibition, which closes October 3.

THE QUEENS MUSEUM HAS a lot of individual character and, in a city full of contemporary art institutions, my impulse is to do something that could only be done here. In these projects, the artists and I attempt to embrace certain facts about the place: the play with scale, embodied in the Panorama of the City of New York, the 900,000-building scale model of the city that takes up about 60 percent of the current museum (it’s large and small at the same time!); being under construction (a major expansion will be finished in 2012); and a largely nonspecialized art audience. All this prompted me to invite folks with one foot planted firmly outside the art world—theater types, designers, Bay Area flame-throwing-machine inventors, etc. There’s definitely something of the circus sideshow going on here—one of the works is a scale model of the Queens Museum, made by electronic musician Jessica Rylan, that’s about one twenty-fifth the size of a grain of salt. I just spent four years at MIT where I was exposed to an intensely creative, bottom-up problem solving/pranking culture, which is also why design and humor play a big part in “Bigness.”

The title is a phrase coined by Progressive-era activist lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, whose trust-busting and advocacy of an independent, entrepreneurial, sustainable work life was grounded in an acute, and sympathetic, understanding of human limitations. (I started reading his 1914 Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It during the financial crisis.) Most work in “Bigness,” in fact, was made for pennies from whatever was closest at hand, and uses the special magic of limitations, of doing it yourself.

The experimental theater group Great Small Works’ tabletop theater news serial The Toy Theater of Terror as Usual, 1991–2002, is a recent classic of surreal political photomontage: Putin, Clinton, Jack Smith, naked people snipped from Benetton ads, and Walter Benjamin’s angel of history in the form of a winged metronome all appear in thirteen newspaper and magazine tableaux surrounding the Panorama; you can see the way the puppets work by looking in from the sides. The other puppets in the building are in Survival Research Laboratories’ terrifying machine performances, present here through three hard-to-find films the group made in the mid-1980s, which offer a dark vision of an influential cultish group that has fully subverted the tools of bigness, in this case found or stolen equipment from, say, area aircraft manufacturers.

Also implicit in a critique of bigness is a critique of specialization—in large organizations and in the way we live our lives. J. Morgan Puett’s two-level tableau vivant and garment-based microeconomy “entangles” (her word) work, life, and style. What you see is a crush of disused sewing machines on the ground floor and, about twelve feet up, a silvery Oz-like studio, accessible only via a scissor lift that Morgan charmingly annexed from museum facilities, where she and her team will design and produce an as-yet-unknown fabric product on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays this summer. Also in the business of collapsing distinctions are self-reflexive designer/editor/publisher/distributors Dexter Sinister. For the show they compiled and summarized (!) some of the Progressive-era writing that’s a kind of spiritual source for these projects into a book using a beautiful new font designed for the purpose, with which they also reinstalled all museum signage—not just the wall text for “Bigness” but also the café, bathroom, and shop signs, even the customized maps and legends located at thirteen different points around the Panorama walkway. And all this will far outlast the show.