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PRINT January 2006

US News

Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne discuss the 2006 Whitney Biennial

A YEAR AGO THIS MONTH, WHEN Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne were named cocurators of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2006 Biennial, there were plenty of reasons for audiences to be hopeful. Iles, the Whitney’s Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art, was among the organizers of the 2004 Biennial and is renowned for her work with postwar avant-garde film, which has resulted in such significant exhibitions as 2001’s “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964–1977” and “Standard Gauge: The Film Works of Morgan Fisher, 1968–2003,” currently on view at the Whitney (see page 200). For his part, Vergne, deputy director and senior curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is one of the foremost institutional voices seeking to rearticulate art’s relationship to popular culture and commerce at the turn of the millennium, as evidenced by his “Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures” (2000) and “How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age” (2003). Significantly, perhaps, given the Biennial’s traditional brief, neither curator is American—a first for this most American of New York’s museums.

The duo met with Artforum editor Tim Griffin on November 21, 2005, to discuss their curatorial collaboration (which they have titled “Day for Night”), the fruits of which will be on view beginning March 2.

PHILIPPE VERGNE: Before we begin, you should know that a third curator has joined our team. She’s from the Courtauld Institute, though she’s currently a guest lecturer at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. Her name is Toni Burlap.

CHRISSIE ILES: With an i.

TIM GRIFFIN: And what’s her role in this Biennial?

VERGNE: When two people curate a show, they give birth to a third person. Her responsibility is to channel our illusion.

GRIFFIN: Is this an actual person or someone who exists on paper?

VERGNE: An actual person who exists on paper.

GRIFFIN: And she stands in for your views, or does she take some critical distance?

VERGNE: Takes some critical distance. The catalogue will feature an essay she has written with us about the show.

GRIFFIN: You’re forcing me to ask my fifth question first: Why does your exhibition feature so many artists whose practices involve adopting guises? The show includes a fictional artist (Reena Spaulings) as well as an artist who regularly slips into the roles of gallerist and curator (Maurizio Cattelan). And why adopt such a guise yourselves? Why turn to such a mode? How does it function in the art-world economy today—employing a guise and identity that is somehow fictitious?

ILES: Or anonymous.

VERGNE: There is a history of that, going back to the Dada journal The Blind Man and—

ILES: Rrose Sélavy.

VERGNE: But right now I think these personae actually address something happening in the real world—which is branding. At a moment when everything is moving so quickly in art, when artists are so quickly co-opted, adopting a shadow identity is a way to confuse things so that the artist isn’t directly accessible. I should mention, actually, that Burlap is doing her Ph.D. on La Dernière Mode, the fashion magazine Mallarmé founded in 1874 and edited for the two years it was published. He also wrote most of the articles—under pseudonyms like “Madame de Ponty” and “Miss Satin.”

GRIFFIN: But as curators, why risk confusing things with a fictional identity when the artistic and cultural situation would seem complicated enough to demand observational clarity?

VERGNE: Perhaps confuse isn’t the right word, but rather complexify.

ILES: For artists, using another persona—whether anonymous, fictitious, or both—is a way of creating a space outside the market: a space where things can’t be pinned down so easily and exchanged. Of course, this creative model might also relate to the underlying context of cyberspace—where everybody creates anonymous personae—and a broader cultural shift into a kind of irrational space.

VERGNE: Another aspect is the idea of play. Was it Johan Huizinga who wrote Homo Ludens, saying that the human being is completed only at the moment he begins to play? There is something so bleak about the world right now that taking pleasure in the game is important.

GRIFFIN: But how does your taking up such a model relate to the artists?

VERGNE: In terms of the Wrong Gallery and Reena Spaulings—Chrissie, do you think we’ve been inspired by them?

ILES: We’re certainly driven by what we found in the artists’ studios. Recently at Anthology Film Archives in New York there was a performance by Spaulings—or rather one of the people behind her, Emily Sundblad—and Jutta Koether, who is also in the Biennial. When the audience sat down, there was construction going on, with big silver boards and silver curtains everywhere; Emily sang a song in Swedish with her mother and brother; Jutta played noise music; two films were screened on top of one another; people walked around with megaphones, clearly part of things but not billed. The performance was almost Dada in its rupture of the different spaces and different levels of spectacle. We were sitting in a cinema, in other words, but it wasn’t a cinema; we were watching singing, but it wasn’t a concert—which really describes the kind of approach we’ve tried to have curatorially. It’s something with a sense of unpredictability.

VERGNE: I think that’s a good parallel. Also, this way of working collectively arises when there is a perceived need to come together and redefine models. Whether it’s Reena Spaulings, Wrong Gallery, Cameron Jamie, or even Dan Graham’s collaborative puppet opera, Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty, there is a notion of authorship being challenged (again) today.

ILES: You could also add to this the Critical Art Ensemble [CAE] and Center For Land Use Interpretation [CLUI]—or Deep Dish Television [DDTV], a loose, changing group of filmmakers making documentaries in Iraq that are screened in the US. Of course, collective worries me as a term because it implies a project rather specific to the ’60s. If something could be said to have shifted since the last Biennial, it’s in a move away from nostalgia in “art made politically,” as Philippe calls it. There is a very strong political impulse among artists about what’s going on today. Rirkrit Tiravanija, for example, is collaborating with Mark di Suvero in this way, recreating Mark’s Peace Tower from 1966 in the museum courtyard. It doesn’t feel nostalgic, because it’s representative of something that is very strongly felt about our current cultural and political situation.

GRIFFIN: I’m curious about how this obscuring of identity, or authorship, may or may not have a political dimension. But I’m also curious to know what some of the challenges for installation are, given these kinds of parameters. How do you attack the gallery spaces when you’ve got this variety of practices, some of them rather hide-and-seek in nature and moving beyond the art-world system?

VERGNE: In a sense, there will actually be at least three exhibitions within the 2006 Biennial: a solo exhibition of work by the artist Sturtevant, who duplicates a historic show by Duchamp; a kind of “emergency room” exhibition featuring groups like CAE and DDTV; and “Down by Law,” an exhibition organized by the Wrong Gallery to deal with what they call the “dark heroes of the American Dream.” And then there is an education program and a series of concerts.

ILES: And a film program. But to me the real question is whether it is still possible to make a biennial exhibition something more than a checklist in this day of art fairs and large, rather amorphous group trends.

VERGNE: The postcuratorial era.

GRIFFIN: This finally brings me to what was to have been my first question: What is a Whitney Biennial supposed to do at this time? That’s a question you always have to ask yourself when curating, but how does it resonate differently given the art-fair- and biennial-saturated context you just described?

VERGNE: We were very aware that there are some two hundred biennials today. A biennial dies every thirty seconds in the world. It’s very sad. Nevertheless, we do want ours to have its fifteen minutes of fame.

ILES: The Whitney Biennial isn’t simply about presenting new work by young artists over the last two years, because everybody already knows what that work is, broadly speaking. Everyone is so well informed, because they read the art magazines and poke around online. In a city like New York, you can go to Chelsea every weekend, and even if you’re not here, you can read the reviews. The question is then one of how to make an exhibition that changes the conversation. We want an exhibition that will take the information everybody has and provide another lens for looking at everything they already know—or think they already know.

GRIFFIN: I should mention that some of the artists in your show are regulars in those biennials that are dying every thirty seconds.

ILES: Exhibitions, I think, are all about timing. Some exhibitions happen too late, some happen too early, some happen at just the right time. The Biennial is always unique, because it’s almost like a concert, captured like a snapshot—which is all this exhibition can be, since we do it in eight months. Someone said to me the other day, “Well, the thing I’m excited by is that, at the very least, your and Philippe’s mistakes will be interesting.” I took that as a compliment. But it’s not interesting to say, “So-and-so is on the list.” A better question is, “Why is so- and-so on the list?” Are they contextualized differently?

GRIFFIN: In this regard, you’ve already discussed “Day for Night” elsewhere in terms of pre- and postmodern practices. Could you elaborate on that notion?

VERGNE: The first goal of a biennial is to make sense of the present and, to answer your question, there are models that feel tired. These are aesthetic models, originating in the early twentieth century, that have led us to where we are right now as an art community. And suddenly they don’t seem to be relevant anymore; they represent the little brand-gymnastic of modernity, its two main branches being Conceptual-art or Pop-art hangovers. Today, when culture and communication have changed so much since that earlier time, we can’t keep thinking within those same parameters.

For example, in Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty, is Dan Graham, by bringing all these different authors together, creating a model that is actually beyond what we have understood as interdisciplinary? The project is not an installation, performance, or film; it’s not a puppet show or a rock concert. But it’s all that at the same time. So is there some other moment, aesthetic definition, or category we should explore? Is there something we’ve not identified yet, because we’re surrounded by our very well organized network of information, exhibition, and institution, which is in fact preventing us from seeing what could be today’s Cabaret Voltaire? You could say the same thing of Tiravanija. How should we read Rirkrit today?

GRIFFIN: Turning our discussion back to the exhibition itself, it seems you’ve also moved beyond the category of “American.” Some of the artists you’ve chosen—Francceso Vezzoli, say—are not ones traditionally considered for this show. They don’t even spend much time in America. I remember hearing debates just some five years ago, asking whether the Whitney needed to become more international. Now the internationality of your Biennial is hardly even mentioned, let alone touted. I don’t think the museum’s press release states outright that neither of you is originally from the United States.

ILES: We’re Euro-trash.

GRIFFIN: [laughing] How does that figure into this curatorial endeavor?

ILES: There’s this incredible mobility among artists and curators now. Sometimes they live here, sometimes in Europe, sometimes in Asia, in the Caribbean, and in other places. They move back and forth in an unprecedented way, partly because they’re being invited to those two hundred biennials and partly because that’s the way they choose to live and work. They don’t like necessarily being fixed in one geographical place. Neither are they particularly interested in identifying themselves as American or anything else. There’s a fluidity that goes beyond national boundaries that is very, very important at this moment, when nationalisms all over the world are being more and more strongly expressed.

GRIFFIN: Given the possibility of there being another iteration of Cabaret Voltaire, how would you describe the tone of the show? There was once a thing called shock in art.

VERGNE: Because of the way the art world is organized, even if you produce a shock, it is immediately digested. Art is dangerous for one tenth of a second nowadays, and that’s it. I keep returning to Cabaret Voltaire because I think it was a highly original and influential paradigm for making and presenting art—and it may still be. With this show we’re saying that we don’t know if we’re looking for an aesthetic in the right places anymore. Perhaps today’s defining aesthetic won’t even come from the art world. Maybe we don’t have the language yet to identify it.

ILES: Just thinking about the works in the show by Richard Serra or Mark di Suvero, to take people who are very well known, I think there will be some surprise. People will be creating things in ways they aren’t known for. But in the end, when it comes to people’s expectations—and I say this in light of Philippe’s earlier comments—I think there will be a spectacle.

VERGNE: Inevitably that’s part of the contract. But I think it’s a spectacle that may raise questions in the tradition of cabaret—when such entertainment was a popular, if not a populist, form of spectacle. The cabaret was a critical forum. It was not the opera or the theater. It was about caricature and the grotesque, commenting on the present.

ILES: Perhaps it’s in the coming together of two impulses that interest in this show lies: the cabaret as critical arena, and the space created through the obfuscation of direct, easily assimilable identities and definitions. That juxtaposition of these two things—one spectacular, the other almost secret and invisible—provides some underpinning for the exhibition. And by looking at these impulses playing out, we can ask whether a critical space is still possible today.

It’s a question that may change one’s understanding of the cultural present, which is all one can hope for in an exhibition like this.