“Greater New York”

AT THE PRESS CONFERENCE for “Greater New York,” organizers Klaus Biesenbach and Connie Butler (Neville Wakefield, the third organizer, was not present) admitted that it was a challenge to fill MOMA PS1’s large, awkward space on such a small budget. Their solution? To invite the artists to “move in and take it over,” in Butler’s words, thereby showcasing the “process of creation and the generative nature of the artist’s studio.” Whatever space remained would be used to stage complementary exhibitions—a cinema program in the basement, a “five-year review” of primarily performance-based work and a rotating gallery for smaller-scale exhibitions on the ground floor—all outsourced to other advisers. It is telling, then, that to define their own roles, Biesenbach et al chose to introduce themselves in the press material not as “curators” but as the more executive-managerial “organizers.” They were not directly choosing work, it seemed, but rather overseeing a network or hive of cultural producers whereby artists would be making pieces in the gallery-cum-studios and curators would be generating shows, even as the overarching exhibition carried out its run. In fact, from the very outset, this dynamic was integral to the selection process: In January 2010, MOMA PS1 launched Studio Visit, a user-generated, online artists’ registry, which not only made public the production space of the artist but also allowed the organizers to efficiently browse submissions instead of trekking out to view artwork in person.

But if the “organizers” were managing the producers, such handling of the actual content has left the artwork to fend for itself in the resulting exhibition, with each piece competing for attention. Take, for example, the cacophonous entranceway: From the right blares a collagelike oratorio of African-American women reciting stereotypical “ghetto” expressions such as “Ex-scuse?” and “Child, please” (the audio recording of Rashaad Newsome’s performance piece Shade Compositions, 2009), which bleeds together with the “. . . click ching, and take your monaay” of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” looping endlessly (Darren Bader’s sound installation in the adjacent stairwell). This is matched on the left with a play of incidental industrial sounds—drilling, hauling, machining—from Lucy Raven’s mesmerizing filmic meditation on copper mining and global trade, China Town, 2009, which is in turn overlaid with the histrionic dialogue of Kalup Linzy’s drag soap opera Melody Set Me Free (the series), 2010, and the blasting trumpets and timpani of another Newsome video, the conductor (fortuna imperatrix mundi) & the conductor (primo vere, omnia sol temperate), 2005–2009. Such totalizing co-pollution isn’t really the stuff of quality-controlled organization, on the level of either production or reception, and the rest of the exhibition is scarcely less disjointed.

Yet despite the chaos, there is quite a bit of great work in the show, and certain currents, however dispersed, can nonetheless be detected. Most notable is a renewed tendency toward the archival. A number of works use catalogue-like display schemes to study incarnations of identity construction: Hank Willis Thomas’s Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America from 1968 to 2008, 2010, offers a series of framed color prints appropriated from historical media depictions of “blackness,” while LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family” series, 2002–, features stylized domestic portraits of an African-American matriarchy in decline, giving a contemporary face to the Rust Belt’s ongoing disinvestment. Such ethnographically engaged presentations of race, gender, and power relations could have offered a perfect counterpart to, say, the photographic catalogues of gender and sexual orientation in K8 Hardy’s Position Series 11–32, 2009; A. L. Steiner’s wallpapered room featuring images of naked gay frolicking and sexual liberation, Angry, Articulate, Inevitable, 2010; and even Elisabeth Subrin’s pictured diasporas in her video installation series “Lost Tribes and Promised Lands,” 2010. Instead, Steiner’s loaded, graphic representations are paired with Bruce High Quality Foundation’s glib pedestal-exchange program (in which a room is filled with a series of pristine white plinths to be traded out by working art school students)—a combination so asymmetrical that the two installations serve only to cancel each other out. Likewise, thrust beside Thomas’s work is a formal essay on assemblage by Zipora Fried (Armoire, 2008). Comprising a few hundred kitchen knives embedded in a standing armoire, Fried’s well-composed piece would have had much more to say had it been contextualized by pieces concerned with medium-specificity, gesture, and process—such as the work of David Adamo or Alex Hubbard, or even the self-reflexive paintings of Tamar Halpern or Alisha Kerlin.

With so much available space, several artists (mostly working in video) receive their own rooms; of the lot, Deville Cohen and Tommy Hartung stand out. But if money was tight, why not offer a more modest show so that everyone could get his or her own room, and provide enough recourse to allow an intimate string of private experiences to develop? Or, if that were not possible, why not utilize the larger rooms to present more focused groupings of multiple works? The effect of this show is to lay bare the artistic activity of New York with unprecedented nonchalance so as to underscore the vital practices occurring here. But it also promotes, unapologetically, the experience-based economy of a global tourist city and its promise of entertainment. Had the lens been focused differently, this “performance” of museum-as-organization might have had interpretive value, potentially revealing some self-reflexive look at the curatorial-by-committee/network strategy so pervasive today. But no such vision revealed itself. If this exhibition were to have a subtitle, an apt one might be “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” for just as in Goethe’s poem, here the governing powers attempted to devise a system of labor to make life easier, but in so doing, summoned the spirits to make a spectacular mess.

Adam Kleinman is a writer based in New York.