Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and on today’s show we’re discussing the future of biennials, triennials and other of these kinds of group shows. I’m joined by two well-known curators, Cecilia Alemani, who is the director and chief curator of High Line Art here in New York City, and the artistic director of Art Basel Cities.
Alemani quote from the interview: “That kind of created a map of the city and the scene that was not necessarily the map that you would find in an art book.”
And, I’m joined by Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of the 57th Carnegie International, which opened in October in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Schaffner quote from the interview: “I wanted to create an experience for the visitors to be lost in the museum. Lost and with art.”
But before we hop in, be sure to check out the latest In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com, where you can also subscribe. And now, on to the show.
So, I thought we’d talk a little bit today about how you go about staging multi-artist shows or projects, and you’ve both worked in different ways, in different formats. Ingrid, I think we’ll begin with you, because as we were recording this, you are in the final furlong of preparing for the Carnegie International. How is everything at this stage? Ticking on like clockwork or last minute?
Ingrid Schaffner: It does have a life of its own at this point, I left the museum this morning and Zoe Leonard, Alex Da Corte, a Vietnamese art collective Art Labor, all busy installing. We just finished installing El Anatsui’s work on the façade of the building, and yeah. So, going like clockwork? I’m not exactly sure [laughter], but it’s definitely alive, definitely going.
Charlotte Burns: Cecilia, you came back just recently from Argentina for the Buenos Aires Art Basel Cities. How was that, organizing something in a different country?
Cecilia Alemani: Well, it was exciting and challenging at the same time. The idea of the project was to state an exhibition in the public space, so of course, Buenos Aires is a fantastic city for that because it has amazing locations, both public and private, and it was an adventure, because, of course, it’s a city that I’ve known before, but working in a foreign city is always a challenge, but I think it was a very exciting adventure.
Charlotte Burns: Ingrid, when you were preparing for the Carnegie International, I read that you took five big preparatory trips to places you hadn’t been to before. Where were they, and how did you decide where to go?
Ingrid Schaffner: Embarking on the International, and having the world as your big blank canvas, and knowing that you’re not going to go everywhere in the world, I really needed a structure and a strategy for my research. And so, I decided to invite five colleagues to go on five big trips to some place new to both of us, where I would be following their researched trajectories of interests, and the Carnegie International would pay and support us as traveling and thinking partners. The invitation wasn’t to be a co-curator, but really, truly to be a companion. And I like this idea that the Carnegie Museum of Art is part of a museum of natural history, and this idea of the Institute supporting research in the field.
The first trip was with Carin Kuoni, who is the director at The Vera List Center for Art and Politics. And Carin and I are good friends and colleagues, we’ve done many projects together in the past. But the other four curators were really new to me, and I was new to them. Bisi Silva in Lagos got an email from Ingrid Schaffner, someone she’d never met, saying: “Want to go on a big trip with me?” And we followed her research interest in art of the African Diaspora and traveled in the Caribbean.
Charlotte Burns: Wow, that’s great.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah. It was very productive for me because I wouldn’t consider myself an international curator prior to this project and so, how to get off my own beaten path, this was a sort of trigger for that, that had this sort of serendipity in it as well.
Charlotte Burns: In podcasts we’ve done with other curators, they’ve talked about the importance of travel. Some curators in large museums have said that something they struggle with is budgets are small, and often it’s a decision of whether to go to, I don’t know, the Basel Art Fair, where you’re going to see everybody you know and you’re probably going to see art you know, but you’ll know that there will be certain efficiencies to that trip.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah, and you’ll be exposed to a lot that is new, when we go to our centers because we’re always traveling for our work, even if it’s to Frieze Art Fair or something like this. We’re always part of this network of exchange but—
Charlotte Burns: But getting off that track of those centers, like you say, our centers. The art world has certain hubs that we gravitate to through the year.
Ingrid Schaffner: And that was the interest for the research, too. I was interested in how the contemporary takes hold in sort of off-center locations: what are the networks, and who are the curators and the writers, and how do we connect?
Charlotte Burns: And what did you find? What did you discover?
Ingrid Schaffner: Places like the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, or Raw Material [Company] in Dakar, Senegal or the Center for the Contemporary Art in Tbilisi, these places that are hubs for exhibitions, certainly, but also for the sort of burgeoning field of curatorial practice that’s taking hold through these cities. It’s so vital, and that’s how our art world is expanding.
Charlotte Burns: When you’re curating, how do you go about selecting your artists?
Cecilia Alemani: For me, especially for the Argentine project, it was basically asking a lot of recommendations. Of course, I did a lot of studio visits when I first went to Argentina but then because it’s a less structured art system, than for instance, New York City. For example, art schools are less important there or less established. So, the best way for me was basically to ask artists to recommend artists, and the community there is very supportive of one another, so even if artists don’t have gallery representation, the community is very strong, and it’s very close.
So, I would ask maybe artists that are not even featured in exhibition, but they are quite well known, like Guillermo Kuitca or Diego Bianchi to recommend younger artists or overlooked artists, and so that kind of created a map of the city and the scene that was not necessarily the map that you would find in an art book about Argentine art.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s so interesting, which is often the way these projects happen. That would probably be the same if you’re doing something in New York, actually, you’d probably still ask artists.
Cecilia Alemani: Yeah, I think New York is a… it’s a more challenging situation just because everything is so boxed in. You have galleries, you have institutions and schools, so it’s harder to find something that doesn’t fit in these boxes, and not necessarily that that’s necessarily better, but as a curato you always try and find something that doesn’t have a tag already on it.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Cecilia Alemani: And so, to me, it’s harder to look outside more traditional buckets in New York City, while it Buenos Aires it was so—
Charlotte Burns: That’s the entire thing—
Cecilia Alemani: —incredibly stimulating and exciting.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting as a way of thinking about finding art. Ingrid, for you, how do you go about finding artists? You were saying, you know, for this edition of the Carnegie, you hadn’t thought of yourself as an international curator before this. Are you beginning to think of yourself as an international curator now? Or—
Ingrid Schaffner: You can judge my chops after you’ve seen the Carnegie International. There are certain artists, this was an opportunity for me to work with them in a significant way, like Postcommodity. Then there were artists in my own past, like Karen Kilimnik; I’m not going to do the Carnegie International and not work with Karen Kilimnik.
And then there’s artists that, of course, you’re meeting along the way, through your research or through as Cecilia said, artists recommending artists. But, for me, the exhibition was then very much constructed in terms of the museum itself. I knew from the beginning I wanted this exhibition to not move outside of the museum, but to be contained within it and to saturate this museum with contemporary art and artists.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.
Ingrid Schaffner: And when you visit the Carnegie, you’ll see it is a museum of museums of spaces. It is a material, and so artists who could work with that material or push that material. Putting the spaces to work as well was something I wanted to do with the artists. And the invitation I extended was really: “Come to Pittsburgh. Let’s see if this is going to be meaningful for you at this moment in time, and if it is, let’s move forward with the sort of spirit of making this show together,” and so that’s been very productive.
Charlotte Burns: I’m sure you have budgets. You have to allocate your budgets. If you’re bearing in mind you want to work with X artist or Y artist, they’re very expensive, their production tends to overrun or that’s an artist who stages peripatetic performances. Do you bear that in mind when you’re thinking of your artists, this sort of mix of high fabrication and low fabrication artists as well?
Ingrid Schaffner: Oh yeah, definitely, I mean there’s a very pragmatic structuring that happens in the beginning with your team where it’s a pot of money.
Cecilia Alemani: Yes! It’s budget season.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah, and you allocate different proportions for different sort of scales of work and ambition and risk, and so—
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Cecilia Alemani: I mean, we do the same—I’m thinking of the High Line—so, we tend to produce 90% of the works that you see on the High Line and so, my dream would be to produce everything, but of course when it comes to public art, you run into lots of challenges and very expensive budgets. But it is one of the goals of the program to be able to support the artists and to really produce an artwork that couldn’t be done anywhere else and maybe couldn’t even be done in a museum.
So, for instance, on the High Line we do work with a lot of artists that have never done public art before and, as we know, artists have amazing ideas and great projects, but they don’t necessarily think of eight million people that are going to touch and climb on your sculpture, or hurricanes. And so, I think I see my job as of course helping financially the artist to produce, but also something that goes beyond just having a nice budget and an artist’s fee, like sharing our expertise and know-how on how to bring an artwork to a very, very public space.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, especially with the High Line, where it’s almost the opposite of the traditional museum experience where you stand behind a white line and you look at things from a sort of reverential distance. In the High Line, people are just taking selfies left right and center, clambering over things and, like you say, hurricanes are something you actually have to factor into what you’re building.
Cecilia Alemani: Oh yeah, actually, you know when—just because Ingrid was mentioning El Anatsui—we did a project with him, and that was my very first large-scale project on the High Line, and it was in 2012, and it was in September.
Charlotte Burns: Oh my gosh.
Cecilia Alemani: And it was exactly when Sandy hit New York. I was new to public art, and I didn’t really understand why we needed to have an engineer vetting on all of the projects, for like 70 miles per hour wind, I’m like: “New York City’s fine,” and then two months after, we got the hurricane. Nothing happened to the piece, it was perfect, but that’s what you learn also working in such a space.
Charlotte Burns: I’m sure you have your disaster stories of works that have gone rampantly over budget or have been impossible to create that you probably can’t share for public consumption [laughter]. What are the stories you can tell me? What are the dream projects that you’d like to do that you haven’t been able to?
Ingrid Schaffner: While you think of your curatorial dream [laughter], I just wanted to say—to go back to budget—we did think it was important to allocate part of the budget to paying artists for their participation in the Carnegie International. Proudly, this is the first biennial-style exhibition to be WAGE-certified, so Working Artists for the Greater Economy has standards, given the budget of your project, or the budget of your institution and the scale of the exhibition, how much artists are paid for their participation, that everybody is paid equally, so—
Charlotte Burns: That’s the first biennial-styled event that’s WAGE-certified?
Ingrid Schaffner: That’s WAGE-certified.
Charlotte Burns: Wow. How difficult is it to finance large scale events like this?
Ingrid Schaffner: The Carnegie International is a $5m budget, and there is endowment for $2m, and in the good old days, the three major corporations of Pittsburgh would take turns for the honor of underwriting the Carnegie International, and as is true in the sort of change in the weather of philanthropy. That’s no longer the case, and we raised $3m with our leadership group. So, private individuals, largely. I’m very proud of this group because they stepped up.
Cecilia Alemani: That’s amazing.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Someone was saying to me recently who studies philanthropy and patterns that there’s a shift away from funding legacy institutions, and that you’re not just seeing it in art museums, you’re seeing it in opera, you’re seeing it in ballet. Institutional funding is sort of on the decline because people want to be more involved in something that they can shape, so he was saying that funders he was talking to were more likely to fund a kind of start up in Redhook than something—
Cecilia Alemani: Established—
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, an established thing that they had less stamp on. And at the same time, museum directors, when we talk to them, say we have problems with funding because nobody wants to fund the leaking toilets—
Cecilia Alemani: No.
Charlotte Burns: —and the holes in the ceilings anymore, and it’s kind of an interesting thing with philanthropy that it seems an increasing move towards events.
Cecilia Alemani: It’s the same issue that we have on High Line. The overall budget of the High Line is, I believe, around $17m a year—it’s not the art program, it’s the High Line. The High Line is fully managed and operated by Friends of the High Line, which is the not-for-profit organization that runs the park on behalf of the city, but which means that we have to raise 100% of the budget, and the budget is of course, for the charming things that I do—like the gardens—but also to pay for maintenance and operation, and imagine just eight million people visiting the High Line, the amount of garbage they produce—
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. Wear and tear.
Cecilia Alemani: Cleaning. It’s an incredible amount of funding that is required every year, and that’s just going to increase because visitation is not going to decrease, very likely.
So, it is a challenge, but I think also sometimes that’s also when art comes into play, and it’s easier to raise money to pay for an art program than to pay for garbage removal, but that’s why it’s a holistic institution that covers both aspects, like a museum.
But then at the same time, I think of when I did the project in Italy for the Venice Biennale, the Italian Pavilion, that’s a completely different sector. Of course, fundraising is relatively easier in a country where you have tax abatement and advantages.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Cecilia Alemani: When you don’t, it’s really, really hard, like in Italy we don’t have kind of anything like that. So, when you have to raise money to fill the space of the Italian Pavilion which is 20,000 sq ft, then you start with a very, very small budget—that’s a much more complicated adventure.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, in England as well when I worked on the project called Artist Rooms, which was the former dealer Antony d’Offay making a collection of specific artist rooms that he part-gifted, part-sold to the United Kingdom, the National Galleries of Scotland in their custody, but it was… I remember at the time, we had a US lawyer working on the deal who was incredibly pragmatic about things. The system in England is also entirely different; there’s no incentive to give in the same way, although things are shifting in Europe, over all—
Cecilia Alemani: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: —as state funding goes down, they’re trying to come up with new models. Let’s go back to your dream project, what are your dream projects? You’ve had a few minutes to think about it now-
Ingrid Schaffner: Okay. Well, Charlotte, I’m doing my dream project.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ingrid Schaffner: I’m deep in the dream, and I have to say it is a personally meaningful exhibition for me because the Carnegie Museum was my first museum as a child. I was born in Pittsburgh. And so, I think of this important role this museum has and this exhibition plays informing museum citizens, me being one. So—
Charlotte Burns: Is that a kind of metric for success, if a museum can change your life, can change other people’s lives, do you imagine, how you’re going to measure your success with the show?
Ingrid Schaffner: My success. By the intensity of museum joy that it brings to all involved and all who visit.
For me, museum joy is a real thing in as much as yes, I am a citizen of museums forged in Pittsburgh and the pleasure of being with art and other people in a museum and doing the creative work and interpretation. I think that, that’s—
Cecilia Alemani: That’s pretty dreamy.
Ingrid Schaffner: That’s why I’m in this game, Cecilia, I don’t know about you [laughter]. But yes, I’m embracing museum joy as one of the ethos of the Carnegie International and—
Charlotte Burns: I like that.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah. Guess we’ll have to invent some device to—
Charlotte Burns: To capture—
Ingrid Schaffner: To capture, yeah, or measure that.
Charlotte Burns: What about Cecilia; what’s your dream?
Cecilia Alemani: It’s hard to come up with one dream project. For instance, the project in Buenos Aires is an extension of what I do at the High Line, and the idea of having the entire city at your disposal and at the artist’s disposal, was very much a dream. And really having carte blanche to use what’s already there without having to build a space or a white cube, and without having to bring a format that exists somewhere else like a fair or triennial or biennial. That was very, very exciting.
And also thinking of what the impact or something like that can be, on the city itself, so the idea that perhaps in a few years after we do this project for a length of time, somebody else will pick it up and create their own public art institutions. It can be something like public art fund or it can be something that is promoted by the city or by a group of collectors, but the idea that there is a space for bringing a new format that wasn’t existing. That’s something that I can see, the long-term impact of something like that in a city.
Charlotte Burns: What are the favorite biennials, triennials, large group shows that you visited? What were the shows that shaped your thinking or had impact on you, whether that was huge disagreement or huge enthusiasm for what you saw?
Cecilia Alemani: The first major exhibition that I remember when I started thinking of being a curator was Okwui Enwezor’s documenta, which was in 2002, I believe, and it was right before I moved to the states to come to grad school. But it made such a big impact for me because, first of all, the sheer scale of the exhibition is something that coming from Italy I’d never witnessed before. Of course, the Venice Biennale is also an incredibly extensive show but documenta, especially that exhibition, was really breaking the boundaries of art. And I think most recently like a biennial that I really appreciate—which is not a biennial but—is Münster Skulptur Projekte because, in a way, it’s very similar to what I do in terms of bringing art outside of the institution and into the public space. And that is an amazing format that, of course, I look at as a model for what I do, both on the High Line and in Buenos Aires.
Charlotte Burns: Ingrid, what about you?
Ingrid Schaffner: So, a very formative exhibition for me was the “Chambres d’Amis” in 1986 organized by Jan Hoet. And Chambres d’Amis means guest rooms. Art was located throughout the city of Ghent in people’s homes: in rich people homes, middle class people’s homes, other people’s homes. You had a map, and you could get a bicycle, or you could do it on foot. It took two days to cover all the ground, and it was, for me I think, one of the first international exhibitions I experienced in Europe, and so to be learning about new art and artists, but then to also have these really intense, intimate experience where you’d knock on somebody’s door and go in and look at the Bruce Nauman neon Hanged Man (1985) hanging in their stairwell, or whatever it was—
Charlotte Burns: That’s kind of great.
Ingrid Schaffner: Oh, it was really, and I would imagine it would take a maestro like Jan Hoet to have pulled something like this off and to bring the whole city along in this project.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that would be hard today, with issues like safety and that kind of thing.
We published an article recently on our In Other Words newsletter where we commissioned a writer, Jane Morris, to ask curators about the biennial model. And there were rumblings that people were feeling—the same sort of thing that you hear about fairs—that there’s so many events, people are traveling all the time, things are becoming less distinguishable, and so we wanted to put it to curators whether they agreed with that, and what they thought of the biennial model, what we could do to the biennial model to kind of shake it up a little bit.
Francesco Bonami said that the biennial model was stale if not dead. Other people said: “Well, don’t blame the doctor, blame the disease.” There’s the sense that, actually, there’s a lot of really interesting things going on with biennials.
Ingrid Schaffner: It’s a form, and it’s what you do with it.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ingrid Schaffner: I think the International as a slow moving biennial form.
Charlotte Burns: It is, yeah, it’s the second oldest in the world.
Ingrid Schaffner: And it happens now every five years as opposed to every two years, so it’s moving at a different pace. I wanted to put it to work, so there’s two publications. There’s a sort of an intense guide for the show that brings you into the world of the museum and into the exhibition, and it actually also takes you out into Pittsburgh as we explored it over the past two years with artists. So, it’s your tool. It’s your travel guide for the exhibition.
And then, the exhibition is producing the second publication, which I’m calling the “dispatch”, looking at the biennial form on a local, national and international level. It’s three commissioned essays, and one of them—the third—Jennifer Burris, is looking at the International with a question to our colleagues of what have we seen that we really thought was useful and productive and constructive. It’s a kind of constructive opening up of where we, ourselves, are—
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.
Ingrid Schaffner: —taking this, and so there isn’t a catalogue in the traditional sense for the Carnegie International; there’s this dispatch that comes out of the show and carries questions out into our field.
And we also sent a questionnaire to artists who have participated in the international from ’91 until the most recent on in 2013, asking them: “Did the International take your work someplace else?” You can answer the question in terms of the Carnegie International or in terms of another biennial but this idea of how these exhibitions are useful or not for artists, too, so let’s reflect on that.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s interesting. And what questions have been coming up? What are the questions you guys discuss amongst yourselves that you find you talk about with your peers about biennials and triennials. and the model; the form; the usefulness; the point; the criteria. The questions you have, what are they?
Cecilia Alemani: I mean, for me it’s really less about criticizing the format. I don’t really have an issue with the format of biennial or triennial. Very selfishly, it’s also a tool for me to know about an art scene that I wouldn’t necessarily know. Of course, if I had the time in the world to spend three months in the Emirates and do research, it would be great, but realistically, I don’t. So, I go to the Sharjah Biennial, and I know that I’m going to have a somehow picture of the art scene from that region.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Cecilia Alemani: To me, as a curator, it’s really like a learning too, but it’s also, to your point Ingrid, what does it do to artists? And of course, you start with the assumption that if an artist is featured in the Venice Biennale, his career is going to be completely transformed. That’s quite not true, and because of the perforation of biennials, it’s hard to imagine that a single show right now could change an artist’s career so dramatically. But, I think it’s a journey. It’s not a one episode or one event that is going to change, it’s being part of a discourse, and it’s about the relationship that you create in that occasion.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Cecilia Alemani: So, I think it’s less about exhibiting in the show, but it’s more about, again, the bridges that you build.
Charlotte Burns: One of the things that came up in the article was this idea of the role of the curator, and if you think back to Harold Szeeman’s documenta 5 in 1972—which obviously I didn’t see but I read a lot about—a lot of people cite that documenta as being the edition of that which really cemented this idea of the curator as an auteur. And we found in the article—I don’t know if you’d agree with this—there’s kind of been a recent movement away from that over the past few years, decade or so, and that movement is now instead towards putting artists back in charge, or having more fragmented series of co-existing ideas then a sort of singular, well-argued-by-one-person survey show. Where do you fall on that spectrum or does it depend on the place, the event itself?
Ingrid Schaffner: Well, as a single curator, of the Carnegie International—the previous iteration, there were three co-curators—I created teams within teams, as well. So, yes, I’m the lead curator but this working with a team has—
Charlotte Burns: Shaped it.
Ingrid Schaffner: This exhibition is very much produced by that, and also, I think something that’s kind of unique about the Carnegie International is that you build an institution within the institution. So, Liz Park is my associate curator, Ashley McNeil is the curatorial assistant. We created our own office and way of doing things that when the next curator for the International comes in, they’ll create their own team and start to create their whole own system. So—
Charlotte Burns: It disappears.
Ingrid Schaffner: It disappears. Yeah. And thinking about that eventuality of it disappearing, the exhibition has three phases in its own design, and the final phase is one of moving into archive.
Charlotte Burns: So, it survives in a different form.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah, we thought a lot about that, and we’re thinking a lot about that.
Charlotte Burns: And the Carnegie usually acquires a lot of work from the—
Ingrid Schaffner: Yes, yeah. This exhibition is so integral to the museum itself. The museum opens in 1895, and the International starts in 1896 really as a collecting mechanism, to bring art to Pittsburgh, and the collection has been greatly built from the Carnegie Internationals.
Charlotte Burns: Such a smart move.
Cecilia Alemani: I would never see myself as an author curator. I see myself much more like a facilitator or someone that really helps the artists navigate the bureaucracy and challenges of working in different kinds of institutions. So, maybe because I worked more on project based. My work is very much focused on that specific moment, and that specific spatial condition. So, it’s trying to realize the artists vision and help them.
Charlotte Burns: Do you have artists that you haven’t worked with that is sort of your dream artists to work with?
Ingrid Schaffner: I hope so.
Charlotte Burns: Can you tell us?
Ingrid Schaffner: No!
Charlotte Burns: This might make it happen.
Ingrid Schaffner: No, I have 32 artists and collectives that I’m working with right now, and it’s a dream.
Charlotte Burns: So, you can’t right now. Yeah, I see.
Cecilia Alemani: My answer is: I hope it’s someone I actually don’t know—
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah.
Cecilia Alemani: —and I will find in the next year or so, and so we’ll be doing the best project ever.
Charlotte Burns: Are there projects that you’re especially proud of that you’ve worked on? And I don’t necessarily even mean in terms of the best thing ever, that you’ve learned the most from, that shaped your thinking about what you do.
Ingrid Schaffner: An exhibition I did in ‘97 called “Deep Storage”. Storing, archiving and collecting is an imagery and process in contemporary art, and the exhibition I initiated as an independent curator with the Haus der Kunst and it traveled extensively. It was over, I think, 50 artists, and it really opened up thinking about archive storage that still very much informs my work and looking and thinking and—
Charlotte Burns: Well, you said you factored it in as a third phase of this show—
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah, yeah. Maybe with me, all roads lead back to “Deep Storage”. Or lead on from.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, absolutely. Cecilia?
Cecilia Alemani: For me, one of the first projects for me that I did in New York was when I ran this space called X Initiative, which was sort of temporary exhibition space for 12 months between 2009 and 2010, and it was inside the former Dia building on 22nd Street, now the venue for Hauser and Wirth.
It was a very exciting project because we were able to do really, really amazing exhibitions with really, really small budgets and small means, but I think there was an energy in the city that came maybe as a reaction to the recession in 2008. But, it was very much the desire for the community to get together and to have a space that wasn’t a museum, wasn’t a gallery, but was an effervescent container for art and public programs.
I remember when did a show with Hans Haacke. He had a show like 20 years ago in New York City, and nobody really gave him a solo show, and he could do something he couldn’t have done in a museum because of the nature of the exhibition. I don’t know if it was the space or if it was the moment in time, but it really made art accessible and really captured an energy that was there, not necessarily in the museums that you see every day, but it was the energy of the community.
Charlotte Burns: And you’ve spoken a few times about the things that you can’t do in museums, and you work so much outside of that. Do you feel a freedom of working outside an institution, or do you feel better positioned to capture that energy?
Cecilia Alemani: I mean, I love working outside institutions, although sometimes I would love to have a roof on my head and not having to deal with—
Ingrid Schaffner: With hurricanes.
Cecilia Alemani: I think it’s a different kind of freedom. To me, it goes back to what you can offer to an artist, and so I think in a way, if you think of museums all over the world, when it comes to the space they’re pretty similar. And so, of course they have different challenges, but when you come to art in the public space or an unusual space, that to me is when it gets really exciting because you can do something you wouldn’t normally do in a museum. That doesn’t mean you’re going do it again, but at least you can exercise your freedom and your experimentation without thinking of the same constraints that you would have in an institution.
Charlotte Burns: And you have worked within specifically an institution, but you’ve also worked independently. Do you have a sense of what you prefer or do you like doing both, moving around?
Ingrid Schaffner: I like moving around. I like going where the interesting work is and projects and opportunities.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. That’s kind of great.
I wanted to ask you both as well. I know that some of the works that are in the Carnegie. I was talking to Tavares [Strachan] the other week, and he was talking about the work he’s doing for the Carnegie, which is sort of bringing overlooked histories—names of people who never made it into history. I mean, all art is political, but that’s a more politically motivated works to some extent. And I know that on the High Line there have been works that have been more obviously engaged with politics.
Do you feel that you’ve shifted in that? Are you more engaged with politics? Less engaged with politics? Does it depend on the artist? What’s your view on when you’re commissioning work, do you want artists to have that political thing? Do you look for that or do you just sort of see where you go in terms of which artist you’re thinking about at that point in time?
Cecilia Alemani: Really depends on what the artist wants to do, but I do feel like especially looking at this year on the High Line, we do have a fairly political show which is titled “Agora”, and it looks at the ways in which art can transform and shape the public space, and also respond to the dramatic changes in our society. I think it is also my responsibility and the Fiends of the High Line responsibility to do that because we run a public space, and so we want to give and amplify the voice of the artist when they want talk about issues that you could define political.
So, I think it’s a challenge when it comes to political art in public spaces, but I think you can do it in a way that is very meaningful for the artist and also for the very broad audience that comes to the park. It goes back to the power of public art, because I think it’s offering different points of entries into your work, and so somebody might read the piece in a very fulfilling way or emotional way. For, others it might be a selfish opportunity. But it’s less about dogmatic meaning, I think, when it comes to art in the public space, and it’s more about opening up different kinds of interpretation.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. Ingrid what do you think?
Ingrid Schaffner: I’ve been thinking, Cecilia, about the museum joy I experience. Museum without walls joy I experienced on the High Line when you had Zoe Leonard’s I want a president (1992). And to be standing there with other citizens, just standing there reading and people reading out loud to each other. and it was just a very moving—
Cecilia Alemani: Very powerful, no?
Ingrid Schaffner: —a very moving experience. And it arrested people. Just people stopped in front of this wall of words.
Cecilia Alemani: And that’s the piece I’ve seen the strongest reactions for. Like, people really loving and getting really emotional. And also, people shouting and screaming at it. The public space really allows for a wide range of reaction. But that’s the beauty of it. I don’t think scream in a museum if they saw the same piece at the Whitney. I’m sure they didn’t.
Ingrid Schaffner: They might whisper loudly.
Cecilia Alemani: That’s right.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Tell me your view on that—
Ingrid Schaffner: So, the Carnegie International comes with an urgent and readymade politics that took me by surprise. And as much as I started working on this exhibition in 2015, and the idea of an international seemed sort of quaint, and then year into it Brexit happens, and the Philippines elect Duterte, and he seems to kind of be the first of the strong men presidents that move towards the…
The pressure on the word “international” now is something you feel in this exhibition, not as an explicit politics that is located in one artist’s work or the “political” artists’ works, but more conditions that are expressed throughout the exhibition because of what artists bring to the show: a sort of thinking about and being in a world with conditions of the Anthropocene and the post-colonial and capitalism. So, it is present.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That shifting meaning of “international”. Like you say, in 2015, it’s a very different position. What is the audience you think of when you’re staging?
Cecilia Alemani: For me, audience is a very broad word because I have a very broad audience. I remember when I stared working on the High Line in 2011, I was very worried about trying to please all audiences. Of course, the High Line is in Chelsea, so you have the art audience that goes to see galleries; it’s next to the Whitney. But then I would say 95% is just regular, general public that comes from all corners of the world.
After a season of working the High Line, I kind of just stopped asking that question because I just see people’s reaction. It’s that encounter between someone and an artwork on a High Line that makes my job very special, but also bringing public art to that space is very, very important because of the nature and geography of the High Line, you tend to walk from one spot to another because it’s kind of an elevated promenade. But it’s always when somebody sees art that they stop, and I think that’s the encounter that I care about. And it doesn’t matter necessarily if a person knows who Andrea Bowers is or El Anatsui is. It really doesn’t matter, but I know they know it’s art. And I know they’re going to stop to have an often positive or stimulating encounter. Of course, I care about the art world, and I care about doing a high-quality program that could be part of the broader discourse of contemporary art, but I do think a lot of a much broader public.
Charlotte Burns: What about you Ingrid?
Ingrid Schaffner: My role as a curator is in some regard a mediator between the artist, the work of art and a viewer. The majority of the visitors are Pittsburghers. I always ask my Lyft and Uber drivers if they know about the Carnegie International, and generally no. People don’t know it by name, but they know it. People have not forgotten Phyllida Barlow’s great sculpture making this rush outside the building, or Douglas Aitken turning the front of the museum into a drive-in movie theater, so it has definitely impacted people’s memories.
Charlotte Burns: You’re aware of that, that connective local memory.
Ingrid Schaffner: But thinking a lot about audience because this exhibition that saturates the museums’ galleries and interstitial spaces and really wanting to bring a visitor into the world of the museum. There’s very little didactics in the exhibition, almost none. I wanted to create an experience for the visitors to be lost in the museum. Lost and with art.
Charlotte Burns: That’s really interesting. It’s something that came up on a podcast recently with Jessica Morgan who said that when she joined Dia, she was slightly horrified at first to find that there was no wayfinding, which was something that was discussed a lot in the institutions she’d been in, most recently Tate. And then she realized that Dia, part of the pleasure of Dia is that pilgrimage, is that sense of finding your own route through things, which is kind of interesting: to think about letting people discover, essentially.
Ingrid Schaffner: Right. And have the confidence to draw on your own experience and associations that we all make and can make. That’s all you need.
Charlotte Burns: Before we go, I wanted to ask you: what is the best piece of art that you’ve seen recently?
Ingrid Schaffner: Charlotte, when I’m asked a question like that, I can’t remember any art I’ve ever seen ever.
Cecilia Alemani: I would like to say Sarah Lucas because I just saw it last night, but it’s a bit of a biased comment.
Charlotte Burns: We can take time.
Ingrid Schaffner: Can I say an exhibition?
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. What’s your exhibition?
Ingrid Schaffner: You know, I could still happily be lost in the exhibition that was part of the last documenta that was in the Neue Galerie that was this really rigorous rethinking of Modernism; letting modernism start in many different places and using museum collection and contemporary art to just shake it all up. It was so exciting, the work that we can do with our museums and collections.
Charlotte Burns: To change the way we think about histories.
Ingrid Schaffner: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah that is exciting.
Cecilia Alemani: I would say Tauba Auerbach and her project for Public Art Fund, which was this amazing boat that takes you on journey around Manhattan, and that she completely repainted in this razzle dazzle camouflage. And it was really great to be in the middle of nature looking at your city, sitting in an artwork.
Charlotte Burns: That’s great. Well, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, please do make the trip to Pittsburgh to see the Carnegie International and of course, if you’re in New York, take a walk along the High Line. Thank you both for being my guests.
Ingrid Schaffner: Thank you.
Cecilia Alemani: Thank you for having us.