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Interview with Chrissie Iles

Can you talk a bit about how you became interested in art and curating? I became interested in art as a teenager, when a friend’s mother took me to a painter’s studio. I sensed in the artist’s studio a creative atmosphere and an intimacy that I felt instantly connected to, and I decided that I wanted to be as close to that as possible. I studied art history at Bristol University in England, and immediately afterwards moved to London and plunged into the art world a very intuitive way. I found an artist-run space in a warehouse in south London called the Waterloo Gallery, which included artists’ studios and a large gallery.  I proposed to them that I take over the curating of the space and raise my own salary, and they agreed. My approach to the program was instinctive, and shaped by the conversations I had with the artists around me, who also contributed ideas. In one show, a large installation by the British band Wire, working with Brian Eno, wires were stretched at various angles from the floor to the ceiling throughout the darkened gallery, turning the entire space into an instrument that the audience could activate.

That experience taught me how to work directly with artists in an ongoing dialogue, and how to present new, often large-scale projects. It shaped my approach everything I’ve done since. After a year we had to leave the warehouse, and I worked at Matt’s Gallery as the assistant to Robin Klassnik, who was also an artist, and had transformed his studio in Martello Street, a warehouse in East London, into a showing space for other artists. At that time, the area had the highest density of artists working anywhere in Europe.

Robin Klassnik’s approach turned the conventions of exhibition-making inside out. Instead of installing for two weeks and opening the show for three months, the artist would work in the space for three months making a site-specific show that was only open for two weeks. The exhibition became an event. This model was based on the artist Jaroslaw Kozlowski’s project in Poznan, Poland in the 1970s.

When the exhibition opened, I was the one who let everybody in, because it was a studio building, not a public space. Each time the bell rang, I would go down, greet the person, bring them up to the exhibition, then talk to them about the show. Having worked with the artist for an extended period to realize the exhibition, this included a lot of hands-on information, creating a direct connection between what the artist had done and the people who came to see it, in a studio/gallery hybrid.

For Robin, nothing was too much for the artist.  I learned, from him, to put the artist first, and to listen closely to them. Everything comes from the artist. My art history training remained strongly present, and I decided I wanted to explore how this approach could also be applied to an art historical context. I applied for a curatorial position at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, which was run by David Elliott, one of the key museum directors in England, and a great scholar. The space (which has no collection) has now been renamed Modern Art Oxford and focuses exclusively on contemporary art; but at that moment, it was operating like a museum, in a very scholarly way, and its exhibitions spanned the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution to cutting edge young artists, as well as art from countries like China, Poland, Japan and Scandinavia, whose artists were, at the time, not so well-known internationally. David Elliott is an art historian, and a Russian and German art scholar. He curated the first Mayakovsky and Rodchenko shows outside Russia. He also integrated film into MoMA Oxford’s programming, curating a retrospective of Sergei Eisenstein with Naum Kleimann at the Eisenstein Museum in Moscow, and presenting film screenings of classic European films. I learnt from him that film is an art form that exists alongside painting and sculpture in equal measure, and should be respected and shown accordingly.

At MoMA Oxford, I was able, with David’s support, to bring together a lot of intersecting curatorial ideas, from Minimalism and the 1960s to contemporary art and also film and video, which I had started to incorporate into my curatorial work. David became my mentor, and gave me a lot of opportunities to develop both curatorially and intellectually, taking a rigorous critical and pedagogical approach that proved invaluable to my curatorial training. I deeply believe in mentoring as a model for learning in curatorial practice.

The scholarly approach that informs all my curatorial work was forged through this mixture of a direct connection with artists and an ongoing art historical learning, developed by the museum’s close proximity to Oxford University, where I attended classes and met scholars including Jean Baudrillard, Griselda Pollock, Isaiah Berlin, Noam Chomsky, and Umberto Eco, all of whom shaped my thinking.

Gradually I found myself curating exhibitions of predominantly American artists, and this led to repeat visits to New York to work with Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Carolee Schneemann, and others. Eventually, I decided I wanted to move to New York because so many of the artists I was interested in were working there, and film and video was flourishing. My expertise in film and video led to me being hired by the Whitney Museum as its new film and video curator.

I was struck by how separate the worlds of art and the world of film were in America, in contrast to what I had experienced working with David Elliott.  Every artist has picked up the camera and experimented with film at some point, and the 90s had produced a large group of artists for whom cinematic ideas and the moving image were of major importance. This was not reflected in the Whitney’s collection or programming at the time, and I started to build the moving image part of the collection to reflect the range and complexity of film and video works from the earliest experiments of the 1920s to young artists working in the present, forming a committee dedicated to purchasing moving image works. The collection has grown from a small number of film and video pieces to approximately four hundred works.

You’ve started to cover my next few questions, perhaps you could expand a bit. As part of the curatorial team formulating the artistic policy at the Whitney, can you talk about the Whitney’s mission? And as a curator at the Whitney what part do you play in the collection process? The Whitney’s mission is to exhibit and collect American art, adopting a broad approach to what constitutes ‘American’. I am part of a team of fourteen curators at the museum, and we work holistically as a team, each bringing our expertise to different areas of the collection (film and video, in my case), as well as curating exhibitions across all mediums. It is important to have specializations in order to tackle the various philosophical, technical, curatorial and practical issues that pertain to each medium; and at the same time, we are also able to work with artists who work across a number of different mediums. I am responsible for building film and video within the Whitney’s collection, and I do so by researching the many different ways in which artists have worked with the moving image, from the beginning of the century up until the present. I pay close attention to important historical works that have become obscured by art history because of their ephemerality, and to artists working primarily in other mediums who made moving image works at a certain point in their career that deepen our understanding of their work, and of the field. One example of this is Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Three Landscapes’ (1971), a triple screen 35mm film installation that Lichtenstein made as part of Maurice Tuchman’s ‘Art and Technology’ exhibition at LACMA in 1971, as a result of a residency with a Hollywood film studios. It took me four years to find the film material and re-assemble the installation, following the artist’s diagrams and notes. The work is now in the Whitney’s collection, and was included in his recent retrospective.

Another unique aspect of the moving image in the Whitney’s collection is Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films, a project to distribute films and videos by artists initiated by the iconic dealers Leo Castelli and Ileanna Sonnabend in the 1970s. The project included many of the most important moving image works produced during that period by artists including Bruce Nauman, Yvonne Rainer, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Smithson, Vito Acconci, Robert Morris, and many others. I have reconstituted the films and videos as a special focus group within the collection, and we continue to research works that disappeared after the project was dispersed. We also collect work by young artists, and have recently brought in a number of works by, amongst others, Andrea Crespo, Frances Bodomo, Ja’Tovia Gary, Ian Cheng, Adelita Husni-Bey,  Jacky Connolly, Alex da Corte, Ivana Basic, Anicka Yi, and Fluct.  The Whitney is known for acquiring work by young artists early in their careers, sometimes directly from the Biennial, and for supporting artists at the beginning, and this is especially true of film and video work.

We also acquire non-editioned films by artists and filmmakers whose work is better known in the film world than the art world, working with film archives and filmmakers directly. Avant-garde film and expanded cinema works form an important strand of the collection, underlining the importance of ephemerality, time, duration and performativity in the histories of American art that the collection is telling. This is also reflected in the exhibition program, as it has been since the late 1960s. From premiering the documentary film ‘Winter Soldier’ in 1971 to our recent Laura Poitras show, the Whitney has never been afraid of raising important questions, taking risks, and responding to artists, and the moving image has been a key conduit for challenging ideas. This has become particularly important at a moment in which the art market is playing such a dominant role in the art world. Art fairs are useful; they provide opportunities to see new work, including performance and specially commissioned projects. But their increasing frequency and size has speeded up the need for new material in a way that makes a slower, ongoing, reflective dialogue with artists even more valuable.

This current generation of young artists is articulating the new shift that is taking place in culture, at a moment when race, politics, gender and sexuality, technology, climate change, and global tensions are changing the conditions within which art is being made. The museum can play an important role, both responding to artists as events unfold, and registering those shifts both within the program and in how we build the collection, in ways that allow the many different stories of American art to be told. It is especially important that we are able to present artworks in physical spaces that allow an audience to experience them directly. If the artwork takes the form of an installation or a projective works that need space and time to be experienced properly, the museum is one of the few spaces in which that can occur. The presentation of artworks to the public in real space and time is one of the key roles of the museum.

Could you speak a bit about organizing an exhibition, like Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, that spans more than a century of works by artists and filmmakers? I’m particularly interested in the relationship between pre-digital works, like the concept drawings for Disney’s Fantasia, and the 21st century pieces using technologies like, artificial intelligence. Could you also touch on the evolution and intersection of traditional and contemporary art and cinema that was exhibited in Dreamlands. Dreamlands was an attempt to address the sea change that has been occurring in our relationship to technology, the body, and optical space, and I wanted to articulate that shift by showing the work of the current generation of young artists broadly dealing with issues of the cinematic, alongside work articulating a similar shift during two other moments in recent art history – Weimar Germany in the 1920s, and the 1960s and 1970s in New York. The work from all three periods used immersive projective imagery, sound, light and, in some cases, sculptural and architectural forms to articulate new relationships of the viewer to optical space.

The first work in the exhibition was a large projection of a performance of the choreographer and dramaturg Oskar Schlemmer’s three part dance ’Triadic Ballet’ (1922). The dance introduced many of the themes of the show, and made clear how deeply rooted the ideas explored by artists now have their roots in that early radical period. I wanted the projection to evoke the experience of sitting watching the performance onstage, and large cushions were provided for the audience so that they could settle in to watch the dance comfortably. Viewers could also stand and watch it in an open area behind the seating, creating a fluid viewing arrangement that slowed the viewer down in the space without enclosing them. This set the tone for the entire exhibition, which unfolded in a series of spaces that allowed viewers to either move through the spaces, or linger in each one.

The exhibition’s twenty rooms created a cumulative immersive projective experience that operated in stark contrast to the large, brightly lit commercial billboards that frame the usual public experience of the projected image in urban space as a site of consumerist seduction. Instead of projections manipulating social space, in Dreamlands they transform it, through an artistic exploration of optical perception that takes the viewer into a world beyond their conventional experience of museum exhibitions, which consist predominantly of painting and sculpture.

One of the purposes of a collection is to serve as a record of an institution’s activities, research, so forth. In the case of interactive AI experiences, like Ian Cheng’s chatbots or Terence Broad’s artificial neural network, how do you preserve this type of perceptual experience? It’s a very immersive experience that you have to witness in real life, so how do institutions, like the Whitney, archive and collect those experiences?  The acquisition of any work of art into the Whitney’s collection marks the beginning of a scholarly dialogue with that artwork and the artist, and with each other regarding its ongoing care and preservation.  In Ian Cheng’s case, the work that we showed in Dreamlands, which is in the Whitney’s collection, comprises internet chat bots that talk to each other. We invited Ian Cheng to a meeting of our Replication Committee, which deals with issues of preservation, conservation, and replication, to discuss with him the best approach to preserving this piece in the long term, in a way that protects the work’s integrity as technology and the internet evolve in ways in ways that are impossible to predict.

In the case of film works whose medium is celluloid film, our approach is both purist and pragmatic. We look after, and wherever possible show, the work on its original format, and we also make an archival digital copy of the film, working closely with the artist and the film lab. That way, the artist can have more control over the quality and look of the digital transfer of the film, and the film is protected from whatever unknown technological developments might occur in the future that might alter the look of it. We also track new developments in analog as well as digital technologies.  For example, Kodak has started making Super 8 film again which is good news, as Super-8 film has unique qualities, and we want to be able to preserve the audience’s experience of the texture, surface, and intimacy of the Super-8 films in our collection. The technical and philosophical work that takes place behind the scenes for the moving image works in our collection involves an ongoing dialogue with the artists, and is part of our responsibility of care.

These issues are fascinating to consider in relation to the pace of technological advancements. For example, there has been a lot of progress concerning 3D printing over the past few years which I imagine will continue over the next decade. I’m interested in the conversations that have to take place between curators, collectors, and artists regarding the digital and tech based works. Museums are in an ongoing collegial dialogue with each other about this, and with the artists, as well as with technicians and conservation specialists. This is particularly valuable in the case of shared ownership of artworks, or an editioned artwork that is owned by two or more museums. In these cases, since we are all effectively looking after the same artwork, it makes sense to pool our conservation knowledge and scholarship of the work. The ongoing dialogue between museums regarding the conservation of moving image works, and new developments in digital technology is becoming more and more important, in order to preserve the integrity of the artwork into the long term future as technology changes.  In the future, curators may have a different concept of physical space, and how artworks can or cannot be installed, in ways we can’t imagine in the present. So we try our best to protect the integrity of the artwork by creating detailed installation manuals with precise information on how the work should be shown, installed, and preserved, working as closely as possible with the artist to ensure that we have all the information we need.

In 2004 and 2006 you co-curated the Whitney Biennial. Can you talk about the selection process and your experience in curating such a large survey of emerging and lesser known artists? The Whitney Museum, and its Biennial, grew out of the artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s desire to make the work of her young American artist peers more visible, and to create a dialogue between artists. The founding of both the museum and its signature exhibition by an artist in her studio has provided a unique framework for our work as curators, and in co-curating the 2004 and 2006 Biennials, I wanted to honor Gertrude’s desire for a direct dialogue between artists, and the showing of young artists and new work. For that reason, both Biennials were large and inclusive in scope. It was the spirit of the moment, immediately after 9/11, and in the middle of a contentious war in Iraq. The artistic community was grieving, angry, and unsettled, and they felt a need to connect to each other.

The mid 2000s was a strange, transitional moment. The previous century and millennium had just ended, but the new one had not quite begun. The financial crisis of 2008 was brewing, but not yet evident. The anti-globalism and Occupy movements were active but their full impact was still to be felt. The implications of the crisis in the Middle East were not yet fully understood, and ISIS did not exist. The political, economic, artistic, social and surveillance potential of the internet and smartphones had not yet been understood, and the first iphone did not appear until 2007. We were not yet in a post-Internet zone. This was a period of profound transition, before fake news, before Instagram, and before Facebook. Wikipedia had just been invented. Chelsea, Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze were only a couple of years old. There were few Lower East Side galleries, and no Bushwick. Prices for works by younger artists were still affordable. This is only a little more than ten years ago, yet it is impossible to communicate how different the art world was at that moment. I did what I have always done – listened to the artists, spent a lot of time in their studios, and talked with them about what they were thinking, feeling, and working on. We were trying to capture a moment, as each Biennial attempts to do.

Having experienced the curatorial process for the Biennial, I was wondering what your thoughts are on the current controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s work, “Open Casket”. I realize you were not involved in the curating of the 2017 Biennial but I was hoping you could speak about the role of curators in selecting socially and politically charged works. The responsibility of a curator is enormous, to the artist, to the community, and to the public. The painting’s inclusion in the 2017 Biennial galvanized strong negative reactions and a lot of discussion, and in these divisive times, it’s critical to transform that anger into a constructive dialogue in which we can listen, learn, and transform our thinking. It has become increasingly clear that in the art world as a whole, the white cube gallery space has been exactly that, and has not reflected, or properly engaged with, the diversity of the artistic community’s voices. We are working hard to change that, much more deeply than before. The situation reflects the larger anger that the African American community rightly feels right now. As an institution, we have all learnt a tremendous amount from the experience, and I thank everyone who voiced their anger and their opinions for what they are teaching me. It is an ongoing dialogue that I value very much.

Interview and photography created April 12, 2017 at AIPAD by Jaclyn Wright