During a project-based visit at Eyebeam in Summer 2008, a series of interviews with New York based curators were carried out. Michele Thursz was interviewed by Verina Gfader and Beryl Graham on Mon 7 July at Eyebeam. The dialogue developed around questions of platforms built out of necessities; conceptual gallery spaces; using topical relevant information as principle in curatorial practice; curating as art project; the value of and insistence of layers of conversation; education as site of potential; the variety of art markets and the conversation about the art market fundamental to operate within and outside; interest in the longevity or continuation of an artist's project; production team rather than collaboration.
Verina Gfader: Let's just start with what you are doing right now? Can you describe your practice?
Michele Thursz: The past couple of years I have been consulting with galleries and collectors about contemporary art. I worked in a gallery as the director and I was bringing in a new programme. Currently I am working with two private collections, and dealing mostly with the organisation of the collection, new acquisitions, and how to collect and package 'moving image'.
VG: I created a few questions according to your making and doings. So maybe you can talk a little bit about the term 'Post Media'?
MT: Post Media... I had a gallery, a moving image gallery, and mostly there were artists using electronic and computer based media. Post Media I developed when I lost the gallery space. I was thinking about Post media as after the fact. At the Moving Image Gallery I had to define what new media was in reference to history. And then also I was trying to not segregate new media arts as new media arts but as contemporary arts that use technology. And the idea of "Post Media" formed part of that. Since we didn't have a gallery space any longer, I was starting to use other spaces, and other platforms. We were from the net, doing net specific work, presenting on the net, downloadable publications and so on. I was trying to think about how the concept of working online, and how technologies could be made malleable to these other spaces and specific to those platforms such as the club, the street, institution, and, most exhibitions, and better articulated to a broader public. So Post Media was built out of necessity to allow for a lot of possibilities to happen. It was meant like a grounding. It was a grounding for me to be able to produce a lot of possibilities for artists.
VG: So it had to deal with multiple spaces rather than medium and technology as such - possibilities of location and spaces?
MT: Right, it was a way of looking at the use of public as medium. The institution and academia were mostly interested in the medium itself but not the content. I have always been interested in art, and art in the way of the personal perspective, and the personal languages that artists develop with the medium of their choice. A lot of artists are working with technology or information. So I hinged myself on this idea that all mediums and data are equal, or all information is useful, and can be used as a medium. So Post Media was after all the different views and development, mass media, distribution and possibilities of distribution.
VG: So it's in a way your practice to be moving away from the term media as such, or everything becomes media anyway, or "all is media"?
MT: It can be. As media, it's the possibility for the use of our experience today - as contemporary art, in a contemporary art medium. So meaning that if it is both a strategy and structure of the market, the technology, it's a formal art practice. They all relate, and the fact is, it is possible to be specific, to be able to use the platforms to the extent of their possibility, not to make boundaries, or instructions with the structures of the art market, or, say, a gallery. In art making, you can use these different forms of distribution and marketing, and make art. I don't have to fit within the structure of the gallery, that was Post Media... (laughter)
VG: Is there also a relationship to mass media or alternative media, and where does that come in, or does it come in at all in this idea?
MT: Well. Again, Post Media was just a conceptual gallery space that allowed for a lot of different types of production, and also this idea of arts management versus different types of markets etc. Artists have used other markets to create artworks, it's limitless in a way one can produce artwork. Only in my practice it wasn't really. People were categorising me as a new media curator because I worked with artists that use new technologies. Though it seemed to be. What I was really working with was topical and relevant information. It wasn't that I was so into 'new media' (laughter). The idea was more that today, erasing the ante a little bit from pop-art, I wanted to talk about what was happening now, not this recursive historical take on practice, but not dis-validating that practice. Meaning that the content was really important and there was a history behind certain types of acts, and this is the history that led up to the Now, and how are we going moving forward with that. And I think that it was funny after I started looking at new media - cinema, cinematic objects, data dynamic work, poetics, all sorts of relative historical things, and the idea of the communal and movie making, mass media, and mixology, edits, and club aesthetics. It does explode into how it all relates.
But the artist and the institution, and also the galleries, didn't want to see that. It was really interesting, the artists still, even if they are practising 'new media', a lot of them want to still be validated by the gallery, and the success of the market. And so what I was always trying to do was give professional advice to artists about how they can best produce and distribute their work. And with keeping right the concept, without undermining the concept, and being able to use various platforms to distribute these ideas, and use the platform to its fullest capability, and that can also bring new markets and add strength to their 'art market' (laughter). Because it's not just creating this object that can be sold. I don't believe in derived objects. It's more about the whole process, the continuity of a practice, if that makes sense.
VG: Maybe that also links to this question: do you consider the establishment of the artist's career when you work with them in such a progressive field?
MT: Yeah. I guess that's one of my strengths I suppose. When I work with one of my artists, in all my exhibitions, and also professionally, it is almost like management or representation. Usually my exhibitions are long conversations, I am going on for ten years or whatever, so they are contextualised inside of contemporary art practice, and that helps the artist. I don't gain necessarily from that, except I gain from the value of the work and my conversation. I like to expand upon these ideas, these ideas are part of conversations, so I work with them on what are the issues, what are the professional issues, what are they really trying to say? Where are their interests? What is the best way to articulate these interests? How can they produce those projects effectively, and what public they are trying to address? Even in packaging new media for galleries, or something like this, working with different ways on how you can sell these on multi-user platforms etc. That was creative, I don't think this was the best idea (laughter). But yes I do, I always think about the artist and their professional development.
VG: I am very interested in this kind of long relationship with artists, and you really follow them and they follow you... or are/work in parallel with you. How do you select? When is the moment where you think you want to work with this particular artist or is it a concept, or often both? How does it become this vast material and a particular moment of extracting from it something different, particular, singular? What is your relation to this vast material?
MT: I think that it's interesting how that happens. There are two different ways in it. When I am doing something, when I am on the right path things all fall into place, everything is relevant, I mean everybody, whoever comes into my view. It seems, for some reason, an artist is doing exactly what I am thinking, and we have a conversation. Or maybe that's because that's a conversation I am having and they fit in, so I make it my conversation. I have different approaches to curating, in which I've come up with an area for which I like artists to complete the net, complete my investigation. And then I've gone off, and then I find there are a few artists that I have worked with over the past ten years that somehow have grown with me and I show almost serially. There are a few artists that haven't been in an exhibition I have curated but every two years they seem to be in an exhibition that seems relevant... so we are both evolving. Maybe five years back, I stopped really looking at only the relationship of new media artists to historic practice, and validating new media that way. I started going more narrative, doing something on my own narrative, and integrating many different artists into that practice.
For instance, the exhibition copy it, steal it, share it had artists that appropriate an 'electronic layer' of culture, and included the work of Ellen Gallagher, Space Invaders doing the space invader mosaics; Godfried Donker using newspapers, Carlo Zanni doing landscapes, desktop landscapes; and Marina Zurkow doing different types of animation. So it was a grand mix of people, and we were using the gallery, and then the street, just to disseminate these ideas. And some of those artists, even though they were coming from all different backgrounds, they work alike. The exhibition sought to show how new media arts and media arts have both been using information. The film maker Reynold Reynolds also was in that exhibition; and he was colllaging different iconic films in one concept of the destruction of history, into one feature film. He was also in my recent exhibition Meme: Romanticism which looked at the ideas around romanticism today, and he used generative film, feature film, and also how different people use those films and build communicative objects out of the film.
So the relationships they come in and out. I work similarly to my artists, it's an integral process of using topical information and using all resources to get the idea across to a broader public - about what contemporary art to me is today.
VG: You talked a little bit about this relation to history and then you are interested in the moment or the present which also means that it has to remain quite open as such, your own project, your narrative etc. in order to allow for a development...
MT: Well, now, because I am into this idea - I am very directed. My concepts develop from one exhibition to another and through the transitions. One exhibition I did, Public Execution directly dealt with the public as medium, and that also dealt with the idea of a site-specificity and using all different modes of distribution, as prior process integral to the artistic medium. And then, a different exhibition Thread demonstrated this idea of research into craft and contemporary art making in relationship to technology. Thread was also about the breakdowns, and also directly related to the idea of the blog, and the threads of conversation. And then with Meme: Romanticism, again, and then this next exhibition, this video series. They all relate. Do I have to be more flexible? Is it by chance? It is a kind of curatorial process in a way.
VG: They relate to the present.
MT: Right. I would say it's probably my present. I see things. I have a lot of access which allows that, and I am a person that looks - I see what's going on and I talk to a lot of people. I take a lot of different perspectives, I look at the galleries, I talk to the artists, I look at the movies that are being made, I am thinking. I am very active. But I would say that it is really a personal perspective of what is topical to me. So in a way there is a fine line between cultural production, curating and art maker. I mean, in the way I am curating, one might consider it, if they looked at it in a different way, it could be an art project. I am very interested in this idea of a perspective, and how things change with the viewer and also with different platforms and how they adjust to the platform appropriately. I am interested in conversation and speaking to the public that you are approaching.
VG: It also has to do with the idea of frameworks, and context related work or theme... And then also, I think, there is the question about distribution, dissemination and documentation, how do you consider those issues in relation to your making?
MT: Well, it's integral (laughter). Basically it's the chicken and the egg. There is a basic concept, and then the concept can include how you are going better realise that concept, and how you are going to distribute that concept. And how not to undermine the original concept, but be able to adjust different modes of distribution. What were you trying to do could be right, or it could be the opposite way around it. It can be that you are interested in distribution, as the concept, and then you go around and learn that you have to go around the other way. How is art best distributed? You are addressing the missions of the individual platform - platform meaning the starting point of the conversation or the market even - that you are trying to distribute. So, it's always about identifying what it is that you are working with, and how.
VG: You talk a lot about conversation, and that's part of the work, part of the process, part of the outcome as such. What role does it really have in the actual work, or, is there a 'final product' in some ways?
MT: Well I think in the conversation it allows for there is this idea of sharing information and growing. I find people don't always share; people are not talking to each other, or sharing information even though they believe in sharing information. I think conversation can also be about addressing any issue, so say a gallery is struggling - they are interested in this art but they are struggling with how to sell this work. The conversation should be about the work. "How does it work?" Not, "what is this work, how does it fit into my communication with that gallery, what is the relationship to the other artists they work with?" And if it's not working on this platform then how can I best distribute it, so it can adjust to the market? I think there are many markets, and art doesn't have to be undermined by this art market. But we have to have a conversation about the art market... You can be outside it, but it has to be there. The conversation does not have to be about what's so different, but what are the similarities and there are many different ways to distribute information, and some are best left in an art practice after all.
Some conversations are about an artwork's development and they need to be nurtured and then they can be made into bigger ideas that can be contextualised inside a public market. So all is about conversation (laughter). That's why I don't really believe in experimenting within the 'public domain', because I think the commercial market undermines the practice of the artist. It's a good experiment here, within a group of peers, and it allows things to grow, and something leaking to the public will allow further growth and conversation. You can't say, "Why don't you show my project in the gallery?"; it undermines the market to put it in the gallery because then the critics and/or the public will say: "New media is impossible to show." But new media is not impossible to show and or market.
I am really about identifying, simplifying things, shedding away, being specific, bringing the idea across and using all possible means to reach a broader public, and develop stronger markets and stronger relationships with the artists, and also more relevant ways to distribute their work. I think there is an interesting idea, especially with artists who are using, say, moving image or performance based work, not performance in the traditional form of performance but theatrical, or, doing some kind of mass-media, DJ-type projects, that the idea of the manager actually plays a better role in supporting the production and distribution of that work than the gallery or market can. It's identifying where the work really would drive. And I do that in my exhibitions. Basically what I do is try to show the work as best I can within the context. So, if it's a performance and theatrical, I go all the way to show it theatrically, then I show the object in the gallery, and I show the moving image in the theatre, and I do the performance in the streets, and I do publications, and I do downloadable media, for sale media, one of a kind, or multiple editions... etc. So I try to show it the best way I can so other people can see that's possible.
VG: Yeah, I am quite interested also in being here in New York, the specificity of working here, and the kind of difficulties in relation to probably other locations, territories, places you work - maybe you want to talk a bit about that?
MT: It's a little funny, I don't really curate in New York. I mean I curate only in non-profits in NY, and otherwise I am commercial. I work in NY. I lend my experience as a curator, and my eye to collections, and I deal with professional issues with artists, and I work within the commercial realm of the galleries, because it's a commercial city. I mean I look at it creatively. There are some gallery dealers that are very talented artists. And I look at their ways of producing and I look at that in my curatorial practice. It's really complex because it's such a market driven city. And space is limited, and it costs money, the social dynamic, the networks. You have to be very directed. I very rarely curate commercial gallery shows for instance. But I am curating selling exhibitions which are interesting. That's how lot of curators support themselves, this way. So I guess, I define a different thing. Even though I came to curating almost as a vocation, which is supposed to be money making, I don't look at curating itself as my money maker (laughter). I think about it as follows: the skills that come along with curating allow me to make money. And NY is all about money.
VG: But you work here in non-profit, or with non-profit organisations?
MT: Yeah. I have. After Moving Image Gallery, my original gallery, I started consulting with museums about how to show new media, and I curated at New Museum, Exit Art, White Box, and many other places. All of the places I 'should' have curated in NY, I have. I haven't curated here [at Eyebeam] (laughter). There are so many places where you can have presentations. And there is a different kind of currency in that conversation. NY is really strong as a network. You have many places and you can go out of your normal group. Where I curate, it's like a web/network. So you have one interest, and there are lots of other zones or other communities in which you can have conversations. In NY we have a lot of people in one place that can allow for a lot of possible developments, which could then take place all over the world. I think NY is a good melting pot, it would be difficult unless you are really social, unless you are really into this social network of galleries and want to curate about your own interests. In NY you could curate in different commercial galleries but you would have to curate from the gallery's stable of artists, and the work has to be sellable, it would be a selling exhibition. Or you have to be in an institution. I like to play on all the playgrounds. So NY is difficult in that way. I tend to separate my work. NY is my home place and I am able to do consulting work here and it's a port: art is always coming in and out of NY. So everywhere I go there is always someone that's just passed through. But I guess the financial constraints in NY are a problem for art making. There are fewer artists here, working here. They have to go some place else to afford a studio. Say if you establish yourself here then why not, go somewhere else to work/make art.
VG: Maybe one more thing. Just the idea about this 'other' art, or something progressive, or something 'new', is that relevant for you to look for?
MT: New art?
VG: New possibilities perhaps.
MT: Yeah, well. I was talking with somebody yesterday, a young curator actually. (Aside: I also do that a lot, I bring in many different curators to work on my projects, or different cultural developers, and look at where their strengths are, and they can work out what they are interested in about curating, because usually the exhibitions are really broad, so there are a lot of areas in which they can go.) But I was talking about art with her a little bit, and we said, "it all looks the same!" By which, I mean, all the good art (laughter). Good art, now, what is good art? Well, I don't look for the new, no. I don't like newness. I look for the artist's voice and the art, the strength of the art. It's really a traditional way of working, even in new media. I see what they are trying to say, what their personal dialogue is with the work. And their mastery of the medium that they're using, and where it's going. And if it can grow, then where? I look for the longevity of it. So I am open to almost anything that strikes me, and I know it when I see it. I always just say: "That's hot." It could be the collaboration the work has with its environment or the elements work especially well together. Or it's a really tight production, and the artists are all working at this, at the same time, the best they can to achieve this one project. That's hot. That's perfect to see that. And to see what's going to happen with that. There are sometimes works that I don't like that are especially good on that level. And I'm like: "Wow! That's really good." I mean it doesn't turn me on, but it's really good work for what they are trying to do, and the historical relevance of the work and so on. I am always open to every possibility in art making. I don't look for new. Never. I am old school! (laughter).
Beryl Graham: You have been talking about different means of distribution, and different kind of platforms. Talking a little bit more about your work, can you describe a project that you thought worked out really well, in terms of its means of distribution? Or can you name a specific piece?
MT: Ah, every piece I've done (laughter). It's all fantastic. No. I think there are really significant exhibitions that I think worked out particularly well. Copy it, steal it, share it as I mentioned, worked out particularly well in Istanbul for the biennial. And I worked with Anne Barlow as my assistant curator. We collaborated, and that worked well because of the integration of artists using different media, but in a "contemporary way". And also, going into the street. And how it related back to the show. It maps on the street, and there is work inside the gallery and it was totally connected.
Public Execution (public.exe: Public Execution) was a fantastic exhibition. I worked with Anne Ellegood, Anthony Huberman, and Defne Ayas. I came up with the concept and the way the exhibition was initially structured. And we used the gallery space, we had pieces that needed the windows of the gallery space. We did interventions inside of the exhibition itself, a performance by Tobias Bernstrup, a big theatrical thing that happened inside of this monument, or "gallery space". We had Paper Rad doing a publication that was distributed throughout the whole city. There were performances in Bryant Park. I mean it was extensively out there, and all came back around in one website on which everything was documented. Things that were growing, continue to generate online. There is an online component that was specific to the net. And so that I thought was brilliant as an exhibition, and worked well as a production. Because there were lots of people working on it and coming with different interests. So the panel series even worked well, with people discussing things that they're interested in.
Democracy is Fun was a really fun show. Some people would say it wasn't a successful exhibition. But I thought it was the most successful exhibition in some ways. All these different actions and exhibitions were happening about democracy all over the city. So why would I do another show about democracy necessarily? What I did was I curated a bunch of exhibitions. I put together all their exhibitions, and I put them all online. And then I took a work from each exhibition and put it in the gallery space. And then there was this kind of democratic approach to how people got information about the shows and about all these different actions that were happening also on the street. And from the new works that were brought in it kind of grew. And also, there was a video editing programme that's online that people could build their own movies. Though the exhibition people thought I cheated because I curated other people's exhibitions, but it was brilliant, why not?! (laughter). The fact that it's all online didn't take away from the exhibition itself. In fact, some of the exhibitions were better online than they were in their exhibition spaces. Because you got to see what everybody was talking about, and actually see the work. Each website, each exhibition, also had a place for a blog or whatever. But I dumbed it down a little bit so that people didn't have to be blogging all the time and think it's just chatting with each other. And on the website, there were artworks that were not there in the exhibition, that they could add to.
BG: Of the exhibitions that you mentioned, such as the one with Paper Rad and a lot of curators: is that what you can describe as collaborative curating?
MT: It was. For a while I was doing all these tasks. I liked the idea of production. I wrote the structure, and then I ran the team of people that produced it, just like a movie production team or something. I brought in different people who did those tasks - they were interested in different areas of producing. At that time I wanted to use radio, but had never dealt with radio, so Anthony Huberman came in and dealt with radio and had big discussions about radio. Public Execution (public.exe) was even funny because .exe means an executable file so everything was meant to be executed, publicly executed. So the whole thing of the public and the production is important. I would argue with critics about it. In fact, it should have been curated by Post Media network (laughter). Because the network actually was also this umbrella of all different types of producers and makers. But everybody wants their name on something. So, it's "curated by ____" all these different people. Next time I do something like that there will be a label "produced by _____" and then give everybody this. With public.exe I did give it its own web site. So there was this idea of it that it was a production. I like this idea of the team; I don't like collaborative projects as much as the idea of production teams. I don't think a production team is collaborative either. I think that it is because there is something that you're aiming for, there is a point. Say someone said, "I want to make a movie about flower growing." In the process of that you would get other people to produce this flower growing film. A collaboration would be one person saying "Oh, I want to do a film about two flowers." And another person says "I had this idea of the flower growing in the street." Then it'll change again. You know what I mean? Instead, I lay down an idea and how I would like it to be structured, and ask: "Are you interested in that?" "Yeah, I'm interested in that." So if you are interested, then we build it from there.