Ten questions from Raven Falquez Munsell for curator Sam Korman regarding his exhibition Garden Show.
Let’s start at the beginning, tell me a bit about your curatorial approach and how this show came together. Did you have a group of artists in mind, or did you begin with the concept first?
In hindsight, the show started from a fairly personal place for me. When I moved to New York, I made a rule for myself that I would only read books about or set within the city. One of those books was The Power Broker the biography of Robert Moses. That was a really key introduction to New York, which, having experienced it in movies, and other books, and art and art history—ok, really the most dominant vision of the city for me came through Woody Allen—didn’t quite add up to the New York that I was experiencing at the time. Add in a general curiosity about how the city represents a system that contains so many different people, lives, viewpoints…and, at a time when I was (and am) figuring out my place here, well, somehow parks felt central to this. It was a de facto place to go, and I was lucky enough to find an apartment two blocks south of Prospect Park. It was a place in which I saw the questions I had about New York playing out, but more in the sense of play, than in the sense of rupturous conflict; more in the space of pleasure, which lends a critical agency to the interactions taking place. And that always has to do with language and metaphor and social structures to me—it always relates back to art in that way—how to make spaces available to people, how they can bring something of themselves to this space, how they claim it, how they find pleasure in it, how they examine it, etc. Oh, and there’s other details that are always nice motivations, like it being a summer show, and the initial joke (to me) of being really literal and flat-footed about titling. So often, that’s where it starts for me, and then I’m pulling my hair out months later, asking myself, “Is it still funny anymore?”
Anyway, once I decided on parks, I did more research, as well as spoke with the artists. I brought stuff about Robert Moses, Olmsted, the NYC water system, and Jane Jacobs to the table, but for this show, the conversations with the artists really drove the direction. There were a few people I really wanted for the show, and then it grew from there. People who dealt directly with public parks and spaces—Tom Burr, Frank Heath, Dan Graham, Elizabeth Orr, Oto Gillen—and people who worked through the various narratives I felt the parks represented, such as bucolic provincial life and its attendant moral values and solemnity, the eroticism of nature, the radical potential of public space and protest, the self-monitoring and voyeurism of parks, etc. Garden Show, as a title, I don’t think represents all of this. I think it’s relevant to the conversations, but as the exhibition shifted in focus from a literal engagement with the parks, to a more encompassing metaphor, I might wish that I changed the title to reflect it. I’m happy with its rather simply stated effect, though, as it still hones your attention on green space, and doesn’t get in the way of anything. I also like the implicit competition the title suggests, it sounds a bit of irony or sadness.
As someone who is deeply invested in writing, will you talk about the role that writing and research play when you’re putting together an exhibition? How do see the your text operating in tandem with the show?
Rather than research, I’d say what I do is reading. It’s a little bit more open, and the exhibitions I organize and texts that I write are readings of various materials—I think it’s a more generous way to look at it, and more honest, as I don’t usually start from a traditional, academic research situation. And there’s so much contradictory garbage going into my fucking face all the time that I want to try to fit it together in all its friction and complexity—I mean, I think it’s important to measure art against other cultural production, as well.
If anything, I’m coming from the more catholic, observational eye of a fiction or essay writer. It’s a reading of the world, and often I am trying to invent a fiction, a setting, a place wherein a character(s) could interact, and which would elucidate a public to whom the show might be relevant. Working this way helps to focus on things like mood and tone, stuff that’s generally more literary and cinematic than curatorial. A show-don’t-tell situation in which the exhibition’s themes have more to do with affective states, and evanesce into a person’s life and vision and language and, in particular, experience.
In the end, there’s lots of personal stuff in there, but I think this loose method admits this information in an interesting and relevant way. In lieu of the disembodied institutional voice that research, in the strictest sense, implies, I am able to reconcile these materials and conversations against my own personal experience. This felt really important within Garden Show, because I frequently enjoy myself at the park, and find that in its day-to-day functions, the park does this for many people. I’d otherwise have fallen on more of a critical tone and focus in both the show and the text if I did not stick close to this idea of pleasure, and to try to articulate why it’s a complicated feeling to reconcile with the various other factors that play out, in, through, and around it. And with that in mind, it really mirrored a lot of feelings I had about art and the art world—not sure I would’ve drawn that conclusion otherwise. I don’t know that it would’ve arrived at metaphor like it did. And the idea of metaphor, as well as trying to develop one, helped me create a proxy to understand and articulate these ideas.
As far as how this particular text interacts with the exhibition, I would say that it operates in tandem, providing a wider context for the artworks and conceit, rather than a directly expository curatorial statement. In general, I want people to be able to draw their own conclusions from it, just like I would hope the show allows that to happen, and allows the artworks to function, etc. etc. There’s a part of me that wishes I had a little bit more rigor, would just come right out and say it, and that my research was conducted a little bit more methodically. There are ways that I can see the text and exhibitions benefitting from that—already, I’ve seen three different artists I was previously unaware of that would’ve made excellent contributions. And, I would’ve liked to write more about Olmsted and the Transcendentalists, and I wish I had developed the idea of the provinces/provincialism a little bit more, too. Ah well, I think that it still conveys what I was hoping to convey, and on some level, I need to embrace the collection of accidents that comes of culture.
You write in your essay about the historical promise that urban parks contribute to the health and wellness of a city and its population. Some of the works in Garden Show invert the idea that the park provides for the residents of the city by positioning the curator and gallerists as groundskeepers for the art. Artworks by Lena Henke, Petrova Giberson, Alex Felton and Jason Benson all require some amount of care-taking to complete and maintain the work — will you say more about these pieces and their role in the show?
At first, I thought you were talking about Alex Felton’s sculpture in the gallery (1/144 MG Ecophagic Apocalypse), and I wanted to build this big image about care-taking and imagination—as a maquette, viewers would need to imagine it at its proposed 250 foot scale. I realize now that it’s the cardboard work outside (City Floor Cardboard Melt-aways, 2016), which is an ironic version of caretaking. The gallery was responsible for keeping a piece of cardboard wet for the duration of the exhibition. It was outdoors, so the care translated into a slight public hazard, or, at least a gross and creepy intersection of art and the public space of the sidewalk. Mike and Natalie certainly were the groundskeepers of that piece in particular, perhaps to an annoying level, because it required a thorough soaking every couple of hours. All of this is to say, I haven’t really thought that much about how the idea of caretaking plays out within the individual artworks.
In contrast to this, Lena’s work was cast on-site. I brought the mold, and, after several conversations about the pieces, and some quick casting instructions, I made all of the boobs there. There’s a little bit of wallpaper glue mixed in with the sand and water, which helps them hold their form, but in the end, they react to environmental conditions, and begin to fall apart. That’s perhaps more in line with Olmsted’s conception of the parks, that he would set something in motion, and it would become its own overgrown chaos. Care was sort of letting it be.
Petrova’s work is perhaps the closest thing to caretaking in the sense that Mike, Natalie, and I transported sand from different beaches to the gallery; then the sandbags themselves became the stewards of the sand, before it would be dispersed yet further. In this case, it was more of a ritual of care, and as a necessary condition for the works’ existence, and a built-in, performative action, well, it follows like a script in a way. It did involve me doing something uncomfortable, which was walking off from public beaches with buckets of sand, and lugging them 10 blocks, and then carting them across five states in a rental car—but then I came to rest when the art was doing its share of the work.
I think the interesting part about these works, and the part that would ordinarily make me a little uncomfortable as a viewer, is the fact that they require some participation or collusion on the part of the host or viewer. It’s hard to make this voluntary—I frequently balk at this tactic within galleries, partly out of an awkward or inflated sense of myself; weird shame in group situations; and partly because I don’t want to do the work for the artist, or accept this gesture as earnestly generous. It’s actually a complicated exchange, but it’s this somewhat democratic experience that parks do so well: there’s a sense of mutual ownership, that your activities and time spent with it result in a public discourse or just public life. I might want to forget that art is also a public in which I participate, and white cubes or large institutions, as well as the disembodied academic voice creates and teaches this neutral position of a viewer.
Parks, on the other hand, are more explicitly public and more explicitly deal with some of these concerns. They do a great job of making public life feel voluntary and healthy—they exchange duty for enjoyment, nature, edification, contemplation, pleasure, or they highlight these as part of the otherwise tedious duties of public life. At the same time, there’s a barrier for entry for such voluntariness: you must visit during the day, you must have time during the day, you must be involved in a list of sanctioned activities, etc. They are not immune to the surrounding social conditions, as Jane Jacobs takes pains to remind us, nor do parks fix them. If you are a person of color, it often means something different to participate in a public discourse such as the park. Instead of the voluntary participation, there’s a heavy awareness of the conditions of participation. If someone has to work seven days a week, he or she is excluded from the park. Or, if someone is walking through the park at night, to get home from work, to expedite the trip back from the bar, to hook up, or even just to get out of the house and cool off, all those other conditions are heightened under various social, institutional, formal, and informal conditions. And these issues cannot be left out of a discussion of participation and democracy, because they represent a wider set of values that inform how public life takes place. The parks, however, really absorb all of these different forms of participation—it’s still incomplete, but it’s a broader portrait of all the different reasons to participate. It’s also something that merges private and public desire, something that is too often staged as an inside/outside dichotomy—parks make a public out of making these desires public. They register them, rather than just the normal literary mode of interiority, say.
At the time, I hadn’t found a metaphor for all of this in contemporary rhetoric—I’ve since uncovered Chantal Mouffe’s work about antagonistic democracy, though that’s not quite what I’m aiming at. So, I sidestepped contemporary language and tried to locate metaphors in more historical language: Olmsted and Walt Whitman. These guys directly engaged in a specifically American democracy, and tried to build something out of that. It was partly to do with growing urbanization, as well as the Civil War—two things that truly challenged the great experiment. I might be getting away from myself, or trying to correct myself in hindsight—but nonetheless, they resonated with me. What I am trying to say is that caretaking is another model through which we can define participation, on social terms that are more quotidian, and day-to-day, rather than making these factors more complicated than they already are—the politics of ordinary life. The relationship between art and democracy is often uncomfortable to me, the meritocracy of art at odds with the all-inclusive mandate of democracy. And yet that caretaking doesn’t feel voluntary either, and is represented as a kind of duty. Again, I might be going a little too far here, but hopefully I’ve conveyed my interest in parks, and shared some of my enthusiasm for the types of connections they facilitate. Like, it’s messy, but more fascinating for it.
Urban parks give city-dwellers respite and relief from the oppressive heat of the city, from the grind of daily labor and from the weight of the city’s architecture looming overhead. Where do you (does one?) find respite in Garden Show?
There are definitely some really peaceful works in the exhibition, some that really convey a sort of threshold. Petrova’s works do this really well, I think. The sandbags, especially, though the works with the branches, and her use of color—they all convey a dually restful and unmoored contemplation. Nancy Shaver’s two collaged paintings also translate nature and landscape through the vernacular of fabric and textile design, color—compositionally, they kind of fidget around from the flower cutouts, to their solid wood blocks, to their strips of color…they evoke a landscape to me, a meadow, Upstate.
But there’s also the humor of Dan Graham’s drawing, the little cartoonish man and the abstracted, birds-eye-view perspective on his pavilion—the juxtaposition of the psychedelic/kaleidoscopic with the cartoonish deadpan I find really hilarious. Lena’s sand casts of boobs are also really quite funny, which creates a surreal psychic space…not sure how relieving, I guess. Alex’s cardboard work, while creepy, seems restorative. It quite quickly seeps back into the surroundings, visually and mentally, and relocates this spatial potential for sculpture in its humorous abjection. I liked sitting on the bench outside of the gallery next to Alex’s piece a lot. It reminded me of the pleasant vagrancy and boredom, of letting the city pass in front of you, that I like, and seldom take part in anymore.
I like the way you position art and its social function in parallel to the functionality of a city park. Do you think art has replaced the function of the park?
I don’t think art has replaced this function at all. I go into this idea in a couple of the questions above. I also don’t think the park has replaced art, either.
The main thing, however, is about function and metaphor, and where they overlap in rhetoric. I think what parks do and what art does (or what they are expected to do) are reflective of the prevailing rhetoric of their time. This is a bit obvious or redundant, but in a quick example we can see how the same space took on new meaning over time. Olmsted said that you can only sit quietly or walk slowly through his meandering pathways. Robert Moses comes in seventy years later and installs baseball diamonds and allows people to hang out on the lawns. Parks transformed from contemplative pictures of nature to spaces for leisure activities. Throw Corbusier’s Radiant Cities in the mix, and parks transformed from idealistic generators of self-knowledge and better citizens to democratic playgrounds and fitness centers to panopticons for social welfare…These all feel really top-down to me, but they still use rhetoric (metaphor) to structure (and control) the meaning (and use) of what is otherwise open, relatively unmediated green space within the city (language). In the end, if you put a park in your neighborhood, you’re inviting a semi-uncontrollable space into your life, and that will always challenge the prevailing metaphors and rhetoric, because experience is represented so many different ways—well, it’s also what makes it susceptible to power and all, but then this is also fascinating.
Of course you challenge the idea of the curative and restorative promises of the parks in the show and the text by citing the political and socioeconomic questions surrounding access to parks and leisure. Barbara Ess, Tom Burr and Oto Gillen come to mind immediately as expressing some of the aspects—surveillance, trash, homelessness, cruising—that the park planners may not highlight. Will you say a bit about these works and others that hint at these concepts?
As I mentioned above, something I was thinking about was the ability of the park to host lots of different types of activity, both licit and illicit. I also wanted to gauge a bit how drawing those lines is also slippery and exclusionary. In either case, I was hoping the parks would illuminate these ideas within democracy, as though a proxy for it.
Tom’s piece was really central to my thinking about the show, how it mapped a migration of the art and gay communities throughout the city at a particular time, and how the parks functioned as both a retreat/refuge, and a place they were somewhat forced to go. In this way, the parks function as a cultural thoroughfare and a sequestered area. Tom’s piece is also a lot about pleasure, and while there’s a feeling of loss and melancholy that underscores a lot of the passages and histories he discusses, there’s a real ecstasy in the midst of it.
With Barbara and Oto, they really take place at night, and something I think is also important to understand is this insomniac’s position, and an alternate time signature revolving around these public spaces. Barbara’s looking at these webcams set up on the border with Mexico and taking pictures from her apartment in Soho of horses galloping along the Rio Grande, and Oto is out wandering around the city, which really evokes early 20th and late 19th century narratives for me—something gothic, too. The underlying politics of their images, of course, is what you mentioned, surveillance, trash, the horror-show of technology intertwined with nature and perception. There’s also an aspect of self-monitoring in all of these works, a witnessing and a surveillance between citizens, which I think is an important part of sanctioned public space. It’s something involved in protest and with control.
The city park, as you mention, is susceptible to metaphor and the work in Garden Show is evocative of its pastoral, social, civic and political implications. Are there particular works in the show that you feel bridge the various ideas and paradoxes that arise? Or any works that you feel challenge the thematics of the show?
The first thing that comes to mind is Alex Felton’s City Floor Cardboard Melt-aways, which lives on the outside of the gallery. You know, it’s a piece of cardboard that stays wet and gross on the sidewalk, eventually merging with it, and disintegrating and spreading across it, being traipsed around by some unwitting person’s shoe. I like how this work functions in a low-profile latency, really on the border of an object and the public gesture you might see somewhere else in the city, or, for that matter, on another occasion that Mike and Natalie accidentally leave a piece of cardboard outside. It’s that latency, and how it charges the situation with a little bit more meaning than is otherwise there, that I think parks do really well. Alex’s piece really exists at the fringes of legibility, at least as an artwork, and that also makes it prime to put a name or emotion or association or a feeling to it—prime for language and metaphor.
On certain occasions, I’ve had really amazing natural experiences in public parks—a few weeks in the fall are really stunning in Prospect Park. But overall, my daily, or intermittent experience also involves people, or leafless trees, or a homeless guy washing out his bottles, or rats, or ratty squirrels, or gross ice puddles—all these things come to mind for me, too. One thing I really like about Dan Graham’s Untitled is that the little cartoon in the corner that illustrates a man looking at his quadrupled reflection in Dan’s pavilion, would also show him the quadrupled reflection of the ground. There would also be a bunch of cigarette butts and leaves and grass multiplied, too. I guess I don’t know what to do with all that other stuff, while also being a part of the dominant rhetoric of a place—the void between the individual and the general, I guess. I want to be in both, though I think I usually like to dig into those more latent elements and let them stew there.
A few years ago in Portland, Oregon you organized a show titled Art & Leisure that you installed on the tennis courts of Colonel Summers Park. Will you describe the exhibition? How do you see it relating to Garden Show?
Art & Leisure, like most of my shows, started with the jokey title and went from there. I really wanted to do something on a tennis court, and I wanted it to be a show about abstraction. There was something about rules in there, and that, after I organized the show, also had to do with equating the “tennis” class with the “artist” class—well, what it really opened up for me, through Raymond Williams in particular, was looking at class as a set of shared behaviors and not just economics/earnings. This discourse is definitely more prevalent in the UK, but it was really important to me to see that in the US, and to help me better understand the world I was just beginning to live in, i.e. art. Rules of behavior and those giving rise to a kind of psychological ballet is like tennis to me, and that seemed relevant to a discussion of abstraction, too. Something about value sticks out in this to me now.
I have lost all the documentation, but if I remember correctly it was Alex Felton, Amy Bernstein, Travess Smalley, Darja Bajagic, Alex Mackin Dolan, Israel Lund, Grant McGavin, Zoe Clark, Amy Yao, Margaret Lee, Nick Raffel, and Jasper Spicero designed a website for the show that was really amazing and I commissioned my friend Andre Pinter to design a Pong like game where the paddles were images of the artworks and so was the ball and when the ball hit the paddle both the image on the ball and on the paddle changed. You could play it on the website. All the works were hung on this big wooden wall that was painted green, except a few were sculptures and Zoe’s piece was a series of banners that isolated the word “Pleasure!” from Newport cigarette ads. Those ran along the chainlink fence like sponsored ads.
Well, Felton is in this show and Nick Raffel lives in Chicago and we got to see each other. I am really interested in public spaces, and I think I relish the antagonism, as well as the fascination of being around a lot of different people. For Art & Leisure, it was really important to me that I got a permit to host an event on the courts, and so that we could drink there. I wanted it to be really official, and legally claim that space for me and my friends. I was also a little bit nervous and when some park rangers came, I was happy I had the permit. A lot of it comes from an interest in architecture, wondering how things like Corbusier’s radiant cities were ever supposed to work; it also comes out of skateboarding, which is basically pretty loitering, and it kind of ignores the difference between public and private—though it often bums me out to wreck something at a public park, and gets me excited to wreck something at a corporate skyscraper. It’s boyish and trite, but still informs my movement throughout a city, big or small. I guess, with that said, I am always looking for things outside of art to use as metaphors for things that I see happening within art. And maybe draw a wider cultural, essayistic criticism into the structure. It also lets me be personal. I like tennis and I like parks. Maybe it’s part of the structure of the essay to me, too, which kind of spirals out like a case study and draws from different things. Most of my shows, and Art & Leisure in particular showed this to me, start from writing and the free space of drawing those connections, and the defining of positions.
Also, without dwelling too deeply in your autobiography, we first met when you were in the midst of Carhole Gallery, an exhibition space in your garage. Much of your curatorial life has been lived in artist-run spaces, even as the clout and specifics have shifted. Can you talk about the context of this show being at Regards, which feels somewhere between artist-run (it is) and commercial (it is that too)? Could this show travel to some other young curator’s garage? Or a city park?
I’ve always felt more comfortable in these spaces, in part because they operate on a smaller, more intimate scale, and function through smaller, more intimate communities and conversations. They’re also temporary, which is usually the sad part about them, but also the thing that makes them great when they’re around, and what makes them belong to the people that inhabit them, rather than capitalizing on it and becoming an institution. A much longer conversation, but in general, I sway in this direction.
I was really excited to work with Mike and Natalie, who I met at White Flag Projects, and who were always a joy to talk to and have around and I always looked forward to their visits to St Louis. When they asked me to organize something, I was immediately down to do it. I liked the way they talked about Regards, which always involved the conversations they were having with their artists and friends and what they were looking at in Chicago and elsewhere. And that’s what I experienced working with them, a rambling and excited conversation over the period of almost a year. It was awesome and motivated me, because I knew there were a few people really dedicated to it, to understanding it, and to sharing it with their own conversations.
If someone wanted to put this on in their garage, I would consider it. It might be hard to get a loan on the Dan Graham, but he said yes to the show almost as soon as I started talking about it. Didn’t want to know where it was, or vet the space. Just liked the idea. And Tom Burr was amazing to speak with the entire time, really wanted to dialogue about these ideas and the work that would be produced or adapted to this exhibition. Mike and Natalie were really generous in hosting me and with the resources to put the show together, and as I get older, and can’t always function on the gift-economy or any other immaterial form of exchange, this was also a really important way to show support for a project. Basically, I would want to re-make it for the specific context, based on the available resources. That garage would need to get me there, though!
I’m writing these questions from ACRE, an artist residency located in southwest Wisconsin — an area that did not glaciate during the ice age and as a result is one of the few places in the Midwest with rolling hills and verdant old growth. Here, there are about 60 artists, curators and writers ceaselessly working on a range of projects. Grottos and other installations made by self-taught artists are peppered around the state, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen is just a couple hours away, as are the Poor Farm Experiment and the Kohler Arts Center. There’s a proposal in your exhibition essay that keeps lingering in my head about art being a fundamentally urban thing. I’m certainly going to think about this more while I’m here, but I’d like to hear more from you on this. Do you buy it?
Honestly, it’s something I really struggle with, and some days I buy it, though most other days I don’t. Art has a funny relationship to power, and with regard to cultural power and influence, this is often condensed in a city—at least from a production standpoint. I can’t really ignore that, and I can’t ignore how I am frequently drawn to it, too. I also can’t ignore the freedom of living outside of this very competitive and inhospitable and unstable system, in a life that is a bit more self-determined in the country. On the one hand, in the city, life is generally very public, and in the country, it’s very private. You sacrifice control in the former, you sacrifice conversation in the latter. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but these are the things that have stuck out in my experience of both.
I find that it’s a relationship to scale, and that applies to the size of a gallery, and to the size of a community and conversation. Different types of intimacies are at stake, more or less interesting, and more or less positive. I really skew toward the smaller, intimate scale of artist-run, which is mirrored in the for-us-by-us values of small artist communities away from places like New York or LA or other big cities. But at the same time, I can’t fully valorize that type of working either, as it’s utterly exhausting, and frequently doesn’t pay the bills, or even come close to paying for itself. I just can’t make the claim that it’s the best way to do things, because I think it ignores the complicated ethics of positioning artworks and artists within a wider system of capital and discourse. I find the commercial side of things quite dramatic, open, and public, which can contrast with the sometimes hermetic, isolationist, risk-averse, and un-self-aware tendencies within small communities. There’s also a question of longevity, too, though there’s virtues in the long and short.
With all this said, I think there are lots of ways to be an artist, or live an artist’s life, and I think both a pastoral life and an urban life require more creative definitions of what that work is, what pays for that work, and just how to keep going, or not. In the essay, I lament art’s attachment to power and its management by just a very few people, when, to me, it affords new concepts of what it is to be or make something public (hence, a reference to populism, more commonly attributed to the provinces), that art has become a legislative body, as opposed to a truly public forum. It often seems that way to me, but then it also contains within it the capacity to “make it easier to dream” and therefore think outside of the context in which it finds itself—to sort of undo itself, and its own illusion, as a kind of generosity to the viewer, and an acknowledgement of the viewer’s presence. In any case, the suggestions in the conclusion of the essay are questions to what these things are, without necessarily pinning them down. And I think the viability of a life in art is to be found in this suspension, between the urban and the provincial.
Sam Korman is a writer and curator based in New York.
Raven Falquez Munsell is a curator and writer based in Chicago. She co-directs Trunk Show, a mobile exhibition space and artist bumper sticker project, is a co-founder of Third Object, a peripatetic curatorial collective, and has published in Art Journal.