Interview with James Voorhies of Bureau for Open Culture

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Opening reception for "Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven" on April 5, 2011 at Bennington College

James Voorhies is the Director and Chief Curator of Bureau for Open Culture (BOC). BOC operates through exhibitions, screenings, performances, and informal discussions that happen in and outside of the gallery space. Working with a variety of collaborators, Voorhies has sought to question the role of institutions in the dissemination of various art practices. I got to know Voorhies when we collaborated on the BOC’s The New Administration of a Fine Arts Education, a conversation series with leading individuals of contemporary art that took place at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. This spring and summer, BOC will present two projects. Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, from April 5-29th at Bennington College, and I Am Searching for Field Character, presented at Mass MoCA this summer. Incorporating a series of public conversations, performances, installations, workshops and a beer garden, BOC will be bringing artists, writers, designers and thinkers to North Adams, Massachusetts to explore the economic and social character of the cultural laborer. I took this opportunity to talk to him about BOC and his hopes for the future of his organization.


How would you describe the mission of Bureau for Open Culture?

The mission is to reconsider the art exhibition as a new kind of learning site. We don’t necessarily prioritize the gallery as a site for engaging with art or seek to provide an absolute conclusion to the ideas exhibitions raise. To do this, BOC welcomes people from disciplines outside of the usual visual arts⎯landscape architecture, literature, philosophy, design and activism⎯to intermingle. We produce projects that take place in storefronts, gardens, libraries and unused industrial spaces within a wider consideration of the nature of contemporary art and culture.

The exhibitions are made with an awareness of the effect that an art institution⎯as a physical space and a concept⎯has on how art is produced and how people experience it. A lot of my interests in the structural behavior of the art institution come out of watching organizations like Office of Contemporary Art Norway, Shedhalle in Zurich and IASPIS in Stockholm. These are institutions of critique that have taken up the kind investigations of institutions found in artistic practices like those of Michael Asher, Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser. These institutions were not long ago categorized loosely within a term called “New Institutionalism.” But, I don’t think that term is used so much today.

Using alternative spaces, Bureau for Open Culture tends to mediate more strongly or maybe less didactically between visitors and art. Moving the action out of the gallery is one way we do this, but I also care about what viewers will get out of a connection with a visiting artist or a talk. For example, the collective artist Claire Fontaine participated in the exhibition Descent to Revolution. Part of their contribution to the exhibition was to give a talk related to Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. I organized a weekly reading group for Lyotard’s book with about 10 to 12 participants who discussed the book, which is really difficult to grasp, alongside images of work by Claire Fontaine. We had participants from all sorts of backgrounds⎯students of philosophy and comparative studies, activists and visual artists. We did this over the course of five to six weeks in a kind of preparation for Claire Fontaine’s visit to Columbus. While we did not devour the book as much as one could, the reading group created an investment and interest in Claire Fontaine. We had an incredible turnout for their talk, a great conversation. The talk took place in an unused storefront space where other projects and actions were occurring during the course of the exhibition. It was late October and the rundown space with its leaking ceiling and lack of heat helped reduce the formal effect of the institution to put audience and artists on closer levels. I really liked the whole experience.

There are also lots of private moments between visiting artists and the community. Those moments, to me, are as important as the public engagement. So, all of this combined is what I mean by rethinking the exhibition as a new kind of learning site.

Photographic documentation "The Aftermath" by Cassandra Troyan in foreground with "Images or Shadows of Divine Things" by Gerard Byrne in background, from the exhibit "Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven"

You have described the Bureau as a “nomadic institution,” but you have also been connected to colleges and universities. Do you consider yourself a curator, an educator or both?

Both. Without defining what is either. An educator is very much a curator⎯pulling information from different sources, contextualizing it and presenting it to a group of individuals. As a curator I want BOC exhibitions to be a form of learning without presenting ideas in a formal way. The nature of BOC is to work in this space of uncertainty. Is it an exhibition program? Is it an institution? An artist? It’s everything. There is a lot of value in not defining something too rigidly in order to allow for things to happen unexpectedly. I think that space of uncertainty is productive.

How do you develop your ideas for exhibitions?

The ideas sometimes come from an interest in place⎯where I have visited or where I am living⎯and out of what ideas seem prescient at the moment. For instance, Descent to Revolution was about the urban space of Columbus. We invited six collectives that did not live there⎯most from outside the US⎯to give a perspective of a place that only one has when they do not live there. Many of the artists were drawn to issues related to urban planning, development, traffic congestion, parking. Red76 and Learning Site ended up making projects in two separate parking lots. The very nature of these works disrupted the places where people park their cars. It became a statement about transportation, about excessive reliance on the automobile. I loved it. Some of my critique or problems with the city⎯not just Columbus but many ways cities are developed⎯was communicated through the work produced by these artists.

Calling Beauty looked at an expanded notion of what is painting today. It was a response to critics of my exhibitions who wanted to see something inside the gallery, rather than outside. So why not use painting, one of the most conventional forms of practice and typically viewed inside a gallery. But I put a twist on it to show expansive notions of painting and the way artists have built upon the problems of painting⎯the need for it to represent life. Since everything in Descent to Revolution took place outside the gallery, Calling Beauty was also responsive to that scenario, to bring it all back inside the gallery for a renewed discourse about what is painting in relation to the everyday.

What was the inspiration for your current exhibition, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven?

Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven was inspired by the connections we have with the Internet and social network technologies. It’s about how we relate to the passage of time when the content of material cultures and spatial experiences that once helped us define a moment is always accessible. For example, we no longer spend lots of time searching for that music, that record or that tape or book. We can either listen immediately to it online or click-and-buy and it’s at our door. So, the exhibition traces a kind of lose genealogy from Modernism, postmodernism into what is referred to today as super-hybridity. It also looks at how our culture is now completely mashed up⎯high and low⎯ because of this constant accessibility to information and ideas. Seventh Dream performs that inquiry with a music video by Swedish artist Johannes Nyholm alongside Mark Leckey’s Fiorruci Made Me Hardcore and Pipilotti Rist’s I’m A Victim of This Song. Music video plays a role in each of those works, from the more obvious Nyholm (which is a music video) to Leckey’s collage of videos that includes images of 1970s televised dance-a-thons, possibly the earliest music videos, to Rist doing a parody of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Isaak’s music video was directed by Herb Ritts and overtly conflated pop culture and advertising and lifestyle. In the early ‘90s that was less common than it is now⎯in part because of the Internet.

Dennis McNulty's "Facetime" with his video "Carbon Dating," overlooking Bennington campus

You have an online presence, but always produce a book or catalog to accompany your exhibitions. How do these platforms operate for you? Do you think the Bureau will ever have an exclusively online presence outside of the exhibitions?

The catalogs provide an additional opportunity for further engagement with the work and the exhibition. I also see them as expanding the idea of the exhibition because they often include commissions by artists and reprints of essays by writers and theorists like Susan Sontag and Michel Foucault. The explanatory texts give context for the art. But I also I attempt to give reasons for why all this work is gathered together.

The catalogue for Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven performs an element of the pastiche I was talking about. It is a theatrical production with three acts and a prologue. I am the narrator. Stage directions are provided. In the prologue the tone is set in which a conversation ensues among Clement Greenberg, Jean Baudrillard, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, myself and others about the demise of postmodernism. Jennifer Allen of Frieze also contributes to the performance. She is quoted from an incredible issue of Frieze last fall that addressed this condition of super-hybridity. All the text in the performance is pulled from essays, altered just slightly to accommodate a conversational tone and put together in a pastiche⎯enacting one of the characteristics of postmodernism. The three acts that describe the art are more straightforward so as not to overshadow the work. The book has a work by the artist Mary Lum that only takes shape in printed matter because it is related to a wallpaper book made by Le Corbusier in the late 1930s and early 1950s. The theatrical performance-cum-catalogue also has original musical scores written with lyrics from George Orwell’s 1984. The musician brothers Danny and David Tuss whose band is called Umbrella Men wrote the music for the words I gave to them from 1984.

The publication for "Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven"

So, the publication is a learning device extending not only the life of the exhibition after it has closed but also expanding on the content and understanding and presenting work only found in the publication.

I don’t envision Bureau for Open Culture having only an online presence. Everything I do is about connecting with people. While I appreciate the communication reach of the Internet and Facebook (BOC utilizes them to disperse information freely, including publication downloads) I find a lot of value in talking with artists, experiencing their work in person. I like being around people, so all of the behind-the-scenes aspects of connecting with one another in the process of producing a public exhibition are as desirable to me as what that exhibition is. Curators operate in this space of needing a final public forum to validate what they do, and if you were just to go about what you do without having a public presentation⎯even though real connections between visitors, artists and local constituents were made⎯it wouldn’t seem legitimate. Or, it would have to be framed differently. So I am working within this necessity to have a public presence but also emphasize process.

You recently decided to move to North Adams, MA after having lived in New York, San Francisco and Columbus, OH. How does the absence of an urban environment influence your curatorial vision?

While the area is rich in art and culture, the access to a real-time experience of art and the energy of a place like New York, for example, isn’t here on such a concentrated basis. So we are receiving that information through the NY Times, online, or art journals. I think it’s good because it gives me time and the mental space to contemplate and write and think. It is valuable because I find that more work is getting accomplished. There is a vibrant vein of culture and connectivity in the arts that exists here with all the art and academic institutions⎯Williams, Bennington, MASS MoCA, the Clark. I like the disjuncture of all of it and how people and institutions have learned to intermingle with one another. It’s inspiring in terms of thinking about how our world is changing from these different economies of manufacturing goods to producing knowledge. It’s North Adams that inspired the work for Open Engagement in May and for MASS MoCA this summer.

Your project at MASS MoCA, I Am Searching for Field Character, has BOC reclaiming the industrial buildings for a series of installations, workshops, public conversations, and the most important part, a beer garden. What was BOC’s interest in this project?

Everyone loves the beer garden! I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

I was searching for a small space to operate out of here in North Adams. I approached MASS MoCA about it because they have so much space and eventually I met with the curator Susan Cross. Coincidentally she was working on an exhibition called The Workers that looks at representations of labor in the work of contemporary artists. Similar interests in labor had been filling my time because I was working on a project for Open Engagement related to immaterial and material labor of North Adams, changing economies⎯like I mentioned. She invited me to propose a series in conjunction with her exhibition. It was perfect. So, I put together a series of modules that include Red76, Temporary Services, Dylan Gauthier, Kendra Sullivan, Sarah Cowles and Sarah Pierce. Over the course of four months Bureau for Open Culture will inhabit this beautiful old industrial space in the back of the MASS MoCA complex. I will work in that space all summer but we will also present work, hold screenings, conversations and performances related to what is cultural labor, the precarious economic conditions of the immaterial worker and the history of workforces in the very site that is the museum today. It will be an everything kind of space that allows a level of uncertainty to exist and therefore instigate new learning experiences with art.

Future site of Bureau for Open Culture at MASS MoCA from May 26 to September 30, 2011

And, of course, Bureau for Open Culture: >Beer Garden. It will operate on a practical level, providing outdoor space for people to gather. It will also give a source of economy for paying participants. Red76’s Bartleby’s Pen will draw on that aspect in particular. Sam Gould has invited artists, writers and activists on a number of Friday nights through September to join in the operation of the beer garden. >Beer Garden will shape-shift into Bartleby’s Pen. And when things settle down on those evenings a talk will be given alongside the concrete banks of the river, just outside the Bureau’s space. The talk will manifest in a printed book, made on-site by Red76. So visitors to the beer garden will have a chance to sample local brew and engage on an intimate, informal level with folks like Sam, Joseph Del Pesco, Steve Lambert, Matthew Stadler and others. It’s going to be nice⎯an excellent summer of fun. I Am Searching for Field Character embodies many of the ideas I am interested in with Bureau for Open Culture.

Lisa Dent is Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Columbus Museum of Art