If that Biennial was end-times dystopian, this one—officially themeless—has a wryly self-aware neo-hippie outlook to it. Group experimentation is back. So is aimless fun. As for earnest ideas about sweeping change and remaking society—still working on it. “There’s a certain wariness of grand revolutionary gestures and a great skepticism about the efficacy of art put into the service of a doctrine,” says Huldisch. “It’s not really an adolescent gesture per se,” says Momin, “as much as a rethinking of failed systems.”
For the Biennial, the pseudonymous Dexter Sinister (pamphleteers Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt), for example, has invited 25 other artists and writers to craft press releases, which they will then broadcast in some shape or form at the Park Avenue Armory, a fortress that the Whitney has commandeered to provide a staging ground for these “expanded practices.” Eduardo Sarabia, an L.A. artist who also works out of Berlin and Guadalajara, is setting up a bar, with artist peers as bartenders, that will serve tequila.
It was, in fact, while scouting out Sarabia’s bar–cum–performance project in Berlin late this spring that Momin and Huldisch found time to talk to Backström, in the basement of another collaborative space called unitednationsplaza.
So, good news: Going out for drinks, staying up way past bedtime, and cooking a late-night meal for the half-dozen barely employed artists hanging around your apartment now are performative rites rich with aesthetic meaning and profound implications. The bar is “an artistic node.” Your photocopied feuilleton initiates “routes of exchange.”
This may all sound somewhat familiar to anyone who remembers the New York scene of the seventies, with artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and his Food restaurant in Soho. Today’s local-gestures pioneers know the reference: Most of them went to art school.
In the windowless Whitney offices, Momin and Huldisch further explain networked practice. Momin has pulled her heels up underneath her on a swivel chair, while Huldisch, hands clasped, sits facing me. Artists don’t just make objects anymore—though they may do that too—but also often act as curators, inviting other artists to play along. It’s an updated version of the fashionable late-nineties art term “relational aesthetics,” which basically means art that involves people hanging out and interacting. Its most famous practitioner is Rirkrit Tiravanija, who cooked Thai curry for gallerygoers.
For this Biennial, Backström went a step further and asked the curators to do part of her job: Under her instruction, they sculpted clay letters to accompany wallpaper of the Whitney logo.
“There is a fabric that is social and intellectual connecting a lot of these people,” says Huldisch, citing “culinary gatherings like Agathe Snow is organizing: She is doing a big dinner as part of the Armory—”
“—in collaboration with Rita Ackermann, whom she’s often worked with, which we didn’t know,” adds Momin. (Snow also makes assemblages from found debris, and orchestrates dance marathons; Ackermann’s collage-paintings tie in loosely to her other group activities, such as puppet shows and art-rock concerts.)
Over salads at Sarabeth, the Whitney’s fusty in-house café, we continue our discussion of these various collaborations, as snow falls on top of plywood in the museum’s sculpture court. It forms the base of Fritz Haeg’s beaver pond, one of twelve local animal habitats the L.A. artist (who works out of a geodesic dome) is installing. Later comes plastic lining and water. “It’s all animals that were indigenous to this exact location but have found other ways to be here—or are no longer here,” explains Momin. “It’s supposed to feel constructed, more like a zoo. There won’t be any beavers, though you won’t necessarily know that.” Haeg is also organizing a special workshop for each animal and twelve “animal movements,” performed by choreographers whose dances will spontaneously erupt throughout the museum. (Drew Heitzler’s wife, Flora Wiegmann, will be dancing the bald eagle.) Lunch winds down, and we all check voice mail: Momin pulls out an iPhone, Huldisch a battered Motorola.
Networked practices are finding their public now, thanks in part to a new breed of curators willing to go native. Because for much of this stuff, you had to be there—and not just there, as in, at the gallery opening, but there, in the apartment where Agathe Snow was cooking or in that basement bar in Berlin. The curator’s job, then, is to repurpose these meetings of like-minded souls. In the past, curators such as the Met’s Henry Geldzahler contentedly dove into happenings, but rarely did they restage them in the museum. As art becomes projects and practices, curators are turning into producers.
Momin, 34, was branch director of the Whitney at Altria for eight years, until the midtown space closed in January. Huldisch, who often works with film and video, started at the museum in 2001, just out of NYU’s film-studies program. Originally from Hamburg, she came here after receiving a first master’s in American studies at Berlin’s Humboldt University. While Huldisch, 36, says few of her important life decisions were planned, Momin has known she wanted this job, or something like it, since her senior year of boarding school, when she took a revelatory art- history course at Choate, which led to her attending art-history powerhouse Williams College. Thelma Golden, herself an indefatigable curator, hired her as an assistant in 1996; Momin has been at the Whitney ever since. “We share a quality that at its best is unbounded passion and at its worst complete dogged relentlessness,” says Golden, who is now director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “What I love about Shamim is that she feels she can do anything. She is somewhat tireless.”