Published  14/08/2014

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial

Jake Yuzna, director of public programmes at the Museum of Arts and Design, talks to Cindi di Marzo about the wildly diverse entries selected from the city’s creative communities for the museum’s first biennial

Interview with curator Jake Yuzna

Museum of Arts and Design, New York
1 July – 12 October 2014


Ambitious in intent and scope, sprawling in execution, the inaugural biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York has become the talk of the town. Visitors are having great fun with this array of 100 eclectic and occasionally eccentric entries – observable on two floors, as well as in the lifts, on the staircases, in MAD’s theatre and in MAD director Glenn Adamson’s office; served in MAD’s restaurant;1 and even worn by the security guards, who sport vests of knitted plastic tape and sponge yarn by fashion design company Eckhaus Latta.

The hesitant reception in the press may be a result of an extremely elastic definition of “making” and MAD’s radical goal of fostering a “new model for the 21st-century museum as a transparent nexus for skilled production”.

Explaining the immediate impetus for this new series, Adamson says: “When I arrived in New York City last fall to become MAD's director, I was struck by the number of skilled makers – entrepreneurs and small-scale manufacturers – working and thriving in the five boroughs. These creative communities make significant contributions to the city’s economy and quality of life, and I really wanted to give these people a platform. So we chose to focus on New York for the inaugural edition of the biennial as a way to establish MAD’s expanded mission to foster deeper appreciation of the skilled individuals that craft the world around us. In future instalments, MAD will showcase the making communities of other American cities to illuminate how this phenomenon is unfolding throughout the nation.”

Two catalogues were planned for the biennial: one, available now, is modelled on a designer’s process book; the other, collecting “conversations” sparked by the exhibition, will be released after it closes in October. The theoretical framework stated compellingly in the process book might lead us to wonder if such an endeavour could be achieved. After viewing the show, visitors may well conclude that MAD has genuinely been transformed into a magnet for the creative energies of “makers” in New York, a place where we can see culture in the making. Perhaps, then, it is best to consider NYC Makers as an experiment in how far one must push the envelope to reveal truly novel possibilities for the future.

For example, biennial participant Blue Bottle Coffee takes its name from Central Europe’s first coffee house, The Blue Bottle, established in Vienna in 1683 by Franz George Kolshitsky. Blue Bottle Coffee fulfills MAD’s criteria for the highest skill levels, dedication and innovation in its field, yet the inspiration of the coffee house works on a deeper level as a place where artists and writers have, since Kolshitsky’s time, gathered to develop their ideas. Today, artists, designers, manufacturers, distributors, educators and activists continue to use coffee shops as venues for creative development, via new digital tools that not only allow them to envision but realise a project by inhabiting all these roles, as entrepreneurs, if they choose.

Visitors will find many other entries that are rarely, if ever, seen in museums, from hand-rolled cigars, candy, whiskey and a deer-shaped cake to manicure art, clerical robes, neon lighting and scratch-and-sniff wallpaper. Well-known artists such as Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson and Karen Finley are joined by those who have never exhibited in museums before, while entries incorporating advanced technologies are shown alongside objects that reference or use historical practices such as stone carving, “exploded” skulls, and a technique for gilding on glass known as verre églomisé.

Curated by Jake Yuzna, MAD’s director of public programmes, the biennial emphasises the vast network of cultural activity that can be felt as a pulse or rhythm: the city’s heartbeat. Events scheduled during the exhibition aim to bring people into the museum to experience the act of making and to take biennial participants out into the city to meet them.

Yuzna spoke to Cindi di Marzo about: the selection process; MAD’s definition of “making” and “design” as tools to be used in cultural production; the notion of makers as “metamodernists” concerned with the postproduction effects, or fruits, of their efforts; the exhibition’s immersive environments; and themes and highlights from the biennial and programmes.

Cindi di Marzo: Thank you for talking to us about MAD’s first biennial. The journey related in your process book is as intriguing as the exhibition. It began with MAD’s entire staff suggesting nominators, more than 300 nominators suggesting makers, and a small group of panellists serving as judges. Can you describe the selection process and explain why you chose this approach?

Jake Yuzna: The process began by inviting everyone who works at MAD, from unpaid interns all the way up to the director, to suggest names of those they thought should act as nominators. It could be themselves or others. The only criteria were that they had to be based in New York City, have a deep knowledge of a discipline and be very active in a community. We ended up with more than 300 nominators, who ranged from the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 to the heads of local trade unions. These nominators were then asked to put forward up to four names for consideration. In the end, we received more than 450 nominations. Next, we gathered a panel of 10: three of us from the museum, one representative from each of the five boroughs, and design entrepreneur Murray Moss, who chaired the panel. The final member of the panel was a maker who works in collaboration with different segments of culture – for this, we were fortunate in securing theatre director Robert Wilson. During the course of an eight-hour day, the panel met to discuss the nominations, finally settling on 100.

I chose this approach because it made sense to the “DNA” of the project to be as democratic as possible. Biennials often get a bad rap. They are perceived as the only place where formal curatorial risks are taken in museums. I liked the idea that I wasn’t acting as a curator in an ivory tower making value judgments, but instead was gathering a large group from the community to be a part of the process. That the maker community had a say in who added cultural value to the city is in itself a loaded and exciting proposition.

CDM: You spent three months visiting studios. Although in your position you must see an impressive range of creativity, were there any surprises?

JY: I’ve lived in New York so long that there is little about the city that surprises me. It’s an unreasonable metropolis. Traditional logic often goes out the door, which is really lovely. There are constantly unexpected pairings and classes of creative forces. Its part of what makes it a unique place. I suppose I’ve been conditioned to always expect the unexpected.

CDM: Your definition of the term “maker” includes performance, technology, education, activism and behind-the-scenes activities that make film, theatre, music and museum display possible. I am struck by your vision of design as a tool rather than a vocation, something that people need to make an impact on culture and society.

JY: I don’t know if everyone needs design skills, but they can be helpful. The democratisation and dissemination of tools of production have allowed for what were once considered to be “disciplines” to become tools. With graphic design, it used to be that the person who designed a poster was separated from the person who printed it. They were both removed from those who sold, marketed and sent the posters around the world. Now, with the advent of personal computers, the internet and other resources, one individual can do it all. So, in a manner of speaking, graphic design has flattened and become a tool. Someone trained in graphic design can do it, but so can artists and performers, and even those who have never been formally trained in the arts or design. These tools become helpful when someone wants to try to make their perspective felt throughout the process.

The term “maker” was one that was handed to me with this project. I found it interesting, as I kept hearing it referred to as an “audience friendly” word. For me, “maker” is interchangeable with the term “cultural producer”. It will be interesting to see if this idea is accepted.

CDM: In the process book, you suggest that today’s makers work in the spirit of avant-garde movements of the past.

JY: Utopian undercurrents flow throughout the biennial, striving to find alternatives, other worlds that would be more open and expansive than our own. The history of the avant garde has a strong thread of utopian dreams and social alternatives. Most of the makers included in the biennial reference avant-garde movements or groups in their practices. There is a strong, healthy embracing of “otherness”. They are taking those earlier periods as a case study to consider their own practices now, in this moment of cultural transition. In the 18th century, we had the industrial revolution; now we have the so-called information revolution. There is a shift throughout culture and many of those in the biennial are adapting to it.

CDM: You describe our century as a “glorious moment of crisis” in which hierarchies are collapsing, art practices move between aesthetic poles of “beautiful” and “ugly”, and makers – or “metamodernists” – work creatively with dissonance. Can you point to a few examples from the biennial where this is most evident?

JY: [Furniture designer] Misha Kahn is a great example of the formal aesthetic of embracing collapsing aesthetic poles. His work is surprisingly polarising. People either fall in love with its “ugly” aesthetics or view them in a negative way. The work definitely embraces some of the avant-garde tenets of striving for a new aesthetic that is striking and dissonant at the time, but can ultimately shape the larger aesthetics of tomorrow.

Kahn is only one of the many makers in the biennial who work between poles. They exist in the in-between spaces that have yet to be defined and where all is open, complex, contradictory and still possible. [Art collective] Yemenwed is a great example, as is Eckhaus Latta, [art duo] CONFETTISYSTEM and even Yoko Ono. Is it art? Design? Performance? Activism? All of them? None of them? I kept finding myself and makers in the biennial answering these questions with: “Sure, why not?”

I am most interested in what we don’t have names for, what is yet to be resolved. These spaces are vital for culture to grow. Our current age of crisis is opening them up as the traditional structures are failing. Failure is very important right now.

CDM: Traditional views of artists, craftspeople and designers as individuals in studios, workshops and behind drafting tables and computers are at odds with your emphasis on contemporary makers’ concerns with the postproduction social, cultural, ecological and political effects on their works. For example, Sylvia Weinstock is a master of sugar-paste flowers, which adorn her artisanal cakes, yet she also uses her artistry to support her community of breast cancer patients and survivors. Can you give us a few more examples of makers as activists, educators or philanthropists?

JY: BFAMFAPhD is a group of artists, activists, sociologists and others who make work to educate, empower, and organise the creative workforce of America to affect political policy and enable cultural change. Swill Children is a printing and distribution group that focuses on limited-edition ephemera, mostly printed books and records, which engage radical politics and their local community. You would be hard pressed to find a group in the biennial that is not active in the community in some way. It’s what I refer to as the “postproduction” of their works.

CDM: How did the themes for the show develop?

JY: By having conversations. After meeting with the participants and others in the community, it was very apparent what is, as they say, “in the air” in the city right now.

CDM: Was the exhibition design as collaborative an undertaking as the selection process, and how do these “immersive environments” involve visitors in the many facets of making?

JY: It was absolutely a collaborative endeavour, but I think you have to experience it to understand how it relates to a viewer. My hope is for a personal experience for everyone who enters the galleries. During the process of staging the biennial, I realised that Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” is a touchstone, a creative endeavour that gathers a large variety of incredibly talented artists to produce a single work that is so filled with energy and passion that it sweeps over you. It engulfs the listener. I want that to happen with this biennial. The sheer volume of talent, intelligence and creativity is nothing short of overwhelming. And this is just a small slice of what is happening in New York City.

CDM: You also highlight behind-the-scenes makers; people who design and build expert, and often quite beautiful, support structures. In the biennial, these structures are displayed as works in their own right. In this respect, the table on which a maker designs an object might be just as worthy of observation as the final product.

JY: There is a lovely variety of works by people who make the so-called support structures for the biennial. What I’ve dubbed the “crisis gallery” is a nice example of this. SITU Studio’s concrete canvas gallery furniture in this space exemplifies the crisis we have discussed. It is delicate and strong, simultaneously fluid and static, and a clever manipulation of a known material in an unknown way. Let There Be Neon then added to the display with custom neon lighting that uses the uniqueness of the material to remind us that alternative aesthetics continue to remain relevant throughout decades and fads.

CDM: Typically, MAD’s exhibition-related events are far-ranging, and those on this summer and autumn calendars up the ante. Are there any events or performances connected to the biennial that you are particularly proud of, either in your official role as director of public programmes or as an artist?
JY: That’s a hard one. It’s a bit like asking a parent to name their favourite child. I’m very excited by many of the live components of the biennial. Too often in large projects like a biennial, the experiential-based practices get lost in the noise of the galleries. I am happy that some of the projects get to “own” a part of the museum in a way. By doing so, the artists use the institution to support their own growth.

Another great example is our collaboration with Spectacle [a Brooklyn-based community microcinema], which is taking over our cinema programming for two months. There is also Faye Driscoll, who is using the biennial and the museum itself to develop a new dance work that is simultaneously the forming of her own company. Additionally, Lady Bunny, a hugely influential and important figure in drag, is using the nightclub in the galleries designed by Rafael de Cárdenas to create a new work. 

The nightclub space might be the most exciting to me because it emphasises this attempt to push the boundaries of what is deemed appropriate in a museum context. The parties and other live components that will take place there act more like a “happening”. They are spontaneous, sometimes rough around the edges, and often just plain strange. That being said, they are always fun, smart and exciting. The nightclub, the other galleries and the programmes create a space between two known poles; an unreasonable place that is ripe with possibilities; a reminder that there is so much happening in New York City between the cracks of what we know and what we expect. It is in these other places that the most potent forms of culture are made, develop and thrive. Our hope is that the biennial will transform the museum into such a space, if only for 100 days.

CDM: Thank you again for speaking to us and for ending on such a resounding note. We are looking forward to MAD’s next biennial. 2

1. Elaine Tin Nyo’s The Black Menu, from her series Menu, created for NYC Makers, will be performed by chef Luisa Fernandes and served daily at Robert, MAD’s restaurant, from 3 to 5:30pm.
2. Yuzna told Studio International that MAD is in the process of selecting a city for the museum’s next biennial.


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