ISSUE Project Room will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary with 10 Years Alive on the Infinite Plane, a festival with events taking place from August 31 through October 26. The festival’s curator, ISSUE artistic director Lawrence Kumpf, and musician C. Spencer Yeh, sat down recently with the Rail’s assistant music editor Marshall Yarbrough. Here is the first part of their conversation; the second part will run in the October issue.
Marshall Yarbrough (Rail): In the statement I read, “Innovative Sonic Art” serves as the general descriptor for the acts featured in the festival. What kinds of performances were you trying to include? Is this work that wouldn’t quite fit in, say, an art gallery on the one hand or a traditional concert venue on the other? And in organizing the festival, did your approach differ from your usual approach to programming?
Lawrence Kumpf: Since [the festival] is a celebration, it doesn’t necessarily mirror all of our programming and our approach to working with artists; it’s more taking certain projects we’ve done in the past that we’ve developed in a more long-term fashion, or artists that we’ve worked with for a number of years, and re-presenting those projects or presenting some variation on those projects. And that of course does relate back to what our approach is. “Innovative sonic art” is maybe not the turn of phrase that I would have used.
In our more official internal language, I think we simply say something like “time-based performance.” That’s a key descriptor for a number of things: presenting work that’s completely contingent on community and people coming together to experience the event, whether it be film, dance, music, or performance. I think that’s the type of space that we fulfill, somewhere between the gallery or museum that might present a performance in their space but doesn’t necessarily have a deep way of engaging and continually supporting this type of performance, where it’s a little bit of excess for them that complements their objects—the focus of a gallery or museum being works that exist inside of a marketplace—and somewhere between a straight concert hall and music-presenting venue. In those places you’re just going to see a rock concert and there’s no real curation happening, it’s just what brings an audience—so again also contingent on a market in a way. With the festival, we’re just trying to create a really—I don’t want to say “clean”—but a really ideal environment to see this work that doesn’t necessarily have a good home otherwise.
C. Spencer Yeh: It’s funny when you mention how galleries occasionally have time-based performances. Galleries are very protective of their programming. Same with institutions to a degree, but then you have venues, like Lawrence was saying, where it’s like, this place is a place for dance, this place is a place for film, or this is a place for dance, film, and music—and that’s kind of the foot that’s put forward.
The difference with ISSUE is that the program is put forward rather than the particular style or whatever. ISSUE doesn’t present dance; it works with choreographers and dancers, but it doesn’t present dance. And ISSUE [works] with musicians, but it’s not a venue for music.
Kumpf: That relates a little bit to what the curatorial model was for the 10-year anniversary and the model that Suzanne [Fiol, ISSUE’s founder] used as ISSUE was starting out. It was never identified as “idiosyncratic pairings,” but the idea was to bring together two artists from different communities to share a bill, with the idea that there would be two different audiences and the audiences would have some crossover and be exposed to somebody who they haven’t seen before. And I think it not being a place for dance or not being a place for music is a really great way to put it. Within the dance community there’s a lot of codes and baggage that come along with being in a very insular community. Same with the experimental music community. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with doing something at Danspace or any of these historical institutions, and simply getting out of that context frees up artists in a way to work in a space that is somewhat neutral and can reach a wider and more diverse audience.
Rail: I see that most of the events are at your main venue at 22 Boerum Place, with a few scattered across the city. Was your goal to be centered in Downtown Brooklyn? Did you want to spread out more?
Kumpf: It depends. There are different reasons for doing things off-site. Last fall [when the space at 22 Boerum was undergoing renovations], we had to do all our programming off-site. I think it’s good to cross-pollinate—different audiences, that’s a big thing for us. Last April we did this project with Jay Sanders at the Whitney with Keiji Haino, and that was a really perfect partnership for us.
And then there’s other instances, like with Pioneer Works there’s the practical nature [of] needing a bigger space where a lot of people can come out—and they’re an emergent space, too, there’s a lot of crossover in terms of mission and values. We’re doing this project with Rhys [Chatham] and Robert Longo at the Kitchen and there’s a practical side to that. Getting drums and a bunch of guitars in our space is going to be tough. Sonically, it’s gonna sound better there and of course there is the relationship that ISSUE has with the Kitchen as sort of a similar type of venue historically. Both Rhys and Robert were music directors there.