Art Books In Conversation
JOCELYN MILLER with Maya Harakawa
The catalogue of the current Greater New York at MoMA PS1’s features notable departures from the exhibition’s traditional parameters. Co-organized by a team of four curators and engaging with work across a span of multiple decades, the exhibition is a refreshing take on what art in New York City is today. Greater New York’s publication program is also noteworthy. Instead of publishing a traditional catalogue, MoMA PS1 is releasing a series of “readers”—small, intimate volumes featuring contributions from scholars and artists that build upon and expand the exhibition in book form. Maya Harakawa sat down with Jocelyn Miller, curatorial associate at PS1 and editor of the Greater New York Readers series, to discuss the purpose of exhibition publications and the process of rethinking them.
Maya Harakawa (Rail): It’s clear that Greater New York is the result of many different voices, but not in a way that makes it feel disjointed. There were points where I could sense individual voices coming through, but they weren’t overwhelming or distracting. The diversity of curatorial perspective mirrors the diversity of the city itself.
Jocelyn Miller: Absolutely. Greater New York is an immense undertaking, given that it’s every five years and it’s our whole building. We have a really big curatorial team working on the project and there are many different facets—whether it’s the publication, the performance program, or the exhibition proper. It’s this organism that so many different people have their fingerprints on.
I think the show generally is trying to refuse absolute coherence. I hope the publication bears this out too. When we started thinking about how the publication could work, we decided that, just as the show isn’t meant to be this all-encompassing sort of final word, the publication should also reflect a sense of gestation and process, of thinking outside of different kinds of confines. Obviously one of the most over-determined confines that go with an exhibition is the exhibition catalogue, right? Exhibition catalogues are beautiful things—I love exhibition catalogues, we all love to have them on our bookshelves, our coffee tables. But we asked ourselves: How often do people pick these back up again? How often do they really sit with them or even just read them? We really wanted this show to have lots of different access points. To that end, we used the readers to create an intimate experience, an opportunity to celebrate what reading and consulting a printed object is all about: establishing a relationship between the reader and the person who’s offering the material and content.
We’re releasing the readers slowly throughout the course of the show so that its life could hopefully be borne out through the publication. I think many people don’t realize how much exhibitions change over the course of the time that they’re installed. It’s bright and shiny and new on opening day, and our job as curators is to make sure it stays that way throughout the course of the exhibition, but that takes a lot of maintenance. As people interact with the space and with objects in the space, the show really changes. And as people start to talk about it, whether it’s the press or interpersonally, a lot of the ideas and the work in the show become inflected with those conversations. We really wanted the publication to be part of that discourse in that way, to kind of offer up different perspectives to people who were trying to think about the concerns and the themes of the show itself.
Rail: What was your working process with the artists like? Did they come to you with works or ideas that you then helped translate them into works for the page? Or did you conceive of completely new pieces together?
Miller: Glenn Ligon’s reader is particularly interesting in this regard, because we’ve taken a piece that’s in the exhibition and brought it to the page. As is often the case in Glenn’s work, the piece is text-based, and it’s a personal narrative: he goes through each of the addresses that he’s lived at in New York to form a kind of autobiography. The only addition he made to its published form was in the form of scanned pieces of mail from each address. You can see some of these great return addresses like “Walden School” or “The White House.” It just gives the piece a texture that’s so terrific.
Glenn is really the authority on the question of whether the book is a new work or not. But when we made these books, we approached a set of individuals that we felt really spoke to the show—and many of them, like Glenn, were already in the show. But some people, like Claudia Rankine, for example, aren’t represented in the gallery space: Claudia’s contribution to Greater New York will be her published volume. So I really do think of these readers as artworks in and of themselves. Given the fact that many artists work in written form, the readers become another site for the exhibition itself.
Rail: Ligon’s book is totally in line with the artists’ book tradition. Given that designation, it’s interesting to think of it as part of the exhibition’s “catalogue.” It seems to me that the entire collection operates in that middle section of a Venn diagram where catalogue and artist book overlap.
Miller: We really wanted these publications to be accessible to everyone. Your average exhibition catalogue, especially for a big survey show like Greater New York, is often large, heavy, and glossy. It’s almost like a yearbook, where everyone has their page: they have pictures and they have text. That format can be very helpful but it’s also very expensive. We really wanted to have something that showed the material with a lot of dignity and a lot of care, but also was very accessible in a lot of different ways, whether that in terms of portability, so people can carry it with them and have that intimate experience with it if you’re in a park or on the subway, or affordability, so more people can buy them. We really want people to interact with them and really get physical with them. For example, Gregg Bordowitz wrote what is essentially a prose poem about his time living in a tenement apartment in the East Village. It was sort of this notebook where he would jot down a longer work, but as fragments, in pieces. Gregg’s been an incredible activist force in ACT UP, and he talks a lot about the personal struggles that he and a lot of his colleagues faced during the AIDS epidemic. It’s a very powerful piece that’s very bodily and very much about observing New York. But what’s particularly great is he gets pretty formally innovative with the poem. It moves on the page, so as you read you have to move the book around. It’s something that isn’t as precious as a big exhibition catalogue.
Rail: This is also an example of how interacting with art in book form is different from interacting with art in an exhibition context. In this case, the body is implicated in totally different ways. You’re actually physically using your body to turn the page and to read. And that’s not to say the body isn’t implicated in artworks when they’re displayed in a museum—the body is obviously a really big part of the show. But the status of the object is totally different, which is another reason why I would say that I would think that the readers are very much art objects in their own right.
Miller: I’m so glad that you think so. That was the intent.
Rail: What was the design process like?
Miller: I am working with an incredible designer, Vance Wellenstein. He’s a big part of why these books are so special. We also have a graphic identity for the show. The goal there was to make the show evoke different textural surfaces of New York through design. The curatorial team actually got really involved in this—we got really excited! Everyday we asked a lot of our staff members to come up with lists of New York places that have the most iconic typefaces. And so Douglas Crimp is Studio 54—the book is about disco, so we had to do it. Glenn is Helvetica, the classic subway font. As much as the show wanted to explode out from just the “new, new” and go back in time and understand how all of these forces are actually really interrelated, I do think these typefaces avoid being too nostalgic. Nostalgia is a really intense force that feels really present right now, maybe because New York is going through so much transformation, both cosmetically within the built environment but also just economically, emotionally. This is certainly true of the last decade, at least. I think a lot of these typefaces have the potential to generate a real nostalgic kind of flashback moment, but we wanted to abstract them slightly, and that’s why we printed them in this bright white to sort of remove it from its original context in the hope that you might not immediately recognize it.
Rail: I love this idea of actively playing with nostalgia. One of the virtues of having these books as separate entities is that you can kind of create the order that you want to experience them in. Because the order isn’t dictated, they lack a fixed structure and sort of resist becoming too precious.
Miller: Of course we have an order that we like in terms of introducing people to the ideas that are in Greater New York, but I hope people will mix and match. I hope they will play with them and move them around because that’s what New York is like, that’s what artist communities are like.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit more about the term “reader” and what that term connotes for you in the context of this particular exhibition?
Miller: Oh my goodness, we went through so many terms for these. I think “reader” feels very discursive and educational, like a primer, something you consult actively. And maybe this is too obvious, but it also suggests that the books are something that you actually read. Again, it’s very active as an object and it’s something that implies use, and we really wanted that to be what happened. The word “catalogue” to me implies something archival, implies something documentary. While that is part of what this is, it isn’t the central aim. We could have said “pamphlet.” But pamphlet feels a little more casual than what I think they are, and also has a very political connotation, I think. People circulate pamphlets, you know, whether it’s the Ninety-Five Theses or, you know, the messages of more contemporary activists. But we could have called them pamphlets. “Booklet” did not work. I just don’t like that word. I feel like it’s a weird diminutive that isn’t really very respectful.
Rail: [Laughs] To the book.
Miller: To the book. Exactly. But you could call them “chapbooks,” which is something that we have been calling them internally because that form so closely tied to artists’ books and poetry. Zines—oI love zines, and I think they certainly share DNA with zines, but I think they are a little bit more formal than a zine. Ultimately, the term “reader” comes back to the idea of circulating ideas in an active format, in an educational format, in a discursive format. We are a school after all, so it’s always fun to play with pedagogical semantics and terminology. But I’m not really picky about what people call them.
Rail: I like that the reader genre implies an editor—and maybe a curator is analogous in the exhibition context. The editor of a reader chooses a certain topic, or even an argument, and then selects certain texts that either support or illustrate that topic or argument. That is actually quite similar to how an exhibition, especially a group exhibition, is put together.
Miller: I’m glad it evokes that for you because that’s the other thing: the readers are a separate site for the exhibition, but they’re also a companion to it. And I hope they bring insight into the exhibition and allow people to connect with it in a way that they didn’t if they only saw it in space. So I like that “reader” directly addresses the person that’s going to come to them.