Conjuring and Curating: An interview with Peter Eleey of the Walker Art Center

From Christo’s Gates to the Statue of Liberty, New York is a tough place to compete in the realm of public art. But one organization, Creative Time, has been doing it, boldly, for 33 years, bringing fantastic explosions to the skyline above Central Park, moving images of Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton to MoMA’s facade and a Chinese artist’s quiet intervention — delivered with a pot of water and a Chinese calligraphy brush — to a downtown sidewalk.

At the helm for these projects by Cai Guo-Qiang, Doug Aitken, and Song Dong was Peter Eleey, who left Creative Time in March to become the Walker’s new Visual Arts Curator. Eleey took a moment away from organizing his first show here, a multidisciplinary exhibition of Trisha Brown’s dance and visual art scheduled for April 2008, to discuss his past projects, “magical thinking” in art, and the question of success and failure in a curator’s work.

Your last job was at Creative Time, an organization that since the early 1970s has used public spaces and spaces not often used for art to present temporary installations. This challenges what we traditionally think of as the art-viewing experience.

It’s true, unless we expect art to be shaking up exactly those expectations. There’s a great thing that happens when art surprises us, and that drama can often be easier for artists and arts presenters to create outside a museum. But in some ways the key to surprise is just understanding what people’s expectations are in a given situation, and of course we have all sorts of expectations inside a museum. Though I was working over the last few years largely outside of those institutional frameworks, I gradually became curious about the challenges of curating with those “ interior” expectations in mind.

As seen from New York, what was it about the Walker that you found appealing?

For one, the Walker strives to be “ more than a museum,” and this sense of the institution as something more porous, with fluid boundaries, was very attractive. Most importantly, perhaps, the Walker is known as a place of unfettered experimentation and commitment both to artists and to audiences. So often arts presenters talk about giving artists the space to experiment and try new things, and we forget that the best contemporary museums should also be places where audiences feel they have the opportunity and support to challenge themselves. I think that’s something Kathy [Halbreich, the Walker's director] in particular should be credited with — an even-handed commitment to this kind of experimental risk-taking relationship on both sides of the table.

How did that idea of risk-taking factor into your work at Creative Time?

The commissioning of new artworks is always a risky proposition, because you never know what you are going to get. That’s certainly also the rewarding part of it. But some projects are riskier than others. Cai Guo-Qiang’s Light Cycle, for example, was a fireworks event we organized in Central Park in 2003 to celebrate the park’s 125th anniversary. We were working with relatively untried technology, in which we had a microchip in every single shell to control its timing so Cai could draw in the sky.


I’m curious about that project. The chips make it so he can alter the trajectory of the pyrotechnics as they go through the air?

Cai worked with a fireworks company to pioneer this technology that allows you to control the timing of the explosion, so if you calculate for the velocity of the shell you can basically figure out at what height you want it to explode. You don’t change the trajectory, but you can nevertheless choreograph something with that information. It isn’t failsafe, however, which brings us back to your earlier question: the project was risky because we were inviting lots of people and then setting off a huge amount of these inherently unpredictable explosive devices, but also because, frankly, we just didn’t know if the piece would actually work. Here we’d trained the entire city’s attention on this five-minute event, and, in fact, it didn’t totally work, which raised a lot of complicated issues.

One thing that seems to tie some of your outdoor projects for Creative Time with your indoor gallery work — linking, say, the ephemeral projects like Jenny Holzer’s projections or Doug Aitken’s sleepwalkers to Strange Powers, the show you curated with Laura Hoptman — is the transient. I think of Song Dong using Chinese calligraphy to record time with water on the sidewalks, which evaporated almost as soon as he did it. Or in Strange Powers, you called it “ magical thinking,” visual art that has the power to conjure something invisible.

I guess you could say that, though transience and invisibility are of course very different things, and not necessarily related. I do think, however, that conjuring is a valuable way to consider our experience with art. The way I thought of the work we did at Creative Time was very much as a series of conjured events — and indeed much more as events than as objects, even when we were dealing with objects. I suppose that lends itself somewhat to ephemeral things. Everything Creative Time does is temporary. Obviously you can do a huge temporary sculpture (some of which I also did), but it happens that a lot of the projects I worked on were ephemeral, not least because it’s complicated to drop big objects into New York City. As it turns out, there actually are relatively few public spaces in New York. So at a certain point it became clear that one of the ways we could serve artists was to try engaging them with the city in more ephemeral ways, just from a practical perspective. But to your larger point, I don’t know if I have a specific predilection towards ephemeral things. Maybe it’s something I should watch out for.


I suppose asking a curator to look back on favorite projects or artists is like asking you to pick a favorite child. What are some of the projects that really stand out?

One of the best aspects of my work at Creative Time was the opportunity to work on projects at a range of scales, and all of them were favorites. Projects like Doug’s or Jenny’s or Cai’s were all exciting as major spectacles, but the smaller ones were just as thrilling for me. Michael Rakowitz did one of those smaller projects last fall; it was particularly beautiful in its balance of intimate and global experience, and lends itself well to description. Michael wanted to reopen the import/export business with Baghdad that his grandfather had operated in New York until 1960, and to import dates from Iraq for sale through the store. His grandparents were Iraqi Jews who left Iraq in the 40s. Of course, this is a country we now have cordial diplomatic relations with, and we hear much from the president about how trade should be encouraged with Iraq, how essential it is to the country’s eventual stability. Michael thought it was worth taking advantage of this, in part to expose the challenges involved in testing this proposition, and the challenges were many. For the project, Michael opened a store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in a strip of other Arab stores, and his dates ended up being the first retail goods from Iraq available for sale in the US since 1991.

We ended up not getting very many of them. Initially Michael contracted for 2,000 pounds of dates. It was hard to find someone who would agree to grow the crop because so many of the date palms have been completely destroyed by this war — and also by the 1991 war. It was harder, though, to find someone to transport the dates. The dates from our initial shipment never made it out of the country. They sat on the truck and went back and forth from the Syrian border to the Jordanian border for weeks on end, essentially mirroring the same sad trajectories of the internally displaced refugees who were trying to get out of the country.

We knew it was a conceptual undertaking from the beginning. I hoped we’d get the dates, but I wasn’t enormously optimistic. In the end the company that was shipping them for us took pity after the shipment spoiled in their truck, and they sent a few boxes by DHL. These sat in customs for probably two weeks. In a great final irony, we got them within days of the release of the Iraq Study Group report. So the timing worked out wonderfully.


That brings up a question I wanted to ask about the pyrotechnics that didn’t work as planned: is there such a thing as failure in curating or contemporary art? Or is that just a feature of the terrain of risk-taking and bold thinking?

That’s a good question. I think what’s always at issue for us as curators and artists is getting a handle on a set of criteria to evaluate a work’s success. Audiences think that there is a set of immutable criteria — that there are right answers and wrong answers. I think the Walker’s been instrumental in putting the lie to that notion. Even among colleagues we have visceral and intense debates about what kinds of works are successful and what are not. Was Doug’s project a success? The projector went on, people came, the film was finished on time, the basic practicalities worked. By any standard, I would consider the project successful, even if we still wish to debate its merits. Whether it works for everybody is always another question. I suppose that if the door is jammed shut for a show, it would be a failure because there’s no event and there’s no artwork to see and you’re asking people to come out to look at nothing — unless, of course, that’s the point.

With Cai’s project, this is something I still struggle with: the degree to which the project was a failure. It was certainly a failure in the mind of our sponsor. We never heard from them again after that. It was also considered a failure by the New York Times, which had been planning to put it on the cover of the national edition, until the photographer couldn’t get a good shot. In that sense, I guess it didn’t work either. But I know that for a great many people who came out in what turned out to be a heavy downpour, there was still an incredible thrill in seeing this project happen. In the end, it was OK for Cai, and ultimately for me as well. I just think we should have done more to frame the event as an experiment.

I’ve asked the same question, in a blunter form, to many artists from Rirkrit Tiravanija and Robert Storr to Tim Griffin and Thomas Hirschhorn: can art change the world? But maybe the question should be: what is art for?

We certainly want art to change the world. Jerry Saltz has a very nice take on this question in a well-blogged article published in the Village Voice — as it happens, a piece he wrote in response to Strange Powers. To the extent that art can in fact change the world, it does so in very incremental ways. Art changes our sensitivities in the way we experience things, the way we think about things. It’s disruptive in that way. It’s also sometimes ratifying. I think art is fundamentally a strange problem that if enthusiastically engaged, has great and fruitful implications for how we understand the world.


That’s an interesting way to take it: what is the magic of art that provokes people to freight it with these huge expectations? I don’t think people have the expectation that poetry or photojournalism is going to change the world.

But photojournalism really does have a much more immediate effect on the world, not least because it generally reaches a much larger audience. Part of our curiosity as to whether art can change the world comes out of the early history of the avant-garde, its conflation of art and politics, and its intimations of radicality. A certain hangover from those heady periods is still with us, combined in a complicated way with a nostalgic guilt we may feel about the elite associations attached to art, particularly in an era in which art can seem like it is more commodified than ever. I also think that in this day and age, we have an interest in things that shake us up, and yet in which we can find both intimacy and the sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. Art, and museums in particular, afford us that experience. Maybe movies or sports have that potential as well. I think that we once found something similar in politics, and I suspect that some part of our desire for art to be world-changing may be due to the failure of our political system to engage us in ways that we find meaningful. Perhaps in that sense, if baseball had any history of pretending to change the world, we might ask the same things of the Twins that we ask of contemporary art.

Images (top to bottom): Peter Eleey; Cai Guo-Qiang’s Light Cycle; sleepwalkers by Doug Aitken; Michael Rakowitz’s Return; Strange Powers (works by Pawel Althamer and Artur Zmijewski, Eva Rothschild, Center for Tactical Magic, and Friedrich Jrgenson)

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