Tina Kukielski with Sara Roffino
Sara Roffino (Miami Rail): In January, you took on the role of executive director of ART21. What do we have to look forward to from the organization?
Tina Kukielski: I’m completely indebted to the legacy that has been built here by my predecessor, Susan Sollins, who was the entrepreneur who invented this format around which to talk about the creative process and the ideas embedded in artworks in a unique and necessary way. But I would be a fool if I didn’t acknowledge that the landscape around digital media is changing really rapidly. I believe ART21 sits at the nexus of communication about artists’ ideas and processes vis-à-vis it being a conduit to the artists’ voice. At the same time, we have a lot of catching up to do partly because of the ways technology has changed. There is still an essential relationship between ART21 and PBS, and yet we’ve grown a lot since the beginning and now produce all kinds of short-form content and we regularly develop essential education materials alongside these programs. Early next year, we’re relaunching our website to make it a more comfortable, exciting, clean, and engaging home for digital media with advanced mobile streaming capabilities.
Since I started, I’ve been having informal conversations with the stakeholders within ART21’s community and those who maybe know a little bit less about ART21 and the refrain I hear again and again is that we’re in a moment where content is king and ART21 is sitting on a mass of incredible content—it’s one of our strongest assets. We are essentially writing the history of contemporary art via the artists themselves. Part of the way ART21 will develop is by allowing our communities better access to that information whether it’s through building connections to those communities via distribution networks, surveying those communities, or creating more of a dialogue. For example, the art educator community is a very important focus for us, and because a lot of their programs are centered around professional development, we have an opportunity to meet one-on-one with art educators throughout the United States. We’re also opening our program internationally, at least to Canada and Mexico, because our focus this upcoming season is on North America. Thinking farther afield, we are involved in a translation project that fosters a community of enthusiasts to translate our content into forty languages. This I find amazing.
Rail: In some ways being the executive director of a nonprofit is very different than being a curator; in other ways, not so much. Can you tell me about your decision to make this change?
Kukielski: As a curator I would say I’ve had two lives. One was the life I lived in New York at the Whitney, where I was really focused on young emerging artists, mostly working in the centers of Los Angeles and New York. And then I had an amazing opportunity to co-curate an international biennial—the Carnegie International—that completely blew open the door for me to think about art from a global perspective and to think and engage with artists who are living in very disparate parts of the world and artists who are distinguishing their practice because of where they come from or where they choose to live. Despite the homogenizing of communication channels, place still is invariably important. That really was a transformation for me as a curator to think across all disciplines and to explore a world of art at its outer limits. Also through that process I got much more engaged with technology.
After the International, I was a curator for a project called the Hillman Photography Initiative, the mission of which was to investigate the future of the photographic medium. For me, that really meant asking what role technology plays in art. If photography has a future as a medium, it has to develop to coincide with technological advances. One part of this project was the production of a series of documentary films. One of which I produced, which was probably the most well-seen project I’ve ever been associated with. Pittsburgh has incredible resources and an incredible community of art enthusiasts and so when I was there I spearheaded this project that recovered some early Andy Warhol works that were made on an Amiga computer in 1985. It was a digital conservation project that was a partnership between the Carnegie and the Warhol Museum and a group of retro-computing specialists out of Carnegie Mellon. It was really a project that an art institution should spearhead, but it fell outside of the programming mission, so there was never an intention to create an exhibition around these artworks—and their state was kind of fugitive and it was unknown whether or not they could be officially established as artworks. But what we could do was make a film about the process. It was a partnership with Cory Arcangel and it was my first foray into making documentary film. It was what got me interested in ideas surrounding art that may not be shared in the physical space of a museum. When ART21 approached me to see if I would be interested in this opportunity—and it was a very long process of us trying each other out—it felt to me that ART21 was the future of the museum that I was hoping for and that had been incubating in my own mind as a curator. There’s got to be a point where the museum exists beyond the temple for art and beyond the storehouse for art. It’s not to say that I don’t believe that collections need to be preserved and protected and studied, but I was taking a nod from artists like Cory and Hito Steyerl, who I was inspired by intellectually. These artists were already moving into this distributed network of information, the absence of the object was already taking place, and there were many stories to tell about art that can be told through technological means—whether its digital media or film or audio—that can transcend economic and cultural barriers in profound ways.
Rail: There’s really a hybridization of your vision and the pre-existing mission of ART21—a real opportunity, it seems. How does the selection process work?
Kukielski: It’s myself and the curator on staff, Wes Miller, but we haven’t actually had a conversation about a new group of artists yet, because when I entered we were already committed to sixteen fantastic, talented artists that we’ll be going public with in the next month. Susan and Wes always worked very closely together to explore the field and think very carefully about demographic distribution—we have done practical analysis of the artists that have been in past seasons and we try to be very conscious that there is not one art world, there are so many art worlds.
Rail: Yes, and there are very few places where that’s the case.
Kukielski: I realized that was true working in institutions, especially in New York, where we were all proposing the same shows with the same artists. How can that be when the art world is becoming so expanded, with so many multiplicities?
Rail: The museums are so dependent on the galleries—
Kukielski: Yeah, and our programming at ART21 isn’t dependent on where someone lives in the commercial hierarchy. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that film is a medium that can tell a story about artists who are engaged in social practice or social justice artworks or projects. Even the digital recovery project I did, which was ephemeral in a way, or is performative or site-specific or based in a community in ways that might not leave a byproduct. Some of our most popular films, like the Thomas Hirschhorn Gramsci Monument project or Tania Bruguera—those are stories that can only be told with film or in a time-based medium. If you weren’t there, you missed it. So it makes sense that our future is about diversification of the art world.
Rail: So you both come together with a list of names?
Kukielski: I’m looking all the time. I go see art. I’m still a curator at heart—being in the artists’ studios, being in the exhibition space, and reading about upcoming art projects is still very much a part of my day-to-day and how I work. I want us to be a thought leader around the ideas of art today, so it’s about being responsive in order to be that thought leader.
Rail: And you most recently curated a show by the New Zealand artist Susan Te Kahurangi King for ICA Miami. How did this project come together?
Kukielski: Before I started at ART21, I was consulting for the ICA, just kind of having regular conversations about art and ideas with Alex Gartenfeld, their chief curator. I helped Alex conceive of the program around this upcoming season and as a byproduct of those conversations we started to talk about artists and ideas that are interesting to us and that felt urgent. I saw two projects of Susan’s that were done by Chris Byrne, who is a curator and artist––a show of her work at Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York, and a booth of her work at the Outsider Art Fair, both in 2014. It was just on the heels of doing the Carnegie International and I saw her work and was like: “How did I not know about this artist?” She would have been amazing for the International because that show explored many things, including art as an articulation of a personal vision, artists’ relationship to place, artists that were engaged with the figure in new ways, and the relationship between insider and outsider positions. I was immediately struck by the vision in the drawings. I was captivated by how it brushes up against narrative in some places—it opened up a lot of questions that I wanted to have answered about that work. Then when I discovered that she is in her sixties, I dug deeper and discovered that she is nonverbal and was eventually diagnosed as being severely autistic although I didn’t know that at the time because it’s only recently come out in some of the conversations around her work. So I presented the idea to Alex and because of the way he sees the ICA as being a kunsthalle for art and being able to give an artist their first museum opportunity, it seemed like an ideal partnership. Without knowing all that much about Susan, the ICA really put their belief behind me and supported the project.
Rail: When did you start working on it?
Kukielski: I pitched the idea about a year ago, and Alex responded pretty quickly. Most of Susan’s work is with her family—they protect, preserve, and archive the work for her, because when she makes her drawings she’ll just leave them wherever she made them, she doesn’t arrange her work, she doesn’t present her work in any way. So I knew it would be an ambitious show, but it would also be straightforward because it wasn’t about collecting a bunch of loans, because you could do a retrospective from the works the family has kept.
Rail: A documentary about Susan was released in 2012 and it leaves off at a point where the family seems really unsure about how to engage with the art world and how to go about letting the work be seen. I’m curious about how they decided to engage with the art world.
Kukielski: The family is amazing. There were certain members of the family, Susan’s grandmother and her mother, who really understood that she had a unique gift. They were fast enough in recognizing it that they kept the work and considered it and showed it to people, so I think it was about a lifetime of them coming to understand that this work needed to be seen. I don’t think it was an overnight situation. The grandmother’s records were incredibly well kept, she kept diaries and ledgers, which are basically a record of many of the drawings that Susan made and she was always writing letters to people—to doctors or people she met—someone who might have a creative inclination or a visual literacy. This was when Susan was in her teens and twenties. New Zealand is rather remote, so in some ways there weren’t opportunities for her work to be better seen outside of New Zealand. After the documentary team showed up and started to film Susan, there was a transformation in that the family realized that there really is an audience for this work. They also discovered that by starting a Facebook page and growing a following there, too. Both of those things allowed them to embrace the idea of showing her work while not having to let it go. They definitely have ambitions to try to place the work in public collections.
Rail: So they are willing to part with it at this point?
Kukielski: Slowly, yes, it will be made available to museum collections. They are less interested in it going into private hands than they are interested in having it be seen and studied. The family is starting a fellowship at the Folk Art Museum in New York, so they are lending some works there and providing a small stipend for an art historian to engage with the work.
Rail: She has produced several thousand drawings—what is the focus of the exhibition?
Kukielski: There are several bodies of work represented in the show, which is really a survey of her work and the centerpiece of the show are works from the late ’60s throughout the ’70s when she was in her twenties. These works are quasi-figurative, but in their composition and very dense arrangement, they are kind of like abstract landscapes and there is a real complexity of composition. This is really what I consider to be her most mature work, because of the kind of visual play that exists in the way the figures sit on top of and underneath and in and out of each other simultaneously. And there are also earlier bodies of work such as the studies of Donald Duck, the cartoon character that frequently appeared in comic books around the house and that Susan especially responded to. When you look at the very early work, you begin to see the repetition of the visual motifs of Donald Duck’s sailor suit and red bowtie and his hat and his beak, and his face and eyes, but in completely strange juxtapositions. Oftentimes various parts of his body are truncated or overlapping over each other, so you don’t really have a perspective of which way is up and which way is down or right or wrong. Many of these are two-sided drawings, just on small pieces scrap paper like a child would draw on.
Rail: Susan didn’t draw for about twenty years and then started again fairly recently. How does the work that she has made since starting to draw again compare to the earlier works?
Kukielski: They don’t have any presence of the figure anymore. They’re non-representational, based on pattern, form, line, and color. I definitely see a pretty marked shift in her palette, but it’s hard to know if these are just the markers her family is providing her with or if—I actually have begun to wonder if her vision is changing so that she is more responsive to bold color juxtapositions. It’s hard to know.
Rail: What was your relationship like working with her? Was she engaged in any way?
Kukielski: She’s surrounded by a very large family and has many siblings and her family has learned to read her in a way. She lives with her sister Wendy, but her sister Petita primarily cares for the archive. Susan is a playful dresser. She rarely makes eye contact. She makes facial expressions, but it’s not the makings of a social interaction when you’re with her. But she will happily participate in the activities of looking, eating, and going places. I didn’t meet her until the third day I was in New Zealand. I was letting the family lead the way and I think it was a way to set up the expectations.
Rail: Have you worked with other artists who have limited communication?
Kukielski: No. On some deep psychological level I knew this would be a challenge, especially at the same time I’m taking over an art organization that is all about the artist’s voice. I thought a lot about what it means for an artist to not have a voice.
Rail: It makes people very hesitant to say anything about the work. How did you deal with this?
Kukielski: I’m a little bit in a double bind being a curator of a show like this. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Susan’s work deserves to be seen and deserves to be appreciated as art, and I do believe that we can glean some ideas about communication from her work. But I am also very sensitive to not assuming my voice to be her voice and trying to be very sensitive to the fact that I’ll never have the answers to certain questions about the work—about what she sees in the work and her experiences of the work personally. At the same time though, as a curator and as the author of an exhibition, you have to do your best effort to fill in where you can, so for me it’s about creating a show that can embrace her work and present it with the mastery and attention it deserves while also being sensitive to helping the viewer to understand the artist’s personal experience.
Rail: How is it different from working with other artists?
Kukielski: As a curator or as an art historian, it’s about being aware of how you receive information and where that information is coming from. One of the first things I learned from my nineteenth-century photography history professor Geoffrey Batchen is that you can never trust the artist’s voice and what the artist says about their work. This is a position that art historians often assume, because it allows them utter freedom to offer an interpretation of an artwork. For me as a curator though, especially as a curator who has built a career working mostly with living artists, I would never assume that position 100 percent. Working with young artists who are beginning to interpret their work for the first time, I’ve often been in a position where I’m writing the first text on the artist, which carries a lot of responsibility because I know that what I commit to print will be referred to again and again. I always reserve the right to be wrong, I’m OK with that. But if I’m writing on an artist who is verbal, I would conduct an interview and use that as the raw material to begin to analyze or interpret or explain their work further. It interestingly connects to one of the things ART21 does with our videos of artists in terms of getting the artist on record on the camera, but these are edited pieces, so we have an authorial hand in their creation. The videos exist as a pretext; they are a recorded interview that then will lead someone later on to offer a further interpretation. And I think my relationship to Susan sort of exists in that realm. This exhibition is by no means the definitive history of Susan’s work. It’s a first attempt, a pretext.
Sara Roffino is a senior editor at Art+Auction and a graduate student in art history at Hunter College.
An excerpt of this interview was published in the Visual Arts section of the Miami Herald on May 29, 2016.