DIA CURATOR JORDAN CARTER ON PRESENCE VERSUS PERMANENCE

by Makayla Bailey

The curator Jordan Carter photographed at Dia Chelsea in New York City by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for PIN–UP.

Jordan Carter, the newly appointed curator at Dia Art Foundation, is deeply invested in honoring the legacies of minimal and conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s, commissioning and exhibiting contemporary artists who bring those aesthetic concerns into the 21st century. He was an associate curator at the Art Institute of Chicago from 2017 to 2021, where he started to formulate his take on the archive and the exhibition — Carter thinks of them as related and equally precarious architectures, engaging both spaces as sites for intervention, or “critical fabulation.” By upending the hierarchy between the art object and the archive, Carter investigates questions of viewership, subjecthood, and methods of display. What happens when you shift architecture, as the Fluxus artists did, to allow something new to take shape? How do we honor the legacy of site-specific Land Art while taking into account the communities who claim an original stake in that territory? When these ideas start to crumble, what’s left in the rubble? Carter’s there, piecing it all back together.

Makayla Bailey: Let’s start, for historical context, with the dematerialization of the art object. How do we get at the root of an artwork’s value? How do the systems that create these values affect the viewer’s positionality in relation to the work?

Jordan Carter:
I think it’s productive to think about “dematerialization” beyond the object itself and address who had/has the right to appear/disappear on their own terms as it relates to identity. Who has the right to refusal and opacity? I am drawn towards championing artists whose practices exist on the periphery, either due to lack of institutional recognition or self-imposed strategies of refusal. I’m organizing the first exhibition in the United States of the work of [Dutch conceptual artist] Stanley Brouwn [1935–2017]. But I can’t say much about it, because that was the artist’s intention. His radical proposition was that throughout his entire practice he did not want any biography, any written interpretation, any photographic reproduction of his work. So it really defies all sense of institutional protocol, convention, and habit in terms of how you communicate, educate, present, and contextualize artwork in the museum context. He truly believed in having a specific experience and a specific time and space between the viewer and the art object. His work is about measurement and about our place in the world, and the work is simply the work itself. All interpretation is contained within it. So much of it is about space and time — adding any other mediating factors would obliterate the project.

That really also speaks to Dia in terms of how it has constructed viewership, and how we think about future viewership as well. The word “dia” means “through,” almost like a conduit for our ability to facilitate. Dia Beacon was designed as a space that had no linearity or progression inside it — no beginning, middle, or end. There’s no thematic parcours. You go in and almost “choose your own adventure,” creating your own way through. I think this informs a certain type of looking in that space.

It sounds like you’re speaking about a social architecture of sorts.

Social architecture brings me back to Fluxus, which is always a core touchpoint for me. These practices of the 60s and 70s were anti-institutional, finding spaces of their own outside of conventional centers of exhibition and production, including the street, the theater, the church, and the festival. These hybrid spaces blurred the distinctions between artist and audience. They redefined the relationship between singular artists and the collective and the way we think about authorship and agency as it’s applied to works of art. They naturally created something that relied on a social fabric to unfold.

Through performance, many Fluxus artists could create a micro-architecture, or shift architecture to allow something else to happen. In that vein I would point to [Fluxus co-founder] Benjamin Patterson [1934–2016]. When I talk about him I always quote [curator] Valerie Cassel Oliver, because she very aptly called him a radical presence. When you go through Fluxus ephemera and documentation, he’s the only African-American male you see. But he’s fully immersed in what he’s doing — whether crumpling pieces of paper to create an alternative form of music or playing a double bass upside down. He employed so many different playful, irreverent activities fueled with a real skillfulness and erudition. His sense of humor was a red herring for his own more nuanced lived experience. Patterson had an almost oblique way of questioning. What does it mean to participate? What does it mean to make noise? What does it mean to take up space in this way? What does it mean to be an iconoclast? What does it mean to misbehave productively? The work poses questions that have been a guiding principle for me in terms of thinking about how to engage curatorially, but also, more broadly, how to engage in the cultural sphere in a way that is productive.

What happens to viewership when the art itself is architectural? I’m thinking about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field.

Dia is an institution that began without a brick-and-mortar space, allowing the artist to determine the conditions and location of the site best suited for experiencing their work. The collection is itself a living architecture, one that reflects context over time, and with which we can begin to see which artists and works were considered critical building blocks over the course of an institution’s history. For example, Dia owns Spiral Jetty, though it doesn’t own the land it sits on. Spiral Jetty is on an open public waterfront. For many years, Spiral Jetty was completely submerged by water, whereas now we’re seeing the water recede. It’s almost a register for climate, which is something temporally so beyond the scale of what we normally think of in our own lifetimes. It moves toward the way in which time accrues. The question always comes up: do we conserve that work? Probably not, because Smithson also believed in entropy and the way things change over time.

With many of these earthworks, like Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, there was so much thought by the artists around the conditions of how the work is meant to be experienced. De Maria wanted people to spend at least 24 hours at The Lightning Field, because it exists so differently between night and day, so much so that you can never even perceive the entirety of it. It’s these ideas about the duration of the conditions of viewership as specified by an artist, but also the scale of the work and the way in which it occupies space, that change viewership in so many different ways.

There’s also a whole layer of politics around this, of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. There’s no running away from the fact that taking these “empty” plots of land and putting these giant works on them was a problematic gesture. What does site-specificity mean, if you’re not also taking into account the communities living there? How do we begin to use these works as a platform to discuss colonial settling, displacement, and dispossession? We need to honor these artists’ intentions while thinking critically about what it means to take up this much space in a place where we don’t live. How do we engage the community there productively? How do we host critique? We can use the work as a platform for complicated and long-overdue discussions.

As landmarks, these works highlight and illuminate questions of accessibility and parity. But they’re also time marks. I think so much about nature as this thing that’s seen as blank, fungible, or ready to be acted on. These are such a relic of a certain time, and also, as you say, of time beyond a scale of what we can imagine. I think of privilege, subjecthood, and whiteness beyond the scale of what I can imagine.

I think that these extraordinary works can still be enjoyed, engaged with, and experienced on their own terms.

It’s about balancing art for art’s sake with another mode of radicality, which just means getting to the root of the thing. And so often questions of scale are questions of whiteness.

There’s definitely no lack of artists who are engaging the issues of our time in subtle, layered ways that honor, champion, critique, and expand the vocabularies, material and otherwise, that the artists of this moment in the 60s and 70s were using. I think there’s a lot to be done in terms of the retooling and the recontextualization of some of these strategies, which is actually incredibly powerful when brought back to the institution, back into the context of these very works.

There’s this Simone Leigh sculpture, Sentinel (Mami Wata), that was unveiled earlier this year in New Orleans in place of the Robert E. Lee monument. She’s brought her work down to more of a pedestrian space on the ground in front of the original monument’s platform. And it’s a temporary monument. So again, this idea of duration, or lack thereof, as a mode of resistance becomes quite interesting. What does it mean to have temporary monuments? To think of monumentality as something that doesn’t need to persist? Maybe a lack of persistence is actually a different way of enacting a more powerful presence? [Dia Art Foundation co-founder] Heiner Friedrich is often in my mind as I go through the institutional archives — he said, “Dia is not about permanence, it’s about presence, lasting presence.” It’s not that we should just commission a bunch of otherwise marginalized artists to make some giant land or earthworks, right? Maybe not. However, there are artists who have adapted or reappropriated strategies, modes of display, that are integral to discourses of minimalism and conceptual art. They’ve imbued them with their own unique personal lived experience, with issues of systemic racism and gender inequity in ways that are profoundly powerful. An artist like Renée Green, for instance, questions the notion of site-specificity by constructing incredibly layered, complex multimedia installations that are really thinking about the histories of a certain architecture and how it relates to racial capitalism. When I think of the architecture of art, I often think of Green’s practice because it’s an art that necessitates its own architecture within an architecture. It’s this real mise en scène, this theatricality, this critical stagecraft. It’s so responsive to and contingent on the site, time, space, and context of where she makes it. What does it mean to take that package and then to represent it in a different context and institution? What does it mean to put site-specificity within the network that is global racialized capitalism? Where do these ideas begin to break down and what new possibilities can they provide in the rubble that’s left behind? Then there’s Cameron Rowland, who is dealing with racial capitalism in ways that are so highly conceptual. He’s using the language of minimalism in ways that really integrate it into real conversations about 21st-century politics.

Artists like Renée Green and Cameron Rowland are dealing with scale and circulation and monumentality. Dispossession is what allows for an idea of value to exist in the first place.

They’re also dealing with issues of site-specificity, circulation, distribution, monumentality, and the innocuous. Cameron, with his minimalist presentation of objects, does it in such an elegant way that it’s almost horrifying. He can transform an object as seemingly harmless as the emergency call boxes you find at university or hospital grounds, all over our public space. Things we see all the time, but fail to realize how intricately linked they are to the idea of racial capitalism, how they’re an extension of lynching in the built environment. Presenting them this way is akin to a theater of the minimal object.

There’s something about tethering the minimal to the innocuous because the innocuous conveys a sleight of hand, suggesting that there’s something underneath the minimal gesture. But I think the innocuous is a slightly different affect. It’s a more frontal positioning of all the things that subtend objects — where they’re placed in space and where they are in an institution.

Architecture is a platform for political, psychological, and cultural address. Architecture isn’t necessarily three dimensional — two-dimensional space is also architectural. I like the thought of recognizing the architecture of shifting dimensionality. For example, the web is another shift in that dimensionality which implicates the viewer. What is the future of the architecture of art? And what would it mean to begin to think about a virtual site as an extension of something that has been always thought about as such physical art? This is the future frontier...


This story was originally published in PIN–UP 32, Spring Summer 2022.

Portraits by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for PIN–UP 32.