Bringing together collective enterprises mh PROJECT nyc, Mutual Aid Projects, and Northeast by Southeast, this program on July 13 sought to explore alternative ways of organizing outside of institutional frameworks. By considering how each collective uses exhibition-making as a means of experimenting with ideas and fostering friendships, this conversation aimed to question how we think about community and the way collectives operate over time and in the face of challenges like the pandemic.
Following short introductions on the mission of their respective projects, Francis Estrada (Northeast by Southeast) and Mayumi Hayashi (mh PROJECT nyc) joined moderator Eugenie Tsai for a conversation on the shifting nature of friendship, community, and collectivity.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Those were great presentations. Thank you, and now Eugenie will lead a discussion.
Eugenie Tsai (ET): Thank you all again for joining. Eric mentioned very specifically the pandemic, in terms of his decision to work with artists and to work in this space, but I am wondering what it is about this particular point in time that has interested so many artists and organizations in working collectively. And this kind of reckoning is occurring at institutions as well. Institutions are being questioned as colonial organizations or hierarchical organizational structures that are reproducing patriarchal systems and ways of thinking. I feel like we are at a critical moment, and I’m wondering if people have thoughts about why this moment and what some possible solutions are? I don’t think museums are going to be overthrown or are going to go away, but clearly, they’re in the process of trying to change and reinvent themselves. Francis and Mayumi, you are both occupying a very interesting place in the whole art ecosystem. I’m curious to hear from people in the audience about what you think is going on and why you think the collective is of such great interest at this moment in time, in the art world and other contexts as well.
Audience Member 1 (AM1): Thank you for your beautiful presentations. From what I heard from all your presentations is that there is a very strong sense of commitment, as well as a strong sense of dedication. You are persisting in your attempts to discover something, and together with Eric’s paper, I hear a yearning for care and a practice of care, which we need. But also listening to Eric, I feel there is a lack of articulation about the strategy, politics, and the ecology of care, and what it actually means. It’s more like “we are on our own now, so let’s get together and talk to see if we can figure out ways to care about each other”. But from Eric’s presentation I also sense a feeling of frustration that people, the public, just don’t come in (to his exhibition space). Eugenie, you were talking about the ecology of art. Where does this practice of alternative spaces fit in? And further, this program focuses on a specific ecology which is exhibiting. But are there other ways of practicing care? So, I guess my question to the speakers and to the audience is how do we take this forward?
ET: I think what you might be saying is that maybe perhaps art exhibitions aren’t necessarily the best way to engage audiences?
AM1: Maybe that’s one way to think about it. [Speaking to Francis] My feeling is that for you, exhibition-making is a process to contemplate your position in relation to this country. How to be American, or how to be a hyphenated American and what that means. But such exhibitions, this particular process of contemplation takes a lot of energy and resources, including money and people. Also, I am wondering if you’d like to contemplate the idea of colonialism in your own history (as a Filipino American), what are some of your ideas at this moment and what are your thoughts? What do you think is most urgent?
ET: Yes, care is also on the top of my mind at this moment and it can take so many different forms, I think.
Audience Member 2 (AM2): Eugenie, reflecting on your question: why collectives at this moment in time, I want to say that I participated in mH projects and I always want to go back there, because going there and being part of mH (projects) is kind of like having dinner with friends, while going to a museum is kind of like going to a restaurant. This may be a weird analogy, but I think you understand what I am trying to say.
General Audience: [Agreeing laughter]
AM2: I go to restaurants for good food, just like I go to museums for good exhibitions. I want to see the artwork, but at the same time, I’m not part of the museum institution. And as you mentioned, museums feel really hierarchical, so when I am there, somehow, I feel the need to perform, to learn, to take in information to gain something, but when I go to mH, it’s really casual.
ET: It’s intimate.
AM2: Yes, it’s intimate and I feel like I’m part of it. Also, in terms of talking about this idea of community, I don’t want to be critical, but I feel the term can be abused. What is community? If you say a project is building community, what does that really mean? Is the project really building community or is it just using the word? In comparison, when I go to mH (projects), I feel a sense of real community. I don’t feel pressure, if that makes sense.
ET: Yes, totally, I love the restaurant analogy.
Audience Member 3 (AM3): To follow through on what you (AM2) just said, I feel that in regards to mH, it is basically about the space, the room. We have been talking about whether exhibitions can be an answer, a way of creating community, but in fact for the artists, maybe what is most important is the room, the space. The fact that it doesn’t have a nameplate makes it almost like an art speakeasy where the people who know about it, know about it. And when people are friends with one another for years, maybe it goes beyond community to become a tribe. In other words, the room becomes a home. This is just my reflection.
I actually have a question for Eugenie. You mentioned that in the 1990s, collective efforts were often about trying to fit in the existing system, and the intention was about occupying space. Felix Gonzales Torres stated something like “I’m not the other, I’m the one” meaning that as an artist, as a Cuban American artist, he wanted to invade the museum space, much like a virus, to disrupt the canon that is being jammed down our throats.
ET: Right. I guess I am referring to a seat at the table analogy, but there’s also the make your own table analogy, which Mayumi you seem to have done very effectively. You have made an intimate, friendly, family table.
Audience Member 4 (AM4): I think what everyone has said so far is really resonating with me. Thank you all for the great presentations. I was thinking about what the last two people said about museums and their relationship to them. To me what their comments brought to mind is the idea of power dynamics and how one feels when entering a museum. One feels like you are walking into the light, that ahhhh feeling [mimicking the sound effect of an angelic Ah]. You’re just supposed to receive that light, that enlightenment, right?
I want to mention something interesting that happened to me recently. I’m doing a residency with a museum that sat me down with the development team, who asked me “so we’d love to know more about who funded your past projects and to make sure that the funding is aligned with your values as we move forward with your residency.” I was like “nobody’s ever asked me that before.”
ET: Interesting indeed. A new development approach.
AM4: The development team talked to me about transparency, and not just to audiences. While they now want to show the process of the making the exhibition, in addition to the final presentation, they are also focusing on transparency to the artist, and the idea (that) there’s consent and collaboration. Based on this experience, I feel like there’s ways to weave in these practices and questions, even though we’re still dealing with scarcity structures, and patriarchal, white supremacist systems. I think there are ways of bringing transparency and change, little by little, that can be foundational.
ET: Thank you, I’d be curious to know more.
Audience Member 5 (AM5): Thank you everybody for your thoughts. Thank you, Mayumi, Francis, Eugenie and everyone who’s spoken so far. Eugenie, you’ve been using the word ecology a lot and asking how collective projects (like the ones presented this evening) fit into the art economy, in regards to spectatorship, supporting artists, and giving space to artists. I think what is really important and cool about collective structures is that they give space to artists and this can have a real impact. Collective structures can address issues around the sustainability of art. How do people keep making art? Even without the pandemic, it’s very difficult to make art. How do people pass on their practice or mentor younger artists? I think this is something very interesting about ruangrupa (the Indonesian collective that organized this year’s documenta). I haven’t been to documenta yet, but I visited ruangrupa’s compound in Jakarta where they produce really amazing, visionary programs. They have a mentorship program with art students from the art school, they always attend the open studios at the local art academy, and they offer opportunities for students to exhibit in their space. They also provide workshops on screen printing and do other kinds of outreach. They and many artists in Indonesia think a lot about sustainability, about how to initiate young people into the ecology of art, and how to support and strengthen art practices, especially in cities where the museums aren’t really doing that job. I think places like mH projects along with independent art spaces in the city have this same role, creating meeting places for artists and offering ways for artists to forge community, and opportunities to try out ideas and to keep going. This active process is really important in keeping art healthy. They also work outside of power structures that are related to colonial history, super structures and capitalist ways of thinking. Collective practices are more aligned with the village practice of making festivals, having space for music, art, food, celebration, coming together and marking the time. Thanks everyone. Those are just some of my thoughts.
ET: One thing I do want to mention is that museum educators are often artists themselves, and I was struck by the fact that sadly these educators were some of the first to get laid off during the pandemic when the museums had to be shut down. With that in mind, I feel that some of the most exciting programming in our museums actually takes place in education departments, and I’m just going to say it, not necessarily in the curatorial departments. And I often wonder if it’s because our education programs are so artist driven.
JD: Very interesting. I think we have the chance for one more question or reflection.
Audience Member 6 (AM6): Perhaps I can offer one last thought. I wonder if these collective projects can or have the capacity to enact some of the artistic process within the space of the exhibition or museum. Perhaps that could be a way of energizing our institutions, as they are in the process of evolving too. In other words, rather than a zero-sum proposition, over throwing the institution completely or accepting it fully, could we think about moving in the direction of flattening the hierarchies? Perhaps we don’t have to land on a fully flat horizontal structure, because each organization will understand that a little differently, and maybe organizations do require leadership, or maybe in some cases co-leadership makes more sense. But I think the impulse towards collectivity, the impulse towards flattening is a very useful one, and could be thought of as a sort of engine, both to compliment the way that artists work, but also to help us think about institutional change as a kind of collective art project.
JD: Museum as collective art project. Very interesting. While we could go on much longer, I am sure, I am afraid we have to stop here, so thank you all very much for coming tonight, and to the speakers, thank you very much for participating so thoughtfully.
General Audience: [Applause]
mh PROJECT nyc is a project space for emerging / mid-career artists from Asia, as well as for NYC artists. Offering a space that is free for artists to use, mh PROJECT nyc aims to cultivate creativity through site-specific, experimental, and DIY* projects. (*Artists can organize their event programs to develop their ideas/creations throughout the duration of their projects).
Mayumi Hayashi opened mh PROJECT nyc in the East Village, NY, in 2017. Hayashi was co-founder and director of OZASAHAYASHI, a contemporary art gallery in Kyoto, Japan from 2015 to 2017. She was also co-founder of Goliath Visual Space, one of the original artist run spaces in Greenpoint, Brooklyn from 1997 to 2006. There she curated and directed a program of over thirty exhibitions. Hayashi worked for over a decade in not-for-profit art organizations in New York City, including International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) from 2001 to 2008. In summer 2022, she will launch a new space mh PROJECT_Nokogiri in Ichinomiya-city, Japan.
Operating from 2020 to 2021, Mutual Aid Projects was a curator-run independent project space located in Wisma Central, Kuala Lumpur. It sought to fill one of the many voids brought about by the pandemic, that of friendship, collaboration and a thoughtful exchange of ideas. Joining curator Eric Goh in the project were artists Areena Ang, Dipali Gupta, Izat Arif, Tan Zi Hao, and Hoo Fan Chon.
Eric Goh is an art writer, critic, and curator from Kuala Lumpur. Committed to the eco-critical turn in art history, he examines the intersection between economics and ecology in the visual arts. He earned his MA in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and BA in Economics from the University of Edinburgh. He has written for Artforum, Heichi Magazine, among other journals, and he will begin his PhD in Art History at Cornell University in the fall of 2022.
Northeast by Southeast (NExSE) is a small and emerging intergenerational collective of Filipino-American artists living and working in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The similarity among members begins with a shared ethnic heritage, yet divergence in personal histories shapes their individual expression as artists. NExSE celebrates the essence of community, placing emphasis on the diversity of narratives as immigrants and children of immigrants in the United States.
Francis Estrada is a visual artist and educator born in the Philippines and currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. Estrada has a fine arts degree in painting and drawing, and has taught in a variety of studio, classroom, and museum settings to diverse audiences. As a museum educator, he enjoys teaching about the amalgamation of art and culture through objects. His artwork interrogates how visual cues found in historical photographs, mass media, political propaganda, and personal archives influence or inflect social or cultural narratives. Francis exhibits his work internationally, and his recent projects have integrated interdisciplinary collaborations with artists, designers, writers, and scholars.
Eugenie Tsai is the John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, at the Brooklyn Museum. In 2021, she organized “KAWS: WHAT PARTY,” “The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience, and Resistance in the Art of Our Time,” and coordinated the Brooklyn Museum’s presentation of “The Obama Portraits.” She recently opened “Guadalupe Maravilla: Tierra Blanca Joven,” and is currently organizing an exhibition of Oscar yi Hou, the 2022 Ouvo Prize recipient.
Practicing Collectivity: Conversation with Francis Estrada, Mayumi Hayashi, Eric Goh, and Eugenie Tsai is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.