Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at MoMA, discusses New York and new work with artists Zackary Drucker.
Recently appointed as the Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, and recently relocated from London where he was the Tate’s first curator of film, Stuart Comer has had a very busy year. After curating the top floor at the Whitney Biennial, Comer prepares his first show at MoMA this fall. Here, he sits down with artist Zackary Drucker, herself a part of the Biennial, to discuss public raction, which city is best, and his new exhibition, Cut to Swipe.
Zackary Drucker—In 2014, Stuart Comer moved from the Tate Modern to MoMA, from London to New York, curated a section of the Whitney Biennial, and took over the world in general.
Stuart Comer—Maybe we should begin with, I think that my studio visit of you was the first studio visit I ever had that began with margaritas.
Zackary—[Laughs] Really? That’s funny. That was a good evening, wasn’t it?
Stuart—Maybe that’s too much information.
Zackary—It was in the evening, wasn’t it? It was margaritas at a very decent hour, I’m sure.
Stuart—A very respectable hour.
Zackary—And it wasn’t exactly a margarita. I think it was some sugary gin cocktail that Rhys [Zackary’s partner] was making for us.
Stuart—That’s very possible. But you were living in [artist] Ron Athey’s old house [at the time].
Zackary—Yes, I was. Yeah, probably a house you’d been in before, right?
Stuart—I think I originally met you through Ryan Trecartin, so it was nice to see you bookended by an old school figure like Ron and a new school figure like Ryan.
Zackary—Absolutely. Ron, you know, I consider my chosen father. He let me live in that place for years.
Stuart—Exactly, because I, I think I qualify as nineties LA, [Laughs] which I think Ron does too. But you are definitely—
Zackary—When did you live in LA? You’re definitely noughties LA. [Laughs] I’ve lived here now for nine years and I still consider myself the new girl in town. Really I’m like a dinosaur.
Stuart—Why did you move to LA?
Zackary—I moved to LA to go to CalArts in 2005. When did you leave?
Stuart—2000. I went to London in 2000. But I was there, I was there for ten years. I moved in ’91, just before the riots.
Zackary—So you and I haven’t actually done a recap of the Whitney Biennial, we haven’t seen each other since I believe the opening.
Stuart—I think that’s true. Yeah, it was clearly very intense. It was funny because I went straight from the final performance on the last day of the show by Pauline Oliveros to JFK and flew to Berlin for the opening of the Berlin Biennial, so I think I have a biennial addiction. But it was interesting because the reactions and the conversation I had there were very different than the ones I had in New York, and I think it made me realize that my point of view is definitely more European at this point, from having spent the last 13 years in London. It was a great experience, re-situating myself in the US and understanding a lot of the shifts that have happened both in New York and LA and across the country.
Zackary—What do you think those ideological differences are?
Stuart—It’s not so much ideological, but I think it’s that the conditions of the cities are so radically different now, and both are getting gentrified but New York is much further ahead of the curve on that, so it is getting really difficult for young artists in particular to make things happen here, which I think is a big concern for a lot of people. Los Angeles used to provoke looks of horror when you mentioned it [Laughs] you know, years ago, but now I feel like half the people I know want to move to LA so things are changing very quickly. And I feel like Los Angeles more than ever now feels like a really plausible alternative now to New York for a lot of people. And it’s not just the artists but also the institutions are growing up quickly there. In terms of the Biennial, though, it was a very intense experience and you forget how much the show is the target—it’s just an excuse to take out everybody’s frustrations on the art world as a whole. I think the Whitney Biennial more than any other exhibition seems to serve that function, for whatever reason. But that said, I had very exciting connections with pretty much every artist in the show and I think really great responses from those people I spoke to, and we did tell a story as much as we did an exhibition. But how do you feel, because you [and partner Rhys] got a lot of press and we had discussed even before the show what kind of press response we were anticipating.
Zackary—Well, that’s a complicated question. There’s so many layers and the fundamental schism between what the press is saying versus what you’re hearing on an interpersonal level is really magnified in that case. I think I experienced a fair amount of disassociating and not necessarily feeling connected to the representation that’s being created of Rhys and me. I felt there was a kind of glorification of our relationship. It very quickly became this narrative about romance when really imbued in the work was a whole range of feelings that come with a relationship, including pain and conflict.
“It reminds me of the energy that used to be produced in the clubs and in other situations in New York in the eighties, which does not exist here anymore, and so I do think something got relocated, that has everything to do with living in an internet age I think.”
Stuart—There were a few articles that were lumping together a lot of trans people from various creative industries, not just the art world. How did you feel about being pigeonholed that way? I talked to you and to Yves Laris Cohen, who was also in the show and is approaching his trans identity in very different ways than you and Rhys are.
Zackary—Definitely. I mean, the thing that trans people share with all public figures is a resistance to being defined by the external world, and that’s something I talk about a lot. The minute that you surrender your ability to self define is the moment in which you’re submitting to a really violent culture. It’s incredible, the exposure that trans people are experiencing right now, and I think that it’s long overdue. Trans people have always been present in our cultural conversation and in many cases their trans identities or histories have been erased or concealed, sometimes electively, sometimes not.
Stuart—A lot of people referred to the top floor of the [Whitney] Biennial as the queer floor, and there were certainly some very strong queer voices on it, maybe it was half the artists on the floor. I was trying very hard to connect any issues raised in your work that related to a lot of other political questions or philosophical questions that don’t necessarily have to do with the blatantly queer identity but more with how identities and systems in general are just changing fundamentally now.
Zackary—For me it’s about an identity of the human, it’s about the human identity.
Stuart—But how do you feel now, because for a while you were more of a photographer, then you were more of a filmmaker, throughout that time you were also a performance artist, and I get the sense now you are potentially more interested in working in pop-cultural forms.
Zackary—I feel free. I think that a big part of my life approach is to not ever get locked into anything, which is why I switch media as often as possible or as often as the idea allows for. I sometimes feel that my trans identity usurps my identity as an artist and actually I feel like my identity is first and foremost an artist and that’s how I’m approaching the other structures in my life, like my gender.
Stuart—So which city is more fun for you now, New York or LA?
Zackary—Los Angeles, always. [Laughs] How about you?
Stuart—I love both cities. I left New York in ‘91, so it’s a totally different city now. And I think I come at it from the point of view of Los Angeles and also from London, and it’s kind of handy that it’s right in between the two for me, but it has changed so much. I’m actually really enjoying getting reacquainted with it as somebody who actually lives here rather than just visiting. But I do feel the gravitational pull of Los Angeles too—and London, you know; I think they’re both super dynamic cities.
Zackary—I have a very Los Angeles-centric perspective at this point. My feeling was always that people could be crazier here because you’re less connected to public space. It’s possible to be really crazy in a cathartic way, you’re more isolated and communities form in a really organic way.
Stuart—I do kind of feel like what you and Stewart Uoo and Ryan Trecartin are doing out there—it reminds me of the energy that used to be produced in the clubs and in other situations in New York in the eighties, which does not exist here anymore, and so I do think something got relocated, but it’s not in the clubs there, it’s in your private lives, and in the way those private lives are made public, that has everything to do with living in an internet age I think.
Zackary—Yeah, and it has everything to do with our economy as well. I think we as a generation worked very hard to, you know, I think we’ve probably worked much harder just because the numbers are stacked against us, and Los Angeles still has affordable space and ample space, and has more opportunities to show work and get sort of involved and less removed from the economy of the art world in a way that creates freedom to experiment.
Stuart—I hate to say it and no New Yorker will ever agree with me but the food is much better in LA and London than it is here. [Laughs] I don’t think anybody will ever agree to that but it’s true. We need to kick it back into gear here.
Zackary—New York might just become a financial city, a financial center.
Stuart—Well, I think that already happened, now it’s a matter of how does the city respond to that. Does it just settle into that or does somebody kick back a bit? Which I’m hoping they will so we’ll see.
Zackary—Whereas Los Angeles, Hollywood is basically the core of our economy here, which is more conducive and more supportive of a creative lifestyle. Most people here freelance and that’s just a different way of living and structuring your time.
Stuart—It’s true, yeah. It’s a different clock. But at the same time I think people do actually work as hard there as they do here, it’s just a different clock.
Zackary—Yeah, that is what I was trying to say, if I’m going to be working as hard as I am I like to at least have some nature and sunshine around me and some kind of tranquility or space.
Nick Vogelson —What are you both working on in the future? Stuart, I’d love to hear about your upcoming show with MoMA and, Zackary, projects you’re working on.
Stuart—I’m doing a lot at the moment, we’re going to be rehanging the collection next year in a very different way than it’s been traditionally displayed at MoMA, so we’re going to be rethinking the institution’s own history, how the museum and New York connect to a much more global narrative at the moment. And then we’ve been making a lot of new acquisitions in my department, so I’m doing a show opening in October called Cut to Swipe [opening October 11], dedicated to all of those and the artist who’s really at the core of the show is Dara Birnbaum.
Zackary—Wow. I love Dara Birnbaum.
Stuart—She’s a hero, absolutely. An incredibly inspiring woman. But what about you, Zackary? I know you’re busy too.
Zackary—Yeah, I’m pretty busy right now. I’m working on a restaging of the work that was at the Whitney Biennial for my gallery here in LA. We’re adding new images that have been made since the biennial was installed.And I’m writing a lot, just, it’s the next thing coming down the pipe. [Laughs] And I don’t necessarily know what it will turn into, but, yeah, I’m thinking big.
Stuart—I mean, I want all the gossip but I don’t know how much Zackary will give. [Laughs]
Zackary—I’m gonna give you the gossip next month, Stuart.
This conversation first appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2014 issue.