Mechanical Memory

A conversation with a curator of the Bell Gallery

by by Rachel Benoit

illustration by by Alexander Dale

Nostalgia Machines is Maya Allison’s latest and last show as curator of Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, a title she held and shaped with shows like Among the Breakage: New Painting From Providence in 2011, and Alison Owen: divisibility in 2010. Allison has been a fixture in the Providence art community since she started at the RISD Museum in 2005, collecting the New England Art Award for Best Curator of Locally Made Art along the way. When announcing her move to Abu Dhabi, where she will be helping to develop NYU Abu Dhabi’s exhibition program, she told the New England Arts Journal: “This was not an easy decision, and I will always treasure my time here, at the RISD Museum, 5 Traverse Gallery, Pixilerations, and the Bell Gallery.” Although Allison has already been relocated,  Abu Dhabi and Providence were able to meet for a conversation—facilitated by skype, two Ipads, and a web of wires, about the curatorial process that crafted Nostalgia Machines and the implications of working with new media in the contemporary art world.

The Independent: Can you tell us about the beginnings of Nostalgia Machines?

Maya Allison: I came across the piece by Gregory Witt, a mechanical arm that moves back and forth and makes the sound of packing tape being unrolled, with all the staccato sounds when it sticks and rips. I was struck by how it used the new media world’s “cool tricks” but from about a decade ago. It’s nothing new at all from a robotics or new media standpoint, it’s purely interesting because of what he’s managed to do: convey a human gesture. I was taken with the evocativeness of something so clearly mechanical, but able to capture a human gesture so poignantly.

I was thinking about doing a show about kinetic sculpture that deals with human gesture, but the problem with that is the problem with all curatorial projects: where do you draw the line? I started thinking about what else is going on in this work that is so poignant to me. I realized it was generating a sensation of nostalgia that was non-specific. It wasn’t nostalgia for a moment in my life, but this weird, eerie feeling of physical memory of this gesture, and what goes with that, like a hot sweaty day in a room full of boxes to pack. It brought up memories that are stored physically. That’s when things started to come together, looking at the range of sensations that I could call nostalgic.

Indy: What’s an example of the relationship between nostalgia and technology in the show?

MA: Jasper Rigole has the antique photograph with the camera slowly moving over it that is being projected live. You think you’re seeing a documentary, but it’s only the aesthetic associated with nostalgic narratives in documentary: black and white photograph, slow pan, deep voice narrator; a cheesy cliché of nostalgia. You could say that Rigole buys other people’s memories and uses them as his medium: he buys old photographs and rolls of film from flea markets. When I learned this I thought, “I can’t believe I’m putting this guy in a show about nostalgia and his art is stealing other people’s memories!” He’s taking the nostalgia away, or abstracting nostalgia, for someone else’s memories, which has this wonderful detached quality. You look and get this pang, “I wonder where this person is now?” We’ll never know, right? That’s a weird sensation.

Indy: Were any of the artists uncomfortable with your interpretation of their work?

MA: There was [a gallery] that didn’t want their artist to be in the show because they thought it would be seen as a robotics show and therefore in the new media category and not be part of the mainstream contemporary art conversation. It made me realize the stigma associated with new media for some.

Indy: What is the new media stigma?

MA: If people think it’s new media then there’s this assumption that, “Oh that’s going to be computer stuff therefore I’m not interested.”

Indy: How were you introduced to new media art?

MA: Having a BA in art history and MFA in film, I was able to look at things both as an art historian and a filmmaker. I became interested in what happens when you introduce movement into an artwork, and how that changes our relationship to it. This interest led to my study of new media art. It can mean art that uses technology, but it has become associated with a set of questions that define it as well—not all art that uses technology is new media art.

Indy: Can you clarify that distinction?

MA: An artist can make a sculpture that has mechanics in it and not be thought of as a new media artist because the work is in dialogue with the mainstream art world. Other artists are working with questions we associate with new media art, even if it uses the same technology. One stereotypical complaint about new media art is the work has this “cool trick” problem, like, “I made this machine it does this really cool thing let’s show it in a gallery.” The complaint on the new media side is that the mainstream art world is too self-obsessed, ironic, and hermetic; it’s art about art.

Indy: The term “new media” has become tired to a certain extent, what’s your take on it?

MA: New media in the art world is a definition that has been a battleground, especially in the last ten years. Originally it was associated with video art. When digital technology became more commonly used that became the new definition, things involving computers. There is another ancestry that leads down through artists that most art historians know little about, who were using computer programs, equations, technology. Then it got even more complicated: that thread of the new media family gave rise to experiments using biology and science in ways that you might never think of as art media.

Indy: How might new media involve biology?

MA: The best example I have heard comes from Domenico Quaranta’s story about an artist [Oron Catts, Victimless Leather] who grew a leather jacket out of living cells, which raises bizarre ethical questions. When you think of vegetarians who don’t wear leather, this work becomes even more interesting: would you wear the leather if it were living? The piece was shown at MOMA. The cells started growing in an odd formation, and they had to cut off its nutrient supply, killing it. It becomes this interesting moral-social question.

There are people working in virtual communities and with online labor. They hire people through the Internet to make their art for them and then ship it to them. Are they a new media artist? Or are they just doing Warhol using modern day tech? There’s a lot of gray area, and that’s how the notion of new media as a definition started to become more about the questions than the techniques, because now everybody has access to complex technology.

Indy: Is there anything about the show that you would change?

MA: I can’t really answer that without potentially insulting somebody, right? I might have wanted to triple the size of the gallery and explore this idea in non-kinetic art, without limiting it to moving sculptures. You could always use more space.

If I were to do it again, I would extend to non-technology and look for that same tension in other ways, but it’s dangerous to extend too much. You could do a second part to this show, which would be machines that no longer have a function, like typewriters, and the only reason that we keep them around is that we love them, like pets. One of the hardest things when you’re putting together a show is deciding where to stop.

Indy: How did you reconcile the subjectivity of nostalgia with the breadth of who your audience might be?

MA: I thought about this question a lot. The packing-tape piece is interesting because from my perspective, packing-tape is universal, but it’s not. I’m limiting the sphere of the exhibition. One of the challenges of curating, and I’m really facing this now being in Abu Dhabi, is you don’t know what you’re audience is bringing to the exhibition and what’s going to mean something to them.

We have associations with what nostalgia means. It’s often seen as this trite, silly emotion. People long for the good ol’ days back when women couldn’t vote; nostalgia suddenly doesn’t sound so good. I was interested in the edges of what we think of when we think of the word nostalgia and less interested in cultural associations with that word. I tried to come up with another word for this kind of poignant physical memory, but I kept coming back to nostalgia.

Indy: Are there characteristics specific to curating for the Bell Gallery?

MA: It functions in that space between art gallery and major museum - with the flexibility of a gallery, and the institutional support of a museum. It is also an intersection space, where the local public, students, faculty, and art communities all overlap—go to the next opening, you will see what I mean.

Nostalgia Machines, featuring the work of Meridith Pingree, Jasper Rigole, Jonathan Schipper, Gregory Witt, and Zimoun, is showing at the David Winton Bell Gallery until February 19.