Interview with Tanya ZimbardoSeptember 22, 2015
Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.
Tanya Zimbardo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Assistant Curator of Media Arts, is also the co-curator of Public Works: Artists' Interventions 1970s–Now, on view at Mills College Art Museum through December 13, 2015. We had the chance to sit down with Zimbardo in April 2015 during her one-month residency at Krowswork in Oakland. As described in the conversation, the residency is a new model that Krowswork founder and director Jasmine Moorhead is exploring for presenting the ideas of artist, poets, writers, and art historians. Woven through our conversation with Zimbardo are references to the work she programmed for Satuday public hours during the residency, but true to its research-driven nature, it’s notable that much of the conversation is an exploration of the ideas she was developing alongside exhibiting this work, ideas about the through-threads, overlaps, and histories that surround these artists. What follows, then, is an abridged excerpt from a conversation that is not so much about an exhibition-in-progress as it is about thoughts-in-progress, and we were honored to have such insight into hers.
You can listen to the full interview on Bad at Sports, Episode 504.
Brian Andrews: This past year, Krowswork initiated a residency model for its programming. Maybe we can start by talking about your decision to operate in this space.
Tanya Zimbardo: Jasmine Moorhead founded this space about five years ago, and I started coming around her second show. Seeing shows periodically and talking with her over time, we’ve developed a relationship. There have been moments when our research has dovetailed. For example, not long ago, we were both in conversation with Lowell Darling, whose video Last Tape (1984) I showed during the Krowswork residency preview in February. She had organized a retrospective of his work, and I was researching an alternative art space he ran in Davis, California, called the Art Center of the World (1970-71), which, first of all, I thought was just an amazing name, but I was also curious about how he played with the format of shows there.
This winter, Jasmine decided that she wanted to try a different approach and foreground the aspects of the space she liked the most, such as allowing the artists she supported to have time to produce work or host public programs with other writers and artists and to have a different, flexible format. It’s something she’s very engaged with, not only in terms of curating this series of guest poets and artists, but she’ll be writing about some of the connections, both conscious and serendipitous, that come out between the different residencies. At the end of the year, she’ll organize a festival and a series of salons.
I am the third resident. The first two were Anne Lesley Selcer, a poet and media-based artist, and then Duane Deterville, who is a curator and scholar as well as a visual artist. It was incredibly flattering to be asked, to think of it as a time for an open-ended research residency. A key part of Krowswork is these three wonderful rooms that allow for different types of programming within it. There was certain work that I wanted to experience in space and not just on my laptop at home. That was part of the interest for me.
Patricia Maloney: Jasmine conceived Krowswork to be a gallery focused on photography and video art. Very quickly, the program evolved to represent work that had different time scales attached to them, both in terms of the production of the work but also in the experience of the work. Each of the rooms here at the gallery are of a different size and have distinct personalities; she adeptly created a program that encompassed consideration of those differences, as well as research-based and installation-based work. She was also willing to stretch back and forth in time to encompass different histories. It’s not just about recent, contemporary, emerging work, but really bringing in some historical threads as well.
BA: You’re curating a pretty wide range here. Is there a larger thread that we should be looking at or that you are trying to push forward here? Or is this specifically opportunistically responding to the spaces in the way you just mentioned?
TZ: It is a bit of both. Spending time in this space, I added on more work. In the small, central room, I originally thought, “Oh, I’ll just sit here on a couch and have reading materials avialable.” Then I realized, no, it’s a special room that would lend itself to projecting works. I became interested in having a combination of works that would be on view the whole time as well as works that would be daylong projections. So in two of the spaces, a different work is showing every Saturday, on loop throughout the day. Then there’s an exhibition of text-based works by Kristin Lucas and Judy Malloy in one of the spaces, titled Versions.
I didn’t start with any predetermined theme, but after a while, looking at some of the works I was choosing or some of the pairings—which are pretty loose and could be seen as independent works shown at the same time—there is a history that I have with some of these artists that I wanted to foreground. And then a lot of the work is performance-based. Almost all of it is from the ’70s and ’80s in California and hasn't been shown locally before or not in a long time. There are through-lines of looking at how artists process information. For example, I am showing performance-based films by Ericka Beckman and Howard Fried that are both reactions to the American education system or to art education. And the last film I’m showing by Mike Henderson—The Shape of Things (1981)—is very much about how artists deal with success or failure. There are text-based works and work about computer-based language. Archives, consumer desire and the things that we keep and file is another through-line. But we’re summarizing the work as performance-based film work from 1970s and 1980s California.
BA: The first thread I found connecting these things was in Versions, looking at Judy Malloy’s OK Genetic Engineering (1983–85) and its really extensive library of material chronicling the early phases of genetic research—the techniques and devices and the things around unpacking that code—directly across the room from Kristin Lucas’ project about renaming herself, and in fact, recoding herself through the legal system. It is unbelievably hilarious that she got the judge to play along, and maybe only in Oakland, California, can you get the judge to play along with that idea. They’re both about coding identity in a much broader sense to the self.
TZ: I was interested in bringing these two works into dialogue around the idea of Bay Area performance intervention. Both artists are also collecting found language. In Judy’s case, it is pre-internet science and tech materials. In Kristin’s case, the video Air on the Go (2014–15) takes its phrases from user forums and weather-monitoring apps. But at the outset, both had these performance-based interventions. Judy is more frequently discussed in terms of Mail Art and her contributions to hyper-fiction, but it is the performative aspect that I was initially drawn to the most.
PM: In pairing these two artists together, you’re highlighting how these artists are introducing anomalies into the public’s purview through their interventions. They’re tripping us up in terms of our desires to go along with received information. Kristin’s piece, Refresh (2007), which is about changing her name from “Kristin Sue Lucas” to “Kristin Sue Lucas,” paired with Judy Malloy’s introduction of a collection of viruses into a public sensibility, creates this linguistic uneasiness that’s so fascinating to explore with both artists.1
TZ: There is humor there, but there is much more than an art project. It’s about their lived experiences as women. For Lucas, Refresh not only has its life as an artwork with different iterations—for example, there’s been different performance readings of the courtroom transcript, and there’s a take-away ‘zine presented here, which is the more recent version of the work—but there’s also the impact this name change has had in her life. It’s not just the courtroom, it’s all the other documents that had to get redone and reprocessed. She really did believe and was interested in this idea of a personal refresh. So it’s not just the humor of the piece and tweak to the system that we perceive at first.
BA: It has this daily-ritual aspect; if she goes to the grocery store and gets carded for wine, for example, that is an officiated transaction that is reinforcing exactly the act that she made.
TZ: And with Judy Malloy, her way of supporting herself for many years was working as a librarian for both tech companies and the University of California. Around the time that she did OK Genetic Engineering, there was some controversy over the Lindow-Panopoulos Ice-Minus Bacteria experiment that was at UC Berkeley.2 So then she actually stopped sending stuff out to the biotech community and instead focused on the art community in terms of distribution. But it is interesting to think that those things were happening at the same time.
PM: It is really interesting to pair OK Genetic Engineering with Refresh because together, they underscore the different layers at play: There is the information that we are trying to wrap our heads around as knowledge, there is the technology that enables it, and then there is the legal wrangling that happens that is the point at which can cope with this information and this technology in our lives.
BA: It manifests itself in odd and interesting ways. While it is information, it also becomes part of that information economy that we all live in.
PM: I want to switch gears and ask you about how this residency represents your research, and work you’ve done with these artists before or are in the process of doing.
TZ: Kristin and Judy always appeared in my PowerPoint presentations when I was giving talks or teaching, but hadn’t really thought of them together. This was a perfect moment for that.
I interviewed Judith Barry a number of years ago, when I was researching SFMOMA’s efforts to support video art and performance during the ’70s. It was an interesting moment for the museum. Shortly after a number of artist-run spaces had been founded, the museum held a series of exhibitions around the idea of being a host; directors of artist-run spaces would guest-curate their own presentations. Judith was one of a number of women artists who were getting together to support one another, often feeling there wasn’t that kind of support locally. She directed a performance piece entitled Kaleidoscope (1978) at the museum with a group of women artists under the auspices of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s artist-run space, the Floating Museum. I’ve always loved a particular video of hers that was shot in Palo Alto and San Francisco, Casual Shopper (1980-81), and was reminded of it more recently, so when this residency came up, I thought, “This is a perfect moment to reconnect.”
Howard Fried is the relationship that I’ve had the longest. I’ve been interviewing him for five years now and will have an ongoing commitment to his work.
The conversation initially came out of the work that I do at the museum. We have a concentration of his work; he was included in the 75th anniversary exhibitions, I wrote about his work for our anniversary collection highlights book. Separately from that, I began doing studio visits and seeing him on a more regular basis. In my mind, it was always moving toward a long-term writing project, such as a journal article, which I think it still is, but there are in the meantime moments when I can show certain work or write about him in a different format.
PM: How does the work get exercised for you here in a different way than the type of work you do at the museum? Obviously, there are a lot of administrative, logistical differences, but I am curious if you are approaching curating here differently, working with artists you’ve gotten to exhibit in both contexts?
TZ: Well, I haven’t exhibited them in both contexts, with maybe the exception of screening Stephen Laub, whose work I supported bringing into our collection. But the primary exhibition opportunities I have at the museum are typically to show and support emerging or early midcareer artists. All of the artists in this program at Krowswork are major, established figures who in some cases have a history with SFMOMA, or with museums generally speaking, but haven’t been part of the exhibitions that I get offered to do.
When I've curated a film screening, it’s very specifically in a theatrical setting, which is wonderful in terms of the quality of sound, but is a different kind of space with a certain time pressure that it puts on audience attendance. I could have done a screening here in which people show up just for a half hour, but I was interested in, and am thankful that the artists were also interested in, the idea of being able to show something on loop for just a day.
BA: I am curious to get your take on the screening of work in the black box. I was just reading an interview with Jonn Herschend today, in which he talks about the difference in screening his work at the Whitney Biennial versus Telluride. The reverent silence and uninvolved detachment that the Whitney audience provided, which I guess fits here—there are pews, after all, here in the screening space—whereas at Telluride, they were busting out laughing. Is that dynamic something you engage with, in terms of these different kinds of spaces and the work you choose to exhibit?
TZ: There are works that definitely require certain types of spaces. All of these works have been shown in both. There are pieces that I would prefer to see in an installation context. Sometimes when you show time-based work in that way, it’s more of an event, such as with expanded cinema. This is not a black box, but my focus here is performance-based work that is suited to showing in a darkened gallery.
There can be divisions between film audiences and gallery visitors. For example, last spring, Mark Toscano, who is the film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, showed a number of Mike Henderson’s films as part of the Exploratorium’s Cinema Arts program. It was really the ideal way to see these short films. I had recently interviewed Henderson for a publication about his film practice and had an amazing time in his studio. When this residency came up, I thought, “Can I share his work in another way?” Because he’s such a great storyteller, why not have him come? So the first program was an informal conversation that centered on a film titled Down Hear from 1972; it is of a charged performance in relation to one of his blues songs that he did with his brother when he lived in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. It was a really special program with the kind of turnout I haven’t had for other programs I’ve participated in or organized. A lot of people there knew his painting practice but were less familiar with this work. So I think that those divisions in audiences, between galleries and cinema, can exist, even if the work gets shown in both contexts.
BA: So, bringing this back to Krowswork, tell us more about Henry Rosenthal and the other screenings.
TZ: Henry Rosenthal is a film producer in the Bay Area. He’s also known for being a member of Crime, the San Francisco punk band from the mid ’70s to early ’80s. Earlier, he was involved with the experimental music scene and became very interested in the possibilities of public-access television. He created a television show that was called, FILES: Things That Are Kept and Why, on which a number of people from his social milieu—friends, relatives, a range of personalities—would be asked to talk about their personal archives or some aspect of their files.3 He was both the producer and the host of this series. I was curious not only about how he was using television at that time, but also the interest in and attention to artist archives, collections, and other material that informs either their work or their curatorial practice. FILES: Things That Are Kept and Why seemed like an interesting precedent to bring to light. I was thinking about this period, which has been parallel to a lot of the work that I’ve been researching, and the way these artists and composers were being engaged through his project.
BA: With the opening of SFMOMA now just months away, do you find that the building is changing how you are viewing the collection and wanting to exhibit work, having this new space available to you?
TZ: Mentally, we’re already back in the building and well into the first two years of programming. For Media Arts, we have entirely new galleries on the seventh floor. While there’s a lot that we already understand about what the building is going to be like, I think we really need to be back in the space to truly experience how the works will be shown, especially those that could live in or be commissioned for the more interstitial spaces or public spaces.
PM: Through your work at SFMOMA and through this residency, you are mining a very rich history of Bay Area performance-based and conceptual artists who rely heavily on media or video artists who work in a very performative way. You are bringing work from the ’70s and ’80s to a contemporary audience. Is that what you see as your larger project or part of your larger project?
TZ: The residency offers time for me to think about this work and to write, but I am excited to have the time here to talk with people about these artists and in many cases, not just the work, but other aspects of their history as well. There are always just a couple of works that get shown in the context of a survey exhibition, but there’s a lot of other works that they’ve done. Or maybe it’s the early ’70s that gets highlighted, but what about every work from the ’80s? So being able to have those conversations with the public is something that I am looking forward to. A lot of this work feels very contemporary to me.
BA: Looking at this installation, it feels very contemporary to me. Because of the difficulty of display with installation requirements or time-based requirements, artists working in those arenas have less feedback about what’s been happening around them than artists making more easily accessible, displayable work. It becomes less trodden territory in terms of where artists are investigating working, and in a way, that preserves its freshness.
TZ: This particular period doesn’t read as historical to me as it does to some others. There’s certain work that requires this kind of space to be shown; it doesn’t get highlighted as much as maybe other examples of an artist’s practice. I sometimes think historic video work has been on the wane in local film programs. Being able to think about this work in this way is important.
Tanya Zimbardo is the Assistant Curator of Media Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she has curated select film and video screenings and co-organized the past two SECA Art Award exhibitions and the overview Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards, among other exhibitions. Her research and writing is primarily centered on conceptual art and experimental media in California since the 1970s. She has contributed essays to several SFMOMA publications, most recently West Coast Visions (2015, Borusan Contemporary, Istanbul). As a guest contributor to SFMOMA's Open Space, Zimbardo highlighted various site works, public interventions, and artist-run spaces in the Bay Area, including Receipt of Delivery, her weekly series featuring exhibition mailers.
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