A Conversation between Heng-Gil Han and Miwon Kwon

June 20, 2004 at Getty Research Institute


Heng-Gil Han (HH): Before starting our conversation, I would like to give you a brief overview of Jamaica Flux. Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL) invited five curators who solicited proposals and selected twenty-eight projects that will be presented in non-art spaces on Jamaica Avenue. JCAL proposed commercial sites for the exhibition, and approached other not-for-profit and public institutions, such as the NYC Parks Department, to provide additional indoor or outdoor non-art spaces.

Miwon Kwon (MK): Who chose the sites for the projects, you?

HH: No, artists selected their own sites, and JCAL secured them on behalf of the artists.

MK: What about JCAL as a site itself?

HH: JCAL was founded in 1972 and has been supporting artists at the emerging stages of their careers. Located in Southeast Queens, New York, JCAL is surrounded by a huge commercial sector that stretches about twenty blocks on Jamaica Avenue. Geographically, this area of Jamaica functions as a transportation hub for New York City, connecting the city with other domestic and international cities through airways and railroads. The majority of the population is African-American, although the demographics are rapidly changing because South Asians and South Americans are moving into the area. Jamaica Flux is also motivated, in part, by the realization that JCAL’s contribution to the field of contemporary art has largely been overlooked, even though many artists who have been affiliated with JCAL in one way or another during the past three decades have developed significant careers – Lorenzo Pace, Juan Sanchez, Lorna Simpson, and Sui Kang Zhao are just a few examples. So in 2000 and early 2001, there was a strong drive on the institution’s part to garner critical recognition and funding at a level commensurate with our activities in supporting emerging artists and contributing to contemporary art discourse. But people in the art world, especially the younger generation, are not aware of our existence. When I go to an opening and introduce myself as a curator at JCAL, many artists are confused and think I am from. . .

MK: Jamaica, the island, right? [laughter]

HH: Yes! The geographical distance from Manhattan and the sense of being isolated from its art world, the unawareness of the Center on the part of many emerging artists, and the desire to revive an active cultural life in the community are all motivating factors behind Jamaica Flux, and I am trying to structure the exhibition to meet such institutional demands. Much of the exhibition will take place on the twenty-block commercial section of Jamaica Avenue. Some artists proposed to present their art (sculpture and video projections) at local banks, while others proposed projects for parks, stores, and malls. Still others proposed performance-based ephemeral works.

MK: Will all the performances happen during a specific time frame of the exhibition?

HH: Yes, between October 16 and November 6, 2004.

MK: That’s a very short show.

HH: Yes, but another part of the exhibition will be in JCAL’s main gallery and will last for three months. The gallery show includes three components: 1) plans, drawings, and sketches etc., made during each project’s development; 2) a video documentary of the performances and projects in situ; and 3) older works by artists like Barbara Kruger and Fred Wilson, which we believe constitute art-historical precedents for the younger artists in our show. These are the general contours of Jamaica Flux. I hope I’ve been clear.

MK: I think I understand the structure of the project. This type of exhibition set-up, which tries to activate non-art spaces by making them available for artists’ interventions, is not unfamiliar to me, so I think I have a pretty good sense of what you’re doing.

HH: Now I want to talk about your book, One Place After Another, which I enjoyed reading.

MK: Thank you.

HH: How long have you been in the United States?

MK: Since 1972, when I was ten years old.

HH: And you went to Berkeley for college?

MK: Yes. I studied architecture there, then I spent a year in Seoul working at the Space Group [Gong-Gan] headed by the architect Kim Soo-Geun. I decided not to pursue architecture professionally while in Korea and returned to Berkeley for a Masters degree in photography. Then somewhat haphazardly I ended up in New York. I applied to the Whitney Independent Study Program without really knowing what I was doing but was accepted into the curatorial program, which changed my life forever. I often say I became conscious during the ISP year. I couldn’t go back to California after the experience. Luckily, I got a job at the Whitney Museum, and after about two years, I went back to school for a Ph.D. in Architectural History and Theory at Princeton.

HH: But you are back in California!

MK: Yes, I have been at UCLA for six years, teaching art history. Now my public and professional identity is based in contemporary art, art history, and art criticism. But my training is in architecture and that’s in part why I think I am drawn to thinking about art in relation to the built environment and the city, in relation to spatial issues. Perhaps because of my background in studio practice also, I tend to look at art in ways that are not typical of art historians. But I am not an architecture person anymore, either. I am somewhere in between, which is a good place for me, I think.

HH: The notion of being “in-between,” a leitmotif in your book, is also applicable to the blurring of boundaries between curating and art making. One of the Jamaica Flux co-curators, Christopher K. Ho questions if independent curating as a practice might be a logical evolution of site-specific art of the 1970s, of institutional critique in particular.

MK: The profile of the curator as creative author and the idea of the exhibition as a work of art are well-rehearsed concepts in the art world by now. But I don’t know that the independent curator inherits the mantle of institutional critique. Even as we might blur the boundaries between artist and curator (I think the rise of the curator as author has gone hand in hand with artists adopting curatorial methods as their own), and see such blurring as a “logical evolution” of site-specific practice, it would be a big mistake to think that it was necessarily a move to extend a critical cultural project. That was actually one of the main points of my book – that a “critical” artistic endeavor is not automatically consistent with a progressive political project, and that the blurring of distinctions, between disciplines, mediums, spaces, etc., may follow rather than resist the logic of capital. This is why the glamorization of the nomadic artist and the freelance, independent curator is so problematic for me. In reality, an independent curator’s life is pretty precarious and difficult, I think, with no job security or institutional support structures. It may be that the “nomadic” paradigm — deterritorialized, unlocated, perpetually mobile — offers new possibilities of social connections and political affiliations, new freedom, even, but. . .

HH: And what is your reservation?

MK: Well, have you tried to have a thoughtful conversation about an issue or a work of art with one of the handful of celebrity curators? You can’t hold their attention; they are never quite fully present. They always seem to be in transit, in mind if not in body, headed elsewhere. Or, no matter where they are, they say the same thing, like they’re streaming a discourse whose meaning is not contingent upon the context of its utterance. That’s one of the reasons why I could not embrace the nomadic model in the book; I avoided saying that here is the old model of site specificity based on physical location and phenomenological relationships, and here is the new, better one based on fluid circulation. There is wisdom to — and even a need for — the phenomenological engagement that I think is part of our humanity.

HH: Yet, you’re not defining site specificity in purely phenomenological terms either, are you?

MK: No. My working definition for serious, questioning, intelligent site-specific art is art that reveals the conditions of its own possibility within the work. The extent to which an artwork reveals to the viewer such conditions — physical, institutional, interpersonal, political, economic, and so forth — is the extent to which it is a successful, site-specific work for me. So, no, site specificity is not determined exclusively on phenomenological terms but it also cannot transcend those terms either.

HH: Doesn’t all good art reveal the conditions of its own possibility?

MK: I agree that all great works reveal the conditions of their own possibility, but most art is bad [laughter].

HH: What then makes site-specific art site-specific among great works?

MK: Of course, all art, all expressions, are bound to the particular historical conditions of their articulation. But what is perhaps crucial with site-specific practice is that certain self-consciousness about those conditions is incorporated into the method and content of the work. Site-specific art is predicated on self-reflexive awareness, so that the very making of the art in some way reflects upon or reveals the very conditions of its own making.

HH: Can you explain further?

MK: We can look at a Caravaggio painting, for instance, and say that the painting could not have been painted at any other time, in another location, in any other culture; it is embedded in a certain historical and cultural moment – determined by the specific confluence of limits and possibilities that characterize the context of the artist’s formation as a historical subject. And, by learning to see the painting deeply, one can presume to gain knowledge about and insight into the historical and social conditions that made Caravaggio’s unique painterly articulation available to himself and his audience (and vice versa – his painting gives aesthetic shape to those conditions). One could argue, then, as you seem to be, that all good art is site-specific. But I don’t think of site specificity as simply being about something that reflects the times. Let’s consider, in contrast, Andrea Fraser’s work at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

HH: Are you referring to Museum Highlights of 1989?

MK: Yes. It is a work that is in one sense very specific to the Philadelphia Museum, but what Fraser reveals are aspects of the institution of the art museum more generally: What the museum tells itself and its public, the complex social, political, and libidinal desires that structure its operation, in this case framed through the figure of the docent. The work is specific to an institution of art but is more accurately a self-implicating analysis of the museum and art as institutions, bringing into focus how contradictory and often irrational institutional desires are negotiated and managed to maintain a coherent institutional identity. I’ve taken a convoluted route, but my short definition for site-specific art is: art that critically reflects on the conditions of its own possibility and existence. I view Museum Highlights as a signal work of site specificity in this regard. In this particular work, the condition of its possibility or existence is delimited to the museum, and works by other artists may reflect more broadly on other social, institutional, aesthetic, or political conditions, but the definition holds.

HH: But self-reflexive consciousness distinctively marks the kind of critical thinking theorized by Immanuel Kant. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant addresses the conditions of the possibility of knowledge in the context of metaphysics. And in his philosophy a thinking that explores the conditions (or grounds) of its own possibility is called “critical” or “critique.” While your definition of site specificity as self reflexivity counters a misunderstanding of site specificity as simply place-bounded, it seems to blur the borderline between site specificity and criticality. How do you differentiate “site-specific” from “critical” practices when they are common in being self-reflexive processes? Isn’t your thesis of reflexive site specificity quite broad. . . ?

MK: Let me make a clarification. I have come to a personal working definition for appreciating or interpreting or understanding works of art in terms of site specificity, which I have just shared with you. But the goal of my book wasn’t to insist on my definition as the proper one. I don’t necessarily discount other paradigms as wrong. I may debate other views in other contexts, but the point of the book was to attend to the variety of ways in which the concept of site specificity remains unspecific and, more importantly, to provide some provisional explanation for the effects of that unspecificity, if you will. I simply wanted to give discursive shape to the range of presumptions, aspirations, and ideological implications that tend to circulate in an unarticulated way, around the word “site-specific” in this case, in the art world. As for the issue of the term “critical” in relation to “site-specific,” especially as you’ve framed it, I guess the latter indicates a particular form or method of the former.

Finally, my definition of site specificity might be broad, but it is also in a way very narrow. Take for instance the sample of artworks you showed me to be included in Jamaica Flux. To be sure, they are specific to Jamaica: to this bank or that billboard, to this street or that store. But in my view, I don’t know that this fact necessarily makes them site-specific. My definition of reflexive site specificity would require that it is not enough to make commentary-art about the chosen local site but provide some kind of analysis of the very condition of the art’s presence in these sites as an integral part of the work. Who is involved in funding Jamaica Flux — MetLife? – and what is the nature of the sponsorship, for instance? What is the history and agenda of JCAL? What are the relations between JCAL and the neighborhood that impact this exhibition and which the exhibition wants to impact reciprocally? What is the art being asked to accomplish in the context of Jamaica Flux? What are the disappointments, fantasies, desires, secrets, conflicts that constitute the texture of life in this area? All of these things would have to become the works’ substance in content, form, and method somehow. As broad as my definition of site specificity is, it excludes a lot of work that others might consider site-specific. If anything, what is site-specific in Jamaica Flux might be the behind-the-scenes discussions of the curatorial effort.

HH: Perhaps this is a good moment to insert some questions from Sara Reisman, another Jamaica Flux co-curator, about that curatorial effort. What do you think about using art to foster cultural tourism and urban development? Can it be positive for art? Should art resist such instrumentalization, and what are the possibilities for it doing so? Because raising JCAL’s profile is one of the stated goals of the exhibition, and because many of the projects engage with local businesses, these are questions that we have struggled with.

MK: Will Jamaica Flux have a positive effect for art? I’m not sure. In terms of what JCAL wants as an institution – to bring more attention to Jamaica, to become a more identified institution as being a player in the art world, to help younger artists achieve greater reputations and create larger forums for their art – probably yes. But if you put a different set of criteria of “success” or “failure” against it. . . . Let’s just say that there is a big difference between an artist doing a guerilla art action and an institution programming something like it as part of an exhibition.

I am not against urban (re)development categorically. To the extent that it can facilitate the equal distribution and accessibility of a city’s resources and services, and to the extent that art can facilitate such a process, I think it can be a good thing. But if the process of (re)development means the displacement of local populations for luxury condo buildings, if it means the cannibalization of existing resources to support the needs only of the dominant sector of society, and if art is called upon to support such a process, exacerbating the uneven social divisions and stratifications that already exist, then it is not desirable. This is why curators and artists have to tread cautiously and be vigilant about their actions and their consequences. Worthy projects, curatorial and artistic, will have to take into account the broader social, political, and economic pressures that are fueling such redevelopment efforts so that their repressive implications for contemporary urban life can be made visible at the very least.


Heng-Gil Han

Project Director & Curator, Jamaica Flux

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