« Face to Face

Alternative Spaces, Alternative Ways

A Conversation between Steven Rand and Gijs Frieling

American Steven Rand and Dutch Gijs Frieling have many things in common, among them being an artist and running an alternative space like apexart in New York and W139 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The following is an exchange about their experiences and expectations in the art world.

Gijs Frieling - In your preface to “Playing by the Rules,” you accuse the art world of being an exclusive and backward social game. Gerhardt Richter referred to the art world as “not being in any way different than the world of cat-breeding.” For me artists are very normal people; in general, I like and understand what they do, much like I understand cooks, nurses, or teachers. What I don’t like about the art world is that it sees as its main task continuously making a distinction between art and other human activities: art must be everything the rest of society is not able to be, sparkling, authentic, and unexpected.

From 2006 to April 2010 Gijs Frieling was director of W139, a non-profit art space in Amsterdam.

It was my ideal as director and curator of W139 to downgrade the art experience, to create an atmosphere in which people would feel comfortable as in a bar or a shop, preferably a second-hand shop, free to judge what they saw on their own terms. In my experience the exclusivity of the art world mainly has to do with the false idea that art is more difficult and complicated than cooking, nursing, or teaching. I can imagine that for you in New York the situation is complicated by the amounts of money circulating in art. Art prizes can only be validated by exclusivity. On the other hand I often get the impression that the critical discourse around art is an even more exclusive practice. I know a lot of very good artists who do not have a clue what some curators and art theorists are talking or writing about. Art seems to be squashed between the art market and art discourse. For me the alternative space is a place where art can be present without these barriers. W139 was founded by artists for this same reason. From what I see Apexart would be more a discourse-based institution, which might be the necessary thing in the NY situation. How do you see this?

Steven Rand -This is one of the big questions, the democratization of art and art as career. I wonder if we haven’t downgraded the experience because of lower expectations? We expect less, so we accept less. The process of making art is an invaluable one. For everyone, creator or consumer, it is personal expression and something that is increasingly difficult to do and increasingly important. The problem I have, I guess, is with the outcome and hence our redirection to process. The errant object, outside the typical art venue of unknown origin, can sometimes be great art for me. I tend to have the most difficulty with art shown in galleries that too often feels superficial, quickly done, and impersonal, with the majority of time seemingly spent on execution and promotion rather than consideration of the idea. If we give a musical instrument to someone, we hear pretty fast if the music is not good, but we don’t seem to be able to do that with art. I wonder why.

When I try to define art for the sake of discussion, I note that for me, the object must have some sense of transcendence. That is, when I look at it (or learn about it) I have the sense that the artist has imbued the work with something that makes me go “Ah ha!” Something that the maker has included surprises me or impresses me or somehow shifts my sense of perception. Very little of the creative process results in actual art and I think that’s appropriate. We have accepted the idea that if the “artist” says it’s art, then it’s art. I’d shift that a bit now to maybe empowering the viewers and giving them the responsibility.

Steven Rand is the director and founder of apexart, a non-profit organization based in Lower Manhattan, NY.

The exclusivity of the art world is a defensive maneuver. If we felt more secure with what we did, perhaps we wouldn’t feel so threatened. The current wave of PhD degrees among studio artists is an example of this expanding exclusivity. That we are even trying to codify what we celebrate as being without structure is another example of desperation. We’re circling the wagons, drawing in our defenses, and preparing for another fictitious battle about which no one cares.

The art world is no longer a refuge for the alienated, angry, and different. It is a corporatized place where the rules of social networking apply. A place where many people are “playing business.” We’re all networking, traveling for business, and doing meetings. It’s sometimes fun, but it’s also an easy alternative to avoid substance. Opportunity often seems more based on an understanding and manipulation of the structure than merit and quid pro quo situations. Exchanging opportunity is the call of the day. Exchanging opportunities is the quickest path to mediocrity as the value is misplaced.

I like the idea of everyone being an individual and an artist. I also like the idea of everyone being a doctor, but you wouln’t lie down on an operating table unless the doctor had substantial training and a good facility. When I look around at what is being considered art in the commercial world-including galleries, fairs, and even alternative spaces-it feels like Alice’s Wonderland. Are we looking at the same thing?

At its best apexart is a discourse-based effort. The number of artists in the world used to be much smaller than it is now. Not only is being an artist or curator chic, parents are proud to announce that their offspring is one. We’ve lost enough “oomph” to have become entertainment, with all its trappings of celebrity, exclusivity, and play-money wealth. The art world has become too cooperative.

G.F. -The musical instrument is a good one. In one way or another the ability to play an instrument well has never become a serious problem for musicians. This has happened very much in art. Cage’s composed silence has not been able to do for music what Duchamp’s urinair has done to art. To me the idea of conceptual art has always remained superficial; it hasn’t changed anything. Decoration and illustration are the two things visual art is capable of. Great art does both. It merges with the narrative of its time and it covers and unites functionality with beauty. The narrative of our time is without a doubt the market, and so our great artists must be Koons and Hirst. I am longing for another story, however.

W139 was squatted in 1979, in punk times. I was 13. It is a former theater in the oldest and most central street of Amsterdam. When I went there for the first time in 1989, when I was studying at the Rietveld academy, the huge raw space in that run down area (the Warmoesstraat was the center of drugs and prostitution in those days) made a great impression on me. Jos Houweling, a teacher of mine, had a couple of students making an installation there. We went there together and he showed me a work of someone he really liked. Large holes were drilled in the wall and connected with ropes and pieces of wood. A large part of the wooden floor was cut out and the kidneyshaped piece was hanging from the ceiling. I asked him why he liked it and he replied that it was so great because he could not make heads or tails of it! It took me years to digest this.

In the early nineties I made several large murals in W139. Ad de Jong (founder of W139 and still on its board in those days) and I approached each other slowly in these years, a couple of words at an opening, an invitation for a lecture a year later. In March 2004 Ad, his wife Jana, and I went to London to see the “El Greco” show at the National Gallery and Donald Judd at the Tate. One and a half years later I was invited to apply as the new W139 director. I was asked to “bring more matter into the shows” and to “make W139 a place for Amsterdam again.” I was mostly known for large scale paintings and murals on religious topics, and a lot of people in the art world did not understand what I was doing there.

W139 directors have four years to reshape the institution completely according to their ideals. The board interviewed me after each opening: “Is this already exactly what you want?” It was marvelous and very, very difficult. My last show was a 500 m2 mural on Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann, a cooperation among 8 artists and 15 assistants. We painted for two months during opening hours and did an opening by candlelight. For me the future of art lies in this direction: cooperative, narrative works. The individual piece by the individual author, the critical position of the artist, autonomy, and artistic research I’m afraid are not over yet. But I am quite certain that it is not the future.


S.R. - I find myself asking the question of whether I like “art” anymore. And I think many creative people avoid making “art” because the hierarchy appears to reward the wrong values, and the return doesn’t seem worthy of the production. The gallery, collector, curator “thing” seems to have little to do with the issues of creativity that I consider important or interesting. Collectors like the attention of the gallerists and artists more than the art, gallerists seek socio-economic status and are committed to the artists that sell, and the artists try to create interest in their work and compete for the attention of people they think may help.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of space or time to think or talk about ideas. Most art panels and conferences are boring “dog and pony shows” of people who know too little, promote too much, and protect themselves too much. It often feels like whatever the topic is supposed to be, we hear about the same topics, “me.”

Resident artist Adam Burthom from Ireland in conversation with Laura Braslow at apexart (February 2011).

I often speak in grand generalities that reflect my sense of what’s happening, and while it pisses people off, it creates discussion. I’m a devout agonist. Why does asking an artist what they’re working on get a list of shows and opportunities rather than a discussion of their ideas? Why are they telling me why I should like them? Are they avoiding the issue or avoiding that they don’t have one? Does simply wanting to be a writer, artist, or critic make you one? Not according to real writers, artists, and critics. Collectors seem to talk about the most banal aspects of what they collect, such as price, weight, provenance, who else has one and how hard it was to obtain, how many thousands of components it contains, or perhaps their friendship with the artist and how they actually discovered him or her in a prominent gallery or art fair. Too many art writers surround the dying beast and proclaim it dead and then vacation and sup with wealthy collectors, explaining that they only write good reviews because they get so little opportunity to write. Uh, huh.

Careerism has become the art of the day, and the production of objects that look like art is the norm. This is not bad or good. It just is. The art world tends to reflect the values in society for better or worse. Opportunity in business is often based as much on one’s ability to navigate the commercial/political as on talent. Is that okay in the art world too now? Familiarity is more acceptable than newness, and signature style is what guarantees subsequent sales and interest. Maybe. The messages have filtered down, and young artists are really sophisticated about knowing what’s important to becoming rich and famous. Without those, society isn’t going to be very pleasant. We respect the entrepreneur more than the scholar. It is depressingly true and truly depressing.

Does art have to have meaning? The question that everyone hates and young artists aren’t even allowed to ask. It is what it is and yes, sometimes I look for meaning, but sometimes I look for feeling. I look for the image or object that makes sense and right rather than the image that is forced. I look for the idea that comes across from the artist, of what has been introduced or manipulated enough for it to be art. We all have two eyes, one nose, a mouth, and a couple of ears, so why is one person more attractive to us than another? “I wouldn’t touch that art with your brush,” but life is funny that way.

Whether it’s animation (Adult Swim on the Cartoon Channel), social criticism (Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central channel), or independent film making (Independent Film Channel), the avenues of production and dissemination have changed, and the public is now close enough to the process to be the arbiter instead of a group of partially interested collectors. The gallery and museum world caters to people who want to see what they expect to see, with minor variations. They like the subdued zaniness, and they want most to be entertained. Their lives are kind of boring. By reputation art is “cool” to outsiders. But as with politicians, election reform is needed only when you are not in office, and while many complain about the structure, few are willing to challenge it because it will not change. The business model serves those that pay for it or benefit from it. The issue for each person is deciding on some conscious level whether we need to be part of that club or not. Our freedoms are self-defined and our limitations self-imposed. We can make whatever we want and do whatever we want.

The real question is how tied to convention we are and whether we are leading or following. I tell young folks that unless they’re anxious, they’re not pushing their limits. Maybe I’m rationalizing my sensibilities, but the competition has to be with oneself, not with others. And being honest with oneself is sometimes hard. So what is important and is the world going to hell? Nah. There is so much creativity in so many areas that maybe if we give the visual art world a rest it’ll bloom again. But right now I’m having a dysfunctional relationship with the art world and feeling estranged, but at the same time more hopeful every day as the technology associated with some areas of creativity become universally available, and the next generations integrate their creative work more and more into general society.


G.F.-Your analysis is quite black, but although I am an optimistic person, I share it. I have to say on the other hand, since I work for the government as an art advisor for the “One percent for Art in state buildings” program, I see a lot of bureaucratic, expensive, time-consuming, boring, hierarchic, and useless activities from nearby, and the art world and its inhabitants appear much friendlier and more interesting to me now, a bit like Hobbits. In the Netherlands the new rightwing government has made it their core business to cut art subsidies by about 50%, all the time pointing at the U.S. for its flourishing privately-funded cultural life. From what I hear art purchases are taxfree in the U.S., which amounts to a great deal more of indirect government art funding than in the Netherlands, or am I misinformed?

Last week I read several articles on the first contemporary art auction on internet. Rich people have no time to go and see the work for real before they buy it, so will they have time for it when it is theirs? I am afraid a lot of works are shipped from the artist’s studio straight to the collector’s storage, which is very cynical indeed. This summer my sister married in a small provincial church where the quite beautiful 18th century stained glass windows were all gifts from neighboring villages, wealthy guilds, or private persons. It was very simple and convincing. The whole custom of owning art without showing it is something very, very strange, but the private museum with its hunting trophies is hardly better.

It is obvious that art prices are so high because art is the last resort for capital. It is without a doubt the most speculative market on earth. I think it would be an interesting initiative if the poor museums start making unauthorized copies of artworks for shows. I say interesting in part because it would challenge the obsession with the original object but also because it would evoke a discussion about which works can actually be copied. For a lot of works it is clear that a copy is as good as the “original” (i.e., Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Beuys’ fat-corners, Donald Judd’s colored sculptures [expensive to copy!]). But what to think of Barnet Newman? I don’t see a problem, but I know several believers who think I am crazy. Don’t get me wrong, these are all artists I really like! For an art quiz we organized in W139, I had three Brillo boxes made by an art student as first, second, and third prizes. For an art procession we did, I made a life-size cardboard copy of my favorite Judd, the one which is hanging above the bedroom window in Marfa.

There is the apocryphal story of the collector who bought a Mondrian. The painting was much discussed among his friends, so when he was away on a journey they had a copy made, hung it in place of the original, and put the original in secured storage. The collector came back, and when the friends visited him again the painting was gone. The collector explained that when he returned and saw the Mondrian again he was disappointed and had sold it. I heard this story as a plea for the power of original artworks. But I keep asking myself, if the collector bought a forgery without knowing it, and his friends had replaced it with the original, would he not have been disappointed? I mean, I am sure there will always be a difference between an original and a copy, but I am not sure the original always has to be better. So I am in favor of piracy. (Piracy in every field. When people want to make or buy false Rolexes, what is wrong with that?) I like a lot of covers better than the original songs.

S.R. -This is very 21st century, Gijs, and very interesting. I’ve just come from a museum that in fact decided to reproduce a number of works. Initially done with the cooperation of an artist, the process seemed to progress to other works and dead artists. Not all the copies were identical, with one I saw “improved” upon. I question the idea of reproducing exactly, though I could make a case for it, but the improved versions seem very reasonable. Like a sort of critical response, but executed in 3D.

I’m just returning now from an apex franchise exhibition in Stockholm. This, as you may know, is a kind of competition where anyone can submit a proposal for an exhibition anywhere, and apex funds the exhibition and provides guidance and our “apex brochure.” The selection process is one we are very proud of. Having written a PHP script, one enters his or her proposal of 600 words into a form, and that form is immediately anonymized with a number. Generally 150-

200 are invited to help us jury, with half of those picked randomly from our email database. We have no idea of where they are from or who they are. The responses from many of these people and the enthusiasm with which they participate are very satisfying. They are far more excited to participate than the folks who are generally asked to jury (often asked because of their position and association), and they work really hard on their participation. Having served on juries in the past, I have been asked to consider hundreds of proposals. I give credit to those who are able to keep track of several hundred proposals during a grueling day or couple of days, but to be honest, I can’t. In our process we ask each juror to jury only between 25 and 50 proposals from 1-5 with 5 the best, and with so many people involved, each submission gets in the neighborhood of 25-30 votes. To make it even more fair, each time someone goes online to jury, the selections are randomized, and if any proposal gets fewer votes it automatically rises to the top temporarily. In addition to the two franchise exhibitions, two additional exhibitions each year are conducted the same way for exhibitions in our NYC location. Our next franchise, politics allowing, is to be presented in Amman, Jordan.

I have become more interested in the process, as you can see, and apex staff does not vote. In these situations it is not unusual to get 300 submissions. Combined with 175 jurors, before the show even opens we have involved almost 500 people, an acceptable number without visitors. This is illustrative of our priorities in placing an emphasis on content rather than process. In too many cases in the art world (and world in general, perhaps), opportunities are based on personality rather than ability or talent.

The arts have traditionally been the home for many people who don’t successfully navigate the corporate or service aspects of life. And it’s often this sense of “outsiderness” that is the source of their desire to communicate in another way. The art world now operates on a corporate structure with intense networking and quid pro quo opportunities, and unfortunately this process by definition leads to mediocrity as decisions are based on self gain rather than a sense of wanting to bring the most interesting work to the discussion. Artists and curators are too often selected on their resume rather than their ability. In every situation? No. In too many situations? Yes. And I have seen this happen many, many times.

Our residency program is similarly concerned in that residents are not selected by us, but by someone we may not know but who may well know the person they select. To minimize the problem, we contact someone in a selected country, but not a museum director or well placed curator, and we only ask the person to recommend once. We don’t ask the gatekeepers in the various countries, even though many are good friends, because we hope to give the opportunity to people who are busy in their investigation and may not have the above-referenced personality or even be known in the community.

We are trying to fix the inequities of the art world, one program and one person at a time. Working with folks that are not well known has not helped us elevate our reputation the way one generally engineers, but with a history of more than 16 years and hundreds of artists, curators, and writers I can say that the level of positive feedback we get is very gratifying. A number of folks who expected invitations to recommend residents or organize exhibitions because they are famous and have some power may not really like us or speak positively about us.

While I may not like “art,” I really like art. Maybe we’re doing something right.