About the system of art institutions in USA

In autumn 2014 Clemens Poole worked in Ukraine with the foundation “IZOLYATSIA. Platform for cultural initiatives” as a curator of the project ZAHOPLENNYA. Clemens explains which artistic institutions exist in USA, and why he is interested in Ukrainian public space.



Yulia Kostereva interviewed Clemens Poole

October 28, 2014
Kyiv, Ukraine


Clemens Poole is a multi-media artist based in New York. He received his BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art in New York.

Yulia Kostereva: What is the system of art institutions in America? Which of these organizations are more adequate to the current situation?

Clemens Poole: There are lots of different forms of art institutions in the US because it’s a huge country. I think there are two different ways that institutions form: concentrating around ideas and concentrating around resources. Institutions that form around resources are often limited in the US because we don’t have a lot of public money for art, it usually occurs around private money. I think, it’s similar to Ukraine, where IZOLYATSIA formed around private resources. Also there’re institutions, which are forming around ideas. People work together to make something, they share some goal in terms of how develop art.

In New York we have all kinds of art institutions. But the other situation is in the city where I lived before, Austin in Texas, which is smaller than New York. In Austin is a very strong art community, especially in the field of film or music. They have festivals especially for music, but also independent films and interactive digital media etc. In Austin I saw more weight on institutions that form around ideas, because there’s a huge intellectual center as The University of Texas. And so there are lots of people who have ideas and come together and coalesce in this city, maybe because they’re there for school, maybe because they’re there for music or independent film. But then I found that the resources for art are rather limited in Austin. So people would form groups in order to do the things they wanted, but to get things that would allow you to be more ambitious with your work, that was very limited.

When I moved to New York I saw there other side of this. New York, I would imagine, has more funding for the arts than any other city in the US. This is public funding and also private funding. The gallery system in New York is the strongest gallery system, which is not necessarily a positive thing all the time, but does give incentive to artists to work within that system in order to succeed. So it creates a flow of resources that is a lot different than a place without a well developed gallery system. But within that, there’s the entire spectrum of institutions. In the US our system of institutions is maybe more similar to Ukraine than it’s to Western Europe. What I understand from my time spent in Western Europe, there’s more public funding for the arts and that changes the flavor of how institutions develop.


Yulia Kostereva: What is the role of small institutions in the system of American art organizations?

Clemens Poole: Well here’s the issue for me, with trying to make some appraisal of the relationships between the small institutions and the art world, and the big institutions and the art world. I came from a background of working on a small level. I’m not somebody who’s “important” in the New York art world, it’s pretty hard to be that. So for me, I’m basically connected only with small institutions. Small art organizations play powerful role in the artistic world, because there’re lots of these groups. Such institutions are more often formed around ideas than around resources. So more often a smaller institution will have less resources, but have stronger ideology and maybe a more angular curatorial intention.

To my mind, the smaller institutions play a really positive role, because they support artists who are working on a smaller scale. This positivity though, only goes so far when you’re in a system that doesn’t attach to the larger institutions. So when the smaller institutions are not something that leads in a progression to more access to resources, they can start to limit themselves. And then you can start to see a sort of militant purism if you don’t follow their rules. But I find that sort of self-asphyxiation happens in a place where the small institution needs to just recycle its same tricks over and over, because it can never move forward as it’s limited by society and resources. In both those cases it means a society that’s limiting itself, which a society that’s looking inward instead of outward. And also resources are not forthcoming. Those can be different resources, it doesn’t have to be financial. It can be other things, but if the community isn’t engaged with those ideas of art, then you can find yourself really limited by resources.


Yulia Kostereva: Can small institutions influence the society? How does the communication between art community and society happen?

Clemens Poole: The strongest thing that a smaller institution has going for it, is its ability to submit whatever it wants to society, without the restrictions that go along with resources. So the minute you have resources, they come from someone, and then you deal with what that person thinks as far as what kind of culture they want to disseminate. A small institution has the great advantage of being able to put out whatever it thinks is interesting. But often the smaller the institution, the more they serve their immediate peer group, and that can be the picture of this inward looking society.

Sometimes small institutions get too attached to who they know. But if they can see outside themselves, they can play a powerful role in society. They can say, “hey, we don’t have money, but we can do other kinds of actions that can really engage public. We still have resources, they just look different, they are human bodies, human voices, etc.” With that they have a lot of potential to shake things up, and push things. But sometimes small institutions just say, “oh, I want to have a gallery with walls and I want to hang pictures in it.” That can, of course, be productive, but… Well, it’s like theatre. Imagine that you go to a play and the play looks just like something that you’d see in the movies. But the play is ignoring the fact that there is a huge industry with multi-billions dollars making the same things in a more accessible format. But theatre has all kinds of potential to do something more than a movie. A play that doesn’t realize that, is a play that’s failing to be contemporary theatre. And in the same way, a small institution that doesn’t realize that there’s a gallery somewhere with whiter walls and nicer lights, is up against something really difficult. It’s the responsibility of someone with fewer resources to be more innovative and shrewd with those resources.


Yulia Kostereva: Can art change the society?

Clemens Poole: Anthony Downey, the program director at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, has talked about art activism. He put it really well, he said that what we commonly think of as “activist art” actually isn’t political, because that kind of art contends with politics in the realm that political system wants it to stay in. Of course it’s the same case, the politician has more resources and more ability in that arena. It’s not to say that this work isn’t valid, but for me it’s not interesting. The way that art can be potent in a political sense is different than that. I don’t think art’s power to change society is in using the same vocabulary as other things that change society. Art’s power to change society is in developing a new vocabulary.

The guy who curated the Berlin Occupy Biennale, which I didn’t like, Artur Zmijewski, does all kinds of projects I like. I think his other work is more political than that Biennale project. If you Google “political art”, the images that come up are the same things that were in that Occupy Biennale, but his other work is much more political — his project with the Holocaust survivor’s tattoo, or his project with people missing limbs — they’re much more pushing people to think about situations.

I think Anthony Downey is right, to my mind, Banksey is not necessarily political art. He’s a guy with nice aesthetics and good, funny, ironic ideas, but anything he does that could be called political is just playing the same game as politics at large. That’s not where art’s power is. There’s always some Super-PAC that is spending more money than you will ever have to get these people elected, and maybe they’re not even getting elected, maybe they’re just getting bought. This is definitely the case of Ukraine, so it’s definitely important for art to reimagine itself here.


Yulia Kostereva: What about the position of artist? How artist should be involved in the current situation?

Clemens Poole: This is really interesting, and something I’ve been thinking about recently. There have been a lot of artists with Middle-Eastern backgrounds, who have been doing a lot of really powerful work and getting a lot of press. The art world and the public love when an artist has this historical connection in their work. People really want that from an artist. When you have this connection they perceive your voice and your vision as that much more valid. People think that you know more about suffering because you come from some place where suffering happened. If we assume that we want to think that way, then it of course makes it difficult for other parts of the world to make “relevant” art.

This is also on my mind because I did this project ZAHOPLENNYA, and I’m not from Ukraine. Everyone asks me why I’m interested in Ukraine, why I would come here and do this, what do I know that other people don’t know, that makes me more qualified to come here and do this. I don’t have an easy answer any of those questions. But I think what’s important, and what nobody will ever able to fault you for as an artist, is trying to understand.

In certain cases that means involving yourself really deeply. In a lot of these cases where people have a personal historical background with some thing, they’re trying to understand more about that thing. But I believe that trying to figure something out can mean doing something to yourself, and changing yourself, as a way to understand more. If understanding more is your interest, and that is the involvement that your work demands, you should allow yourself to get as close as possible, even at the risk of losing sight of everything around you, which is often a reality of being that close. Maybe you’re not seeing the whole picture, but no one sees the whole picture. And then, if you want to stand back and see it that can be valid too. It may be a harder way to work because it can have less obvious credibility externally. It can be harder for people to believe that you know what’s going on if you step back, but that can also be a really useful method of working.

When I was invited to come here, I was originally asked to do something else. When that didn’t work out because of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, I proposed ZAHOPLENNYA. The whole thing has been about trying to figure out what this situation means and how it affects people here.


Yulia Kostereva: Is it possible for artist to divide an artistic practice and life?

Clemens Poole: I don’t know what that’s like. Some people do that, and many people live that way. That’s a psychological question for humans generally. I don’t know. I never have a “real” job for a long time. I’ve had all kinds of different jobs, every job you can think of, but I’ve never had a job for five years, and gone to the office and all that. I can’t do it. But if I was able to separate… and be my other self, and then go to work… I don’t know.


Yulia Kostereva: Sometimes, if you involve a lot, you feel that your work is connected with all your body, you couldn’t see the situation from the distance.

Clemens Poole: I try to be professional with what I do. I think often about what my end goal is for a project, and how I can endure things that are not perfect in order to get what I want in the end. I think that it’s the essence of professionalism: being able to do the things you say you’re going to do, despite obstacles.


Yulia Kostereva: What is the role of artists working with public space?

Clemens Poole: When I started to do research about public space I was trying to consider how people think about public space. I found that what was written about public space was dominated by architectural ideas of public space. I thought that was interesting because it was about how you could develop the aesthetic of a space to encourage things. But only when architecture is really good it’s about use of space. This is constantly the problem with the “Starchitect” fancy buildings. It’s all about the idea of the space but it’s not about the space in use, it’s not about functionality. If you’re a good architect you put equal weight on these things, and you make buildings and space that are very useful, functional, and beautiful. But all too often, architecture, and this includes architecture and design for public space, gets carried away with this one aspect, and forgets that public space is a space to house the public and whatever they do.

So the important thing is to understand what the public does or maybe would want to do. That is different that what an artist does. What I was interested in for ZAHOPLENNYA, was more what can you do when there’s nothing here. What can you do with a void? It doesn’t have to be encouraged by the space. It doesn’t have to be playing the same game as the architecture. And that is what I want, and what I’m interested in. When the use of public space is not following the rules of the architecture, or the architectural constraints.

I wanted to work with people who were reimagining public space. This was motivated by what happened at IZOLYATSIA in Donetsk. It was a factory, and then it was an art institution, and now it’s a prison. Each one of these cases is about people reimagining space, against the architectural intent of the space. That’s what I really wanted to do with ZAHOPLENNYA. Different participating projects addressed it differently. Some used the park and it was the park. Maybe not every project reimagined public space, but some projects did. Some projects took that as their theme. For example, Open Group’s entire project was about reimagining a space. I think we succeeded in playing with that at least a little bit. We had nine projects, and it will take a while to evaluate how each project worked and the good things that came from all of them. Just in the sense of the public space different ones had different relationships to this as a problem. I think it was really great that some people were able to make work that wasn’t in line with what I’m interested about public space. But I’m also happy, because ZAHOPLENNYA wasn’t only about what I’m interested in a public space.