Infectious Sovereignty: Editorializing the Exhibition

Founded in 2001 by art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, Triple Candie operated out of two rehabbed warehouse spaces in Harlem, New York, until 2010. Initially hosting large-scale exhibitions of works by artists such as Polly Apfelbaum, Kiki Smith, and Vito Acconci, Triple Candie’s mission changed dramatically in 2005 after its directors became publishers of the magazine artonpaper.

The organization’s primary purpose is now to explore the potential of exhibition-making as a discrete and alternative practice, providing space to act out skeptical or ambivalent attitudes toward art and artists; challenging art historical and contemporary narratives; and engaging issues of permission, anonymous sourcing, and misrepresentation. Now renowned for their work, Bancroft and Nesbett have often been criticized for producing shows devoid of artworks, usually organized without the input of artists. Their research-based projects have mobilized a model of curation premised on reproductions, surrogates, texts, and common objects.

Since relocating to Philadelphia in 2010, Triple Candie has become a placeless organization, experimenting with the possibilities and limitations of offsite projects. In October 2011, the exhibition they were to curate for the following month’s Artissima, the international art fair in Turin, was cancelled by the Italian institution.

Becky Huff Hunter: What was the Turin project’s curatorial premise, and why was it, in your words, “censored”?

Triple Candie: The show was to posit the non-existence of Arte Povera as a movement—a provocation coinciding with Germano Celant’s five-venue exhibition Arte Povera 2011. Artissima’s young director approved the show’s thesis and narrative structure over the summer. Just weeks before installation, however, he canceled the show, claiming in an email that it could be “potentially very offensive to artists and gallerists who participate in the fair.” He also cited Italian government funding issues.

The four-gallery exhibition was to including no art. Hundreds of two-dimensional reproductions of artworks, many altered, and dozens of sculptural surrogates loosely based on iconic Arte Povera works were to be accompanied by a detailed timeline, quotes by the artists and historians, and lengthy wall texts. In the back gallery was to be a Celant Museum, replete with a library of many of his publications. In the statement we wrote for the catalogue, which was initially accepted but never published, we outlined an argument channeling verificationism: We were not in Italy in the late 1960s and did not witness the often-fleeting work of Arte Povera in situ. The available evidence—photo-documentation, and statements from Celant—is contradictory and unreliable. Alluding to the Shroud of Turin, we concluded, “Art Povera is the shroud of Italy.”

We believe that Artissima cancelled show for fear of offending Celant, not for their stated reasons. We received the first hint in an email, just hours after the fair’s director met with Beatrice Merz, who is the daughter of Art Povera artists Marisa and Mario Merz and the co-director of the Castello di Rivoli, which houses a major collection of Arte Povera work, as well as a co-curator with Celant of Arte Povera 2011.

Hunter: This censorship brings up the issue of permission, which also shaped many of your in-house projects, from the photocopies works in your “unauthorized” 2006 David Hammons retrospective to the 2010 appropriation and alteration of a text published by imprint and artist Dexter Sinister. You have always run the risk of legal action for copyright infringement. Has the question of permission become more complex now that you work offsite with organizations like Artissima, ICA Portland, and Le Musée de L’Objet in Blois, France?

Triple Candie: With Artissima it did. They did not want to publish in the catalogue a number of the undoctored found images we provided. They also wanted us to prepare a written agreement stating that the exhibition was a single work, not the accumulation of multiple works, to avoid copyright liability at the level of the individual objects. We think of our shows as singular entities, so on that level, this wasn’t a problem; but claiming it to be a work of art would have been. The show was cancelled before the details of that agreement were worked out.

Hunter: Would you encounter less resistance if you tackled controversial research questions—such as the thesis that Arte Povera does not exist—in more conventional scholarly media like journal publications or conference papers? 

Triple Candie: Yes. But we prefer to use the form of the status quo against itself, pushing back from the periphery. The exhibition format is by and large conservative, used predominantly for the promotion and celebration of artistic achievement. Though it is contested in some camps, it remains the dominant and most costly vehicle for public presentation. As a result, it confers greater legitimacy on a subject than an essay. We are interested in what happens when the pure form of the exhibition is infected by a strong editorial voice that is critical not of institutional structures but of the artwork and artists themselves. This issue distinguishes our methodology considerably from “institutional critique” and from the work of curators operating in a ‘new institutionalism’ mode. By transferring the page to the gallery, we hope to bring about a more experiential “reading” of the curatorial premise, resonating in a totally different, perhaps more lasting way. This means that we aren’t interested in de-emphasizing the exhibition. For us, it still remains the most important thing. It is the text. And for that reason, we do not include any dialogic programming either as part of, or to accompany, our shows.

Hunter: You appropriated the language of the Occupy movement to demonstrate that Arte Povera is now “the property of the 1%.” Why did you choose to align yourself with this movement? 

Triple Candie: The movement is a topical subject and one we believe in. Most art that is deemed culturally significant is the property of, or controlled by, a wealthy micro-sliver of the population. For art (with a small a) to become Art (with a capital A), it must enter this territory of privilege. This process is fundamental. Arte Povera has been thusly transformed, its dirt and stones now sleeping under bulletproof glass. It is a wonderful illustration of an age-old problem that has become only more acute in our lifetime.

Hunter: How have you negotiated the entry of your exhibitions into this territory of privilege? A collector bought at least one of your projects. Have you managed to maintain control over, or public access to, this work? 

Triple Candie: Maurizio Cattelan is Dead: Life & Work, 1960-2009 is owned by a foundation. We had intended to discard and recycle it upon de-installation, but Cattelan saw it and thought it should be preserved. He recommended it to the Deste Foundation. We agreed. A year later, they helped us with a donation that enabled us to extend our stay in our Harlem space. When we eventually vacated, we donated our lending collection—1,200 photo-reproductions known collectively as El museo de reproducciones fotográficas—to the foundation as a gesture of our appreciation. They have scanned and catalogued the reproductions, which remain available for loan.

Hunter: There is an apparent tension between your desire to “serve the needs of the public”—by making scarce art available, for example—and the misshapen, illegible works of “misrepresentation” central to several retrospectives you have staged. In Cady Noland Approximately, 2006, you produced obviously fake, often inaccurate surrogates for her sculptures from cheap materials, using online images as source material. Do you acknowledge this tension?

Triple Candie: Yes, sure. It’s funny, because we weren’t trying to be provocateurs with the Noland show. We were sincerely looking for a way to present an exhibition about her work without her permission, knowing she wouldn’t provide it. Noland had such a clear influence on the work of artists working in the 1990s and early 2000s. By 2005, however, we were hearing from professors at Columbia University and other art schools that their students no longer knew who she was even though they were interested in the work of artists she had influenced—people like Josephine Meckseper and Banks Violette. We created a bastardized, theatrical mash-up of thirteen sculptural surrogates, an attempt to reinsert her back into the public consciousness. This upset a lot of critics, curators, and artists. Ken Johnson, writing in the New York Times, argued that the exhibition added nothing to Noland scholarship. Lynne Cooke, then still at the Dia Center, cornered us in the gallery and asked why we would do something that wasn’t in the artist’s best interest. And Roberta Smith, also from the New York Times, later told us that she thought the show was mean-spirited, given Noland’s fragile mental state. We were unaware of that. But should that have stopped us if it were? As with our unauthorized Hammons retrospective, we were determined to put the needs of the public over the desires of an individual artist. Depending on where you stand on the issue, this could be seen as either tabloid- or activist-curating.

Hunter: You published the magazine artonpaper for many years, and frequently refer to the editorial mindset you bring to exhibition-making. I understand “editorial” to mean that you are able to question art historical narratives and assumptions by rearranging and unpacking them. It also signals that journalism is premised on a type of relationship with the artist that often affords you more freedom to be critical, even skeptical, than traditional curators, who effectively promote the artists they work with. Where did this editorial ethos come from? How does it impact your curatorial decision-making? 

Triple Candie: We started Triple Candie in 2001; in 2004, we became publishers of an art magazine. We realized that magazine work—editing, image selection, and layout—satisfied interests unfulfilled by standard gallery work. We considered closing the gallery, but instead we decided, among other things, to incorporate our magazine experience into our curatorial work. For instance, there is no relative scale in a Triple Candie show. The surrogates and props exist at different scales, regardless of the size of the original objects to which they refer. This misrepresentation is fundamental to print publishing. Another carry-over is the sometimes-equal weight of image and text. Most interesting to us, however, is the critical dimension we have already talked about. Obviously, art magazines and journals are far from truly critical or honest—there are donors, advertisers, and museums weighing down on them—but they remain the privileged place of critical dialogue. When we originally set up Triple Candie, we designed its governing structure in order to provide us the greatest degree of freedom. We have limited oversight and follow paths our professional colleagues can’t. This drives some people crazy.

Hunter: What factors go into preserving this level of freedom? Why is it so important to you?

Triple Candie: We want as much control as possible over the conditions of our production, as well as the ability to express our concerns. To preserve these conditions, we’ve curated almost exclusively in our own space, maintained a tiny board of directors, and relied on other jobs for our primary income.

Hunter: You’ve stressed repeatedly that you are not artists, nor are you making art. In a recent talk, you conflated art practice with emotional investment in, or attachment to, one’s works. Is there a place for emotional investment in your curating? Perhaps outside the object, in the relationships you form with local communities, or in your commitment to education? 

Triple Candie: Most artists fetishize the things they make. We don’t. Our props and surrogates can be easily disposed of and reused; they are purely a means to an end. We are, however, emotionally invested in our larger philosophy. Each show is like an act in a much larger play. The shows are all linked together physically—we recycle elements from one to the next—and intellectually: themes and concepts weave in and out of them. Education has been important, but not in the way you might expect. Our goal in Harlem was to provide an unexplainable and unexpected experience that elicited curiosity. The ideal situation began with someone wandering in suspicious and leaving intrigued. Over time, we developed a local audience that consisted of artists, community organizers, mechanics, shopkeepers, and teachers.

Hunter: In the ethnically diverse community of Harlem, how was your 2006 exhibition about the fictitious biracial artist Lester Hayes, which intervened into modern art historical narratives, received by locals? 

Triple Candie: It is interesting that you call Harlem ethnically diverse. When we moved there in 2000, Central Harlem was 95% black. The longstanding residents were African American, whereas newer residents were African. Nonetheless, historically a biracial artist is still a black artist. Most local visitors told us they could identify with the artist’s story in some capacity. An older man who had been involved with the Black Arts Movement said he had initially resisted seeing the show because he and his friends were suspicious of our motives. But he was thrilled when he did see it and later returned with many of his colleagues. There were, of course, detractors, as there often are. One of our board members at the time lamented that we had created a fictitious artist when there are so many deserving, under-recognized black artists who work we could have shown. This was a common criticism of our program once we stopped working with artists and exhibiting art.

Hunter: What is your response to that criticism?

Triple Candie: There are hundreds of galleries in New York, all of which are looking for the undiscovered artist. By doing what we are doing, we are making a singular and more far-reaching contribution.

Hunter: Now that you have relocated to Philadelphia, will you be opening a space here?

Triple Candie: It will, most likely, be some time before we can set up shop and we’ll only do it if we can find a way to retain our curatorial sovereignty. In the interim, we are giving public talks, writing, and exploring how our program might translate in a variety of other contexts. We are hoping to install a second exhibition at the Deste Foundation in Athens. Greece is exciting to us right now because crisis can be good for the imagination.