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Shifting Terrains: Fionn Meade on the Cross-Disciplinary

By Paul Schmelzer

Historically, the Walker has been at the forefront of thinking around cross-disciplinary and experimental art—from its extensive collection of boundary-blurring works by Fluxus artists to presentations of projects by artists crossing over into other fields, from a tree planting inspired by Joseph Beuys to dance legend Trisha Brown’s creation of drawings using bodily movements to this September’s presentation of Scaffold Room, a multimedia gallery installation by choreographer Ralph Lemon. As the hard edges between disciplines continue to break down, the Walker is intensifying its investigations into what this boundary-crossing means for this age and past ones and how curators must adapt to the needs of both artists and audiences in this new reality.

Fionn Meade is charged with leading this effort as the Walker’s first senior curator of cross-disciplinary platforms. A curator, writer, and editor, he’s collaborated with established and emerging artists who work with moving images, performance, and visual arts, including William E. Jones, Emily Roysdon, Xaviera Simmons, Lucy Skaer, Rosemarie Trockel, Grand Openings, and others. Having served as curator at SculptureCenter in New York and the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, his curatorial work includes the upcoming exhibition Coming to Reality at Futura and SVIT (Prague, Czech Republic), the performance From the Sky by Turner Prize–winning artist Laure Prouvost at Danspace Project (New York), and Plaisance at Midway Contemporary Art (Minneapolis), which brought together visual, film, and performing artists in dynamic installations and formats. A writer for publications including Mousse, Parkett, and Artforum, Meade brings an editorial approach to the Walker—to its website and publishing ventures and to its exhibition-making.

Meade recently sat down with Walker editor Paul Schmelzer to discuss his new position, how he aims to mine the Walker’s rich history of art across disciplines, and what “cross-disciplinary platforms” means today and into the future. It launches a a series of conversations Meade will be conducting on the Walker blogs about defining new territories in artmaking.

Paul Schmelzer

The Walker has always been an incubator for artists to experiment, to work across platforms and stretch their artistic practices. It’s a fertile space of creation, presentation, and production but perhaps less so a space of critical dialogue around the synergies and tensions between disciplines and new ways of making. What unique territories of scholarship can the Walker advance that perhaps other institutions aren’t able to?

Fionn Meade

One area is the changing space of performance-based practice and a new sense of shared time across disciplines. Choreographer Jérôme Bel, for example, increasingly looks at his art from the vantage point of creating work that requires the kind of production, setting, and attentiveness of a theater setting, while also imagining work that takes advantage of gallery conditions. This is not entirely a new thing. You can think of an artist like Joan Jonas who has thrived in an evening-length performance context while also doing indelible exhibitions that bring together sculpture and live performance within installation scenography. She’s comfortable in both time signatures. Similarly, Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is yet another prominent example of a multimedia in-gallery project from a leading choreographer that seeks exactly the challenge to duration and bareness that a gallery context provides. It’s important to look at practices that have excelled in both contexts because there’s knowledge and expertise here that could inform the larger dialogue taking place regarding the increasing expectation that artists conceive performative work with multiple formats in mind. Given its history, the Walker should be leading this discussion internationally.


Can you talk about the areas where you see the most opportunity for new scholarship around these ideas and how you might seek to activate it in your new role? Where might you begin?


To consider practices that have adopted and moved between stage, set, and gallery dynamics would be a timely convening for the Walker to host. Here, I think of the way gallery and stage conditions combine in the work of visual artists such as Sharon Hayes, Walid Raad, or Rabih Mroué. This could be put in productive dialogue with choreographic practices like those of Sarah Michelson and Bel, but also, say, Yve Laris Cohen or Maria Hassabi, artists responding to and claiming multiple format expectations. To consider this shifting terrain not solely in a biennial-like setting, which is where this shared timing most readily occurs (only to quickly disperse), would be a timely dialogue that the Walker is uniquely situated to host.

Of course this goes well beyond convening. With state-of-the-art stage, moving image, and gallery settings, the challenge is for the Walker to inhabit and reflect upon how mixed formats simultaneously appeal to and challenge our increasingly split attention in contemporary visual culture. Again, not as an everything-for-everyone-all-the-time festivalism but rather as a vertical, deepening response to the accelerated conditions of our time, grabbing hold of something French artist Pierre Huyghe has referred to as a new cultural objectivity that makes the artwork something that is “a dynamic chain that passes through different formats.” It’s about asking for more depth, amplitude, and conditional awareness and argumentation from exactly that passing through.

To do this is to think through scale in terms of both space and time. To promote responsive scholarship is to propose and revise as much as look back and assess, to work big and small, fast and with deliberation, and to know that contemporary scholarship is what shuttles between, drawing us into the middle. This is what sparks real dialogue beyond mere mention in the citational culture of today. This responsiveness increasingly comes from presenters, artists, and viewers now, something institutions need to embrace. The Walker has an amazing history of working with artists repeatedly over time and in different contexts. With the Walker’s renewed capacities and facilities across presentational platforms, it’s uniquely positioned to take this longstanding sensibility and promote research and scholarship that is informed and conditioned by a real-time proximity to cross-disciplinary production. We need to make this more visible, not solely retrospective or excerpted within the framework of announcing the next presentation, but recursive and up for active negotiation. 


The Trisha Brown Dance Company’s recent visit to the Walker on its final proscenium tour raised questions about recording time-based movements for art history. How do we collect performance? This is a conversation we’ve been having at the Walker for quite some time. One way, of course, is exhibition-making. Are there other ways? What is your philosophy on collecting performative work?


It’s a timely issue being raised in different ways. One approach is to explore new dramaturgical ways of showing performance documentation, demonstrating scholarly sensitivity while not sucking the life out of the viewing experience. Jay Sander’s recent show at the Whitney, Rituals of Rented Island, was a good example. It explored experimental theater and loft performance in Manhattan from 1970 to 1980, and featured incredibly influential artists who previously haven’t had such a prominent exhibition platform. By and large it was an exhibition that enlivened ephemera and video documentation as its primary material, supported through props and stagecraft. The result was a theatrical yet precise exhibition comprised almost exclusively of performance documentation.

More experiments in this vein are needed to demonstrate how performance documentation can be enlivened and perhaps allowed to be more dramaturgical and lively. This closely relates to the current move toward collecting and editioning contemporary dance and performance-based work, present but also past. I was at a talk at the Museum of Modern Art this past fall involving Ralph Lemon in conversation on just this topic with Simone Forti and Boris Charmatz, who had just mounted his project called The Dancing Museum. A lot was said, but one poignant and thoughtful distinction came from Forti when she talked about conceiving certain past construction pieces of hers as being readily collectable—Huddle from 1961, for instance—because these works have a sculptural intelligence formed in response to gallery awareness. At the same time she questioned new pressures to collect works that had greater site-specificity and were not appropriate for reprise. She made a very clear distinction that the possibility of collecting and editioning a performance work has to follow from logic inherent to the work at the time of its making. To come up with a score for reprise and collection years after the moment of production was challenged for these latter works. Overall, we’re in a highly negotiable time and space on this, and it’s therefore doubly important that institutions like the Walker play a leading role in furthering this conversation, because artists and institutions need to find better distinctions together.


You’re surely aware of an ongoing conversation about apparent tension between performance that emerges from galleries (or a visual arts tradition) and performance that emerges from the stage (a performing arts, i.e. dance, theater tradition)—or “Visual Art Performance” and “Contemporary Performance” as Andy Horwitz puts it in his important Culturebot essay on the subject.  Where do you position yourself within this conversation? How can the arts foster better dialogue between these two camps?    


I think it speaks to what might be a false divide at times. By that I mean, from the perspective of criticism, there are tendencies toward different camps, as you point out, but one of the things we’re discussing is the changing space of performative practice and new moments for artists and audiences. I just worked on a commission with last year’s Turner Prize–winner Laure Prouvost at Danspace Project that was her first evening-length performance, From the Sky. It departed from and included excerpts from a previous video and sculpture installation, Wantee, shown at Tate Britain in 2013, but expanded to include a new live musical score, chorus, and Laure as the primary performer and narrator. This was a great example of crossing over from installation to a more theatrical setting as it embraced an emphasis on performance as commentary and revision, where the performance itself shows an awareness of a past installation as part of its liveness and gestural awareness. 


We’ve been talking a lot about these conversations between disciplines, audiences, artists, and curators. One unique tool that we have here is our news-style website and homepage, so let’s talk a bit about writing and what you’re going to bring to that. Your job is charged with addressing both scholarship and connecting with audiences. How do you hope to use this platform to meet these goals?


The Walker’s website is such a robust platform, so there’s a lot of opportunity there. One of the things the Walker does incredibly well is bring together ideas that relate to the work of the Walker but also to contemporary visual culture in the larger sense—in other words, providing a gathering point of significant articles, scholarship, and awareness of related practices and collegial conversations from around the world. It reminds me of the way that Bookforum’s Omnivore blog gathers and constellates.

In dialogue with this awareness we have to look at how online content can provide verticality, and by that I mean depth of content and singular presence in a time of filter and remix. And there are a lot of exciting new examples to look at, from VDrome to Afterall to a temporary project like Live Journal. I think the opportunity to bring the verticality of feature-like content and archival depth into dialogue with filtered content is a natural fit for the Walker’s synergistic approach. A great recent example of feature online Walker content was the commissioning of Cactus River (2012) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul for the Walker Channel. We will be doing a lot more of this, exploring how different emphases of circulation need to take place in the theater and cinema, in the galleries, and online, for collections to really be present and future-oriented. This is what demonstrates a living history.


Even before you arrived in Minneapolis, you helped us find a scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, our first Bentson Visiting Film Scholar. How will you work with her, and how will her position complement yours?


Isla Leaver-Yap is one of the most talented writers and curators around the moving image of a younger generation. She’s based in Glasgow, but she’s lived and worked in New York over the past few years before moving back to Scotland just recently. She brings what I find to be a unique skill set and voice in that she has written scholarly articles on artists such as Meredith Monk or Mark Morrisroe, but also has done a lot of dynamic writing in a short format as well, on important younger artists like James Richards, Alejandro Cesarco, and Morag Keil. An example of this was her work editing and commissioning the project Live Journal mentioned earlier, which accompanied the Biennial of Moving Images presented by the ICA London and LUX. This speaks to Isla’s production and commissioning savvy that spans book-length publication projects and online broadcast as well as exhibitions.

As a visiting film scholar, Isla will help assess the Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection holdings and find areas of particular strength and depth—but also model new ways of circulating the collection and framing central motifs and questions that arise. For example, she is collaborating on film programs that will take place within the context of the upcoming exhibition Art Expanded, 1958–1978, organized by Walker curator Eric Crosby, even as she’s also helping organize a new series of programs that put the collection into dialogue with moving-image works of today. She’ll also be involved in helping us identify artists the Walker may engage through acquisition and commission.


You’ll also be charged with engaging the Walker’s acquisition of the entire collection of the Merce Cunningham Archive, including sets, decór, and costumes. Central to this acquisition was the aspiration to create a center for research and scholarship around the intersection of dance and visual arts with Cunningham as the foundation. How do you imagine we might activate this collection and realize our aspiration to be a center for research and scholarship in this arena?


First of all, what a great opportunity! The holdings are so diverse and significant here. Clearly, it’s a collection that will have many lives moving forward. I’m quite familiar with Merce Cunningham’s work and MCDC, but I feel very privileged to engage with such an extensive collection of major collaborations, ranging from those with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Charles Atlas, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Marsha Skinner, and others. It’s impressive. The implications cut across artistic disciplines while constantly returning to the choreographic core of Cunningham’s work and how it lives on. It will be key to explore the truly rich layers of collaboration and presentational precision within the collection while also considering how its legacy lives on in relation to new practices as well. I look forward to working collaboratively with Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator Performing Arts, on this project as we look to include new performance commissions and scholarly writing that addresses the rich legacy but also responds to the restive, always moving forward spirit of Merce Cunningham and his far-reaching influence. We’re also working closely with Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly, who has done incredible work over the past three years in assessing and distinguishing the collection to the point where it can be accessed and shown in unprecedented ways.

Thinking about how to approach a Cunningham exhibition that stays restless and sharp brings to mind Cunningham’s frequent collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg, and the Guggenheim’s 1997–1998 retrospective exhibition done with Walter Hopps in collaboration with Susan Davidson. The Frank Lloyd Wright building was impacted in a way I’ve rarely seen. The spiral center of the space was punctuated by Rauschenberg’s painting and sculpture combines while side galleries had, say, Rauschenberg’s “Drawings for Dante’s Inferno” series exhibited alone, so that by the time you left you felt as if you’d departed into four or five different exhibitions that returned to a core movement or choreography. The show was rigorous, but it also kept a bit of the precise imbalance that’s so key to truly memorable exhibitions. And then when you went to the downtown Guggenheim, which at that time was in SoHo, there were these very different big, open, factorylike gallery spaces where you encountered a piece like Soundings or the lesser-known meditative cardboard series from the ’70s. It showed how a large-scale survey exhibition can use pivotal works rather than be bound by them—listening for and animating the right momentum within the work itself. In this case, the show exceeded and evaded any falsely progressive narrative around Rauschenberg without falling into chaos or cacophony. So you had the intersection of art, media, technology, and rapacious curiosity kept very much alive in the choreography of the show and its scholarship, including the remarkable exhibition catalogue. 

That was a resonant retrospective exhibition for me as a student, one of the early experiences that really made me think of the role of the curator—keeping the feeling alive front and center that the work of an artist such as Rauschenberg is not finished. It has many different future lives and needs to be kept interpretable. In thinking about Merce Cunningham—and the Walker’s upcoming survey on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s legacy—it’s likewise important to think about the spirit of the work, to keep the technical grace and demanding formal sophistication of his choreography in dialogue with the production intelligence and incredible risk-taking range of presentation in Cunningham’s way of working and collaborating. It will be important to keep his way of aligning rather than integrating collaborative efforts in mind. There is a remarkable shared autonomy to explore in his approach to collaboration. The upcoming exhibition will set new expectations for exhibitions and scholarship responding to modern and contemporary dance, something that the Walker is uniquely positioned to do and Cunningham is not just the foundation, he is the tutelary spirit pushing things forward.


That formative Guggenheim show prompts my last question. What’s your philosophy for exhibition-making? From your past work on shows such as NachlebenThe Assistants, or Time Again, it seems there’s an emphasis on compression within the gallery space that extends to related programs, performances, and screenings, while shows with David Maljkovic and Lucy Skaer or a project like Voyage of Growth and Discovery with Mike Kelley and Michael Smith reveal a more direct and less discursive emphasis. The critic and writer Anthony Huberman wrote that one way to consider an exhibition might be as a process of shared discovery with visitors, that is, “publicly following with others the life of an idea rather than having all of your explanations ready in advance.” I’m curious about the philosophy that drives how you put together exhibitions.


The typologies of curating have proliferated in recent decades, from emphasizing a checklist approach to positioning a curatorial thesis to more persona-driven or reputational approaches. But I think there is arguably a growing fatigue in over-emphasizing highly authored approaches. In my view it’s important to realize that many artistic practices are deeply embedded with ideas, conceptual approaches, and, indeed, modes of critique that are already in motion. There’s a momentum and movement that you’re working in tandem with as a curator, so recognition and listening are as important as questioning or shaping in order bring out the best in an exhibition for existing and new audiences. Attunement to ideas within a practice means the life of the idea is often already enunciating, framing, and speaking a language.

That said, some projects invite artists and audiences into a particular proposition or provocation. That’s when you have to have the confidence and patience to have lived with an idea for a long enough period of time that it has the potential to become multifaceted and invitational, to have enough ways to enter in, focus, and also depart. It has to have the energy to be configured and taken up in different ways. This is important to distinguish, given the scale of the project and given the terms of production, especially in an institution such as the Walker that enacts and encourages porous boundaries.

Fionn Meade

Photo: Guillermo Riveros

Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun perform Pichet Klunchun and Myself at the Walker, 2007

Photo: Gene Pittman

Ralph Lemon working on his in-gallery installation in the Walker’s 2006 exhibition OPEN-ENDED (the art of engagement)

Photo: Gene Pittman

Sarah Michelson, Daylight (for Minneapolis), 2005

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Set and Reset, 1983

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Laure Prouvost, From the Sky, Danspace Project, 2014

Photo: Ian Douglas

Screengrab from Vdrome, a site that screens moving image works by artists

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cactus River, 2012

Courtesy the artist

Isla Leaver-Yap

On its Farewell Tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs Events (2011) at Park Avenue Armory

Photo: Anna Finke

Installation view, Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham / Robert Rauschenberg

Photo: Gene Pittman

Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly with costumes from Merce Cunningham Dance Cunningham acquisition

Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of Nachleben, Geothe Institute, May 7–29, 2010

Installation view of A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, SculptureCenter, September 13–November 30, 2009