Just as objects unearthed from archeological sites offer insight into ancient societies, contemporary art can deepen our understanding of today’s world, including its political, economic and cultural currents, says Howie Chen, the new director of the NYU art gallery, 80 Washington Square East.
“Artists are producing real time artifacts, objects that are the materialization of the different symptoms and conditions of society,” Chen says, noting that his definition of contemporary art includes music, performance, poetry and other creative fields. “This gallery is nested at the intersection of disciplines and of function. It’s pedagogical and outward facing to the contemporary art world. It’s historic and contemporary at the same time. We are an art gallery, but we're really asking big questions about society.”
Two upcoming events showcase Chen’s historically grounded, interdisciplinary vision. On November 14, 80WSE and publisher Primary Information will host a discussion and listening event about Assembling A Black Counter Culture, a book by DeForrest Brown, Jr. that traces the origins of techno music to Black culture in Detroit. Introverse: Allegory Today, an exhibition curated by Chen and artist Alex Ito that features 12 artists wrestling with issues such as migration, environment, and democracy, opens December 14. In the spring, Chen plans a video art installation in the gallery’s satellite space, the Broadway Windows at East 10th Street.
NYU News spoke to Chen, who is also a faculty member at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, about his curatorial practice and how contemporary art can help address some of society’s pressing problems.
Your first event as director is focused on a book about the Black roots of techno music. Why are you presenting this and what does it say about your definition of contemporary art and the future direction of 80WSE?
I wanted to start with programming that was active, something to build out into the future, whether it's readings, discussions, music, poetry, or performance art. I want to also connect the contemporary with the historical, and in this case, this book is looking at the history of techno music through the lens of Black history and culture.
The progenitors of techno music were mostly African Americans from Detroit. Thinking about the long arc of that history, what does it mean for a young historian and DJ to look back at the history of this music that he is participating in? These are the same questions we ask in visual arts or performing arts or any kind of culture—where it comes from and how it migrated.
Many artists are working across boundaries or experimenting in multiple disciplines. Does your decision to focus on multidisciplinary art and collaboration reflect that?
That has always been how artists have thought of the creative fields, not in siloed disciplines. It's only when it became institutionalized that people started thinking that interdisciplinary practice was something of an anomaly. I want to be in that space where we can think about art across disciplines where artists really press against or explode these silos.
Introverse: Allegory Today takes a fresh look at the use of symbols and veiled messages and tries to decipher their meaning. How does this fit into your historical approach?
I want to reboot what we know of allegory, and looking at these 12 artists and asking: What are the messages they are veiling and what are they preoccupied with? What they are depicting feels like a psychological interior, even though it appears to be architectural or a landscape. And there’s a kind of melancholic contemplation of life.
What issues are they examining?
It is complex—it could be about a political position, or about material or psychic loss. It could be a general discontent with reality or a political reality in a given country. It could speak to the melancholy of not having agency within the structure of power. People feel like there's a lack of control in the external world, so they start creating a world of their own.
You’ve said that engaging with contemporary art and artists can help us better understand our world. But the artists aren’t giving us answers so much as they are provoking us. So what is the role of the curator and the viewer in discovering these ideas?
Some artists are more forthcoming and more intentional about why they make things and what they are trying to address. These artists, because of the veiled aspect of their work, are unconsciously or deliberately not as forthcoming. As a curator, I can point out touchpoints in which we can interpret the work, but once I start naming what it could be it starts shutting down the power of the work. You have to intuit it as a viewer, really drill into the feeling and meaning of the piece.
So what does the historical lens add to this experience?
For contemporary art, just presenting something new is not enough. New and newness are fleeting—it needs to be contextualized. The art that we are interested in and that we are showing has historical threads that give it the armature to understand what led up to the present, why this present is so urgent, and why it is worth looking at. To be able to map this out will help students who are affiliated with the gallery to understand their own work, too.