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Photo by Timothy Schenck

"A New Understanding of Place": An Interview with High Line Art Associate Curator Melanie Kress

By High Line | July 24, 2019

The following is an interview with High Line Art’s associate curator, Melanie Kress. Melanie is in charge of curating our Channel program— an outdoor video art program located on the High Line at 14th Street—and our yearly art performances.

HIGH LINE

How are you?

MELANIE

Excellent! We just opened the newest section of the park—the Spur—a few months ago, with Simone Leigh’s Brick House at its center. This has been a thrilling, multi-year process (and much longer for so many supporters and staff) and I can’t wait to spend time watching people enjoying the space and Simone’s work.

A group of people sit at a table near Simone Leigh's sculpture Brick House

Simone Leigh’s Brick House.Liz Ligon

HIGH LINE

What are you working on right now?

MELANIE

I’m researching artists and works for next year’s video program.

HIGH LINE

How did Channel Originals start? Actually, how did High Line Channel start?

MELANIE

High Line Channel began in 2011 with the presentation of Gordon Matta-Clark’s City Slivers on Channel 14 in the 14th Street Passage. Not long after, we opened Channel 22, projected on the side of a building at 22nd Street, with selected works by Jennifer West. These were all before my time. Some of my favorite photographs of the High Line are of the projection of Sturtevant’s Warhol Empire State onto the wall at 22nd Street with the Empire State Building glowing behind. It’s a beautiful marriage of content and place, of public art reflecting and refracting its surroundings.

HIGH LINE

How do you choose the videos for Channel?

MELANIE

I watch a lot of tv!

Actually—just kidding—I don’t watch so much these days—I follow artists working in video, in exhibitions at museums, galleries, major international exhibitions, and lots of different kinds of exhibition spaces. In fact, two of the artists we worked with for the Channel program have work on view right now at the Venice Biennale—Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz at the Swiss Pavilion and Laure Prouvost at the French Pavilion!

­

That said, something that works in a museum or a gallery won’t necessarily work in the same way in public space. I think a lot about the values that we hold for all of the work we present in the park—presenting, of course, artists who make incredible work, but also works that incorporate the element of surprise, humor, and playfulness, and also thinking of a balance between established, mid-career, emerging, and overlooked artists.

HIGH LINE

Why video on the High Line?

MELANIE

When we think of public art, most of us think of murals and sculptures. But to fully showcase the range of mediums that artists are working in today, video is indispensable. Video also has the ability to cross back and forth between many different worlds and forms at the same time—between advertising, social media, film, documentary, documentation, television, music videos, and more. It provides a really interesting place for artists to play with viewers’ expectations. In a public space, visitors aren’t necessarily expecting to encounter art—especially video art—so those lines can be blurred in all the more challenging and creative ways.

HIGH LINE

What are some of the things people should know about the videos this year?

MELANIE

This year we’re commissioning new work in video format for the first time (High Line Channel Originals), a unique moment in the public art landscape in New York City. We’re also presenting a brand new work by New York-based artist Autumn Knight that premiered in July, and who was in conversation with artist Robert Pruitt the same month.

A still of Tourmaline's <em>Salacia</em>; a close up of a woman's face

We were thrilled to be able to host Tourmaline in conversation with Kimberly Drew in June, where they discussed film, labor, cultural influences, the psychic geography of the High Line and piers nearby, and the importance of fashion.

I’m also very much looking forward to presenting Rosalind Nashashibi’s work later this year, specifically a film titled Vivian’s Garden which creates a portrait of artists Vivian Suter and Elisabeth Wild in their shared studio and home in Guatemala. The work is presented as a companion to Vivian’s paintings, which are part of En Plein Air, and on view at Gansevoort Street.

HIGH LINE

What’s next for Channel?

MELANIE

I do have a dream someday to present 3D videos, but at the moment we don’t have the technology. Maybe 2020 is the year!

HIGH LINE

Why performance on the High Line?

 MELANIE

I think that for many people the term “performance art” is synonymous with “absurd, uncomfortable, and impenetrable,” or at the least, “weird.” And I’ll say that even as someone who works as a curator of performance art, performance art can be intimidating. What I love about presenting performance on the High Line is that people can engage however they’re comfortable—you’re meeting people where they are, and also creating a space where they can push themselves a little and try something new.

I try to propose artists who are generous and interested in bringing people into their work, rather than in being obtuse or exclusive. Performance can be truly transformative, but I think that it’s exciting no matter what you get out of it. If you have a story to bring home about the wild performance you saw on the High Line—then it was a success. If you came to a new understanding of this place, yourself, or art itself—then it was a success.

I think a lot about Will Rawls’ performance Uncle Rebus, which took place on the High Line last year. Will’s piece was a sophisticated performative disassembly and reassembly of language in space and time through the Brer Rabbit tales. The performances were about how race, history, character, and more are inflected through language and handed down through storytelling in its many forms. Simultaneously, the work was visually arresting and pulled people in who weren’t aware of the background of the piece—or even that they were watching a performance.

Letters on a glass wall overlooking 10th Avenue

Will Rawls, Uncle Rebus, 2018. A High Line Performance. On view July 10-12, 2018.Liz Ligon

Supporters of Will and his work, art world professionals, and people who wanted to dive all the way in, could stay for two hours and experience the work in its entirety. People who had no idea what was going on could peek over the railing to watch and ask questions out loud to one another that, in their essence, illustrated the strangeness of language and Will’s goals in pulling it apart.

For Will, this performance was a moment in a longer lineage of development for the piece, an opportunity to bring it outside, to let in a wide general public, and then continue to its next iteration. This is the crux, for me, of performance on the High Line: giving artists the opportunity to explore a new moment in their work, bringing it out of doors to both a professional and adoring—as well as a wide general—public, to experience this wide range of feedback, and to give those audiences the opportunity to see and interact with truly incredible performance in a new and unexpected way.

HIGH LINE

Any particularly memorable performances?

MELANIE

I try not to pick favorites, but I have to say that Naama Tsabar’s Composition 20 will always stick with me. For the piece, Naama invited 20 musicians to play three interlocking musical compositions (two of which were newly commissioned by participating musicians for the project), and then to stand on their amps while they played throughout and nearby one of the covered passageways in the park.

We often discuss the challenge of programming a linear space—one that was built for use as a conduit, literally to move goods from point to point—and how to invite people to sit, or stand, and stay a while. A colleague from a fellow High Line Network project once called it the challenge of creating “sticky spaces” on what are supposed to be smooth spaces for movement.

And this is exactly what Naama’s work did: she created a space, a sonic landscape, and an experience that transcended the High Line’s architecture. It created a natural gathering space, almost like an eddy of visitors gathering and circulating back through the work over and over again. We watched visitors come back to the work day after day, friends and lovers holding hands and each other, finding a corner and sitting together, or circulating through the space, trying to understand what was so profoundly compelling about the performance taking place around them.

The work also has explicit formal elements: the performers stances on their amps evoke Greco-Roman statues placed on pedestals, also like a performance stage. But here they were extended and multiplied to make space for the viewer to become a part of the work. The beauty of Naama’s work, however, is that all of these formal elements are greater than the sum of their parts and create a holistic and constantly shifting experience.

HIGH LINE

What can people look forward to this year with our performances?

MELANIE

This summer, Ligia Lewis reimagined her 2011 solo work Sensation 1 for a chorus of six performers. This is the first time that Ligia will present a performance of this scale outdoors, and we were thrilled to bring this work to you!

Dancers lie on the ground in a wash of red light

Ligia Lewis, minor matter , 2016.Martha Glenn

In September, Carmen Papalia will invite us to think differently about how we relate to our senses, and why vision is so often treated as the primary sense. He’ll invite us to navigate the world through music and sound, and also bring the Hungry March Band to the High Line.

HIGH LINE

Thank you!

MELANIE

Thank YOU.

 

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