In speaking with Ken, he pointed out to me that a former high school classmate of ours was running an influential Studio that is responsible for Graphic Design, Curatorial projects and Art Publications (among other things) called Project Projects. This Summer, Prem Krishnamurthy opened P!, an exhibition space in Chinatown. Aside from making its neighborhood a part of it’s identity, P! is making its identity shift with each exhibition in allowing artists to edit the space, the logo and the physical configuration each show.
Prem Krishnamurthy founded the graphic design studio Project Projects in 2004 with Adam Michaels. This summer he launched P!, a new exhibition space in Chinatown. P!’s mission is to propose “an experimental space of display in which the radical possibilities of disparate disciplines, historical periods, and modes of production rub elbows. A free-wheeling combination of project space, commercial gallery, and Mom-and-Pop-Kunsthalle, P! engages with presentation strategies and models to emphasize rupture over tranquility, interference over mere coexistence, transparency over obfuscation, and passion over cool remove.” More information about P! can be found on their website at p-exclamation.org
Ken Becker is a first year Curatorial Practice graduate student at California College of Arts in San Francisco, California. This interview took place via Skype on the morning of Sunday, September 23, 2012.
Ken Becker Good Morning.
Prem Krishnamurthy Hello.
KB To begin, I would like to go back to what I assume are the origins of the new exhibition space you have recently opened, P!, and then talk about the venture itself. When I received the email announcing your new endeavor it made me think of your thesis exhibition, at Yale, while you were an undergrad. The thing that was really interesting for me was you were showing work, but at the same time in the formal presentation of the work [in the form of a guided tour of all the domestic spaces he had photographed in a quasi-entomological mode] was your embodiment of that role as tour guide and performer. Am I remembering this properly?
KB It seemed as if that performance was almost more important then the work you had developed. The tour and the persona and that process was paramount for what you were doing.
KB After Yale you traveled to Germany to study architecture?
PK No, not quite. I went and studied industrial design history and interviewed industrial designers in East Germany about their apartments and workplaces before and after 1989;I also took some courses on the history of performance art.
KB At that point, had you done much graphic design?
PK Well, I probably began making graphic design with Lodestar. [Lodestar was the arts and literature publication at the high school we both attended. I was the arts editor]
PK As you may remember. (Laughs.) When I was in college I was a Fine Arts major studying photography and graphic design. So I took graphic design classes and I also designed the Yale Literary Magazine. That was my major opportunity to create graphic design. There were very few graphic design classes at Yale. In reality, at that point in time, my concept of graphic design was that graphic design and conceptual art were indistinguishable. I thought that graphic design the same as making conceptual art, it just so happened that you had more typographic choices.
PK So I left school with a somewhat unrealistic ideal of what graphic design was.
KB From a technical aspect, what role were computers playing at this point?
PK The intro graphic design courses at Yale were still done mostly analog, without the computer. You did learn how to use a computer for typesetting and design tasks, but that kind of instruction was never part of the actual class work and I never owned a computer in college. It wasn’t a thing that you could afford. There were computers at school. We had Quark Express. We could design things but it was still very crude.
KB People our age, people on the cusp of both generations, have a very distinct memory of analog technologies, a sense of what came before. My brother, who is four years younger, had computers all the way through his education where as we did not. It marks a distinct break in time.
When you were in Germany you interned for a graphic design company?
PK I had first lived in Germany in college for a semester abroad during my sophomore year to study philosophy and literature. Then I went back the next summer and interned for a graphic design studio in Berlin. After college I ended up in Germany on a Fulbright and conducted an ethnographic study of East German industrial designers, photographing their homes and offices for a year. After that I needed to find a job, and the graphic design studio that I had interned for offered me a full-time job.
KB Was there anything specific about the structure of how design and the fine arts interacted in Germany at that time that you took away from the experience? This question is leading up to what you are doing now…
PK For me, it was less the design that was happening; rather, to be somewhat stereotypical about it, it was the Berlin ethos of that moment.It was a moment in the late nineties, in Berlin and Dresden, where people would just open up spaces, there were random projects happening everywhere. There were bars that were open only one day a week. It was the “Tuesday bar” in the basement of some illegal place. I was just reflecting on this recently after not thinking about it in many years. In those days, I had a kitchen in my Berlin apartment that was nearly the size of what [P!’s] space is now.
KB I remember seeing pictures of that space.
PK It was larger than this space come to think of it. I put on a series called “The Kitchen Lectures.” Whenever somebody came into town and stayed with me, I would make them give a lecture. And then I did one little photography exhibition where I invited people to take part in a project. At that moment I thought, “It’s Berlin, nothing costs anything and I have a big kitchen, so…?”
KB Economics really do help facilitate that sort of thing. Then you moved to New York?
KB You worked for a couple of graphic designers and then in 2004 you started Project Projects with Adam [Michaels]. Is that the basic time-line?
PK That’s right.
KB The point that I have been coming to was that when you started [Project Projects], I feel like you had a different idea of what your role was going to be. It was going to be less about people bringing you jobs and you executing them, and more about there being an interaction and utilizing whatever comes to you as a platform to create something else. Is that accurate?
PK Exactly. The reason for the name of the studio Project Projects was because we intended to work on all kinds of things, not only graphic design projects but also editorial and curatorial projects. In reality, it took us many years to realize that—to actually accomplish these other aspects within the context of the studio practice—because for the first many years we had to make a living.
KB But it was there at the start.
PK That was the impulse from the beginning. And in many ways it was true also that when I came to New York from Berlin. That was a strange moment where I was struggling economically and trying to figure out how to navigate the city;yet it was also a highly productive period where, for example, I squatted the Apple Store for a time as a project. I was going to start a studio called “The No Overhead Studio,” because the Apple sSore had just opened in Soho and I intended to start producing all my design work there there; have all my client meetings there, engage a bunch of interns and employees, freelancers, all working at the Apple Store. I created a bunch of projects there and I published some things about it. I was trying to talk with the Apple Store about curating an exhibition there, which could very easily pass over from parasitism to being co-opted by the corporation.In any case, I was interested in this ambiguity and thought it would be interested to hold an exhibition of screen-based works at the Apple Store using the computers there. It was a weirdly fertile period, probably because I was terrified and had no money and just had to make all the shit I could possibly make.
KB The other thing that I really appreciate is that you work harder than just about anybody.
PK Somebody who came in recently [to P!] pointed out that it’s not coincidental that my first show is about the love of work. There something somewhat self-reflexive about that.
KB At what point did you decide to open a space?
PK I’ve been working on smaller curatorial projects for the last several years. The idea of actually opening a space occurred to me this Spring. It was the feeling of, “Okay, this is a possibility, there are risks involved, but if I don’t do it now, it is never going to happen.” In a way, Project Projects really functions more and more as a platform for us to accomplish other things. Through the studio, I have this incredible network of people that we’ve worked with — from academics, to architects and designers, to people involved in political action. We have this very, very good group that we know, but a lot of them aren’t familiar with each other and who might appreciate that acquaintance. . This first show includes the artist Christine Hill, whom I’ve known for ten years now and have been in ongoing dialog with about work, versus Karel Martens, someone I knew tangentially before. Previously, I had met him a couple of times, but [he is] somebody who is from an older generation who I could pull into this. And Chauncey Hare, whose work is very hard to access.
KB Martens is a graphic designer and you are showing his monoprints. He is not as well known for that body of work, correct?
PK Within the graphic design world, he is very well known for that body of independent work. He has been published extensively since the nineties, and his monoprints have always been appeared with the design work. But outside of the graphic design world his work is not as well known. In the graphic design world, he is one of the most esteemed people, period.. Yet since doesn’t really work internationally and works modestly, it means that people outside the design world who follow design likely know the work of his former students or those who have worked with him much better than they actually know Karel’s work.
KB You recently put together a talk with Martens and curators from the New Museum and the Museum of Modern Art .
PK It was a great talk. The talk included Kim Conaty, assistant curator in the prints and illustrative books department at MoMA, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, a curator at the New Museum. Both of them have very particular interests in the relationship between art and design and technology and distribution. Furthermore, both of them have worked with people who know or worked with Karel but before I approached them, they were not familiar with his work. It was a really productive conversation, because it covered historical ground, subject I didn’t even know. For instance, when Karel went to school in the fifties, in Holland, graphic design didn’t exist as a discipline that you could study. One of his teachers was Henk Peeters who was a member of Zero, a significant post-war European avant-garde art group. This mini-revelation at the talk led to an interesting discussion about Karel growing up in the post-war period, the scarcity of material and how one, by necessity, was economic about how to make things. The idea of constraints came up as a force that drives work. The reason I wanted to organize that event was because I feel that usually when you have a design discussion, it happens purely with designers and without a historical context — totally separate from other discourse. In this case, Gary had just curated a show at the New Museum called Ghosts in the Machineabout art and technology and historical moments of their intersections. It was a great discussion, I was really happy to host it.
KB This brings us into the role of P!. There is an article by Hou Hanru titled A Third Way, which you posted on your website, that discusses the need for new models. Will you talk a little bit about the role you see yourself holding within the city and all of the other platforms that already exist. How are your goals different from that of a commercial gallery or a museum?
PK The space is intentionally set up as something in-between. That’s why I was thrilled to see Hou Hanru’s piece. It was published right after I launched the space. He acknowledges that in Asia, where there is meagre public funding for the arts, the way that these kinds of new, experimental, interesting institutions can exist is by finding new sources of funding and new ways to support themselves. This is something I know very well from Istanbul, from working with the institution SALT. In Istanbul you have no public funding for the arts. SALT, by my partisan estimation is one the the most interesting experimental spaces for art, design, and research that exists anywhere. Yet it exists through the funding of a bank. The institution manages to take the support they have and make something truly radical. My space is legally a commercial entity, but it maintains the ethos of a not-for-profit space, and its exhibition program is that of a mini-institution. Instead of being dependent on public funding and donors, P! will function as a space that sell works and also benefits the artists that it works with. Yet its goal is not primarily to represent artists, its goal is to make exhibitions. Within the ecology of New York, a lot of the non-profit spaces do great shows, but they do shows that you could see in a museum or, on the other hand, in a commercial gallery. And the flip-side is that you have commercial galleries, for instance Gagosian, doing shows that you might see in a museum. You have them doing historical shows of artists that are well-researched and quite interesting that might otherwise exist in different context. There is a constant overlapping of commercial and non-commercial boundaries. Essentially, I am trying to present curatorially-driven shows that I don’t see happening anywhere in New York. Shows that are not only weirder than other positions, but that have an attention to sproductive friction.
KB Do you mean where all of the perceived divisions of design, art, and performance kind of bump into each other? As if you were trying to rearrange where everything falls between those zones?
PK I have a graphic design background; as a graphic designer, I feel that these different activities are artificially segmented. So, “this is the architecture of a space” versus “this is the thing that is being shown in that space”.Actually, since at least the seventies, with Brian O’Doherty’s influential Inside the White Cube, it is commonly understood that the architecture of a space influences the presentation of things within it and in fact determines the evaluation and reception of those objects. Yet we still have a preponderance of white cube galleries for reasons that are social, economic, and political. I am interested in proposing a space without a neutral architecture, a space where the architecture is actually quite specific and charged, and which must be reckonned with. It’s a space where there is a red floor because of an artist, Christine Hill’s, work. But I’m not treating it as an element that’s just part of Christine Hill’s installation; this piece ends up influencing all the work in the space. Furthermore, it’s not a condition that will exist just for the show, it might last for a couple of shows. In other institutional or commercial spaces, those gestures would be more neatly framed as an artist’s intervention within the space; it allows for the comfort of being able to read something as a work and being allowed to to say, “That’s the artists agency versus this is the neutral frame.” I want to break these distinctions apart a little bit.
KB That’s fantastic. I’m also hoping at some point you recreate your kitchen from your time in Berlin in the space. (Laughs.)
PK Wow, that just blew my mind, Ken.
KB Hey I really appreciate you chatting with me. Anytime you are out here please, give me a call and stop by.
PK Nice, I don’t know when I am going to get out there again. I don’t know if I can travel anymore because of the space.
KB You have a baby now.
PK Yeah, I do…
KB Thank Prem.
PK You are welcome.