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Episode One: Overflow

Overflow poster image of multi-colored threads wrapped around plastic tubing shaped into semi-circle

Transcript
Episode One: Overflow

KC Trommer (host)
This is Criss Cross: The NYU Gallatin Podcast and I'm your host, KC Trommer. For this, our first episode, I spoke with Gallatin faculty member Eugenia Kisin and Gallatin senior Anna Van Dine about Overflow, an exhibition that was shown in The Gallatin Galleries in the summer of 2019. The curation of Overflow was unusual in that Kisin and her fellow curators, Kirsty Robertson and Keith Miller, collaborated with students from Kisin's "Art of the Anthropocene" course in order to curate and mount the show. I spoke with them about the thinking behind the show, what it meant to collapse the normal curatorial hierarchies, and what they learned from working together in this way.

Eugenia Kisin
Hi, I'm Eugenia Kisin, I'm an assistant professor of art and society at Gallatin where I teach classes on contemporary art, museum studies, museum anthropology, and environmental justice, particularly as it pertains to Indigenous contemporary art worlds.

Anna Van Dine
And my name is Anna Van Dine. I'm a senior at Gallatin and I am studying a lot of different applications and ways of listening.

KC Trommer
Thanks, Eugenia. Thanks, Anna, for being here.

Anna Van Dine
Thank you.

Eugenia Kisin
Thank you, KC.

KC Trommer
I wanted to start and talk about how this project came to be and the idea of the podcast is to look at collaborations and to look at cross-constituency kind of collaborations between different aspects of Gallatin. So with you as a faculty member, Eugenia, and you as a student, Anna, how you worked together, but also to look at how this project came to be, how the exhibition happened. And the "Art of the Anthropocene" class that you taught was the kind of instigator for creating the exhibition, correct?

Eugenia Kisin
Yeah, absolutely. So maybe I'll say a little bit about the class first. So I had taught "Art of the Anthropocene" before, but never with a kind of collective collaborative project. Previously, students had been encouraged to do either a research essay or a kind of creative project depending on their own creative practices in response to the themes of the class. But something that I was thinking a lot about after I taught it for the first time was that when you start to learn about the Anthropocene, which is, I guess I should define this a little bit: it's a period of geologic time, proposed to mark how humans have influenced the geologic record, so literally changed the earth 's strata. So it talks about anthropogenic things like climate change, pollution, toxicity of various forms. And I don't know, Anna, if you want to jump in with any addition to the Anthropocene.

Anna Van Dine
Yeah, sure. Just like to add to that definition, to break it down if we're looking at like "anthro" as "people" and then the "cene" ending like an epic or an era, geologically. So just like Eugenia was saying, it's this moment in our Earth's history where human history has made a significantly noticeable impact and it has been contested by some and accepted by others. But it's a useful frame of thinking about this time that we're living in and the time that we have created as human beings.

Eugenia Kisin
Yeah, Elizabeth ready calls it a “charismatic megacategory.” And I really liked that phrasing for it because it shows how large it looms in our minds, how it comes to capture all of our fears, imagination, hope, and also sense of loss. So when I was teaching "Art of the Anthropocene" the first time, I kind of felt like there wasn't a sort of collective space to hold all of those very complicated thoughts and feelings together. And I thought that having a kind of collaborative project that had a very material tangible output, like an exhibition, would be a way of kind of coming together as a class community to produce something and to try to work through those complex concepts, complex feelings together.

KC Trommer
And when students were coming to class, and maybe I should ask this of you, Anna, when you saw the name of the course, was it readable and familiar to you as a term? Did you have to learn about it and kind of come to an understanding of it that you grew into in the class? When you looked at the course title, did you understand what it was implying?

Anna Van Dine
Honestly, I did not. I think I was one of the few students who didn't have a really great understanding of the Anthropocene before going in, but that was something I quickly learned. But I was more drawn to it by the course description, thinking about climate change, thinking about just being a person in this world and also thinking about art and about curation, which are things that have interested me in the past, but they are things that I had never really had an opportunity to actually delve into in my studies in any way. So that's what drew me to it.

KC Trommer
That was what occurred to me. I was like, "Oh, I know about this because I read about the course, but are students speaking that language?" So you found the course to be a container for all of those things and then the exhibition as the kind of necessary or collaborative output of that?

Eugenia Kisin
Yeah. And also a kind of place to grapple with some of the critiques of the Anthropocene. So I should also say, as Anna already gestured to, not a universally accepted category at all. A lot of geologists dispute it. It also tends to emphasize all humans evenly. And that was something else we were trying to think about in this class is how does the notion of the Anthropocene, how can it accommodate various kinds of inequality, human cultural differences, geographic locations that are maybe experiencing climate change more rapidly and in more dramatic ways. So it was trying to think about environmental justice, so thinking about environmental critiques but also in the context of social justice questions. And I think that it got a really great mix of students for that reason. So we had some environmental studies folks, we had some folks like Anna who are really interested in sound and storytelling. We got a lot of kind of creative art practice-arts program Gallatin students. So it was a really good mix and it felt like very different skill sets being brought to bear on the class.

KC Trommer
Right. And so, with that mix in play the process of curation--I know you had co-curators--but your fellow curators were the students themselves. And what were students bringing in?

Eugenia Kisin
So the idea for the exhibition came out of a collaboration between me and Kirsty Robertson who is an associate professor of contemporary art and museum studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. And we had a larger project, The Museum for Future Fossils, which is all about curatorial practice in the Anthropocene. I might talk about that a little bit more later, but Kirsty and I had come up for the kind of basic concept for this exhibition in conversation with Keith Miller, who is the curator of The Gallatin Galleries. So we had this curatorial concept and already having sort of three people in the mix is a bit unusual for exhibitions because generally they are regarded as a kind of a collaboration between artists and single curatorial figure. And so from the beginning, we were really conscious of trying to maybe distribute that authority differently--have it look a little bit different. And this is also true more generally of teaching institutions and teaching galleries, which I hope Gallatin Galleries is moving toward really taking on--that kind of model of teaching exhibitions. So then there came this question of how to bring students into the mix as co-curators and thinking a lot about how that authority could be shared throughout a classroom space. So I'm actually really curious, Anna, what your, what your impression of how that unfolded was? If you want to say more about it.

Anna Van Dine
Yeah. So it was really fascinating to me because I, throughout my life I've kind of had like a fraught relationship with museums. I never understood museums. I never understood what it meant to walk through an exhibition and understand something. I never understood how you're supposed to walk through an exhibition. That was something that I really hadn't had the opportunity to experience. You know, I grew up in a very rural place. It's not like I had the Met at my disposal. And so experiencing the sort of like background of curating an exhibition was something that was really fascinating to me because it enabled me to understand all of the other exhibitions that I experienced. And it let me experience art museums differently in general, but I thought it was really great as a student to be entrusted with this sort of work. It was a really large project and it was a large group of students and we were all given different responsibilities and all of our voices were important. You listened to everything that we had to say, Eugenia. And I think that was a really great experience. Not only seeing that we could bring something together and help you to create this experience, but also that that's something that a group of students can do and that a group of young people can come together and work to do something like that I found really inspiring.

KC Trommer
Yeah, it seems like it's a kind of flattening of the hierarchy that's implied in the normal, the more, you know, quote unquote "normal" process of curation, and also I imagine that your ambivalence I think about museums probably helped your perspective in mounting in thinking about what would be a compelling exhibition.

Anna Van Dine
Yeah. I wouldn't even call it ambivalence. I think I would call it frustration, but, you know, it's like walking into a space where people were speaking a language that I was never taught. You know, like there was some lesson that everybody else had gotten that I had missed. And so I finally got that lesson which was great.

Eugenia Kisin
It's so funny. I feel like everybody in the class felt that way. And sometimes me too, right? That there was this process that I didn't quite know how to make it work. And I'll sort of never forget this day, Anna, when we had divided into teams, so there was an exhibition design team, there were different student teams responsible for each artist and assembling the didactic texts--the things that would go on the wall to tell you about the artists and their practice and their piece. And I felt totally overwhelmed with this enormous room full of people with different tasks, different skill sets and Anna raised her hand sort of really generously and said, "This is maybe a crazy idea, but, in journalism we have an overarching editorial team that makes sure that there's kind of cohesive communication between different teams, responsible for texts. The editorial team kind of knows everything that's going on--not that they are higher on the hierarchy, but just that they have a different kind of scale or sort of bird's eye view of the process." Anna, I have to tell you, that was the most amazing suggestion. It fixed so many of our organizational problems. So I would say that that's been a really unexpected outcome of the collaboration with students is that often they have better organizational strategies than we do.

KC Trommer
So even in that question she said there needs to be a frame in which we're all operating--and especially when you have a lot of people in the mix. You are going to need that because if you've redistributed all of the responsibility, you're going to need some kind of level of accountability, right?

Eugenia Kisin
And then that didn't necessarily have to come from me and it, in fact, shouldn't. I think it worked a lot better actually that to having sort of peers holding each other accountable and overseeing what was what was going on, I think that it made it feel much more like a classroom exercise then sort of me telling everyone what to do.

Anna Van Dine
I think another thing, just going off of what you're saying, Eugenia, is I was so happy to see how everybody in the class really rose to the occasion. And I think that that was something that happened because we believed in what we were doing. That's something you prepared us for with all of the thinking and all of the reading and talking that we had done throughout the semester. You were building us up to this point where we couldn't help but want to do the work. So well done on your part, but well done ours as well.

Eugenia Kisin
We can all give ourselves a pat on the back. But in a way that the class was sort of overflowing because we had this enormous task, but also all of this conceptual work. So trying to get everyone on board with an understanding of the Anthropocene and the debates around it and how other artists have been responding to this challenge. So to say a little bit more about what Overflow the exhibition was about it was essentially artists who were taking up questions around water and toxicity. So water as a connective substance that we all depend on at the same time, very vulnerable to many anthropogenic forms of climate change, pollution, lots of kinds of invisible toxicity. So thinking about how water can be contaminated and thinking again about how that contamination maps onto already existing social inequalities like class and race and gender, and trying to think about how to hold these two things together. So both the kind of critique, sense of loss, anger, and then also thinking about connection, right? So that water does still has this potential to unite us and maybe actually help us think about the relationships between different places in a more fluid way. Water puns were a big part of this class.

KC Trommer
I mean they lend it, they're right there for you all the time. And thinking about the piece that you used as the cover. Can you talk about the thinking behind that? Because I thought that was a piece that was visually quite beautiful and conceptually very sound.

Eugenia Kisin
Yeah, absolutely, and I should also mention that Tali Weinberg is a Gallatin alumna. So she did her master's degree here, with Ritty Lukose and she, so she already brought a kind of, Gallatin-esque sense of intersecting ideas and disciplines. So Bound is this, growing sculptural installation that visualizes climate data through weaving. So it's a textile piece that's made out of different kinds of naturally dyed string and as well medical tubing. So she wraps the medical tubing with these different colors of string to visualize temperature data sets. So it's actually literally showing you climate change in this textile form. So it seemed really conceptually perfect for the poster. Also, one of the things we talked a lot about in the class along the lines of gender was how different forms of monumental sculpture earthworks kind of have this masculinist association. And so I really liked the idea of having a piece that is traditionally women's art textiles as the framing image for the show and also a really central piece. One of the students William Bowdoin built the pedestal for it. So it's very, very, it was sort of a piece that I think people were thinking quite intimately with since it required this display.

KC Trommer
What piece did you, you said you were working on the descriptive text and were you working on a piece, were you on a different team or you were on the curatorial team?

Anna Van Dine
I was naturally part of the editorial team.

Eugenia Kisin
Saw that one coming.

KC Trommer
So what was your, was there a favorite piece for you in the exhibition?

Anna Van Dine
Actually, this is something that Eugenia and I have recently spoken about and I think that I connected a bit more with a lot of the texts that we did in the class. And there's this one poem that I actually keep thinking about. It wasn't part of the exhibition, but it's something that has really stuck with me from the work that we did. And we read "Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet," and there was this one poem at the beginning of one of the chapters and it was by Ursula K. Le Guin and it was about listening to stones. The poem is called "Marrow" by Ursula K. Le Guin, and it goes: There was a word inside a stone / I tried to pry it clear, / mallet and chisel, pick and gad, / until the stone was dropping blood, / but still I could not hear / the word the stone had said. / I threw it down beside the road / among a thousand stones / and as I turned away it cried / the word aloud within my ear / and at the marrow of my bones / heard, and replied. And that's, I think that encompasses a lot of the thinking that I had throughout this course, or the ways in which my thinking changed a lot in this course, was thinking about the ways in which we can imagine our human practices and our interpersonal relationships, the aspects of our interpersonal relationships, and applying them more and more to the natural world. Which is, I think, one of the coping mechanisms that this class provided us in being young people thinking about the Anthropocene or whatever you want to call it, there is a really serious reality to the time that we're in and the future that we're facing. And just this idea of being able to listen to stones or to engage in any sort of practice of art is a really, really valuable and crucial tool for moving forward. Those ideas are things that I continue to go back to. And I think that's why, like I was saying, we as students couldn't help but feel motivated and passionate about the curatorial work we were doing because it really was part of this ideological framework that I don't think any of us are going to lose now because it gives us a sense of hope that I think a lot of us were lacking.

KC Trommer
Because it is, yeah, it is the world that you were entering into and the, and nice for it to be a coping mechanism, right? Nice to have a way to think about and find hope and accountability and connection in the face of something that feels crushing. I mean, feel as a parent of a small child, it feels crushing to me thinking about my child, and Eugenia has a little one too, and thinking about the future in that way.

Anna Van Dine
Yeah, it's true, and I think that that's what the point of art is, is to sort of be a tool for processing or manifesting those sorts of thoughts and feelings and to share that with others and create. So we, in creating a gallery space, that was another public way of doing that, which was very valuable I think.

KC Trommer
Right, beautiful.

Eugenia Kisin
So as you were speaking Anna, I remembered that another really amazing thing for me that came out of sort of thinking with art with students in this way is that you noticed things that I didn't and that other people hadn't written about. So I'm thinking specifically in relation to the pieces that Lisa Myers sent for this show. So Lisa Myers is an amazing multidisciplinary artist from the Beausoleil First Nation in Ontario, so she's an indigenous artist and curator. And she sent these two vessels made out of white oak. So one absorber which looked like a wine barrel filled with water, so it actually, we actually had water in the gallery--people were able to drink from it during the opening reception. And then the strainer, which were, which was a kind of open barrel filled with wood ash from her, from her stove. And when we had started the very first Google doc and I had invited students to start sharing comments on these pieces, Anna actually pointed out that white oak has healing properties. And that was something that I hadn't thought of in relation to the work but makes complete sense because Myers speaks a lot about how straining and absorbing are both mechanisms for processing trauma and the sort of difficulty of living in the present while also having this substance inside you that experience is filtered through at. And I thought that that was a really amazing observation of how the materiality of the work actually contributes to its meaning.

Anna Van Dine
And I have no memory of making this comment.

KC Trommer
Even better.

Eugenia Kisin
It's okay, we often don't remember things that we write about artwork. That's the big secret of being an art critic and historian.

KC Trommer
I was going to say most of the things that we contribute, we don't know how they affect other people, right? It's a perfect example of you don't know how much you matter to other people, how a casual comment you might make could stick with and inform somebody's understanding of the world. Are there other things that you wanted to share or talk about?

Eugenia Kisin
So I definitely wanted to make sure that I mention that Museum for Future Fossils is the larger project that Overflow came out of, which was this collaboration between Kirsty Robertson and myself. Thinking curatorially about the Anthropocene and we've done a bunch of things with the project so far including a graduate summer school incorporating this class, so "Art of the Anthropocene" is part of Museum for Future Fossils as the kind of larger umbrella project. And you can check out what we did and what we plan to do museumforfuturefossils.com.

KC Trommer
And we'll also be featuring it in Gallatin Today. So the fall issue, we'll have some images from Overflow and a profile of a Eugenia and her work. So wonderful, thank you so much for your time. Did you have anything you wanted to add?

Anna Van Dine
I don't think so.

KC Trommer
Okay, great. Thanks. Thank you.

Eugenia Kisin
Thank you.

KC Trommer
Thanks for listening to Criss Cross: The NYU Gallatin Podcast. Our next episode features a conversation with Matthew Stanley, professor of the history of science at Gallatin and author of the 2019 book Einstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Among the Vicious Nationalism of World War I. Our conversation looks at how an active collaboration between everyone's favorite patent clerk and a British astronomer helped change our understanding of the universe.