An Interview with Courtney Malick
This post was contributed by David Bennett.
Los Angeles-based Courtney Malick wears many hats, splitting time between art writing, curation, and art advisory. Her curatorial voice and exhibitions focuses on performance and installation, but even more prominent in her exhibitions is the unifying message that often ties works together: visions of future and contemporary dystopias.
I interviewed Malick following her recent exhibit at Gallery Diet titled In the Flesh, Part II, which highlights the food industry’s approach to cooking for the masses and the changing nature of human sustenance.
David Bennett: You have a foot in a variety of practices within art discourse, being a writer, curator, and adviser. Do you find your approach shifts depending on whether you’re curating a show or writing about one?
Courtney Malick: Well, first of all, I think that to be a good curator you have to be a strong writer and art historian, as well. I don’t think that you can work well as a curator, whose role is also an educator of sorts, if you don’t know a fair amount about all of the history that has lead up to our contemporary moment.
DB: Is there a side of the practice that you prefer?
CM: I prefer to write texts that are in some way linked to my curatorial projects and research, and which thus tend to be longer and more in depth, rather than the kinds of shorter exhibition reviews that I often write for art publications. However, I have learned more about both writing and editing through my work as a critic, so I value it as an ongoing practice, but as a career it can be a bit isolating. Curating, on the other hand, is very communicative and collaborative, and I always find that new or better ideas are generated when there are more people with whom to discuss, and at times debate.
DB: You’re a founding contributor of Dis Magazine, which frequently highlights connections between art, fashion, music, and other creative fields. How involved do you think the fine art sphere is in this cultural dialog?
CM: Dis has changed since its beginnings in 2009. Then it was much more focused on fashion and music — and today, as most people know, the Dis collective’s core four members are curating the upcoming Berlin Biennial. As that core group has gone on to work as an art collective exhibiting works in various formats, there has also been a shift in the broadening of the magazine’s agenda to not only include but to highlight contemporary art. Often their way of doing that is a bit unconventional, as you mention, by aligning art with a designer’s clothing, a musician’s new video or performance, a mass consumerist brand or ad campaign of some sort… As both artists themselves and editors of the magazine, they like to overlap and bleed these divisions into one another.
This tendency for contemporary art to sort of co-opt practices from other creative spheres is nothing new. The 1970s was one of the first times in contemporary art history that we saw artists swapping their “traditional” materials and concepts for those that went way beyond the bounds of what had previously been considered “art.” Probably in great part to due to the increased ease with which we now have access to endless information via the internet, smartphones and tablets, we are seeing this kind of “cross-breeding” of interests in art coming back to the fore after receding since the takeover of painting in the 1980s. Fashion, music, filmmaking, decorative arts, dance, etc., all have their own roles to play within culture, and audiences likewise go to them to seek out different forms of enlightenment, appreciation, and release. They are not categorized as such so as to imply any kind of hierarchy.
I was drawn to art and art history because it can be read alongside political, social and philosophical narratives, perhaps more closely than many other forms of expression, and it is for that reason that art is compelled to take up issues that technically exist outside of itself. This is beneficial in part because it allows for people who don’t know a lot about art to find a way into it that feels meaningful. However, I worry a that a blending of all the different sites for cultural output are resulting in an over-saturation that leads contemporary art to become part of entertainment and spectacle in a way that is unproductive. I think it is a positive outlook to recognize the differences between all of these genres and what they each have to offer in their own right, rather than always trying to squish them altogether into one thing in order to appeal to the largest and most homogenous audience.
DB: Do you see attitudes toward art changing in recent years — towards inclusivity, or the opposite?
CM: Contemporary art seems to be getting pulled in two opposing directions at the same time. On one side, we have what I imagine would be considered inclusivity, by way of its extreme dissemination (and therein parasitic spawning) through the internet and social media. However, this labyrinthine seepage has proliferated art in general, and certain art objects or projects in particular, to such far-reaching extents that it seems impossible for such stretching to not have thinned out or watered down its potency in some cases.
On the other side, its exclusivity finds new ways to hold its clench, for example more and more artist PhD programs that are emerging, which thus move us towards the inevitable over-professionalism of artistic practice, resulting in many amazing artists not being eligible for teaching positions and in turn future BFA and MFA students missing out on all of their unconventional methodologies and insight. This, coupled with the always increasing and alarming peaks of the commercial market, the influx in galleries opening 2nd, 3rd, 4th locations, private ventures that exclude the majority of regular audiences, more benefits and galas to pay for all of that, plus a new art fair or biennial in a newly deemed “it art city” every year, means that to truly track the art world on an annual basis is an endeavor for an ever-narrowing sliver of an elitist class.
If we take these realities as benchmarks of what “inclusivity” or “exclusivity” looks like, I don’t think that either should necessary be the goal, or necessarily connotes progress in a positive direction. As a curator I’ve always prided myself on being very audience-driven, but I don’t think that looking to numbers or ranges of where art is being received is what is most important. To me what is most important is that artists and curators be able to disconnect themselves from the frenzy of those two binary sides of the coin in order to preserve a certain kind of integrity and even scholarship that ought to be inherent to art and exhibition making. This means that projects should be well thought out, accompanied by texts or other forms of documentation and interpretation, and find unusual ways to engage the people that actually come to see them or are interested in getting information about them, rather than aiming for the highest number of likes, retweets or sales.
DB: To get more specific, the works in In the Flesh, Part I dealt with inorganic substances that are found in foodstuffs, everything from oft-controversial GMOs to universally despised pesticides and plasticine materials. These works obviously present a very real, societal ill that the show seeks to highlight. Do you often find yourself curating with a message in mind?
CM: Thanks, yes, that was exactly the point of the show, so I’m glad it was understood! The more I work, the more I am drawn to art that is somehow (usually rather abstractly) connected to social, behavioral or political issues. It’s hard for me to find much to constructively think or say about abstract painting. If I had a large home and income, I would probably love to have some abstract paintings or sculptures in it, as they undeniably procure certain moods, but when I am tasked with writing an essay or even just a press release, I find I don’t have much else to say about that kind of work. Not only that, but, because of that kind of collector mindset, too often work that takes up more serious, or as you mention, controversial issues, such as those artists in In the Flesh, do not get the kind of attention that their work deserves.
DB: Highlighted in the essays in the catalog accompanying In the Flesh is the rise of pseudo-cooking that gained prominence in the ’50s. This time is often seen as a low point for consumer foodstuffs, as many products were pushed with so-called “futuristic” ingredients that often contained little to no nutrition and in fact worked to the detriment of public health. Do you think the state of food has improved, perhaps given our somewhat recent rise in awareness with regard to unnatural ingredients and manufacturing practices, or have corporations simply gotten better at hiding their dirty work?
CM: Through the research that I have done for this project I would have to say that, while the awareness of this massive problem seems to be finally seeping into the American consciousness, the overriding economic power of companies, namely Monsanto, has only grown since the 1950s and therefore is more of a threat to the American public’s health today than ever before. When you say that certain corporations (and the government as well, as they are of course heavily implicated) are now simply better at “covering up their dirty work,” I think, in fact, it goes even beyond that.
Another important point that the In the Flesh aimed to highlight was the flimsy federal regulations for ingestible food and hygiene products, and the overwhelming number of harmful substances that are not accounted for as being “absent” from any product when it is deemed “organic” or “natural” (a term that means practically nothing at all). The seamlessness that we are approaching between synthetic and organic (in terms of ingestibles in Part l and in terms of the human body itself in Part ll) is really at the crux of the project.
For example, just in the last month I have begun to see T.V. commercials for the “first ever hormone/antibiotic/steroid free” “grass-fed” hamburgers from Carl’s Jr. In one way, it’s great to know that such large chain fast food companies are at least pretending to understand the need for better products, which are of course born from better farming practices. However, several major health platforms such as takepart.com (under Pivot, which frequently produces fact-based documentaries such as Food Inc.) have reported on this new venture of Carl’s Jr., noting the lenient and vague standards that warrant this kind of labeling, stating, “The federal agency considers meat minimally processed and containing no artificial ingredients or added color ‘natural,’ requirements that apply to all fresh meat, regardless of how the animal was raised.”
DB: Is this an issue that occupies your mind beyond the realm of curation?
CM: I am more interested in food and cooking than I ever have been before in my life. That interest first began to grow during 2014 as I was also beginning to put together my ideas for In the Flesh, so I am sure that it subconsciously influenced my plans for the show(s). However, it wasn’t really these issues, but certain works of art, that initially spawned In the Flesh. I hadn’t thought of the concept at all until I became aware of Ivana Basic’s work. After doing a studio visit with her in early 2014 in New York, I went back to California, where I began doing more cooking, and started looking and thinking more closely about red meat, as her sculpture so vividly calls it to mind. That began my research into all of these issues that finally became In the Flesh.
DB: Did you begin your practice with a stance toward major societal issues in mind?
CM: Funnily, when I was studying art history in undergrad, some of my closest friends from Dis Magazine and I used to have debates in which I would argue for the benefit of purely abstract art, unattached to social meaning, and they the exact opposite. My curatorial practice really began the summer of 2009, at the same time that Dis Magazine launched, and just before I began grad school at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. I curated two shows that summer that were both rather performance/dance-centric. At the time I thought of performance as a nuanced way to appreciate the abstract.
But in retrospect, I think that was the beginning of a transition towards my current interest in work that stems from research, observation and analysis of social issues and behavioral tendencies. By 2011, when I curated my graduate thesis show, my research revolved heavily around sociological and linguistic theories, so a lot changed in those two years!
DB: Does having a deep-seated attachment to the issues at hand in your curation help or hinder your appreciation of so-called “art for art’s sake?”
CM: In a way it was sad to see my childhood love of art “for art’s sake,” as you say, slip away during that time. I decided to study art because of the amazing and freeing experiences I had had in grammar/high school going to museums and seeing a lot of overpowering abstract work that left me awestruck. Once you start to learn too much, that feeling dissipates for the most part, sort of like the saying, ‘learning how the sausage is made’ (which happens to be particularly apt). Today, “art for art’s sake” seems either like a lie or a cop-out to me. I hope that most artists are making their work for another reason of some kind, even if it is too personal to want to reveal.
DB: There’s a sort of dystopia present in the In the Flesh series, as it raises larger questions about the nature of humanity moving forward — as you put it in the press release, ”In the Flesh imagines how such porosity will eventually, over time, alter human bodies and shift what is considered ‘natural.’” Some of the works have a clinical, sterile presentation, like Sean Raspet’s pieces, while others are more overtly unnatural and repellant, like Ivana Basic’s unnerving, faux-biological sculptures. Is dystopia a theme you like to address often in your curation and critical practice?
CM: Yes, it is certainly dystopian or apocalyptic. I’ve gotten a lot of responses to Part ll relating the show to various futuristic and sci-fi films. I had never really considered this to be an ongoing pursuit in my curatorial work, but now that you bring it up, I can see many of my projects being read that way, to some degree. My work and research tends to look more at what the future outcomes of our current situations will be, rather than looking back at how we have arrived at them, so in that way, there is something dystopic, or at least cautionary, to be said.
DB: Are you optimistic about the future of humanity?
CM: I have to say I’m not all that optimistic about much with regards to humanity, other than its ability to endure and adapt to just about anything. In that sense that will mean that the human race will continue to inhabit earth far longer than it probably should, considering all of the terrible and irreparable damage that we have done to it that is now causing such drastic climate change. If we take all that at face value, as Part ll proposes, that will mean that the human body will have to trans-mutate in order to withstand the conditions that earth will find itself in several hundreds of years from now.
DB: What role do you think art can play in shifting the perspectives of viewers when presenting these larger questions?
CM: My hope is that, for lack of a better term, work that entangles these kinds of issues into their very making and into their modes of presentation may help viewers to think ‘out of the box’ in some way about things that are daily concerns. Artists have a unique ability to approach and dissect questions, problems and truths in ways that most others would not, and that is why we see them stepping into other roles such as that of consultant, editor, curator, or doing some kind of “takeover” for an otherwise non-art related platform. I also think its pretty possible that many visitors to Part l left with an intensified curiosity about these issues and went on to do their own research, and I felt that this was particularly true of those that attended the panel discussion that we held during the show, which included Sean Raspet and the three members of the collective, Encyclopedia Inc., as well the writer and artist Lucy Chinen, who presented a very interactive ‘tasting table of future foods.’
Also, this is not always the case, but with regards to In the Flesh, I’ve realized that both shows were able to make visible things that are inherently invisible and I think that that may be a very useful way for audiences to gain a better understanding of an issue. The works in Part l were able to physicalize the invisible things that go into products that we ingest. In Part ll the works not only proposed the ways that things might look and function in the distant future, which is invisible in that it is not yet taking place, but they also attempted to externalize the the invisible interiors of our own bodies and the even more invisible ways that we mentally conceive of them[.]