Bard Day’s Night: Partying in the Parliament of Reality

CCS Bard's 20th-anniversary conference

  • Amtrak, you might say, summoning your best theory-speak, is known for its eternal deferrals. Arriving at Penn Station for a 7:15 a.m. departure, Gallerist found the Toronto-bound train indefinitely delayed. Mercifully, “indefinite” in this case meant “one hour,” and before we knew it we were shuttling north, glancing every once in a while across the aisle, where a 22nd Street gallery director was deeply absorbed in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick: like us, she was headed to Bard College for a day of panels, openings and performances celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Center for Curatorial Studies. (“I should get a book jacket!” she exclaimed later.)

    Carnegie International co-curator Dan Byers’s morning panel on “Libraries, Archives and Publications” was just concluding as we breezed into the Bard auditorium, which was about half full, around 70 people braving the early-morning session. (The students in Bard’s intensive summer MFA program had apparently thrown a blowout party the night before, their answer to the VIP opening for two new exhibitions at Bard’s Hessel Museum and its afterparty, a BBQ chez CCS trustee Adam Lindemann.)

    “I think we’re seeing the end of print culture as we know it,” Ann Butler, the director of CCS’s library, said of the art world’s current mania for archives. We’re grabbing what we can during a transitional moment, she opined. Some digital works are vanishing too, Lauren Cornell, former Rhizome director and 2015 New Museum Triennial co-curator, noted. Hence, Rhizome’s archive.

    The mood was more contentious at SculptureCenter curator Ruba Katrib’s panel on alternative spaces, which saw participants pitch their various organizations and mull their relationships with various markets. Alex Sainsbury, of London gallery Raven Row, gave an ominous pronouncement: “My theory is that art will die because it’s too expensive to live in the city now.”

    Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, who one-upped the other speakers by curating his own talk (he had guests read statements by Charlotte Posenenske and Christopher D’Arcangelo), noted the complicated relationship between alternative spaces and commercial galleries: “It seems that the market has the ability to absorb any notion of alternative or difference,” he said. Not necessarily such a bad thing, maybe, if alternative spaces are showing worthwhile work.

    But no day of talks could be complete without an attempt at some real controversy. Speaking from the audience, MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey lambasted e-flux’s campaign to administer the dot Art domain. He blasted the company as “a for-profit business that dresses itself in a certain leftist discourse.” “Many of you probably saw the [release] that went out this week, encouraging all of us to write in support of their takeover,” he said. “So that they can—it doesn’t say so—but so that they can rent it back to us … Is there anyone from e-flux here?” Silence.

    The conference adjourned, and attendees decamped for the Hessel Museum, across campus, for a second reception for those two new exhibitions, a survey of work by Liam Gillick and the group show “Anti-Establishment,” curated by Johanna Burton, director of CCS’s graduate program. Standing outside in the sun were Bridget Finn and gallerist Rachel Uffner (whose artist Pam Lins’s sculptures are one of the highlights of “Anti-Establishment,” along with hypnotic, neon Jacqueline Humphries paintings, the artist’s gestural strokes glowing nicely under black light). Ms. Uffner’s husband, PictureBox publisher Dan Nadel, was there too, carrying her newborn son, Henry.

    Three female dancers in white interrupted the party outside. One stared down Gallerist and said, “Cold object. Man’s embrace. Evil bedfellow.” “It’s from Antigone,” a fellow writer whispered, which didn’t make it—a performance choreographed by Chelsea Knight and Elise Rasmussen—any less disturbing. It was the first of many lengthy pieces scheduled throughout the day as part of “Anti-Establishment.” Time for a stiff drink, and luckily the Gillick retrospective obliged.

    A gent at the entrance was holding aloft a hefty bottle of Jameson. He poured a glass, as Prince Buster’s rollicking soul track “Ten Commandments” burbled from a boom box behind him. This was An Old Song and a New Drink, a 1993 piece by Mr. Gillick and Angela Bulloch. (The original apparently featured J&B Scotch, Mr. Gillick told us later.) “Commandment Eight / Thou shall not drink, or smoke / Nor use profane language / For those bad habits I will not stand for.” Too late for most.

    Mr. Gillick’s show, which is curated by CCS executive director Tom Eccles and focuses on Mr. Gillick’s early works from the 1990s (many rarely, if ever, seen in this country), reveals the artist as an arch master of conviviality. There are visceral pleasures (whiskey, games) and also death; a net-less Ping-Pong table strewn with glitter (Mr. Eccles kindly provided paddles), a window that looks out onto a hole in the ground that appears to be ready for a burial, though the whimsical flags positioned around it suggest other, more peculiar uses.

    There are pin boards spread throughout the space that Mr. Gillick asked curators to fill with their own material according to a few rules. (Ms. Katrib’s seems to focus on cats.) The newly christened Mapplethorpe Gallery’s walls were lined with pinewood and halogen lights (one Gillick artwork) and had in its center an orange camping tent inside of which a boom box blasted Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (another Gillick).

    The reception’s bar shut down at 5 p.m., but A New Drink remained on offer—attendees had killed nine bottles in two days, the bartender reported—and many grabbed glasses, then wandered across campus in search of Olafur Eliasson’s permanent installation, The Parliament of Reality, where a book launch was in progress.

    Gallerist arrived at the outdoor artwork—a sort of peninsula surrounded by a modest man-made pond—to find Kitchen director Tim Griffin (who happens to be Johanna Burton’s better half), Haim Steinbach and a few dozen others perched on its rocks, swilling Champagne and toasting the publication of the first in a series of new critical anthologies, CCS “Readers” launched “to continue a tradition, hopefully, that may have been lost in the last decade—of treating art seriously,” the indefatigable Mr. Eccles declared. Cheers!

    More Champagne, and then everyone was off for two hours of performances in one of the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Performing Arts Center’s theaters: a too-long one-man show by Trajal Harrell and a nuanced piece for four dancers by Tere O’Connor, in which the performers alternately started and stopped, came together and fell apart, moved in unison and solo.

    Italian food followed and then the crowd moved outside for a smoke break. Where does one go for an afterparty on a summer night at Bard? Back to The Parliament of Reality, of course. Messrs. Eccles and Gillick, Mses. Katrib and Cornell and others led the way back to the redoubt. Others returned to their tables, grabbed the remaining bottles of white wine, then also headed out into the darkness.

    The stars were out now, and The Parliament was lit by a huge, bright spotlight—great for getting a tan, Mr. Eccles observed in a pause during a discussion of his Ping-Pong game.

    The next morning, hearing that we were with the conference, our taxi driver pointed out Annie Leibovitz’s home and recounted various recent events in the area. Has it been busier because of the conference? A bit. But the real excitement was earlier this year, he said, when Cameron Diaz and her new beau were spotted at the train station. He wished he’d had a camera with him, he said, as we pulled into the Rhinecliff Amtrak station. “They were making out big-time.”

    arusseth@observer.com