The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side: Curator Nato Thompson Has the Whole Essex Street Market to Play With for His Latest Show

Nato Thompson. (Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Last month the Essex Street Market—the original one, not the current one across the street with the cilantro sellers and handcrafted cheese mongers—betrayed no indication of what it will look once the public art presenters Creative Time get ahold of it this week, transforming the abandoned warehouse into part exhibition hall, part gathering spot and part guidebook on how to live off the grid, for the exhibition “Living as Form.” A few laborers laid electrical wire, or hauled materials into place. Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time and the driving force behind the show, walked through the empty room, pointing out what was to come.

There was the bathroom in a nearby diner that will be remade as an exact replica of the executive bathrooms at J.P. Morgan Chase; a resident “barter adviser” to advise gallery-goers on where and what they can skill-share; the reconstruction of a “teenage hangout space” by the Philadelphia-based collective Megawords, designed to show that “doing nothing is acceptable;” four tons of “thread waste”—the by-product of textile production—into which visitors can wade, hunting for treasures; and a library of documentation of hundreds of other similar projects from around the world that took place under the “Living as Form” aegis.

“It’s an exploration,” Mr. Thompson said. He wore a checked shirt and cowboy boots, and a thin stubble covered his face and head. In the way that he cocked his eye when he spoke and unfurled his hands, he looked not unlike some sort of storybook wizard made real on the Lower East Side.

“I think people have too much figured out already,” he said. “It’s not good to come with answers all the time. Artists are a litmus test on how the rules are changing. They feel the shifting world around them. It is a chance to think through not just what is or isn’t art but about the particular moment in history in which all this work is being generated.”

“Living as Form,” which opens this Saturday, represents a major moment not only for Creative Time and the kind of art it curates, but also for Mr. Thompson, who will be putting on an exhibit whose size, scope and intellectual ambition at last meet his oversize reputation as one of the most dynamic young curators on the contemporary art scene.

“We know this is an insane undertaking,” said Anne Pasternak, the executive director of Creative Time. “For us, for the field, yes, this exhibition is extremely important.”

It was Ms. Pasternak who lured Mr. Thompson to New York. He was at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, for six years and began to come into the public’s eye in 2004 with an exhibition there called “The Interventionists,” which looked at the way contemporary art was making claims on the world outside the gallery. It featured an inflatable homeless shelter by Michael Rakowitz called ParaSITE; a pie-throwing exhibition by the Biotic Baking Brigade; and The Black Factory by William Pope.L, which pulverized objects that represented blackness, supplied by viewers, and resold them as gifts.

The Boston Globe called the show “an overdose of Sunday school” crossed with “an overdose of naughty political jokes,” but Ms. Pasternak says that artists in her orbit kept on telling her that Mr. Thompson was “the curator of his generation.”

“He was the kind of guy who sits down with artists at a bar and drinks with them and stays up all night long,” Ms. Pasternak said. “He spends a lot of time just being with artists, talking with them, listening to them and thinking about our culture with them. A lot of curators are afraid of artists.”

She started making pilgrimages up to western Massachusetts to try to lure Mr. Thompson to Creative Time even before she had an opening there. An eventual get-together at a Creative Capital retreat, complete with a gallon of Ketel One vodka and the sledding of a purloined (from the roof of a parked car) kayak down a hill, convinced Mr. Thompson to come to New York.

The associate curator job at MASS MoCA was Mr. Thompson’s first out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a degree in arts administration.

“You know who studies arts administration?” he said. “People who are very scared that they are going to have to get a job in something they hate. It’s a practical mix of utopian dreams. They want to be in the arts but they don’t have the luxury of hoping it will work out, so they mix it with a little pragmatism.”

Mr. Thompson was born in Los Angeles. Both of his parents tried to make a living as artists but ended up getting drawn into the Hollywood orbit to make ends meet—his father is now a gaffer for Desperate Housewives—and just out of high school young Nato joined him, working as an electrician for films like Leprechaun 2 and Barb Wire, a breakout sci-fi feature for its star, Pamela Anderson.

“I was watching all this money and all this talent being pushed towards this sludge,” he said. “That was the moment in my life when I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something else.’”

He went to U.C.-Berkeley and studied political science, but found it too dry.

“You would come out of a meeting and everyone would seem like they had been run over by a car, and you would be like, ‘What is going on here?’ I gravitated to being around arty people, but then I never liked the arts, either. I always thought it was full of pretentious snotty whatever, which it is.”

After college, he bounced around to what he estimated were around 90,000 or so odd jobs, including making copies at Kinko’s, telemarketing, delivering phone books, working for an insurance company and being a dispatcher for a food-delivery service.

“After all that drudgery I was kind of terrified that my life was going to be horrible from then on out,” he said.

He wanted to stay in the Bay Area and open an art space but a friend told him that the only people who did such things were independently wealthy.

“I never even found out if that was true!” he said. “But something about that scared the shit out of me.”

Although he rejected both, Mr. Thompson’s political science background and his time working on studio lots remain visible in a lot of the work that he does for Creative Time. In an interview, he doesn’t like to talk about his own politics much, but he acknowledges that there is an anarchic, D.I.Y. aesthetic to most of the artists that he shows, one that dovetails with the all-hands-on-deck ethos of big-box movie production.

“Even a low-budget film is like a gazillion dollars compared to the arts,” he said. “I would go on these sets and everybody was really smart and young and thoughtful and then we would be working on the stupidest stuff I’ve ever imagined.”

Rather than argue for a particular politics, the point of “Living as Form” is to storm the academic barricades that keep the various cultural practices—art, architecture, community activism, urban gardening, skill sharing—separate.

“I use this Donald Rumsfeld quote—which people think is crazy, to quote Donald Rumsfeld—but I find the quote so enjoyable. It’s ‘If you have a problem and you can’t solve it, make it bigger.’ Because a lot of people come here with the question, ‘Is that art? What is this?’ And instead of us solving it I want to make the problem even bigger. So before we find out why artists are doing this, let’s bring in all the disciplines. Let’s bring in architecture, let’s bring in theater, let’s bring in community activism. Because a lot of the manifestations look very similar but they come out of supposedly separate worlds.”

This approach is not without its detractors, even among those who share Mr. Thompson’s artistic inclinations.

“There is something evangelical about his approach,” said Claire Bishop, a professor of contemporary art at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. “The work is not always visually engaging, because it clearly subordinates an aesthetic agenda to a political agenda.”

The two have often found themselves on opposing sides in public discussions about the role of politicized public performance art—Ms. Bishop was asked to deliver the first lecture as part of this year’s Creative Time Summit—but she still calls him “one of the most adventurous curators in North America. He is constantly trying to push the boundaries of what can be done.

“He is someone who wants to make things happen,” she adds. “He loves standing up in front of a room of people and going on and on about what is going on and about the work he is presenting.”

Ms. Bishop interrupted herself.

“But say that nicely. He does it in a very charming way.”

Mr. Thompson spends most of the week in Philadelphia. His wife, Theresa Rose, is an artist there, and he can afford to own a home and, he says, find an uncrowded bar stool on a Friday evening (“I feel like on weekends Manhattan should just have a sign on it that says, ‘No Vacancy.’”) There Ms. Rose puts together occasional dinners with other artists and collaborators. Called Philly FEAST, the dinners get grants and operate like an episodic piece of performance art.

Mr. Thompson wants the same thing for art.

“People don’t find that stuff rarefied, or alienating,” he said. “They get it right away. You don’t have to be some kind of expert on food. Everyone is an expert on food. I always thought that what got in the way of art sometimes is the word ‘art.’ In the United States especially, people are skeptical of things they are supposed to know about but don’t … People really become convinced that the world is trying to dupe them or manipulate them. Even with the arts. They come in with, ‘This is some kind of inside game. I don’t get this, and it’s because you are a bunch of assholes.’”

“Living as Form,” with its teenage hangout spaces and thread-waste funhouses, may not change many minds on that score. The goal, though, for Mr. Thompson is to get beyond questions of what is or isn’t art. The point is to show that the arts aren’t so much a thing as an approach, one that is being carried on across the globe in millions of different ways all the time. And it’s to show audiences that art is around them all the time, and not just locked behind the doors of museums.

“I think there is sometimes a split between what the art world wants and what artists are doing. And I want to do stuff that really matters in the world, that is alive, that is going for it and that challenges the status quo,” he said. “I am not always convinced that art is good for everyone. I don’t like rationalizing the arts as this inherently good thing. I don’t think it is always. And it’s not necessarily ethical, either. It’s just a way of working. So I think it’s important to be sensitive, wherever you’re working, to the reality of what is happening around you.”

As if on cue, at that moment, a day laborer came by, looking for work. He asked if someone named Art was there, presumably a supervisor. But no, no Art was to be found at the Essex Street Market on this afternoon.

“This is a super-exciting time,” Mr. Thompson continued. “You spend like a year and half working on show and it’s all just spread sheets and emails and when the show materializes and you are in its space it’s like, ‘Uhhhhhh.’” He opened his arms to what was to soon unfurl in front of him. “So I’m super-stoked about it. I think the show is going to be awesome. I’m glad that it’s not trying to answer anything. It’s really open.”

  The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side: Curator Nato Thompson Has the Whole Essex Street Market to Play With for His Latest Show