Last week it was announced that longtime New York art scene denizen Tim Griffin would lead The Industry, serving as executive director for the Los Angeles producer of experimental opera. Griffin is a contributing editor at Artforum, where he served as editor-in-chief from 2003 to 2010, before heading to The Kitchen, the influential experimental space in New York where he served as director and chief curator for nine years.
Observer recently took some time with Griffin to hear about his new job.
What drew you to The Industry?
On a personal note, there were so many points of connection, people who I’m familiar with at the organization across many disciplines, from visual artists to composers to folks involved in choreography who had collaborated with The Kitchen. That interdisciplinarity became a point of attraction, not only in terms of the art but also in terms of the communities I have histories with. More broadly, the artistic team, beginning with Yuval, is inspiring reinvention—and moving past many misperceptions of—the art form of opera, which can intersect disciplines and communities quite radically. They staged an opera in Union Station and in a limo! Their next production, by Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, takes place in an observatory. That’s a unique opportunity.
Obviously The Kitchen does performance, but this job has more of an emphasis on performance than you have tended to have before. How do you feel about that sort of transition?
It’s funny, because I remember many conversations I had when I first went to The Kitchen about how performance should not be considered apart from “visual art”—and this was even while performance was already appearing more regularly in what had been traditionally considered a visual art context. These things are distinct, but the separation does not necessarily make sense. Certainly, historically, if you go back even to the beginnings of modernism, those sorts of boundaries were not respected. Today, you might be talking more meaningfully about a distance between audiences than between kinds of artwork.
As far as my own transition goes, I think at The Industry my background of working with artists across disciplines and bringing them together—and bringing their communities together—remains a real focal point. At the same time, I think that helping to make the art world more cognizant of the interdisciplinarity, and the incredible model that The Industry has created, by using opera as a sharp lens for the kind of interdisciplinarity that we’ve been seeing in the art world for the past decade or more, is going to be a real dimension for this moving forward.
In other words, it might seem like a transition for me, but ideally The Industry continues propelling transition for the art world as well, insofar as we all get to collectively look at how these mediums and disciplines have really changed relationships.
I think about a decade ago when a lot of reporters, myself included, had to write stories about how this was the moment of performance in the art world because the Tate Modern was opening their performance center and Performa was really gaining traction. We’re transitioning to an interesting moment, too, where Instagram’s dominance is fading and giving way to TikTok. In your experience at The Kitchen, how have you seen performance change in the last decade? In terms of how it’s made, how people consume it and people’s attitudes towards it?
Wow, that’s both a huge and small and very specific question.
Answer any part of it that you want to. Maybe just the smallest part.
I think, ten plus years ago, there was a concern that performance was being put in the white cube without taking the white cube into account… that in fact different architectures were wanted for what was a changing relationship between your performance and your static art.
And so you started to see institutions try to navigate that—recently at the Studio at MoMA, for example—with an inherent, nuanced flexibility to the architecture itself to accommodate real changes and developments happening in the artistic field, charged by artists. This shift might even begin to shape what an audience is, what a public is, what a collectivity is. The way people gather around your works and create kinds of collectivities based on the mode of artistic address is something that institutions are having to grapple with when it comes to what artists are trying to do now and what audiences are seeking out.
But the change extends out past walls, too. For example, there are all kinds of interesting manifestations of performance designed to be distributed through cameras. So you might be seeing something in a physical space, but the work anticipates a continuing existence—maybe through streaming platforms, for example—and reflects an awareness that there are these other modes of attention and other kinds of accessibility.
To come back to The Industry and opera, we can see historical precedents. For example, Robert Ashley, who was involved with The Kitchen, did a TV opera in the early 80s. Go back more than a hundred years and you have all kinds of avant-gardists seeking to use other platforms for their work, going back to radio or Futurist operas.
One of the things that really drew me to The Industry is that opera is an amazing meeting place for all these different disciplines and different communities. It allows artists and audiences, as so many new developing platforms do, to change your ideas about performance. The organization has been already dealing with this. They’re using the civic landscape of Los Angeles as a backdrop or as a site. You’re having distribution of the music through other technologies. Going past and beyond the physical limits of a performance in person is something that is really futuristic, despite this being a historic medium. And I think if you look at its institutional flexibility, it offers a real path forward for anyone working in the arts.
Yeah, that was a monster question. Thank you for giving it that thought. I hear what you’re saying about responsiveness to the audience and drawing them into it. I’m curious about your thoughts about Los Angeles’s development as a cultural capital in the last few years. What do you make of it and how have you seen that yourself?
For me, LA has always been the place where the ideas and new models come from. For art, music, and performance, the whole school network here has an incredible history—it’s incredibly fertile ground. So many of my nearest and dearest were based here, in that respect, from Baldessari to Sylvère Lotringer. And lately you’ve added this international profile, with more galleries. There’s a sense of momentum here. I’m new to the city, but one senses there’s a great opportunity for the grassroots and hothouse culture of Los Angeles to grow.
Many people have also expressed that there’s an interest in Los Angeles in finding ways, on an institutional level, of bringing different aspects of the creative culture here together. The music community is incredible. The artistic community is incredible. The film community is incredible. The dance community is incredible. There are so many different cultures here. But the question is: how do you actually bring all these amazing people together? How do you create cross fertilizations in Los Angeles? I think having a flexible model at The Industry, and in this interdisciplinary art form of opera, actually has the capacity to bring all these rarely crossing groups together. There’s been a sort of liminal possibility that is going to find its moment, not only with The Industry but in general.
Opera is the perfect medium for that. Last question, which we can sidestep if you want, but I do want to ask about the current landscape of the art world’s media. It’s in a unique moment.
The arts are always going to need platforms where people can talk to each other and begin to make a kind of sense of what’s happening, so that you can have a feeling, right or wrong, that there’s a context and that you are part of a conversation. You need dialogues in which people have a sense of belonging and a sense of stakes. And I think right now there’s still a whole lot of room for that to happen.
Over the decades, there’s going to be some ebb and flow in terms of the number of platforms and the kinds of interest and the kinds of conversations that happen. But I do feel that there’s a hunger for it—a hunger for writing and a hunger for dialogue that has only grown in recent years. And it’s funny, when I first landed in Los Angeles, I ended up giving guest lectures at UCLA and it was really striking to me how you have 18-year-olds hungry to dive into critical writing. They wanted to read Frantz Fanon; they really wanted to dig in.
So wherever things are right now, I wouldn’t be shocked if there was another generation coming up that ended up expanding on the platforms that we see now. Different generations have different reading habits and different attention spans, and these things grow and they expand and contract and you don’t see the same kinds of essays written at any one point. But then again, a hundred-odd years ago, the aphorism ruled the land, right? I think that inevitably there are going to be kinds of writing and kinds of connection, and sometimes they won’t always use words. It might be in images that are sort of telegraphic that you communicate. It might be another kind of language that isn’t necessarily text based.
And then there are other kinds of writing that can still be impactful. You might see things that don’t function in magazines, but function on other platforms. And I’m not talking about social media. Writing genres arise in dialogue with different cultural moments.
Totally. People want a shared universe to discuss these ideas, whatever it looks like. There’s always going to be that.
Thinking out loud, maybe another way to consider media is through the model of all the alternative art spaces that have had continuous roles for decades. I do think in the past fifteen or twenty years, when there were all kinds of new transitions happening in art, such spaces assumed a critical importance that helped grow alternative models and new ways of thinking about and collecting or collectivizing around art. And that could happen in the critical presses as well. That alternative model that happened in spaces is, I think, happening in art dialogues right now.