As curator of public art at both the High Line, a public park in Chelsea, and the Frieze New York art fair, Cecilia Alemani is one of the city’s leading commissioners of public art.
Alemani is the Donald R. Mullen, Jr Curator of the High Line, the newish public park in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, embedded in a neglected elevated rail line. The High Line has commissioned ambitious public art programs, including, most recently, billboards by Anne Collier. Among the High Line’s opportunities for the presentation of contemporary art are a 25-by-75-foot billboard at 18th Street and 10th Avenue, and a building on 22nd Street, where they project films.
Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2, 2009. Photo by Friends of the High Line, Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York, NY; Corvi Mora, London, UK; Marc Foxx, Los Angeles, California
Born in Italy, Alemani moved to the U.S. to pursue a Masters in Curatorial Studies from Bard College. Her last major project in New York was X Initiative, a nonprofit space in the former DIA building that featured 12 months of exhibitions and events.
NICHOLAS WEIST Cecilia, what really gets you going about working on the High Line?
CECILIA ALEMANI We have fantastic neighbors. There are all the galleries in Chelsea, and soon we’ll have the Whitney and a new institution that’s going to open up at the end of the High Line called the Culture Shed. I always like to say that the High Line is the bridge above Chelsea, and we can create an opportunity for people to interact with Chelsea to make them more familiar with our art community. Our general audience might be intimidated by private galleries, but the High Line can ease those tensions.
WEIST Just a few moments up on the High Line will tell you that the crowd is not restricted to the typical contemporary art audience. Does this affect the work you select?
ALEMANI Oh, I think about audience every day! At X Initiative, we had a very focused art audience-but on the High Line we have four million people a year, and out of those four million people a tiny, tiny bit are art people. And the High Line itself is not primarily an art institution, which has been a great learning experience. Overall, I think with the High Line art program, some pieces are more accessible, and others are less so but could be explained.
The Spencer Finch work The River That Flows Both Ways [an installation of 700 uniquely colored panes of glass in the original mullions of an existing semi-enclosed tunnel] that has been on the High Line for a number of years now is a perfect example. Although it’s the most beloved piece on the High Line, it comes out of very complex research: each color is drawn from an individual photograph of the Hudson River. Once you read the caption you get an entirely new meaning for the piece. That doesn’t mean that the public, the general audience, or even myself, cannot appreciate it, to the fullest, from any angle.
WEIST Are there any other challenges to producing work on the High Line?
ALEMANI I guess the main challenge is the weather, and to be able to create an artwork that can relate to its surroundings in a way that is interesting. Right now I’m working on a group show that will open in May and include lots of international artists that have never been to the High Line. It’s really hard to explain that of course it’s a park and all parks change, but the High Line changes so dramatically through the season. Sometimes you might have a bit of snow and other times a piece might be covered by a tree. While that is a challenge, it’s also the most interesting aspect of exhibiting an artwork on the High Line. Our exhibition space is fused within the surrounding landscape. So far the artists have been very excited, and have made pieces that can relate to these ideas.
WEIST The High Line has worked with individuals who are pretty well known within the art world.
ALEMANI The program will have emerging, midcareer, established and overlooked artists. The billboard itself, out of all the projects that I’m supervising, is the hardest—because it’s huge and it’s a very weird format. It’s not just a square, for instance. I think that John Baldessari was a great example of someone who came up with a project that was size-specific. The size and the scale were perfect. The next artist will be David Shrigley, then hopefully someone much less known.
WEIST Tell me about the current billboard project, by Anne Collier.
ALEMANI The billboard shows a photograph she took a couple of years ago, of a developing tray (the kind a photo lab might use). Inside the developing tray there is a black-and-white photograph submerged in liquid. So what you see is basically a square with a picture inside. The picture itself depicts an eye, so the billboard is like a big black-and-white eye staring at you, but if you read about the piece you can also find out that it is the artist’s eye. It stares at you while you walk up the High Line, and also if you’re down on the street.
Collier has always been interested in analog photography and the meaning of vision. Very often in her work you can see images of her with a camera, or other photographs, or photographers taking photographs. Then of course I think the piece also has to do with voyeurism. It’s uncomfortable to look at it because it really looks back at you. You can start to get paranoid! I always like to say that it’s like Big Brother or Big Sister watching you.
WEIST What happens when Collier’s interest in meta-photography is transposed onto such a large-scale, bizarre format?
ALEMANI I thought it would be interesting to show a fantastic photographer, like Anne is, who does not take landscape pictures, to show our audience some new ideas within the field of photography.
WEIST And the other program that is currently being shown?
ALEMANI We invited Jennifer West to be the second artist featured in High Line Channel, the video program that we launched in December with work by Gordon Matta-Clark. Jennifer West is an artist from California who has been making films without a camera.
She uses two procedures. Sometimes she takes found celluloid film, which has been developed and already has images on it, and she performs actions on the film. Like pouring coffee on it. Other times she takes an undeveloped strip and makes a cameraless film by acting on the strip. That is in the case with Rainbow Party (2011), which she made with lipstick. Then she transfers each of these films to DVD.
The one we have showing now is a very beautiful image of a moon. Next week we’re going to show her surfer film. She found some film with images of surfers on it, and she asked a few people to attach the film to their boards and go surfing, then she recovered the film. What you will see is a very abstract image, although sometimes you will recognize something.
WEIST What do people think the High Line Channel so far?
ALEMANI As soon as you show a moving image, people immediately stop and watch it. Of course we don’t show feature films or movies because we can’t show films with sound. So they will always be very . . . not necessarily abstract, but you don’t have to see them from beginning to end. It’s been interesting that although the High Line closes at seven, the program goes until 10. The projection is very visible from 22nd Street: we like the idea of also bringing it down to street level as well.
Now we’re screening a film that evokes the moon, and it’s very poetic and beautiful. People interact just by watching it. But we’re going to hold a performance with Jennifer wherein she’ll actually make a film. The performances are very participatory: the audience will participate in the making of the film.
WEIST What’s next for the High Line?
ALEMANI We’ve invited artist Lisa Oppenheim, a great filmmaker and photographer, to curate films. They will be playing during the Armory Show in March.