Issues & Commentary: Tool Space

Interior of the Shed, New York, during the inaugural concert series “Soundtrack of America,” April 2019. Photo Iwan Baan.

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CONCEIVED FOR the impossible task of serving as an alibi, if not an apology, for the $25-billion development at New York’s Hudson Yards, the Shed, the 200,000-square-foot nonprofit art space that opened April 5, seems almost to invite disparagement. First, there’s the name: it’s presumably a reference to the site’s ongoing use as a railyard, but it nonetheless comes across as preposterously understated, as if the $475-million structure were something you could buy at Home Depot to store a lawnmower. Then there is its sliding-shell design, which makes the Shed look like a waffle-paneled wagon, or a down comforter at war with its packaging. According to lead architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who worked in conjunction with the Rockwell Group, structural adaptability is supposed to symbolize the building’s deference to artistic ambition and its capacity to accommodate new and different kinds of programming. But in effect it subsumes those possibilities to a gimmick. The retractable roof, whose visible mechanics are meant as another nostalgic gesture toward New York’s industrial past, is more directly reminiscent of contemporary sports arenas, which are too often extravagantly and controversially funded from city coffers.1 The eagerness of key participants—everyone from the architects to CEO and artistic director Alex Poots to Shed patron Jonathan Tisch to board chair Daniel Doctoroff—to tout the building’s “agility,” “adaptability,” and “flexibility” makes them sound like villains in a cartoon condemnation of neoliberalism.

It’s tempting to view the Shed’s absurdity as a deliberate strategy to forestall cynicism, a preemptive admission of its complicity in “art-washing” a luxury real estate development. Such an admission might open some interesting—even autocritical—creative options for the venue. But the debut round of programming offers little support for such an optimistic reading. Except for Trisha Donnelly’s installation of an uprooted and dissected tree in an otherwise lifeless and cavernous gallery [see exhibition review this issue], there was not much irony or skepticism on view in the Shed’s first weeks. The inaugural performances hewed to a curatorial approach that seems by turns pandering and self-congratulatory, using boldfaced names like Björk and Sia to bait audiences into checking out works they might otherwise regard as inaccessible.

When Shed officials talk about diversity, they mainly mean among types of art: “from hip hop to classical music, painting to digital media, theater to literature, and sculpture to dance” as the mission statement on its website declares. The organization seems to operate under the theory that abolishing distinctions between “high” and “low” would also dispense with differences between rich and poor. To get a representative audience and promote social harmony, you simply need to bring the devotees of different art forms together under the same retractable roof. Hence the opening slate of performances included “Soundtrack of America,” a series of concerts “celebrating the unrivaled impact of African American music on contemporary culture,” staged by artist/director Steve McQueen with input from producer Quincy Jones, among others. Also mounted during the kickoff was Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a theater piece written by poet and classics scholar Anne Carson, starring Ben Whishaw, whose roles have included everything from Hamlet to the voice of Paddington Bear. In May, the Shed hosted a lecture on civil disobedience by Boots Riley, director of the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, a dark comedy about a young black professional who faces a choice between a corporate career and labor activism. 

 

AT THE SHED’S press preview, Poots, who rose to fame producing interdisciplinary collaborations for the Manchester International Festival in the UK, stressed the organization’s commitment to “parity among art forms and therefore among audiences,” as if a taste for pop music rather than experimental theater were the key factor dividing the populace his institution has been created to serve, rather than the egregious degree of income disparity to which everything about Hudson Yards eloquently testifies. That’s not to say that genres of art can’t be read Bourdieu-style as proxies for social class, but a curatorial approach that complacently takes one for the other will fail to question why that relationship exists in the first place, let alone work to undo it. Instead, this approach will reinforce the idea that the appeal of certain kinds of art, alone or in the combinations favored by the Shed’s programmers (principally Emma Enderby and Tamara McCaw, curators, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic adviser), should be understood first and foremost as aspirational. What audiences are presumably supposed to get out of attending is vicarious participation in the status games of elites, bearing witness to their extensive potlatch-style expenditure on elaborate displays of “culture.”

The Shed thus fits perfectly with the surrounding luxury high-rises and posh stores and their ambiance of envy-inducing spectacle. Its policy of pricing seats like airline tickets, fluctuating according to demand, works toward this vision as well, implying that art has no intrinsic value by revealing who will pay what for it under certain circumstances. The policy also allows the Shed to calibrate the exclusivity of any particular event as it sees fit. The organization prices ten percent of tickets at $10 for members of low-income groups identified by select Manhattan community boards and tenant associations—somewhat akin to the four hundred “affordable” apartments among the four thousand units in Hudson Yards as a whole.

The idea seems to be that wealth and status can be considered inclusive if some token non-elites are allowed to gawk at those who enjoy such privileges. Accordingly, the main reason to go see art at the Shed is to vicariously participate in its spectacle of extravagance and exclusion. That seems an awkward way of fulfilling the Shed’s ambition to be “the new ritual space for the twenty-first century,” as art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann put it in a manifesto distributed last spring at “Prelude to the Shed,” a two-week festival teasing the program to come. Her treatise emphasizes the need for a contemporary site that can harmonize “individualized” and “collective” gatherings, and it makes much of intermingling visual art with performance, and actors with audience members, to overcome “the mentality of a dualist, anthropocentric, and colonizing Western modernity” and immerse everyone in “new modes of connectivity.”2

Bizarrely, von Hantelmann doesn’t associate new modes of connectivity with the internet; her text instead depends on another dualist tenet that sees online communication as derivative, disembodied, and inauthentic, a “surrogate” form of gathering that denies “shared participation.”3 Reinforcing that offline-online binary while calling for mashups of visual and performance art misses the kinds of hybridization that have already penetrated everyday life. This refusal to recognize online sociality as legitimate means that the Shed will inevitably develop a parochial idea of community, ignoring the sorts of rituals that actually bind the lives of the people the institution is ostensibly trying to include.

According to its mission statement, the Shed aims to foster “exciting, engaging experiences for our communities and our time.” With that goal, one would expect social media to be a decisive factor in what the venue chooses to present, given how integral online activity is to our current understanding of “engagement.” Reading the hype about the Shed during its construction, I assumed it would be a place where well-reputed artists would put the building’s vaunted configurability to use in making their own versions of the Museum of Ice Cream—elaborate photogenic installations that visitors engage with mainly through posing within them. That vision may yet come to pass, but for now, the Shed mostly cedes destination-art Instagrammability to its neighbor, the much-maligned Vessel, Thomas Heatherwick’s architectural folly in the form of a shimmering copper-toned honeycomb staircase. As far as ritual spaces for the twenty-first century go, the Shed can’t really compete with it. Though some have critiqued the Vessel for being pointless, what it asks of visitors is immediately obvious to everyone there: take a picture of yourself amid the giant stairs and post it to social media. It may not be profound, but this sort of ritual is familiar to virtually everyone, and it seamlessly knits the private and the public, the personal and the collective, the participatory and the spectatorial. And for better or worse, it does what von Hantelmann thinks a ritual space should: “celebrate, embody, and enact the foundational categories and values of a society”—which in our case revolve around mediated presence, promotional culture, the pursuit of bigness, and a unifying faith in technology.4    

But at a performance of Reich Richter Pärt, a multimedia musical event staged during the Shed’s first week, it was not entirely clear what audience members were supposed to do, let alone what the experience was supposed to affirm. As much as the Shed stresses how its reconfigurable space affords all kinds of opportunities for artists to try new things, the place seems to consign audiences to a single awkward, ambivalent mode of reception, caught between the sort of rapt attentiveness that one might experience as a truly discerning patron of the arts and the openly egotistical documentation of oneself doing something elite and exclusive.

The performance began with the audience milling around in a space so vast and “adaptable” that it resembles not so much a white cube as a vacated office-building floor waiting to be recubicalized. In the audience’s midst, the performers began to sing, which caused people to shuffle a bit, as if they were worried they might need to chase the action like in an immersive theater piece. But eventually they came to terms with the fact that the show was not centralized anywhere, that there was no special vantage point from which to capture it. Then they held out their phones and started filming, many sweeping panoramically to try to capture something of the scope and dynamism of the performance. But my own phone recording looks mostly like a bunch of other people standing around with their phones.

After this first part concluded, the audience was corralled into a second room, where we had to scramble for seating, either on the limited number of folding chairs or on the benches along the walls. It seemed to make sense to face the chamber music ensemble set up to play at one end of the room, but once the lights dimmed, the other end flared with a video projection of a Gerhard Richter painting transforming itself slowly and fractally into patterns in sync with Steve Reich’s minimalist score. Again, no one seemed sure where to look or what to do, but eventually we settled into filming portions of the dual presentation. I took pictures of the conductor in his spotlight.

Von Hantelmann would have us believe that something like Reich Richter Pärt can “create collectively shared experiences as well as individualized ones” better than social media, but the actual experience of being online makes such an accomplishment trivial. With a phone, anybody can participate in any number of shared spectacles at any given time; there is no shortage of live streams on YouTube and Twitch, no lack of life stories to click through on various platforms. If you want an immersive experience that is both collective and individualized, you can download a game like Fortnite and join the millions of players hanging out and socializing there, even as they fight to the death. If the Shed actually believed its own rhetoric, it would be an app.

The Shed’s implicit aim of fostering diversity through a special kind of presence convened in an art space partly depends on making a straw man out of social media. That’s not to say social media can supplant art, or that those platforms are not rife with other, far worse problems: polarizing populations, stoking contempt, and normalizing modes of surveillance and uneven distributions of vulnerability. But when the Shed mission statement talks about communities, it’s not addressing those issues. It’s referring to something conceived as being rare and nostalgic, glossed with a patina and fundamentally inaccessible without the intervention of cultural elites. The organic, hermetic community in which everyone instinctively knew their place may be gone, and the intricacies of urban life may have deprived the wealthy of a “ritual space” in which they can readily observe their supremacy in the midst of society’s underlings. But a physical space like the Shed can still allow select artists to perform a purifying rite, turning diverse representatives from various populations into a homogeneously grateful audience, thankful to dabble in the sort of aesthetic life experience that the likes of hedge fund billionaire and Shed patron Kenneth Griffin take for granted. The Shed’s actual—though unacknowledged—civic purpose is to remind non-elites that “real culture” isn’t a matter of genres or participatory audiences or community but what elites choose to sponsor (and what gets valued accordingly in art markets). Nothing about the Shed makes it clear why any of us should want to be part of a “communality” on those terms, provisionally included as second-class citizens at the behest of the institution’s megarich donors—people like Griffin, Tisch, Barry Diller, Michael Bloomberg, real estate developer Frank McCourt—and corporate sponsors (including “exclusive connectivity partner” Altice USA and “founding bank” M&T). The structure even seems to begrudge us the photo ops we might seize upon to announce to our actual online communities our willingness to play along with the aspirational fantasies at Hudson Yards, where we might pose amid all the marble cladding and luxury boutiques. 

It would be absurd, of course, to expect any art world institution to establish itself as self-abolishing. The Shed was never going to be truly democratic or inclusive. But still it might have aimed at something that actually would have befitted the “twenty-first century artists and audiences” it hopes to address, something that transcended the idea that a “real art experience” should be defined in opposition to mediated experience and audience self-documentation. It might have acknowledged instead that the community it aspires to convene is already distributed across screens and will never be concentrated only within its movable walls.