In 2005, Fia Backström organized lesser new york, coinciding with the second iteration of Greater New York, MoMA/PS1’s survey of regional contemporary art. Displayed in her apartment as “a fia backström production,” lesser new york was part exhibition, part artwork, and part response to the P.S.1 show.
In his foreword to Greater New York 2005, Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA, singled out the effect of “the dramatic expansion of the art market” on the curator’s process: “[in] many ways the five years between these exhibitions has seen both a physical and metaphorical reconfiguring of the topography of the New York art world, with the advent of a new generation of dealers and collectors paralleling that of the artists. Where in 2000 it was possible to do an exhibition like Greater New York by primarily limiting our field of vision to artists who had not yet received serious or extensive attention, this was impossible in 2005.”
This was the context of Backström’s lesser new york: a moment in which it could be argued that the influence of dealers and collectors had made it impossible for a museum to find enough artists who were interesting but had not yet received serious or extensive attention.
Rather than concede this point, Backström reoriented the question of market-driven attention away from the “who” and towards the “what,” pointing out that the market, and by extension, exhibitions conditioned by it, had not given serious or extensive attention to certain kinds of works, specifically printed ephemera. Backström devised a hanging system for ephemera from eighteen local artists, curators, writers, teachers, publishers, and galleries, along with her own printed matter which, as she wrote in the press release, had been made “not necessarily as pieces nor to be sold…items that may have fallen through the cracks…work which may not be defined as work and which sometimes leaves no trace behind—Invisible New York.” The works included scans, photocopies, screen grabs, and posters that Backström patterned on her apartment walls in forms that recalled the visual density of historical artists’ salons, but also the geometric expressions of concrete poetry, and the windowed, scrollable columns of digital publishing. Prefiguring several later works such as That Social Space between Speaking and Meaning (2008), the installation was legible as a multiplication of both commercial and communist display techniques: the department store window and the public reading board.
A decade later, Backström has chosen to re-address some of the salient questions of authorship, ephemerality, and collectivity raised by lesser new york through a different work, The Worker Through the Ages (2010). Originally a site-specific commission in Sweden’s Moderna Museet, The Worker Through the Ages (2010) involved a multi-part installation and performance. Backström covered a gallery wall with graphic wallpaper featuring images of laboring hands extracted from digital images. Nearby were several pine shelves, along with a dolly loaded with works of art related to labor from the museum’s collection, and digitally printed fabric with pasted snippets from an historically significant Swedish labor agreement from the 30s. During a performance in front of the wall, Backström, the museum’s curator, and a seamstress read from a prepared script. The curator directed museum workers to attach the shelves to the wallpapered background and hang the works on them, while the seamstress stitched cushion covers from the fabric to be used as seating in the finished installation.
At The Artist’s Institute, Backström has repurposed the work’s original hanging structure—the same wallpaper and wooden shelves—while filling it with new content: printed matter concerning the collective working processes of several contemporary New York-based artists, including members of CAGE, Elizabeth Orr and Emma Hedditch, and Radio Al Cabira.
In a recent conversation with the Institute’s curatorial staff, transcribed below, Backström discussed the connections between the works and her shifting role as their author.
Jenny Jaskey: Both your repurposed version of The Worker Through the Ages (2010) at The Artist’s Institute, as well as lesser new york (2005) at MoMA/P.S.1 incorporate ephemera from peers with whom you’ve shared an artistic dialogue. One key difference between the two is that lesser new york is comprised of ephemera whose authorship is, for the most part, attributable to single artists, while for our installation you’ve chosen pieces that thematize the conditions of artists’ collective work. You mentioned earlier that this difference reflects an ethical shift that took place between 2005 and 2015 in how you approach artistic production.
Fia Backström: Both address forms of art making that are based in exchange, but yes, for The Worker Through the Ages, the selected works are deeply collaborative and the conditions for working together are dealt with self-reflexively, raising questions of who gets to make decisions, how these decisions are valorized, and the forms of visibility involved. Whereas with the ephemera in lesser new york, many of the proposed subject positions come from a market structure, such as invented gallerists and curators.
JJ: So the two installations reflect a shift in the way that artists, including you, think about value production.
FB: The works included in The Worker Through the Ages at The Artist’s Institute all share the belief that to create change we need to reconsider how value is produced. CAGE’s utility bills printed on gold leaf, for example, were intended to be sold in the art market to generate income to cover the infrastructural costs they depict, including CAGE’s water, electricity, insurance, and telephone bills. This work came out of quite complex ideas and discussions about conditions of economy and collaboration. Emma Hedditch and Elizabeth Orr’s poster also raises very specific concerns about how to work together, such as how we work out how to communicate with each other. lesser new york was also an attempt, a different one, to think about value in another way. In Greater New York at that time, in 2005, most artworks were made for gallery display. If you analyzed the list of artists in the show, you could discern an even distribution among some galleries. This is not an uncommon way to balance production budgets, but it also has ideological effects that shape histories; it erases artists who for various reasons are not represented by galleries, and it overlooks art-making operations that are not registered in singular objects.
The ephemera here at The Artist’s Institute directly addresses attempts to create value beyond established forms of authoring, such as through social and ethical choices like trust. The ephemera in lesser new york are often traces from events for other discrete artworks — such as, for example, Josh Smith’s exhibition posters. In his practice, poster production exists alongside paintings and he reconsiders the hierarchy between the two mediums. So while in one sense, Josh destabilizes how we think about value as it relates to the medium an artist uses, he still operates as a singular artist when it comes to authorship.
JJ: What about your relationship to the ethics of collaboration? In lesser new york and in the installation here, you take all of these other artists’ works and then make a meta-work out of all of them.
FB: I knew this was going to come up.
JJ: [Laughter] Yes, we have to address it. One could argue, though it seems far from your intention, that you are cannibalizing everybody else’s work—all of those networks that you’ve built—for your own benefit as an artist.
FB: One could say that. But to consider the question of the meta-author, I am thinking of lesser new york as an object onto itself, where the logic of display was my contribution. This logic came out of certain concerns about the display of text in space, reading practices, and a resistance to the lounge in relational aesthetics. Everything needs to have a form, and no form is neutral. The ephemera could have been displayed in vitrines in the gallery, but that is an established institutional historical form, carrying its own meaning. We could have had collective meetings to decide on a common form or individual ones, but we were not organized as a group, and had we been, that would have been another work.
This morning, when Carissa [Rodriguez] couldn’t find the file for her poster, she proposed to put up two of the glued, ripped posters from the first iteration of the show as a document. My response was that it couldn’t be done, since lesser new york is an object with a definite form. I was interested in devising a system for hanging in which the visual logic exists between display windows featuring seductive, decorative, repetitive, mirrored patterns and that of a communist newspaper pasted to the wall, requiring readers to stand and read together with effort. So the work attempts to stimulate a commodity-desiring gaze that would lure the body into activating the walls and generate a collective reading experience.
In lesser new york, by considering reception, I was trying to propose a shift in the hierarchy of art production by orchestrating how ephemera operates in exhibitions. To do that, I needed ephemera. So content operates on several layers in this work—there is the ephemera itself, but the structure of the hanging is also the content of the work, a work that parasites on the ephemera that it contains.
A.E. Benenson: Is your role as what you call a meta-author the same in both exhibitions?
FB: In lesser new york I devised a specific structure for hanging in relation to what I wanted to address, which entailed some homogenizing ‘violence’ on the material. For this show I have restructured an existing work, The Worker Through the Ages, which was a performance-installation consisting of a display structure to hang specific works from the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm. It seemed a fitting piece to use, since this work and the ephemera both address conditions of labor.
AEB: By appropriating an existing work, are you somehow changing your role as a meta-author?
FB: Yes, here at The Artist’s Institute, instead of adjusting the contributors’ work, I am adjusting or doing violence to an older artwork of mine.
JJ: For both installations you involved artists in a dialogue about what it meant to use their works and how. There was an ethics to what you were doing from the beginning.
FB: Not only artists—curators, writers and educators too. In lesser new york there was a clear way that I took authorship over the structure, a way that was close to the strategy I later developed of lifting artworks of others into my own work. When I lifted things, the concern was to never lift from an artist whose work was not defined yet, because then it would be vulnerable to re-contextualization. Everyone that was part of lesser new york were becoming defined, if nascent authorships based in proper names and exhibition making. On the other hand, many who were part of CAGE don’t work in proper-name authorships, either by choice or because they haven’t been given access to these structures of visibility. Also, CAGE is a fluid group—it’s not really clear who has been part of making the golden bills displayed here. This, together with the questions Emma Hedditch and Elizabeth Orr’s poster raise about how we decide to work together, is why devising a top authoring structure is not the way I would like to approach the work here at The Artist’s Institute. When I repurpose an existing structure rather than a hierarchical relationship, several things meet that all have histories, and in being next to each other they negotiate each others’ presence with no perfect fits. There’s something softer in this approach. In lesser new york, items are hung with mass-produced repeatability in mind, whereas in The Artist’s Institute, works are treated as unique and have a different relationship to aura.
JJ: Is the installation here considered an artwork?
FB: I don’t think it is an artwork onto itself, but rather a structure of another work that has been repurposed and has new objects hung with it. The strategy of repurposing an older work for new use interests me. It’s more intimate than a vitrine. The structure is listed on the checklist as a severed work along with all the individual pieces, while for lesser new york, even the labeling system was part of its visual program.
JJ: It would not be a charitable read, but I’m still not convinced that someone couldn’t say that you’re producing value for yourself by visualizing your social network.
FB: Of course one can interpret it that way. The question is what kind of value; commodity value, historical value, social value? Value to be realized how and by whom? For example, compared to many lesser new york participants, I have never had gallery representation. We always create value through whatever we do, which is a layered production that travels in multiple directions, even here. Yes, there is a social network or an extended community, but the social side of the network is also part of the material for my work. I couldn’t work if I couldn’t work with my social network.
JJ: That’s interesting. It seems you’ve become more self-reflexive about the network and how it’s used as you’ve developed your practice. The Worker Through the Ages reflects on itself and the way it produces value, who is involved and to what ends. In a way that wasn’t as true with lesser new york.
FB: Well, I think another difference is that the investigation shifted into looking for new forms of production enabled by both networks and intimate connections. Rather than operating as a top author with existing material, I have immersed myself in these structures. Speaking of social networks, I think it’s interesting that in 2005 Facebook hardly existed. Nobody I knew had an account then. So, lesser new york can be seen as a very analog proto map of what’s happening on everyone’s ‘walls’ now.
JJ: I’d be remiss not to implicate The Artist’s Institute in relation to authorship. We too offer another layer of meaning, another ‘wallpaper’ underneath yours. How do you relate to the discussion that’s been taking place over the past five or six years on the network mentality in art; for example, in David Joselit’s After Art or Michael Sanchez’s recent writing for Artforum?
FB: Joselit writes about Ai Weiwei’s networked practice, which has incredible access to power. I am interested in a kind of “queering” of a social network, if you will, or in the threshold between a network and intimate connections, and the conditions that those different scales generate.
JJ: What does it mean to queer a network?
FB: Visibility is usually not a question in relation to social networks—it’s 100% visibility 24/7. Visibility is twofold: on the one hand, it is important to counter exclusion, but as you pointed out, it also builds value in a capitalist way. Here at The Artist’s Institute the networks, or rather the intimate connections, that these works point to operate through very different parameters, such as limited access to power and visibility by choice or exclusion. Working in these groups opened up all involved to transversal processes as a form of institutional therapy. CAGE was a semi-closed structure that allowed the creation of a very special space of experimentation.
JJ: Does that thinking about visibility have something to do with the period when you dropped out of the art world; or rather, when you redirected your energies towards other ways of being an artist? When did that happen?
FB: It started in 2011 and I’m not sure it’s over. Like you said, it was never about dropping out or a 100% withdrawal, it was rather a way to rethink my engagement.
JJ: Why did that feel important to do?
FB: It was necessary for me for a number of reasons. When I came home from the Venice Biennial in 2011, a lot of my ideas about art and politics had gotten debunked and I felt disillusioned. I was trying to buy a house so I would be able to stay in New York, and I had to teach in five, six schools to get the mortgage. I also stopped taking psychotropic medication, which reoriented my emotional and cognitive relationship to the world. Then Occupy happened, which presented me with new ways of building trust and engaging with people. For all these political, economical, emotional, and creative reasons, I decided to reevaluate my engagement with art and art production.
JJ: It seems like a great time to be working together, then. You’ve brought some former students here for workshops. Is teaching also part of this reengagement?
FB: Yes, absolutely! Pedagogy is of course about the terms on which we come together to learn and produce knowledge, but maybe we save that for another discussion.