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Generating the Future



A conversation between Nicola Lees, Robert Rosenkranz and Chrissie Iles previewing the major exhibition Mountain / Time, which brings together works from two of the most significant collections of time-based media to explore themes inspired by the mountains of Colorado.
The large-scale exhibition “Mountain/ Time” brings together recent, time-based media installations in a dialogue around themes inspired by the Colorado mountains. Occupying all the galleries of the Aspen Art Museum, this ambitious show includes many key contemporary works in video by some of the most important artists working today. On the occasion of the exhibition, the museum’s director, Nicola Lees, and the curator of the exhibition, Chrissie Iles, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, talked with Robert Rosenkranz, a trustee of the Whitney Museum and a collector of video art, many of whose works are featured in the show alongside pieces from the Whitney’s collection. The conversation explores the ideas around the exhibition, and what it means to collect time-based media artworks.
NICOLA LEES (NL)
I’d like to begin by asking you, Robert, about when you started your collection of video works. And also, if you could expand on your connection to Chrissie and the Whitney.

ROBERT ROSENKRANZ (RR)
I actually got started not by seeing video art in museums, but by seeing it in private collections in particular, the collections of the Kramlichs in Napa Valley, and Jill and Peter Kraus in northern Westchester. This more conducive environment really got me hooked on the immersive quality of this kind of work and the way it repays the time it takes to truly engage with it.
Chrissie and I became friends a number of years ago and she has been a big help in developing my collection. Then, quite separately, a year or two after we met, I was asked to join the Whitney board and this has given me the opportunity to see things from the standpoint of the museum’s collection as well. I’ve been on the board for about three or four years now, and I’ve been working on my own collection for maybe five or six years.

NL It’s still relatively unusual to have such an in-depth and focused collection of time-based media. Chrissie, you’ve done a great deal to build up the collection at the Whitney over the last decade or so.

CHRISSIE ILES (CI)
Yes; American artists have produced an extraordinary depth, range and quality of work in time since the 1960s, and even earlier. When I came to the Whitney, I wanted to build our collection to reflect this, and we now have over 800 works, including both historical and contemporary, which allow us to reflect the unprecedented intergenerational nature of the dialogue that’s taking place between artists right now.
The moving image is a powerful medium for storytelling. Gathering people together in an environment where you can spend time, listen and commune is something that time-based media does extremely well, and the works in “Mountain/ Time” all do that.

NL Storytelling is integral to the medium. I was also struck that a lot of the works in Robert’s collection have a strong connection to music. Recently, I was reading an article about Stan Douglas, in which he said that as time-based media, music and film both provide a model of how people spend time together. I wonder, Robert, how you feel about this idea of a shared experience?

RR Music is a very important element in many of the works in my collection. I think, fundamentally, what’s appealing to me about this art form is that it is creating an immersive experience that you don’t typically get in a museum context. And music is part of that. In museums, you’re supposed to be quiet. If work is too narrative, that generally doesn’t appeal to me; I’m interested in art that does something different to cinema.
NL Many works in this exhibition make reference to the archive, such as Kahlil Joseph’s video installation BLKNWS (2019) and Arthur Jafa’s akingdomcomethas (2018), which both cull from found material on the Internet. We’ve been talking about how the archive can tell a story in a very different way to more traditional cinema.

CI Archives are very relevant for artists; research is a key part of their practice, and some artists, like Jafa and Kandis Williams, create archives of their own, which generates material for their work through montage and collage, allowing them to reconstruct different histories and depict the world from new perspectives.
This is why the context of the Roaring Fork Valley is so important for the exhibition. So many of the works in the show use archival material in some shape or form. When I was researching the exhibition with Anisa Jackson and Simone Krug, the importance of the mountains as a site for the show became clear to us; the mountain is an archive, holding the story of its own making deep within its stratifications. A sense of the archive as a tool for generating the future lies at the heart of many of the works in the show.

NL Chrissie, could you elaborate on how you’re working with artists to create archives for their works at the Whitney?

CI One of the qualities of time-based media is its fluidity and flexibility, which is both its strength and its vulnerability. It relies on technology to be presented, and technology changes very quickly. We can’t presume that what we understand to be a screen now will be a screen in 50 years’ time or even ten years’ time. Because technology is changing constantly, and because the ways a projection can be shown can vary so much, it’s very important to work with the artist to record how the piece should and should not be installed, and what the artist’s concept is, to protect the experiential integrity of the work. At the Whitney, we’ve created a Media Preservation Network or MPN. We have developed a special digital space that can hold extensive information about a work in the collection, which standard museum systems cannot do. This includes videos and photographic records of the work installed, interviews with the artist, scholarly research and practical details. As most video works are editioned, we are also reaching out to all the other owners of the edition, so that they can access this material and add their own, creating a network of care across institutions all over the world. In decades and centuries to come, curators and conservators will rely on this material to be able to understand the work and how it should be shown. For example, Ian Cheng has said that BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018-19) could be a hologram in the future; we would never have known that important detail had we not recorded an in-depth conversation with the artist, to which all the other owners of the piece will also have access.
NL Robert, how do you, as an individual, approach this idea of the network, sharing information, and working with other collections?

RR Time-based media is a difficult area for private collecting because it does demand space, time, technological sophistication, and a real commitment. There are a handful of people around the world who are top collectors. We all know each other, we all like each other and we all feel like we’re engaged in a common pursuit. Because the works are in editions, we never feel competitive; we feel collegial. The curators who are interested in this area globally also know each other. So, it’s a pretty tight community that functions, generally, very happily and productively together.
Also, in terms of sharing, as a collector, I’m very open to showing works in museum collections. These works are easy to lend. But it’s something special to be part of this project at the Aspen Art Museum, where the entire museum is devoted to film and video. I think that’s so courageous and new because to engage with this kind of art, you need a different mindset.
People come to museums with the idea that they’re going to be quiet, they’re going to walk through a gallery, see 15 paintings or objects and give 15 or 20 seconds to each one. Now, people have no trouble with engaging with art that takes time-they to go to the theater, ballet, opera and concerts. The problem is not people’s attention span or receptiveness, it’s the expectations that are set up in a particular context. And in a typical museum context expectations are such that you don’t do that. But the expectation that you are setting up in Aspen, by devoting the whole museum to it, is that you will take the necessary time. I really think that this is a very effective, bold and important move for the medium.

CI I completely agree with Robert. What’s wonderful in having the opportunity to curate this exhibition across the whole building is that the emotive quality that Robert described can be unfolded, work by work, and they can be brought into dialogue with each other in a way that draws out different aspects of the work. This is exciting for the artists too, because they can see their work in a new context.
The relationship between the works and the site also becomes very interesting: it is highly unusual to see a major show of moving-image installations in the mountains; they are always experienced in an urban context, where we are surrounded by the distractions of the city. Devoting the entire museum to this show, and in such a remote and contemplative environment, is something different and exciting.

NL We were talking earlier about your research around the Aspen tree root system, Chrissie. How does that resonate through the exhibition?

CI As part of our research, Anisa and I went to ACES, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and talked to the staff there about the environment of Aspen and the Pando root system, which is arguably the world’s largest single living organism. Although each Aspen tree lives to approximately 100 years or less, the root system has evolved since the Ice Age, and has a rhizomatic structure, meaning it has both roots and shoots, and has no beginning, end or center.
“Rhizome” is also a philosophical term, used to describe a trans-dimensional structure of relationships and connectivity-it can be entered from many different points, all of which connect to each other. So, the Pando root system’s non-linear structure is a great model for how we experience the non-linear ways in which time operates in the works in the show.
RR I come to “Mountain/ Time” with a background in collecting Chinese ink painting. In this genre, for hundreds of years, the mountains were depicted as places of contemplation. This idea that the mountains are a place where you can be more thoughtful, slow down and look at things from a broader perspective than you might in a more urban environment, is almost universal. And this was expressed so vividly by the founders of contemporary Aspen. This place really embodies the idea of the mountains as a place for elevated pursuits, contemplation, taking time away from daily routines and engaging in meaningful and purposeful leisure activities. And that, to me, is also part of the appeal of more immersive art. It’s an invitation to do something different to take some time to regroup psychologically or intellectually, to encounter something, visually and experientially, that becomes a real memory, a real experience that changes you in some way.

NL Which leads me to ask you how The Art Barn came into existence-it’s so atypical to encounter a place like this, let alone in a context like Aspen.

RR Well, it was really quite serendipitous. The house next door to ours in Aspen was on the market, so we decided to buy it and use the land to build something new. The site was complex but hugely rewarding because it was sloping in two different directions and had phenomenal views. This was such an exciting opportunity for me as I’ve been a very keen architecture buff for many years; I’m on the advisory board of the Yale School of Architecture and I have a lot of architects among my circle of friends and acquaintances. The Art Barn was intended as a place where we could host dinners and have some dedicated galleries for video art where our friends and colleagues could experience these works in the relaxed and comfortable way, I think the artists intended. That was the way that I was introduced to video as a medium, and that’s what got me excited. And it’s been very, very satisfying to see the number of visitors that have come over the years really open their eyes to an art form they barely knew existed or which was at the periphery of their attention and, suddenly, have these transformative experiences.

NL I very much look forward to us all spending more time there this summer.
Nicola Lees is Nancy and Bob Magoon Director of the Aspen Art Museum;
Chrissie Iles is Anne & Joel Ehrenjranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
Robert Rosenkranz is a financier whose philanthropic initiatives include Intelligence Squared US debates and Vision Factory, a cultural institution for video and experiential art.
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