Tobi Maier (TM) was the 2011 Curatorial Resident at Ludlow 38. He spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in February 2020 from Lisbon.
SD: Tobi, you’ve been involved in the Ludlow 38 program in different capacities. In these conversations we are primarily focusing on the curatorial residency angle. Before the start of the residency program, you were already several years at Ludlow 38, as the person on the ground working with the German Kunstvereine that programmed the space as a kind of satellite location.
TM: Yes, I arrived in September 2008, shortly after the financial crash. Obama was elected a few months after and there was a sense of optimism and national exuberance. In terms of galleries on the Lower East Side—Orchard, which was one of the first galleries in the area, along with Reena Spaulings and Miguel Abreu, had just closed. There was little else, but the neighborhood became crowded with galleries within a few years. Ludlow 38 opened in February 2008, and was conceived by Goethe-Institut director Stephan Wackwitz together with Stefan Kalmár and Daniel Pies of Kunstverein München as a downtown satellite of the Goethe-Institut New York. At the time, the institute was located in a townhouse uptown, opposite the Metropolitan Museum. During the first three years Kunstverein München, European Kunsthalle Cologne, and Künstlerhaus Stuttgart presented projects at Ludlow 38, which then had an iconic interior design by Liam Gillick and Ethan Breckenridge (who also created the graphic identity for the space).
The curatorial residency program started in 2011, and grew from the experience of programming Ludlow 38 as a satellite German Kunstverein Glossary Kunstverein: . As a result of the logistical challenges, the program was changed into the year-long MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies. We also invited New York-based artist Martin Beck, who collaborated with Ken Saylor, to create a new interior display system. Berlin-based graphic designers HIT (Annette Lux and Lina Grumm) developed a new identity for Ludlow 38 referencing the typography of Chinese-owned stores in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. They designed a stamp, a tote bag, and printed ephemera; some of the following curators used variations of this logo.
The first exhibition I curated in this transformed space was a duo show with Franz Mon and Waldemar Cordeiro. It also came with a publication featuring contributions by Adele Nelson, Margit Rosen, Luis Perez-Oramas, Cecilia Grönberg, and Jonas (J) Magnusson. Michał Jachuła and I co-curated the following exhibition, which highlighted the collaborative character of Józef Robakowski’s career. The exhibition later traveled to Białystok and ZKM, Karlsruhe, so we edited a trilingual English-Polish-German publication.
SD: When you curated your residency year in 2011, how did you conceive the programming overall?
TM: It was a rather organic transition. Some of the ideas developed over previous years, and I spent a lot of time researching at the MoMA library. There, I learned about New York-based Chilean artist Catalina Parra, for example, to whom we dedicated an exhibition that year, or about Stephen Kaltenbach, who contributed work to Rituals of the Art World. I also spent a lot of my time at the space talking to peers. In that sense, it was a real residency; I didn’t have a desk at the Goethe-Institut.
I also had the opportunity to use the Goethe-Institut’s Wyoming Building Glossary Wyoming Building: space in the East Village, where with the Kunstvereine we organized several talks and programs—with, for example, Jackie McAllister and Kenneth Goldsmith, Ion Grigorescu and Anders Kreuger, and Franz Erhard Walther and Yasmil Raymond. I also co-organized GDR Marathon, a screening curated by Loretta Fahrenholz, which featured films produced in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and East Germany before and after 1989.
SD: From what I remember from those years, you were part of the upcoming Lower East Side art scene. Who would you say was your community or cohort around there?
TM: I was close to our neighbours: e-flux (then on Essex Street) and to Dexter Sinister (who occupied the basement space below Ludlow 38), and all the artists we were working with. Because I was at the gallery most of the time, I got to know a lot of people during opening hours. And often new collaborative events would emerge from those encounters. I was interested in working with the neighborhood. Our most immediate neighbors were Asian immigrants.
When I first started at Ludlow 38, our direct neighbors were a Buddhist temple (which was later turned into a bike shop) and a Chinese bakery. I brought The Making of the Chinese New Working Class and specifically aimed to reach out to them. It was an installation of a migrant worker’s home, and had been part of The Potosí Principle at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, HKW Berlin, and the Museo Nacional de Arte in La Paz. Instead of sending this installation back to China, it came to Ludlow 38. I remember the full container arriving at our tiny gallery—it was a very intense build-up, very different from the regular art installations. The catalogue of that exhibition is trilingual (English, German, Mandarin) and was also designed by HIT. We wanted to speak about the conditions of migrant workers, not only in China, but also in New York, such as the retail workers on Broadway, or the food processing workers in Brooklyn. Together with Marty Kirchner, who worked with Martha Rosler at the time, we set up the symposium Precarious Power: Syndicalism, Solidarity, and the New Organizational Paradigm at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY. Many of those speakers also contributed to the publication.
SD: How did your neighbors react?
TM: They participated in the opening event with Zhibin Lin, who was the research coordinator of the Culture and Arts Museum of Migrant Workers, and Ellen David Friedman, a union organizer and labor educator in both the U.S. and China. We also placed a sandwich board (with signage in Mandarin) in front of the gallery, and that brought in people. We organized another event at a neighborhood nail salon on Essex Street where the Hanns Eisler Nail Salon/Nail Workers Chorus presented a cabaret performance about gentrification and dispossession in the Lower East Side.
I also collaborated with Common Room on other neighborhood projects. We conceived an after-school program for Tobias Putrih: After Frei Otto, and the publication for Lara Almarcegui’s Guide to the Wastelands of the Flushing River, for which we co-organized a canoe trip on the Flushing River with the Urban Landscape Lab and the Long Island City Community Boathouse.
SD: Do you feel that there were any other exhibitions or events you organized in 2011 that had a strong resonance?
TM: It is really difficult to single out particular projects from the four years at Ludlow 38. To me, every exhibition and event was important, every visitor brought a wealth of knowledge. We also did a lot of gratifying infrastructural work: building a mailing list, making the website on Indexhibit, and maintaining a dialogue with artists, curators, and New York art audiences. I am still very happy about the books and newspapers we published during those years.
What’s worth mentioning here, too, is the intuitive collaborations with local artists and curators, even before 2011: they were a lot of fun but they also allowed Ludlow 38 to become part of a New York ecosystem. Jeanne Dreskin and Robert Snowden, for instance, organized 01-11-10, which they described as “a short evening on terminal delay, windbag tautology!!, and objects making feedback make objects.” And Ethan Breckenridge, Liz Linden, and Phil Vanderhyden celebrated the Analog Sunset in 2009, when U.S. television stations ceased to broadcast analog signals. The U.S. launch of Ricardo Basbaum’s Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? at Main Squeeze Accordions at 19 Essex Street was very different in concept but equally intuitive in spirit. Together with artist Karin Schneider we brought his sculpture to the United Nations, and then for a stay at Karin’s home in Harlem, and finally at artist Ricardo Valentim’s in Brooklyn.
SD: To go back to your immediate context of arrival: 2008 is also the year the New Museum opened…
TM: I’m not really able to compare the before and after, but apparently the New Museum brought more visitors to Lower East Side galleries. There’s no doubt they also attracted commercial galleries to the area. But apart from this influx, there was relatively little dialogue with the New Museum. To me, it was important to link up with the community and the neighborhood. I connected with other contemporaneous initiatives, like the Artist’s Institute on Eldridge Street, run by Anthony Huberman; with curator Larissa Harris, he did an event at Ludlow 38 (performing under their moniker The Steins, they reproduced Stanisław Lem’s drawings and read from The Star Diaries (1977) within the context of Július Koller & Jirí Kovanda’s exhibition).
We also collaborated with Platform for Pedagogy, 16 beaver, and e-flux on a three-day screening of Alexander Kluge’s film News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx–Eisenstein–Capital (2008). And during Natasha Sadr Haghighian’s exhibition Fruits of One’s Labour, we organized a visit to the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street. With the Emily Harvey Foundation on Broadway, we organized a performance by Jeremiah Day with Simone Forti (Improvisation).
SD: How was it for you to work with public funds from Germany, but curating a program in the Lower East Side? Was there a language you had to develop to justify certain decisions, either internally or externally?
TM: There was a lot of freedom. It was incredible. We developed an open and international program for New York. There was never a limit, except a financial one, and the limits of the space and of our own energy. Such curatorial freedom was unmatched in New York. I remember institutional curators telling me that I had the best job in New York: I wasn’t bound to institutional or private donors with special interests. This would have been impossible without the support from the entire Goethe-Institut team and the BMW/MINI funding.
Merlin Carpenter’s towel sculpture in the Ludlow 38 restroom (Now wash your hands, 2011), which was presented alongside a text by the artist as part of the Rituals of the Art World group exhibition, was the most concise artistic comment on our funding structure produced during my time at Ludlow 38.
SD: Do you feel you learned anything specific from your time at Ludlow 38—methods, approaches, forms of thinking—that still informs your practice today?
TM: As I said before, I learned a lot on the infrastructural side, about getting an exhibition space up and keeping it running, and about representing a program face-to-face with our audiences. But all in all, the curatorial freedom was the most crucial, and this allowed my programming to be site- and context-specific.
SD: In a way, you were the pioneer of this program. Did people ask you about it afterwards? If so, what would they ask you?
TM: At first, yes, but with time passing they probably spoke to those residents with more recent ties to the program. The website and publications, especially The First 3 Years of Ludlow 38 (which I co-edited with Antonia Lotz and was published by Spector Books), provided ample resources for research. When I left for São Paulo, Larissa Harris and Christian Rattemeyer became part of the jury that selected future curatorial residents for the space. I don’t know how many people applied per year, but from what I heard Ludlow 38 continued to provide a good opportunity for a lot of curators and artists to experiment with ideas and develop a network of their own in this very international context of New York.
SD: Do you have any thoughts about the fact that the program ended?
TM: It’s a pity that it has been discontinued because obviously there are always curators and artists with great ideas, and there are always people who are in between jobs, or need an opportunity like this residency. Hopefully, Ludlow 38’s legacy provides inspiration for future programmers at the Goethe-Institut to develop other exhibition spaces or curatorial residencies elsewhere.