Saim Demircan (S) was the 2017 Curatorial Resident at Ludlow 38. He spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in February 2020 from New York.
SD: It’s great, Saim, that you’re still in New York because I feel like you may have a different perspective on things. Most of the curators I’ve spoken with thus far were here just for the single year of the residency.
Now, in terms of your year at Ludlow 38, there’s this idea that people finally know the rules of the game by the time they leave, when they feel they are finally ready to do a specific show or project. And I wonder if there was something that you really wanted to do when your year came to an end.
S: I wanted to open a bar!
SD: Interesting—none of your peers suggested this. But in terms of the exhibitions, what did you enjoy most during your year?
S: The last project I did was called DEATH LOLZ presents… I organized it together with Dan Mitchell, and we turned Ludlow into a kind of venue. We covered the window with vinyl and served drinks at the front where we had a program of events but people could still drop by during the day; it was more of a social space than an exhibition, although we had a hidden show in the back (Dan Mitchell, ULTRA MEGA HYPE). That social potential was, at the very least, a highlight. In order for that to happen, I had to use Ludlow as an event space, albeit a small one, more so than as an exhibition space. Halfway through the year, after the summer, the remainder of the projects I organized deliberately revealed this potential. This is why I liked the idea of a bar, or the bar as a front for a social space. By the end of the residency, I was thinking about sociability, what kind of space could function like an opening but without necessarily having an exhibition following it. This actually felt like a necessity at the time, something that was missing.
SD: You were there in 2017, the year that Trump was inaugurated.
S: Yes, I arrived a couple of weeks before.
SD: Did that force you to rethink what you did at Ludlow?
S: I didn’t do any of the projects that I proposed.
SD: Really? Because of the shift in the political landscape? What happened?
S: The projects that I had proposed were kind of “pet projects” in the sense they could probably be done anywhere, or at any time. So they didn’t quite make sense within the context of that year especially. Whether this decision was motivated politically I couldn’t say explicitly, but certainly a political sea change had been internalized and its implications were already there to explore rather than openly represent. The EU referendum in the UK had happened in June, before I knew I was going to do Ludlow, and when I visited New York in September there was definitely an impending sense that a decisive choice between the unpredictable and a continuing of the neoliberal project—business as usual, in other words—was going to be made in the US, too. It was then, for instance, very clear to me that the program had to begin with New Noveta, as one response to this moment. Ironically, the invitation card for DEATH LOLZ presents…was a photograph of Donald and Melania Trump with Bill and Hillary Clinton taken at a party.
SD: Do you think the people who came in looked at art differently?
S: Not sure. An attribute of Ludlow is that people didn’t quite understand what it was exactly, which wasn’t necessarily a drawback. Some were familiar with it, though not necessarily with the residency format. It’s in a part of the city which has changed a lot over the last decade, and it’s surrounded by a lot of younger galleries especially. Obviously, Ludlow is not commercial, so you could certainly do what you wanted without needing to sell art in order to survive—that was a real advantage downtown.
SD: And who was your social cohort? Was there a sense of a community that you had through Ludlow?
S: The Lower East Side is pretty well-trodden ground now, there’s definitely a lot going on, so I knew that generating an audience out of this artistic community was the first thing I had to do. My impression was that at Ludlow there were people who knew of it from the beginning—or certainly before I was there—who might not have been around for a couple of years or who came by because of a particular curator’s program. Then there were people that didn’t know Ludlow at all, or who were passing through New York at a particular time. So it did feel like a mix. Each exhibition was very different from the last, and that also attracted audiences. For instance, there was a crossover with the fashion community when we showed The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress. An audience accumulated from project to project, along with this regularity of people passing through to see what was going on without necessarily knowing what it was. It was important for me to “make a scene,” so to speak.
SD: Was this the project you did with 47 Canal?
S: I did it together with Mathew Gallery, which was located at 46 Canal, run by David Lieske. At the time, Matthew Linde, a fashion curator from Melbourne, was in New York, and he and David were talking about doing a fashion exhibition. Matthew came to Ludlow quite frequently and told me about it, and then we decided to have this show take place across both spaces. The exhibition design was a ramp that was also used as the actual catwalk for a runway in between the galleries. Models came down from Mathew Gallery, walked across the street, and then the block and a half to Ludlow 38. They entered through the back and finished on the catwalk that we built inside the space. We also had a soundtrack playing from cars parked in between both spaces. At the end there were so many people outside Ludlow, we blocked the street. It was wild. Dillon Sachs’s photographs of it are incredible.
SD: Were there other semi-informal connections that became part of your extended family?
S: When I arrived in 2017, I knew little about the Lower East Side’s history, but I did connect with many people who were instrumental in its recent past. I talked quite often with John Kelsey, who runs Reena Spaulings. They represented Stephan Dillemuth, with whom I had worked before. I wanted to redo a performance Stephan had done in 2000 at Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts Glossary American Fine Arts: , which John had seen at the time (he had even reviewed the performance for Bernadette Corporation’s Made in USA). It became my last event at Ludlow and it was billed as a candlelit soirée. Stephan suggested Jim Fletcher perform as Werner von Delmont and Cammisa Buerhaus as his son Hans-Dieter. Werner and Cammisa had both performed together in Richard Maxwell’s play The Evening at The Kitchen in 2015. I really liked this overlap of personal histories. I bought a $99 tuxedo from a tiny store called New Era Factory Outlet on Orchard for the occasion!
SD: How did you understand the Lower East Side ecosystem?
S: Our neighbors down in the Lower East Side were art galleries rather than institutions. The New Museum isn’t that far away but our immediate neighbors were galleries. Around the corner was Essex Street, and nearby on East Broadway was Reena Spaulings, which had been in Chinatown for a long time. Gavin Brown’s enterprise had a space on Grand Street in the same building as 47 Canal, and Bridget Donahue had opened her gallery at 99 Bowery in 2016.
I also got to know Jeff Preiss; he came to Ludlow a bunch, and I spoke to him at length about Orchard Gallery, of which he was one of the founding members and he documented it in a series of film collaborations. As I understand the downtown landscape from Jeff, there wasn’t a lot else at the time they started in 2005. Participant Inc. had been in the Lower East Side since 2001, and moved to Houston in 2007. Miguel Abreu had opened on Orchard in 2006, and the New Museum reopened on the Bowery a year later, so 2008 was a sort of watershed year because that’s when Orchard Gallery closed. It intentionally only ran for 3 years between 2005 and 2008 in parallel to George Bush’s second term. In 2017, my year at Ludlow 38, there were at least a dozen young galleries in the surroundings.
SD: How did you do things, practically speaking? Was there a Ludlow 38 handbook saying, for example, “light bulbs we get here,” “vinyl lettering you make there”? Or do each of you discover it on your own?
S: You pretty much just had to figure it out. But it’s not so difficult. If you need anything, there are plenty of people around to ask and pretty much everything you need could be found downtown. I remember the A/C broke when we were installing Exhibition as Image: Art Through the Camera’s Eye and we bought hand fans from a Chinese store around the corner. I didn’t do really complicated installs. It was a very organic way of working. For example, I curated a show with Eric Bell who was passing through New York in the summer; we were just going to do a talk and a screening while he was there, but then we found out that Judith Barry, who lives nearby, had these dioramas we both liked (Damaged Goods 3D, 2015). Eric emailed her website, she replied, and we made it into an exhibition in no less than three weeks. She came by with her assistant Brent Garbowski, who helped put the pieces together, and from then on I basically did everything install-wise with Brent—he was a technician, an artist’s assistant, had a truck, and knew where to get the materials. He turned the ramp into a bar, for instance.
SD: Changing lenses a bit, and going from the local to the international: you were running a German place, partly publicly funded, in the Lower East Side in New York. Did you feel like you had to craft your curatorial language around that setup? Did you feel you had to justify the program along those lines, or perhaps there was an expectation from the visitors here that you somehow had a German imperative?
S: For some people it really just didn’t matter what that connection to the Goethe-Institut was. There were certainly more regular visitors who knew past curators and understood that it was a Goethe-Institut initiative. But many people thought it was just a small project space. So I don’t think there was any expectation to see art from Germany or anything like that. And there was never an expectation from the Goethe-Institut towards me to show either German artists or any connections to Germany, although I did, as I was interested in exploring that historical connection between artistic practices in Europe in NY, not least since I was informed by an international context before arriving.
SD: Are there any specific insights or skills that you feel you developed during your year at Ludlow?
S: To be honest, programming was the easy part. Having twelve months and the security of a modest budget gives you parameters and some security, so it does make it easier to program. You have to be very practical, not necessarily problem-solve, but you are given parameters that determine what you can and cannot do. I learned that you can do things very quickly and very easily. Eva Birkenstock had said you could put a show together in weeks, but I didn’t quite understand this until I was there, and did it. And there is something very energetic about that: you can respond to people around you. You have to build your own audience, that’s not guaranteed when you arrive. I learned that—I didn’t necessarily think about it beforehand.
SD: So when your year finished, you stayed in New York?
S: I came back, yeah.
SD: How did you experience those following years of programming at Ludlow 38?
S: Even though I wasn’t in New York the whole time, I caught a bit of Avi’s program towards the end and then the rest of Franziska’s. It’s impossible to compare programs one year to another because each curator has a different perspective. Some might be more focused than others. I think Avi came to his residency with a very specific concept: to turn it into the Agency for Legal Imagination. And Franziska was thinking a lot about hauntology when she applied to Ludlow. She was quite involved with people downtown as well. It was great to see their programs!
SD: What were your thoughts when you learned that Ludlow was closing?
S: I kind of expected it. Because even when I was there in 2017, toward the end of the year they started showing people around the building.