Eva Birkenstock (EB) was the 2014 Curatorial Resident at Ludlow 38. She spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in February 2020 from Düsseldorf.
EB: Nice to meet you, Sarah. Since we never really met, I am wondering: did you see any of the shows in 2014, and do you remember any of them?
SD: What I remember most from your program is the dinner that you did with Amilcar Packer, in Greenpoint. That’s something that stood out because of the energy and a feeling of generosity, and many of the questions that you raised were very much on my horizon, too.
EB: Yes, that was the Doris Criolla dinner at the Sunview Luncheonette. It was actually part of my last project for Ludlow, Molecular Revolution in Brazil in New York: Micropolitics and Cartographies of Desire. Once I learned that there was a travel budget for the curator in residence, I decided to go to Brazil for three weeks to see the 2014 São Paulo Biennial and work on a project together with Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz, a friend and colleague who had recently moved there. We had been in conversation about connections between artists from Brazil and the Lower East Side, and Max had just co-founded P.A.C.A. (Programa de Ações Culturais Autônomas) together with Pedro de Niemeyer, Amilcar Packer, and Suely Rolnik. They had organized a series of public seminars about decolonizing thought. We quickly decided to bring P.A.C.A. to New York and turn Ludlow itself into a laboratory for collective knowledge production with a reading seminar, screenings, lectures, discussions. Amilcar’s amazing final dinner presentation was dedicated to processes of hybridization in colonial and post-colonial contexts.
SD: Since we are already talking about the end of your year, I wonder, when your residency at Ludlow ended, was there something you felt you still wanted to do but didn’t get to?
EB: There was one part of the P.A.C.A. project that unfortunately was never finalized: we started to work on a book, an in-depth interview by Amilcar and Max with Suely Rolnik. She had written Molecular Revolution in Brazil (1986) with Felix Guattari, based on their joint travels, research, and interviews with political groups and initiatives throughout Latin America. Since their publication was a major point of reference not only for P.A.C.A., but also for our project at Ludlow 38, the interview intended to explore conceptions of micropolitics nearly 40 years later. Due to various complications the book unfortunately couldn’t be realized. Besides working on the book, of course, I would have loved to stay another year. And I am sure knowing the context of New York, the venue, and its infrastructure better, the program would have changed. Up until then, it was a program that I had mainly planned before arriving.
The most severe loss for me, though, is having to miss all the potential future shows by other emerging curators; it’s very sad that Ludlow won’t be kept alive. There are hardly any curatorial residencies of this kind. It is an amazing opportunity to be able to live in a city like New York for a year and engage with its art scenes on behalf of one’s own program; you can’t just do this on your own. Plus, New York still is, and hopefully will remain, such an important site for the production, negotiation, and encounter of various forms of contemporary art.
SD: And who was your Ludlow audience? Maybe you had an imagined audience at the beginning, but then other people came in?
EB: I did not really imagine an audience at all. I usually go to places first, try to understand how they function, and work from there. Ludlow 38 was very well located in a relatively calm part of the Lower East Side, and in a neighborhood with many other interesting galleries. The art crowd, who made its regular visits to the Lower East Side galleries, seemed to have Ludlow on the map. After having worked at the Kunsthaus Bregenz for some years, I appreciated the fact that the audience in New York to a large extent consisted of professionals from the field. My desk was literally in the exhibition space, so one was always in direct contact with the visitors. It was a wonderful experience to meet so many fantastic local and international artists, curators, writers, collectors, and art appreciators who came by and participated in the program. Some people were regulars, some came because of a specific artist or a specific show, and others just joined for the free beer.
SD: Was there some part of your program that you feel resonated well in the context?
EB: I think there was resonance, but through the projects rather than through visitor numbers or any of those metrics. At Ludlow those metrics weren’t the main point. It rather seemed to be a space where one was able to experiment—the artists as well as the curators. It was an institution that reinvented itself each year with the arrival of a new curator. For me, it opened fantastic opportunities for artistic research in relation to the space, aspects of the neighborhood, and the city in general.
Many of the projects dealt with transgressing the actual exhibition space and time, or at least trying to push its limits. I am thinking about Tokonoma by Suchan Kinochita, an exhibition she and her collaborators Olivier Foulon and Joerg Franzbecker kept on changing throughout the whole duration of the show. Another example is Johannes Paul Raether, who turned the venue into a cage-like space for three of his characters. They became the residents of the space and appeared within different performative scenarios outside of Ludlow: Transformella, for example, invited the audience to a reproductive workshop and asked them to bring their dirty laundry. Following an introduction to artificial insemination, pre-implantation diagnosis, and surrogacy, the performance continued as a parade to a local laundromat. During the process of collective washing, waiting, and drying, Transformella continued her lecture on reproductive labor. Another character, the World-Healing Witch Protektorama, proposed that humankind is possessed by the abstract principles of capital, and has turned into a prosthesis of its own digital devices. For the witch’s Organic Light Emitting Processiorama, Johannes suggested Times Square. Since obtaining a city permit was financially beyond our reach, Johannes observed the situation for two weeks straight, and realized that religious groups were actually allowed to gather without a permit. In the end, we sat down on a giant blanket in the middle of Times Square. A security guard approached me immediately, but let us be when he heard that we were a community of precants following the cult of the World-Healing Witch Protektorama.
SD: Was there anything specific that you feel shaped your curatorial method or curatorial thinking to this day?
EB: I enjoyed being in constant dialogue with so many diverse art world protagonists: it was amazing to have so much input. Especially coming from Bregenz, where the situation was very different: the Kunsthaus is an institution with an international standing and a fantastic exhibition program, but with a rather small scene of local producers, no art school, and only very few other sites for contemporary art. Most artists, architects, curators, and theoreticians I worked with came from other areas. At Ludlow, you were in the heart of it, with so many writers, artists, curators, institutions, spaces, developments. Besides doing my exhibitions, I went on many studio visits, I saw lots of shows, and attended numerous talks and book presentations. That exposure informed my subsequent projects back at the KUB Arena: I worked on a summer camp and a publication with KAYA, as well as on shows with Amy Sillman and Dexter Sinister while I was in New York. Currently I am working on a publication about the work of the artist Evelyn Taocheng Wang that will be published by Dancing Foxes Press, who I also got to know better during my stay. Even though we partly knew each other before, the exchange and friendships grew by being closer, and it was great to build upon that.
SD: You mentioned the word “conversations” quite a bit. Do you think this was particular to the setup of Ludlow being a small place, intimate, and therefore somehow producing more conversation-style encounters?
EB: The space definitely created that because it was small and intimate, and I tried to build on that potential. The Tokonoma project, for instance, manifests itself in a constant state of conversation and discussion amongst all of its participants. But this is also a crucial aspect of my curatorial work in general: working in collectives, triggering open-ended processes, working with time-based media and performance, developing discursive formats, trying to unfold dialogues with specific places and communities. For me, curatorial work is about working on questions and expanding perspectives, instead of offering answers. A smaller and intimate space can surely propel this conversational character, but it’s also something that was already implied in many of my projects.
SD: Are there specific organizations from the Lower East Side that you worked with?
Eva: I collaborated with various spaces, but not necessarily in the LES only. Beside the already mentioned ones, I remember we collaborated with UnionDocs in Brooklyn. This was part of off the record, a more spontaneous program I initiated as an extension to the exhibition program, offering the possibility to invite thinkers and collaborators, even without an immediate show. At UnionDocs Vesna Madzoski presented her book within a commented screening of Jef Cornelis’ documentary on Documenta 4. At the other Goethe-Institut space, the Wyoming Building Glossary Wyoming Building: , we did the one-day presentation and screening Faces, Surfaces and Interfaces—Communities and the Commons with Tyler Coburn and Susanne Winterling’s students, a screening with Kerstin Schroedinger and Shelly Silver, as well as a screening with Angela Melitopoulos in the context of the Brazil project. I also tried to synchronize the openings with other galleries to have joint opening parties. For my first opening in 2014 with Cologne-based artist Sarah Szczesny, I collaborated with the nightclub Le Bain and we flew in Christian S from Cologne for the release of his record Pitch Rider. The artworks and the collaboration with the label collective Cómeme were part of Sarah’s practice, and we wanted to introduce this as well.
SD: Ludlow is a small space that looks like any other kind of artist-run or nonprofit space, but it has German taxpayers’ money behind it. I wonder how you had to negotiate or navigate those waters, being small and self-organized, but at the same time also being institutional?
EB: It was not only the tax money, or the Goethe-Institut, but also the car industry. For sure the resulting name was quite long: “MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38.” Ludlow 38 followed a double logic, on the one hand with the charm and intermediacy of a self-organized nonprofit space, and on the other hand it was structured by the biggest cultural institution in Germany. Sometimes this meant more contracts, and quotes, but it also came with infinite support. This set-up was a great advantage and enabled Ludlow to become successfully established within the city’s art scene even though its curators changed on a yearly basis. Wenzel Bilger and Sara Stevenson were on top, always supporting me, together with the most amazing gallery assistants I had the pleasure to work with: Pia Goebel, Judith Grobe, Leah Heckel, and Verena Kittel. As far as my program, I did not feel restrained at all: the Institut was enthusiastic, interested, and trusted me. I am still in touch with everybody, and afterwards I even worked with Verena on three editions of the Performance Project in Basel, and we are in constant exchange. The Goethe-Institut hired very talented, inspiring people—at least during my stay.
SD: When your residency ended, did you consider staying in New York?
EB: I would have loved to stay in New York, but was very aware that you needed a job first. I also had my old job in Bregenz waiting for me and I was looking forward to going back and working on the projects I had already started planning in New York. Of course, after doing everything on my own at Ludlow, it was also great to work with the support of the fantastic team in Bregenz. Since my time at Ludlow, I come back to New York regularly, and hopefully I can come back again soon. And maybe one day for longer; my partner is also from New York, so who knows?
SD: Do you have a sense of the programs in the Ludlow years after you?
EB: I always went to see the Ludlow shows whenever I was in New York. With every new curator, that institution reinvented itself, not only in the program, but also the infrastructure. Vivien Trommer, for example, who had the residency after me, reworked the website and introduced a blog. She also changed the counter and the lights in the space. I also learned that the other Ludlow curators and I shared the wish to find a way to get rid of Martin Beck and Ken Saylor’s display for the space. Do not get me wrong: we all love and admire their work, but in the long run their display intervention just did not seem to be the best solution for the various and diverse exhibitions to follow (and it was never planned for it to stay for as long as it did).
Most artists I work with are interested themselves in site-specificity and the politics of showing. For Katrin Mayer, with whom I worked on the Rose Fortune show, questions of display systems are for instance at the core of her work. Still, in the end the architectural elements became an interesting obstacle every artist had to deal with one way or the other. Vivien eventually turned it into an artwork and clarified its status by putting an engraved golden label on the wall next to the giant frame element in the entrance area. I also closely followed Saim Demircan’s program in 2016. We became friends during his time in Munich, and shared interest in many artists, and I also visited New York frequently that year.
SD: Is there anything else that you would like to say about Ludlow 38 ending?
EB: It is surely a great loss, but hopefully something else will replace it—let’s see. And, finally, of course, I would like to thank all the wonderful people who supported my program, foremost the artists, the assistants, and of course Sara Stevenson and Wenzel Bilger.