People like parties. This is a fact sure to be on the minds of the organizers of Warm Up, the Saturday afternoon seasonal music program going into its fifteenth year at PS1. It's conscious positioning on the museum's part: by giving up their courtyard to Warm Up once a week, PS1 makes itself seem less like a school and more like a party, luring audiences in and building membership, all the while parading the institution's relevance.
Of course, there's an assumption that's left unstated: a similarity, aesthetic and emotional, between contemporary art and music. Certainly the experiences have something in common, but in describing Warm Up, museum staff tend to carefully choose words so as to make this sort of blending seem natural; the program is described not as a concert series but as an “experimental music” program. Warm Up's musical selection committee, whose members include Jonathan Galkin, co-founder of DFA Records, and Kris Chen, head of A & R at XL Recordings, would in other contexts simply be called booking agents; in PS1's case they're referred to as “curators.” Eliza Ryan, a curatorial assistant at PS1 who worked with the selection committee, describes the program as something close to a work of relational art, an effervescent environment in which fans and musicians play equally important roles in creating a shared aesthetic experience. “It's a pretty diverse community of people.” Ryan remarked. “People seem to feel very comfortable and expressive. Dancing in broad daylight. You don't see that very often.”
Or perhaps you do–just not in an art gallery, which is why people are going to make judgments, sooner or later, about whether what they're watching is also art. Nick Hallett, a musician who also produces operas, has carried the title of “music curator” quite willingly in the past. He sees nothing inappropriate about an art museum doing the work of a music venue, and describes Warm Up, approvingly, as a “risk.” “You can put a painting on a wall,” Hallett says. “and no one's going to question that it's a piece of art. But there's this other risk that these institutions face when hosting a band or spectacle…because there's the possibility that they might not adhere to the standards of what's art.”
It's the kind of language that recalls Factory-era multi-media events like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, in which visitors could watch some Warhol films and then see the Velvet Underground play. And yet the bands that perform at Warm Up, to say nothing of the crowds and the way everyone behaves, seem closer to an ordinary concert-going experience, that is, to performing arts, than to the hushed, cerebral performance art pioneered in the 1960s. Performance art, as Hallett explains, “comes out of trying to eliminate the spectacle from the performance, trying to isolate and distill performance elements in things that extend beyond the reach of performance, such that they're art-ified. The whole point of performance art is to take the truth of something that happens in a theater, and put it into a gallery by distilling it to ridiculous extremes.”
Whereas the other events that a music curator like Hallett might plan are a matter of art for art's sake, Warm Up's objectives are institutionally tied to PS1's. “The museum's job is to ride the crest of the wave of what's happening culturally, what's interesting, the latest.” says Seva Granik, a booking manager who worked with Warm Up organizers in 2010. “They are what they are. The only thing that kind of rubs me the wrong way is the fact that it's presented as 'an ongoing conversation between art and music,' of which there's very little. In a lot of ways, it's just a way for these institutions to keep relevant, which is important to them.”
Though the galleries of PS1 are open on the afternoons that Warm Up takes place, organizers make no distinct effort to choose music that will necessarily complement the art being exhibited. While there are occasional happy coincidences–Pitchfork editor and Warm Up selector Brandon Stosuy maintains there is an aesthetic similarity between Picture Plane, who played on the 20th, and Ryan Trecartin, who is currently on show–they are nothing more than coincidences. The general criteria for choosing musical acts are no different than that of a typical music program: they’re well-liked, available during the summer, and the music they play will keep people dancing all through the afternoon.
On July 9th, during a performance of Four Tet and SBTRKT, the courtyard reached its capacity of 5800 visitors for the first time in Warm Up's history. Bouncing my head to a kick drum/high-hat beat–uhn-tseh, uhn-tseh, uhn-tseh–and dodging a cloud of recreational smoke, I felt much more like I was at a summer music festival than an art show. I couldn't help but think of Granik's description of a heavy metal concert (arranged by Stosuy) that took place last year in Matthew Barney's studio: “People took photographs. Tweeted about it. Mostly it was just crowd gawking.” PS1 was a world away. This wasn't art-world body-wallpaper, this was a crowd at ease, enjoying the music and leaving the setting unexamined. Stosuy had described to me the first meetings he'd held with Klaus Biesenbach, PS1's Director. One took place in a parking garage space in Bushwick where Stosuy was DJing, on a stuffy off-night that had gotten too crowded: “The place is really packed, people are just dancing and going crazy, but it was sort of a crowd that [Biesenbach] was really interested in…We met shortly thereafter, and he said: 'That's what I really want Warm Up to feel like.'”
If visitors see the art in that, PS1’s certainly not going to argue with them. While the museum has profited from the verbal slippage that takes place between “artist” and “performer,” the program's staff studiously avoids taking the position that a piece of music or the band that plays it should be thought of as art. Rather, that implication is left for the visitor, unconfirmed but undenied, attracting the interest only of those who hear its call; there might be pretentiousness afoot, but it's awfully hard to pin on anyone.