A Talk With The Kitchen’s Executive Director Tim Griffin

by Paddy Johnson on June 27, 2012 Interview

The Kitchen has had a good couple of months program-wise. We raved about Virginia Overton’s site specific sculptures. We should have raved about their group show Creative Destruction, because it was one of the best shows of the year so far. Everyone raved over Matt Wolf’s screening of I Remember, A Film About Joe Brainard. We like what we’ve seen.

Accordingly, we tracked down The Kitchen’s Executive Director Tim Griffin and asked him a few questions. Griffin took the reigns for Debra Singer a little under a year ago, so we wanted to find out what influence he’s had on programing thus far and where we’ll see him take the organization next.

Paddy Johnson: You started at The Kitchen last September after having been the head editor at Artforum for seven years. Can you tell us what your first day was like and what some of the differences are between where you were and where you are?

Tim Griffin: The most obvious thing I thought on Day 1 was, “I’m in space.” You know, there are real spaces here, there’s the theatre, there’s the gallery, there’s the architecture. And these different spaces underscored what I already knew, which was that many communities are part of The Kitchen community, from dance and film to music and sound composition and art. And by no means am I infinitely or equally versed in these areas. Among the things that had to happen when I arrived, then, was just to speak with as many people [as I could] who have been involved with The Kitchen. Maybe the biggest change so far for me involves my actually engaging and having active dialogues with people in these different communities. And this points to another exciting change for me, which is that while I’d work with artists on individual projects at [Artforum], here obviously you’ve got much more extended interaction with artists of all stripes and disciplines. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to be at The Kitchen, because not everyone brings in a former editor and writer into the mix in this way.

PJ: Well, and you’ve talked about some of those similarities [between editing and curating] before, too —there’s a shared curatorial approach.

TG: I did always think about the publication in terms of curating, trying to put pieces and writers together so that they would reflect on each other or ask audiences or readers to reflect on the pieces in constellations that were a sum greater than their parts.

When I was at the magazine, it was one of the biggest boom times ever, which prompted the editorial group to deal with questions of what art even is, to say nothing of working for what you care about in a crazed contemporary art environment. Something of the same happens here, since non-profits face particular challenges. The economic structures around the non-profit as it was conceived in the ‘70s have changed, in the same way that even looking at art has changed since the ‘70s, so you have to adapt and re-conceive. But that said, on some level I was very spoiled [at Artforum] because I didn’t have to think directly about the magazine’s financing and fiscal survival. There was a separate infrastructure, so I didn’t have to immediately handle that aspect of things. I could really concentrate on the art and ideas.

PJ: Now, I’m not entirely sure about how far ahead the programming runs, so one of the questions I had was: if I’m looking at the exhibitions or the performance schedules, am I looking at your work, am I looking at other people’s work?

TG: Obviously most of the fall was prepared before I arrived, but in the winter there were a couple things I helped bring to the table, or at least I was part of the team that brought them in. Many of them would be single evening events, including conversations with Hal Foster and Douglas Crimp—working with him was really exciting—and a panel with Shannon Jackson and Judith Rodenbeck. The Matt Wolf film about Joe Brainard was another example; I’m a poet so that was something very personal to me. These nights provided a backdrop for artists’ works, and for what The Kitchen is more generally, beginning to offer some bridges among disciplines through conversation. In fact, one of the things I really tried to do was have as many free events as possible, trying to initiate a lot of conversation, so that [The Kitchen] becomes a place where people want to go casually, and talk to each other.

On another front, I arrived here and there was a portion of the Spring calendar open in the gallery, and [Kitchen Curator] Matthew Lyons said that he wanted to work with Virginia Overton. It was marvelous to be able to say ‘Yes’ to that on Day 1. She got to know the building and everybody who is involved around here on every level, and that ended up being a really good first thing to happen for my own experience of the space.

There’s also an Elad Lassry project that’s coming up, which will use the architecture of the building itself differently. He’ll have an exhibition upstairs and use the performance space downstairs—there is choreographed ballet, or at least choreographed movement, that uses passages from historical dances—and that’s the kind of flexibility that I hope happens more.

PJ: Out of curiosity, I read a tumblr account about a talk you gave at The Kitchen a while ago and wondered about its accuracy. The post said that you believed that there was a more discipline-oriented art world, which seems out of step with what you just said about building bridges between disciplines.

TG: I don’t think it was recorded accurately. What I was saying is that there is increasing interdisciplinarity—artists looking to dance, dancers looking to the artistic context, and even theatre doing that to some extent—and on some level I feel like this is reflective of a desire for alternatives.

One of the things that I definitely feel I have a responsibility to address is the degree to which there are real differences among these contexts. There is potential danger in all this movement, and I’m just sort of echoing the sentiments of many artists in this regard: When you take a move out of one context and you put it in another context, say from dance to art or art to dance, the same words or maneuvers can have really different meanings. It’s not a bad thing, and I think it’s actually productive to recognize that there are different histories in play, and so I’m hoping at The Kitchen, there will be that many more bridges among these different fields, with difference itself taken as a building block on some level. Difference can be a starting point for further dialogue in art making. It’s better to say, “Oh, I can see that this has a certain history in dance, and actually means something else in art”—which potentially offers a way to do new things—as opposed to pretending that those differences don’t exist. I want to help create a place where these things can be brought together, but through the recognition of difference. I guess that my talk ended up being read on tumblr as my saying that there are very specific things that can’t be negotiated.

PJ: Getting back to the initiatives that you’ve worked on—increasing the number of free-admittance events at the Kitchen—is it possible to gage its effectiveness this early on? Relatedly, when you started as Editor-in-Chief at Artforum you sent an email out outlining a very specific vision. Of course with a non-profit, you’re working from a mission statement, so an email like that might be inappropriate, but I wondered whether you came in with a particular vision and whether that vision has shifted at all since you arrived.

TG: In terms of a vision, I can say that as I thought more about The Kitchen, looking at it historically, I recognized its success has had so much to do with the fact that it was a community that became a culture. Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, really became the culture, yet now I think a real question for the arts, generally, is the degree to which we are seeing culture without the community. In other words, to what extent do you have opportunities to have more organic exchanges as opposed to, say, having interdisciplinary meetings managed or programmed from above. And so an irony here might be that my vision is a hope to bring the Kitchen as it was classically envisioned into play at a moment when that is relatively rare.

If such a thing is possible, then the hope is that we can have a different relationship with audiences, that they can actually be involved in the shape of the place. I think that sort of letting air in is not a bad thing, in terms of trying to re-imagine the relationship between a work and its audience.

PJ: It seems like lot of the characteristics describing the community you’re looking to build already describe Bushwick. I mean the medium biases there tend to differ—there’s tons of painting out there, and less new media—but there is this very strong sense of community that tends to come out of that particular place and the heavy use of social media seems to have grown organically…at a certain point, it seems like the distinction between a community and culture gets very blurry.

TG: Just Bushwick, or…in general?

PJ: I just mean as it pertains to the Kitchen. Everything you’ve said makes sense to me, but it does seem like if I look at social media communities, the enormous amount of discourse that’s going on can either be viewed as on one hand, more people talking to each other than ever before, and on the other, more people are finding like-minded people than ever before. In other words the jury’s still out on whether social media polarized communities, but it obviously helps grow communities of people with like-minded interests. But the Kitchen is not an organization that I look at that has really embraced social media and while that’s more an observation than a criticism, I wonder whether those tools might help the organization achieve the goals you’ve discussed.

TG: Well, (laughs) you’re right. But I know that’s coming down the pike, and that we, like so many other institutions, benefited from Bloomberg technology grants over the past year, so what you’re describing is something that will ideally come into play. It hasn’t existed to date, and my hope is that, in the 90 days between now and September, that kind of thing will begin to happen. The website will become more active, and there will be a different look to it. It’s definitely true that it hasn’t been implemented or taken advantage of.

Also, I guess, when I talk about the Kitchen the way I do, I don’t want to say that it’s the only beacon like this. I just want it to become a focal point for that way of doing things, or an amplifier.

PJ: From our end it certainly seems like you’re making some headway on that. One, final question: Are you still keeping up the 10-12 hour days you were doing at Artforum?

TG: You know, they might be longer.

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