The Best of Us, For the Rest of Us: Karen Archey

by Whitney Kimball on April 16, 2013 · 5 comments Bestivus

By now, we have a fairly good handle on New York art stars, but we hear less about the people who love them. In two years of writing for AFC, I’ve owed my art-viewing as much to artists as I have to devoted curators, gallerists, and writers working diligently behind the scenes, knee-deep with the rest of us.

Who are these unsung heroes of the art world? I asked leaders of various emerging art communities for their recommendations, and gathered a series of interviews. The Best of Us for the Rest of Us!

Karen Archey and fellow AFC alum David Harper made Artforum's "Scene and Heard"

Who can keep up with Karen Archey? After writing for AFC, the independent curator and art critic spent a year authoring her own blog “Image Conscious” on BLOUINARTINFO.  Since then she has been making frequent forays into the European art world, and her writing has appeared in a gamut of art publications, including Rhizome at the New Museum, where she was previously editor-at-large, as well as Kaleidoscope,  Art-Agenda, and Modern Painters, among others. She also maintains a regular column for Chinese bilingual magazine LEAP.

Regular readers know her for measured criticism, which is based on extensive scholarship of conceptual art and online practices. This is evidenced through contemplative exhibition texts and shows which often serve as a record of a contemporary moment. “Images Rendered Bare. Vacant. Recognizable” at Stadium, or “Deep Space (insides)” at Joe Sheftel, or “How to Eclipse the Light” at London’s Wilkinson Gallery are just a few highlights. We expect to add her upcoming show on Harm van den Dorpel at the Abrons Arts Center to her list of successes.

But we’re especially proud to claim her as an AFC alum for her rare combination of pedagogy and brass. She’ll elucidate a thesis and then bottom-line it. An example, from last year’s show on Art Micro Patronage:

“Can’t Touch This” began with the aspiration to bring together a diverse group of artists considering how the internet mediates their work in real life, and on a less sober note, to use what is possibly the best title for an online exhibition ever.


Archey also speaks plainly about the realities of being a respected but seriously underpaid art worker. “Politeness should not be a virtue in a world as fucked up as this one,” she tells me. Thus begins our discussion.

How’s London? What are you working on at the moment?

London was life-changing as usual, and Paris and Berlin were great, as well. I’m back in New York and am currently working on a solo exhibition with the Dutch artist Harm van den Dorpel that will open April 19th at Abrons Arts Center, where I’m curator-in-residence. The exhibition’s title is super long, kind of nerdy, and cryptically sexual: “Release early, release often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity.” The phrase, a common aphorism of computer programmers in the open source movement, describes a software development philosophy that encourages its frequent release in order to keep a frequent, close feedback loop operating between the system user and developer. In addition to presenting a wide chronology and material range of Harm’s work, we’re also focusing on the concept of recursion, and how such open source philosophies can be related—variably awkwardly or potently—to the contemporary art sphere.

You seem to be a fairly deep well of information on both European and net artists. Can you think of any artists or works which have acted as gateways to certain areas of expertise? 

One twist of fate was moving to New York with Jon Rafman right out of undergrad. I didn’t even know him at the time, but we shared a mutual friend from SAIC. I’d already started researching and curating web-based work into exhibitions, but Jon introduced me to the very important social aspect of the internet art community. Chris Collins, who I knew from SAIC, also introduced me to a lot of internet-based work. Truth be told, I’ve accrued most of my knowledge about internet art and art in general by consistently traveling and being friendly to people who I meet, and following up with studio visits later. It’s pretty straightforward. Having the ambition and resources to do this is the more difficult part.

A few months ago, you re-published an annotated piece from your Artinfo blog, I think the Occupy Museums piece. You’d gone through it and critiqued your own writing, with the hindsight of having matured as a writer and no longer writing a free blog for a major arts publication. Why did you feel that was important, and what you think has changed since then?

Yeah, it was the Occupy Museums piece published in Red Hook Journal, Bard CCS’s online journal. Red Hook is edited by one of my favorite writers, Tirdad Zolghadr, who came up with the idea to publish this track-changes-screenshot structure. The column is called “Second Thoughts,” and previous iterations have been penned by the British critic Tom Morton and frieze co-editor Jörg Heiser. It was actually suggested to me to republish this piece—I probably never would’ve picked it myself, but Tirdad convinced me it was worth revisiting. He was probably more interested in the Occupy side of things, whereas I saw the opportunity to come to terms with my uncompensated tenure at Louise Blouin Media. Out of some naïve, conservative sense of professionalism I was never open about the fact that I was complicit in providing free labor for a for-profit company, potentially taking a paid opportunity away from another content provider. Or maybe I was just embarrassed. The ARTINFO blog did provide me with a lot of exposure, not all of which I wanted—all of a sudden I had PR companies like Nadine Johnson asking me to go to Brant Foundation parties—but I felt ethically compromised writing for free. I think this encapsulates a position that most young art professionals continually find themselves in: Do I accept being underpaid (or not paid at all) in exchange for exposure and opportunity, even if that means that I’m perpetuating a class divide between the privileged who can afford to work for free and participate in the art world and those who can’t? If we exist in an economy of opportunities that won’t pay for our rent, shelter or clothe us, I think it’s incumbent on us to learn how to fundraise, administrate, and create opportunities for ourselves in order to render irrelevant the assholes who won’t pay us.

What advice might you give to someone who’s now in your shoes? 

If you’re given a very visible platform in exchange for free labor, at least be transparent about the situation and use the opportunity to call bullshit as much as possible. Politeness should not be a virtue in a world as fucked up as this one.

You mentioned last summer in a Frieze survey that none of your friends read reviews unless it’s a hate-read or a job requirement. Do you still find that to be true? 

That may have been a bit overstated as I was particularly wrestling with the inherent hermeticism of writing criticism at the time. Generally, I think there’s a very unequal relation between the time and consideration poured into commissioning and writing reviews and the attention they’re afforded or the audience they pull. I think people do read them for leisure, but somewhat rarely.

What’s something that really interests you about an artwork, or makes you want to learn more? Are there a few particular shows or works you remember seeing that pointed you in a certain direction with your work?

I took a class called “Art and the City” with the Chicago-based gallerist Shane Campbell when I studied at SAIC, and I remember him showing us a Kelley Walker piece he bought simply because he didn’t like it. (The work splooged toothpaste all over the cover of an issue of KING magazine.) He said that he wanted to spend more time with the piece because he couldn’t figure out the criteria for why he disliked it, and since then it’s become one of the stars of his collection. I think that attitude—to examine something because you don’t understand it—is key to a healthy approach to viewing art. When I view contemporary art I have the usual immediate phenomenological reaction, but then ask myself how derivative the work is, whether it celebrates or disavows its relationship to an art historical lineage—or even how conscious the artist is of that lineage, how hungrily the work clamors for the market, and lastly, in Roberta Smith’s words, whether it is “overly dependent on familiar models.”

I went on the “Grand Tour” in 2007 (Venice Biennale, Art Basel, documenta12, and the Skulptur Projekte Münster), which acted as my introduction into the European contemporary art world. I got to see and feel the differences between the biennale, art fair, and quintennial—pre-recession, mind you—which was probably the most formative experience of my career.

Any major influences? 

Well, funny I just quoted Roberta Smith. I greatly admire her honesty and ability to parse out serpentine ideas in such accessible language. Mark Dion has been a mentor and huge supporter of mine for years, and I’m very much indebted to him. He’s given me many of my first real gigs in the art world. As such, I’ve met many legendary New York-based artists, writers and curators through him, ranging from the artist Moyra Davey to curator Sarina Basta. Relatedly, I’ve been thinking about Pat Hearn and Colin de Land a lot lately, as well as Jackie McCallister and the AFA crew. Additionally, it seems like I bring up Andrea Fraser’s research for the 2012 Whitney Biennial every other day.

You’ve been traveling a lot lately. Are you finding the art scenes and/or ways of thinking about art to be drastically different from New York?  

I spend a couple months a year in London and Berlin, and am beginning to spend a bit of time in Paris. Obviously, these cities and their art scenes are mediated by their geographies, transit systems, languages, economies and funding structures, but there are less obvious fractures between them, as well. One example: I continually find the level of discussion in London to be miles beyond what I experience in Berlin, Paris, and even New York. Maybe it’s because London has a few incredible art schools within the city, or because it takes a certain personality to thrive in such an expensive city. There was a time last summer in which a bunch of artists started embarking on collaborative, experiential, (I guess?) performance-based works—or maybe they were more closely tied to Happenings? Whatever that phenomenon was made me realize how market-driven New York’s art scene is. I greatly admire the work ethic of everyone in New York, though. All of my peers wear so many hats and work several jobs to make ends meet, yet they’re oftentimes the most generous, curious, and energetic people. I don’t find that as often in Berlin, for example, where you’re afforded the time and space (and a consequent lack of humility) to concentrate solely on your own practice due to the city’s extremely low cost of living.

Do you have any projects that you’re particularly proud of?

In the fall of 2011 I helped bring an exhibition to fruition that was curated by one of my best friends, Nicolas Djandji, who had recently passed away. That was probably the most difficult and undoubtedly the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.

In terms of my own projects, I was very happy with the show I curated for Wilkinson in London last fall and thought I nailed the exhibition text. Same goes for my show at Joe Sheftel that was scheduled to launch the same day that Sandy hit last year.

What’s your dream job?

Probably something similar to what I’m doing now, just compensated fairly so I stop developing physical and mental problems from being constantly poor. Or maybe to curate the documenta since I’ve studied it so intensely, though I doubt the Germans would love an American at the helm. Generally, I’d like to break out of the somewhat conservative definition of the “critic-curator” that I operate within now, and to publish more experimental forms of writing blending fiction, poetry, and criticism.


tom moody April 22, 2013 at 7:47 am

The most intriguing parts of this interview are found when you click the links. The non-clicking reader might not know that Archey’s BlouinArtInfo blog now consists of twelve months of blank pages. One wonders who made the decision to purge the content and leave the blog title up: writer or publisher? Archey’s previous Bien-Pensant blog seems to have suffered a similar fate. That was unfortunate for readers and commenters who were embroiled in discussions of (to cite an example where I was involved) whether new media artists were a “minor league” feeding into the commercial gallery system (I thought not, but now my commentary is gone). The same non-clicking reader also wouldn’t know that the annotated BlouinArtinfo blog post is highly critical of ArtFCity — I guess that’s “brassy” but this interview would have been a good place to hash out these differences rather than washing them down the memory hole. From my limited experience of Archey’s writing she seems obsessed with the economics of the art world and wears her ethics on her sleeve: she was quick to imply (in an AFC comment thread a couple of years back) that my own blog’s lack of comments fit somewhere in her spectrum of moral failings (which was also an excellent way to avoid the topics under discussion). By her definition my writing may lack open source transparency — although I do release early and often — but at least my writing is still up on the web and not vanished without a trace (knock microchips).

WhitneyKimball April 22, 2013 at 9:27 am

Tom, you have your own past gripes with Karen that you’re not linking here. Text for Image Conscious posts were still online before we ran this interview (without photos). Still, I’m not sure that needs to be disclaimed when we’re talking about Karen’s writing.

tom moody April 23, 2013 at 6:39 am

Hi, Whitney. I’d be interested to know when Archey’s “Image Conscious” blog content was removed from BlouinArtinfo and why and by whom. That seems like a story that’s not addressed here and maybe merits an update to the post (since you discuss her later annotation and the link to the original writing goes to blank pages). I recall noticing the “Image Conscious” content missing before this interview because I was looking for that “minor leagues” essay that had also disappeared from “Bien-Pensant.”

As for my linking to a past “gripe” (actually an argument that appeared on this blog where Paddy was extensively involved) I’m happy to provide it:

Re-reading it, one of the topics was Gene McHugh’s blog “Post Internet” blog and whether it was too cut off from Internet back-and-forth of links, comments, searching, etc. Archey tried to play “gotcha” about my lack of blog comments and Paddy put her in her place: “If you want to make an argument of authority through a false equivalency between a blog that maintains a no comment policy, no searchable url and no post linking ability to one that simply has its comments turned off, be my guest, but you won’t be talking to me any longer.”

Paddy Johnson April 23, 2013 at 8:58 am

It’s probably worth asking Karen about this, since I’m sure she’ll know the answer. We can shoot her an email.

WhitneyKimball April 23, 2013 at 9:16 am

She says it was Louis Blouin Media

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