Interview: Founder, Designer, Director and Curator Prem Krishnamurthy

Whenever you go to an art show, it is not only important to consider the art itself, but the space and context within which it is presented. These are all factors that exhibition designers, curators, and artists consider when working to bring an exhibition to life. At a recent, engaging panel at Americas Society, Prem Krishnamurthy and Shannon Harvey of Project Projects shared expert insight on many key elements of putting together an art show from start to finish. In this exclusive interview, Artifactoid sits down with Krishnamurthy, designer and founder of Project Projects, an award-winning graphic design studio, as well as the director and curator of P!, a critically-acclaimed exhibition space in New York’s Chinatown, to chat about curation and exhibition design, his eight-year dedicated study of East German graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel, a new experimental artist residency onboard commercial cargo ships, and more.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most important elements of curation and exhibition design to pay attention to when viewing an art show?

PK: I find that the most important thing to consider when viewing an exhibition is: what is the exhibition’s intention? What is it trying to persuade you of? How is it mobilizing the entire exhibition apparatus (or “exhibition prosthetics,” to use artist Joseph Grigely‘s term) starting from the press release (both text and design), checklist, display mechanisms, placement, lighting, contextual information, etc. in order to make a point or sell something? If you can understand the context and polemics of any given exhibition — especially in so-called “white cube” exhibitions, which make a claim to objectivity — then you have a better sense of where you, as the viewer, are being asked to stand.

Artifactoid: At a gallery show, museum exhibit, or art fair, what are the roles of the curator, the exhibition designer, and the artist? How do their roles differ, and on which aspects do they collaborate or exchange/interchange roles?

PK: Typically, these roles are intertwined — and thankfully so. Even though exhibition credits panels like to simplify and separate these roles, in the best exhibitions, there is a healthy overlap and intersect between content, mediation, and display. Not every exhibition has all three roles explicitly, but they are implicit in the work of making exhibitions.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a curator, and how did you overcome them?

PK: I don’t come from a curatorial background; rather, I studied art, focusing on photography and graphic design, and was drawn to organizing exhibitions and programs early on. Although I’ve always had ideas for projects, as I began over the past 8 or so years to focus more rigorously on curating, I discovered I had a lot about the professional practice of the field to figure out. However, I’ve had the great advantage of having worked as a designer with many of the most talented and thoughtful curators and artists in the field, from whom I’ve learned a lot.

Artifactoid: Tell us a bit about some of the unique elements and processes that went into putting together the most recent show that is on display at P!, from a curation/design perspective.

PK: The most recent show at P!, OST UND oder WEST: Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski was an unusual show for us on a number of levels: typically, we focus on mixing together different media, approaches, and historical periods, but this exhibition, in contrast, is truly about graphic design. This stems from the fact that I have been researching the subject of the exhibition, East German graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel (1910–1985) for over eight years. So in this case, it’s an exhibition that I have researched, organized, curated, and designed from start to finish. I’ve even acted as collector, since I’ve had to track down his work over the years! This wholesale collapse of roles almost makes it feel more like an artist project than a curatorial one. Yet in this case it’s also quite appropriate, since Wittkugel himself worked in this holistic manner, and sought, within the East German context, to broaden the role and reach of graphic design.

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Artifactoid: Are there any exciting upcoming projects you’re looking forward to executing this year? 

PK: There are so many projects this year! It’s a really exciting time, actually, where it seems like I’ll be able to integrate the work I’m doing in design and curating to an even greater degree. A partial list of projects includes curating and designing an exhibition called Dis-Play/Re-Play at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York in collaboration with curator Walter Seidl; curating, organizing, and designing a new and experimental artist residency onboard commercial cargo ships called Container Artist Residency 01, with project founder and artist Maayan Strauss; a new website for Ballroom Marfa; curatorial consultation and permanent exhibition design for The Bass in Miami Beach; and identity, print, and web design for Zarigüeya, a new contemporary art project in Quito, Ecuador. Plus, I’ve got a whole slew of writing and publishing projects, in addition a full exhibition program at P! — so it should be a productive “Year of the Monkey”!

For more from P!, don’t miss the upcoming show, “Maryam Jafri: Economy Corner,” artist Maryam Jafri‘s first US solo exhibition, opening this Thusrday, February 25th with a reception from 6-8PM.

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What Type of Art Can a Volcano Create? Just Ask Eduardo Navarro

Volcanoes have long been the subjects of art around the world. According to The Guardian, in the 19th century volcanoes inspired artists such as John Ruskin and Francis Danby, while at the turn of the 20th century, Etna, Vesuvius, Stromboli, Cotopaxi, and Hekla captivated the attention of Icelandic painters. More recently, Andy Warhol adopted the volcano as his muse for the 1985 Vesuvius series of paintings and prints.

The ability of volcanoes to inspire art comes as no surprise: these commanding natural forces can severely and capriciously endanger their surrounding communities while simultaneously acting as the providers of vibrant life and breathtaking beauty. They have been painted, sculpted, drawn, photographed, video recorded, written about, and more. But, who has ever given the volcano agency to create art itself? Who has taken the volcano out of the subject role and transformed it into an actor with agency in the artistic process? The answer is revered Argentinian Contemporary Artist Eduardo Navarro.

Recently at Americas Society, Navarro’s 2014 project originally created for the 12th Bienal de Cuenca and titled Poema Volcánico was the focus of an enthralling panel discussion between the artist (Navarro) and curator Sarah Demeuse. While the official description of Poema Volcánico can be accessed on page 10 of this PDF, during the panel Navarro shared his behind-the-scenes account of the conception and creation of Poema Volcánico, summarized below.

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Eduardo Navarro lived in Ecuador between the ages of eight and twelve. During that time, Navarro would eat breakfast and dinner daily in front of a volcano, pondering it. The artist noted that as an adult, it meant a lot to him to return to the country to create a work of art that was both sentimental and a personal artistic challenge.

Leading up to the 12th Bienal de Cuenca, Navarro got the idea for his volcano-related artistic endeavor. He thought, “How can I work with the geography, landscape, and energy of the volcano? Instead of documenting a volcano (since we live in a world overly saturated with on-demand digital imagery), he wanted to create a project that would allow the volcano to express itself, and to do this, decided that he would have to enter it.

Navarro then got in contact with renowned Ecuadorian volcanologist Silvana Hidalgo of the Instituto Geofísico in Quito to confirm for certain which volcano it would be possible for him to enter without assuming the actual risk that it would erupt while he was inside. Through his extensive research and conversations with Silvana, Navarro decided to work with the Guagua Pichincha volcano.

Guagua Pichincha was known as one of the safer active volcanoes to trek into in Ecuador. To provide a comparison, Cotopaxi was another option, but Navarro explained that one had to be on the level of a professional mountain climber to enter its crater. Guagua Pichincha, on the other hand, was known in Ecuador as the “training mountain” that one would tackle before becoming a professional climber.

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Once Navarro decided upon the Guagua Pichincha, he had to figure out what his process would be leading up to the climb and artistic execution. After spending the required monthlong period adjusting to the proper oxygen level for the climb, Navarro decided to enter the crater twice, with two different guides (including record-setting climber Karl Egloff). His first trip would be to see what the crater was like, test expectations, and become familiar with the experience of going inside it. His second trip would be geared toward executing the artistic portion of the project.

On the first trip, Navarro realized first-hand how difficult it was to trek down into the crater and come back up, regardless of the intense physical prep work he made sure to do in advance. Also on the first trip, Navarro identified fumaroles (the cracks where smoke escapes from the volcano’s center) as the feature of the volcano he wanted to pursue working with artistically.

In regard to how he was going to work with fumaroles, one of Navarro’s first ideas was to get a woven basket, lower it down into the crater, and then try to pull it back up and see what would come out. Navarro thought that this could be an interesting idea, not only because baskets are accessible and would allow gases and sulfur to move freely through them, but because choosing woven baskets would give him the opportunity to work with an object that was native to Ecuador.

Navarro then had only a ten-day period between his two descents to figure out the details of both the device he was going to provide the volcano with so that it could express something, and the protective suit he was going to wear during the trek (most volcanologists wear fire protection and oxygen masks when entering craters). He went to the local fire department and asked if he could borrow a fireproof suit, and while the personnel there couldn’t provide him with one, they directed him to where he could get the materials so that he could make one of his own.

There is no question that Navarro’s descent into the crater was a high-risk undertaking. Navarro noted:

It is a sad thing when you pass the guards in the front (entrance) at Guagua Pichincha. A few weeks prior, three geologists went in. One almost died and two had to be rescued with a helicopter, so this was much more dangerous than going for a hike, having a picnic, taking a photograph, and climbing out.

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Returning to the execution of his artistic endeavor, Navarro revisited the Instituto Geofísico to speak further with Silvana, who was crucial in the process. When Navarro raised the question, “How can I make the volcano draw?,”  Silvana suggested the possibility of using litmus paper to react to the sulfur. Navarro immediately loved this idea, and started working with using litmus paper to create a machine that would allow the volcano’s energy to leave a trail. The result was a hand-made frame that acted as a rack for the sheets of litmus paper, which fit inside a custom woven basket that he worked closely with local artisans to create. Navarro wore the basket like a backpack during his trek, and eventually lowered it into the fumarole. He then left it down there for one hour, providing the volcano with a chance to leave its mark and express itself as if typing on a PH-reactive typewriter (example of result featured below – top right).

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Ultimately Navarro titled this work Poema Volcánico because of the act of “handing the typewriter” over to the volcano. In other words, Navarro gave the volcano the power to express something that was not his interpretation of it.

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To expand, it can be argued that Navarro gave true authorship to the volcano because he wasn’t attempting to control the project’s result. In fact, throughout the entire process, there was always the chance that the volcano and litmus paper wouldn’t have any real reaction at all. Even after months of preparation and two rigorous climbs, Navarro admitted that he was willing to accept any outcome. For Navarro, “it would have been fine if the volcano didn’t have anything to say.”

Setting himself apart from the many other talented artists who have been inspired by volcanoes throughout the centuries, Navarro’s intention was to transform the volcano from subject into artistic collaborator. Navarro does not claim that the volcano is necessarily the author of this work, nor that he himself is the author of this work. To Navarro, Poema Volcánico is about how well he and the volcano know each other.

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Eduardo Navarro’s work has recently been featured at MALBA (Buenos Aires), The New Museum Triennial (New York), and e-Flux (New York). While in New York for this Americas Society panel, Navarro was a guest scholar at the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Visiting Artists and Critics program with Hunter College. For more on Poema Volcánico, click here to read Navarro’s published diary entry that details his first descent into the crater.