Chrissie Iles is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Iles co-curated the 2004 and 2006 Whitney Biennials as well as several thematic moving-image installation shows at the institution, including the recent “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905–2016.” In addition, Iles teaches in the Fine Art Department at Columbia University and is a member of the Graduate Committee at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.
One week with Iles is packed with a typically dense New York schedule. Beyond the standard dinners and openings, the curator finds the time to attend an all-night gong-fueled sound bath. I could be wrong, but this might be the first all-night sound bath in the history of the long and confusing “Consumer Reports” series. The week concludes with a train trip to Philadelphia to lecture at the Tyler School of Art, and, naturally, take in a few museums. —John Chiaverina
Tuesday, September 26
I wake up anxious: Puerto Rico, the earthquake in Mexico, North Korea, Brexit, NFL protests, the move to the far right in the German election, and what possesses America to allow civilians to walk around with guns. I’m channeling my phone before I’ve looked at it. I watch the sunlight moving slowly across the wall.
The brochure for the art book fair at PS1 is on the table. So many new books, zines, posters, projects, t-shirts, small presses, people. Democratic publishing feels like a model for how everything should operate. I look at the books I bought there and think about the library I created when I was a kid, and how I would lend books to myself with reminders to return them by the date I wrote on the inside cover.
I pour beans into the coffee grinder. Beethoven used to count out the exact number he made his coffee with every morning; it had to be 60. Makes sense, him composing music every day, coloring in every note. Kierkegaard would fill a cup to the top with sugar then pour hot coffee over it. I picture the hissing sound the sugar made as it melted.
Instagram. It’s a big communal journal. Ikawtalaga. ciao.for_now. huny333. leftoverfleetwoodcrack. flyribbon. funkypartay. getartistspaid. u.dyt. lilboosieplaycousin. oo.noo. Imtwelve. jugoeksport. gOOd_w1ll_hunt1ng.83. house.of.platitudes. lacroixboix. kachinetotalblamblam. oodlesofpain.
I drink my coffee. I like seeing what everyone is doing, what mood they’re in, what’s on their mind, what I missed, and what I went to from other perspectives. Intimacy at a distance. Layers of human experience at a swipe. A hundred realities in the space of ten minutes, micro-communities within micro-communities.
Breakfast with Violet Dennison in the Lower East Side. It’s a sunny morning and we can hear the sound of Chinese music being practiced outside. The restaurant’s front door is open. It should be getting chilly now, but it’s still summer.
I cycle to work, trying to avoid people in the bike lane. Vendors pulling their stuff along in hand trucks. Skateboarders. Pedestrians stepping into my path without looking up from their phones.
A meeting of our Replication Committee, headed by our head of conservation, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. We discuss philosophical, practical, and ethical issues that arise around any form of replication of artworks in the Whitney’s collection, from 3-D printing (Josh Kline) to chatbots (Ian Cheng), exhibition copies, and definitions of ‘original.’ I love being part of the discussions that we have with artists and each other about how to protect the artwork’s integrity into the longterm future. Today we’re discussing the book we’re hoping to produce on the work we’ve done so far, with case studies.
A meeting with Madeline Hollander. We discuss dance, notation, video projection, mark-making, ephemerality, interdisciplinary drawing, and her recent dance work Arena on Rockaway beach. Dance has been part of the Whitney’s DNA since the ’70s, and it’s clear that another dramatic shift is occurring, redefining the grammar of the body in relation to space and politics.
Home-made soup for lunch. I tidy my desk and read the catalogue for Ru Hockley and Catherine Morris’s show “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–1985: A Source Book.” The first sentence on the first page: “Who said it was simple” (Audre Lorde).
I answer emails and check an essay in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty First Century. Websites open include Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left. Airbnb for an upcoming trip to L.A. Otion Front Studio’s events page.
I listen to music a lot when I’m working. Today Fin Simonetti “In Silver,” Nico Jaar Space is Only Noise, DC4 “Litty,” Cocteau Twins “Ivo.” I like the light to be a particular way, so I have a Himalayan salt lamp at one end of the desk and a daylight lamp at the other.
I take a break and watch the boats go by on the river. From our big windows you can see the weather miles before it gets here. It’s easy to forget that we’re by the sea.
The office is quiet. People respect each other’s need to concentrate. I work on paperwork for the acquisition of works from “Dreamlands” and the Biennial, and prepare the next group of works for acquisition.
I cycle over to the opening of “Trigger” at the New Museum. There’s a crush to get in. Good exhibitions, the ones that you remember, are generative and open up new questions. I think about this as I walk through the show, trying to look at the work, saying hi, and listening to people’s first reactions.
The crowd is becoming too much so I skip the after-parties. I want to let everything I just experienced sink in. I’m out almost every night, so I try not to burn out. I read an article that says the brain starts to consume itself if it doesn’t get enough sleep. I go home and cook with my partner.
Wednesday, September 27
I listen to music, slice up an apple, and make oatmeal with raspberries. I’m reading an article about how trees support each other as long as they’re the same species. Sounds familiar. I’m passionate about trees. Apparently the trees in New York aren’t able to be together in a group or put down deep roots so, like the rest of New Yorkers, they’re stressed, alienated, lonely, and constantly battling air pollution and traffic fumes.
I check Hito Steyerl’s essay on the poor image, and scribble some notes for my lecture at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia next week.
I’m meeting with an art historian from Germany who wants to discuss a show that I curated a while ago, including floorplans, my curatorial notes, and how decisions were made with the artists. I like switching between the intimacy of working closely with artists and the cool, analytical gaze of art history.
A meeting with Sable Elyse Smith, whose show I’ve just seen at the Queens Museum. We discuss her work, “Trigger,” incarceration, race, and why class is so difficult for Americans to talk about. I’m going over the art history of the past fifty years re-thinking everything.
Like every Monday, I read Jamie Sterns’s blog (“What happens if you don’t like a show everyone loves?”).
It’s dark by the time I arrive at the Ramiken Crucible space. There are fairy lights and paella, and everyone is in a good mood. Small galleries are important, and their precariousness makes me uneasy. Sometimes it feels like the art world is being swallowed by one giant mouth.
To the opening of Clemence White and Eushavia Bogan’s curated show “Ecotone.” They’ve been very smart in the way they’ve responded to the invitation to curate a show in some newly completed luxury condos designed by Zaha Hadid, taking over one of them with artworks that critique the space. The opening is packed, so I go back the next day to see the delicate but hard-hitting installations properly.
I bike over to the 13th St Repertory Theatre, where Nick Faust is hosting a theater benefit for the Harm Reduction Coalition, with performances by artists. The audience is all artists and friends. I sit quietly and relax from the day; the intimate, supportive atmosphere is calming.
Another Citibike home, to work on my Tyler lecture. I write about the ways young African American and Native American artists working with the moving image are disrupting the modernist value system of the white cube and its refusal of the outside world in a new way.
Surviving Escobar – Alias JJ. I’m on season 2. Everything stands or falls by loyalty and betrayal. Truth is a relative term. Magic realism. Corrupt politics. I’m learning Spanish, and write down phrases to memorize.
To a bar to meet friends. Walking around Chinatown is home; the supermarkets and stores shuttered for the night, the empty vegetable stalls, Buddhist temples painted red and yellow, the tiny cafes, karaoke bars, narrow corridors, and steep staircases.
For the city that never sleeps, New York restaurants close early. We’re hungry and walk over to Veselka.
Thursday, September 28
I make breakfast and listen to the BBC, where MPs in the House of Commons are slicing Trump to pieces with that especially British sarcasm. The word ‘bovine’ is being used.
I look up diary entries from the past: George Grosz, visiting Moscow in 1922: “When I called on Tatlin… he was living in a tiny, neglected old house. Some of the hens he kept slept on his bed, laying their eggs in one corner…”
Samuel Pepys: “wakened about two o’clock this morning with a noise of thunder, which lasted for an houre, with such continued lightnings, not flashes, but flames, that all the skye and ayre was light…” (Tuesday 16th August 1664).
Daily life is all about the weather. Walter Benjamin’s diary describes how he barely saw Moscow, he was so busy looking down at the snow on the pavement, trying to avoid slipping over. I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to bike to work now that winter is coming.
Cycling to the Whitney. The streets of New York are a free-for-all; broken cobblestones, potholes, big slabs of iron slapped over work areas, random mounds of tarmac, manhole covers sunk into the road. Apparently the city doesn’t control the way the streets are dug up, they just issue the permits to private companies. I love New York. Try getting that do-it-yourself approach past the E.U. They have an ‘International Roughness Index (IRI)’ for road surfaces and wrote a 225-page report on it.
I make a picnic lunch for a friend—cheese, chorizo, bread, organic salad made from ingredients from the farmers’ market, lemon juice—and we eat it outside, looking over at the river. Still summer.
By subway then bike to Anne Libby, who’s showing new work in Zak Kitnick’s studio at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn. The temperature has dropped and the wind whips round my ears and shakes the bike from side to side.
To Bed-Stuy for dinner with friends. We drink gin and tonics and stay late. We all know each other through multiple friendships in a way that knits us together like family. I realize I’m leaving everything personal out of this diary.
Friday, September 29
I make orange juice with a large painted ceramic lemon squeezer I bought in Venice this summer as part of Anna-Sophie Berger’s Breakfast Pavilion at the A+A Gallery during the opening of the Venice Biennale in May.
At the museum, I organize my papers and research my new show. I read the catalogue for this summer’s Whitney ISP curatorial exhibition, “That I am Reading Backwards and Into For a Purpose, To Go On” (a title taken from the writings of the much missed Ian White). I’m a huge fan of the ISP and the fact that it continues to produce such strong curators, artists, and writers.
I get the subway to Lincoln Center, meeting up with Phoebe Berglund to see Swan Lake at the New York City Ballet. We have dinner at 49 Monroe downtown afterwards, and talk about the relationship between dance and sculpture, materiality, choreography, her recent collaboration with the sculptor Hannah Levy at PS1, race in dance, and how dance operates in different kinds of space.
To a party with friends in Brooklyn. Home late.
Saturday, September 30
Breakfast at home (eggs, chorizo, fruit, and green tea), then a walk round the Lower East Side galleries, including Matthew Linde’s “The Overworked Body” at the Goethe and Mathew Gallery, the first show to historicize the 2000s. I see as many shows as I can but I’m always playing catch-up. I go wherever the shows are; the end of the M line, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Sunset Park, New Jersey, people’s apartments, backyards, studios, rooftops, storage spaces, storefronts.
To Aily Nash’s birthday party in Brooklyn. It’s so warm that we can sit outside in the backyard under the trees. I arrive early and talk to some filmmakers who are taking part in Aily and her co-curator Dennis Lim’s upcoming “Projections” programs at the New York Film Festival.
I walk along the street clutching a pillow, a sleeping bag, a blanket, water, and a sweater. I’m going to an all-night gong sound bath. I’ve been into alternative medicine and healing since I was 14, and I do Kundalini yoga, which re-balances the nervous system and releases emotions from the body. Now I’m taking the next step into something that has been described to us as a profound experience.
Sunday, October 1
It was a profound experience; transformative and a little disorientating. I walk a block and a half home with my blanket, etc., slide into bed, and sleep for hours. Later I have a Chinese massage at my favorite place on Mott Street, and the hard wood floor of the night before melts away.
Dinner in Chinatown with Krit Arunanondchai, who’s just back from installing a solo show at Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. We eat Malaysian curry and catch up.
A hot bath and Surviving Escobar. Surviving staying up all night is all I can focus on right now.
Monday, October 2
I make coffee, eggs, and raspberries, check Instagram, and add events to the calendar. Tim Gentles’s show “What Would the Community Think” at Hotel Pavilion, Jon Wang’s project on feng shui at Triple Canopy, a conversation with and about empathy at Recess, programs at the museum. I’m biased, but our programs are amazing.
I listen to music and read articles online on women, Black Lives Matter, ecology. A rainbow mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The sounds that planets make. How the female Viking was written out of history. How experiences in childhood can alter your DNA for the rest of your life.
All day at the museum, attending meetings, researching my show, and answering emails. I put the opening of Hayley Martell’s show at Larrie in the calendar. I want to ask her how she made her delicate drawings and sculptural forms, and about the intense emotion of the mark-making.
I look up a list of Biennials and Triennials. Twenty-two just in the A section. How are we going to historicize this period? The current generation of artists and shows, more than at any other period in art history, the recouping of older generation artists from invisibility, the dismantling of the sexist, racist, ageist, white male canon, and the greater acceptance of film, dance, performance, books, zines, poetry, sound, music and VR, is producing a vast pool of creative material whose size and complexity is too much to absorb. Art history will eventually take care of it; but in order for it to do so, it all has to be made visible.
I cycle home as the sun is setting; the days are getting shorter and it’ll be winter soon. I think about which film to suggest for an ad-hoc movie club that I’m in with some artist friends.
We make dinner at home; then a walk to get supplies for the journey tomorrow and a nightcap.
Tuesday, October 3
We catch the train to Philadelphia and feel excited to be out of New York in the sunshine. Walking from the subway to the Airbnb in a warehouse district in the center of town. We walk around the city in the sun.
To the ICA to see the ‘Speech/Acts’ show curated by Meg Onli, which is excellent. I take photos of all the books on the shelves of the Racial Imaginary Institute’s satellite outpost, to research later. The show is both an experience and a resource for new forms of language and poetry.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I’m riveted by a van Gogh painting of rain falling, seen from his window in the asylum in Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée in the south of France (Rain, 1889). He was experimenting with depth of field. The rain is almost scored into the canvas in long diagonal marks, in a searing reflection of his emotional state that brings your eyes right up close to the raindrops.
A quiet dinner with Alex da Corte. We talk, eat, drink, compare living in Philadelphia and New York, and talk about the art we saw earlier.
Home to tweak the lecture for Tyler the next day, sitting at the kitchen table in the loft, playing music and writing.
The next day, five studio visits then the lecture, in an art school with some of the most spacious facilities I’ve ever seen, including a large glass-blowing shop with six furnaces. Returning to New York refreshed and cheery, I look down at the subway platform that hasn’t been scrubbed since 1971 and love it anyway.