Ludlow 38 Archive

In Perspective: MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38 (2011–2019)

Ludlow 38
Archive

2018

2018

Avi Feldman

Avi Feldman (AF) was the 2018 Curatorial Resident at Ludlow 38. He spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in January 2020 from Leipzig.

 

AF

Sarah, I have to say, I’m envious of the conversations you are having. I think the curators should have spoken more with each other.

 

SD

That’s a great point to start with. Why do you think that didn’t happen?

 

AF

There was always this new beginning: each residency started as if there had been a rupture, a clear end of the previous one. Your year at Ludlow 38 is about your work, which is lovely. You get your own new audience, you get your own new press, you get your own new network. You work with different artists and curators. I’m not sure if you know this, but I actually asked to be part of the jury to go against this abrupt rupture.  

 

SD

No, I didn’t know.

 

AF

I wanted to be part of the jury in order to build a connection, which of course can be perceived as wanting to have more input in the program. The Goethe-Institut didn’t go for this, so I proposed to be a silent observer to the jury. I was really invested in the institution and in the gallery, and saw it as my obligation to provide some sort of continuation. I felt that the Goethe-Institut and Ludlow needed to address this. That said, the break each year also has its benefits; there is a very positive side to it. 

 

SD

I see what you are saying. I can compare it to models where you primarily have guest curators and there is little connective tissue between the projects.

 

AF

Right. But at Ludlow that tissue is there in some ways, and that’s the tricky thing: Sara Stevenson has been there from the very beginning. So have the Goethe-Institut and MINI. The actual space has been the same since the beginning. So there are connections. In my exhibitions I always seek to build a continuation from a curatorial perspective. In every space there are layers that manifest throughout the years. I’m always interested in how I leave traces, and how I deal with traces of projects that took place before me. So that’s an interesting entry point to our discussion. 

 

SD

Yes, very much so. We are totally going off my planned script here, but I love it.

 

It’s interesting that you point out this interest in traces, because you actually applied with a very unique proposal. You brought The Agency of Legal Imagination to Ludlow for an entire year. It had a specific vision and definitely felt like it was an organization that had done things already and now it had landed in a place to do something new. In a way, one might say it was good for you that there were no traces.

 

AF

Yes and no. I called it an agency because I acted as an agent, which I understand as a person coming into an institution or entity. As an agent I was always thinking of new proposals, but was simultaneously very much informed by the history of the place and existing relations. So of course it was fantastic that I could implement my vision and ideas, and no one ever told me not to do something. For the agency to thrive, I needed to take into consideration the neighborhood, the building, as well as the fact that I had my desk in the Goethe-Institut’s office near Union Square. All those things were part of my idea of how to build and run an agency. As part of my end-of-year publication, I published a statistics report of the previous 10 years, analyzing Ludlow’s past programs. I wanted the agency to analyze Ludlow and think about its future.

 

Photo: Gareth Smit

 

SD

Besides becoming involved in the selection process, was there something at the end of your residency that you felt like you would have wanted to do, but for which you just didn’t have the time or resources? 

 

AF

I feel that I did ninety percent, if not more, of what I wanted to do and I’m proud of most of it. I worked so hard, I didn’t feel like I needed to do more when I finished my residency. 

 

SD

In terms of your program, you say you looked at the neighborhood and its history. Was there something specific that you feel resonated very well in the context?

 

AF

From the very beginning, I insisted that the full name of the agency be on the gallery’s door. It was beautifully designed by my first assistant, Ida Michel. She thought of how to connect the lettering with the neighborhood’s logos and signs, the yellow and red colors. It caught people’s attention: some thought it was an agency for immigration, and some even felt a bit stressed about it; they couldn’t tell whether it was a good or a bad thing. But it allowed people to come in and ask questions. So that was very good. It was a small gesture that allowed us to connect with our block and its surroundings. But I must say that, overall, I didn’t achieve so much collaboration with other organizations or galleries or spaces in the neighborhood. In that regard, unfortunately, I was not very successful.

 

SD

What did you enjoy most at Ludlow 38?

 

AF

Does it have to be one thing? Can it be a couple of things? I enjoyed the freedom that I had. I really had my space, a small budget, as well as support from the Goethe-Institut. Being in New York allowed me to collaborate and reflect with very exciting people who live and work there. Despite spatial and budget restrictions, I was really able to fulfill my vision. And surprisingly enough, I enjoyed going to the office at the Goethe-Institut. 

 

SD

How often would you go?

 

AF

The first part of the year I was there almost every day. It was important for me to have a presence there. I wanted to connect Ludlow with the Goethe-Institut, I really felt there was a need for that. As a freelance curator who is used to working in an institution for only a limited period of time, I enjoyed getting to know the working conditions, the financial aspects, and even the personal relationships that people have in the office. Being at the Goethe-Institut, I realized that the colleagues there were my audience, too. They came to the openings. Andrea Pfeil, the head of the language department, arranged for teachers to come to see the exhibitions. I saw this as part of my mission. I didn’t want to be like a UFO landing at the Goethe-Institut, so I tried to build relationships and have a positive influence on the work environment at the institute. 

 

SD

That’s so interesting, because when I asked the audience question most of the other curators said the art scene, the Lower East Side crowd, and your response is quite distinct. I wonder: did this interest in connecting with the Goethe-Institut staff shape the way you did your projects or how you spoke about your exhibitions?

 

AF

They were not my primary audience, but an important audience nonetheless. As much as I wanted to connect with the neighborhood, with the Lower East Side and Chinatown and all those places, my understanding of ‘legal imagination’ is very broad and I truly thought, and still think, that it can affect and enrich almost anyone. Maybe I went too broad in trying to explore different avenues instead of concentrating more on, for example, the Lower East Side art scene which might have been an easier, more immediate audience. But I was not that interested: I wanted to open up the program to different audiences and different collaborations. 

 

I told all the artists that they could organize events at the Goethe-Institut—I wanted them to build a connection and think about how we are not only in the Lower East Side, but also at Union Square where we can reach a completely different audience. We had quite an active program of events at the Goethe-Institut proper, like the performances as part of Devin Kenny’s exhibition, a series of lecture-performances by Tali Keren and Alex Strada, a screening, curator talks… 

 

Photo: Hinda Weiss

 

SD

This is actually something that brings me back to the early days of Ludlow 38, because there used to be this space called the Wyoming Building, where the Ludlow curators would also do events. 

 

AF

That’s what I was trying to do, to draw lines and connections that would bring these spaces together. They felt far, almost like the Goethe-Institut and Ludlow were different states of mind. 

 

SD

We have talked about Ludlow, the Goethe-Institut, distance, and reflecting about those connections. Did you establish any routine relationships at Ludlow? Were there more casual relationships with people or places throughout? I’m not asking this from a romantic perspective. As a curator, you also engage in a lot of other interactions, you’re not just working with the Goethe-Institut and with the artists. There are a lot of other things that are happening, too.

 

AF

I loved the Chinese bakery on Grand Street, which sadly closed. I would buy red bean buns for the new interns and at the start of each new installation. I remember asking them why they were closing and they said it’s too expensive so they had to close. It was such a shame. I also used to go to this coffee place (Little Canal) by the East Broadway subway station, and would even hold meetings there. I was obsessed because sometimes I would see Madonna’s daughter there. Right next door to Ludlow there was another bakery. They saved me once when I couldn’t open the lock. Another place I liked very much was the candy store (The Sweet Life) around the corner on Hester, but it closed as well. Like the bakery on Grand Street, it was forced out by gentrification and the changes in the neighborhood.

 

Photo: Tali Keren/Alex Strada

 

There were the gallery assistants, too: Hiji Nam and Amelie Meyer. That was very nice and very important as well. And James Gregory Atkinson came in towards the end of my residency, when Hiji left for a job at Artforum. Hiji was always very good with my daughter. I always tried to bring my daughter along, she was at all the openings. I felt that there were not enough children around, I don’t remember working with any artists or curators in New York that had children.

 

SD

Yes, or they don’t have them visibly with them, they’re not integrated into the more social side of their work.

 

AF

This really shocked me. On a very basic level, for example, in the art gallery scene, there are not enough diaper-changing stations. I pointed this out to the Goethe-Institut, because they didn’t have any in their public restrooms. 

 

SD

My following question is a bit more bureaucratic. I’m curious how you sailed the waters between the overarching institute funded by German public with taxpayer money, and that small independent space in the Lower East Side. Did you feel any kind of responsibility, a different public weight?

 

AF

Of course. I saw myself as someone who represents Germany and is paid by the German taxpayers. I felt a responsibility to have a very clear voice about Germany today. It was important for me to open my residency with an exhibition about structural racism in Germany today. It was called We Indict!, which I co-curated with Timo Glatz and Gesine Schütt, and dealt with the NSU, an underground Neo-Nazi organization in Germany. The project considered the different kinds of complicity of the German secret services, police, and parliament with crimes committed by the NSU. In 2018, when I started, Trump had been in office for a year. Working on my program, I realized that in order for me to delve deeper into questions of racism in the United States, in order to connect Ludlow and the Goethe-Institut with issues of race and structural racism in the United States, we had to look at ourselves as a German institution first.

 

Photo: Gareth Smit

 

This first exhibition was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and together with them, we were able to organize a lecture with a legal scholar from Germany and an activist and journalist from the United States about the interconnectedness and the quite horrific exchange that exists between right-wing extremists in the United States and in Germany, and in Europe more generally. We also organized a two-day workshop with legal experts, journalists, and students to discuss the case of the NSU and to analyze the relations with the United States. We wanted to take an active—even activist—approach to the issue instead of just making it visible. I often heard from quite educated people, that they didn’t really understand. They’d say, “We have Trump here, why do we need to hear about your structural racism?” But I wanted to put our work in perspective. 

 

SD

Ludlow 38 is a curatorial residency program for emerging curators, which implies that you’re meant to develop professionally. Do you feel that there were specific skills or methods that you learned over the course of the year?

 

AF

Yes, as I said, I really learned about the Goethe-Institut, which was great for me. I learned how to work with an institution, and how to create a relationship and a dialogue with its people while keeping some sort of independency. The spatial and budgetary restrictions taught me how to be more flexible, more creative. I had been in a much more spoiled position before, so I had to figure out what to do with this ‘tiny shop.’ How do I transform it in order to align it with the vision that I had of the agency, of the exhibitions, and in order for the artists to benefit from it as well? I wasn’t used to doing everything from scratch, and I learned a lot from it. I came to understand that I know little about the United States and about New York. That was a wake-up call for me. I had to keep an open mind about cultural differences, language differences, different sensibilities than in Europe. I hope that this eventually showed in how I curated my projects. 

 

SD

When your residency ended did you consider staying in New York? I know there are visa issues and all of that, but was there a desire to continue in this context?

 

AF

I would have liked to stay in New York because I felt that one year was too short. I would have been able to continue my reflection about the differences between Germany, Europe, and the United States. So I would have stayed at least another year but for my partner, who had taken a year off from his job, it was clear that we needed to go back to Germany. Everyone was quite shocked that after New York we went back to Dresden, a small town in East Germany. But I must say that it was good for the return. I was so exhausted, I had produced so much. 

 

SD

And you organized so many events, which are so much more consuming, too.

 

Do you have any thoughts about Ludlow’s closing?

 

AF

It is a bittersweet ending for a project that, I think, is going away too early. Ten years for an institution is nothing.