Nina Tabassomi (NT) was the 2016 Curatorial Resident. She spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in February 2020 from Innsbruck, Austria.
SD: Hi Nina, I know you have an artist arriving at the train station in a bit, so let’s dive into it.
Given that it took a bit of time to get used to how things worked at Ludlow 38, I wonder if there was something you really wanted to organize there at the end of the year?
NT: Let me backtrack a bit. Throughout the year, my basic question was: how can artists and art institutions deal with questions of immigration? As art can talk about pain and its infrastructures without turning the subjects into victims for a second time, I feel that art needs to contribute to this discourse. I was also, of course, interested in the difference between the North American and European debate on immigration—specifically, the debate taking place in Germany at the time. Then Trump was elected in November. Suddenly, everybody was in a state of shock. The art spaces in the Lower East Side invited people to discussions, asking: how do we want to react to this, what will be our responsibility in the coming political situation and how could New York City be so alienated from the rest of the country?
This was close to the end of my residency. I felt that it would be very difficult to react within the context of a German institution. To give you an example: I participated in the demonstrations, but of course had no intention of shouting, “This is not my president.” The fact that Trump was elected and hardly anyone in New York had expected it gave rise to new questions. At the time, it felt as if the role of Ludlow needed to be reconsidered. So, to come back to your question: there was not a particular exhibition that I had in mind but rather a set of difficult questions that I would have investigated in this new setting.
SD: That makes sense. I remember that moment as very traumatic, too. I won’t easily forget it. Was there something that you did at Ludlow, whether before or after November, that you felt resonated quite well?
NT: The solo exhibition with Arash Hanaei, Capital Complex. He developed a visual alphabet of the past and present of Tehran’s streets, especially focusing on the billboards and the murals around town, and how they recount local history in a global context—for example, Western commercials that had been replaced by martyr iconography. Arash’s large-scale digital drawings merged with the walls of Ludlow, and you could see them very well from outside the gallery. Pedestrians would come in and ask, “What is this?” You basically had the streets of Tehran in the Lower East Side. I think it provoked some very interesting discussions.
The same goes for the exhibition Das Afrikanische Bierlaboratorium I by Emeka Ogboh, where we transformed the exhibition space into a branding zone for a fictitious beer called Sufferhead Original. We presented research and an aesthetic proposal concerning immigration and blackness, food and community culture in Berlin, and this definitely resonated in the context of New York. These topics are addressed quite differently in Berlin and in New York: whereas in Germany there is still some tacit assumption of what is considered German and what is not, the U.S. thinks of itself as more diverse, yet at the same time overt acts of racism still take place on an everyday basis. That exhibition triggered a lot of interest and discussion. There was a write-up in the New York Times, so you could feel it was on point somehow.
For the last exhibition—while Trump was president-elect—I worked with the American artist Leah Dixon and she built a gathering place at Ludlow referencing popular American backyard and tailgate games. There were some very literal elements in the installation that evoked recent U.S. history, and she combined them with popular American leisure games. It was like a game room. Our visitors had to participate in ambivalent playing, they could not just look at the installation. There was no real distance they could take: they had to confront that they are on some level complicit in what is happening in the country politically, and that it may also be grounded in some well-rehearsed societal rituals.
SD: Yes, it was very much a time of reckoning and deep self-analysis. Narrowing the scope a bit to the closer Ludlow neighborhood: Were there people or certain community centers or similar spaces in Chinatown, the Lower East Side, or downtown at large, that you feel you connected with?
NT: I have to say, I did not really collaborate with the neighbors. From my perspective, one year is too short for that. You arrive as sort of a German alien, then you have to understand the context. I did not feel comfortable holding discussions about gentrification in Chinatown, for example. I always prefer to speak from within, and I had the feeling that might be tricky given the short duration of the residency. Also, one has to consider that Ludlow is, of course, part of this process.
You don’t really inherit an audience at Ludlow. Depending on your program, you build your own community; it really depends on the topics that you address and the artists you exhibit. For example, with Arash Hanaei’s exhibition we attracted the Iranian community; then I did Infrastructures of Pain, which was a group exhibition with all New York-based artists who brought their own communities to the space. With every exhibition, our community grew. Ludlow is not like a big public institution; its audience very much depends on the artists exhibited, and on personal contacts as well. I always felt that we got mostly the art experts, which is very nice, but on the other hand it’s hard to reach the general public in New York.
SD: That is very much the case, I think, in New York. Also, people follow visual arts but they won’t follow theater or other arts, for example.
NT: Exactly, in a city like this you just have to decide. People have to ask: is this exactly what I’m interested in, or should I go somewhere else?
SD: Going back to your experience of the election trauma, and the more general question of what is the responsibility of an art space and how should it act: Did this experience, or these questions, shape how you think about your work now?
NT: I have always had that question, but yes, it became very clear that you have to consider context. Where are you working, what’s the institution about, what is the neighborhood, what’s your own position within that structure? I was very aware of my status as a short-term resident, thinking, “I am part of this right now, but at the same time am I really entitled to talk about what’s going on?” This was very formative for me, the realization that there are limits to your actions when you occupy such an outside position.
SD: This brings me to a larger structural question. Ludlow was a space run by the Goethe-Institut and sponsored by MINI—it was a public-private partnership. Did you feel that you had any sort of responsibility vis à vis the German taxpayer whose money is going towards an art space in New York? Or was there more a sense that you were a Lower East Side space? How did you understand that identity, that hybrid of different forces behind it?
NT: This is one of the things that made Ludlow really awesome for the New York scene, not only for the German scene. It was this public institutional sphere that you don’t otherwise find in the U.S. I’ve always worked in public institutions and I know about their problems and complexities, but I still think they offer a lot of freedom, as Ludlow did. Even if it comes with blind spots where power and structures of exclusion are concerned, and less flexibility sometimes, public funding gives you independence in programming. You don’t have to think about profit, you don’t have to think of being affiliated with a private funder and their ideas.
The commercial galleries on the Lower East Side tend to show sexy or glossy art that has to catch your attention immediately. The possibilities and the enrichment that a public institution offers were very obvious in this context. In regard to Ludlow being German (but also not): there’s this weird beauty to that. You always know that you’re also presenting your work to a European audience. Even if they would not visit, they would follow us online. And at the same time, of course, you curate the programs and the shows for the people who are there, so there’s a double gesture.
SD: I like that idea of a double gesture. And I would say it also became much more pronounced towards the end of Ludlow’s run, because people now follow exhibitions from their phones. I don’t think that was so much the case in the beginning. Let me now jump a bit forward to the idea that Ludlow was meant to offer a professional development experience. I wonder if at any point you felt that you were learning something new—be it a method, an approach, a special skill?
NT: At Ludlow you’re responsible for everything. You have the support of the Goethe-Institut and you have one assistant, but you are responsible for a lot of different things. You have to be very hands-on. At the same time, it was not an off-space Glossary off-space: A term used in Germany to describe small, often self-initiated and nonprofit art spaces. Comparable to a “project space” in the US. , it was a public institution. The budget was not huge, but it was also not insignificant. You have to learn all sorts of things. I also think that in New York the attention span for exhibitions is not so big. With everything that you do, you have to get people’s interest for a hot minute. The pace is very different from Europe. The idea of time differs. For example, my first program was a film program that took place every Sunday for about a month. In Germany, I would have shown three hours worth of films every time; in New York, I always thought it should not exceed one hour and a half. I wanted people to come in, sit down, and not rush in and out. But this happens a lot in New York. As a curator, you have to adapt your strategies in conversation with the public, and this became very clear to me. Also, the press releases required a different style than the ones that I had previously written for German institutions. I had the feeling it had to be shorter, be a little less playful, hit the point more directly.
I had to rethink some of my ideas in this context. For example, I was always in favor of political correctness. However, during my residency, I realized that even though pretty much everyone that I spoke to was very aware of speech (compared to Germany, it’s a completely different degree of awareness), it did not prevent blatant racism on the streets. I saw things that I would not have expected to happen in New York. So I came to realize that perhaps political correctness has less impact on people’s thinking than I previously believed. All in all, I’m still very influenced by American discourse. I think it’s more advanced than in Europe. I would wish that Europe might find its own way of dealing with and reacting to its history of colonialism, structural racism, sexism, etc.
SD: Yes, I have the same experience. I’m actually from Belgium, and when I go back I notice that there is a lot of work to do. But I wonder, when you finished your year at Ludlow, did you keep following the program?
NT: I think the interesting thing is that it changes every year. Every curator completely reshaped the idea of what Ludlow is. Afterwards, I felt most connected to Avi Feldman’s program; I liked his idea of an Agency for Legal Imagination. But overall, I appreciated the different approaches.
SD: What are your thoughts on the fact that the program is ending?
NT: Tragic thoughts. There’s no other program I know of that allows you to really run such a space for a year. Ludlow was very important. As an emerging curator from Europe, you cannot go to a city like New York and get a job in an institution and direct the program there. Maybe you can become a curatorial assistant, maybe even a curator, but you will always have a department head and department interests. In this respect it was very formative for me, and a rare opportunity. At the same time, Ludlow was really important in the context of New York because, as I said before, it functioned like a public institution. The artists also very much enjoyed it— the work style, the possibilities.
SD: Is this because it was so intimate and it allowed a very direct contact with the curator? Or is it because of this freedom that you say existed in the institution?
NT: It’s mostly the freedom and the possibility to experiment. Big institutions, especially in the US, are very bureaucratic. But Ludlow is a small space: you decide and you do it. I was very sad when I learned that it’s over. It’s a loss for the Lower East Side, New York, and also for Germany.