Sculpture, sex, dinosaurs, dance, trolley cars, the Bronx, concert halls, the NYPD: New York is home to a plethora of museums devoted to a multitude of subjects, but there’s only one that aims to reshape our expectations of a museum as an institution.
Located in a re-purposed freight elevator in an alleyway just south of Canal Street, Museum hosts a painstakingly curated collection of found objects from that very block and a selection of donated pieces, which include a cluster of “homemade weapons” (or baseball bats studded with rusty saw blades and nails) and the very shoe President Bush almost got beaned with. A series of performance pieces make use of Museum’s space as well, featuring poetry readings, acoustic sets and art creation in the flesh, as demonstrated by artist Van Neistat’s upcoming presentation, “The Golden Word,” in which he transforms Museum into a pop-up studio to engrave SwissChamp knives for interested visitors to give to as gifts.
With its programming and carefully constructed shelves, recessed lighting, and a dial-in audio guide that details the origins of each oddity in its 150-strong hodge-podge, Museum isn’t just another art installation or pop-up gallery for accidental tourists to stumble upon and scratch their heads over. It’s a surprising, fastidiously planned detour for those intrigued by reinvention and how we define everyday objects, and an intimate look at collections that wouldn’t have a home anywhere else.
Below, Neistat, along with Alex Kalman and Josh Safdie, two of Museum’s three co-founders, elaborate as to what exactly goes into the curation of Museum and why “The Golden Word” fits in so well with its rediscovered surroundings.
Van, let’s start with your connection to Museum and why the project’s taking place here, of all places. Can you take me through the conception and realiztion of “The Golden Word”?
Van Neistat: Have you ever seen that movie Rushmore? There’s this scene where Dirk Calloway is making up with Max Fischer, and he goes and visits Max at his dad’s barbershop. As he’s leaving, he gives Max his Christmas present, and he opens it up, and it’s a SwissChamp. He opens it up, and on it, engraved by a machine, is “Max Fischer: Rushmore Yankee 1985-1997” or something like that. I had tried to duplicate that, and I went all over New York to find someone to do that service, and they didn’t do it. So, I started using a wood burner to imitate that. For people’s birthdays, I started to give SwissChamps with their names and little comments on them. Eventually, I’d find these “golden words” when I’d give my friends’ girlfriends knives. I’d start with a word that resonated with them, or a word that made them feel good. I really enjoyed the actual task of doing it, and the best art I make is gifts—or rather, the art I enjoy making most is gifts—and they usually come out the best. I don’t know what the exact moment was when I decided, “Why don’t I just do this? Why don’t I just set up a little booth?” I think it was when I went to Museum for the first time and I was totally blown away. It was the perfect size and scale to do a little activity like this. My work is mostly making movies for the Internet, and it’s very solitary—the camera work is pretty solitary, I shoot it myself, and the editing is very solitary. I spend most of my waking hours doing this, so I wanted to do something that was more involved with a person. I thought that this process, in that it’s based on a making gift to give to someone else, was a beautiful thing. I would think about the person it was for when I was engraving the knife, and that’s when the “golden word” would come to me, usually. That moment of forgetting and just doing, when you let your mind disappear and you’re just focused on carving this little thing. We’ll see how it goes. I’m really looking forward to hearing these stories from people and hearing what they have to say about this stranger maybe I’ll never meet.
Josh Safdie: Van actually has a piece in Museum, and we don’t consider any piece to be a piece by an artist. This was a face to an air conditioner that he was throwing away. It’s still kind of a found object, and on the face of the air conditioner, it says the date and location, and “I BELIEVE A DIRTY AC FILTER IS GROUNDS FOR A FIRING AND A CLEAN AC FILTER IS GROUNDS FOR A BONUS.” We just took the face off and put it there, and it comes across as, “Wow, someone had a crazy boss!” or it could be read as “You know what? We should all live our lives with the meticulousness of every moment. There’s no reason why things should be left undone, things should be thought out all the time.”
When it comes to the collaboration between Museum and artists like Van, is this a one-time thing, or will we see more performances of this nature in the space?
Alex Kalman: We’re doing late-night programming and midnight performances. Last month we had Lawn Waters (formerly of The Beats) perform this beautiful 30-minute Uruguayan song in the space with a microphone, amp and guitar as a crowd stood in the alley. It was really magical and very big and small at the same time. We’re going to have the poet Roger van Voorhees curate an evening of poetry. Musical performances and performance art, readings and collectors giving lectures on the act of collecting and their collections are things we’re going to be doing over the next couple of months.
JS: The guy whose weapons those are is going to be doing a performance piece called “The Cleansing,” and he’s going to power-wash and brush and clean the entire alley.
When I checked out Museum for the first time, I was a little distracted by those “homemade weapons” you had on display. Those were intense.
JS: Yeah, that’s from the collection of Lance de los Reyes, who’s a painter. He has them hidden in his studio. I found them underneath some blankets. I said, “What are these?!” and he said, “Don’t worry about those.”
If someone said “Don’t worry about those” referring to a bunch of baseball bats covered in spikes and saw blades I had just uncovered, I would be worried. You guys are brave.
JS: They’re beautiful, though! (laughs) They’re not meant to be used; they’re meant to intimidate.
What are you looking for in an artist, musician, collector or collaborator when it comes to inviting someone to contribute to the Museum experience?
JS: We’re an institution. I’d say forty percent of an institution is the hands that run it and sixty percent is the life of the institution, the people who come and see it, the people who donate to it and literally just the space itself. We can’t keep the space or institution alive if we don’t have performances and a livelihood being brought constantly. Van will be bringing life into the space during his residency. When we were building the space out with our designer, Michael Caputo, we would hang out in the space for hours and hours at a time, telling stories and doing work. It’s going to be very unique for the four or more people who come in for their “golden word,” for them to have that experience of sitting and talking with this man and giving a “golden word” to a loved one. It’s going to create a very personal experience within Museum, and that’s really our goal.
Van, what is it about Museum that either inspires “The Golden Word” or works so well with this particular project? Is there anything about the contents of Museum that speak to you?
VN: One of the things I love about it is its scale. New Yorkers are really excellent at maximizing tiny little spaces, and I feel like Museum is a testament to that. I live in a 144-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, so I have a lot of respect for people who can take a small space and have space within a space. There’s space in there—there’s a beautiful floor and you can kind of almost walk around in it! I liked that there was a kind of institutional hallmark that was testament to New Yorkers and their tiny little spaces.
JS: I think it speaks to New York culture, this lifestyle of finding a calm within the chaos and understanding how to be in the moment. That’s very New York.
What sets Museum apart from the other installations, galleries and performances happening any given night in New York City? Besides its size, what benefit does it have over other museums?
JS: Museum is smaller than most museum elevators. No museum elevator offers over 150 objects to look at, all unique in their own way, each with an accompanying story, an audio guide, an accompanying pamphlet and a video screen with two video works on it that could, if you want to, take up to 45 minutes of your time.
AK: I think that in most museums and galleries, you put things that are already culturally considered valuable, or art, on display. Museum is more about noticing the things that often go overlooked, and giving them value by putting them in Museum, and surprising people by what they kind of expect to see when they go to an institution such as Museum. There’s also the seeming randomness of things, the seemingly random alley that it’s on and the space that it’s in and the random neighborhood that it’s a part of. Part of the experience is the surprise and refreshing-ness of saying, we want to create this institution, Museum, and kind of flip upside-down all the classic rules that usually go into an institution.
“The Golden Word” begins at Museum on September 19, 2012. For more information and to schedule a seating with Van Neistat, visit Mmuseumm.com.
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