Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Cultural Landscape Architects: Yona Backer of Third Streaming

(An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in The Huffington Post in March of 2012.)
Mary Ellen Carroll, "Federal, State, County and City," Installation View at Third Streaming before March 21, 2012 "Exotic Baroque Paladar" Event, with Ana Sokoloff and Vasco Araújo (Photo: Whitney Browne)

I’d met Third Streaming Founder Yona Backer before at parties, but our first official one-on-one meeting was supposed to take place on a Saturday afternoon at Third Streaming almost two years ago. Yona arranged it with our mutual friend Jayson Keeling. I was surprised when Jayson and I arrived, because 3 - 4 people were already sitting around the high kitchen table in the back room, having individually dropped in on Yona earlier. These folks included ICI Deputy Director Renaud Proch and Marian Goodman Director Rose Lord. Bottles of wine were opened and poured; espresso made and offered. When Bronx Museum Director Holly Block dropped in shortly thereafter, followed by artist Maria Elena Gonzalez, the evening turned into a full-fledged, impromptu “salon.” What a wonderful gathering of amazing people. We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening in warm, down-to-earth conversation.
These impromptu "salons" occur fairly regularly at Third Streaming, because in addition to presenting important art and innovative programming, this arts space serves as a place where Yona's friends, who include some of the smartest people in the artworld, can stop in, relax and think out loud about current issues in the arts and out.

All photos courtesy of Third Streaming (NY).
Yona Backer, Founder, Third Streaming (Photo: Whitney Browne)

Julie Chae: The caliber of programs and artists at Third Streaming parallel that of major international arts organizations, but there’s an openness to new possibilties instead of institutional formality. Who or what has influenced you in terms of your approach and the art you want to present to the public?   
Yona Backer: We take our cue from a musical term -Third Stream Music, a musical genre that defines a synthesis of classical music and jazz.

As far as influences, it’s an eclectic mix that ranges from Marcia Tucker, founding director of the New Museum, and Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine,  as well as writers such as Robert Farris Thompson, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Edward Said, and Susan Sontag, just to name a few. Inspiration also comes from places like Black Mountain College whose unorthodox program encouraged experimentation and interdisciplinary practices attracting some of the most progressive artists.

Another important source of inspiration is an East Village club called Nublu, which presents an eclectic mix of live music and DJing with an emphasis on improvisation and sharing. The outcome is never predictable, however it always results in a sound that is fresh. 

JC: You’d been working as a senior program officer at the Warhol Foundation (a dream job for many) when you decided to launch your own arts space. Why?        

YB: The idea to open Third Streaming developed while I was working as a grant maker. I was making site visits to all kinds of art institutions in the US and abroad during a time when the economic and political climate was becoming increasingly conservative and influencing funding trends.

Progressive foundations like the Warhol Foundation remained steadfast in their commitment to supporting those institutions who presented experimental and risk-taking work. I was inspired by those institutions which continued providing a platform for artists producing ‘controversial’ work, knowing it would be very challenging for them to raise funding for their programming.

That experience is what ultimately inspired me to open a space that at its core would be dedicated to experimental and interdisciplinary art forms and that would function as a LAB and be a safe haven for artists (working across different genres) to test new ideas. 

Butch Morris, 9/11 Break up to Make up, Choral Interpretations On The Writings Of Maurice Blanchot, Performance at Third Streaming, September 11, 2010 

JC: Your commitment to experimental/interdisciplinary art shows as Third Streaming constantly presents top-notch performances, such as Trajal Harrell during Performa 12, Ben Patterson, Kenya Robinson with Nicky Enright, and Derrick Adams, as well as book launches, screenings, music, critique sessions, artist/scholar talks, Paladar evenings, and the list goes on. 

Kenya (Robinson) with DJ Lightbolt (Nicky Enright), The Ten Commandments, Performance at Third Streaming, October 16, 2010

YB: The Soho loft we are located in is reminiscent of the kind of raw downtown spaces where so many happenings and performances took place in the 1960s and 70s. I was interested in referencing that rich history within the context of New York today.

I wanted to activate the loft through performance and live art events, and act as a catalyst for community building by providing a platform for people to meet, hang out and exchange ideas. We believe that art has the potential to affect people in meaningful ways by providing an environment that stimulates discussion and critical thinking on socio-political topics that are relevant to the times we live in.

There are so many points of entry which is one of the reasons why our programming is so varied. While the visual arts and performance/live art lie at the core of our program, it encompasses all forms of creative expression and popular culture ranging from food and cooking to live music and DJ culture. Our program is not driven by any particular media, discipline or artistic genre; rather we are interested in working with artists who use conceptual and artistic strategies to address the politics of class, race and gender and/or to explore the effects of globalism within post-colonial and cultural specific contexts. 

JC: I think my favorite event might have been Mary Ellen Carroll’s presentation of Art Lies No. 68, which she had guest-edited; the guest speakers were amazing and the entire evening was so fun and engaging.

YB: The event, Architecture is not Art, involved a series of performances and presentations focused around concepts of space and politics, economics and the porosity or penetrability of the built environment -- all in relation to the work of art. The evening included a slide presentation titled, Sexual Symbolism in Oriental (Iranian) Architecture and Art, presented by Morteza Baharloo -- whose witty commentary had everyone in stitches -- and a performance by Terry Adkins titled Anechoic Ornett (Each person contributing their own expression to create a form.).

Art Lies Issue No. 68 Launch, Guest Edited by Mary Ellen Carroll. Morteza Baharloo presenting "Sexual Symbolism in Oriental (Iranian) Architecture and Art," May 12, 2011

JC:  Morteza Baharloo was presenting a discussion on beautiful Iranian architecture and he was hilarious at the same time. Terry Adkins was magical. The International House of Architecture’s presentation on the innocuous-looking “marijuana grow houses” in the San Fernando Valley in California was simply mind-blowing, especially in pointing out the extent of radical architectural alterations made to these suburban houses to avoid legal detection and the fact the entire purchase price of the house and costs of all alterations are recouped in a matter of months through the sale of marijuana grown inside. I honestly can't remember attending another event where every presentation was so interesting and so incredibly brilliant. 

YB: Thanks! To date, every live art event we’ve presented was either a premiere or the first time a work-in-progress was performed before a live audience. Our visual art exhibitions follow a similar trend in that they consist of new or rarely seen work.

JC: Yes, until Third Streaming’s Alvin Baltrop exhibition last year, many had not seen the work of this amazing photographer, despite an Artforum feature and cover image in 2008. Your show received a lot of critical acclaim, including reviews in Artforum and New York Times, and this critical recognition you garnered for Baltrop has resulted in museum exhibitions of his work at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Watermill Art Center. How did you become involved with Baltrop’s work?

YB: The show was the outcome of several years of research and conversations which began during my time at the Warhol Foundation with artist/curator Randal Wilcox who runs the Alvin Baltrop Trust. Randal knew Baltrop (1948-2004) and had already done much of the initial research.

Baltrop left behind a rich body of work which barely got exposure during his lifetime. His photographs present a very raw and honest portrayal of the downtown New York scene, in general, and the piers in particular. He captured the decaying architecture and the full range of activities that took place there. 

Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986, Gelatin-Silver Print, 5”x8.5”

YB: The piers provided a rich source of inspiration for Baltrop who used the site as a studio until they were demolished in 1987. Though it certainly is not the only subject documented by Baltrop, it was a focal point for much of his work.

We went through the archives, ephemera, correspondence, etc. (a task Randal had already initiated) to make our final selection. There was so much good work to choose from. We ultimately decided to organize a highly condensed survey show that included examples of his early and late work, in addition to the better known street and pier scenes, portraits and a slide show of his color photographs. Our goal was to provide a sense of the depth and scope of his oeuvre.

In its totality the work captured a by-gone era of downtown New York which was a revelation to many art world insiders and consequently, it generated a lot of interest from the press, critics, curators and collectors as well as from the broader public. I ended up hearing so many stories from people who came to see the show, some who had been participants of that underground downtown scene. The show also grabbed the attention of a younger generation who had virtually no knowledge of this history.

Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986, Gelatin-Silver Print, 6.25”x9.5”

JC:  Your exhibition “The Black Power Mixtape:  1967-1975” was equally fascinating.  It’s another show that captures an era in US history that many did/do not understand, especially because much of the mainstream media at the time were presenting a distorted picture of the Black Power movement.  How did you come up with the idea to present this show?

Angela Davis, (Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975), Printed 2011, Pigment Print, 40”×50” and 24”×30” 

YB:  For "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975" exhibition, we presented photographic film stills from the documentary film on the Black Power Movement directed by Swedish director, Göran Hugo Olsson. Olsson had discovered a cache of 16mm film shot by a team of Swedish reporters who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s to document the movement. It included rare interviews with many of the Black Power Movement leaders.

JC:  The New YorkTimes called the film:  “an extraordinary feat of editing and archival research … that restores a complex human dimension to the racial history of the era.” 

YB: Our exhibition opened the day before the film opened in theaters. The exhibition, like the film, was not meant to be a comprehensive overview of what was happening at that time. We instead wanted the show to act as a spring board for dialogue as it coincided with the beginnings of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We had a series of public programs, screenings and talks, to spark a debate about some of the most pressing issues pertinent to that time within a contemporary context. The struggle for civil liberties and equality continues, encompassing race, gender, and class; it’s the same battle, different forms.

JC:  If people are not aware of the programming at Third Streaming, I think they could gather based on the two exhibitions that we’ve discussed that you are not interested in exhibiting art that is typically found in commercial galleries. Describe what you are interested in bringing to the public’s attention.

YB:  Our program is artist-driven: we work mostly with artists who are under-recognized; whom we believe deserve to be better known. We also present work by more established artists who are interested in experimenting with a new concept or taking their practice to the next level. 

I was recently speaking with an artist who stated that, “Third Streaming operates at the fringes; however is central to the conversation.” I think that captures what we do in a very succinct way.  We advocate for “glocality” (a term coined by Hou Hanrou) in the face of the hegemonic art system.

JC: Two of my favorite artists that you exhibit are Jayson Keeling and Mary Ellen Carroll. What is it about their work that you believe is important to share with the public?

Jayson Keeling, Create in Me a Clean Heart Lord and Renew a Right Spirit Within, 2006, Digital C-Print, 29”×17”

Mary Ellen Carroll, Because.(Stronger Than Dirt), 2010. Neon, 16”x21’x4”

YB:  We are interested in a real engagement with art and the pressing social and political issues of our time. Jayson Keeling and Mary Ellen Carroll are two artists whom I have known for a long time. Though very different, they both engage in multi-disciplinary practices that include performance and that draws heavily from music, popular culture, architecture, literature and art history through a socially aware lens.

Jayson Keeling, Mathias, 2003/printed 2011. Pigment Print, 30”×40”

YB: Jayson’s show at Third Streaming included photographs, paintings and video, one of which was produced for his exhibition and the other is of a performance of the artist that took place in downtown Newark titled Marked Man. Marked Man features the artist while substances with symbolic associations such as red for blood, milk, glitter and chocolate are aggressively thrown at him covering his face and body. The symbolism associated with these elements charge the work with layers of political, racial and cultural references ultimately transforming the artist’s figure into a richly textured canvas.

Jayson Keeling, Still from Marked Man, 2011, Video, 06:40min

JC:  As Jayson’s friend, that video is so difficult for me to watch. Many people say they got very emotional watching a man -- let alone their friend -- stand there getting repeatedly and violently pelted with all these different substances. It’s upsetting to watch, even knowing that he choreographed it. I’m sure he loved eliciting these responses from all of us. He’s made terrific videos before, but this one seems to mark a new direction for him.

YB:  Jayson’s practice has developed significantly since his last solo presentation at Abron Arts Center several years ago. It was our goal to present a comprehensive overview of the direction his work has since taken, and to do so in a very tightly curated manner.

Our current exhibition, “Federal, State, County and City (The Deferment of Impatience and Motor Responses to Being in California with Laura ’Riding’ Jackson, Florence Knoll, Kruder and Dorfmeister, José Feliciano and Gertrude Stein),” features a series of works by conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll.

JC: From the show's title, we should gather there are numerous different subthemes and influences going on. 

YB: Using writer Laura 'Riding' Jackson's quotation as a preface and departure point, "Federal, State, County and City..." brings together Carroll's earlier work -- reappearances -- and new pieces that are being shown for the first time. The exhibition unites these selections through the common thread of California, and includes four projects that incorporate photography, printmaking and performance art. 

Mary Ellen Carroll, Jose y Jose (California Dreamin'), 2012, Performance at Third Streaming, March 8, 2012

YB:  Introducing the exhibition was a performance by Carroll entitled José y José (California Dreamin’), based on singer/songwriter José Feliciano's cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire." Carroll's José y José plays with the idea of the musical cover, and in turn with issues of authenticity and reappropriation. 

Mary Ellen Carroll, Warm José and Cool José, 2012, ink and watercolor on paper, each 30”x22”

YB: While José y José (California Dreamin’) sets the stage for the exhibition’s ties to California, Carroll’s Federal, 2003, provides its backbone in both name and concept. The series features the Federal Building in Los Angeles, designed in 1969 by the architect Charles Luckman. This building serves as the western headquarters of the U.S. government and houses the FBI along with various other governmental departments. Federal, the film, was shot from 9am on July 28th, 2003 to 9am the following day. A series of photographs was also taken every hour, on the hour, with a medium format camera, the entirety of which is on display in “Federal, State, County and City.” 

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum of Moving Image presented a screening of Federal, a 24-hour, two-theater movie by Carroll from 9am on Saturday, March 24th to 9am on Sunday, March 25th, 2012. 

JC: What is the backstory for the making of this film?

YB: Federal evolved out of a series that Carroll had started in 1990, when she began to photograph every federal building in the United States. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent increased security measures ended this photo series, and the decision was made to continue the Federal project with this film. It took a year and a half for Carroll to complete the paperwork necessary to execute the project.

Mary Ellen Carroll, Federal, 2003. 24 Cibachrome Prints, each 20”x24”

JC: I see how duration and repetition become important elements in not only the viewer’s experience with this work, but how they were clearly intrinsic elements in the artistic process too.

YB: Especially as they relate to boredom and endurance on the part of both the artist and the viewer.

JC: What else is happening during the film?

YB: The film gives viewers the opportunity to watch either side of the building, though never at the same time, giving Federal a sense of the freedom of choice. In reality, however, the work imposes a strict, constructed viewpoint that mirrors the same set of choice-restrictions that go unnoticed in everyday life.

JC: That sense of “freedom of choice” can certainly keep a lot of people from questioning injustices in a system.

YB: And as a 24-hour film and photo series, Carroll’s Federal also probes the government’s complicity and willingness to be filmed over an entire day; the tables have been turned so that those normally responsible for surveillance are being watched themselves. In this way, the process of observation is just as much a part of Federal as the resultant video and images.

JC:  Third Streaming has a fairly unique business model. Can you talk about what it is and why you chose to structure it this way?

YB:  Our mission and programming reflects an artistic vision commonly associated with non-profit spaces; however Third Streaming is incorporated as an LLC.  We have developed a hybrid business model that allows us to support the production of experimental artwork. Third Streaming generates income from art sales and from our strategic advisory services, which provides management/organizational guidance and implementation to small and mid-sized arts organizations as well as to artist foundations.

Yona Backer is a producer, curator, consultant and the founder of Third Streaming, LLC. She has had a twenty-year career supporting artists and cultural institutions that fall outside of the mainstream, and is committed to a collaborative approach to arts programming and management. She also serves as an advisor for several national and international art and media groups. Before founding Third Streaming in 2010, Backer was Senior Program Officer at the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York for 9 years. Backer had previously directed the visual arts program at the Americas Society and was director at Throckmorton Fine Art, a gallery specializing in pre-Columbian and contemporary Latin American art and photography. Born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in Amsterdam, Backer holds a master’s degree in art history and archaeology from Columbia University and received a bachelor of arts from Hunter College. Backer has lived and travelled widely throughout Europe, the Caribbean and the global South, and her journeys have been a major inspiration for her work. 

Currently on view at Third Streaming: "Mary Ellen Carroll: Federal, State, County and City...," 3/23/12 - 5/19/12, 10 Greene St. (2nd Floor), NYC. For more information, see: