Taja Cheek on Curating the 2024 Whitney Biennial

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS



F
or many years,
Taja Cheek lived two lives. As L’Rain, she made acclaimed music that was warm yet weird, steeped in exhilarating experimentation and heavy emotions. At the same time, she was navigating the art world, working at New York non-profit institutions like Creative Time and the Kitchen; she eventually landed at MoMA PS1, where she helped curate performance series like the Warm Up parties and Sunday Sessions. Cheek did her best all along to keep these two career paths separate. She worried one might be seen as a mark against her in the other; or worse, make it seem like she was using one to get ahead in the other. 

“No one explicitly told me I needed to keep those things separate,” Cheek says. “I just didn’t want anyone to think that I was trying to be slimy or anything like that.” 

But these days, those concerns have dissipated. She hasn’t chosen one path over the other, but she’s reached a point where she’s able to embrace both worlds more fully. This past year, while making her excellent third album as L’Rain, the rock-inspired I Killed Your Dog, she was helping to curate the performance and sound program for one of the biggest events in the American art world: the Whitney Biennial, set to return to the NYC museum on March 20, 2024.

Cheek is one of five guest curators helping out with the film and performance program, along with Korakrit Arunanondchai, asinnajaq, Greg de Cuir Jr, and Zackary Drucker. They’re all working alongside Biennial 2024 co-organizers Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli.

“Film, sound and performance are such significant mediums for both of us, and we look forward to sharing with our audiences an incredibly robust film program that raises questions about the porousness of boundaries and identities, along with a thoughtful curation of live performance that offers a sensorial experience centered around embodiment,” Iles and Onli said in a statement. “Each film and performance program is deeply interwoven with the ideas coursing throughout the exhibition, articulating many of its themes in cinematic and musical form.”

Cheek’s experiences making music, booking tours, and throwing concerts for her college radio station or the DIY venue she ran out of a Manhattan yoga studio have informed the way she thinks about art curation in a museum setting. “Community happens around events, more than exhibitions,” she says. “There’s something about sound, too, that can be a secret cheat code, or like a portal for museums. Because it’s visceral, because it’s hard to explain, because it’s something that a lot of people have access to in their daily life.”

She adds that museums often think about sound in a defensive way, as something they have to protect their artworks from: “It literally shakes the walls,” she says. “There’s something subversive about that in a fundamental sense.”

In an expansive interview with Rolling Stone, Cheek offers an early glimpse of what’s in store for the 2024 Biennial, while also digging into her journey as a curator, the misconceptions about the job, and the ways to make museums live up to their potential. She also touches on the influence of Brooklyn’s DIY scene and how her brief stint working on the Luna Luna Art Carnival, which was recently revived by Drake, allowed her to indulge her love of amusement parks and clowns. 

This interview was conducted in early November. It has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Does the Biennial have an overarching theme or a punchy name, like “Biennial 2024: …”?
The title is “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” That’s also where AI comes in … and people questioning the real as it relates to the digital landscape. The themes weren’t predetermined. It really comes out of these conversations with artists, figuring out what’s urgent, what’s important, and what’s happening.

When you came on, what ideas did you find most compelling? 
I was especially struck, or I guess comforted, by the fact that Meg and Chrissie were really thinking about community. Also, how people spend time in a museum, and how to rethink that, but also exploit some aspects of it — what it means to linger and dwell in spaces that are heavily trafficked and meant to be moved through. That’s been a huge focus of the way I think about curatorial projects and performance in general. 

At PS1, I worked on Sunday Sessions, and we thought a lot about regular programming as a way to convene community. We have different artists representing different communities, and bringing them with them. But the regularity of the programming helped us also find a core group of people — mostly artists based in New York — that found a kind of home in the dome where we did that program. That’s how community is forged. Through people meeting in real time, in some kind of space. And that’s why performance can be important and powerful.

It’s interesting — your description does highlight the way that visitors are kind of shepherded through museums.
It’s a conveyor belt in a way.… If I’m being truthfully honest, I’ve lost faith and belief in museums as spaces. I don’t know about them. I feel distrustful of them, and of the ways they try to reach out to create community. So it’s a little tricky, because I trust myself, I trust Chrissie and Meg infinitely, and you have to have that kind of trust to do this work. But a museum is what a museum is.

Has that distrust grown as you’ve spent more time in the art world? 
Yeah [laughs]. Well, I mean, yes and no. I think everybody has skepticism about museums. But a lot of times, the truth is actually more boring, and the stuff that’s actually insidious and evil, people don’t even know the half of it. I think the presence of individual people within institutions can be felt. And I try to remember that, because I think that does matter. An institution is an institution, and it’ll function the way it does and protect itself. But at the end of the day, the presence of individual people does make an impact and change the way things work.

That kind of tension is prevalent in so many institutions, not just museums, so how do you try to navigate it?  
I believe if we really let artists lead, they’ll lead us somewhere good. The biggest central tension I feel as an art worker is being in the middle of extremely radical ideas, thoughts, and critiques, and people that uphold all the things those ideas, thoughts, and critiques want to dismantle. I always wonder, “What agency do art workers have within that context?” I think the answer is actually a lot, or some — enough to make some impact or difference.

On my very skeptical days, I’m like, the whole thing should just burn down and start over. And on my less skeptical days, I’m like, no, we can change things for the better if we can make things that we need.

How did your years doing DIY music shows prepare you for curatorial work?
The things I learned directly apply to all of the work I’m doing now, and had been doing at PS1. Having to get the sound together, be the security person and the bartender. I think a lot of curators don’t have many or any practical skills, and they can think themselves into oblivion. It’s really important to understand how production works.

What do you make of the way “curator” has become a kind of catch-all term for, like, “I picked this thing and I have good taste”?
I hate it! I remember I heard someone say that they “curated the colors of their bedroom walls,” and I was like, we’ve really reached a horrible place. It undervalues all of the really specific work that people do. Curatorial work is a very specific thing. And that sounds very gatekeep-y, but it’s not about that. 

I think about this a lot, because I’ve been thinking about myself as an art worker outside of an institution now. I quit [PS1] right before I went on tour with Animal Collective last year. And I’ve been trying to think about what my life is outside of that. Like, who I am separate from these institutions. And it occurred to me, in fuller focus, that I think curators — it’s not so much about individual tastes, or I don’t think it should be. It’s more about finding the right artists for the right moment and context. Liking something is actually kind of irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. It’s more about knowing how to connect the dots between an artist in a particular context, and how to support that artist in making the work that they want to make.

You were in Brooklyn during the DIY heyday of the late-2000s, early 2010s. Did experiencing that push you towards curatorial work as much as music?
Yeah. I feel like all musicians are curators, in a sense. Maybe more so than other disciplines. Or, I’m not entirely convinced of this, but I’m gonna keep saying it until someone tells me I’m wrong. But you have to book your own shows, know what equipment is there, and if it’s compatible; you have to market the shows, you have to find a scene, find people to play with, find venues you can play. A lot of that informs curatorial work in a deep way. Those early years really made me think about what I was feeling when I would go to see performances. I would think a lot about openers as they relate to the headliner, why someone would choose that, or how the audience behaves differently. 

Why did you keep your music and curatorial work separate for so long?
I knew what kind of person I needed to be — or pretend to be — to be hired by institutions skeptical of artists working in certain professions, especially curatorial professions, where they sort of assume a kind of neutrality as a moral position. Which, on one level, I understand. But I believed that to such a degree that I would actually sabotage both sides of my work sometimes to uphold that. 

I started this label market music festival with [the now-defunct record store] Other Music at PS1. We’d invite labels to set up tables, have talks, workshops, all these things. But I didn’t invite my own label the first year because I was so nervous of someone calling me out. Then I had a survey at the end of the program, I sent it out to all the labels, and I asked, “Is there a label you’d like to nominate?” And a number of people nominated the label I was on, and I was like, “Well, now I feel I can do that.” Reflecting on it now, it’s just so silly. But I understand why I did it. Even now, I see sometimes with job applications, people are like, “If you have a professional music career, don’t apply.” It’s such a lack of imagination, and a lack of awareness about the way things actually work.

It feels really good to be able to be my full self now. And, to their credit, PS1 was extraordinarily supportive in ways I really didn’t expect. I would be on tour, and also working on these projects. I’d get done with soundcheck and call into meetings. Our first tour was with Deerhunter, and we did it in a Prius. I was in the back of the Prius having artists call and talking with the production team because I didn’t want to miss a beat.

You were hired as a curator for the Luna Luna Art Carnival, which Drake helped revive last year. What’s going on with that?
Well, I and a bunch of people were laid off. There was going to be an exhibition that was going to be the historical works, and I don’t really know what’s happening. [Note: It was announced in December that Luna Luna is opening in Los Angeles later this month.] I still have some friends there. But that was really amazing while it was happening, because it was pretty much all of my interests — like weird, fringe performance, clowning, and an amusement park. That’s the dream.

Did you get to meet Drake?
I didn’t. But he was always kind of in the background somehow. His production company was very involved. But honestly, that really influenced my thinking for a while, just in terms of disillusionment with museum spaces and the art world in general. Like, an amusement park that offers an opportunity to engage with art? Sounds great! It’s a really wild, wacky history. We did these behind-the-scenes tours of Coney Island. Some people did behind-the-scenes tours at Disney. I talked to some Disney Imagineers. I was trying to befriend a lot of clowns and magicians. I mean, I’ve been interested in clowns for a while.

Where does that interest in clowns come from?
Well, the story goes in my family that there’s a great-great-something that was an aerialist in the circus. But also just thinking about clowns as occupying a really special space in society — being to be critical without being chastised for it. Like, being subversive, and being able to hold and disseminate subversive ideas. There’s something about clowns that’s very special. 

There’s a whole subsection of performance artists that are clowns, and I’m very interested in that. As part of Luna Luna, I was talking to someone about creating a clown agency, which I thought would be really funny. If you go to Coney Island, they have the only permanently-housed sideshow in the country left. They regularly have lots of events and programming that’s clown-adjacent. It’s really fascinating and amazing.



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