My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
A residency program on view.
Nicholas Weist is the director of the Shandaken Project, which offers free residencies to artists and other cultural producers on a 250-acre grounds in the Catskill Mountains in New York. This month, the residency is organizing a three-year retrospective exhibition in a disused apartment in the East Village. Ethan Philbrick met Weist during a retreat-style conference held by the Shandaken Project earlier this year, which invited nine artists, scholars, and administrators to investigate how queer theory informs cultural production today. More on this program is available here. When they met for lunch to have this conversation, Weist made overflowing and unruly open-faced sandwiches.
Ethan Philbrick Can we start with these sandwiches? First: they’re delicious. They’re also simultaneously abundant and precarious—nourishing but constantly threatening to fall apart. I’m wondering if there’s a way we could relate that to how alternative organizations function.
Nicholas Weist (laughter) Definitely. One way might be that organizations grow and change as they respond to their constituents. In the case of the Shandaken Project, we have a new constellation of residents every couple of weeks during our summer season, so the structure and goals of the program change as each new participant contributes their perspective. The organization is always in a process of becoming, and in as much as that is true, it is also continuously being dismantled.
EP I think having a collective project that is radically open to change—and not just in a lip service-y, corporate innovation–speak way, but in an always-in-a-process-of-becoming-and-being-dismantled kind of way—ends up being about a way to operate without being predetermined. About ways of creating space and allowing that space to be singularly for the people and things that make it up, a project that doesn’t have any expectations of what it’s going to be, but allows itself to emerge from whomever or whatever is there.
NW That approach is pretty opposed to most strategies of institutionality. It’s the nature of “establishments” to have structures that anticipate and reproduce themselves, so it’s difficult for institutions to allow for happenstance. Smaller organizations that are more nimble are sometimes discounted as ad hoc or not serious, but I think they are better positioned to make more, and more risky, experiments. I’ve heard that White Columns holds off on programming one of their galleries until they’re only about six weeks out. This is a powerful way to respond to the needs of artists—who usually work with a very different understandings of time than institutions, and for whom six weeks wouldn’t feel last-minute, as it might for an administrator.
EP There’s already lots of talk around the value of “slow” things—the slow food movement, for instance. Perhaps these conversations are easily translatable to the realm of the “small”? What about projects or organizations that do not aspire to get as large as possible?
NW The idea of remaining intentionally small-scale is a key focus of Shandaken—in fact it’s in our mission statement. When people ask me, as they inevitably do, “What’s next for Shandaken?” I like to say that we will be growing deeper, not wider. Its smallness, just like in the slow food movement, is a strategy to resist how neoliberal forces can absorb—and in their absorption, neuter—ideas that oppose them.
EP The pressure to get big, or reach more and more people, seems to be bound up in expectations of a certain kind of future. There’s a sense that the “right” way to be oriented toward a “next” is to fulfill the impulse to expand, a heteronormative idea that growth through reproduction is what it means to exist into a future. So tactics for resisting that impulse, or turning that somewhere else, become really important.
NW What does organizational jouissance look like? (Laughter) You call it heteronormative, which I agree with, but we should be careful to articulate that as a temporal positioning, not a sexual one. A heteronormative temporal position describes an investment in the future as a site that subsequent generations will enjoy—as opposed to, say, a present that is a continuously expanding horizon. I’ve always thought that organizations should have lifespans. I think there are many that have long outlived their usefulness and purpose.
EP That reminds me of Lucy Lippard’s essay “Real Estate and Real Art” on the problems facing alternative art institutions. It’s a piece on the return to collectivism in the New York art world in the late 1970s (specifically groups like Fashion Moda and Group Material). She says: “the fires of the late ’60s sparked a number of artist-run ‘alternative spaces,’ co-op galleries, and underground publications. Some of them survived the cooled-out ’70s by becoming as institutionalized as the institutions they resisted; others folded when artist organizers burnt out and retreated to their studios; others still maintain a degree of independence from art world bureaucratics by not biting the hand that feeds them.” It’s a pretty bleak description of how collective attempts in the art world work—either you succumb to institutionalization, you burn out, you retreat, or you sell out. But that’s why there’s something important in what you’re talking about. Endeavors that risk impermanence and dissolution approach those not as ideas to be feared but as tools to feel connected to what is necessary and what is limiting.
NW The idea of necessity is an important difference between the logic of the nonprofit and the logic of the corporation. A corporation aims to exist in perpetuity because its specific goal is to perpetuate itself. I feel that the logic of the nonprofit must be distinct from that of the corporation. The nonprofit should embrace the inevitability that at some point its services will no longer be needed.
EP Can we come back to these sandwiches? (Laugher) What role does food play in your work?
NW (Mouth full) Food is really important. One of the unique aspects of the Shandaken Project is that we cultivate an intimate and a communal space for our residents (unlike other programs which might be geared more toward isolation as a means for introspection, for instance). There’s a natural, daily progression from studio work into the domestic work of making a meal together because there’s no electricity in the studios—so most residents return to the house when the daylight fades. You can’t rush order community building, but you can speed up the process with the opportunity to work together and share in a yield. At the residency, that happens with food. Residents work together on a project (the meal), and then swap ideas and reflect on the day as they are enjoy the results of their shared work. Food is also a means by which I can, when I prepare a meal for a resident who is arriving, as I always do, extend some hospitality. That is our version of what might be called an “ingestion” by another organization, where an artist meets with various departments to be oriented and begin the process of expectation guiding. In our context, I make a meal to share with new arrivals and the rest of the household. That hospitality often puts new residents into a receptive and generous frame of mind, by making it easy for them to imagine that although they are entering an unknown context, it will be a supportive and considerate environment.
EP This reminds me of Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle’s little book, Of Hospitality. It’s a meditation on the limits of a concept of hospitality that eventually arrives at a sense of radical hospitality as the injunction, “let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.” (Emphasis in the original.)
NW Yes! I also look to the Wages for Housework movement, or Herbert Marcuse, or other thinkers who have expanded understandings of affective labor and the possibilities for relationality, specifically between organizations and individuals, to craft goals for how Shandaken relates to its constituents. I’m interested in informality as an organizational priority.
EP Yes, informality seems linked to the notion of happenstance that we were talking about earlier. For Derrida and Dufourmantelle, the idea of hospitality leads them, politically, to the figure of the foreigner or stranger—to being open to the surprise of the unexpected visitor. Happenstance is about allowing whomever you encounter to be strange to you. To not know exactly what you can to do for them or what they will do for you, what will lead to what. Or in your case, what they will do while they are in residence. Allowing everyone to remain singularly strange. That’s a hard thing for an institution to do. There is usually an intense pressure to predetermine how a relationship might unfold.
NW Yes, I think it’s gravely important to let people be strange!
EP And perhaps related to this, I first came up to Shandaken Project this past summer for a week-long intensive themed around questions of queer theory and cultural production. We gathered, read theory (broadly construed), worked on our own projects, and shared meals with a different guest each night. I think it’s pretty clear that there’s something about what queerness as a concept offers us that feels central to Shandaken. But it’s not in an identity-focused way, for instance, “this is a place for people who identify as queer to come make art”…
NW It’s important to have spaces set aside for specific identity groups (for instance Fire Island Artist Residency is doing great work for LGBTQIA artists), but the Shandaken Project is not a site where people coalesce around issues of identity. It’s a place where individuals who share a sense of not belonging to existing canons, who find their mutuality in the effort to advance culture, can come to be celebrated and supported. I think of this as connected to a modality that Foucault described called ascesis, or the cultivation of self irrespective of hegemonic imperatives.
EP This might lead us to a different place, but could you name a feeling that the Shandaken Project came out of?
NW Frustration. The roots of the organization are definitely reactionary! It’s hard to tell this story without sounding like I’m having a temper tantrum. I think the financial crisis of 2008 was a tipping point for many well-loved art nonprofits. Rather than contracting, as I expected them to do during that period of economic upheaval, some institutions identified the crisis as an opportunity for growth: exactly as a corporation might have maneuvered. That moment, the wake of 2008, was my cue that the segment of my industry in which nonprofits strategize like corporations didn’t agree with my personal politics—although I was deep in it at the time. Frustration was a key motivator for me to divorce myself from that context and search for other ways of being. Maybe the word for the feeling should have been something like hope.
EP Frustration and hope are connected. Hope is about a dissatisfaction with the present. It’s not just a lovely, feel-good sense of a bright and sunny something-else. It’s about a critique of the present so that another world could be imagined. It can go both ways: any imagining of an elsewhere implies a critique of the present, and a critique of the present implies that something else is possible. Is there a story that gets at the heart of the project?
NW Last June I was working toward the presentation of a public program. Chloé Rossetti, who was a resident at the time, offered a gift inspired by one of the traditions of her dergah (which is a Sufi place of worship). A different family contributes financially or prepares a meal for the fast-breaking of the entire community on select nights of Ramadan. The entire community is fed, but the burden of labor is defrayed through localization. Chloé wanted to start a similar tradition at Shandaken, so although she was not going to be present at the program, she made a financial contribution that covered the cost of ingredients for a dinner shared by everyone who did participate. She hoped that she would start, if not a snowball, at least a chain reaction. I had very low expectations for the success of that idea, but in fact I was totally wrong! Someone who experienced the power of that gift—by partaking in Chloé’s meal—donated toward the cost of a meal at the next event, and it ended up happening for every program that summer. The idea of receiving generosity and responding in kind is something that I hope to cultivate with every interaction that the program produces, and Chloé nailed it.
EP That story also speaks to the idea of cultivating an openness toward happenstance: someone proposed a way of doing something that you thought might not work, but you tried it. Its potentiality came from elsewhere, and you said yes to it so you could see what it might do. How are you approaching the upcoming Shandaken Project show?
NW It’s a three-year retrospective for the organization. Former residents, artist supporters, and artists from whom we’ve commissioned public programs—our whole community—will contribute to a group show. I wanted to work with the idea of the retrospective as a document of history and as a history-making text, while de-emphasizing the power of my role as organizer. Over sixty artists are participating, and they have been asked to pick a piece that they would like to show, rather than my selecting for them. Each of these people has helped shape the organization, so I felt they should be honored as key figures in the articulation of its history. Only a few of the works shown were made at the residency: I hope that the show will be a glance at a particular group of cultural producers at this particular moment in time, not a definitive or even authoritative survey. There are no expectations of engaging the marketplace, although artists can offer their work for sale if they choose. It will be held in a disused, residential floor-through apartment in the East Village that is generously on loan to us from Creative Time from December 12 to January 15. I’m excited for your performance at the closing event!
EP I’m excited too—one of the songs I’ll play had its first performance after a dinner at Shandaken!
Ethan Philbrick is a performer and writer currently pursuing a PhD in performance studies at NYU.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.