Jake Yuzna on Curating "NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial"

MAD Interview

FROM LEFT: “Ghost Food” by Miriam Simun; Elaine Tin Nyo; Faye Driscoll; and Meredith Monk

This summer the Museum of Arts and Design in New York is hosting an ambitious biennial featuring New York City’s makers, craftspeople and artisans. The exhibition, NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial, includes a vast range of artists and designers from the visual to the culinary arts, and often straddles boundaries of multiple disciplines. Included in the show are Creative Capital Awardees Elaine Tin Nyo (2013 Emerging Fields), Faye Driscoll (2013 Performing Arts), Meredith Monk (2000 Performing Arts), Miriam Simun (2013 Emerging Fields) and Natalie Jeremijenko (2013 Emerging Fields), and the exhibition’s head Curator is another Awardee, filmmaker Jake Yuzna (2012 Film/Video). Among other things, Yuzna spoke to us about how he was able to curate the show and simultaneously achieve the main goal of the exhibition: to give the community a voice.
Alex Teplitzky: What about DIY/Maker culture—and specifically New York maker culture—interests you? Why is it important to do this show now? What makes this city so appealing and special to generate and foster a network of makers?
Jake Yuzna: NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial approaches the term “maker” in a very broad way. Although “maker” is often associated with “maker faire” and DIY engineering/technology culture, MAD seeks to expand this to include any cultural producer who directly creates their own work. NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial is much closer to a survey of cultural production in NYC than just looking at alternative technology or engineering. With the Biennial, the goal was to present all of cultural production, from the more “blue chip” forms that are associated with fine arts alongside those disciplines that are often unrecognized, like craftspeople or tradespeople. To me it’s a fascinating grand experiment, this kind of approach. It really puts all of culture together on a level continuum in order to recognize it in all its many forms. It moves past questions like “is it art?” “is it design?”, etc, etc, and towards a sweeping and inclusive approach to culture. 

Alex: As both a curator and an artist, how do you hope to change any perceptions of maker culture and design through this show?

Jake: It’s an interesting place to be the artist curator. I’m very aware of the local context and don’t want to forget that. I don’t want my place as curator to be that of an outside arbiter. Instead, I’m more of a community organizer and facilitator. I’ve been trying to take a pulse, for lack of a better word, of the urgencies of NYC now and present them within the museum. At the same time, I want to utilize the institution and the project to try to give resources to those in the biennial to do something about the challenges that they face today. I’m trying to not become too institutionalized, and instead allow the community to have a voice within the museum and the biennial—to allow the inmates to run the asylum, so to speak. I wanted to decentralize my authority.
With that in mind I invited nominations from over 300 people to put forward names of those to be considered for the show. Then a panel of 10, including representatives from all 5 boroughs, selected the final 100 participants. I like the idea of challenging certain curatorial traditions—trying an alternative on a large project with a lot of focus for a museum in NYC. It’s a very unique opportunity to try out something like that. I don’t know if this is a model that will continue in museums, but I am happy I got to try it out.
Alex: Part of the exhibition opens up the museum to live performances and demonstrations, making the space function as a sort of interactive “laboratory” as you have said, and a lot of the works are described as “immersive” and “behind-the-scenes.” Do you hope this exhibition will break down the boundaries typically presented in museum and gallery shows?
Jake: That is definitely the goal. I’ve always found such boundaries really arbitrary. We always have histories, economies and languages around different cultural pursuits. But I’ve never understood why contemporary practices must be so rigid, when today’s tools allow for such flexibility. The flexibility allows for new possibilities that are as disciplined and skilled as historic ones.
Alex: Five Creative Capital awardees will be exhibited in the show: Elaine Tin Nyo, Faye Driscoll, Meredith Monk, Miriam Simun and Natalie Jeremijenko. Can you talk about their contributions?
Jake: Elaine Tin Nyo will be working to alter the sunset menu of the restaurant at MAD, ROBERT; Faye Driscoll will be developing a new dance work through open collaborations with the museum public during the run of the biennial; Meredith Monk is presenting a series of visual scores of vocal projects; Natalie Jeremijenko has set up a DIY cola making station that confronts issues of child labor; and Miriam Simun is presenting a wearable device that alters one’s experience of eating. Miriam’s device will be used in a performance in October.
Alex: At Creative Capital, we’re always interested in the “other” lives of artists—the day jobs, the side projects. Do you struggle to balance your work for the Museum with your creative practice as a filmmaker, or do you find that the two feed each other?
Jake: It’s tricky for sure. Time is always the biggest issue. There is a lot of creative overlap between curating and filmmaking. In fact, staging the biennial is not all that different from making a film, and a lot of the skills and ideas flow between the two. That being said, my Creative Capital project is definitely on hold for a few months until the biennial is up and running. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do both simultaneously. It’s a tremendous help that Creative Capital allows for flexibility in the timetable of their artists’ projects.
NYC Makers is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York through October 12. To browse more events with Creative Capital Artists nationwide, visit our Grantee Events Calendar.

More Interviews