The New Museum is New York’s only museum dedicated exclusively to emerging artists—mostly works created within the last decade. But for Surround Audience, the third iteration of the museum’s triennial exhibition, 10 years old is just too old. Assistant curator Sara O’Keeffe isn’t waiting for new trends to emerge and appear on gallery walls. She’s going out and finding them well before that.
This month, the museum presents more than 50 young artists from over 25 countries. O’Keeffe, along with curator Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin, searched the world for compelling work that addressed the show’s theme—how we’re documented, directed and, to some extent, defined by the unending stream of data that flows through our lives.
Past triennials have focused on a specific age group to show how members of a generation share a vision. But here it’s less about age and more about technology, new media and the social and psychological changes they create. Artists selected are presenting sculpture, painting, photography, sound, dance, poetry, installation, video and even an avatar that address issues of identity, privacy, publicity, commoditization and the myriad ways new forms of communication impact today’s world.
It all fits into what O’Keeffe describes as her “wholistic” approach to curating. In the past, she’s worked with artists and chefs to create salon-like experiences that involve both artists and audience equally. It’s not surprising that O’Keeffe sees art as something that spills beyond museums and galleries. She’s the daughter of two artists and art has informed every day of her life. Born in Ohio, O’Keeffe headed to the West Coast for college and her early curatorial work. Before long, the call of New York drew her to settle in Brooklyn and find her first museum gig at the Guggenheim in 2010. Last year, she started at the New Museum, helping select triennial artists and working with others who are creating new pieces.
Almost a third of the 51 artists will be showing art commissioned specifically for the show. In most cases the art is so new it didn’t exist until shortly before the opening. In some performance pieces, it won’t exist until after the show starts. O’Keeffe’s role was to meet with artists, discuss plans and help them hone and realize their visions.
“Digital technologies are collapsing the binaries between what’s online and what’s actually in the world,” she said, adding that it can be liberatory. But at the same time, “knowing we’re all so closely tracked when we’re online makes many of us frustrated.”
For years we’ve seen social activism and performance art swimming in the same pool as movements around the world have been organized, promulgated and given voice through connected devices and networks. In Surround Audience, New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson’s performance responds to stop-and-frisk programs and asks the audience to walk in someone else’s shoes in an immediate, physical way. “Timeless Alex,” Eduardo Navarro’s sculpture/performance work based on an extinct Galapagos tortoise’s shell, addresses inhabiting other frameworks and psychologies.
The curators hope Surround Audience captures a moment, a shared experience. “Art presents models for operating in the world we live in,” O’Keeffe said. “Many of the artists are activists who try to change the world through protesting and works they do.” Though the triennial bills itself as “predictive,” O’Keeffe admitted that we can’t know today which pieces will have been important. “We just put together a show of artists who’re grappling with concerns that we feel are urgent now. It’s for history to decide.”
Surround Audience fills the Bowery’s New Museum and off-site locations with experimental new work by international artists from New York to New Zealand. Feb 25—May 24.