By THOMAS MOODY
The 21st century has so far been the century of information overload. We cannot last five minutes without being “updated” with news, gossip, sports scores, photos, videos or tweets. The advancement of technology, particularly the advent of the smartphone, has allowed us to enter a parallel world of information with our fingertips, and the ability to access it from anywhere at any time.
But what is this information worth to us? That is, is there a distinction in value between information and knowledge? And what role do the old storehouses of knowledge, galleries, museums, libraries — public spaces accessed not in isolation, but among a crowd or congregation — have to play in the fast-shifting landscape of information gathering and delivery?
Volumes, the 2018 Queens International at the Queens Museum, which opened last Sunday and runs through Feb. 24, 2019, addresses these themes in an astounding museum-wide exhibition. The biennial show, now in its eighth incarnation, brings together 43 Queens-based artists and collectives, who together represent 15 borough neighborhoods. The exhibition is also in partnership with the Queens Library, the first of its kind for the International, with installations in three Queens library branches: LeFrak, Flushing and Central.
“The first Queens International was one of the first exhibitions mounted here when I arrived in 2002,” said Debra Wimpfheimer, Queens Museum interim director. “To have seen it grow from a modest exhibition to a large-scale, multifaceted presentation that utilizes the entirety of the Queens Museum has been very exciting. The scale of the show is a testament to the depth of work by the incredible artists in our borough. This ambitious iteration highlights our long-term collaboration with the Queens Library, and we are thrilled to be able to present the show beyond our walls in three library branches. QI 2018 offers new opportunities to celebrate and serve our local audiences in Queens, and we couldn’t be more delighted with this aspect of the show.”
The exhibition is co-curated by the museum’s assistant curator, Sophia Marisa Lucas, and the New York-based performance artist Baseera Khan. The two have brought together a diverse set of artists, working in a variety of mediums: video, sculpture, print, performance, painting, assemblage and found objects. Each work is in dialogue with the concept of “volume” in one of the word’s many meanings, including notions as divergent as quantity and collection to sound intensity and units of data storage.
“Many artworks in the exhibition address the analog and digital,” Lucas noted, “but they aren’t about nostalgia versus the status quo. These artists propose analogs within those frameworks. They exacerbate or collapse those distinctions, and conjure opportunities for integration. There is a lot of possibility and speculation, but there is also a specter of pathos and futility.”
Among the works that address this distinction between the analog and the digital are the sculptures of the world-renowned improvisational percussionist, Milford Graves. Graves’ pieces are assemblages of anatomical models — skeletons, brains, hearts — wired into computer monitors and electronic readers. The sculptures have the uncanny quality of being both primitive and advanced, rudimentary and futuristic. The work is an extension and visual representation of Graves’ longtime fascination with the human body and its vibrations, and is loaded with medical and cultural symbols.
For added context, placed around the sculptures are screens showing footage of Graves drumming or practicing martial arts, connecting these seemingly disparate disciplines. In doing so, the curation challenges the boundaries of knowledge: who controls it, the reasons for its partition, and who is allowed to access it. Graves is both a polymath — a specialist in drumming, acupuncture, martial arts and alternative healing — and at the same time an autodidact, notions that in contemporary culture, which values the specialized and specialized training, are commonly considered paradoxical, even heretical.
Another artist who interrogates and subverts the distinctions of knowledge is Jesse Chun, whose installation Primary Language — an ornamental rug designed by the repeating, layering and aestheticizing patterns of electronic answer sheets for standardized English tests — considers the national and global dominance of the English language. The transforming of the bureaucratic into the decorative dissolves the data that categorize people.
So much of the exhibition deals with systems of categorization, whether they be related to identity, landscape or story. KT Pe Benito’s installation of old family photos and letters suggests that identity is not stored in the materials themselves, but in the manner of their storing or archiving. Kim Hoeckele’s gorgeous black-and-white photographs reimagines classical forms. Painter and collagist Camille Hoffman undermines colonial symbols related to water and industry in Excelsior: Ever Upward, Ever Afloat by redesigning the New York State coat of arms with found objects, including the use of blue tarpaulin as a proxy for water — a devastating critique on the current climate crisis, which often leaves the less-fortunate nothing more than tarpaulin to defend themselves against the rage of hurricanes and floods.
But perhaps more powerful and lasting than any individual piece is the curation of the exhibition as a whole. Lucas and Khan have organized the recently expanded museum in such a way as to challenge our very understanding of a museum. Guests are not mere passive viewers directed on any curatorial path, as is the convention among museums and galleries. Rather, they enter the space as users: active and with agency, much like one might enter a library.
The ability to control one’s course, to interact with the work as one wishes (there is even space for visitors to leave comments on the exhibition), makes the experience similar to embarking on research — only it is a search that is sated by the visual and abstract, not the written and literal. The paradox of a library, filled with so many volumes of writings, is that it proves the inadequacy of what it most values: language. Surely if we could properly articulate in words, either written or spoken, what was needed to be conveyed, there would not be the need to say so much.
Fortunately, in an age of fake news and torrents of trivial updates, the intricate but often quiet works in the Queens International speak volumes.