Keenan Bennett and Kirsten Gill, both ICA graduate student lecturers, spoke with ICA’s Becky Huff Hunter about about UNcommons, a new exhibition—open now—that they co-organized with other Penn graduate students at the Philadelphia artist-led space little berlin.
UNcommons is the first show in Incubation Series, a group of student-initiated exhibitions that will bring PennDesign and the Department of the History of Art into conversation with Philadelphia’s contemporary art communities.
ICA: The exhibition has a mysterious title. What is (or are) UNcommons? Are you problematizing the concept of “commons,” which presently has much art world currency?
Kirsten Gill: We certainly wanted to evoke the notion of the commons—that is, a shared space or resource that facilitates open discourse and exchange—yet also allude to spaces that are not shared or equally available, that are defined by dissimilar experiences, whether in a political sense or a more personal sense. The title UNcommons is not necessarily supposed to communicate a dystopian version of the commons—although it may—but rather (or also) a range of spatial experiences defined by the tensions of difference, imbalance, and inequity.
What these artists’ practices all share with the notion of the commons is a preoccupation with how we inhabit and negotiate the spaces around us. They diverge from the idea of the commons by neither facilitating nor imagining completely shared spaces of open discourse and parity. Our lack of—and desire for—a commons has become a popular topic, perhaps instigated by the perceived early potential of the internet and Occupy and other protest movements; the works in UNcommons present no such utopian propositions but instead an analytics of the spaces we already collectively inhabit.
UNcommons opening celebration at little berlin (2015)UNcommons opening celebration at little berlin (2015)UNcommons opening celebration at little berlin (2015)
ICA: I’m interested in the confluence of physical, psychological, and digital space that the UNcommons exhibition explores and intervenes into. Why is this such an important thematic right now—as seen in the most recent New Museum Triennial, for example? Are these key juxtapositions for emerging artists and theorists like yourselves?
KG: Digital space—and its confluence with the other spaces of our experience—is actually not an overarchingly dominant theme in the exhibition; all of the artists incorporate techniques enabled by digital technologies in their practices but only E. Jane’s work deals with the theme in a direct way. But I do think a certain conscious consideration of how we negotiate physical space is characteristic of the so-called digital age, and that is perhaps because of the ways that the digital and virtual condition our inhabitation of our environment. The different qualities of virtual space denaturalize what had been presumed to be inherent characteristics of our previously lived environment.
That is what seems interesting right now about the confluence of the virtual realm with our physical environment and our spaces of interiority: Since the internet is at this point neither new to us nor to artistic practices, the concern that is emerging is no longer for the exploration of virtual space as a novel and separate realm, but rather for how that realm interacts with and redefines our physical and psychological terrains.
ICA: Can you zero in on one or two works in UNcommonsto give a sense of what people could expect were they to visit?
Keenan Bennett/KG: The act of layering seems particularly apt right now for the ideas explored in UNcommons. Shaina Gates’s installation At Arm’s Length and ICA graduate student lecturer chukwumaa’s sound sculpture quadrille_club_bing are no exceptions. Shaina’s overlapping drawings and oil paintings explore spatial memories temporally dislocated from the present. While looking at At Arm’s Length, viewers may hear a beguiling loop of traditional quadrille [square dance music] and other tunes; this is quadrille_club_bing, which harnesses the spatially transgressive qualities of sound in an aural remix of containment, control, and subversion. We could easily expand upon the works that E. Jane, Kaitlin Pomerantz, and Marianna Williams have in the show as well—all equally exciting and varied approaches to the show’s concept—but we’ll save something for curious attendees.
ICA: UNcommons is part of a new University of Pennsylvania graduate student initiative titled Incubation Series. You’ll be showcasing PennDesign and History of Art graduate work across Philadelphia. How did this collaboration come about? What are your hopes for the project series? Which spaces are involved so far?
KB: Incubation Series takes its name from the idea that graduate school is a place of experimentation and exploration, a laboratory where students can develop their ideas and interests. The collaboration behind the Incubation Series came about after chance encounters between graduate students in the fine arts and art history programs: Kirsten and I first met through the Politics of Publishing working group at ICA and then again at an event at Slought. These meetings happened essentially via common interests, for there were no existing initiatives—other than the ability to take cross-college electives—in either graduate program to encourage mixing between our departments.
Discussion about Incubation Series initiated with the questions, “How do we begin an ongoing conversation among students of fine arts and art history and how can this interaction lead to something tangible?” From the start, we have attempted to bring students from the art history and fine arts departments together. Our additional hope for this project to generate greater integration of the people, ideas, and practices of Penn’s art community into the broader Philadelphia artistic landscape—and vice versa.
The first show, UNcommons, is on view now at little berlin in Kensington. The same curators have two subsequent shows in motion to be held early in 2016, each consisting of 5-6 different artists. We are excited to announce the next of these exhibitions will be held at Grizzly Grizzly in North Chinatown.
ICA: How did the curators meet? What is it about Penn, ICA, or Philadelphia that has fostered such an ambitious collaborative project?
KG: The curators—Haely Chang, Hilary Whitham, and myself—all met as graduate students in the history of art department at the University of Pennsylvania. Working collaboratively together, as well as directly with artists, has been an exciting and rewarding change from studies that typically put an emphasis on individual development.
KB: The graduate school of fine arts and the history of art department are both intensively interdisciplinary programs, encouraging students to take courses ranging from literature and sociology to computer and biological sciences. This interdisciplinary quality certainly predisposed all of the Fine Arts and History of Art students and faculty to be receptive to and supportive of Incubation Series. ICA has played a huge part in helping bring about this project, serving as a role model for collaborative projects and creative curation. It was, after all, through ICA programing that Kirsten and I first met and the seeds of this collaboration took root.
Find out more about the Coffee & Conversation programs on Sunday afternoons organized by ICA graduate student lecturers, or sign up for a guided tour—free to all Penn affiliates—led by graduate students and trained docents like Keenan and Kirsten.