Penn student and Institute of Contemporary Art student board member Heather Holmes describes her unusual summer internship at ICA.
In the second week of my summer internship at ICA, Liz Park, the museum’s Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow, approached me. “Can I borrow you for a couple days this week?” she asked. “We’ll be working in a lab making agar gel.”
I didn’t envision this type of request when I applied to intern at ICA. But those days mixing “nutrient media”—that clear Jello-like stuff used in labs for culturing bacteria—and firing it in a huge, high-temperature pressure chamber, called an autoclave, were some of my favorites. The nutrient media was part of Josh Kline’s exhibit, Living Wages, a commentary on labor and capitalism focused on a single FedEx worker’s life. Kline filled clear plastic storage containers with nutrient media and placed everyday objects in them—Pop Tarts, a can of soda, coffee grounds. Over the course of the exhibition, genetically engineered bacteria grew around the objects and sprawled over the gel.
By helping to make Kline’s art materials, I got a more holistic view of the labor involved in the day-to-day of a major contemporary art institution. Working in the curatorial department under the supervision of Robert Chaney, Director of Curatorial Affairs, I assisted with a broad variety of projects. First, I digitally archived images from exhibitions of work by Brian Weil, Jason Rhoades, and Jeremy Deller, then created a checklist for this fall’s Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman.
“Can you draw?” Robert asked out of the blue.
“I think so,” I replied.
He wanted me to make a map of Philadelphia for incoming Penn freshmen, complete with artistic and culinary landmarks new students might enjoy. This marked another job transition: from cataloging Weil’s images of Hasidim, homicide, and underground sex to asking ICA staff about their favorite pizza joint.
I’ve been a member of ICA’s student advisory board since my sophomore year at Penn, but, until this summer, I still saw ICA as a visitor. On the student board, I plan events in conjunction with exhibitions, such as the biannual Free For All; as an intern, I saw what happened before and after the exhibition goes up. I learned, for example, that finding hosts for traveling exhibitions (such as the weighty 2013 show Jason Rhoades, Four Roads) is the curatorial department’s responsibility. Under Robert’s patient guidance (“excuse me, Robert, could you tell me one more time how to print on letterhead?”), I navigated ICA’s inner workings in a way that always felt meaningful.
Not only is the ICA staff deeply invested in the work they do; ICA is an organization that constantly redefines itself. It is just as often a movie theater, a community space, or a concert venue as it is a contemporary art museum, and this accessibility and flexibility was one of the many reasons why I was always challenged and pushed to think outside the box. Most days, as I walked upstairs to the staff offices, ICA security guard Linda Harris was on the second floor mezzanine, overlooking the ICA@50 anniversary exhibition, which closed on August 17. Unusual even for a contemporary art museum show, ICA@50 (pictured above) transformed its space every two weeks. Each time new artwork went up, we’d check in with each other, comparing notes on what we liked and didn’t.
When Kline’s Living Wages was installed, I walked over to the plastic containers with Linda.
“This is the gel stuff you made?” she asked me.
“That’s it,” I said, as we both peered down onto a Pop Tart covered in a purple-black mass of bacteria.
“That’s disgusting,” Linda said, patting me on the back. “But good job.”
Heather Holmes (SAS ‘15) is an English and Film Studies Major and a member of ICA’s Student Advisory Board. To learn more about internships or student board membership at ICA, take a look at our volunteer opportunities.
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