Last week we asked you to submit questions for David van der Leer, the Guggenheim architecture and urban studies curator behind stillspotting nyc. The two-year project calls on architects, artists, and composers to create “stillspots” throughout the five boroughs, and this time around, legendary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has collaborated with architecture firm Snøhetta, the designers of the museum pavilion at the World Trade Center site. The current edition of stillspotting nyc runs September 15–18 and 22-25.
How does a museum step out of its iconic building for experimental, off-site urban studies projects? Isn’t stillness the antithesis of the city? And why include an improv comedy group? Read Van der Leer’s responses below.
How does urban studies relate to the mission of a museum like the Guggenheim? Is your role at the Guggenheim unusual for a museum curator?
We have a fairly long mission statement, but the most important part of it is the first line: “It is our mission as a museum to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture and other manifestations of visual culture, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, and to collect, conserve, and to study the art of our time.” As an institution we have always been highly interested and stimulated by what is happening in the societies around us, and since the early nineties we have shown a strong engagement in architecture (both through actual buildings as well as exhibitions), of course inspired by our Frank Lloyd Wright building that we opened in 1959.
When I first started at the museum I worked on the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition with Thomas Krens and Maria Nicanor, and I was amazed with the record attendance that we were getting for the show. I wondered how we could use that same attention to help people see their lives in cities slightly differently. Trying to get programming off the ground that looks at cities may not be the thing that people expect from museums, but I do think it fits perfectly with our mission statement that urges us on a daily basis to analyze what is happening around us. Currently the urban condition around the world is one of our most pressing issues, so making that one of the fields of analysis and attention is very important to people like Maria Nicanor and myself. More people than ever live in cities, and those numbers will grow. Creating projects such as stillspotting nyc help us see cities in a different light.
The Guggenheim’s off-site programming seems pretty unique among major museums. Is it going to continue to become a larger part of the Guggenheim’s programming?
I hope so. For now we are developing a series of programs and exhibitions that each deal with this topic and that seem to generate a whole new audience from different parts of the world – we will see where it takes us. I believe, and I think the people that I have the pleasure of working with such as Maria Nicanor (Assistant Curator, Architecture – BMW Guggenheim Lab) and Sarah Malaika (stillspotting nyc) would agree, that addressing urban issues is not to be done only from universities or city governments. Museums and other cultural institutions have played an important role in city life over the past decades and it is almost natural for a museum such as the Guggenheim to venture out of its buildings into the city streets.
All of our city programs bring together different disciplines, and often for my programs there is a sense of poetry that is usually not associated with urban analysis. I believe that theory and data – as we have seen in many exhibitions and publications of the past decade – show a different light on cities, but I also think that it is sometimes more effective to address topics a little more experientially. Poetic programs such as stillspotting nyc, that often take people to beautiful places or meaningful experiences, can in my mind be just as effective, if not more. For the current edition of stillspotting, Arvo Pärt and Snøhetta take visitors to incredibly impressive spaces such as the Woolworth Building, a fairly unknown laybyrinth at the Battery, Fort Jay on Governors Island, and one of the top floors of the WTC 7 tower. Here new stillspots are created where people can take a step back from the hustle and bustle of New York City life. I think to many people it will be very rewarding.
The Lower Manhattan edition of stillspotting is framed around the anniversary of 9/11 and the World Trade Center site – how are the other stillspotting events going to be tied to their neighborhoods?
For each of the stillspotting editions we are working in a different borough, and in each case the relationship will be different. For the first edition by Pedro Reyes, who opened a Sanatorium for Urban Therapy in Brooklyn, we installed a surreal quiet space where people could really take a step back and reflect on their relation to the city through a series of sessions. For the Lower Manhattan session of stillspotting nyc, the artists Arvo Pärt and Snøhetta and I felt that it was important to create an uplifting work that celebrates our wonderful city. Many of the events around 9/11 make us look back, but we thought it would be good to look forward instead: to look beyond what has happened. For the upcoming editions we may tie into events like we do for this Lower Manhattan edition, but it may also be that we tie it in with other neighborhood dynamics that are often just as relevant.
What is the significance of stillness in a city? Isn’t it the antithesis in a way?
Sound, and stress are both the good and bad things about New York City. We are stimulated by it, but can also slowly get exhausted by the relentless pace that we have created for ourselves in the city. Exhaustion is perhaps not so problematic, but especially being over-exposed to noise can actually have serious implications that go far beyond agitation. In the United States there are 20 million adults and 10 million kids and teenagers that suffer from noise-induced hearing-loss. We can do a lot to prevent this in terms of noise reduction in traffic (why do trucks need to be so loud for instance?), building sites, and so on, but often this is not deemed important enough by policy makers. What we should realize is that thirty million cases of noise-induced hearing loss have very big social, financial and political implications, so trying to find silence and stillness in the city is not just a luxury, but in my mind more of a necessity that I hope we can subtly address through stillspotting nyc.
Do the weather and seasons affect how you plan the off-site programs?
Yes, there is no way around the weather when planning programs around the city. This means that for projects such as stillspotting we often focus on the spring, summer and fall, even though I think a winter edition of the project could be beautiful. Remember when we get the first snow of the season and suddenly the acoustic qualities of the city change and it becomes much more quiet? Always magical I find.
How did Improv Everywhere get involved? Why did you decide to incorporate public performance into the project?
In many ways the complete stillspotting project can be seen as a series of performance pieces that require more or less participant participation depending on the artist. The work of Improv Everywhere is incredibly powerful in helping us see NYC in unexpected ways. I was especially charmed by the lighthearted or humorous approach that Improv Everywhere takes, something that I think is very important for a project such as stillspotting that can easily become overly serious. Charlie Todd and his team made a series of urban interventions for us, so keep an eye out for their new pieces in 2012.
Both BMW Guggenheim Lab and stillspotting are highly multidisciplinary (as evidenced by the collaboration between Pärt and Snøhetta this time around). Do you think urban studies is a particularly fertile field for this type of collaboration?
Yes, in cities many of our different adventures, intentions and explorations come together. I like working on projects such as stillspotting and the BMW Guggenheim Lab where we are trying to make people more aware of the spaces around them in the city. Sometimes this is best done with architects, at other times with sociologists and yet at other times with composers and artists. Bringing people together within these projects often also results in inspiring experiences for the visitors as well as the participants themselves.
For instance, for this edition of stillspotting we have a collaboration between composer Arvo Pärt and architects at Snøhetta. Pärt had never seen his work used effectively in an urban setting, and at Snøhetta – where they have quite a background in working on spaces for music – they developed a very calm system that is inspired by the cyclical approach that they found in many of Pärt’s pieces. It has become a very uplifting and inspiring project that I hope will help people recalibrate their senses – if only for a few hours.
Is the museum reaching a broader (or different) audience through its off-site programming? Is that related to the museum’s use of YouTube for YouTube Play?
We reach different types of audiences with projects such as stillspotting and the BMW Guggenheim Lab. The online components play a role of course, but I am personally most interested in the interactions that take place onsite during these projects. For the first edition of stillspotting we had an elderly lady drop in on a Sunday morning. She had a Bible under her arm and looked distressed. We spoke for a while, and she mentioned that she was not finding what she needed at that time in church, and was intrigued by the notion of urban therapy. The next weekend she was back and took part in the sessions – and seemed very happy to do so. By no means am I trying to say we take over the role of religious institutions, but I do think a project such as stillspotting can offer a valuable relief system for people that are looking to take a step back from their busy lives.
I noticed that beyond the off-site events, stillspotting also involves projects with the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia and SVA’s MFA program. Was part of the idea behind stillspotting to find a theme that architects and artists could both respond to? Has there been much overlap between the approaches of the architects and the artists?
For several projects that we are working on at the moment we try to see if we can get students involved in different ways. Often when young people get involved in exhibitions it is in educational programs that are usually shown in smaller side exhibitions or in the public programs. There is nothing wrong with that, but I am very interested in tapping into their ideas even more and getting them deeply involved in the actual projects.
For stillspotting we developed two students’ studies as a kick-off for the project in January. At the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University professors Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams worked on a series of maps with their students that show silence, noise, and stress around the city. Kurgan and Williams themselves developed the 311 data map that can also be found on our website and that documents the noise complaints around the city. Even though there is a lot of humor to be found among the many complaints in this map, it is distressing to see how many people in New York City are bothered by noise on a daily basis. A second study was developed at the School of Visual Arts where professors Ed Bowes and Charles Traub worked with their students on a series of video pieces that analyze neighborhoods around the city for noise, silence and stress. Together, the SVA and SIDL studies became a good basis for our project to start working from, and we gave the student work a very prominent role on our website that I see as equal to the installations that we are doing with the artists, architects and composer around the city.