Interview: How PS1 Gets Its Strange, Cerebral Dance Music

On summer Saturdays since 1998, MoMA PS1’s courtyard in Long Island City, Queens has welcomed crowds ready to dance amidst the immersive architecture installations of the museum’s Young Architects Program. The 2011 season spans acid house legend DJ Pierre, noisy electronic standbys Black Dice, and newcomers like SBTRKT and Clams Casino, but perhaps most surprising is the diverse crowd – from adults jumping around on the dance floor to toddlers exploring various in situ installations (this year’s favorite is a wooden platform that spouts water, much to several three-year-olds’ delight).

Eliza Ryan, the assistant curator in charge of Warm Up, ascribes some of this success to the unusual venue, “Being an art institution – a place where performers and artists feel comfortable – the crowd also feels really welcome here. I’m always amazed at people dancing and expressing themselves in really free and positive ways that I don’t see in other places.”

In order to attract a wide audience and keep the program fresh, the museum embarks on a months-long curatorial process to choose each summer’s line-up. The 2011 committee included heads of labels like XL Recordings, RVNG Intl., and DFA Records, all of whom bring different tastes and perspectives to the mix. “Warm Up is curated as a music program, with some performative elements to it," Ryan explains. "The music curators do a great job of getting artists you might not have seen in other venues.”

Warm Up curator Brandon Stosuy is an editor and metal columnist at Pitchfork and a contributing editor at the Believer. He recently collaborated with Matthew Barney on a book about black metal band Wold. We asked Stosuy a few questions about the selection process that shapes Warm Up’s music program.

How did your relationship with PS1 come about?

Klaus Biesenbach asked a few musicians for recommendations of event organizers they thought were doing interesting work. Björk and I have done a few events together in atypical spaces, including an unannounced DJ set in a bookstore on a weekend afternoon with a live guitar piece by Mick Barr and a cello-and-tape piece by the composer Anna Clyne. Björk recommended me, so Klaus came to a fundraiser I did with her and some of our friends – [composer and former Battles guitarist] Tyondai Braxton, Dave Longstreth [from the Dirty Projectors], and [New Yorker critic] Alex Ross. It was a series of overlapping and traded-off DJ sets in a parking deck in Brooklyn. Klaus enjoyed himself, liked the atmosphere and turnout, and asked me to come on board at PS1.

What makes a band particularly well suited to Warm Up? How do the individual tastes of the committee members end up fitting together into the overall program?

In general, you want something that will make people dance. But you can tweak that ideal – me and one of the other committee members, Robin Carolan, recently paired Black Dice, oOoOO, His Name Is Alive, Clams Casino, and some other folks who might not immediately be considered “danceable.” But they are – in more subtle, strange, cerebral ways. The New York Times wrote a review of that particular Warm Up event with the headline “A Befuddling Sound, but Danceable Nonetheless.” That’s a successful booking to me. It was exactly what Robin and I were trying to do.

As a committee, we have disparate, overlapping tastes. It’s various, but not dissimilar. We all listen to a wide variety of things and, weirdly, don’t come to the table with an ego – it’s been relatively easy agreeing on lineups. It’s a legitimate collaboration.

What were you personally looking for during the selection process?

I’m interested in fulfilling the overall mission of danceable music on a Saturday afternoon and evening, but finding unexpected ways to do it. Like what I mentioned before regarding Black Dice and Clams Casino – not necessarily “subverting” anything, but challenging expectations of what “dance music” is or can be, expanding that definition somehow.

Were there any acts you were particularly gunning for this year?

I really wanted to get Brian DeGraw from Gang Gang Dance to DJ – that always makes for interesting but legitimate dancing. Unique, but not condescending. Same thing with Black Dice. I was also shooting for Clams Casino and oOoOO. After I mentioned wanting the latter two, Robin and I decided to team up to organize a couple of the dates – he was thinking of them as well. So that led to something bigger. Last year I was happy that I was able to convince Animal Collective to DJ.

PS1 must be the only place you can sit in a James Turrell installation while hearing the Black Dice show going on outside. How do you think the venue affects the experience?

Warm Up couldn’t happen anywhere but that courtyard, I don’t think.