In conversation with Peter Scott

by David Court

6 March 2014

Artist and writer David Court met with Peter Scott to discuss Scott's latest exhibitions in New York and Brussels, and how his interests inform his work as an artist, curator, and writer. 

The following conversation took place on the High Line in New York City.

I thought we could start, maybe just diving into the conversation, and talk about about how you approached the shift in context from your show at Martos gallery in Chelsea to your recent project in Brussels.

Well maybe I have to go into a bit of the exhibition at Martos Gallery first, because the project for the Brussels show came out of spending time around the High Line, which influenced both exhibitions. In fact, it had what I think of as a site-specific element, because it was meant to address the locality. 

The photographs that were included in the Martos Gallery show are very much about site. They’re about the relationship between sameness and difference, or conformity and specificity, and a sense of the loss of the local to the generic reshaping of the built environment by the pervasiveness of luxury housing developments. The title, No Place Like You, is obviously a play on the cliché "there’s no place like home." As urban dwellers are increasingly outfitted with gadgets that communicate, orient, and entertain, they carry "place" with them. As site becomes a backdrop for autonomy, consumer culture’s investment in the "you" often comes at the expense of a connection to one’s surroundings.

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Above: Green Apartment, inkjet print, 19" x 14", 2012. 

Right, and transformed into something that is consumed as an image, as part of what you’re calling "lifestyle culture."

Yes, where it becomes less about living in the city as living with its representation.

And you can see that in the way that peopletourists or anybody reallyexperience the city, where so much of the experience is about taking pictures.

Well now with cell phone cameras this phenomenon of experience yielding to representation is much more emphatic. I read an interview with a Facebook executive about the increasing significance of images for young people (which led them to acquire Instagram) and she claimed that young people now plan the way they’re going to document an experience before it occurs. Which to me is an amazing idea. It’s like we’re perpetually starring in our own little feature films, produced by and for us. And this is a long way around, but that preoccupation with the individual and their relationship to locality was embedded in the title of my show.

Also, given that I run a gallery and curate mostly group shows, I have some ambivalence about solo shows and the way that the artist is often seen in isolation. I wanted to arrive at something that wasn’t simply a solo show or a group show. The idea was to take the title and extend it to the backspace at Martos Gallery without explicitly taking credit as the curator of that show. I chose to focus on a thematic connection, and what’s going on in these different works—the group exhibition and my own work. And I believe it did question the autonomy of the solo show without falling into the trap of either/or.

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Above: Dream Bathroom, inkjet print, 19" x 14", 2012. 

Yes, one of the things I liked about that is the way it enabled you to shift the reading of the work you’ve produced under the auspices of being a "solo artist," which was the initial impression of the work in the front rooms of the gallery, but then there’s this progression into the back room where there’s a group of work that broadens the context of the things you’re addressing in your own work, and also raises these questions of authorship and institutional framing. And so you kind of read your solo work first on its own, and then as part of this larger conversation.

But returning to what we were just discussing about the city, one of the things I thought was quite funny in that back room was the image of the High Line that you included. The architects of the High Line, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, set up these situations that are very much about framing the city and the visitors to the park as a picture, and I like how your approach starts to reveal the cynicism of these gestures.

I don’t think many people consider the area of the art galleries in Chelsea as a neighborhood, but I was thinking about it that way when I was working on the show at Martos Gallery. I kept encountering that big frame on the High Line at 26th Street and 10th Avenue and seeing people within the frame. They become very much like an ad on a billboard, and I was thinking about that gesture and what kind of engagement that is with the public, where the public gets flattened out as a display, an advertisement for the experience of the park. I took a picture and framed it as though it were a postcard and called it Archival Material (High Line Postcard). I’m not sure if they really have High Line postcards. I guess they must. 

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Above: installation of Picturing the City on a billboard in Brussels in occasion of Scott's exhibition Here Comes The Neighborhood at Rectangle gallery.

Yours would be a good one!

Even though it was quite small that piece was very significant to the whole show.

Right, well it became part of this bigger dialog with the other works in the show, with the surprising links between Dan Graham’s work (Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1975) and the Jacques Tati film (Playtime, 1967), or the Tati and your work. 

There are other oblique references, like the placement of the High Line image opposite a light box piece by Heidi Schlatter of a housing project very similar to the ones across 10th Avenue, close to where I took the postcard image. 

I think generally people think of the art gallery as a place in isolation from the street. In a sense it’s like a movie theater, where you walk in and there’s no relationship to the outside. I’m not necessarily critical of that, but my interest is to refer, perhaps subtly, to overlaps and connections, via an emphasis on perception, between the artifice of aesthetics and the reality of social conditions.

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Above: installation of Scott's exhibition No Place Like You at Martos Gallery.

Yeah, well that’s one of the things that interests me in your work with carriage trade, and it was visible in the Martos Gallery show as well, where, especially in a commercial gallery, the norms of presentation are pretty close to a boutique, where you’re having this de-contextualized relationship with an object that is limited to the terms or the materials of the object itself. But with the Martos Gallery show, each work is supplemented by the others, so it amounts to something more, and insists on context and relationships as important factors in reading an artwork.

My idea is that depending on the context that you create, the work can both relate in a general way to things outside the space and also to the local conditions in the space and to each other. And that’s what I like about the group show. It’s a transient form, kind of like theater, where these specific objects will be together in the space for a limited amount of time. And so it’s more than the sum of its parts, and I think if it’s done in an interesting way the show creates a specific resonance that’s unique to the duration of the exhibition. 

At the same time, you know, it can be very arbitrary. And that’s the downside. To me, some group shows, because they tend to reinforce the idea of an artist’s autonomy, present artworks as though they’re in competition with one another, with each one fighting for its survival.

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Above: Purple Chairs, inkjet print, 19" x 14", 2010. 

Well it’s about setting up a more stable relationship between the consumer and the object on display, where it’s more coherent how these things are to be considered or consumed. And that’s something I see in your curatorial work, where you’re combining the work of greater and lesser known artists with various forms of archival and found material in an unconventional way. And this relates to how you’re setting up the gallery as a space that operates outside of the norms of the institutional forms of the commercial gallery or the non-profit space. And this questioning of identity seems to run through your projects, where you’ll have a show of monochrome paintings made by a fictional artist (Henry Codax, 2011) and then a show addressing counter-narratives of patriotism in the wake of September 11th (Pop Patriotism 2002, 2012). But it all seems to come back to foregrounding how different forms of cultural production relate to questions of identity.

I’m interested in the idea of things not being what they seem—which fundamentally is a question of perception. Perception, the way that you see something, has a lot to do with belief. Mistaken Identity, a show I organized in 2010 at carriage trade, came after a series of events that were the results of "too much" belief. It’s easier to see now that the subprime bubble was generated through mass hysteria, and that the housing market could not rise forever, but such rational thinking was no match for irrational belief stimulated by what people "wanted" to believe. 

The exhibition included a Yes Men video where Andy Bichlbaum posed as an executive for Union Carbide on the BBC news (BBC World News Bhopal, 2004), and falsely claimed that the company would devote billions of dollars to compensate the several hundred victims of a gas leak at the plant, which caused Union Carbide’s stocks to plummet briefly, until the BBC reported that they’d been the victim of a hoax. There was also a collaboration between carriage trade and the Innocence Project, a non-profit law firm which exonerates those that have been wrongfully accused of crimes. They provided me with some individual cases and I displayed photographs of the wrongfully accused person and the actual perpetrator side by side. In eyewitness testimony, witness’s perceptions are often a conditioned response to what they already believe.

So my interest is in playing with what we think we see. In the case of the mirror piece in the Martos Gallery show, there’s a sense of encountering something that isn’t what you thought and adjusting to what it might be. It’s about experiencing yourself "having" the perception. And it’s inviting the viewer to question their expectations. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that whole issue of expectations and belief is a very rich area for me, and it informs carriage trade as well. 

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Above: Untitled (Carrie), photograph behind two-way framed mirror, 2013 

That’s one of the interesting things to see is that there is a dialog between the carriage trade exhibitions and the concerns that are consolidated in your work.

Yeah, well this is another area where identity is so important. Being an artist, curating, running a gallery, writing... they’re all interesting to me and my approach is quite similar with all of them. Beginning with art making, then writing, then curating, I found that each time I worked in a new discipline I could then look at the others with a different perspective. Organizing shows with other people’s work and organizing shows of my own work enables a certain detachment from my own work that I think is useful. Ideas from my work generate ideas for the gallery and vice versa. 

How did the curating emerge?

I felt as an artist that it was sometimes hard to find the appropriate context for what I was doing, so essentially I made it up each time. My artwork does not appear in carriage trade exhibitions, but in a sense I am in each show by an assertion of a certain set of interests. Each show built upon the previous one and inevitably it seemed that the next thing to address was the creation of a context itself, so the gallery came out of that. It’s been in the same place over four years, and over that period, if you put the shows together, I believe there’s a fairly clear conceptual thread that runs through everything. 

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Above: Walk In Water, inkjet print, 19" x 14", 2011. 

So what you’re doing with carriage trade is creating an institution that makes space for the kind of conversation that you want to see happening. There’s a history of that in Sohowith White Columns and Artists Space, etc.but it’s something there is less and less of in NYC…

I think that’s probably true, because it’s getting harder to do that. 

Right, the urban space doesn’t have the same kind of flexibility or availability.

You know, I think there’s a kind of nostalgia for the sixties and seventies, which is on some level a manifestation of markets. In some ways we’re consuming that past, which is unavailable to us, given the present circumstances. At the same time, it is a point of reference for some very important things. I’ve worked with artists from this generation, like Dan Graham and Olivier Mosset, who have been supportive of the gallery and given me some perspective on the period, as well as Louise Lawler and Jennifer Bolande from the following generation, plus many artists from my generation and younger who "get it" in terms of the need for spaces that present programming that is not so easily consumed or assimilated. 

But I also have some ambivalence about what I see as a fetish for artist-run centers from the past, because the situation is so different now. Due to market and real estate pressures, the experimental nature of the artist run gallery is at constant risk of being purged in favor of a normalizing professionalism, and it’s worth continually reassessing what we mean by artist run, alternative, or non-profit.

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Above: Yours and Mine, inkjet print, 19" x 14", 2012. 

Right, it seems very difficult for an artist-run initiative to stay independent or flexible for very long. The necessity for survival leads towards different forms of acquiescence or integration into the existing economic and professional models.

Well, this is my fear. I’ve always been wary generally about the needs of an institution overwhelming the content or reason for the institution’s creation. And you can see a lot of examples, where culture is supported through branding and corporatization. We’re told that this is what cultural institutions need to do to survive and I’m hoping, perhaps naively, that this doesn’t have to be the case entirely, that perhaps it’s a question of degree. 

To circumvent the potentially negative aspects of institutionalization, my initial notion was for the gallery to be a series of long-term temporary projects. But when I set up on Walker Street in 2010, it took a lot of time and energy to get the place into shape and it seemed self-defeating to keep moving around, and it made more sense to just try to deal with this problem. And one of the ways it’s evolved is to build in some contradictions, or accept some contradictions in the space, where it’s kind of a hybrid of the commercial, artist-run, and museum formats in terms of the materials that are included in the shows. There are established artists whose works are found in museums and blue-chip galleries, combined with artists doing great work that’s not as visible, and there’s the archival material or occasional historical show, which could be seen as the “non-fictional” or institutional element in the programming. For me it’s more interesting to combine existing models into a kind of hybrid that is unlike any single element, than it is to pursue newness for its own sake, which in many cases doesn’t seem all that new to me.

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Above: Kitchen Pole, inkjet print, 19" x 14", 2012. 

What’s behind the emphasis on group shows at carriage trade? 

When I started the gallery I wanted to present an alternative to a tendency to isolate artists by celebrating individuals at the expense of contexts or influences, which seemed at odds with certain realities. There are many connections artists have to each other, to history, to those that have informed their work, etc. that are downplayed in favor of a view of the artist as a unique being that “goes it alone.” This to me promotes an unhistorical and competitive arena for experiencing art, which, ironically, makes it more difficult to understand any one artist’s work.

If we consider that society is made up of many individuals currently subject to constant corporate commands and appeals along with increased governmental scrutiny, while negotiating less than stable economic conditions, then art’s celebration of individualism seems kind of out of touch right now. The idea of the individual in art is more often than not a construction of institutions that have become indispensable, as bigger art projects require bigger funders, auction houses flaunt record breaking sales, and the generalizing nature of art fairs emphasize mass inventory over settings which might lend meaning to any individual artist’s work.

Given these contradictions, it seemed to make sense for an individual artist to create and inhabit a small-scale institution that could function as a means of expression rather than as an organization that might eventually subsume individuality.

Right, this emphasis on individuality cuts both ways, and it plays into what we could maybe think of as the division of labor in art. Artists have the freedom to do whatever they want in the role of the artist, but little agency in the institutional structures that shape and profit from culture. It’s the freedom of the precarious worker. What you are doing is taking more seriously this idea of the freedom that comes along with the artist identity, and using it to create an institution that works for youwhich is also more like "taking liberties" with the artifice of the institution to get around this distribution of power and visibility.

And to put it in a more positive or optimistic light, what’s great about art is that you can do whatever you want. In principle anyway, if not in reality. In principle, you can just make stuff up. Carriage trade is a venue "made up" to present the kinds of shows I wanted to see but there was no place for, and it’s important for me to maintain that sense of openness about it. There’s a lot of play in it, like with the archival material, the fact that as a curator I’m showing this stuff but not claiming or attributing authorship, as well as a flexibility in the programming schedule, which allows me to assimilate things that seem culturally relevant into the content of the exhibitions. I was working on the Color Photographs from the New Deal show around the time of Occupy Wall Street, and eventually incorporated archival material from strikes and protests from the thirties and forties that offered visual evidence of historical precedents for the Wall Street protests.

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Above: installation of the exhibition Picture No Picture at carriage trade gallery. 

So now maybe we can come back around to the most recent show in Brussels. That’s an artist-run space, right?

Yes, an artist-run space called Rectangle. I really like what they’re doing. In each of their shows, there’s a billboard piece on the roof that relates to the exhibition inside. I like the inside-outside thing. It’s something I referred to a lot in the Martos show and that my work is very much about. I realized that as the city becomes more about artifice, it increasingly resembles a gallery, in terms of display and self-conscious representation. There’s a kind of seamlessness between lifestyle culture’s effect on the built environment and what’s happening within art galleries. So doing a billboard piece was very interesting. I used the image of the High Line, so there were people looking out from Chelsea into Brussels.

What was your thinking about the title Here Comes the Neighborhood, and this shift in context from New York to Brussels?

Well, I didn’t want to do a carpet-bagging kind of thing. There’s a tendency in site-specific art to dig up materials from the library that make reference to some local condition, kind of putting your stamp on the place, and I’m suspicious of that. Putting an image of the High Line in this other location, which is also an urban place, references how these changes are taking place everywhere. The neighborhood of Rectangle is a low-income neighborhood, near Wiels, a major exhibition space in Brussels, and it’s undergoing changes. It’s not so much that I’m assuming it will play out similarly, it certainly won’t, but this phenomenon of the cult of leisure within the urban environment is a global phenomenon.

You included some of your photographs, which, as specific as they are, identify something that is widespread, which is this constant renovation and recreation of urban space. And you can see this anywhere, or at least anywhere that artists happen to be.

Right, and that to me is an important part of what my photographs address: the issue of locality and how it’s at risk of being subsumed by image. Taken in various neighborhoods of New York City, the photographs are "straight" documentation, but can appear fake because of how they are cropped. In isolating a particular view, my intention is to create some ambiguity between the real and the fake, so the illusion used to sell the reality sometimes "comes forward" and is mistaken for the real. 

As many areas of urban centers resemble theme parks, I think one can be forgiven for not knowing "where they are." It was in this spirit that I started taking these photographs, which, because of the interplay between disorientation and the "fact" of their source, are maybe oddly optimistic, as they might be seen as betraying the resilience of uniqueness within the undifferentiated dream of endless leisure.

carriage trade's upcoming show, Cutting Through the Suburbs, will open in March.

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