Flight Pattern 2w: Heidi Rabben
Heidi Rabben’s fire-y ringlets instruct the white scribble pattern that continues down her blouse. Her wide expanse of desk accommodates several ready tequilas like they’re a rather minor constellation. Hovering between the future and the past, Liat Berdugo can’t decide if she wants to try her first toffee mealworm leftover from last night’s opening, though surely they’re delicious. A spider on the far wall makes itself visible to Heidi. A capture. A hush. An unfolding of hands.
THE CITY AND THE CITY: toast #1, Milagro Blanco
Heidi Rabben: The artist Pablo Helguera started the Librería Donceles last year. He was living in New York and noticed that all of the Spanish language bookstores had disappeared despite its population of 2 million Spanish speakers. So he solicited donations from Mexico City to create a bookstore that would help fill this void. He ended up having something like 25,000 books donated. And then of course he realized that this isn’t only a problem in New York and decided to tour it to other cities. The books in the Libreria are for sale. You’re allowed to donate whatever you think it’s worth.
Liat Berdugo: Have a lot of people come in to buy books?
HR: They have. Within the first week we had already made more money than any of the other iterations first week’s.
LB: Really? Did you benefit from being right across the street from a taqueria?
HR: (Laughs) Maybe. We go there for pupusas. Don’t get anything else but pupusas.
LB: What has been the most surprising reaction to the Librería?
HR: There’ve been a couple of people who come back repeatedly. Someone came by — his name is Arturo — who has come back many times. He said “You really need to have music in here.” Thirty minutes later he came back with a record player and a bunch Cuban salsa cassettes. And there was one woman who wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She said, “Do you know that all of the Spanish speakers in this neighborhood are being pushed out? Do you know about all the changes happening in San Francisco?” Of course we know. We all understand the direction this is going in. And like Pablo, I thought it was even more important to install the Librería in this context — to do something that felt responsive and relevant, rather than to ignore what was happening.
LB: Talking about the Librería is talking about what audience you’re drawing in. Talking about a city is kind of talking about an audience.
HR: We think a lot about that here. It grows from the values that Kadist began with in San Francisco, which were about public programs. An exhibition audience is really different than a programming audience. An exhibition can be more solitary: it’s you, and it’s at your own pace. There’s nothing to rush or push you. But a program happens only one night. It’s one experience where you’re in a room with other people. There’s a little more urgency involved. It can be a lot more exciting, and a little riskier.
LB: Why riskier?
HR: Because it’s only that once chance.
LB: The most memorable moment from the one event I’ve been to here was when Paul Kos told a story about falling in love with his wife — about knowing he wanted to be with this woman forever because she shoots this donkey in the Grand Canyon.
HR: Wasn’t that amazing? Sounds brutal out of context, but I loved that.
REASSEMBLING ROMANCE: toast #2, Cazadores Añejo
LB: I loved this Daria Martin quote in your exhibit catalog: “My work seeks to reassemble this romance between the art forms, to backtrack in time and perhaps suggest a different method for those paths to be forged.” So this one is to reassembling romance.
HR: This is a sexy toast. What does romance mean? How do we experience romance?
LB: Yeah, go there!
HR: Maybe it’s idealism, maybe it’s direct relationships. I just felt like before I even wrote to Daria, we had a connection – maybe that was romantic of me. Romance is a salient component to one piece of Daria’s in particular: Soft Materials. But it’s a deeply tragic romance between humans and artificial intelligence. You feel the pain of unrequited love and the desperation of these vulnerable humans to connect with primitively assembled machines.
LB: You said you “fell in love” with Soft Materials. Do your shows always start with you falling in love with something?
HR: To some degree, yes. They almost always start from an artwork — a work I am seduced by or attracted to, though that attraction can be disturbing or perverse as often as it can be romantic.
LB: What was your relationship like with Daria? Were you calling each other on the phone?
HR: We were Skyping. I approached Daria and asked, if you could have a conversation with an artist, who would it be? And that’s how we arrived at Susan Hiller. The idea of the exhibition grew out of this imagined conversation between Susan and Daria’s work that I could help facilitate.
LB: That conversation is also a relationship! There are so many different kinds of romance in the work you do. There’s a romance between an artist and their own work. There’s a romance between the curator and the artist’s work. There’s a romance that you want to see happen between the viewer and the work. And then, don’t we all want romance in our lives in general?
HR: Totally. A curator can be a mediator that helps develop new relationships — between everything you mentioned, and of course between artworks or ideas themselves. So much of it is subjective: I’m always trying to balance my personal sensibilities with a greater impulse towards collective purpose. I think about the chance to make productive connections, and sometimes those connections are romantic. But sometimes they’re also uncomfortable. I guess that’s just the darker side of romance.
BRIGHT SHAPES: toast #3, El Jimador Reposado
HR: I was drawn to Etel Adnan’s paintings because of the boldness of the color. They’re abstract, colorful landscapes. But I was initially drawn to her more as a poet. Her writing is really blunt — it’s not at all flowery or indulgent. It’s direct, powerful, and very political. And it’s very interesting in contrast to these paintings.
LB: What do you make of that divide between someone being political in their writing verses cheerful with their painting?
HR: This was entirely why we decided to do this exhibition with her. Here are these really bright, optimistic landscapes, and here are these really powerful, emotional and politically charged pieces of writing. How do these different dimensions come together?
LB: If I’m coming to a Lebanese art show right now — when there’s a million Syrian refugees in Beirut, Adnan’s hometown — these bright shapes are not what I’m expecting. I feel like the Arab world still experiences orientalism.
HR: Maybe more so now than ever. It’s a really trendy moment in the contemporary art world to be looking at Middle Eastern artists.
LB: The paintings are so optimistic. Another one of the shows you curated references the California Light and Space movement — which is a name that is so optimistic, it could only come out of California.
HR: I’ve been very drawn towards California Light and Space. I always sort of knew about it, coming from Southern California. These works are so experiential in nature. I think that Light and Space, as a movement, has often been underestimated — especially because it happened at the same time as East Coast Minimalism, which was more intellectual and formal. They would critique the West Coast Light and Space movement for its “finish fetish” – for being all about seductive surface, and nothing beyond that. But it’s much more substantial. Larry Bell’s work blew me away – the way his glass surfaces change according to the natural light. And this is the origin of a lot of light and space work: the relationship to California – to the kind of light we get here.
LB: The light here is yellow isn’t it? You go to New York and the light is blue-gray.
HR: And the amount of light we get! Tonight, when you came in, it was so dark in here. We didn’t have lights in the office space until a week ago, because we kept the shades up and that was enough light all day. That’s what it’s like in California. But then daylight savings happened–
LB: –and our life went to shit. And we all just ate soup and went to bed at 10PM.
HR: Yes. We’re such spoiled children out here, I have to say.
LB: What is it like for you to live in the world with a heightened sense of aesthetics more generally?
HR: There’s an aesthetic value in everything, even in mundane things. Last week I realized that I only do exercise that has aesthetic value to me — subconsciously. I hate running. There’s something more than laziness at work, here. I like dance, yoga, swimming. I naturally dislike any sort of clunky exercise.
LB: So we’re not going to find you at Crossfit?
HR: I mean, I’ll try anything. But I probably won’t keep up with it.
HEIDI RABBEN is a curator and writer based in San Francisco. She was previously the 2013-14 Curatorial Fellow at Kadist Art Foundation/CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and the 2013-14 Writing Fellow for the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium in San Francisco. Her practice includes curating, writing, editing, and research, with a focus on contemporary art. She is currently Assistant Director at Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco.
FLIGHT PATTERN is a bimonthly interview series that traces the curiosities and affinities of Liat Berdugo (San Francisco) and Maggie Ginestra (Philadelphia). They invite curators to sit over a flight of tequila, making three toasts. The toasts are three take-offs, and o where will we land?