The Highlights occupies a unique position in the realm of online art publishing, focusing on the writings and experimental media explorations of artists rather than commentary and critique. Sparsely designed and intelligently edited, the site was founded by artists Ethan Greenbaum and Luke Stettner as an explicit reaction against the “journalistic bent” that plague much of today’s art writing and serve as extensions of press releases or quick news hits that drive traffic but not reflection. The site has evolved to feature thematic explorations such as the most recent issue’s “Closed Communities” focus. In placing artists at the center of the platform, it is able to host projects that otherwise may not find form, such as a portion of an accidental exchange between artist Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Texan inmate Buster Matthews and Robert Hult’s photo essay on Hasidic Street Posters in Williamsburg. Past issues are consistently surprising and refreshing reads and have presented speculative curriculums on artist-created institutions, insightful interviews between artists, and open-ended musings on the Biennial spectacle that consumes the Whitney every two years.
I recently spoke with Greenbaum and Stettner via email to discuss The Highlights’s origins, evolution, and place within the larger art publishing community as they recently launched their latest issue, Closed Communities.
James McAnally: The Highlights seems to have a specific vision for artists to take more direct possession of criticism. What did you feel was the value in creating a platform specifically for “offering artists an outlet to engage in unconventional criticism?”
The Highlights: We initially started talking about the Highlights in 2004, while we were still in grad school. When we finally launched the site in 2007, there was a real frustration on our part with how much we felt the market was shaping criticism. So much writing on art felt like an extension of the press release. Our idea was that artists could tell it like it was — meaning that they didn’t face the same editorial constraints art writers do. However, we realized quickly that we didn’t have the stomach for criticism, so we began to shift our direction. Looking back on it now, starting the The Highlights also seems like it was a way of implanting ourselves into an art world we weren’t yet a part of.
JM: The format and design of the site is really striking and stands out among online arts publications in that it forces a certain kind of viewing of discrete articles, but with nothing to navigate otherwise. Was there a particular kind of experience you were attempting to create through the design? Is the format important to you as an online publication, for example, or do you see opportunities to explore other formats?
TH: We focus primarily on the web because it’s affordable and offers easy distribution. The current form of the site was largely determined by our friends Ken Meier and Yoonjai Choi, who run Common Name, a New York based design studio. Ultimately, we all wanted a lean format that would place attention on the contributors and provide an elegant reading experience.
JM: Over time, the site seems to have moved away from traditional reviews towards more photo essays, artist projects, videos and other experimental media. Do you see the site as carrying more of a creative or a critical function in its current manifestation?
TH: The Highlights has definitely shifted towards a more creative and experimental place — for both the contributors and the editors. As we mentioned, after publishing a few issues, we realized that having artists write criticism is not necessarily the best use of their talents. It became a more interesting and unorthodox proposition to ask artists to create original, text-based pieces as an extension of their practices, curiosities, and experiences.
JM: What do you feel like your role is currently in creating a platform for online art criticism? What distinguishes the site from other models out there?
TH: At this point, our goal is not to necessarily be critical in a conventional sense. What sets the site apart is the fact that we work exclusively with artists rather than professional writers. Many of the artists we invite to contribute have never written for a publication before. This is a risky proposition, and, as you can probably imagine, presents certain challenges. However, it’s this lack of standardization that leads to pieces with originality.
Hasidic Street Posters in Brooklyn by Robert Hult. Image from The Highlights Closed Community issue.
JM: I was really interested in the “closed communities” concept for your latest issue, which was explored through Hasidic street posters, disappearing communities and an exchange between an artist and an inmate. What was behind that theme/topic?
TH: The theme arose the way they often do — out of conversations with other artists. Once we all agree on an idea, we expand on it by reaching out to artists who we think would be able contribute something meaningful to it. In the case of the Closed Communities issue, Robert Hult was talking with Ethan about these Hasidic posters he’d been photographing for years; our interest in this archive of pictures led to the idea for the theme.
This is a good point to mention that beginning with this issue, we started working with four other editors — Stephen Hoban, John Houck, Sidney Russell and Carmen Winant. Working with a more diverse collective has given us more perspective, ideas, and contacts. We’re currently planning the theme for the next issue.
Over the next several months we are engaging the legacy of institutional critique, ongoing institutional and organizational experiments, and Gerald Raunig’s notion of ‘instituent practices’ understood as artistic and curatorial practices that “invent new forms of instituting.” Question include: How do artists and independent projects challenge, comply with, and sometimes imitate traditional institutional forms? Further, how should (self-initiated) organizations consider their own operational mechanisms in order to responsibly address the social, political and cultural fabric in which they operate?