“Mythologists” – An interview with Rachel Vera Steinberg by Nelly Gawellek
Rachel Vera Steinberg is the first recipient of the Julia Stoschek Foundation’s Curatorial & Research Residency Program launched in 2019, and the curator of “JSC on view: Mythologists” (17.1.-19.12.2021).
I met her on a warm Sunday afternoon in September at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf. We decided to sit in the garden to enjoy the last of the late summer sunshine while we talked about her work at the Julia Stoschek Collection and her exhibition, which deals with the complicated relationship between facts and fiction, personal and collective narratives, and the potential of moving images in creating alternative realities. It is Rachel’s first visit to Düsseldorf since her residency during the summer of 2019 and her first time to see her own exhibition that had already opened in the beginning of 2021, when she was stuck in New York due to Covid.
Nelly Gawellek: First of all, would you like to introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about your background, what brought you here and what topics you are interested in?
Rachel Vera Steinberg: I’m trying to decide whether to tell the longer or the condensed version (laughs)… So, where do I start? I’m from New York. I went to college there and have worked there since 2008, mainly for arts nonprofits, where I mostly worked with artists at the beginning of their careers, often organizing their first solo exhibitions. But I only kind of fell into curating as a path after trying to be an artist myself. After I graduated from art school, I figured out that the thing I enjoy about art is creating context for it, and supporting it, not actually making it. So, I started working at this organization called “NURTUREart”, and as I was always interested in video art, I developed a semi-annual video art exhibition of emerging artists, a program that in the end lasted for five years. That was my introduction into curating video and learning how to put different video works in the same room and create a conversation with them. I’ve always been really interested in figuring out how to put together exhibitions that unfold over time. You have to create a scenario, where people want to sit down and spend time. And then another focus of mine is science fiction, it’s like the kernel of what I am looking for: this impetus to create different worlds, which surely echoes in the current exhibition. Why do we want to create fiction out of realities? Why do we need a structural basis for it?
NG: It seems like all of this led you here quite naturally… and then you received the fellowship. I was wondering how you approach a collection like this, with more than 800 works?
RVS: I mostly worked directly with artists before and never with a collection, so I knew that this was going to be different, but I didn’t really have a specific plan or idea, when I got here at first. I was just excited to have access to all these video works that you don’t get to see unless they’re on display somewhere. So, I knew I had to take advantage of this opportunity. I saw a lot of historic works for the first time, but also discovered artists that I hadn’t known before. And I took the opportunity to rewatch some works that had impressed me before, sometimes over and over again, to find out what they were about.
So, I think I just dove in head-first and continued to watch and take notes – ending up with a large pile of Muji-notebooks (laughs). At the same time, I was able to use the library here, to read alongside of what I was watching. I’m not coming from an academic background, necessarily, but I wanted to read what other people had to say about the works and figure out how they fit into a historical context. It was a very different experience from how I had worked before.
NG: How did you come up with the idea – Mythologists? As you mentioned science fiction before, I can imagine it’s related to this interest in creating alternative realities?
RVS: My previous interest in science fiction had more to do with the environments that are built through science fiction scenarios and less about the social relations. So, it came a little bit through that. But also, another interest of mine is researching on alternative spaces and their senses of community. There is this essay by Lorraine Daston, where she talks about a moment during the 19th century, when art and science had this rift in discipline, and which marks the origin of the idea of facts. Etymology sometimes is a little misleading maybe, but one of the examples she uses is that the word “fact” comes from the root word that also produces “factory”. We understand facts as things that are already there without us, but her proposal is that art and science are the same thing and that facts are produced just as much as fictions are. And I think this idea of the production of facts plays an important role in current discussions and concerns. However, my intention with the show was to present it in a way that wasn’t politically polarizing, as in “truth is good and fake news is bad”. This group of works, each one individually, produces its own worlds or fictions which then become or disrupt behavioral norms or social settings.
NG: I noticed that performance is an important aspect in the works you selected. The idea that reality is something that is being performed made me wonder what’s the difference between behavior and performance. What role does performance play when it comes to creating reality?
RVS: I recently had an argument with someone about this exact question. Their claim was that performance is disingenuous and that, if you’re performing something, you’re not being real about it. I absolutely don’t agree. I think we all perform things. I’m performing something right here. The same is true for myths as well as media images. They are products, narratives that are created with a specific intention, but this is real of course, in a sense that it has a real impact.
I selected works that are concerned with how we create ourselves as images and are created by them at the same time. It’s this cyclical relationship between ourselves and the world and our subjectivity that creates and is created by behavior of others, behavior that we agree to or not, depending on what our desired role within the community is. That was one of the things, that I had thought about really early on, which is the creation of identity and subcultures and communities without necessarily objectifying the body in particular. I wanted to look at humans as social beings rather than fleshy vessels. When you think about it like that, performance is actually the key to creating something new.
NG: It might be a silly question, but which work did you select first? Was there a work that was important from the beginning?
RVS: I think one of the works that was formative was Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore” (1999). It’s an iconic work, that I love very much and that was like a lynch-pin to my ideas. Its style is not overly intellectualized, the editing is very instinctual. And I also like the feeling of the work, which is about the idea of pleasure seeking. And then there’s Wu Tsang’s work “Wildness” (2012), which is more politically charged, but still its kernel is the pleasure seeking that happens when you form communities. Another one was WangShui’s “From Its Mouth Came a River of High-End Residential Appliances” (2018). It is the first work you see in the exhibition. It records a drone flight through a luxurious building complex in Hong Kong. The façades have large several holes in them, which are especially built, so that dragons can fly through them. According to Feng Shui dragons have to be able to reach the sea to drink from it. The camera in the video is the dragon, but also the viewer and the windows work like portals to the exhibition, through which you’re just sucked in.
NG: I don’t know if you want to talk about it all, but when I’m looking at exhibitions right now, I always wonder to what extend they have been shaped by the whole Covid-situation?
RVS: It definitely was influenced by Covid. A lot of the works have to do with a gathering of bodies in space. When I was putting it together this just stood out to me. Wu Tsang’s work for instance, or Mark Leckey’s. Or even Laure Provost’s, which is about the pilgrimage to the Venice Biennale, which is the biggest art gathering of bodies…
NG: And then the Biennale was cancelled, too…
RVS: Yes, exactly. I started working on the exhibition before Covid, but it firmed up to what it is now during the peak. I think being extracted from normal cultural and behavioral cycles made us almost yearning for them. So, I think part of what I was looking for was creating a sense of belonging, even if it’s not overtly in the show. At the same time working on the exhibition sometimes felt terrifying, because I just didn’t know how to produce meaning in this special situation, in the height of Covid. As a cultural worker I get a lot from being in the world, so it was difficult. I don’t know how it affected the content of the exhibition, but it was a truly unique experience. I had been thinking a lot about this idea of duration. One of the things I thought about was the idea of something being relevant on a timeline, or a certain era or epoch of thought, and then, all of a sudden, it felt like time had collapsed and we were in a moment, where we didn’t know what the year 2020 even meant. It was hard to get a sense of footing.
So, I was wondering, what does it look like to go back in time, to these other moments, and what makes a work from 2003 relevant right now? And sometimes it almost felt as if things from the past didn’t matter anymore. It has been a surreal experience and then the exhibition went up so long ago and I haven’t even had the chance to see it myself, which added to this impression. So, coming here now and seeing “it’s real” was certainly strange. But I have to say, the team here put a lot of effort in it and they did a wonderful job. I’m very happy with it. So, maybe it’s also an important lesson to not be in control all the time…