Outside the White Cube, Inside the Hotel Room
In conversation with Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish, who take exhibitions out of the gallery and into guerrilla-style spaces like hotels.
Blending the transient nature of hotels with an interrogation of white cube spaces and artistic documentation, hotel-art.us stages exhibitions in hotel rooms, boats rented from AirBnB and parking-lots of baseball stadiums. Founded in 2012 by Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish, who share an artistic and curatorial practice together, as well as being engaged, hotel-art.us has produced an impressive programme of exhibitons allowing artists to make work in some of the most unconventional spaces around the world.
“EVENTUALLY WE SOMEHOW IMPLIED, THROUGH BROKEN SPANISH, THAT WE WERE SHOOTING A PORNO. AND THEY WERE OKAY WITH! AN ART SHOW, NOT SO MUCH.”
Aric Miller: How did the idea for Hotel Art come about?
Loney Abrams: We started it for a few reasons. One was pragmatic, in that we wanted to start a space or curatorial platform, but we didn’t have money to rent a gallery. It seems that even if you do have a lot of money, running a physical gallery space isn’t really sustainable unless you are selling really marketable work, and even then is hard. So we decided to do these off-site exhibitions as a way to curate shows without having the overhead of an IRL exhibition space, or the pressure to cater to the market and sell work.
The second reason was to play around with documentation-as-exhibition in its own right. We wanted to be really transparent about how exhibition spaces function— firstly, as the site of a photoshoot that produces documentation that then circulates as jpegs, and secondly as a catalyst for social interaction and prestige. We found that we could achieve both of those things without having a gallery, which seemed superfluous; if you go to a gallery opening you aren’t really looking at the art, you are there to socialise and be seen, and the rest of the month the gallery just kind of sits there. So we started installing exhibitions just long enough to photograph them, just long enough to produce the documentation. And then to fill that social function (to have conversation and build a community and have face-to-face interactions with people) we’d also have IRL events that weren’t exhibitions themselves, they’re more like after parties. So that’s sort of how it started.
Johnny Stanish: We were also in grad school at Pratt in 2012/13 when we started hotel-art.us. We were in the same studio area together, along with Ian Swanson, who was also involved with the project when it started, and we’d end up spending a lot of time sitting around the studios drinking and talking about how art circulates on and offline. So starting hotel-art.us was kind of a way for us to get out of the art school bubble and plug into the larger New York art scene. Then once we were finished with grad school, we were able to continue having shows without having a budget.
LA: Yeah, the main thing is that there is no overhead, and we can show whatever we want. We realised that without the constraints of a physical space, a lot of the traditional “rules” and conventions that revolve around exhibition-making just went out the window.
JS: Right. For example, galleries generally have monthly exhibitions, which corresponds to the monthly rent cycle. For us, there is no schedule, we don’t have to go month-to-month to pay the rent and sell the work. So we can produce a few shows in one month if we want to, and then release them over the course of several months. We can also be producing a show in Berlin while releasing images from a show we made in New York, or have simultaneous shows up from different parts of the world. We aren’t really held by any financial constraints. But this also has its own problems as well, like not being able to give artists budget to make work.
AM: Sometimes your documentation takes different forms, such as videos or accompanying sound files, but also varying methods of photography. In the exhibition Remains Of The Day: Might, Will Return we see it take the form of something resembling a photo journal, in the parking lot of Dodgers Stadium. Could you explain how you decide what form the documentation will take?
LA: In a couple of cases, we’ve co-curated shows. We worked with Keith J. Varadi for the show at the Dodgers Stadium, and it was his idea to use disposable point-and-shoot cameras. It was like going to a Dodgers game with your dad and he brings a disposable camera and makes you pose in front of various things. There is a kind of urgency involved in using these point-and-shoots in that you snap the picture, and that’s it; no-redos. And you can’t edit as you go, you just have to hope that it comes out okay once you develop the film.
JS: Yeah, that show was fun. Keith understood how this project functions and by using the old format of disposable cameras the documentation became tangible and then after being scanned, it circulated online.
“WE TAKE CRAPPY PHONE PICS. WE USE FLASH. WE DON’T EDIT. WE’RE TRYING TO EXPLORE ALTERNATIVE AESTHETICS AND SUGGEST THAT THE SHINY WHITE CUBE ISN’T THE ONLY BACKDROP FOR CONTEMPORARY ART.”
LA: So Remains Of The Day was one example of what you called a photo journal. Another example is the second-to-last show we did, which was with Zöe Field. She didn’t document a static exhibition, but instead documented artworks and also various moments and places throughout several different nights and locations in Frankfurt. The show we did on a houseboat called An Adventure Film Starring Tom Hanks we documented with a live feed on Periscope, which functioned, kind of, as a live narrative film that used part of the script from Castaway. In the Bank of America show we incorporated a piece that wasn’t even there, we photoshopped it in afterwards.
AM: Is that the one with smoke coming out of the ATMs?
JS: Yeah, Overdraft had a video by Andrew Norman Wilson that showed colored smoke bombs coming out of ATMs. But I think what Loney was talking about was how we had the receipt coming out of the ATM look like it was on fire. Of course it wasn’t, we just made it look like that using Photoshop.
But more recently we’ve been interested in honest documentation, where we’re not trying to achieve the Contemporary Art Daily level of photography, with super high-def, over-exposed images that have been retouched by professionals, and look like they belong in Architectural Digest. We take crappy phone pics. We use flash. We don’t edit. We’re trying to explore alternative aesthetics and suggest that the shiny white cube isn’t the only backdrop for contemporary art.
AM: Documentation has become the dominant way we view exhibitions (no matter where or how they take place), and this has arguably affected the work being made for exhibitions. So now if something didn’t physically take place, augmenting documentation photos is an option, which we are seeing more of. For the show Current Model Like New, the documentation has been augmented with images of dinosaurs. Could you explain this project a bit more and how it came about, as well as the other projects where you have edited the photos later?
LA: That show ended up being co-opted into the Hotel Art framework, but that was actually produced using a grant I got from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) through this residency called Flux Factory. We produced two cars—one was designed by Jon Rafman and the other one by Amalia Ulman. Daniel Keller contributed a sound piece. There was a physical exhibition, which the stipulations of the grant required, but Johnny and I also drove the cars upstate to this particular winding road that literally most of car commercials are filmed on. Then we took these commercial-looking car photos and gave them to Katja Novitskova and asked her to produce an artwork using the documentation imagery. It was her idea to use these dinosaurs which she saw as very American in the same way that these car commercials were. Even though dinosaurs were obviously at one time real, they’re in a sense mythical creatures in that we can only view them as renderings. And the way in which they’re rendered, and used in Hollywood cinema, and glorified and fetishized, is a very American thing from Katja’s perspective.
JS: Then also in Berlin we did a group show in which Edward Marshall Shenk manipulated the documentation images.
LA: He really understood the project and made this very literal statement about the documentation photos as marketing and promotional material, so he designed these templates that looked as if it was for corporate stationery, and overlaid it onto each photo. He also designed a Hotel Art logo in this way to brand each image as a Hotel Art image, or an Edward Marshall Shenk image, in a way that makes it very clear that the programme isn’t just defined by the things in the photos but the actual photos take on some form of object-hood.
JS: Edward also wrote a blessing that we read before we ate – to bless the supper – and that prayer was also worked into the template, so in the end, each image had part of the blessing written around the edge of the photo.
Then there was Oliver Haidutschek’s show in China—much of his work only exists on a computer, but for that show he made some objects in Photoshop and then printed them out and made die cuts, and then documented them in a hotel. It was made to look as if it was all completely photoshopped, but actually the pieces were real.
“IN THE VERY BEGINNING, OUR MODEL WAS REALLY CONFUSING TO A LOT OF PEOPLE. THEY DIDN’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THAT THESE EXHIBITIONS DIDN’T EXIST IN REAL LIFE.”
AM: Moving back to Current Model Like New, you also received funding for this project. How is obtaining public funding for projects in the US? I know in the States it can be quite tight where in the UK it appears to be much more common. How did that come about and what are the challenges of receiving funding?
LA: Yeah, that was incredibly rare.
JS: That’s the only time it’s happened for us.
LA: That was really because I was asked to do a curatorial residency through Flux Factory, which is a non-profit organisation, and they had already applied for funding from the NEA. So they received the money and then gave it to me for the exhibition. But I don’t know anyone who gets NEA grants. It’s really, really hard to get government funding. We have chosen not to register ourselves as a non-profit, so we can’t apply to grants. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot because as Johnny mentioned earlier, it would be great to be able to offer budgets to our artists. But becoming a non-profit would mean being beholden to a board, and it takes a lot of work. The whole reason we started this project was for the flexibility and to really explore what you can do when there are no rules. So non-profit status is really not something we’re looking for.
AM: What are some of the other obstacles you face, either in terms of logistics of space and time, financial or otherwise?
LA: We are busy.
JS: Yeah, we both work full time on top of running hotel-art.us and our own collaborative art practice. It’s definitely nice to have a collaboration in both our curatorial and art practices, because we can get a lot more done than if we were on our own. One person can be working on administrative stuff while the other is working in the studio or planning ahead. But in terms of finances, we have learned to just accept it for what it is, so that’s not really our biggest concern. It’s mainly just allotting the right amount of time to each person we are working with. But since we work on so many projects at once, it gets a little hard to organise and balance these things.
LA: Also some of the challenges we were facing have gotten easier. In the very beginning, our model was really confusing to a lot of people. They didn’t really understand that these exhibitions didn’t exist in real life. For example, the first show we had, we documented that in a hotel in Brooklyn, and then we had an IRL event somewhere else and people were showing up to the hotel and going to the wrong place. People would get almost angry, thinking that we were suggesting that there was no value in seeing art in real life.
People would be like “what do you mean? How can you possibly say that all you need is documentation and you don’t need to see it in real life?” But obviously we don’t actually believe that, and of course there is something to be gained in seeing work in real life. But let’s be honest about this… What percentage of the art you look at is online and what percentage is in person? If most of us are viewing art on the screen anyway, why not just make exhibitions that are meant to be viewed on the screen? So from the very beginning we were challenged with how to make it clear to people what we were doing. Now, four years later, our model is pretty established. People aren’t as confused and it isn’t as hard. That was one difficulty that we didn’t necessarily overcome—everyone else just caught up.
Another challenge is that most of the shows we do—if they are in public spaces—are totally guerrilla style. For example, for the ATM show we had to quickly go into the ATM and set up objects and take pictures before the people monitoring the cameras in the ATM realised what was going on. Even in hotels we have had issues with the number of people allowed in rooms. Our first show was in a rent-by-the-hour sex motel and the people running the motel only spoke Spanish. They wouldn’t let more than two people into the room, and were weirded out by all of the sculptures and things we were unloading. Eventually we somehow implied, through broken Spanish, that we were shooting a porno. And they were okay with! An art show, not so much. So stuff like that has been a challenge. It’s nothing that worries us or stresses us out, but it’s something to keep in mind when doing shows in public spaces.
JS: We problem solve the entire time.
LA: Usually when people ask us what we are doing we just act naive and say: “Oh we’re doing a project for school!” and then they leave us alone because they think we’re cute and dumb.
“THERE ARE SO MANY ARTISTS AROUND THE WORLD THAT WE WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH, BUT WE WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO SHIP THEIR WORK TO NEW YORK BECAUSE IT’S SO EXPENSIVE.”
AM: Your program is very international now. Do you always travel to the places where the shows are documented? You went to Berlin but did you go to China?
JS: Unfortunately no, it depends on finances. But I think the great part of this project is that we don’t always have to go there. We can do it online. For example, we just finished working on a show with Sydney Gallery ran by Conor O’Shea. He has a physical gallery space but also has an off-site component. He approached us to curate a show in a specific location in Sydney—a famous Brutalist building that had been affordable housing for years that is now being developed into luxury apartments. We coordinated that show all online. We reached out to the artists we wanted to work with and asked that they design images which would become prints adhered to the exterior windows of a famous building. Then we just sent the files over to Conor, he printed them, hung them, and photographed the installation. We didn’t have to go anywhere.
LA: Yeah, and Debora Delmar’s show was another example. She documented her show in Mexico City. It just depends on where the artist is. There are so many artists around the world that we would love to work with, but we would never be able to ship their work to New York because it’s so expensive. So this project is really flexible in that if the artist is up for it and they want to shoot their own show, we can be theoretically shooting three different shows at the same time around the globe.
AM: Will you be continuing with this model for the foreseeable future?
LA: In the Spring we will be launching a new component to the programme. We are going to build a shed gallery in our backyard, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. So in addition to our off-site programme we are going to have actual exhibitions in the space with openings. They won’t necessarily be straightforward and the documentation will definitely have a heavy-hand in how the show is viewed online, and there will be inconsistencies in what people will see online and what people will see in real life, but in doing only off-site installations we realised that we’re missing out on the social aspect. This programme is nice in that we can produce so much and work with so many people all over the world and not spend any money, but the drawback is that we aren’t really having face-to-face interactions with the people in our community as much as we’d like. So, in opening the hotel-art.us shed gallery in the Spring we are hoping that we can participate in the community more.
JS: Yeah it got to the point where we would release images and share them on social media and then just high-five and turn on Netflix. Once in awhile we’ll have an after party, but only if the artist is in New York and really wants to do that. So we were missing out on some of the social scene. We specifically got an apartment in Brooklyn with a backyard, two or three stops from the Lower East Side so it will be easy to get here, but still a little different in that you have to go through our apartment to get to our backyard.
AM: So will it be under the same branding?
JS: Yes, and we will still have the off-site component and, like Loney said, the documentation of the actual shows that happen in the shed will have inconstancies and we will play with that a little bit. But we have to build the shed first, so that needs to happen. We will probably have a few days in which friends hopefully come over and drink some beers, eat some food, and help us build the shed.
“WHAT PERCENTAGE OF THE ART YOU LOOK AT IS ONLINE AND WHAT PERCENTAGE IS IN PERSON? IF MOST OF US ARE VIEWING ART ON THE SCREEN ANYWAY, WHY NOT JUST MAKE EXHIBITIONS THAT ARE MEANT TO BE VIEWED ON THE SCREEN?”
AM: As well as doing this curatorial project, you both work together as artists as well. How would you describe your artistic practice?
LA: We are interested in how Americans express anxiety, whether it is caused by financial, environmental, or political aspects, and how self-care can feel like a stand-in for activism or virtuism. We have been focusing on a couple of different communities that are living on the fringes of society, who have taken this individualistic approach to the extreme. ‘Preppers’ who are preparing for the end of the world and building bunkers and stockpiling supplies are one example. People who are self-diagnosed with hyper-electromagnetic sensitivity, which is basically an allergic reaction to WiFi technology, who have chosen to live off the grid are another. We have been doing research into these communities, looking at the objects and environments that people in these communities are making to protect themselves or realise their utopias. The objects we make also play with this idea of ethical consumption, and the idea that the ingredients or materials that make up the things we buy are inherently political. We’re making handmade paper or soap or salami using materials such as ginkgo blob or crushed Xanax or Adderall or shredded books – injecting forms with other materials and playing with the relationship between an object’s outer appearance and it’s inner material makeup. So we collaborate with art, we collaborate with Hotel Art, we are also engaged. We live together, we went to school together. Everything is sort of interconnected.
JS: We were talking the other day about how it takes two people to live one life now.
LA: At least in New York, and I’m sure in London as well.
JS: It’s really nice actually, to have a partner with similar interests as you do, and hopefully make good work together. It’s great.
LA: And on a very pragmatic level, I spend 9 hours a day sitting at a desk, staring at a screen. Johnny spends most of his workday on his feet. We both work 45 hours a week each, and we’re squeezing our art practice and hotel-art.us before work or after work and on the weekends. So we can divvy up the work, because at the end of the day the last thing I want to do is sit at a computer and send emails. So Johnny will take care of that because all he wants to do is sit down after work, and I will do more of the physical stuff. Conceptually, whenever we approach a project we are both very much involved and everything is a conversation. Everything is equally split up, but when it comes to actually producing things, doing the day to day, we gravitate towards different things.
JS: We have a dry erase board in the studio with an ongoing checklist and we need to just keep checking things off one by one to stay organised. It took a while to get a hang of, but we’ve been doing it a couple years and it gets easier. For our own work, it took time to find our collaborative voice and get our shared language and figure out what our work together wanted to look like. It took a lot of experimenting, and we are still doing that.