ISSUE Project Room is currently celebrating its 10-year anniversary with 10 Years Alive on the Infinite Plane, a festival taking place from August 31 through October 26. Lawrence Kumpf—the festival’s curator and ISSUE’s artistic director—and musician C. Spencer Yeh sat down recently with Marshall Yarbrough, the Rail’s assistant music editor. Here is the second part of their conversation, the first part of which ran in the September issue.
Marshall Yarbrough (Rail): ISSUE has moved around a bit since it started. You were at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus before moving to your current location in Downtown Brooklyn last year. Has the move changed your approach to programming?
Lawrence Kumpf: I didn’t work at ISSUE when it was in the Silo [an earlier space in Gowanus] or in the East Village, but programming changes based on space. My approach to curating and organizing there is completely contingent on the room, and thinking about the audience, and how they’re going to experience something.
In the Can Factory there was nothing I’d loved to program more or see there more than an acoustic jazz trio or something. It just sounded fucking awesome to sit in a small space and have that intimate experience. And it just sounded so good in there the way the ceiling was, this burnt absorbent wood. That [would] sound like total shit in the new space—right now, before the sound treatment. And it will never sound like it did in this really small room. And because of that I’ve shifted away from presenting that kind of work for the moment.
Rail: One institution that ISSUE reminds me of is Anthology Film Archives—your membership program, your devotion to a less commercially driven kind of art. With AFA, though, there’s more of a repertory aspect. To what extent is ISSUE focused on old vs. new acts?
Kumpf: For me, the curatorial approach is a two-pronged thing: one is to support the emergent artistic community in New York, and that’s fulfilled through our residency programs and our commissioned series. The other half is presenting work by artists that are underrepresented in New York, and this can mean internationally established artists or just under-recognized artists that are here. Someone like Tony Conrad is a good example. I think he’s definitely more established and recognized, but in terms of thinking about the history of minimalism, or experimental music in general, you’re thinking Stockhausen, Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich. That’s the sort of mainstream narrative in a way, where Tony’s obviously established and known, but his work occupies a space outside of that narrative.
It’s not about bringing the best artist [so that] everybody comes because they know him. ISSUE is in a position to take somebody who’s relatively obscure and bring an audience to [the performance] because of the level of consistency in our programming. A big part of what we’re thinking about now—this goes back to your earlier question—when we transitioned from the Can Factory into this spot, 22 Boerum Place: We are two blocks from all the trains, it’s easy for people to walk there, and ultimately that means we’re in a position to take these obscure artists that we work with and begin to cultivate and develop a larger audience for them. And that’s an important position, something that really needs to be well thought out on our end. You know, [in the Can Factory] we were on the third floor of a warehouse.
It’s really exciting to see that all of our artist-in-residence programming—which is our free programming—is always completely packed, there’s always 120, 130 people there. That feels really good: to be able to work with these artists and bring them to a larger audience. That was always one of Suzanne [Fiol, ISSUE’s founder’s] main goals, getting this stuff out there and exposing it to people, but creating an environment that’s really conducive to—we don’t want anyone to come in and be talking on their cellphone.
Rail: How has technology’s role changed in the past 10 years? Certainly more artists are incorporating digital tools—Tristan Perich, Zs—but do you think this has changed ISSUE’s approach at all?
Kumpf: That’s been a really important question for us, especially when it comes to thinking about the renovations. I think ISSUE is [about] presenting artists’ work, and not necessarily about having artists come to our space and make a work for whatever sound system we have or whatever video system we have.
C. Spencer Yeh: Because then the work ends up being the thing versus the artists. Oftentimes experimental music just ends up sounding like the pedals we use. ISSUE doesn’t want to become a big guitar pedal that people plug into.
Kumpf: That’s really, really important for me when it comes to thinking about what the role of the experimental music curator is, and I think a lot of people think it’s about commissioning a special project—“Come in and make something on this special multi-channel sound system”—or pairings—“Come and do a one-off with this guy.” But for me that’s not what it means to be a curator. To be a curator means to present the work of artists and to create a context for them where there’s a level of criticality and a community built around it to engage it in a way that’s beneficial to the artist. A social organization, in a way.
ISSUE Project Room
22 Boerum Pl New York, NY 11201
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Rail's assistant music editor. He writes record reviews at fourslashfour.tumblr.com..