Q & A: ‘Uncertain Spectator’ curator says anxiety offers possibility

Emily Zimmerman jostles and returns us to wide-eyed reality with “Uncertain Spectator,” a contempora

Last year, Emily Zimmerman dreamed up “Slow Wave: Seeing Sleep,” a three-day art event where visitors contemplated drawings of brain waves and were soothed by lullabies.

This year, Zimmerman jostles and returns us to wide-eyed reality with “Uncertain Spectator,” a contemporary art exhibit intended to disturb and discomfort viewers, at least for a moment, as it probes the nature of tension and anxiety.

Zimmerman is assistant curator at EMPAC, the experimental media arts laboratory and performance venue housed in a high-tech, wood-and-glass architectural wonder on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

In “Uncertain Spectator,” works by 10 international artists or artist groups sprawl over two floors, in open spaces at the edge of the great amphitheater and in darkened studio spaces.

And around campus, RPI students encounter Anthony Discenza’s installation, messages that appear as street signs, proclaiming “It will end in tears,” “The earth would not hold us” or other dire warnings.

In “Main Squeeze,” we watch a claustrophobic film in which artist Kate Gilmore labors to push her body through a narrow wooden tunnel; while in another video work by Danish artist Tue Greenfort, a curator struggles to escape from a white cube.

In yet another fear-of-entrapment experience, photographs by Graciela Carnevale document when she locked unsuspecting viewers in a gallery for an hour in 1968 as a commentary on Argentina’s dictatorship.

Marie Sester’s “Fear” (2010) offers chairs that hiss loudly as we approach, and the collective Claire Fontaine conceals razors inside quarters as a dual commentary on terrorism and the U.S. financial crisis.

It’s all about “a general mood of uneasiness arising from recent political and economic events that seem to frame a future rife with imminent threats,” the exhibit postcard tells us.

In a recent phone interview, Zimmerman told The Gazette that she grew up in Philadelphia and actually lived on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania because her father, Franklin B. Zimmerman, was the head of the music department.

Arts family

Besides her dad, a musicologist known for his research of Baroque composer Henry Purcell, her five siblings are also deeply involved in the arts. Among them, there are two architects, a theater and film producer, an actress and a Japanese art scholar.

Emily, who is 30 years old and lives in Troy, is a graduate of New York University and Bard College’s master’s program in curatorial arts. She arrived at EMPAC in 2008 as a curatorial assistant, and was promoted to assistant curator last August. She has also worked in Philadelphia at InLiquid and the Institute of Contemporary Art and in New York’s SoHo at Location One.

Metroland picked Zimmerman as the “Best Emerging Curator” for 2010.

Q: When you were looking for artwork for “Uncertain Spectator,” did you find that there are many artists responding to political and economic events?

A: Yes, I think that’s one of the greatest outlets, aside from the press, for frustrations regarding how our world is now being conditioned by Homeland Security and/or the economic crisis. And frustrations about the lack of transparency behind how the economic system now works. Yes, I found that, to the extent that art comes out of the time in which it is made, I found that there was quite a bit of work.

Q: On the exhibit’s website, you reveal some anxiety about curating this show. What were you concerned about?

A: I maybe had a little bit more worry about whether it would attract an audience because it’s a difficult topic for a show. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a “feel-good” exhibition. I got the question a lot of the time: “why would I want to go to something like this?” And my response to that question has always been: the point of the show is not to make people more anxious, it’s to have them sit with anxiety for a little bit and look at the positive edges of the emotions and come to terms with anxiety as being a confrontation of possibilities.

Q: Did you feel personal anxiety while viewing and selecting the works?

A: I looked for work that might not create anxiety in me, but might create anxiety for others. Say, the Kate Gilmore piece. I don’t have claustrophobia. But I imagined that if I did, that piece would be an extremely anxious viewing experience. So I tried to imagine other scenarios for evoking anxiety in others. The Graciela Carnevale piece doesn’t actually evoke any anxiety in viewing it, it’s really just documentation of an action that was centered on anxiety. But I thought that was an important historical reference to have within the show.

Q: Do you have a personal connection to 9/11?

A: I was in the city when the towers fell. . . . I went to NYU, and my dorm was four blocks from the World Trade Centers. We went through the whole process of being outside of our housing for six weeks. . . . It was horrific but I don’t think that was really my purpose in curating the show. That certainly is the benchmark, the cornerstone, the formation of this anxious moment that we still live in the shadow of that, but Hurricane Katrina, the economic crisis, global warming, all of these things that kind of fill the news media that are deeply disconcerting. And we feel that a horrible disaster could be awaiting around the corner at any moment.

Q: Are these artists responding to real or imagined threats?

A: 9/11 definitely happened. Hurricane Katrina definitely happened. But the extent to which they are sensationalized in the news media, I think, works to augment our sense of anxiety. Max Hernandez-Calvo talks about this a bit in his essay in the catalog. Also, the extent that politicians play off of the populace’s fear and anxiety in order to manufacture consent is also a worrisome aspect. It’s kind of like the mobilization of these events, to increase our anxiety about them, in order to get us to behave in a way that politicians or the news media might want us to. In a lot of cases, I found that artists were taking a really critical edge to the extent which anxiety permeated our moment. A lot of it is meant as a device to control people in a way.

Q: There is no drawing or painting in this exhibit, and half of the works are video. Why is that?

A: EMPAC deals with media arts. We are slightly more aligned with things that are digital. We definitely lean on that side a little more.

Q: The EMPAC building has spectacular architecture. What role does it play in exhibits?

A: All of our exhibitions take place in public places. From the conception, you have to start thinking about the space. . . . The works have to hold their own in grandiose spaces.

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