Neville Wakefield

INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON

Neville Wakefield is the sort of writer and curator that is sorely needed today. He questions the institutions that now seem to hover, like creepy gods, over the making of art: universities, which just might be preparing businesspeople in the guise of artists; museum curators, who just might be following twisted, onanistic agendas; and commerce, or the art market, which just might (or, fuck it, which totally is) solidifying art-as-commodity more and more with each passing season.

Neville, through his eloquent and challenging shows and texts, keeps alive our favorite tradition of curation: the one where unexpected conjunctions of works by different artists let us see the separate elements as part of a new whole with its own meaning. Plus, Neville has great taste, from his close friends like Richard Prince and Matthew Barney to his early support of younger artists like Dash Snow and Dan Colen.

Curation needn’t be limited to the white boxes of the gallery system, and though Neville has reached high peaks in that more rarefied air—serving on the curatorial staff at PS 1 and organizing London’s Frieze Art Fair for three years—he also applies his curatorial skills to unexpected contexts. He’s overseen art issues for W, made a couple of issues of the expansive Tar magazine, and is currently developing an all-new publication, the name of which we know and like but can’t tell you because it’s still a secret.

Neville is also responsible for the pornographic art-film compilation Destricted. It’s an ongoing project in which various makers-of-things do their best to meld art with smut. Many have tried to do this before Destricted, and most have failed. But Neville and the Destricted crew pull it off. On their recent DVD release, short and dirty movies by filmmakers like Larry Clark and Gaspar Noé rub up against pieces by the aforementioned Messrs. Prince and Barney, along with Cecily Brown and more. With a concentrated effort, I believe that one could masturbate to completion with Destricted lending a hand. That, when it comes to art-with-a-sprinkle-of-porn, is groundbreaking.

I recently sat with Neville on his West Village back porch, where we talked, literally, among the birds and the bees.

Jesse Pearson: I’m really interested in hearing about the place where you’re from, the Isles of Scilly. It sounds really special—
Neville Wakefield:
[laughs]

Why does that make you laugh?
It’s just that I had such a weird upbringing.

Really? It’s Cornish, right?
Yeah. It’s Cornish. It’s 30 miles off the Cornish coast and, you know, tiny. I had parents who were kind of proto-hippies. I went to school in a donkey cart. [laughs] We didn’t have a car. They’ve never had one. I mean, there are cars there, but they didn’t have one.

What does it look like there?
It’s kind of beautiful. It’s really desolate in the winter.

Is it like a Wicker Man kind of a look?
Yeah, it has that, a little bit of that. But that’s more North Cornwall.

How did culture and art reach you when you were a kid?
They didn’t. Nor did pornography, for that matter, interestingly enough. I was thinking about that in terms of Destricted. I grew up essentially without visual pornography. I mean, there was a bit passed around, but since there was only one newsagent and I knew everyone on the island…

You couldn’t just stroll in there and buy porn.
We didn’t really have that experience. We also didn’t have a TV.

That’s the kind of situation where you make do, like maybe a figure-drawing book becomes a masturbation aid.
Yeah. Or literature.

Was there an age when culture from the outside world kind of hit you all at once?
Well, I went to boarding school when I was 14 or something. I left the island. People there either stay and become fishermen, farmers, or tradespeople, or they leave. So I left. I went to a public school in the country and then ended up at university in London. I studied philosophy and then did postgrad in that. It was weird. I was doing that at around the time that the whole YBA thing was exploding in London, but I wasn’t aware of it at all. I actually had no interest in art whatsoever.

It was philosophy that attracted you first?
It was philosophy. It was that hypertheoretical moment where art was vampirically drawing from poststructuralist philosophers. There were these transfusions of aesthetics and thought.

Your tone sounds a little cynical about that now. Am I misreading that?
No, you’re not. But that’s a whole other conversation. I was interested in, as it were, postmodern philosophy or poststructuralist philosophy. Now I read it, and it’s like concrete poetry. I actually quite like reading it that way. But in terms of unraveling any kind of mystery, it doesn’t really do that for me anymore.

As a key to culture, it kind of loses its charm, I think.
Yeah. There was a period where that body of philosophy was like the Rosetta Stone.

Who was important to you then?
Baudrillard was mainly who I was looking at.

I’m still curious, though, about your childhood. If I’m not misunderstanding you, you grew up in a bit of a vacuum in terms of contemporary culture.
Totally. I could have grown up in the 19th century. My parents were both academics. My dad was an archaeologist. His area of interest was Greek Attic ware. He spent time in North Africa and then was going to come to New York to the Met. But then he got interested in how glazes were produced and ended up renouncing the academic thing and making pottery himself.

That’s amazing.
So I mean, for all its media retardation, it was an erudite household.

I was building up this thing where you were born into a family of shepherds or something.
Yeah. [laughs] Sheep shaggers.

I once asked a British friend what Cornish people are meant to be like, and that’s what he said: sheep shaggers.
Exactly. So the background noise in our household was a kind of academic noise. It’s just there wasn’t much to attach it to in the way of living culture.

OK. So even as the YBA thing was exploding when you were in school, you weren’t into it.
Yeah. It’s weird. I mean, I think that the art connections for the philosophy that I was studying were much more American. Think about the amount of theory that was attached to Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger and, you know, those types of artists. The YBA thing was a kind of antitheoretical environment. I was on the back foot in that sense. But also, I just wasn’t aware of it.

Right. Your thesis was published as a book called Postmodernism: The Twilight of the Real.
Embarrassing.

Is it really?
It’s excruciating. I mean, to the extent that I haven’t even looked at it for years. I don’t think that I could crack it open now and plumb the depths of my excruciation.

But not every philosophy student gets their thesis published as a book by Penguin.
Yeah. It won some weird prize and then got published. I think that its publication coincided exactly with my total disillusion with that mode of thinking.

Uh-oh.
And then shortly after that I came here, to New York.

What brought you here?
I’d come here on a year off and done the usual thing—come for a week and ended up staying a few months with friends. And then my girlfriend—whom I later married and later still separated from—got a job here, and I followed. I never felt at place in London anyway. The experience that I took from growing up on the islands was that I was always something of an outsider. Also, when I lived in London, I was in Brixton in a not particularly good time. It was shit.

It was rough?
Yeah. New York was rough, too, but it had a certain kind of cinematic cachet to it. London’s unfathomable to me. I still don’t particularly like it. It’s strange—expensive. I don’t know how it runs. I don’t get how people live there.

Was there anything in between your transition from philosophy to art?
Yeah. I worked in film in London for a little bit, building sets and doing production design. And then I came here, and I didn’t have a work permit, so the only thing that I could seem to do was write. And because Camilla, who I left London for, was working at Vogue, Anna Wintour took pity on me and got me to write a couple of pieces. I did things on Larry Clark and a few other people. Anna risked it—I think she was just throwing me some scraps.

Because you were this Dickensian orphan running around?
Yeah. [laughs] I was tragic and she was probably hearing about it. I was sitting for days on end reading, not doing anything.

Did writing feel like the right thing for you, or was it just something to do?
Writing’s torture, and I’m lazy, and it takes forever. So no, it was not the right thing to do, but it did force me to remove the theoretical language from my work. As an exercise, it was good to have that Vogue readership, which wasn’t exactly…

Not an audience that’s heavily versed in poststructuralism.
Yeah. Exactly.

What was the moment like in New York in terms of the art world then?
It was exciting. Matthew [Barney] had just had a show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

Right. That first show, where he kind of climbed around the space.
And I met Richard [Prince] very early on, and Larry Clark. But I also felt the art world was totally impenetrable. Going to openings and things, not knowing anyone and shit like that.

It can fill you with dread.
Yeah. I mean, it still does, but for other reasons now.

Like what?
Because it’s gone the other way. It’s social noise.

Right. I don’t go to openings.
God, me neither.

Can’t take them.
Can’t do it.

So you became friends with artists…
I became friends with artists before I became interested in art. And I think that the friendship preceded the interest, and the friendship generated the interest. It was awhile after that before I got any kind of curating gigs. I don’t remember how that happened.

Did seeing the making of art from a more intimate point of view change your understanding of it?
Yeah. It made me see it from an interior point of view without getting into the kind of lofty objective distances of academe and all that kind of shit. To see people working, creating their own structure or meaning out of raw material rather than out of theory, it was kind of a different…

It’s exciting.
Yeah.

It’s easy from the outside, perhaps, to have those typical cynical reactions to certain kinds of art, where someone sees a piece or photos of a show and says: “Bullshit.” But when you’re more privy to the thought behind it, and the fact that it’s like a form or literature or something—
It has its own cosmology, and that’s kind of interesting. But that’s certainly not the experience you have when your interest is simply about unraveling it and breaking it down—dismantling it and finding its constituent parts.

The theoretical way.
I think the other interesting thing to realize is that people, or at least some people, make art out of necessity. It’s a compulsion rather than a vocation.

Right.
Although now…

Yes?
It’s a compulsive vocation. [laughs]

Are you referring to the patterns of booms and boomlets in the art world?
Times have changed. I guess at the beginning of the 90s, there was no one who was thinking that they would be a vocational artist. But now I think that if you go to the art schools, like Yale or something, it’s more like a guild, you know. It’s more like inducting you into a guild. I mean, there are people who think they’ll pay off their college tuition by selling their art. I think that what one saw—or what I witnessed—was a transformation from art being treated as a sort of rarefied hobby to it becoming a career, basically. And then all the subsidiary careers sprung up, like curating.

Let’s talk about curating. I’ve read that you started doing it because Mary Boone called you and asked you to do something.
It’s true. That’s pretty much how it was.

And this was based on your writing?
Yeah.

Curating had never occurred to you before that?
No, not really. To be honest, I didn’t feel that I was close enough to the art world. But given how difficult writing is, if curating is writing by other means, it’s a lot easier. And it’s essentially collaborative.

I don’t think that everyone really knows what curating is. When you type the word ‘curating’ into Microsoft Word, it doesn’t even recognize it.
I’m probably one of those people who doesn’t know what it is. I used to think that curating was about making phrases and sentences out of disparate artworks, but I don’t think it is that anymore.

And you haven’t arrived at another definition yet?
No. There are plenty of demonstrative curators who start off with a thesis and use other people’s material to essentially illustrate their ideas.

Which is odd.
Which is ghastly.

They’ll also try to engineer a group or a generational thing and then force a lot of artists into that framework. Like the “Younger Than Jesus” show that was at the New Museum.
They’re the farmhands of the art world. You know, they just corral.

What do you remember about your first show as a curator?
I remember being just so scared of that place, because it’s so pristine and immaculate. And I remember, when Mary Boone had her place on West Broadway or whatever, I never dared go in there, because it was kind of a hostile environment. I would always just look through the nonetched piece of glass and try to figure out what was going on there. And then I heard all the Mary Boone mythology about people being fired for not sharpening the pencils to the same length at the end of the day. So I was a little bit timid. But she was sweet.

What was in that show?
There was Douglas Gordon’s piece A Divided Self, which was a video that he shot of his two arms. It’s based on the R.D. Laing book of the same name. He shaved the hair off one arm, and the other one was still all Scottish and hairy, and they were kind of wrestling each other. And… Shit, I can’t remember what else. There was a piece by Sam Taylor-Wood in it.

What year was it? Do you remember that?
No. I’m senile. [laughs]

That’s funny, because many curators can rifle off their CV at a moment’s notice.
I know, but I don’t have a CV. I still haven’t got one. I’m probably going to have to get one, though.

Maybe, with the market the way it is.
Yeah.

So you did one show, and then you did another show, and so on. Did you start to feel it becoming a career?
Well, I still don’t feel very legitimate within the art world. Whether that’s simply for reasons of personal insecurity or whether it’s a place that isn’t designed for comfort, I don’t know. I do think you have to be a careerist at this point to be comfortable in that situation.

Careerist in the sharklike sense.
Yeah. There’s an aspect of curating that has nothing to do with the art, which is about fund-raising and glad-handing, and keeping the trustees happy, and doing the talks.

Can you stomach that stuff?
No.

Even if you tell yourself that it’s for a good cause?
No, I’m not good at it.

From my vantage point, which isn’t anywhere near as privileged as a lot of people’s, it seems that the art world’s been about commerce and glad-handing forever.
I think you’re right. I don’t think it has changed. All that’s happened was that those were kind of back-room transactions, and now they’ve become the front-room theater of it, and the art is more in the back room.

Is that because of people catering more and more to high-powered collectors?
I think it’s something to do with the whole luxury-goods market, which art is a part of. The experience has become much more quantifiable financially, and in terms of museums watching their numbers and everything. Someone like Klaus [Biesenbach] probably knows exactly how many people came to the Marina Abramovic show. These kinds of metrics are part of the job. It’s become a very quantifiable process. And so just as museum directors have become more like CEOs, curators have become more like, you know, public-presence facilitators.

How was your experience working at PS1?
I really liked it, actually, and I learned a lot working there. That was when it was under Alanna Heiss and it was exciting because there was a kind of insanity to it. I think it burned a lot of people out. Alanna truly walks the walk. She’s a believer in art. She’s certainly not a creature of committees. She was kind of a great, beneficent dictator.

Which maybe an institution like that needs.
Certainly a beneficent dictator is better than a benign bureaucrat.

What about your time curating the Frieze Art Fair?
Frieze was interesting because it was all framed by the commercial context. The bit that I was involved in was not for profit, so it was supposed to be divorced from the rest of the mechanisms of the fair. But in the end, it’s a tent in Regents Park, so site specificity is not that interesting. And you know, there was a time at which I think the projects were, not the antidote, but a sort of free-speech element to the commercial bits that were going on. And then the speech became about commerce and the freedom part becomes something of a conceit.

So the art started to make commentary on the commercial aspects?
Yeah.

Did you stop doing Frieze because you felt like you had done all you could there?
I just got exhausted. I had done it for three years. Initially, I was drawn to Frieze because I liked the idea of creating something in an environment that is antithetical to that.

What does that mean?
There is an operatic prosperity there that’s not necessarily available in a white cube. But then again, it’s also polluted from the start.

Polluted how?
By commerce, noise, adjacency… physical things but also ideological things.

Are you doing studio visits now, going and looking at new artists?
I’m just starting again. I did a bunch for PS1, for the Greater New York show. It’s been good to do that again. I didn’t do enough then. The trouble is that the internet has changed the way people curate.

Do you rely on it to look at new art?
Yeah, I do. I try not to rely on it too much, though. I think that Greater New York suffered for that, as well—or so they say.

I’ve heard that. I’ve got this weird rule. I don’t know why I made it, but I decided that I am not going to go to the new New Museum. I’m just not going to go inside. It’s kind of a fun challenge.
It’s a strange institution. It’s a strange creature that we see.

And I’m not on some, “Oh, it’s destroying the Bowery” kind of thing. It’s just kind of this arbitrary idea that maybe I can get by caring about art in New York and still not ever go in there.
I think you’re right. What other institutions can be avoided? [laughs]

I’ll need a new one to spring up. I’ve already polluted all of the others.
We can make a map of things that you don’t have to see. I was thinking about that with regards to Fashion’s Night Out—that we should really start a Fashion’s Night In. Get those people who are out all the time, the ubiquitous people, like pay Jefferson Hack, Olivier Zahm, Cecilia Dean, and all those other people to stay in for one night and not go to a party. Then we can do the same with the art world.

How do you see all of the changes that are being cemented in the art world changing the art that young artists are making?
Well, I think they’re making product. I think part of the mandate of art is to promote a degree of professionalism. But to my mind, art is one of the few remaining domains where you can exercise successful failure.

Yeah.
Or even unsuccessful failure, which can accommodate failure as an outcome of interest. What I think has happened with the kind of professionalization or vocationalization of the art world is that in general people aren’t valuing failure as an artistic outcome.

Failure is part of the process. You’ve got to try and fail.
It’s funny, Destricted got through some of the ratings process in England because it was considered art, not pornography. I think pornography is tied to a sort of cultural success. [laughs] You get off on it. Destricted failed to fulfill that, and that’s what made it art rather than pornography.

A successful failure.
I guess I’m interested in the accommodation of failure as something worthy of our attention.

Do you think people are more afraid of failing because failures are so public now? I mean, everything is so public.
I don’t know, my failures are pretty private. We’ve also culturally got the whole diaristic thing as a bulwark against failure, like you provoke your own failure—the whole Jackass thing.

What are some works of art that you remember having a real emotional impact on you?
There are a few. When I first got here, the first piece of art that I saw was Walter De Maria’s Broken Kilometer, which was unfathomable in terms of European art, at least for me. Then I went out to the Lightning Field. I did the pilgrimage. As a European going into an American landscape, it had its own new version of sublimity. That was an awfully rousing experience. Have you been out there?

I haven’t.
It’s kind of crazy, because there is nothing. It’s just, there are poles out there and there is lightning, but it’s really about the landscape. I think it’s actually a secular version of Michelangelo’s creation, this current between the celestial—the heavenly—and the terrestrial. So it has all of these emotional veins, but it also has the aspect of getting there—the road trip and that whole journey into the American West. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which I also saw early on, offers a different version of a journey, I think, a science-fiction kind of temporal road trip back in time, or into the future, or whatever it is. I think of those two pieces as very similar, but with their structures on different axes. Those two experiences were really key to me because I think they made me understand the way that objects or actions can magnetize narrative. In some ways, Matthew Barney’s work is a different version of that. For instance, this last performance that he did in Detroit, this incredibly elaborate narrative which was processed through Detroit car culture and Matthew’s own personal mythology, which ended up with this river of molten metal running from a smelter into a mold. In the end there will just be this hunk of iron, which may or may not look good in the gallery setting, but which has this kind of narrative traction.

So the metal was poured as a part of the performance?
Yeah, it was an outdoor pour. It was really spectacular. There was a smelting furnace and he put the remnants of this dissected car into it and melted it all down and then poured it into this mold, which is a new form. It was sad and almost desolate, in an old steel works.

The pieces that sprung to mind for you are things that are not only kind of grand but also things you have to go to. It’s not like you just took a taxi to Chelsea.
But even good wall works ask you to leave your space. I think that’s when art works, when it asks you to leave, to make some kind of journey… Nothing like talking about art, right?

It’s weird because—
It’s just so pretentious.

It’s so easy to feel like you’re back in your first year of college. But it’s fun to try and break through that because people are so afraid of being thought of as, like…
Pretentious. [laughs]

Like a Cure-t-shirt-wearing, clove-cigarette-smoking student.
Fucking hell.

But it’s fun to go there. Is it an emotional impact that you look for in art or is it more cerebral?
I don’t know whether I’d say emotional. I think it’s visceral. But the less you can identify the point of entry, the more interesting it becomes. It’s a bit like a SUNN O))) concert, where you don’t know whether you’re hearing it, feeling it, or experiencing it in some entirely other way.

And then you can decide whether you want to try and dissect that feeling in criticism.
Yeah, or stay in the oceanic undifferentiated moments.

I noticed that you have copies of Frieze and Artforum next to your bed.
[laughs] It’s bedtime reading. It’s because I don’t use Ambien.

But you do keep up with that stuff?
I’ve been so far out of it that the reason that I have those issues is that I just got subscriptions to both of them. I was thinking, “Shit, I’ve got to know what’s going on.”

Where did you see Destricted being distributed when you were starting it?
We didn’t really know. It didn’t have a venue. It was somehow going to commute between art and film and possibly between galleries and theaters. Part of the interest was the clarification of what you can do within the art world and what you can do within the film world. Obviously there are no rating criteria in the art world, but there is an institutional consensus about what you can show without putting up a warning notice, whereas the rating system in films is just a couple of old men saying, “Oh, this is awful, this is filth.” And the bias is totally against sex, so one of the things that we are responding to is that hypocrisy. I hate to say that my older kid plays Modern Warfare. You can disembowel people all day long and it gets a mature rating. If you had fucking in Modern Warfare… [laughs]

It would be awesome. Was there also a motivation for Destricted that was about exploring pornography on its own terms?
Yeah. Visceral language about sex is as fenced in culturally as pornography. Therefore, it’s somehow out of bounds for art or film. It comes with all that complicated baggage about aesthetic pleasure and sexual pleasure and the rest of it.

If artists can make something that can serve the function of getting people off as well as whatever function art serves, that’s a good thing.
It’s interesting, the criticism of Destricted is often that it doesn’t get you off. Maybe it’s read as art rather than pornography because of its failure to have the efficacy of porn. Gaspar Noé is interested in provoking a visceral response using film. He makes people cry and vomit. I think that the rape scene from Irreversible had people actually physically sick. He said he wanted to do the same thing with his piece for Destricted, but this time make them cum. [laughs] He didn’t do that in the end, because maybe it’s a harder thing to do.

Internet porn has spoiled people. Isn’t there some animal—bulls, I think—where, when they’re trying to get them to mate, they jolt it with a cattle prod and it just cums? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Yeah. [laughs]

That’s what internet porn is kind of like. It’s like this 60-second jolt: bing, bang, done.
And in that sense, it’s a cultural success. But I do know of one guy who was kicked out of the Destricted screening at Sundance for supposedly masturbating. Everyone felt that we had him put in there as a stooge.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN VICE MAGAZINE IN 2010