Karen Wong interview
Karen Wong is deputy director of the New Museum in New York City. She has rightfully been called “the image of 2.0 patronage,” thanks to her tireless support of young artists, and for co-founding initiatives such as IdeasCity and NEW INC, projects that focus on the social impact of art, on art as a tool, and on the intersection of art, design and technology.
Our discussion covers many topics: how protests and pandemic have given rise to a new role for ‘the street’ in urban life; about a new wave of anti-disciplinarity (as compared to inter-disciplinarity); diversity in graphic design vs. the art world; why we now care less about spectacle and more about intimacy, and how that’s helped reshape her work at the New Museum.
This interview was published 16 October 2020.
DM: There’s so much I want to ask you about – where to begin?
KW: Well, I love your question how has the city changed because of the pandemic. I know both of us share a common passion for public space, but I thought we could even focus a bit more narrowly on the idea of street and street life.
I was talking to a good friend and we were both commenting on how the street has become the main platform for so many things, in particular marches and peaceful protesting. Streets have become a space of contention.
Then, on the other side of an arc, you have an economic vitality or recovery because streets and parking lanes are outdoor rooms for restaurants. All of a sudden, the type of culture that the streets have afforded us has become an elixir – or it’s the only way I’ve been able to socialise in a pleasant and safe manner.
My friend let me borrow this book, Streets for the People: A Primer for Americans. It’s by a well-known engineer-architect, Bernard Rudofsky, and I just want to read to you something from the back cover: “Since 1935, he has been interruptedly a resident of New York with time off abroad for recovery from its grimness.” This was written in 1969. It was clearly in regards to the obsession with the car, and that the street was for the car. In this moment “streets for the people” feels commemorative.
The infrastructure we take so much for granted can actually be re-imagined so quickly, in terms of how we choreograph the body. A street which is meant primarily for riding in cars, now is a place where we’re sitting and having a coffee. Or, we’re closing down streets so kids and families can play soccer and hopscotch and dodge ball. Others are reclaiming it for a pop-up theater or music. The idea of ‘the street,’over the last decade, has really been aboutspectacle – we would close down the streets for parades, marathons or even the running of the bulls, in Spain. Now we can reclaim the streets for the everyday ritual.
DM: Completely. We always think about cities like London or New York as incredibly crammed and maybe even “overpopulated,” but in fact, there is a ton of open space – and it can operate as a blank canvas, we’d just given it over in our minds to this one single use.
In London, Soho was always a neighbourhood that probably should have been pedestrianised and now has effectively been pedestrianised because of Covid-19. It feels like this is a realisation of something that the car-dominated street had been pushing against for too long, that instead now it is kind of in its natural state.
KW: Your phrase“blank canvas” is spot on because you reminded me of the type of art that has recently cropped up. Of course, there’s a long tradition of art on walls and facades and windows. But now there’s also the monumental and gorgeous art that’s been painted on the asphalt, using the horizontal plane, as a new way of getting a message across.
There are those dramatic pictures of “Black Lives Matter” painted on that street [now renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza] that, when you look towards the White House, it’s a direct line.
DM: I wanted also to ask you about IdeasCity [a creative festival hosted by the New Museum focused on the role of art and culture in cities]. I expect this new energy around ‘the street’ will become a major topic – around the new opportunity the street presents, if we’re able keep this momentum up.
KW: In the last six months, we’ve reconceived IdeasCity, spurred on by a partnership with Wake Forest University, which is a small liberal arts college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They approached us because they really wanted to use arts as a catalyst for the creative economy.
One of the things we’ve learned is “festivalism” is over. We’re finding that the way people want to engage is more intimate. That instead of being inspired – which is often the mandate of a festival, and there’s a stage, and even that’s a hierarchy – people want connection and collaboration through skill sharing and professional development. There’s been a significant shift in what kind of dialogue people want to have.
DM: That seems to be at odds perhaps with this kind of dominating force in cities, of developers who still want to create spectacle, as a marketing project, because they’re selling “lifestyle” more than ever. They still want flashy installations or pop-up festivals and things like that. I wonder how that dynamic will evolve.
KW: Forecasters are predicting a real slow down in terms of what is going to be built. I need to return to outdoor dining! It’s a huge topic for us here in New York. I think it is, perhaps, a microcosm of what we might be able to predict in terms of how cities will behave. Historically, it takes years of advocacy to create change, for something as simple as giving restaurants permits to take over parking spaces. Because of a pandemic, these things were turned around in a couple of days.
A long way around to your question, which is yes, of course, we will always have major developers and there will always be that layer of city-making, but there will be a resurgence of these smallers moments, things that are more DIY.
I’m confident there will be a lot of invention.
DM: Speaking of invention, I wanted to ask you about NEW INC, the Museum’s incubator project [exploring the intersection of art, design and technology]. Something central to NEW INC are the ideas of cultural value and social impact, and how those two are connected. For you, what is the relationship between those two things? How, maybe, is that relationship changing?
KW: We used to look at cultural value in terms of “Is this artwork respected by our peers? Do you think it’s going to stand the test of time?” Now, cultural value, as defined within our NEW INC community, is “What kind of impact are you having, through a cultural lens?” The best way to explain is to give you an example.
We have one studio where the founder, Mirelle Phillips, was a video game designer. She was looking to pivot and create immersive environments for well-being. She had started to work with some hospitals a couple of years ago, but there was so much red tape. When there’s a pandemic, that red tape can disappear. Working with Mount Sinai Hospital she created ‘recovery lounges,’ for frontline workers.
She wanted to redesign spaces that use all of these immersive tactics – large scale videos, great soundscapes – and very quickly build out a place to serve as a moment of respite for nurses and doctors who were obviously under tremendous stress on a daily basis. They put up a couple of beta versions where the response was so overwhelming that she’s now working on an entire network of lounges forMount Sinai Health System. They’ve gone from a couple of these spaces to a dozen in a matter of several months. There is even an article that’s going to be published in a medical journal, where they have been able to gather enough data to demonstrate stress levels were decreased by 60 percent. Mirelle is creating a lot of social impact and using what I would call “cultural tools.”
DM: Yes, I think we’re really reconsidering the silos of ‘disciplines,’ and embracing not ‘interdisciplinary’ but ‘antidisciplinary’ – a word I picked up from reading about the latest cohort of NEW INC participants!
KW: We met because of another project that you were organising [Where We Stand], which I have a lot of admiration for because you were trying to inject a socially impactful mode of working with graphic design agencies. Of course, agencies are doing great work and a lot of it is socially impactful but, ultimately, they also have a business model. You were challenging these spaces where there’s so much talent and asking them to take time out, use their talent to re-imagine public space in this moment which could be used as a blueprint in many ways, of how we move forward.
You created an open-source model of research and we can apply it to our own practices.
DM: It was quite an interesting process. We really didn’t get any resistance from people, it terms of them asking to do commercial space or elbow it into some kind of client work or something. People really respect what public space is for, and to circle back to something we were saying earlier, just the sheer diversity of responses between these 15 agencies just goes to show how hard public spaces really work.
Some agencies had responses that were geared towards play, some had responses that were geared towards solitude and contemplation, some had responses that were geared towards protests and public gathering. These blank spaces, these open spaces did all of those things without any kind of tricks.
KW: The qualities of your project exemplify the beest of “IdeasCity.” I’ve always thought of IdeasCity as this malleable material. What are all of these different platforms that connect culture and civicness? Where We Stand is a prime example of what I hope more of us will be doing.
DM: Is that something that you think will translate into the New Museum as a whole, or has it already? To operate not only as a cultural institution but more and more as a civic institution.
KW:The idea of civicness and community, broadly speaking, is part of many cultural institutions’ missions, and certainly there is a desire to intensify that. However, it has to be done in the way that makes sense in terms of mission and skillset.
One of the major things that we’ve all had to contend with is how obsessed we are with physical space. Going back to architecture – in this case not the street but buildings – when your programming in buildings not available, what are you left with? It is your digital space, your online communities. Now we’re digital content producers.
DM: I feel this year has also revealed maybe how unsophisticated we are, digitally. We thought the digital revolution had happened, but some many digital responses during the pandemic have felt flat, or like really poor attempts to just cut and paste for physical spaces into digital spaces. The difficulty comes in translating those physical-world experiences into a digital ones, or finding an equivalent – a lot of even very creative people fell short.
KW: Yes, exactly. This connects with ideas of augmented reality and virtual reality where we’re trying to create these different stages for human connection or human revelation. Ultimately, yes, incredibly grateful that you and I, we’re Zooming, but most of us feel this is not a replacement. I’d like being in a room where I can see your gestures a bit more clearly, or a nervous laughter which, in person, is more poetic...
What I’m saying is, I look forward to breaking bread with you!
DM: The feeling is mutual!
I work with a handful property developers and placemakers, for lack of a better term, and that has become a big question – what is, for example, digital placemaking? A new development is, at the end of the day, a physical proposition. If no one’s going there and you’re not trying to attract people there, do you have a voice, or what should you be doing? And similarly, what kind of responsibilities do city councils have to try and connect with their residents if their residents are all stuck in their homes. It’s an interesting question.
But, anyway, I do want to pivot, actually – I just want to make sure we had time to talk about one really massive topic, which is diversity. It was a big concern for me when working on that project, Where We stand. Me and my partners in the project, we approached a bunch of agencies that we knew and were used to working with – just before a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests reached their pitch – only to realise that our network was almost entirely white, mostly men, which is sadly a reflection of the graphic design industry. Obviously, we then put in some work to diversify the people who we asked to the table – and it was a time of real personal reflection.
But one thing that it also made me question was a hierarchy of taste.
I’d had this list in my head of the best graphic design agencies, many of whom we approached, and an idea of the work that they produced – and realised that that was all very much a kind of European aesthetic, a very Swiss modernist-inspired vibe. It made me question how, or if, I would be able to “de-centre” my own taste.
KW: There are a couple of ways to approach this topic. At NEW INC, we have a lot of members who are interested in creating pipelines, so that our workforce looks more diverse, specifically in the creative industries. The statistic from the AIGA in the United States is only three percent of the graphic designers identify as African-American.
When you examine the root of the problem, the solution is pipelines. Have we done enough work in our educational systems to identify talent and make sure that they are receiving the same type of opportunities?
There’s a wonderful company SOW – Scope of Work – at NEW INC, led by two women of colour. They had identified, five years ago, that there were so many amazing Instagram content makers – many were Black teens. These young designers were being approached by brands like Nike, Adidas, asking to use their Instagram posts, or come and do a video shoot. But at the same time, they understood that the process could be quite extractive, where these brands were taking advantage of BIPOC youth.
So, SOW has created mentorship programmes, which include seminars on how to develop your portfolio, how to get into design colleges – and then after you get into design colleges, how do you create the right type of presentation so that you can get a job at a major ad agency. I’m very excited by their work – levelling the playing field.
With regards to the idea of taste, you’ve identified that graphic design is possibly one of the last bastions where the boundaries are still pretty ingrained!
DM: Very monocultural in some way.
KW: Right. We have documentaries just on Helvetica!
I like that pushing against the dominant narrative of European or Western canon in design.
For the last several years, I’ve been invited to be a critic at Yale’s Graduate School graphic design programme. You could see that the students were yearning for something beyond the curriculum, they were going to the theatre department, they were going to the art department, they were collaborating with other students in order to make work that was more radical, focused on the moving image, rather than type on paper.
I kept asking, how come the graphic design programme isn’t looking at AR and VR? A number of LA art schools are leaning into mixed realities and doing so quite successfully.
Some institutions are slow to the take, but the students aren’t. They’re being ‘anti-disciplinary’: “Well, there’s really interesting shit happening over here, let me go say hello to those makers and figure out how to do something weird an beautiful.”
DM: Very exciting – youth are always the vanguard.
Anyway, before we go, I wanted to be sure to congratulate you on Vogue Italia, for being one of their 100 covers for the September 2020 issue. That’s a very fun thing.
KW: It goes back to just some of the things you originally wanted to talk about – representation and diversity. I grew up, like many young girls, obsessed with Vogue and always assumed that I would never see myself [an Asian American] in that kind of modality.
It’s taken three decades, and it is exciting to see that a place where beauty was very ‘defined’ 30 years ago has completely expanded over the last, I’d say five years, particularly for women of colour, and yes, it was humbling and exciting to be part of that project.
DM: Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.
KW: Well, thank you, David.