Steven Matijcio, Curator at Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) spoke with ArtPrize's Kevin Buist about the importance of architecture, creative misuse, and the CAC's dedication to contemporary art.


Kevin Buist (KB): What were you doing before you were in Cincinnati and how did you end up there?

Steven Matijcio (SM): I started out doing my graduate work at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College between 2002 and 2004. At that time it was one of the few schools in the country to offer a Master’s Program in curatorial studies. Nowadays that has proliferated greatly, but it was a very formative experience in my career that built a number of foundations. During that time I discovered the surprising and inspiring public art going on in Winston Salem, NC. I would eventually find my way there, but immediately after Bard I went to Winnipeg and curated at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art for three-and-a-half years. Plug In began in 1972 as a small but intrepid artist-run space that has continued to grow to achieve a countrywide presence in Canada.

In 2008, I made the leap back across the border and went to Winston Salem, NC to curate at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. SECCA has been around since the mid 1950s and worked against all odds to carve out a niche on the periphery of the Bible Belt, showing only contemporary art in a completely non-collecting context. I spent five years there and, in the summer of 2013, I decided to take the next step at the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center (CAC). I had been following their programming and was enormously intrigued by the Zaha Hadid building and what director Raphaela Platow was doing there. The CAC was coming up on their 75th anniversary and it felt like a fortuitous time to join the CAC and expand what I was doing curatorially.

Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center

KB: It’s a remarkable space. I was there about a year ago and I was really blown away by the building and the work on view. How would you describe the current art landscape in Cincinnati? What is strong and what do you think could use work?

SM: It’s funny you ask. I was just recently in Minneapolis to serve on the McKnight Fellowship jury. I was struck by the physicality of the practices there, and how the majority were driven by material—almost a modernist exploration, or structuralist treatment of material. In Cincinnati it’s very much the opposite; the work I’ve seen here is much more conceptual, almost post-medium in the way it’s being challenged and expanded. The artist community here is somewhat elusive; they are not as traditionally "visible" as one might anticipate. They work in more of an underground, pop-up, artist-run context. In this context the work is fascinating; it’s always varied, never predictable, and has a fugitive quality that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The work here can resist a curatorial caption, which is a provocative challenge. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across this kind of art community before, but it’s one that I’m fascinated by and something I’m still trying to decode and decipher…

KB: That’s really encouraging how distinct it is. I have been down there for a Pitch Night event so I know a handful of artists there who have pitched projects and I can see what you’re talking about. So, Cincinnati is not a major art world center. What benefits do you think there are as a curator to be working there—not on the coast—in the middle of the country in a mid-sized city like that?

SM: That’s a great question. The last three places I’ve worked at could be considered "peripheral" and have largely existed outside a market presence. There is some commercial gallery activity in all three, but the majority of the work has been driven more by experimentation and exhibition-making in a not-for-profit sense—trying things out, for the love and challenge of making. I’m most drawn to these kind of environments—like Winnipeg, like Winston Salem, like Cincinnati. They could be considered on the "outside", as marginal, since you can often have the most impact in these kind of cities.

KB: In my short time there, it seems like a lot of artists I’ve met in Cincinnati are supported by teaching, but their approach to their work is not overly academic.

SM: That’s a perceptive observation. The artist communities I’ve found in Cincinnati typically cluster around post-secondary institutions like the University of Cincinnati, the Art Academy, or Xavier University. But you’re right in that the work here rarely presents itself as overly didactic or with pedantic influence. These institutions appear open to have students explore a concept, take it through multiple languages, and question the currency of formats. For better or worse, conventional codes of technical craftsmanship are less present here. It’s much more concept and idea driven.

Activists defend Robert Mappelthorpe's "The Perfect Moment"

KB: So when you’re planning exhibitions in Cincinnati, how are you thinking about the audience? In an institution with a deep history like yours, that is incredibly old and venerated, how are you thinking about the audience more broadly?

SM: It’s a really important question. People look at the CAC with the history of [Robert] Mapplethorpe and The Perfect Moment, and it engenders an element of danger that still circulates through the larger population. In art circles, the CAC is still seen as a dependable source of danger, too, remaining dedicated to the contemporary wherever that may take us. But this cuts both ways: in the larger circles we are still trying to win people’s trust back. They’re still uncertain—still not sure whether this is beyond decorum.

When I’m thinking about programming I’m always looking at it through multiple layers. We can’t afford to be distant or aloof in the exhibitions we present or even how we speak about them. There has to be a level of immediacy and accessibility, which is often achieved through the appearance of the work. We need the work to establish some kind of relationship upon first glance to establish a foundation of curiosity that can then push people further. I sometimes describe it as "Trojan Horse curating", in that appearance and intrigue serve as a gateway for all the other social, cultural, political dimensions of the work to invade physical and psychological space.

At the CAC I strive to present work that will reward one’s attention and investment. I know that’s broad, but that’s the general philosophy of how we program. From a more global perspective, we prioritize representing a variety of cultures and ethnicities, bringing in guest curators, and having a multitude of voices on all sides of the discourse.

KB: When I was there I got to see and spend a fair amount of time with Buildering: Misbehaving the City. I really loved that exhibition. You have described that term, buildering, as a "creative misuse of built space." Can you explain a little about how that term came about?

SM: Thanks! This was a time when I arrived in Cincy at the cusp of three important anniversaries for the organization. In 2013 it was the 10th anniversary of the now iconic Zaha Hadid building, in 2014 it was our 75th anniversary as an organization, and 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of Robert Mapplethorpe’s "The Perfect Moment" and its display in Cincinnati. I was thinking of a way to acknowledge these anniversaries but in a somewhat contradictory sense. We didn’t want to just affirm past accolades and reify existing histories, but instead use these tropes as an opportunity to reexamine where the CAC has been and where it’s going; an opportunity to look at the use and misuse of memory, history, and of the building itself.

I wanted this exhibition to span the building, the organization, and the surrounding city—recognizing and reordering each to shed the stasis that accumulates with time and familiarity. I also wanted to integrate and activate the city as a collaborator and conspirator, pushing beyond Debord’s indictment to find inspiration in the urban condition. The British artist Alex Hartley was especially influential in this regard, amplifying the philosophy of what we call “buildering” from urban climbing into utopian models of living inside and outside the grid. Alongside artists like Sebastian Stumpf, Allard van Hoorn, Lee Walton, and Monika Sosnowska, we wanted to reexamine our building 10 years later and how we could open up new outlets and avenues of both performance and understanding.

Performance became its heartbeat, and this show needed to indulge in a level of playfulness and revelry to inspire audiences. I mobilized the show as a manifesto to encourage audiences to see their city in unfamiliar ways. We too often treat the city as a dystopian machine for living that suffocates all nature, wildlife, and creativity. Buildering brought together artists, installations, and performances that find redemption and possibility in the urban contract. It was not about naïve jingoism or superficial treatments of systemic civic problems, but rather an invitation to incrementally expand how we live, perform, and understand the city.

We presented a performance by the Willi Dorner Company called "Bodies in Urban Spaces", which consists of about twenty brightly clad performers running through the city and inserting themselves into and onto structures, creating temporary human sculptures. After that weekend, a number of people came up to me and said "I’ll never see that parking lot or lamppost the same way again." That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish—to reawaken what can be by shifting and expanding our perception. This model became the precedent to perform similar operations upon the history of the organization in the bookend exhibition Memory Palace. History, the archive, and the very structure of human memory became structures to challenge, reorganize, and re-perform.

Willi Dorner Dance Company

KB: I grew up skateboarding, and it’s all about a creative re-use of urban space. It has it’s own vernacular quality to it. Being in the CAC building—in the lobby in particular, Zaha Hadid has essentially built a quarter pipe—I was having these devious thoughts of skateboarding there. It gets your mind wandering.

SM: I’m so happy you said that. It’s actually a perfect tie-in. Zaha labeled that space as the "urban carpet" and had this idea to roll the city directly into the space. Rather than perpetuate the model of the art museum as a fortress that lives on the top of a hill, Zaha wanted to integrate the CAC into the urban fabric of the city. In concert with floorlights shaped as lane markers, the "quarter pipe" draws people into the space and propels their gaze up through the building. In this way, many of the blueprints for Buildering were already present in the DNA of the building in the sense that it was trying to have a porous dialogue with the surrounding city.

KB: I think the two play off each other well and it was perfect for Buildering. But when you’re doing other exhibitions, how much does the design of the building come into play? Obviously the Buildering one had a very architectural quality to it.

SM: The most successful exhibitions at the CAC are those that are site-specific or at the very least customized to have some kind of conversation and relationship with the space. I’ve quickly learned that Zaha’s voice is always present in every presentation; it’s more about the amount of volume that’s invited into any respective exhibition.

For example, one of our current shows features Daniel Arsham who immediately started thinking not only about the artworks and installations that would be on display, but also about how he could build, extend, or change walls. For an artist like Daniel who is highly sensitive to space and structure, the CAC building presents a unique opportunity to convene a dialogue and wrestle with the demands architecture makes upon mind and body. His exhibition feels like it’s designed in and for that space, and our audiences respond most strongly to that—even if part of that experience lives in a subconscious place. I feel it’s our responsibility as curators here to not just place things onto walls, but rather to really consider the synergy that’s possible between experience and edifice.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel this space allows and encourages us to challenge, to contradict, to oppose, to question. We have a major exhibition with Do Ho Suh coming up next spring and he is already thinking about how to integrate his architectural pieces into the building and how that will create a conversation. He’s thinking about how one will see Zaha’s work through the lens of his and vice versa; that’s a continual thread happening in our program that makes it unique.

Interior shot of the CAC

KB: The idea of artistic misuse is really interesting to me. How do you think that can exist as an artistic strategy more generally and even work beyond just an urban environment?

SM: In my mind artists have always been irreverent iconoclastic spirits, from Caravaggio to Daumier, Orozco, to the avant-garde. When you think of the Situationists, Fluxus, appropriation, and Feminist art (to name just a few), "creative misuse" has long inhabited the DNA of movements striving for larger societal reconsideration and parallax. It’s about pushing the conventions and structures of society into unfamiliar and foreign territory, and that has just continued to reverberate into the 21st century and the idea of the urban being indigenous to the majority of the world’s population.

Contemporary artists are the philosophers of today, uniquely positioned to be the catalysts of new thinking by opening up windows of inquiry, uncertainty, and alternatives. Artist Mary Temple once described it to me as courting an immersive and seductive sense of disorientation within her work. When we lose our footing but are still driven by curiosity and intrigue, we are trying to re-find a sense of perception. That’s when your brain is most receptive to new ways of thinking.

I love to quote artist Kianga Ford, who once told me, "I want to make audiences feel just comfortable enough to feel uncomfortable." We want to be that kind of center that invites people in and excites them about art, but also nudges them slightly off kilter. That’s what artists are doing—with the tool, with the medium, with the political issue—it’s about trying to expand that discourse and field of thought.

KB: So I know you haven’t been to ArtPrize yet, but as you prepare to come, what is interesting about it to you and what are you looking forward to seeing?

SM: People inside and outside the art world are enthusiastically taking notice of this event and the whole enterprise around it. I spoke recently to Russell Lord at NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) and he had just been in Grand Rapids. They were touring a show through the city and he couldn’t say enough good things about Grand Rapids as an art hub. ArtPrize has taken on national recognition, and its visibility seems to expand with every new edition.

I’m inspired by the model it animates. It’s about the expansiveness and democracy of art. Yes, you have certain signature sites where exhibitions and events take place, but then the activity and agency spreads across the entire city where everyone is reveling in art. We see this happen for shorter periods in various Nuit Blanche festivals around the world, but rarely for such a sustained period in the U.S. In a lot of ways it’s kind of this utopian possibility that we always hoped could happen—that art could be a generator of cultural tourism, social agency, and economic revitalization. I’m looking forward to experiencing that entire landscape and all of the things that are happening from all of the expected venues as well as all of the unexpected.

By Emma Higgins on