Every exhibition of young artists aims to predict the future. In other words, these shows aim to create future value for those artists via critical acclaim, market value, or both—but not all exhibitions are created equal, and not all of them succeed. The New Museum’s Surround Audience, this year’s edition of the institution’s Triennial (on view through May 24) however, is primed to influence years of art history to come, thanks, in large part, to the power and influence of the institution and its organizers.
Staged by one of the most highly respected contemporary art museums in the world and curated by a highly respected team, much of the exhibition’s appeal can be credited to the dual vision of Lauren Cornell, one of the leading curators of digital art (and former director of the art and technology website Rhizome), and video artist Ryan Trecartin, who in 2011, The New Yorker called “the most consequential artist to have emerged since the 1980s.”
The pairing hardly comes as a surprise, considering Trecartin first became recognized as a result of the work he exhibited in the first Triennial, in 2009, which Cornell also had a hand in curating. This year, the two joined forces, with Trecartin as both co-curator and one of the major inspirations for the show. According to Cornell, this is because of how his artwork “vividly manifests a world in which the effects of technology and late capitalism have been absorbed into our bodies and altered our visions of the world.”
Technology-absorbed bodies, altered visions—is this what you can expect to find at the Triennial? In some ways, yes. But art is everywhere, and there is a lot of it to see.
Works created in media of every kind are installed across the museum’s five floors, as well as on their boundaries—or what the curators call the museum’s “transitional spaces”: hallways, bathrooms, stairwells, and even the sidewalk outside. This isn’t simply because of the sheer number of works included in the exhibition; instead, these marginal spaces are important parts of contemporary culture, an arena where avant-garde practices have always thrived. Today, with un-surveilled and un-corporatized spaces few and far between, these areas have become particularly relevant.
You’ll also see plenty of text. Surround Audience took inspiration from poetry too, as one of the major strengths of Trecartin’s work is his play with language. Several of the artists in the show also identify as poets. It’s a unique (and unexpected) angle in today’s art world—works are typically only wedded to text if they relate to critical theory or philosophy—and one that recalls the stronger connections between poetry and art in early 20th century avant-garde movements. There’s text on the walls in lettered 2D works by Juliana Huxtable, in videos by Steve Roggenbuck, and in a collection of poems that accompanies the catalogue, called The Animated Reader, edited by Brian Droitcour.
But there are few works in the show that will immediately knock your socks off. Appreciation for most of the pieces will have to come with at least one return visit, thanks to a variety of challenges the exhibition faces: namely, young artists’ characteristic rejection of the idea of the finished work and ambivalence toward creating objects; the fact that many of the works are videos, which are difficult to view alongside so many other works; the inability for an exhibition featuring so many pieces to create adequate space for objects to garner your full attention; or the fact that, according to the curators, more than 50 percent of the works in the show were commissioned for it, which may have downgraded how individual objects were prioritized for the show.
There was one object—or group of objects—that did stop me in my tracks: Josh Kline’s installation Freedom (2015) (pictured below). In so many words, the work features videos of President Barack Obama and other television talking heads whose faces have been technologically swapped with those of retired police officers. The videos show these uncanny faces reading scripts from social media from small monitors inset into the bellies of Teletubby-faced SWAT team soldiers. Around you stand mini cellphone towers with credit cards hanging off of them. The whole (relatively small) space is modeled after Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street in Fall 2011. Rounding a corner, Kline’s soldiers surprised and intimidated me, and the cacophonous sea of voices was startlingly aggressive in a way other works in the show were not.
A few more works have remained in my consciousness since leaving the show: DIS’s The Island (ZEN), a sort of stage/kitchen/bathroom with a lie-down shower apparatus; Renaud Jaurez’s office-chair-bound bandage-skeletons; and Frank Benson’s Juliana, a highly-realistic sculpture of artist Juliana Huxtable (whose work is also included in the Triennial).
Yet, creating significance through individual objects seems less the point here. Perhaps, it’s the sum of all parts rather than the singular pieces themselves that we’re meant to consider. The sheer prodigiousness of the selection—of the 51 artists exhibited in the show, very few of them showcased just a single work of art—suggests it’s a game of power in numbers.
My biggest takeaway is a list of artists I want to know more about. Take Casey Jane Ellison’s connections between standup comedy and the art world; Sascha Braunig’s dissolving, hallucinatory head paintings; Nadim Abbas’s interactive bunkers; and Aleksandra Domanovic’s exploration of technology and gender (pictured above).
Perhaps one, or maybe even all of them, might have become well-known on their own accord, but the odds are much better because of their inclusion in Surround Audience.