Interview with Thomas J. Lax, Associate Curator at MoMA

March 10, 2016 | By Dorothée Charles
Thomas J. Lax © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Thomas J. Lax is Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art at The Museum of Modern Art. Recently, he has organized Steffani Jemison: Promise Machine (2015); Greater New York (2015; with Douglas Crimp, Peter Eleey, and Mia Locks); Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC (2016); and a publication on the work of Ralph Lemon (2016). Below, he speaks about Projects 102: Neïl Beloufa, which opens on March 12.

Dorothée Charles: Could you present the Department of Media and Performance Art at MoMA and the program for 2016?

Thomas J. Lax: Over the last several years, the Museum has increasingly been working across media, working both on major projects in video and performance as well as integrating these media into many of the loan exhibitions and collection hangs. Some of the projects my colleagues Stuart Comer, Chief Curator, and Ana Janevski, Associate Curator, and I are working on with colleagues throughout the Museum include Algerian-French Neïl Beloufa’s The Colonies in March; French-Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili's The Mapping Journey Project in April; and a retrospective of the artist Bruce Conner (with SFMOMA). In terms of performance, we will have a full range of commissions by Trajal Harrell, Jérôme Bel, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Alexandra Bachzetsis over the next year. We will also continue our Performance Forums and launch a new series called Modern Dance which will include monographs on Boris Charmatz, Ralph Lemon and Sarah Michelson.

DC: Neïl Beloufa will have a first solo show at MoMA in Projects 102 in March. The installation will present a construction on which Neïl Beloufa is playing with projections and objects revealing the “dispositif” and using different material and technologies. Could you explain the piece and the way Neïl Beloufa has worked on the project?

TJL: To make his custom-built architectonic installation, The Colonies, Beloufa took a studio in Brooklyn with a group of his collaborators with whom he has continuously worked with for the past decade. Using inexpensive construction materials and techniques, he created a kinetic sculpture that moves back and forth on a track, custom-made walls and seating structures, and a computer program for a CCTV system. By revealing the cables and cords in his works and looping in images of viewers through a live feed, he makes technology visible and incorporates the spectator as both participant in and producer of surveillance culture.

Beloufa is an artist who deftly combines moving images and sculptural forms to create architectural spaces in which his videos are projected. His work often combines the documentary truth of ethnographic, interview-style formats with popular fictionalized genres, such as science fiction films, reality TV shows, and infomercials. He has made 18 movies to date and works between gallery installations and cinematic screenings. In his work, he considers a variety of timely subjects including the ubiquitous culture of surveillance; the 21st century persistence of social forms including colonialism and capitalism; and the utopic possibilities embedded in parties, games, and flirtation. He is asking fundamental questions about the status of French and national identification in a moment where despite the Internet and neoliberalism’s promises of a world without borders, these forms of belonging and alienation are some of the central terms of political contestation.

DC: People’s passion, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water (2011) will be presented on the construction. Neïl Beloufa asked a group of people (actors and amateurs) in Vancouver to talk about an ideal place where they would like to live - either fictive or real – the only directive was to maintain a cheerful disposition. Could you present this Lifestyle and how Neïl Beloufa is dealing with fiction and reality to bring the audience in a very specific environment?

TJL: The video shows people fervently describing their experiences living in an unnamed but presumably North American city. Their accounts resemble fantasies of a cosmopolitan bourgeois urban culture and are paired with images of the natural world—parks, waterfalls, mountain ranges—perfectly suited to their lifestyle needs. They exclaim, “They have a really good work-life balance,” and “Nothing says class, . . . power, elegance, romance, . . . human ingenuity like a city full of these glass towers.”

The work reflects on a contemporary condition in which wellness and lifestyle—signs of the “good life”—are imagined to stand in for the benefits won through ongoing social struggle or the kinds of transformations enabled by true political imagination. Happiness is no longer a thing that one is meant to experience but rather is measurable through meta-data and treated as an economic product.

DC: Data for Desire (2014) has been presented during “An evening with Neïl Beloufa” at MoMA on February 29, 2016 (US premiere). Neïl has filmed a group of French students watching young North Americans party and attempt to map physical attraction through statistical operations. Could you talk about the structure and the rhythm of this film?

TJL: Part reality television and party science series, the video Data for Desire (2014) shows a group of French students observing their Canadian counterparts work summer jobs and party. The French pseudo-researchers take their task seriously, rating each of their subjects numerically, and using their qualifications to make calculated hypotheses about who will end up hooking up with whom by the end of the webisode. Beloufa made this work by putting up an ad on social media asking for a group of Canadians to come together in Banff and have a party. Like his earlier works, this video is an exaggerated update on the history of French ethnographic observation that mimes the way in which contemporary forms of attraction are quantified and how our behaviors are made predictable through data analysis. All of this is told on a loop that is at once excruciating and entertaining in its banality as French students armed with laptops and projected charts benignly watch a party scene replete with beer pong and romantic feuds between siblings.

DC: What would be the next Projects 102?

TJL: Projects 103: Thea Djordjadze, organized by Paulina Pobocha, opens in April at MoMA PS1. Using basic construction materials such as packing foam, plywood, and metal, Thea Djordjadze (Georgian, b. 1971) makes abstract sculptures that reflect upon the history of modernism. She works intuitively and employs a vocabulary of forms studded with references to bygone industrial design and the crumbling architectural landscapes of the former Soviet Union. In the spirit of MoMA PS1’s long tradition of site-specific commissions, the artist will create a new sculptural installation that will respond to the building’s unique architecture.

Projects 102: Neïl Beloufa is organized by Thomas J. Lax, Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, MoMA

The Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series is made possible in part by the Elaine Dannheisser Foundation and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.

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