Art & Design

Artist and Curator Phong Bui On What Brooklyn Culture Means in 2014

Art & Design

Artist and Curator Phong Bui On What Brooklyn Culture Means in 2014


Phong Bui, artist, writer and independent curator, is practically a Brooklyn establishment. It’s no understatement to say that, as co-founder and editor-in-chief of the long-standing free arts paper The Brooklyn Rail, Bui has shaped contemporary discourses about visual art reaching far beyond the five boroughs. After curating last year’s Come Together: Surviving Sandy exhibition, which memorialized the first anniversary of the devastating storm, Bui has moved on to trippier realms. His latest curatorial project, Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior, takes the already surreal space of Manhattan’s Red Bull Studios and transforms it into a psychedelic wonderland. Featuring a selection of artists born between the ‘20s and the ‘80s, the exhibition focuses on psychedelia as an expression of human and artistic experience. From Ryan Trecartin’s hallucinogenic video art to Charles LeDray’s morbid recrafting of human remains, Spaced Out stuns and surprises at every turn. We spoke to Bui about his role at the Rail, the contemporary Brooklyn scene, and the inspiration behind this mind-altering exhibition.

You’ve been the publisher of the Brooklyn Rail for over a decade. What’s contributed to its longevity?
The ethos and the popular expectations of our culture push for novelty, for a creative evolution to occur in such a brief time. I was born in Vietnam and I came from a culture where you take time to find your character, your identity in life. I’ve always been interested in this idea of the life-long development of the self, of the kind of explorations of your potential that you have not yet discovered. That possibility is a profound sense for most artists we admire. It’s not about creating in order to generate novelty. I think the Rail survived because it hasn’t put pressure on artists and writers to do that. After fourteen years, it just feels like the beginning.

In the last two years you also expanded the Rail to Miami and the Twin Cities. How did you go about applying such a staple of New York culture to those other locations?
You know when you find another person in the same genre who has a similar spirit to yours? That happened to me more and more. I happened to be in Miami because my wife, Natalie Provosty, had a show there and I tagged along. Nina Johnson, who’s the curator of the wonderful Gallery Diet, asked me to give a talk and a lot of young writers came to meet me. I spoke about the differences between rationality and inspiration and I ended up telling them they could do it too, they could create their own Miami Rail. To my surprise, they applied for a grant and they got the money, so they started it. In the Twin Cities I met a similar group of people who had their own aspirations to create a similar community.

As more magazines go online only, do you feel that there’s something worthy in resolutely sticking to print media?
Writing for websites is cool. I have no criticism whatsoever, but when you write for print publications, your commitment to accuracy and scholarship becomes more urgent. I like printed matter because it’s an object and I can read it. I can’t do that with a screen. The glaring light hypnotizes; it takes away a certain reflective moment which you need in order to digest what you have read.

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The interior of Spaced Out. Photo courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool // Greg Mionske.

Earlier this year, Brooklyn Magazine named you one of the hundred most important people in Brooklyn culture. What does Brooklyn culture even mean in 2014?
First of all, it doesn’t mean shit. I’m not at all interested in glamor. I’m interested in the collective community of individuals who have similar aspirations, who have committed to furthering their growth, to discover their true identity. If you are caught in that kind of group of people with similar drive, it’s kind of a promised land. When I came to New York in 1986, I discovered this amazing scene in which I could discover my potential regardless of my background. I moved to Greenpoint in 1992 and saw the incubation of the Brooklyn scene. There was an excitement in the air but there wasn’t a critical forum. When you talk to people out of their own specific discipline, they are lost. I was frustrated. With the Rail, we brought people together to contribute their expertise about their own subject. That way, people reading the Rail who’d never care about art can now read art, and artists who would never pay much attention to poetry and fiction will become acquainted with the other medium. This creates a crossover readership, which is what the Rail is about.

Psychedelia has manifested itself across many disciplines. Did this kind of artistic crossover draw you to it as the theme for the show you’re curating at Red Bull Studios?
The space at Red Bull looks weird. It has curved walls made of glass, the men’s room is a room is flame red, the women’s room is yellow. It looks like the perpetual set for an Austin Powers movie. So it was an easy choice and an obvious choice that it should be psychedelic. I curate according to the given space. There’s a beautiful Vietnamese proverb: “if you live in a long tube, be thin; if you live in a barrel, be round”. The way I curate is my own response to the given site. Also, a lot of my friends are older than me and having spoken to them about this subject, choosing artists who worked within the psychedelic was an easy selection to make.

Psychedelia is closely associated with the ‘60s. What relevance does it have today?
There’s a reemergence of interest in what psychedelic means. When you think about people from the ‘60s like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, they were using psychedelics as an agency, a means to be anti-establishment. It’s very political. Now, there are people like Rick Loblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, who has been trying to educate the government. He knows that we lost the battle the first time around because of arrogance. Timothy Leary thought we could use LSD to bring down the establishment. McKenna was inherently opposed to culture. Now, I’m trying to create a certain discussion around the subject matter that’s not so arrogant.

Did your reading of the subject matter lead you to include more performative elements in the exhibition, such as poetry and music?
When I curate, I make sure it’s not just a visually inclined exhibition. It has to have other things. It has to have music. Whatever appears in the pages of the Rail has to be part of the greater spectacle. People have to become a part of it so it’s not so academic and institutional.

You subtitled the exhibition “Migration to the Interior”. Do you think that through psychedelic art we can discover more about ourselves?
Psychedelia is all about enlightenment, some kind of mystical experience, some form of otherness that generates a new mediation for the way in which we deal with the world, because the world outside is not enough. Look at Bosch’s painting, for Christ’s sake. The Garden of Earthly Delights, what a painting! I’m interested in that kind of altered state, in something else, something not literal.

This interview has been edited. Photo by .Nicola Delorme