Private Conversations in Public
Tom Eccles, the co-curator of Frieze Talks, on how to start a conversation
According to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the ability to accurately perceive the time in which one is living requires maintaining a distance from it. Being contemporary, he adds, is like “being on time for an appointment one cannot but miss.” I thought of that appointment when I met Tom Eccles on the Upper West Side early one morning in January. The walls of the modest space were covered with exquisite prints—by Ida Applebroog, Takashi Murakami, Catherine Opie—and there was a copy of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams on the kitchen table. Eccles was out of coffee, and so we drank water while he smoked and talked in his humorous, candid way about the series of talks at Frieze New York that he has co-curated—with Christy Lange, Associate Editor of frieze magazine—to great acclaim since 2014. Eccles is used to balancing acts: the need to create events that feel timely, which often requires waiting until the last possible moment to confirm them, with the need to actually meet deadlines. (In 2014, the conversation between two co-founders of Pussy Riot and David Remnick was confirmed nail-bitingly close to the fair’s opening.) In other words, this year’s lineup wasn’t yet confirmed. And yet, ideas were percolating: the popularity of experimental film in the 1960s and 1970s, the “incredible interest in poetry right now,” the art scene in Beirut, the way that “the curator has to some degree replaced the art historian” as a spokesperson for art and artists. I asked Eccles why that last idea seemed relevant to 2016, and he explained that it had taken twenty or thirty years for some art historians to admit that curators weren’t just a passing trend, and to acknowledge curators’ contribution to art publishing, particularly when it came to books about the history of museums, the politics of globalization, and the rise of biennials. Even so, Eccles said, laughing, he suspected that some art historians still felt a degree of bitterness toward curators, who in their eyes might seem “rather overpaid and undereducated.”
Eccles is himself a product of what he describes as the contemporary art world’s openness to multitaskers. He grew up in Scotland, to parents who worked in public housing and public architecture, and considers the talks he curates at Frieze as providing a kind of public service, “to present ideas that are embedded within art or ideas that come from art or are expressed through art but that some- how aren’t commodifiable.” As a student, Eccles studied philosophy and Italian in Glasgow and then semiotics with Umberto Eco in Bologna, and later taught theory to artists such as Claire Barclay and Simon Starling, whom he has since worked with on exhibitions. He has edited a magazine, Discourse, and founded an arts space for people with disabilities. In 1994, he organized an exhibition for the Public Art Fund in New York City called “Urban Paradise: Gardens in the City,” in which artists such as Vito Acconci and Betye Saar proposed a range of unlikely community gardens across the city. Other projects with the Public Art Fund included, in 2002, Francis Alÿs’s The Modern Procession, which saw a crowd of 150— including a 12-piece Peruvian brass band—marching from MoMA to Queens.
It was when he became the Public Art Fund’s Director in 1996, that Eccles’s interest in public talks really began. He realized, as he puts it, that “We weren’t public and we weren’t a fund,” and so, to raise the organization’s profile on a tight budget, he established Tuesday Night Talks, a hugely popular monthly series that took place in the enormous hall of The Cooper Union. Over the following years, these included presentations by artists such as Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton, as well as curators like Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor, giving informal takes on practice and theory and the goings-on in the contemporary art scene: what Eccles calls “‘what’s-on- your-mind’ kind of talks.”
When thinking up subjects for talks, Eccles told me, he does not look to magazines, Twitter, or Instagram. Instead, he gauges “frameworks of interest, or of disinterest” by talking to his students at Bard College, New York, where he is the Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, and to artists. (He is currently working on shows with Valie Export, Tony Oursler, and Martin Creed, who is doing an installation at the Park Avenue Armory in June.) Often, the idea for a Frieze Talk begins with a person he and Lange find interesting—the author Ben Lerner, say, or, the artist Andrea Zittel, or, in their dreams, the economist Thomas Piketty. Then they will have that person suggest a person he or she would like to talk to, in order to create the kind of intimate conversation that might happen at a dinner party. The best talks, he says, are those in which people are compelled to be honest with each other, usually by knowing each other a little, as happened with Thelma Golden and Arnold Lehman last year, or in 2014 with Enwezor and pianist Jason Moran. “It’s being a sounding board,” Eccles said of his job, “listening and then bouncing somewhere else.” As if to confirm Agamben’s theory of distance, when we met, Eccles was about to visit Isla Holbox on the Yucatán Peninsula, where he would be entirely without Internet. When we spoke a couple of weeks later, he told me that he had read Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep and Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America on the beach. “If ever you want to know anything about whaling,” he said, “I’m your man.”
Emily Stokes is an editor and writer living in Brooklyn
Frieze Week magazine is the insiders’ guide to our art fairs with a preview of the best works on view, news of curated projects and talks, and tips on the most important exhibitions and events taking place around town. Frieze Week is published in anticipation of Frieze New York in May and Frieze London & Masters in October.