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Before the Fashion Show and Closing Night Party on March 27, Off the Wall artists and exhibition designers gave presentations at a salon hosted by the Jews and Media Working Group, based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. Co-faciliators Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Shandler offered some commentary and questions. Here are notes from my presentation:

 

Off the Wall was a response to press and scholarly analysis on New Jewish Culture, a phenomenon in which a younger generation of Jews expresses religion and identity in ways that are both earnest and playful, and, at times, transgressive. Over the past five years, much has been written about Jewish music, theater, and publishing, but very little attention paid to visual artists and visual art venues. http://www2.jewishculture.org/publications/research/culturestudy/newsitem.2006-06-01.1732478823

This was an area in which we thought The Jewish Museum could contribute to the discussion.

We wanted to maintain the vitality of the subject matter. So instead of placing Heeb magazines and Jewcy t-shirts in a vitrine–which would only perpetuate the belief that museums are mausoleums for art–we opted for a live art laboratory: an open studio format borrowed from artist-in-residence programs at nonprofit galleries. Examples in New York include Smack Mellon and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

 

While New Jewish Culture has unique qualities, it isn’t that new. The same holds true for Off the Wall at The Jewish Museum. Every generation reinvents itself with new ideas and technologies. Historical precedents for Off the Wall at The Jewish Museum include

the Tobe Pascher Workshop for contemporary ceremonial art founded in 1956 where resident artists like Moshe Zabari and Ludwig Wolpert worked in the museum’s basement studio. Software (1970), a pioneering exhibition about information technology and interactive art, was off the wall in its day. Museum visitors carried transistor radios which picked up a continuous broadcast of poetry readings gathered by John Giorno. Seek, a project by Nicholas Negroponte’s Achitecture Machine Group (a precursor to the MIT Media Lab), featured a computer-controlled robotic enviornment that, in theory, reconfigured itself in response to gerbil behavior. We didn’t have a rodent habitrail as part of Off the Wall, but we exhibited new media with Jewish content–something that may have been beyond imagination for the contemporary art world circa 1970. I also think Off the Wall wouldn’t be possible without Allan Kaprow’s Happenings forty years ago or Rirkrit Tiravanija’s socially interactive art projects during the 1990s.

There was no open call for Off the Wall artists. I chose artists under 40 who use Jewish concepts and themes in their work or consider themselves part of a Jewish social network. I encouraged artists to do site-responsive work–to take advatage of the fact that they would be in residence at a collecting institution like The Jewish Museum. Diwon selected audio material from our broadcast archive, Melissa Shiff borrowed traditional Judaica imagery for her mandalas, Levi Okunov used Torah ornaments and Hanukkah lamps as inspiration for his Fall collection, musician Alicia Jo Rabins offered a live musical docent tour and podcast of the permanent exhibition.

Museums are not only about objects, but also about people. Alina and Jeff Bliumis used staff and visitors as resource for their American Dream project. Evan Tapper adapted his video on misogyny, Jewish education, and dating based on comments from a visitor.

The project was successful and we still need some time to digest everything. More later….