Karen Archey

KAREN ARCHEY is Curator of Contemporary Art, Time-based Media at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

What new or old tools are you
attached to in your art practice?

Since I’m a writer, primarily an art critic, I’m going to treat the word “tool” in a way that isn’t related to the stuff of artistic practice. Literally, the only tool to which I’m attached is my laptop loaded with a pirated, malfunctioning copy of Microsoft Word. That a writer only needs one tool—a laptop or typewriter, pen or pencil, whatever—is one of the reasons I inadvertently became a writer. I graduated college and moved to New York in 2008 and had nothing but a laptop and a really expensive private art school education. The economy had dipped to its nadir and I wasn’t even qualified to get a job in retail. I had no professional connections or experience. That laptop I bought in college lasted me seven years. (And as luck would have it, I bought that laptop from an insurance payout from my Chicago apartment getting burglarized while I was visiting the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2007—a.k.a., the year I started really going into debt). I could write, and very slowly started making money, but it took years for me to see any semblance of an actual living.

Writing while impoverished indelibly changed my worldview—it taught me that even if your assets total less than zero, you can still produce something that may have an impact on the world. Becoming an adult during the so-called Great Recession taught me resilience. But it also showed me how deeply unequal the world is, and how challenging it is to rise above so many intersectional problems at once.

What tools have you rejected?

I think a lot about affect and professional comportment as metaphorical tools—old, dusty, darkly beguiling tools—ones that I’ve tried to do away with. I can’t count the times I’ve been characterized as too serious, not friendly enough, or stern. Not in a genius-autistic way, but in a non-feminine way. In a way that doesn’t particularly massage a social apparatus of feminine charm and other crap associated with femininity that I’m expected to deal with on top of being an art critic.

Yesterday, in a private conversation with a friend, we had a “truthy” moment about my public-speaking capabilities. She said, “You’re a fine public speaker. But the last time I saw you speak you came off as really upset.” As if this was a bad, embarrassing thing. The next thing I know, I spent 15 minutes in this conversation trying to recount and explain why I may have come off as upset but I’m really a happy well-adjusted person thankyouverymuch, until I mentally collapsed under my emotional acrobatics. Here’s a secret: I am upset. You should be upset, too. We should all be upset. Have you looked outside or checked your bank account lately? I momentarily had forgotten that being emotional and a public intellectual at the same time is strictly verboten in this game. And for a moment, I had actually felt guilty about breaking the rules.

But isn’t our industry about breaking the rules, and figuring out when and how they should be broken and reimagined? How do we figure out when the rules don’t apply? When they don’t work anymore? When they don’t feel right? I am upset and sometimes I can’t keep up a professional emotional remove. And who wouldn’t be upset if they spent $140,000 on a college education, graduated into a financial crisis, and realized that their profession amounted to fluffing flotsam capital and smiling while wearing funereal asymmetrical clothing rather than contributing to an intellectual history? When I see my colleagues gleefully hang out with so-called 1%ers whose massive amounts of wealth drain resources from others—and to some extent are the reason why I’m so broke—I think: wow. Self-deception is a powerful tool. Self-deception is a tool buried deep inside us that blooms during adulthood. And it’s also something that seems to be a driving force in this industry. I ask so many friends why they made art a profession, and they almost always say that it’s because they feel fundamentally different. They hoped art would provide a space for that difference. So why do we reward ignoble behavior like conspicuous bubble-money grabs, meathead displays of power, and unchecked institutional misogyny?

We need a new set of tools, stat.

What have the tools
done to your art?

I don’t know. Am I too much? Am I bitter? Am I crazy?