Interview with Debra Singer, Executive Director and Chief Curator, The Kitchen

Posted June 13, 2011 by Anonymous
Nathan Lee, Curator, Critic and Graduate Student, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
Interview Date: 
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Person Interviewed: 
Debra Singer, Executive Director and Chief Curator, The Kitchen
Place of Interview: 
The Kitchen


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Debra Singer on August 22, 2010. The interview took place New York, NY, and was conducted by Nathan Lee for the Oral Histories project of Art Spaces Archives Project (AS-AP). This interview was funded by New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

Debra Singer has reviewed the transcript and has made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.




[NATHAN LEE: The following interview is being conducted with Debra Singer, on behalf of Art Spaces Archives Project, for the CCS Bard archives. The interview is taking place on August 22nd, 2010, at The Kitchen.  My name is Nathan Lee.]


NATHAN LEE:  If you can just talk a little bit about your background, what you were doing before you came to The Kitchen, and how you came to be the director.


DEBRA SINGER: I’m Debra Singer, executive director and chief curator at The Kitchen. I’ve been at The Kitchen since 2004. So this is my seventh year. And before that, I was a contemporary art curator at the Whitney Museum for seven or eight years, and I also curated a performance series there. Before that, I was in grad school; and before that, [laughs] I worked in [Washington] D.C. for alternative arts organizations for five years. I worked for two and a half years at Washington Project for the Arts; and after that, I worked at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company for two and a half years. And in those various places, I— Nobody really starts out as a curator, of course. I did education programming; I was a PR person, writing press releases. At Woolly Mammoth Theater, I did development work. I was a development coordinator and director of development, so I was just doing fundraising. Between those two places, I kind of did everything except for curating. But they’re such small places, you’re always— The artists are always close at hand. It’s not that hard to hang around and learn. Or at least it wasn’t then. And then I went to grad school, and then I went to the Whitney ISP program, and then I started working at the Whitney in various capacities for eight years.


LEE:  Right. And how did you get involved with The Kitchen?


SINGER:  I interviewed for the job.


LEE:  Yeah? Just interviewed and— Okay.


SINGER:  Yeah. [laughs]


LEE:  Okay.  When you came to The Kitchen, what was your perception of the institution as it was at the time? What was The Kitchen’s standing in—


SINGER:  Well, I always was fascinated by The Kitchen. I loved working at the Whitney, but as a culture-goer in the city, I always loved going to The Kitchen and knew of its history. I was always enchanted by its past, because I always had a foot in both camps, being trained academically in the visual arts, but experientially, also being part of a performance world, since my early twenties. The Kitchen always seemed like this ideal place for me because it— Even though when I arrived at The Kitchen the gallery exhibitions hadn’t really been foregrounded in any way—the institution had, actually, a pretty long and interesting visual art exhibition history parallel to the obviously more prestigious and more historically significant performance-based history. So I was very enchanted by the idea of coming to work here.


LEE:  Well, let’s go to the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about how The Kitchen was started and the circumstances from which it came into being?


SINGER:  The Kitchen was founded in the early seventies, in 1971, as an artist’s collective by Woody and Steina Vasulka, most famously, and a number of other people. And then—that was in ’71—it was an artists’ collective in SoHo. And two years later, in 1973, it was incorporated into a real nonprofit. And it was called The Kitchen because it was founded, or where it started, was in the back of the Mercer Arts Center which once was a kitchen. The founding mission of The Kitchen was as a center for video and music, because video then was this emergent art form that was not being shown in galleries and museums and not yet broadly accepted. So it was conceived as a place where artists working with video could come together to exchange ideas— And this particular crowd was also close to a number of musicians, particularly those working in minimalist traditions that weren’t necessarily being presented in concert halls, or even in clubs yet. So they would meet in the Mercer Arts Center to discuss their ideas and share work, and then eventually formed their own non-profit and then eventually got their own space called The Kitchen. Although the real name of The Kitchen, the incorporated name is Haleakala.


LEE:  Haleakala?


SINGER:  Haleakala.


LEE:  What does it mean?


SINGER:  Haleakala is a volcano on Maui, which means “house of the sun.” The first thing I had to do before I worked here was find out:  How do you spell that and, how do you say that?


LEE:  [laughs] How do you pronounce it, and where does that name come from?


SINGER:  A number of the artists who were the founding people when they incorporated in ’73 had taken a trip— a number of musicians had taken a trip to Hawaii. And I guess you’re supposed to climb— I don’t know, at five in the morning or four in the morning, on Maui, you climb to the top of Haleakala and the sun looks green or whatever it is. You see the world differently. [laughs] And it’s supposed to be an incredible experience. And I guess when they came back and they had to put down an incorporated name, perhaps there was bit of irony there; [chuckles] instead of incorporating as The Kitchen, they incorporated as Haleakala, Inc. 


LEE:  So this moment before it’s incorporated as a nonprofit, when it was an artist collective, is there any distinction to be made between the kinds of activities happening then and when it became an officially nonprofit organization? What was the nature of this collective? Were they essentially presenting a performance space and workshopping things or—


SINGER:  I don’t think there was any immediate change from ’71 or ’72, what they were doing with ’73, ’74. But you know, if you’re incorporated, you could apply for grants and get money to run the space. So I think the philosophy— I mean, it was artist-run and artist-centered, at least through the seventies into early eighties. There wasn’t— I mean, the whole sort of proliferation of professional curators is a more recent phenomenon. [laughs] You know, Rhys Chatham was one of the first music curators twice in the seventies, and he was nineteen when he was the first music curator, and doing all of this programming that turned out to be totally important and what would become significant music. And he was like a nineteen year old kid, who was a musician himself, so it was— You know, they’re incredible people who were artists working at The Kitchen, programming other artists. And that was predominant through the seventies and early eighties.


LEE:  Right. So in these early days, it was curating work— It presented a kind of exhibition space or performance space. What sort of other activities were happening? What is the early nature of what The Kitchen is doing physically in the space?


SINGER:  Obviously, I wasn’t there so I don’t really know. And there are people you could ask. But you know, when you look at fliers and stuff, you can see how you could drop in and go to events almost any day of the week, and events were three dollars or free.  In the early days, it was a center for video and music, so it definitely had to do with that kind of media and those issues. And then in the later seventies, they added on other time-based work, and it became a center for dance, performance, film and literature. So essentially, the commonality would be time-based experience. And I think there were lots of artists presenting work to other artists.


LEE:  Right. So aside from the Vasulkas, who were the early key organizers or participants in The Kitchen?


SINGER:  Well, Garrett List who’s a composer, who lives in Paris, was one of the curators in that incorporation moment. There are many more board members who could answer this more easily than I can. One of the legendary directors was Bob Stearns, who really was credited for being an amazing leader in the heyday, but I don’t really know the years that he was here offhand. He’s always talked about in a really admiring way. [laughs] But I don’t know him. And, there are others— Like Rhys Chatham was a music curator in the late seventies. Robert Longo was a curator of visual arts. Eric Bogosian was a performance and dance curator. Rhys came back again. But in other moments, George Lewis was a music curator, Arto Lindsay was a music curator briefly. Those guys were in the eighties.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  There are certain board members that are with us today that had other sorts of guiding roles. From the beginning, Philip Glass was a founding board member.


LEE:  And there was a board right from the beginning.


SINGER:  Well, from when it was incorporated— ’73, ’74.


LEE:  When it was incorporated. And at that time, was an administrative structure also established, in terms of a director and specific roles?


SINGER:  Well, I assume, but I don’t really know until— I know that’s in place in the late seventies.


LEE:  Okay.


SINGER:  But I don’t really know, between ’73 and ’77, what was going on, really. It is not that hard to find out, but I just can’t tell you offhand.


LEE:  It’s okay. And so how long did [The Kitchen] stay in the Mercer space?


SINGER:  Well, the Mercer Arts Center space that was in the old Broadway Central Hotel burned down. And then The Kitchen had sort of two homes in SoHo, one on Mercer and one on Broome Street. And then they moved into this building that we’re in, in 1985, and rented it from Dia for a few years, and then in ’87, bought the building from Dia.


LEE:  Okay. And so when it had those two spaces in SoHo—Not simultaneously.




LEE:  It was one, and then they moved.


SINGER:  Yeah, yeah.


LEE:  Okay.


SINGER:  Two on Mercer and one on Broome? And now I’m not sure.


LEE:  We can find those.


SINGER:  [over Lee] Yeah. These are all easy things that I just can’t remember.


LEE:  That’s okay. What distinguished The Kitchen was being very early in showing video and performance and music, time-based art, - having a vital and effective interdisciplinary kind of program. Can you contextualize this a little bit in that moment in the SoHo art world? Were other things going on? Was anyone else exhibiting this stuff? What is the role of presenting this material at that time in the New York art world?


SINGER:  Well, SoHo wasn’t the shopping mall that it is now, and it wasn’t the gallery scene it used to be. It was just artists living down there in that formerly industrial area. And it was a much—as it’s described to me, you know—smaller scene. We have a number of board members that have been on the board or around The Kitchen since the very beginning. And the way they talk about it [laughs] there is often this sort of nostalgia. They will explain how it used to be:  you didn’t have a special plan to go to The Kitchen; you just went up the street to drop by to see what was happening at The Kitchen. So it was really, in a day-to-day way, an artist-centered place for exchange and dialog and [to] see what was new, what was happening. And in terms of what was new, obviously it wasn’t the only artist organization.  Right? Between ’69 and ’73, you know, the whole New York scene of artist organizations emerged. And The Kitchen was on the earlier side of it, but certainly was in the middle of it all. But you know, you had White Columns or Artists Space and other places nearby, but The Kitchen had a different focus. And it really was unusual in its focus that way. So other places might show video, but it certainly wasn’t the museums showing it. And this was a place that was saying, we’re going to foreground the concerns of video artists first. They also had a bunch of equipment that you could borrow. [laughs] So—


LEE:  The Kitchen had equipment for video.


SINGER:  Yeah. I mean, part of why we have a great archive is that it was founded by video artists who had video cameras [and] who videotaped everything. [laughs]


LEE:  Wow.


SINGER:  They didn’t know that they were making history, but this was the media they were interested in. And nobody else really cared, so they had to care about it for themselves.  You know that was like one person or one gallerist who was interested in experimental music and that was about it. Uptown didn’t care at all really.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  So they were making their own little world for themselves, because it was really quite a long time before the art world, really thought that video art was worth exhibiting. I mean, it sounds absurd now.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER: And at that moment, it wasn’t so much in relationship, video, to a filmic image or projected image or in relationship to cinema; it was more predominantly like what— like the box, the monitor, the TV. You know, about issues of television. What could you do that is on a monitor? So a lot of that kind of work is about installing monitors all over the place or a single thing; it’s not about a projected image, you know, as that evolves later.


LEE:  Right. And tied, as well, to the kind of performance activities that are going on at that time.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  Those are all the artists.


SINGER:  Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And a lot of [them are] making work together. You know, a lot of tapes in the archives are just people who are friends trying something out.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  Like a Lawrence Weiner performance, or a Richard Serra performance, where he’s not performing, but staging an event.


LEE:  One of the things that’s really fascinating about this moment is that The Kitchen is not only programming, but there’s production. This idea of people coming and using the equipment becomes this kind of resource.


SINGER:  I don’t really know if, at the ready, anyone could use the equipment, but there was equipment that people could make use of at a time when not everyone had a video camera like today.


LEE:  Yeah. But also the scene was so small back then…




LEE:  …that you would have all these kinds of people collaborating and—


SINGER:  And half the time, you just needed space and you could do a concert and know people were going to show up. And then, you know, things got bigger.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  Then you’re a nonprofit, and then you start applying for grants and—


LEE:  Can you talk a little bit about the early music scene — The kinds of people who were performing, how that fit, how it tied a music-performing scene into the art world? What were the kinds of energies that were coming through The Kitchen at that time?


SINGER:  As it’s described to me [chuckles]—in those early years, you know, people were friends and it was a close-knit scene of everyone knowing everyone. And they’re just, sort of living within this small social milieu of downtown New York and being interested in each other’s ideas, and then just organically kind of making work with each other or just going to see each other’s stuff.  But in terms of music specifically, as I was saying before— the first sort of strain of experimental music The Kitchen presented that was being ignored by other venues, would be, composers working—in kind of a legacy of Minimalism. But it would be Minimalism taken in new directions. And then as you got into the early eighties, it was where do those traditions meet a kind of noise music? So like, Sonic Youth played a number of early concerts here. They’re a great lynchpin between a sort of mass audience and experimental music. You know, they’re like a consummate joiner. [laughs]


LEE:  Right. And this is the eighties.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  Mid-eighties would be—


SINGER:  Yes. They would’ve been here early and mid-eighties.


LEE:  Oh, okay.


SINGER:  Several early Talking Heads performances took place at The Kitchen and were recorded. So you had early Talking Heads performances in ’78; but you also had early Christian Marclay and other kinds of DJ, multi-turntable events. And then by the early eighties, it’s like noise rock kind of stuff. Arthur Russell would be another person that was really important, where he did experimental music and then made disco records. [laughs]


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  And it’s unsurprising, I think, that he’s being re-championed now, where you have a younger generation that’s all about and; I can do this and I can do that.


LEE:  This is what’s really interesting and that makes The Kitchen very relevant now, is the model of what it was doing in the seventies is completely what’s happening all over New York now.




LEE:  It’s a return to combining art with performance, with music, with video. No sort of categorical distinctions. What’s interesting about this kind of scene you’re describing is that the organizing energy isn’t an intellectual or a curatorial kind of thinking per se; it’s social. It’s friend-based. It’s this kind of scene. And you see a lot of that energy in the city now.




LEE:  But that’s a real early sort of paradigm of that.


SINGER:  Yes. But, there is an underlying philosophical base, and curiosity.


LEE:  How would you describe that? A kind of— Maybe some of the intellectual underpinnings or—


SINGER:  Well, I mean, it’s not so renegade now, but you know, when Arthur Russell or David Byrne, were first making work, the kind of work they did straddled different genres—. And they’re saying, I’m not going to live in one or the other; I’m going to live in both. Not so many people did that back then.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  But that’s really common now, especially with musicians, that I can be part of a pretty popular rock band, and then have this other experimental music practice under my own name that’s, like more for a smaller kind of audience.


LEE:  Right. Which is maybe a bit of Warhol’s legacy, too, I suppose. Let’s sidetrack a little bit. Can you talk at all about how, financially, The Kitchen was sustained in this period? We’re talking still seventies, eighties.


SINGER:  Uh-huh. Well, definitely— You know, we really do have early board members who could answer these questions better than I can.


LEE:  Even in a general sense, kind of how—


SINGER:  But I don’t really know, in the early days, where the money came from. I guess they charged for tickets and people performed for not much money at all and they got a few grants.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  By the late seventies, it was starting that sort of professional trajectory.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  You know, Robert Longo did the tenth anniversary Aluminum Nights poster. For this year, they did a real big bash concert, and the board and patrons would come and buy tickets. I imagine those benefits— they still, today, generate a lot of revenue, even though the numbers are much bigger. So I’m sure it was that those benefit nights definitely really mattered. And individuals combined with, I’m sure, some local government grants, and then the foundation sort of came in. But I don’t really know, in the earliest, earliest of years.


LEE:  Sure.


LEE:  In the eighties.


SINGER:  In the eighties. I’m always told that there would be no Kitchen today without Paula Cooper and her active role on the Board back then. Separate from running her gallery, she spent a lot of time raising money for The Kitchen, recruiting new board members and, organizing benefit art sales and things like that to help The Kitchen during the dark times.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  Of which there were many in the eighties and early nineties.


LEE:  When would you say the moment happens when The Kitchen is no longer an artist-run space for other artists, and the public is incidental—not alienated, but incidental— and then the idea of public programming becoming more important? Can you think about a moment when that shift starts to happen?


SINGER:  Well, I don’t really know. I mean, it’s certainly in place by the early nineties. So I guess it would happen before the early nineties. So I don’t know if that’s like ’85.


LEE:  Yeah. But by the nineties, The Kitchen is a new kind of institution?


SINGER:  Well, I’m just thinking of— I mean, today, still—we have to be realistic here—still most of our audience…


LEE:  Is artists.


SINGER:  …are artists.


LEE:  Yeah.


SINGER:  So if you go in the theater any given night, “Okay. Anyone here who identifies as an artist, I don’t care what kind, raise your hand.”


LEE:  All the hands go up. [laughs]


SINGER:  You know?


LEE:  Yeah.


SINGER:  You’re looking at, at any given night, at any kind of event, you know, more than half. For sure. A museum has a much broader general public kind of mission, than The Kitchen or smaller arts organizations need to have. So it’s sort of freeing in that way. It’s just different. So that to say— to be we’re by artists for artists— That spirit can still be really active and alive, even though a lot of the staff are not artists themselves anymore. It used to be practicing artists were running The Kitchen and we do have some staff members who are artists; but you know, there are professional development people, professional people who are curators, and not doing it on the side when they’re really artists.


LEE:  Right. When does this professionalization really start to develop?


SINGER:  Yeah. I know that was your question; I wasn’t avoiding it. I don’t really know if it was ’82 or ’86.


LEE:  Okay.


SINGER:  But it had to— I think it’s after ’82 and it’s before ’90, so it’s—


LEE:  Somewhere around there. Okay, that’s fine.


SINGER:  You know, and I’m sure it didn’t happen in one fell swoop, either. I think my guess— I’m just hypothesizing. But in 1985, we moved to this space. So to go from a one-room little place to a building means something.


LEE:  Right.


LEE:  And this building we’re in now is the same as it was when it first moved in? The spaces that you’re using here now, have been used by The Kitchen since the move in ’85?


SINGER:  You mean did they do some renovations in ’87?


LEE:  No, I mean just a very general sense of the space.  Can you describe this building, the spaces?


SINGER:  Well, you know, we own the whole building and the ground floor is the theater. It’s a 155-seat theater. And the second floor is the gallery. And I should know how many square feet it is. Let’s just say it’s 2,000 square feet; it’s something like that— And then we’re on the third floor, and these are the offices. And then there are these half-floors. And the half-floors have more offices and a dressing room.


LEE:  Okay. The question I was fumbling towards earlier, I suppose, is in ’85, when The Kitchen moves here, they’re using the whole building, as you’re using it now, more or less?


SINGER:  Yeah. I think there was a round of initial renovations that had to be done. You know, this building was owned by Dia and it was artist studios.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  Bob Whitman’s studio was the theater. It was full-floor studios. So I don’t really know—it wouldn’t be that hard to find out, but—what renovations were done ’85 to ’87, ’85 to ’88, to just make it that we could be here.


LEE:  Can you talk a bit about the film programming, and also the literature events that happen here? Literature is an unusual component of what The Kitchen does, that you don’t typically see in a lot of other arts spaces.


SINGER:   The logic there was that “readings” are another form of time-based experience. Literature programming at The Kitchen dates back to the late 1970s.


LEE:  Artists who were friends with poets and— Yeah.


SINGER:  The spaces in both Soho and Chelsea, where we are now are nice spaces for readings. [laughs] At different moments it was structured differently, whether you had a literary curator or we do it differently now, where we pair up with non-profit publications, and they curate their own evenings. But, I don’t really know how it started, other than there was just a tradition of doing readings at The Kitchen from the beginning.


LEE:  Yeah.


SINGER:  And the same for film.  The Kitchen wasn’t the main film place, –that was Anthology Film Archives, of course, but The Kitchen still has an interesting history of presenting experimental film work, which we still do some of today.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  But there is not much in the archive that relates to tracking that programming. You know, to document a film screening is a weird thing. So all of those early film screenings, we don’t have records of, in the same way as we have audiotape and videotape documentation of many other types of events. So, The Kitchen’s film history is a little more invisible.  You can only find evidence of it in the paper archives in old programming calendars and press releases.


LEE:  That’s interesting. Yes, of course.


SINGER:  So now that you mention it, it is a real gap.


LEE:  I’m going to come back a little bit later. I’d like to talk fairly extensively about the archive, which plays into what you’re talking about now. But if we can continue the sort of grand narrative a little bit, if you can bring us into the nineties in The Kitchen. You talked about the importance of Paula Cooper, as a Board Member, and that there were some rough times.


SINGER:  In the eighties.


LEE:  In the eighties.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  What happens— how does The Kitchen…move in the nineties? What’s going on, in terms of its relation to the larger arts scene? If you could sketch, maybe, a little bit of an idea—


SINGER: In the eighties, Paula was a very strong board president who saved the day, along with a few other people—many of whom were also people connected to Paula…


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  …that she recruited to help her.  And then in the early nineties, there was another recession so— [laughs] I think financially, that it was a rough patch there, too, through the nineties. I mean, the whole financial history was pretty fragile for quite a long time. But you know, as Laurie Anderson, a board member has said, the reason The Kitchen still exists, is that it’s a good idea. So things would be fragile and some angel might swoop down and save the day.  And through the nineties, you just had more and more of a kind of professionalization of staff. You still had artists who were curators, but the directors and the development people were professionals in their respective fields.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:   Up through my predecessor through 2004, each discipline at The Kitchen had its own part-time curator and they were artists. And the rest of the staff were primarily non-artists. But all the curators were artists, so you still had, artists picking other artists. And then when I came, I changed that structure to make the staff smaller and we hired just a few full-time curators who could curate across multiple disciplines.


LEE:  Right. And with those under— in that sort of situation, were all of those curators paid through The Kitchen? How was it—?




LEE:  And they were just working part-time?


SINGER:  When there were only artist-curators, yes, they were working only part-time.


LEE:  Okay.


SINGER:  And they did great programming. I mean, I went to a ton of programs before I started working here.


LEE:  When did you start coming to The Kitchen?


SINGER:  I moved to New York; in ’96 and started seeing stuff in 1997.


LEE:  Okay. What was the most memorable thing that you remember from the first years you were coming here?


SINGER:  You mean some of the first shows?


LEE:  What stands out as a kind of amazing moment here?


SINGER: I think it was probably ’99 or 2000— and I remember seeing Miranda July for the first time.  She had such amazing charisma on stage and such a distinctive storytelling style and way of interacting with these video projections to create her own world. The early Miranda July performances were really pretty amazing. There are also some wonderful dance programs, I remember seeing.


LEE: Not to quantify influence, but in the first two decades, the first two really super-influential decades of The Kitchen, what was its impact on the New York art world? Did it change other institutions? Did it cultivate new kinds of audiences? Is there a way to generalize about how it impacted the culture of the city?


SINGER:  There were many Kitchen artists who became very big in Europe very early on. There was even a Kitchen tour of Europe. The Kitchen on the road, touring with a whole bunch of Kitchen artists, billed as such, traveling through Europe.


LEE:  When was this?


SINGER:  I think the first one was in 1981. And there was a second tour a few years later.

There was a public television show The Kitchen produced called Two Moon July that was screened on PBS in the mid-1980s with David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Arto Lindsay, Bill T Jones, and many others.


LEE:  Like a public access show or—


SINGER:  It was The Kitchen but on [broadcast] TV.


LEE:  Wow.  Showing tapes of the events that happened at The Kitchen or—


SINGER:  No, like doing performances for TV, for a TV audience.


LEE:  Fascinating.


SINGER:  Yeah. It’s very eighties. And that was like, an early MTV moment. It was screened on Channel 13.


LEE: Being so early with performance art and video, do you have any sense that other institutions learned from The Kitchen? I mean, obviously, people were paying attention. I’m just wondering if it changed the way people thought about this work or helped legitimize it in New York.


SINGER:  Well, I think it helped to legitimize certain artists’ work, because then they got other opportunities. In Europe, [for instance]. [chuckles] And then they got bigger in Europe.


LEE:  Right. They got big in Europe and then they came back to New York and then became—


SINGER:  Yeah. And then they were famous. The artists that were at The Kitchen weren’t only ever just at The Kitchen, you know, but— And people would come back. There was a smaller world, too. You could do a bunch of things at The Kitchen. Now, if you have a gig at The Kitchen, you’re not going to usually come back until a year or two passes.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  But I know that— It’s really the artists, right? An institution’s history comes down to which artists showed work there, [and] the work that they present by those artists. And that many of them really went on to do things elsewhere, too. But it’s still true today with our performing artists that you can do something at The Kitchen, and it can help you get an opportunity in Europe that really allows the work to grow, with all of the added resources that European venues are able to offer.


LEE:  Right. Let’s jump ahead to 2004. That’s when you come.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  What is The Kitchen when you walk in the door? Where does it stand? What’s going on? What is your impression of it when you first come to work here?


SINGER:  Well, I knew that the performance programming had been great. And the exhibition program had been limited in the years prior to my arrival to a digital arts focus.  You know, there’s this whole sort of history of The Kitchen being not just interested in video, but also in artists using technologies. And there’s sort of a trajectory of the issue of technology that grew out of the engagement with video. And so I guess there was a decision to focus on artists in the theater making interdisciplinary performance using video or other technologies and to focus the visual arts programming on digital art…


LEE:  And new media kinds of practices.


SINGER:  . And there was that moment— you know, like ’97, ’98, ’99, 2000, 2001—when that wasn’t a crazy thing to do. [chuckles]


LEE:  Yeah.


SINGER:  But it was a really narrow focus that became too limiting, when really all technology is, is another kind of tool.   Maybe that was okay in 2000, but by 2004 it didn’t really make sense. When I came, The Kitchen was set up as two theaters, but the upstairs theater that is now the gallery really was not well-suited for theater. You know, the capacity is very limited because of fire code and it’s much smaller— So I decided—and the board was up for it—to re-outfit the upstairs space so it would be a proper gallery.  You can still do performance there that you can do in a gallery space while also being able to expand the visual arts possibilities. So we’re in the middle of Chelsea, with a history of— The Kitchen did Cindy Sherman’s first show, did early David Salle installations, early Vito Acconci installations, Gary Hill, Jack Goldstein— I mean, there are a lot of exhibitions that The Kitchen organized. But exhibitions had been sort of put on the back burner a bit in the nineties. So—


LEE:  And you wanted to bring… 


SINGER:  Bring that back.


LEE:  …that back and—


SINGER:  Because we have an automatic daytime audience since we are located right in the middle of Chelsea and there already is gallery-going traffic that can easily come to The Kitchen as they are making the rounds. Maybe if we were located somewhere else, it wouldn’t have made sense; but the audience is literally right there—and so the exhibitions mean people coming in to The Kitchen as much in the daytime as for our evening performances. [laughs]


LEE:  Yeah. You have the audience, so—


SINGER:  Yeah. So we redid the gallery and expanded the exhibition program. So that was, like, the first big change. But it wasn’t like I was inventing an exhibition program; I was just kind of going back to an earlier moment when it was a bigger enterprise.


LEE:  Yeah, that’s interesting because people don’t think of that aspect of The Kitchen. You don’t hear much about it, you hear about the music and the performance art.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  But I had no idea that the first Cindy Sherman show was here, of her photos.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  That’s fascinating.


SINGER:  Exactly. [Lee laughs] You can ask Cindy about that. But you know, one of Tony Ourslers’ first exhibitions was at The Kitchen. I mean, on and on.  In any event, when I got here, I had to do some streamlining of the budget and the staff structure, and instead of having a lot of part-time curators, I hired one full-time curator to work with me.


LEE:  Who was that?


SINGER:  Matthew Lyons. So then the next year, we hired another curator. So now we have Matthew Lyons and Rashida Bumbray.  And they are young people who are full-time professional curators and really eager.  One issue with only having artist-curators is that their own work is really their first passion and curating comes second to that.   With professional curators it is different because it is the main thing that they are very excited to do.


LEE:  Right. And the new curators are not discipline bound. Meaning, they’re doing gallery installations; they’re also curating performance, they’re working with dance.


SINGER:  Right. Basically, I had a lot of experience curating performance, alongside visual art exhibitions, during my seven years at the Whitney. So that kind of was a model I was interested in, and nurturing younger curators to be “multi-lingual”, as I say, and curating across the disciplines. We still keep the spirit of artists curating other artists by often having the curators pick artists to guest curate a particular event.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  And that’s been especially productive, let’s say, in dance, where younger choreographers are very excited about being curated by a senior choreographer that would select them.  And we pay those guest curators on a project basis. And that way, at least in dance, it engenders a sort of a mentoring dialog with the guest curator going to rehearsals and giving feedback during the development of the work.  


LEE:  [Over Singer] Yeah, how does the Kitchen—


SINGER:  So there’s always a number of artist-curated slots in the year. I mean, there’s a lot

[that] we do. We do not keep the theater dormant ever. And if we’re not open, it’s because someone has an extended residency. Because someone’s in there— Like every day, pretty much, of the year, except for maybe Christmas, someone’s in the theater.


LEE:  How does The Kitchen fit into the dance world? What’s its niche or its fit into that ecosystem?


SINGER:  The Kitchen has such a strong dance history. You could actually teach avant-garde dance history through The Kitchen’s video archive. Because it’s been such a specific trajectory of a certain kind of dance through the decades. And even today, we don’t do all kinds of dance. But it’s definitely younger generations that might be embracing or consciously rejecting aspects of a Judson legacy, [and] there are many people coming out of Merce’s work as well. Some choreographers don’t even want to call themselves choreographers anymore. They don’t want to say they’re making a dance, they’re making a performance.


LEE:  Yeah. I was involved in a project Chase Granoff did here, The Art of Making Dances.


SINGER:  Okay, yeah.  


LEE:  I did one of the contributions for that book.


SINGER:  Okay.


LEE:  That’s my little piece of Kitchen history. Which seemed like one of these strange sort of—


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  It’s discursive, but it’s a dance event and it’s a performance and it’s a publication and—


SINGER:  With dance, we definitely can see where the edges lie— Of what’s new in dance—It is a little easier to see in a clear way than, let’s say, in music. Like, “what is experimental music?” is an extremely fraught and complex question today. I don’t think it’s so fraught or hazy or muddy or unclear, when it comes to dance. I mean, you may like this example of it better than this example or this piece better than that piece or— But you can kind of see where to go. [chuckles] But—


LEE:  Yeah. Well, in dance, it would seem partly that’s because it’s so much more dependent on institutional support.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  Because it’s like theater.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  You know, there is a kind of, maybe smaller DIY dance scene, but really, you need money, space, and theaters.


SINGER:  Yes. That is another thing that I brought back a bit more of, experimental theater, where it’s theater ensembles or ensemble-created works. I mean, the dance was always really strong. But I brought back more experimental theater, which dated to kind of a more late eighties, early nineties thing, they were doing. But there’s definitely a linked trajectory from Richard Maxwell to Young Jean Lee and Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Jay Scheib and Radiohole. And it’s been exciting to have that sort of work return to The Kitchen.


LEE:   Right.


SINGER:  The most complicated programming challenges relate to what kind of music to present. What kind of music and how much of one kind in any one season, and who and why? And you know, you’re writing a grant a year ahead, and so much changes so quickly for these musicians that you can have, for example, Dirty Projectors on the calendar, programmed a year out--and then, he’s postponing at first because he is worried the Kitchen space is too big; and then a year later, when he is supposed to be here — He’s already grown so much he is performing to a stadium. Like, whoa.


LEE:  Yeah. This happened, I’m guessing.


SINGER:  So it makes programming music crazy, because there is experimental new music and then there is also the sort of experimental indie rock scene out of Brooklyn that has blossomed and again, what you might see in a stadium will be the more mainstream version of what they might have done at The Kitchen which would be the more radical end of the spectrum of what some of these musicians do.


LEE:  Yeah. Well, that’s interesting, too, as you—


SINGER:  So then the whole music thing is just really complicated —What style, how much of older people, how much of younger people, what kind of experimental lineage are you tapping into? How much opera, what kind of opera? You know.


LEE:  Right. What are some of the ways that you make these decisions? What are some of the guidelines?  Does the music have to sort of flirt with other disciplines? Does it have to just have a sensibility or— How do you start making these decisions about booking music?


SINGER:  Well, we just plow ahead and book someone and just know that the musicians are probably going to change their ideas and their timing.  When you have a dance person on the calendar, they never cancel. But, you just know that unless it’s an opera project, the musicians might end up doing it somewhere else and proposing something new or will have just outgrown you in the one-year advance planning cycle. [laughs]


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  So it’s hard, if you’re just presenting a concert.  But at the same time, it’s really needed. There are no small concert halls in New York City. So it’s paradoxical because you have clubs and you have, Merkin Hall or Miller Theater. But those are 400 and up seats. We’re 155. So it’s so peculiar because on the one hand, musicians have lots of gigs; but there are few venues for a real concert opportunity, right-- where you do something more than once, you can load in, you can rehearse for days. You can have a few evenings but you don’t need to have a huge audience yet. It can be two or three nights of 155 seats. That doesn’t exist in New York City. It’s extremely odd. There are no small concert halls. So we know that doing kind of straight concerts is needed. But, is it one person, or two people getting the few nights, or is a whole medley weekend that becomes a more intricate curatorial effort? —Or how much of any one of those things? We’re still figuring it out. It’s the most complicated bit, because it’s not just the person, but what is the project and the timing.


LEE:  One of the really interesting [things] that’s happened since you’ve been at The Kitchen is the amazing explosion of performance art in the art world. Performance is everywhere now, in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time. How is The Kitchen a part of that? How does The Kitchen react to this new rise of performance, this resurgence of performance art?


SINGER:  Yeah. I get asked that a lot. [laughs]


LEE:  It’s the big, obvious question.


SINGER:  And also, there’s been an explosion of performance-based video in the last few years that’s really received a lot of attention. And part of it that always is confusing for me is — I mean, it hasn’t really affected us that much. We don’t actually—And this is not meant to sound irreverent or snide, but I don’t always know what people mean when they say performance art, because I don’t use that term.


LEE:  What terms do you use?


SINGER: I use the word “performance.”  I think “performance art” is a historical thing. And, so, if we’re talking about this historical thing, well, we don’t actually do very much performance art. We do very little. So it’s this interesting sort of syntactical problem. Because we always do performance but most of what we do is grounded in some discipline—be it music, dance, or theater. There are though, some things that are just performance, where you have a visual artist doing a performance or an event of some kind that you wouldn’t call a dance or a play. So then would you call that performance art? I mean, I wouldn’t. I would just call it performance. So when people say, “You do performance art,” I’m always wondering what they mean.


LEE:  What that means exactly, yeah.


SINGER:  Because I don’t know that we do performance art. [laughs]


LEE:  There’s a great deal of performativity happening.


SINGER:  Yes. There’s a lot of performance and there’s a lot of live bodies doing a lot of things. I think it’s very rare that we do anything that I would think of as performance art, and I probably wouldn’t even call that performance art. But I would think of it in relationship to a seventies notion. And I’m honestly not even sure that Marina Abramovic calls what she does today performance art. I think she just calls it performance.


LEE:  Performance.


SINGER:  Just as an example of someone who I would say— Her early work, I guess, is performance art. [laughs]


LEE:  Yeah. When you put the art on it, it historicizes it in some kind of way.


SINGER:  Right. So [does] the art part historicize it? Or is it meant so evoke a specific context, like a physical context? It’s performance happening in a gallery? Is that what people mean? Or is it just a visual artist doing performance, but it could be in the theater? Or is it, just performance that happens in a street; that it’s, you know, unbounded by the theater if it’s not in a gallery, or—


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  I don’t actually know where people’s heads are when they say performance art. But honestly, I get asked this all the time and I’m never quite sure—


LEE:  You bring up a very good point. It’s the same questions about— People say conceptual art in this very kind of loose, what is conceptual art? Are you talking about a particular historicized thing or how are you defining it?


SINGER:  Right. Or that museums are now interested more and more in live performance happening in the museum space.


LEE:  Right. Well maybe it’s a question that can be rephrased and maybe not answered.  And maybe this ties into the archive, because one of the things that is unique about The Kitchen is that it has had a very sustained history and engagement and presentation of performance—you know, art with a performative aspect to it. It uniquely is part of the identity of The Kitchen. And so I guess, the questions of terminology aside, that aspect of the association of The Kitchen with this kind of activity and this kind of practice, how is that, or is it not, sort of interacting or relating to this newer sort of resurgence of this kind of practice? Have you seen your audience change? Have you seen an increase in attention in the history of The Kitchen? The Kitchen is the quintessential New York performance space institution.


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  I don’t know. Is there— Maybe there’s no answer to this question, but—


SINGER:  Well—


LEE:  Do you think, you know what, we’ll just do what we always did, and there isn’t— you know, we’re not going to—


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  There’s no way to react to this trend or this—


SINGER:  Well, I don’t know that The Kitchen needs to react to this trend. Because it’s not the first moment that it’s happened, right? Attention to performance always goes in waves and— of museums paying attention to a certain kind of work. I mean, there’re two levels of it. One is this sort of larger institutions mounting major exhibitions by performance-based artists, like Marina [Abramovic] and Tino [Sehgal]. And then the other parallel development is live performance as auxiliary programming, right? The museum as a kind of place for entertainment—not in a bad word—but for entertainment and a place you go for dialog exchange, socializing, in addition to seeing work in the galleries, right? So, there’s that— the programming, right? The auxiliary programming that happens in a theater or in the café or— a number of museums internationally have live performance series. But it’s not performance art it’s dance and music and people—or readings—doing their disciplinary thing in the context of a museum. But it’s not performance art. Which I think sort of adds to this sense of huge momentum. And then the other layer is different institutions starting to collect performances and how does that relate— What does that mean, to collect performance. And is that bad? Is that good? You know, that kind of thing. 


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  But I don’t know that any of that affects The Kitchen. [laughs]  I think those things are interesting.


LEE:  Sure.


SINGER:  But I don’t know— And there are all kinds of reasons one can hypothesize of why that’s been. But I don’t know that it affects The Kitchen, The main thing is we’re supposed to help artists create new work and present it. And we’re lucky—that our shows are already very well attended. We are in New York; we’re not in some remote part of the US that struggles for an audience. And we seem to be able to make good programming decisions that seem relevant enough to other artists and a certain segment of the public, that they come.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:   We’re often at capacity. [chuckles] But our barometer for how we are doing is mostly: are our artists happy? That is the primary thing. It’s just that privilege of being at a small place that I don’t think that we need to get caught up in the trends.


LEE:  Yeah.


SINGER:  The rising trend of “performance” is something within the art world so it does not affect our dance and music audiences in any way. You know, the dance world comes, because these dancers feel they need to see the work for their own work and that kind of thing. And you know, the dancers don’t go to the gallery. So there’s this weird kind of parochial sense in New York, right? We all indulge our first personal passion, because there’s so much here of everything that you don’t need to, as a culture-goer or as an artist, look across the disciplines enough. So it’s a bit paradoxical that at this moment when arguably, artists are working across multiple platforms more than ever, that there’s also a more limited awareness of what other artists emerging from other disciplines are actually doing. So that a choreographer may want to use video, but they would benefit from knowing more about what video artists are actually making, and vice-versa.


LEE:  Right. I mean, I wonder if this is just a question of scale.


SINGER: It is, I think.


LEE:  There’s just so much more going on.


SINGER:  Well, I think, of course, that it really is. But you know, I worked on two Whitney Biennials. And one of the great privileges of doing a Biennial is you get to travel, see, and meet artists in other parts of the country. And I was really taken aback in Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center has a great performance program that Philip Bither does, in addition to their amazing exhibitions. But what I really realized there was, whether its artists or sort of a general culture-goer or curator, they were much more likely to know who Robert Gober is and who Sarah Michelson is.  Because there’s some programming in Minneapolis, but there’s not a ton, so you’re more willing to just try dance or try Richard Maxwell or try whatever’s at the Walker, because you don’t have a million other options, and you would also be inclined to go to the museum and visa versa. And so there was much more sort of cross-disciplinary awareness from artists and curators.


LEE:  Yeah. Because there’s just less.


SINGER:   Because there’s less locally


LEE:   And you trust the institution because it does smart programming.


SINGER:  Yes. Yes. Whereas here, you can talk to, a really accomplished artist and they won’t know a particular, accomplished choreographer– Even though they may be addressing parallel concerns and enjoying similar stature, and vice versa.


LEE:  I want to get to talking about the archive a bit. So when does The Kitchen start archiving materials? Is this from day one, things are being recorded and archived at The Kitchen?


SINGER:  Well, there are two parts. There’s what archiving means and documenting.


LEE:  Okay.


SINGER:  So we’ve been preserving and restoring and conserving the archive so you could do something with it since 1999. You can’t just play a tape from 1971. To play it is to destroy it. It needs to be conserved, and then you create a sub-master and transfer [it] to different formats to have viewing copies. So that whole huge task started in 1999. But because The Kitchen was founded by video artists, back in 1971 many, many things were videotaped. And honestly, probably many more things were documented than we actually have. But a lot of stuff was laying around, just in boxes, and not taken care of and were just sort of here. I mean, there is much more out there, if we actually started hunting it down. —


LEE:  Right. Tons of stuff out there.


SINGER:  But we have about 6,000 videotapes, and about 600 audio recordings in the archive. And you know, preservation is extremely expensive. So to conserve one videotape is about five hundred dollars a tape. Audio tapes are cheaper, and we have conserved most of our audio archive.


LEE:  And this is probably all different kinds of tape formats, as well, I’m guessing.


SINGER:  Yeah. Literally, the history of video technology is mirrored in our inventory of videotapes through the decades. And then our archivist was telling me this heartbreaking thing. He’s like, “I hate to tell you this, but some of your early preservation work, you’re going to need to preserve your preservation format!” [they laugh] I’m like, Oh, my God!


LEE:  You have to archive the archiving.


SINGER:  You know, the standards change. And so that’s, like, nuts. It’s not as much money to take whatever the ’99 format for conservation was to make it current for today. We also maintain climate control, off-site storage.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  And it’s a big expense. And we write grants, but we also put operating money towards preservation because it’s really a huge resource for scholars. So there are the videotapes, the audio tapes, and then a paper archive.


LEE:  So until ’99, there was all this documentation lying around.


SINGER:  Right. And no one had done anything.


LEE:  And had it been systematized in any kind of way until that moment?


SINGER:  My predecessor Elise Bernhardt hired Stephen Vitiello, the artist. You know him as an artist-musician, but he for many, many years, worked at EAI and worked for Nam June Paik, and so is a really amazing person. He was our first archivist, working at The Kitchen for a number of years before he moved to Virginia. Like twice a week, working on the archive.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  Now we have other professional archivists. But Stephen is still a consulting archivist, because he is an amazing resource. You can restore an audio tape and a videotape but Stephen can actually listen or look—and say, “Well, I don’t care how that tape is labeled, I don’t think it is John Smith or whoever I’m telling you that I think it maybe is John Doe.”  He knows so much curatorially.


LEE:  Right.


SINGER:  Tapes can be mislabeled; [the] box and the tape can be labeled differently. Or you know, looking at the videotape and like, “Well, Deb, I know this tape is unlabeled, but I know that this is so-and-so when he was thirty, so I’ll go ask him [laughs] if he knows who’s in this video tape, and if he has any sense of whose performance this is.” And then you can double-check it with a press release. So you have videotape that’s, like, mismarked or unlabeled or conflicting labels. And someone like Stephen can listen and say that’s not John Cage.


LEE:  It’s amazing.


SINGER:  So he’s amazing.


LEE:  So beyond database, beyond preservation…


SINGER:  Right.


LEE:  …there’s the simple question of what is actually in this?


SINGER:  Right. So you can’t only have a professionally trained archivist.  [You also need] someone like Stephen, who’s an archivist by learning—he’s lived it. Lived all this stuff.  He’s not the only one. You know, Andrew Lampert would be another one. I mean, if you could just download these guys brains, it’s unbelievable the kind of knowledge they have. And there are other people like this. But just to identify stuff, you need a curator-archivist working. So we still work with Stephen very closely.


LEE:  So right now are you systematically working through the archived materials?


SINGER:  Yeah.


LEE:  For preservation and for cataloging and so forth?


SINGER:  Yeah. Right.


LEE:  That’s an ongoing project.


SINGER:  Not cheap.


LEE:  And they’re housed where?


SINGER:  [Over Lee] And then we’ve [preserved] about 600 videotapes and 600 audio tapes.


LEE:  Okay.


SINGER:  The video tapes— I mean, you don’t need to conserve 6,000 video tapes, right? Because things from 2000, they’re not in an unstable format. So, we’ve been obviously focusing on the earliest works…


LEE:  Prioritizing.


SINGER:  …things from the seventies, eighties, early nineties.


LEE:  Sure.


SINGER:  We have viewing copies here, and the originals—not that anyone’s looking at the original—the sub-master or whatever is at Preferred Media, which is our storage facility in New Jersey.


LEE:  Okay.  Right. And what’s the ultimate goal for the archive, aside from just the archiving project itself—in terms of access? How will people be able to access it? Will it have a public role?


SINGER:  Well it’s sort of, multiple-fold. Ideally, we will partner with a research institution and create an online digital database where people can access all of this material—some of it online anywhere and other works just at a library, depending on what artists are interested in doing.  So there’s a place where researchers can go to that’s not here at The Kitchen, because we’re not really equipped to deal with it. But the goal would really be to have—to the degree it was possible and to the degree that the artists were okay with it—to have an online digital archive, so that you could be anywhere and view this material.


LEE:  Okay.  Let’s leave it at that.  Thank you for your time. 


SINGER:  Thank you. [END]