Interview with Signs & Symbols
signs and symbols is a contemporary art gallery dedicated to performance and time-based media. Operating nomadically since 2012, signs and symbols presented performances in New York and internationally before opening its first physical space at 102 Forsyth Street in April 2018, where it now serves as a curatorial platform and multi-disciplinary incubator.
You currently have two shows, one online and one digital, can you talk to us about them?
Onsite at the gallery, German artist Ornella Fieres’s second US solo exhibition, a group of people walking down a snow covered street, is on view through November 28. In her practice, Fieres explores the unseen relationship between analogue photography, video, sound techniques and digital processes. Her latest body of work explores these ideas further, focusing on a collection of over 700 letters, postcards and photographs from the 1960s – 1980s, all belonging to a woman living in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Berlin. After finding these materials within one box, Fieres spent several years processing them through various artificial intelligences. Through the artist and the neural networks’ interpretations, we as viewers glimpse moments and fragments of the woman’s life — but what we learn may be accurate, or maybe not. This show is particularly special for the gallery, as we announced representation of Fieres in April, and this is the first time ever that we are presenting an artist’s second solo exhibition in our space.
And then online, we are so honored to present Cloud of Petals by Sarah Meyohas. It’s a special project, and it is also one of my favorite video works. For the film, sixteen workers photographed 10,000 individual rose petals at the site of the former Bell Labs. The massive dataset was then used to map out an algorithm that learns to generate new unique petals forever. As the petals are translated from analog into digital, Meyohas explores the subjectivity of beauty, and how it may be understood and replicated by artificial intelligence.
You currently have a dual program, online and physical – how did you come up with this format? How do you decide who will get a show in the gallery versus online?
This dual format emerged organically — while our space was closed during New York’s lock down in the spring, we of course wanted to continue exhibiting our artists and supporting their work. While we didn’t feel it was right to show paintings or sculptures as flattened jpgs, we realized that showing video works online doesn’t compromise the integrity of the medium — these pieces would have been shown on a screen regardless.
Since we have reopened the gallery on Forsyth Street, we resumed our program with the artists we had already planned to show this year. But we have also decided to continue the online video exhibitions, primarily featuring artists we represent or have worked with in the past. We’ve had such a great response to the video works, and while travel is largely out of the question for now, it has been so nice that people around the world can participate in our program rather than exclusively through a physical space in New York.
How do you find your artists and how do you work with them? What is your relationship with them?
By the time the gallery opened, I actually had 2 full years of programming outlined! And I still haven’t shown all of those planned artists yet. I’ve known most of them for several years, through my curatorial practice, and as we’ve worked more together, the artists have truly become a chosen family. It warms my heart to see them supporting one another, buying each other’s works and driving through snow to attend gallery openings!
How did you come up with the idea of the gallery? What was important for you to showcase?
I worked as an independent curator for over ten years, and the idea behind signs and symbols slowly grew within my mind (also through long nights of red wine and brainstorming in journals). While curating, I identified a true need for a gallery dedicated to performance and a community for time-based media artists. I really wanted to fill that gap in the industry.
You have a very diverse programme — exhibitions, performances, digital video exhibitions, a residency and more — what informs your decision about what you feel should be included in the programme?
Performance and time-based media are the heart and soul of the program. With every decision, I am trying to best support these practices and, of course, our artists. For instance, the residency began as a way to encourage long-term development of a single performance. It started last year with Annabel Daou’s Fortune every Sunday afternoon and continues this year online with Carol Szymanski’s series of Zoom-based videos exploring corporate norms.
What challenges or opportunities do you see with the current context?
One of the biggest challenges we are facing now is how to organize performances while we can’t have an audience at the gallery. How do we adapt to current restrictions regarding in-person gatherings? How do we meaningfully engage with the mediums available to us? This is obviously a difficult challenge, but at the same time, COVID-19 has turned the art world on its head. This is the time to get creative and follow our instincts.
The gallery is two years old – what are the most important lessons you learned during that time as a gallery owner?
Two and half now! The beginning two years in any gallery’s life are difficult, so it’s vital to maintain belief in your vision and your purpose. It’s also so important to have a supportive community around you, not only artists and friends but also fellow gallerists who can guide you. I’m always calling our neighbor galleries and fellow NADA members to ask international tax questions or for shipper recommendations.
You started Artists & Allies in Berlin – what is your relationship with that country? Why Berlin?
Artists & Allies Berlin is a signs and symbols “outpost” in a former church in Kreuzberg, run by our artists based in Berlin. Since 2018, the gallery has held an annual summer program titled ‘artists & allies,’ a month long series of performances, screenings and events. The project space in Berlin shares this name and functions as an extension of that dynamic program. We work with quite a number of artists living in Berlin, and it’s one of my absolute favorite cities. I’m so excited for them but have to admit I am jealous I can’t be there!
Why did you choose a .art domain for signs and symbols? Why was it important to you / what motivated your decision?
I actually bought the domain years before opening the gallery, when .ART was up and coming! I thought it was a great idea, and I felt strongly about having a .art domain because of its specificity to the industry. It’s less corporate than .com and more contemporary than .net. (Artists & Allies Berlin also has a .art domain!)
What do you hope to see in 2021 in the art world?
Hopefully we can safely resume in-person performances and events! And I hope we don’t lose the sense of community that we have found this year. Galleries and arts institutions feel precarious right now, and we will need each other to get through this.
What is next for signs and symbols?
Given all the surprises over the last year, I really can’t say! But we have lots of ideas for online video exhibitions, new special editions in our online shop, a soon-to-be-announced private experience room and more.
The .ART is delighted to have inspiring adopters such as signs and symbols. It is central to us that we support art communities and connect them. We hope this interview gives our readers some insights about the great creative minds and remarkable human being behind signs and symbols. Visit them virtually by looking at their website signsandsymbols.art or by following them on Instagram @signssymbols
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