“I do think things really are more chaotic and at the same time, there’s a sort of numbness that has set in, a sense that we’re powerless and so exhausted by it all.” Ali Subotnick, curator of Expo Chicago’s Expo Video reflects on our current, global sense of chaos–and the potential apathy that this invokes.

Perhaps fittingly for my first day in Chicago, I wound up toasting the beginning of my trip at a bar overlooking the brazenly gleaming silver letters of Donald Trump’s surname on one of his Tolkienesque towers. The proximity was accidental on my part–as is my hotel’s neighbourliness to one of his other towers–but it felt rather poignant on my first trip to America in over four years. Aside from these two buildings, which four years ago might just have invoked a snigger, there are few visible reminders in the city of the current unrest caused by Trump, at least to the untrained eye. It would be foolish to pretend nothing is happening though, and Expo Chicago, opening tomorrow at the city’s Navy Pier, allude to the troubling times we’re experiencing–not just in the US, but globally–in their Expo Video programme. I asked the programme’s curator, Ali Subotnick to tell me more.

How did you arrive at the title “These Restless Times” for the 2017 Expo Video programme?

I didn’t spend too much time on the title, really. I was reflecting on the current state of things and how everything feels so uncertain and unstable. It’s also a nod to These Restless Minds, a Doug Aitken piece that features auctioneers and it has a similar anxious mood to the one we’re experiencing in the world today—it’s also incredibly hypnotic. And I like the hypnotic effect of Aitken’s piece.

There’s certainly a sense in the media that things are getting progressively more chaotic. Do you think this is actually the case, or is it part of the human condition to feel we are doomed?

It feels like the media has become a repetitive stream of nonsense, like those auctioneers counting out numbers twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty… I do think things really are more chaotic and at the same time, there’s a sort of numbness that has set in, a sense that we’re powerless and so exhausted by it all, just waiting for the end, in whatever form that may be.

The selection takes into account the “humour and absurdity” of contemporary life and politics—among other things. How do you feel art is placed to tackle the times we find ourselves in and to seep beyond the contemporary art bubble?

Artists aren’t working in a bubble. They are in the world and of the world and–especially Kahn and Van Lieshout—they reflect the political and social climate in their work. Both of them make work that touches on universal themes and can be effective and appreciated by a wide audience—not just the art community. Now whether the work they make can actually affect change is still to be determined. But if you look at the recent reactions to the Dana Schutz painting in the Whitney Biennial and Sam Durant’s sculpture in Minneapolis, it’s clear that the rest of the world is paying some attention and art can reach beyond our little bubble. Whether the controversy is positive or negative, it has created a dialogue.

Did humour played a key role in your selection?

Absolutely. Both artists use humour as a way to disarm and they’re both entertainers and naturally funny people. They find humour in the chaos.

Is there a particular work in the programme that had made a lasting impression on you?

They’re all quite powerful. I love all of my children equally.

You are also an adjunct curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. How do you feel the art scenes of LA and Chicago differ, and are there different sensibilities to keep in mind as a curator for both cities?

I don’t know the Chicago art scene very well anymore (I went to SAIC in the late nineties) and it’s difficult to generalize. But from what I recall, Chicago has been a fertile place for artists to live and make work and find inspiration, and the art schools are incredibly important, which is similar to LA. The LA art scene is deeply centered on artists, artistic production and education (not so much the market). I think this is also true of Chicago, however recently the artists going to school in LA have stayed in LA after graduation and that’s not usually the case in Chicago. It ebbs and flows, but there has been a tradition of artists who study in Chicago and then move to LA after graduating. And artists from all over continue to move to LA in increasing numbers. So as LA’s art scene grows and develops, the artists here might begin to lose some of the freedom and space (physical and mental) which have made it so attractive. And Chicago still seems to have a bit of that—artists can work and develop and take risks without the pressure of a huge spotlight.

‘EXPO Chicago’ runs from 13-17 September at the Navy Pier, Chicago. expochicago.com

Stanya Kahn, Stand in the Stream (2011–2017), courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles and EXPO CHICAGO for EXPO VIDEO, curated by Ali Subotnick.
Erik van Lieshout, Basement (2014), courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York and EXPO CHICAGO for EXPO VIDEO, curated by Ali Subotnick.
Guthrie Lonergan, 9 Short Music Videos (2005) courtesy of Honor Fraser, Los Angeles and EXPO CHICAGO for EXPO VIDEO, curated by Ali Subotnick.
Erik van Lieshout, Ego (2013), courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York and EXPO CHICAGO for EXPO VIDEO, curated by Ali Subotnick.
Stanya Kahn, Stand in the Stream (2011–2017), courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles and EXPO CHICAGO for EXPO VIDEO, curated by Ali Subotnick.
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