Franziska Sophie Wildförster
Franziska Sophie Wildförster (FW) was the 2019 Curatorial Resident at Ludlow 38. She spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in March 2020 from Vienna.
SD: Hi, Franziska. You already shared some written answers with me before talking—thank you for that. I would like the two of us to go a bit deeper now. When your residency at Ludlow 38 ended, did you feel there was an exhibition that you would have liked to organize but didn’t get to?
FW: My program was eclectic in media, aesthetics, and thematics, but stood under the overarching curatorial lense of hauntology. It described the return of the past through the notion of a ghost that challenges our sanctioned formation of knowledge. This ghost invokes that which is excluded from the archive and from the acknowledged. Hauntology reimagines the present and the future, challenging the late-capitalist cultural logic. In my curatorial concept at Ludlow 38, it served as a metaphor to negotiate visibility and erasure, articulation and withdrawal within historical value systems. How can we give a voice to the marginal and peripheral without them being absorbed by the center? I would have liked to produce a group exhibition that brings forth these concerns in a strong, antagonistic way and is able to create a sense of urgency about them.
SD: Given that you were thinking about hauntology, I wonder to what degree there was an explicit awareness of what had happened at Ludlow 38 before you? Did past programs or exhibitions influence your thinking? Was there some sort of unconscious continuity with what came before?
FW: I wanted to distinguish my program from what had happened before; I didn’t want to do something that had already been done, which had been really fantastic in its own right. For me it was more important to look at the history and conditions of the area where Ludlow is located—to take into account all the layers: conceptual, historical, cultural, textual.
SD: And how did you go about researching that in a relatively short time span?
FW: A lot of processes are triggered when you get to New York. Before arriving, you have a certain idea and you have some conversations but you really have to be on-site in order to understand the social, political, and historical complexities of New York, and particularly of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. You have to listen to and talk with people, build relationships. I was able to respond to that in my program to a certain degree: some slots were still open and I shaped them after I arrived, but a lot had been conceptualized before.
SD: Are there certain things you would have done differently?
FW: I don’t think I would have programmed the entire year as tightly. I would have left more room for transformation and contingencies. That’s something people had actually told me and I didn’t realize how important that was until I was in New York. Maybe I would have tried to foreground the dependencies of class and intersectionality more strongly, maybe I would have organized a small group show at the end of the year. Then again, a lot of these processes of reflecting and learning happen in the aftermath; they still inform my curatorial practice now, so there is definitely going to be some sort of epilogue.
SD: Which of the exhibitions you presented at Ludlow 38 did you enjoy the most?
FW: I enjoyed working on all of the shows in different ways, but my experience with Ser Serpas was the one that has stuck with me the most. Ser is a young artist who studied at Columbia and had participated in a couple of great group and duo shows in New York. At Ludlow 38 she presented her first solo exhibition in the city that informs her sculptural practice. She re-shuffles found detritus into architectural, precarious stand-ins for bodies. This show was also her farewell letter to New York. We started talking about this exhibition before I began my residency at Ludlow and the outcome was, for me, the most beautiful manifestation of a mutual trust and care between an artist and a curator. Her “anti-portraits” stage struggles of access and assimilation and challenge efforts of naming and consuming bodies in strict binary systems. When you are at Ludlow you spend a lot of time in conversation with the artist. That’s what’s so fantastic about it and I really enjoyed that. I think it also shows in the exhibitions. These close conversations, which have to do with trust, bring with them a willingness to take risks or to experiment.
SD: Which exhibition do you think resonated the strongest in that context?
FW: All of them were, in some way, a response to the context in which they performed. Candice Lin’s exhibition Spice considered it in the most direct way. She set up a complex installation that resembled a sparse store that sold bags with a mysterious drug called “spice.” She also built a laboratory set-up in the back of the space. The installation took into account the historical fictions surrounding authenticity in racial representation, specifically of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. It reached back to 19th– and early 20th-century tourism to opium dens in Chinatown, and it looked at how histories of colonialism and capitalism correspond with narratives of purity and intoxication. It showed how myths around intoxication or purity are racially inscribed, similar to today’s anti-Asian racism in the context of COVID-19.
SD: During your residency, were there any significant historical or cultural events that impacted the way you approached your work at Ludlow 38?
FW: My program was informed by many events that reflected important global questions. For example, the controversies around the 2017 and 2019 Whitney Biennials Glossary Whitney Biennials: In 2017, Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket depicting Emmett Till’s casket was received as turning Black suffering and death into spectacle. It prompted public protest and calls for removal, most notably in Hannah Black’s open letter to the Whitney Biennial curators. In 2019, the Whitney came under increasing pressure to remove Warren Kanders, the museum’s Vice Chairman, because of his investments in Safariland, a company that produces tear gas and other ‘law enforcement products’ used to suppress civil protests abroad and in the US. An open letter published shortly before the Biennial’s opening was signed by over 100 staff members. Midway through the Biennial six artists decided to withdraw from the Biennial due to the museum’s inaction. As a result, and after months of protests, Kanders stepped down. , the concerns with gentrification in Chinatown, and the complicity of art galleries. These were complex issues around representation, exploitation, and agency—who is allowed to represent whom, how does a cultural, identity-based domination relate to economic, class-based domination? Trump and the resurgence of racist politics made the colonial and capitalist structures of the art system much more visible. I had to consider my program against this complex and sensitive background, which is not easy when you don’t know the city very well.
SD: I wonder how you specifically experienced the gentrification of Chinatown in your daily encounters, in conversations you had with people?
FW: Before I arrived there had been some incidents and discussions around the Chinatown Art Brigade Glossary Chinatown Art Brigade: “Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) is an intergenerational, womxn-led collective driven by the fundamental belief that our cultural, material, and aesthetic modes of production have the power to advance social change. CAB is comprised of Asian American and Asian diasporic identifying visual artists, media makers, writers, educators, and organizers with deep roots in Manhattan's Chinatown. Together we make work that centers art and culture as a way to support community-led campaigns around issues of gentrification and displacement.” Full statement here. . Cultural workers and artists organized discussions and protests against the art world’s involvement in the gentrification of Chinatown.
SD: But did you experience a direct confrontation?
FW: There was an exchange in the context of Candice Lin’s exhibition. The Brigade questioned the project before we properly announced it. Candice got in touch with them and they talked and cleared up the misunderstanding. There had been a debate about Omer Fast’s exhibition at James Cohan Gallery in 2017 Glossary Omer Fast’s exhibition at James Cohan Gallery in 2017 : Omer Fast’s exhibition August (fall, 2017) at James Cohan’s Grand Street location featured a caricatural reconstruction of a Chinatown shop and drew sharp criticism from the Chinatown Art Brigade for exhibiting and profiting off racist stereotypes. and Candice’s exhibition had some similarities to that problematic installation, not in order to reproduce but rather to criticize its incentives.
SD: Who did you feel was your Ludlow 38 community? Did this change over the course of the year?
FW: The core audience was the Lower East Side art community but it fluctuated with every show. Some of the artists had ties to New York, like Ramaya Tegegne who had been on a residency two years prior, or Ser, obviously, who had been studying, living, and working in New York for several years. For Cruising Pavilion, which included a half-fictional, half-historical map of New York cruising spots and stories, local artists and groups such as the fan club of The Saint, the infamous gay club that operated in the East Village from 1980-1988, brought in a very diverse local public that went beyond the art crowd.
SD: Did you establish connections with any neighborhood organizations or initiatives? Or maybe there were other relevant relations you cultivated, through having a regular lunch place, or working with a specific local provider for services?
FW: The local art scene re-groups and gathers in the many Chinatown galleries and we were part of that ecosystem. We also had a very friendly and neighbourly relationship with the surrounding hardware, paper, and dollar stores where we would get our supplies. We often went to the Mexican restaurant next door (Factory Tamal) and during install I would take the artists to Dimes on Canal Street and to Clandestino and Bacaro for opening night drinks. La Caverna on Rivington Street also hosted Georgia Gardner Gray’s performance Pigeon Feather Stick NYC. We also had a relationship with Performa and collaborated with them on Paul Maheke and Nkisi’s Sensà performance at Abrons Art Center, just a few blocks from Ludlow. Maheke’s first exhibition in New York, Levant, a video installation he made with Ligia Lewis and Nkisi, took place at Ludlow.
SD: Ludlow 38 had an unusual funding structure in that it was co-financed by a German corporation and a publicly funded European cultural organization, which also ran the residency program. How did you negotiate your curatorial voice within this framework?
FW: There is more public funding in Europe, of course. The question is always where you draw the line because, at the same time, there is less transparency in Europe. In the U.S. it’s much more clear that progressive art institutions are often funded by private citizens with connections to possibly dubious corporations. Art and artists are much more dependent on market success and on private money, too. In terms of the specifically German connection: I didn’t feel it that strongly because it’s New York. Instead, I thought about what Ludlow could do in its own context. There was a lot of curatorial freedom in the residency program, which is quite amazing. Plus it was not market-driven and that’s really rare. It’s also why it’s so sad it ended.
SD: How do you think the year at Ludlow 38 shaped your overall professional development? What insights do you still carry with you from the Ludlow time?
FW: There was definitely a learning curve. I don’t think it was a single event or experience that shaped my development. It was more the overall experience of arriving, working, producing, networking, socializing, and making friends in a completely new city and different art community. I developed a humbleness towards the complexities and diversity that the city holds. And I definitely sharpened my listening and my diplomacy skills along the way.
SD: Could you unpack this notion of humbleness a bit more?
FW: It’s about learning from people and their practices because it’s complicated to take a stand when coming from the outside. There are social, political, and cultural issues that are very specific to the U.S. and that are extremely urgent and oppressive to many groups and individuals. One of the great things about Ludlow was that you got the chance to actually be there for a year and take in, learn, and reflect. The question is how to work with that as a European curator.
SD: Did you ever consider staying in New York after the residency?
FW: I did, and I am currently applying for a visa. The whole experience had such a big impact on me. I was blessed with amazing friends. The city takes so much from you but it also gives a lot.
SD: Do you have any additional thoughts about the curatorial residency program at Ludlow 38 ending?
FW: It’s incredibly sad, obviously. Being there when the news broke, I experienced how many memories—caring, loving, and intimate memories—people had of the space. It had become an important gathering spot but, more importantly, it was one of the few experimental, nonprofit art spaces still in existence.
SD: The closing must have been an odd moment for you because you were the last one of a whole generation. Is there a sense that you belonged to a cohort? How do you think people will be talking about Ludlow 38 in, say, 10 years?
FW: I feel honored to be part of that amazing list of curators. I hope Ludlow will be remembered as an experimental space. I don’t know what the legacy will be, but it definitely has a special place in the hearts of people. Ludlow was very non-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic, which made the conversation and learning so mutual. I loved it.