Leah Oates: How did Momenta form and what is the mission of the gallery?
Eric Heist: Momenta began in 1986 as a group of five young artists in Philadelphia that were interested in having some critical dialog about their work after undergraduate school. We were working day jobs and felt isolated in our studios with few exhibition opportunities. We needed some place to meet and feel our studio work was meaningful. That began as nomadic critique groups and later became an exhibition space. We became a not for profit in 1990 and the mission was pretty broad, but as we started showing more, we developed the idea that art could have a real influence on how the world is perceived and could be a component of meaningful change.
LO: What are some of the highlights from Momenta’s 27 (26?) years in operation? Best shows, artists, performances, etc…?
EH: The first exhibition that made us realize this was “Reimaging America,” in 1987. It was a group exhibition guest-organized by social practitioner Mark O’Brien. Titled “Reimaging America,” It included some known and lesser known artists whose work addressed strategies of art practice that parallel social concerns of activism at that time: education, social justice, and the embracement of marginalized individuals (including native Americans, African-Americans, prisoners, gays, and lesbians), and suggested to us that art could have a larger social function than visual experience alone. The idea that you can simultaneously present, through an exhibition, a critique of the society we live within and a vision of the world we would want to live in, has become a guiding principle of the work we show.
We moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1995. Our aim there was to present exhibitions that reflected a diversity of visions from a multitude of perspectives. First solo exhibitions of artists including Omer Fast, Wangechi Mutu, Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga, and Momoyo Torimitsu serve as examples. At that time, Williamsburg was designated by the press as the new art neighborhood defined by a DIY, funky style. Momenta presented an alternative vision of Williamsburg as an international destination for artists with a diversity of backgrounds brought together because of the availability of relatively inexpensive industrial space, close to the center of art appreciation. With very limited means, Momenta presented group shows by artists from Uruguay, Thailand, Mexico, and elsewhere.
LO: What do you think of the Bushwick art scene, i.e. how it was, how it’s changing, and why its important to a larger NYC art scene?
EH: The gentrification of neighborhoods follows a pattern of searching for a space to create meaningful discourse. We look for places that will allow us to perform these dialogs. As these places are capitalized that space is lost and we look for another place for them to continue, to watch them grow. As artists we bemoan the loss and fear that space will disappear and we will lose any sense of connection between production and meaning. Our progress is being increasingly monitored and calculated because capital knows our worth. But that worth is another system of valuation that we do not recognize. Without these spaces of dialog capital will exist, however, without even the semblance of meaning. New York should fear this loss. As dialogue gets replaced by lifestyle, we lose the bedrock of cultural significance.
LO: Please talk about your work and how it intersects with running a non-profit art gallery?
EH: Recently I’ve been studying the Biosphere2 science/art project in Tucson in the early 1990’s. It was an experiment in a “closed system,” in which nothing came into or left the system. All food to sustain them was grown and harvested by the “Biospherans,” the system providing all their needs. It was both a utopic project, and a project that was defined by capital and ruled by class. It has a rich metaphoric content to reflect the desires of individual versus social needs within a capitalist discourse, about escapism and privilege. It ended badly, with the participants not speaking to one another, malnourished, and overworked. I am interested in the construction of ideals and the way these ideals are actually manifested, and what that says about us. These are the concerns that draw me to particular artworks and the administration of an organization.
LO: What do you think of artists as curators? Do artists bring something different, if at all?
EH: It’s difficult to generalize and I don’t know what other artist/curators get from it personally, or intend to contribute. For me it is an externalization of studio practice, a more public place for the presentation of ideas that is outside myself, that involves others. It may appear to be generous, but it is more complicated than that, and I have to wonder why I seem to need this space of control/lack of control.
LO: What advice would you give to emerging artists who are just out of BFA/MFA programs or who have settled in NYC?
EH: I have taught at NYU, Cooper Union, and Pratt. I cannot say that I feel good about art school. I enjoy having that place to speak together, to talk about their work, and what it could signify. But the slavery that lies below that freedom is disturbing. I am concerned about the debt that an “art education” incurs. How, on top of that debt, can one be expected to maintain a studio as a “professional artist” after school, or to “afford” to question the assumptions that we live with? Perhaps we need to find alternatives to institutionalized education.
LO: Who are your favorite artists and why?
EH: My favorite artists are the ones who want to talk about the world we are living in now, not just about their own practice. Artists that have an awareness of the complications of generosity, of the systems of power that we live with, use, and are not exempt from as artists.
LO: What shows and projects do you have coming up as an artist and at Momenta?
EH: I am presenting my Biosphere2 project at the Galveston Artist Residency in November. Upcoming exhibitions at Momenta include a solo exhibition by Jacqueline Nguyen concerning immigration policy in Canada in the 1960’s, an exhibition of Chilean artists organized by Christian Viveros-Faune, and an exhibition that examines art and power in the US in a historical context with Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf of Eidea Projects.