New York and Beijing based artist platform MiA („Make it Active“) Collective Art is dedicated to connecting artists via media. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the network contributed to cope with the crisis for the artists involved. Curator Uta Rahman-Steinert from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst talked to the project’s initiators, Grace Noh and Yichen Zhou.
Text and interview: Uta Rahman-Steinert
(zur deutschen Version)
Contemporary art played an important role in the activities of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) before it had to temporarily close its exhibitions due to the planned move of its galleries to the Humboldt Forum. In temporary exhibitions, contemporary art was frequently presented in a dialog with artifacts from the museum collection although these mainly date to previous centuries. The intention was to offer the visitors a new perspective to look at the collection. Visitors should also be able to experience that the objects’ cultures of origin are still alive or do at least have an impact today. This kind of activity resulted in numerous contacts with artists who are based or rooted in Asia.
In times of COVID-19, the way to keep in touch did actually not really change. Scattered all over the world, we have always been using emails, (video) calls, and social media. But what only used to be a daily routine did now, while we are supposed to stay at our homes, become a blessing. Difficult to imagine what we would do if we were not able to use these networks!
Many artists and curators are developing fresh ideas and creatively using the internet. They are publishing content although exhibition spaces are still closed or did at least not yet return to normal schedule. Quite possible that they reach out to a wider public than they would in regular exhibition spaces.
MiA („Make it Active“) Collective Art is a New York and Beijing based platform that uses digital media to connect creatives from different artistic fields in order to provide opportunities for networking and outreach. Directly responding to the current situation, MiA Collective Art initiated a three-part exhibition series under the title „The COVID-19 Diaries Series“. Part I: Isolation and Part II: New Normal are available for viewing online at miacollectiveart.com.
Uta Rahman-Steinert from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst talked to the co-founders of the project, Grace Noh (GN) and Yichen Zhou (YZ).
Please introduce yourself briefly. What do you devote yourself to and what did bring you to establish MiA Collective Art?
GN: I’m a curator based in New York.
YZ: I’m a video and photography-based artist, previously based in New York and currently in Beijing.
GN: Yichen and I first met in 2014 shortly after my graduation at the Institute of Fine Arts – New York University (MA in Art History). She was one of the three artists in my first curated exhibition. I was searching for a young, experimental artist and I came across Yichen’s work. She had recently graduated from Parsons School of Design (MFA in Photography and Related Media), so we were both newly graduated creatives in the art world. We quickly became good colleagues with lots of collaborative ideas in mind. We wanted to create a platform – a digital project space – where artists of inspiring minds could be part of our collaborative projects. And that is how MiA Collective Art was born. Our mission is to create a positive impact on the process of artistic creation, and it is our hope to pass on this creative endeavor forward to the next generation.
Many of the protagonists on your website have roots in (East) Asia. Are you con-sciously looking for such positions or does this mixture originate from your own working context? At the same time I got the impression you are striving to avoid regional limitations.
YZ: We don’t consciously look for artists from Asia, but we happen to know a lot of colleagues from there. I’m currently based in Beijing, so I naturally meet a lot of artists and curators based in China or who are doing residencies in China. So, we get introduced to a lot of artists from Asia quite naturally.
GN: In New York, we have collaborated with artists from various countries. It’s fascinating how so many artists come and go here. Because Yichen is based in Beijing and I often visit Seoul to visit my family, we have more opportunities to visit and do projects in different cities in Asia. It’s unintended, but we have more chances of meeting artists based in those places. At the moment, we are dedicating our website to the current exhibition series where we have more than twenty participating creatives in the exhibitions. When Yichen and I discussed the online exhibition series in February, our intention was to collaborate with artists from countries that were greatly affected by the pandemic. As such, many of our participating creatives in Part I: Isolation are from China simply because COVID-19 was not viewed as a pandemic in other countries at that time. However, in preparing for Part II: New Normal, which was published in early May, we had a chance to collaborate with more artists from other countries as COVID-19 had become a global pandemic by then.
Why are you curating an exhibition series on just this issue? Do we not listen, watch and read enough about COVID-19 and its impact all day long?
GN: Yichen brought up the exhibition idea in February. As she is currently spending most of her time in Beijing, she was already social distancing and staying home by then.
YZ: Yes, the spread of COVID-19 had affected the lives of people in China by February, so I was “stuck” inside, not able to go to my studio or meet other artists. I thought that there could be something we, as MiA, could do online, so Grace and I had a long conversation over the phone about this idea.
GN: So, we knew early on that we wanted to do a collaborative project with artists who were, as Yichen said, “stuck” inside. We wanted to support these artists, even if it was on the smallest scale so that they could stay positive and connected during this time of difficulty. We mainly thought about artists in China and Korea because these two countries were hit the most by the pandemic at the time. By early March, many of the countries around the world were promoting social-distancing and major art and cultural institutions have closed indefinitely. So, we knew we wanted to expand this project into a series of online exhibitions in three parts with artists from Europe, Asia, and the U.S.
YZ: We hear about COVID-19 from the news and social media every day, but this project is not about disseminating information and statistics that we can gain from the news. While this exhibition series is an immediate reaction to the current situa-tion, we are documenting the moments as we’re living through it. It’s about staying connected by sharing the moments and making an effort to inspire one another as we stay isolated.
Kindly characterize your curatorial profile. What prerequisites does one need to be accepted as part of your online exhibition?
GN & YZ: The prerequisite is your enthusiasm and open-mindedness to collaborate and a genuine interest in what is currently happening around the world. We have a long list of artists who we have collaborated with and who we want to collaborate with in the future. We should note that our definition of artists is not limited to professions that require knowledge in the visual arts, but rather, stretches from writers, musicians, and filmmakers who create interdisciplinary and experimental thinking in today’s creative industries. We are open to anyone and everyone who appreciates art, and we expect our collaborators to respect each other and think through the meanings of collaboration before they join us.
MiA Collective Art already published numerous exhibitions, among them being projects in the field of film and video, photography and design. The website also comprises articles about wide-ranging themes like time, sound art or Hannah Arendt, then a series of interviews with very different artists and a salon series connecting art and music. What do you consider being the bond in this manifold program?
GN & YZ: As mentioned above, we’re an art collective for artists of inspiring minds and our definition of artists includes visual artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, and composers – basically the creators. Naturally, we welcome interdisciplinary collaborations as reflected on our website. We don’t believe that inspiration comes solely from one discipline. Rather, it’s like an orchestra. The outcome of creation results from experiences, memories, thoughts, and ideas influenced by various creative fields. When we’re in a meeting, we don’t just talk about art. Sometimes we may discuss films or concerts that have inspired us – how alluringly the lighting was set in a concert hall and how brilliantly the shots were taken in a film. We learn from the fields that we are not directly involved with and question how we could incorporate some of those ideas into what we do. So, we greatly appreciate such a wide range of explorations, and perhaps, that’s our unique vision of collaboration.
Do museums play any role in your work? Many of them did recently improve their digital content. Do you think museums can inspire artistic creation? What do you think museums can do to encourage contemporary art off the big names?
GN & YZ: Without museums, our art collective will lose its shine in artistic creation. Museums contribute tremendously to people’s lives. They not only inspire and stimulate people to create and think, but also question and challenge the concerns the society faces, bringing everyone together as humans. Many of these crucial places for us are closed indefinitely due to the pandemic. Now that many of us are spending most of the time at home and staying connected with the art world through social media, we are in great favor of museums’ digital content. What is great about these big institutions is that many people look up and want to stay connected with these places online. Their visibility on the digital world is immense, unlike small art organizations and collectives. We think it’s crucial for these big names to stay active with various online programs for their audiences. While an online experience does not equate to seeing art in person, but we believe that museums’ effort to stay connected with their audiences through their digital content does make a difference. After all, even a small art collective like us are trying our best to keep the spirits up in this time of confusion!