The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Topless is a unique artist-run space situated in the Rockaways. Founded and direct by Brent Birnbaum and Jenni Crain in 2014, Topless is known for it's forward-thinking programming, giving a platform to emerging artists, and a flexible model of renovating beach front spaces to open new summer seasons.
Brett Wallace: What is your origin in art?
Jenni Crain: I’ve always been really interested in art or artistic forms to varying degrees. I suppose I’ve been lucky in that sense; I always knew what my interests were and I slowly specified those interests. Thinking about it now – I could say that I continue to do so. Or maybe at this point I’m expanding them again! On and on…
As a kid, I wanted to be a writer. As a pre-teen/early teen, I wanted to go into fashion design, and so I started taking pre-college college courses at FIT. I would go to the institute every weekend and take various courses in fashion – design, history, patternmaking, silk screening. After a year or two, I began taking photo classes in their darkroom, which I loved, and digital, which felt practical - I was probably 13 or 14. I stuck with that until I applied to art school at Pratt Institute where I enrolled in 2009 as a drawing major. My big pivot at Pratt was from drawing to sculpture – realizing that my interests were in spatial considerations & conversations. Simultaneous to my studies – sculpture and art history – I began interning and assisting in galleries. I graduated with a degree in sculpture and a minor in art history in 2013.
I still work in a gallery; I still make sculptures and photographs; I still write.
Brent Birnbaum: Since I was a tiny tiny child, I've made "work." The language of visual art has always made more since to me than words and usually it’s easier. I've never stopped making things. My interests and projects have just gotten bigger as I've gotten older. I've done all the art schooling, working at galleries, running a gallery, all the jazz a lot of artists do.
It's influenced me of course, but my interests have not swayed that much from when I was in junior high. I'm fascinated with space, objects, and architecture and how they can be manipulated to say something new.
JC: For me, sculpture, especially at Pratt, is one of the programs that have critical thinking at its core - more so than technical coordination, which is, admittedly, crucial too though. So you do have that in addition. I was learning how to formulate/formalize my ideas and how to utilize material cues – how to speak about those thoughts rather than solely becoming a technically sound fabricator. I will give it to drawing too though – Pratt has a really advanced drawing program that is more spatially based than strictly tied to two dimensions. I like the way that Roni Horn speaks abut drawing. My boyfriend and I discuss it often.
BW: How would you describe your roles today?
JC: Whenever someone asks me, I just say that I work in the art world. I use the “art world” as a blanket term because I doubt that anyone bargains for the full explanation when they extend that simple question. In terms of actually breaking it down, yes, I'm an “artist”, I'm a “curator”, I’m a “gallerist”, and I think that those things definitely really influence each other. I run my own space, along with Brent, and I also work for a gallery in Chelsea. I make work. I’m also an avid art viewer, and I think that is just as much an active role as any of the others.
BB: I push myself as an artist and as a gallerist. If I wasn't, I should get a different job.
BW: How do you manage the multiplicity of activities within each of those buckets?
BB: I manage them by having a full life not related to art. I surf and snowboard a lot to balance out a busy, active schedule. Physical activities engaged in nature keeps me sane for the long isolated studio days and sweating blood producing gallery installs.
JC: Oh, well, I think it’s just that I really, really love it all. I mean, for me, I never have to clock in and clock out because there’s no separation between work time and down time. It’s typically what I am naturally thinking of all the time or at least most the time, and it’s what I'm doing/working towards a majority of my time.
If I had to pinpoint a difficult joint, I suppose it would be dividing time from producing my own artwork. Even in that aspect though, I guess I'm in an ideal place – or a place that really works for me, personally - where my work is, for the most part, fabricated. I don’t feel the pressure of putting in a certain amount of hours in a physical studio space since my studio production is more along the lines of mentally developing my ideas, writing texts and moving on to sketch-up files – usually a friend helps me with the sketch-up files since I have definite room for improvement. Perhaps studio time this fall could be sitting with a selection of YouTube videos.
I really only have the ability, financially, to produce new works when I have an opportunity to exhibit new works. My practice is slow but I am interested in that pace in comparison to the way that many of my other projects develop and move forward. This sometimes does lead to a self-perpetuated flaw - that I sometimes put these other projects before my own artworks because they feel more pressing – due to this more rapid speed at which they develop but also because there are often outside parties involved and I want to put my best foot forward not just for myself but also for those also involved.
BW: Jenni, so it seems like you identify and define your work within a broader framework.
JC: Definitely. I think that somebody who had an inspiring idea of a broader framework was Alexander Dorner. The king of broader framework, Hans Ulrich Obrist, introduced me to him in Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground – an incredible book with an incredibly forgettable title – I always forget it but can picture the cover…. Dorner was the head of the Hanover Museum in the ‘20s. He spoke about the institution as a place of flux, a place that should ask and raise questions, rather than be a place of stagnant viewing, merely providing answers. I like to think that, in terms of working in these “multiple fields”, I am exploring beyond the bounds of a more traditional formula where curator, gallerist, and artist are separate entities. I do believe that they each naturally evolve, and as long as you’re open to it, influence each other.
BW: I call those swim lanes, by the way, and I think the more one can cross a swim lane, the better (avoiding bumping into people of course).
JC: I used to swim as a kid and I remember paddling over those plastic, rolling lanes from one lane into the other - the spinning gizmos pushing you forward. I guess it’s still kinda like that.
BW: For me, crossing lanes inspires ideas that can inform the other areas of a practice. And, it helps me to think about adjacencies Jan Verwoert discusses in his Open Museum lecture.
JC: Yeah. I do wonder sometimes if it’s a certain mode of operation that enables one to understand things that way and to undertake various projects to that degree. I do wonder if it’s in part due to my education – an education based in ideas and theory in contrast to one based more so in fact or equations – that enables me to recognize and chase such connections. I’ve had conversations, with people I very much respect and work with, where they seemingly take my desire to do each of these things as a sign that I’m, like, figuring out which one I am actually interested in. One person, who is very dear to me and works in a gallery, said to me, “You know being an artist is a full time job, right?” And I agree – but I think that my curatorial practice, etc. al, contributes to that or is part of that. And there are plenty of people who do operate in ways similar to that which I do – many, many - but I guess lots of the time people just expect you to stay in one damn lane!
BW: Reid Hoffman, an entrepreneur who is also the co-founder of LinkedIn, uses the term “permanent beta,” to describe that everyone is a work in progress. And, I find that is a good mentality for thriving in a fast changing world.
JC: Of course. And one thing leads to another so why wouldn’t you want to evolve as everything around you does too?
BW: Who or what inspires you?
BB: Buildings. Weird people. Other artist's ideas - most recently: Calder Zwicky and Dawn Kim.
JC: Well, as I mentioned earlier, Alexander Dorner is a good example, and I would love to learn more about him. Hans Ulrich also. I think Julie Ault is incredible. One of my favorite artists is Alejandro Cesarco. A part of me is hesitant to run down a list of folks – firstly, because there are so, so many, but also because a part of me fears being placed in or compared to their swim lane and not my own - but I should have less trepidations about giving credit where credit is due, huh?
I guess I am also aware of admiring a person or a program and consciously and subconsciously comparing your own abilities to that which you look up to. But I have to remain aware of the fact that I am only able to work within my means – which are very, very modest at the moment.
With Topless, for example, it’s such a specific project – and one that I am really proud of – you could say that it’s a less conventional model – Roberta Smith called us the “outlier of all outliers” - but that’s because that’s a way that we’re able to do it. It’s a really special and unique project and it’s one that heretofore has existed within my means each given summer. That first summer having graduated just the spring before. I can't afford a full-time space - in Rockaway or elsewhere - and so we have created a program that works for us as individuals and also gives back to a community where an offering like Topless was for the most part lacking.
BW: Where did the idea of Rockaway germinate from?
JC: Brent lived in Rockaway before we started the project and he still does. He moved to Rockaway following Sandy and wanted to participate and give back to the community in the wake of such a difficult time. I believe he was thinking about it one summer, and when that summer went by and the next one was rolling around he actively pursued the idea. Our mutual friend, Adam Parker Smith, put us in touch. When Brent brought up the idea to him - what he was thinking about and the kind of person he wanted to do it with – Adam proposed me. I was managing a gallery on the Lower East Side at the time and I was just putting in my notice. Adam put us in touch and Brent and I began to brainstorm - building “something” from “nothing” in what I think was pretty impressive time. We met mid-April 2014 and opened up mid-June.
We just wrapped up our third season.
BB: I moved to the Rockaways 4 years ago after years of visiting. After hurricane sandy, businesses were not returning to their storefronts. That's where the idea started. I wanted to help my hood get back on its feet, and I'd been around long enough to know good artists and how to run a space.
BW: What was your vision for the space?
BB: To show artists I believed in who didn’t have a huge following already and to fix up storefronts to help rebuild the neighborhood.
JC: It’s evolved so much since we’ve known each other. Especially since we didn’t know what the program would or could become at the beginning, but we definitely embraced that opportunity for continuous evolution and that’s what excited us. There were all these storefronts that were available – damaged by Sandy or abandoned prior - that were still just sitting there. PS1 had only done their book dome pop-up the summer before. There was the Rockaway Artists Alliance, which is really great and is located in Fort Tilden and shows the work of Rockaway local artists. But it was kind of void in terms of the work that pushes the boundaries of what is conventionally perceived as art. So we thought about a space that would present such work, and it lead us to a way that we could tangibly give back to the community in terms of renovating these spaces and leaving them in a more manageable state so that they could be rented afterwards. From that first summer, we developed a formula by renovating this one space, opening mid-June and doing four shows, each three weekends long, which brought us right to the last weekend of August. And so that’s what we’ve done for the past three summers, now.
BW: So three different spaces, basically?
JC: Three different spaces, yep.
BW: You’re making it work – going back to the idea of "permanent beta" without a long-term space.
JC: Yeah! But I think that it is equally important to note that there have been so many people and amazing programs/projects prior that have done it before, followed a similar model. You know, we run a less traditional program than many a program out there, but we’re still learning and exploring how it is that we differ from and react to more typical structures. It’s interesting that you mentioned this particular moment for you [where this interview project started 2 ½ years ago], where you’ve done this for almost three years, and you find yourself at this point of maybe circling back and reinvestigating. Brent’s away for a month, and before he left we had what feels like a really important conversation - where we decided that our attention this off-season should not just be focused on the four exhibitions that typically comprise our program but more so on a critical approach to our program itself - what Topless has become, what we’ve learned, what we’ve loved about it / and not, and what we would ideally wish that it could do or introduce. We feel an importance in being more critical about what we’ve created and how we can further evolve in an alternative way. Up ‘til now, we have still adhered to exhibitions within a space, but due to the flexibility of operating without being tethered to a lease, maybe there is a point where we can push things even further. We’re brainstorming how – and why that feels important to us.
BW: One of the things I’ve loved about artists run spaces like TSA and OyG is that they’re operating more of a platform than actually being constricted to one type of work or another.
BW: Where do you see things going for Topless?
JC: I think it’s important that we take it season by season, so that we react and respond to our experience of the summer before. For the first time in these past three seasons, I think that we are really feeling a desire to shake things up – for ourselves and for our audience. We’re talking about ways of further shifting our mold and our mode where we can do things that we personally haven’t done before and learn something new on account of it - maybe things that haven't been so continuously accessible in Rockaway. There are other exhibition spaces in Rockaway now and so maybe we can offer something else.
We’re really at the beginning stages of this potential re-navigation here. The uncertainty feels challenging and exciting. We want to stay true to the personality that Topless has taken on – it feels like its own little being by this point. It’s not only a reflection of what Brent and I are interested in but also of the responses received by the community – Rockaway and the one that Topless has brought together – over the past few years.
One of the reasons that we settled on the title Topless is very tied to this conversation. Brent initially proposed the name and we agreed it felt right in its more immediate catch, but it wasn’t until I went to this talk at Artist Space led by David Joselit, discussing alternative programs and their role in the changing commercial art world, that I had my a-ha moment. He spoke about how, spaces like ours, are more dependent not upon an upward or downward / profit-driven margin, but by lateral, community-based expansion. Topless felt right in this regard. Then, also the fact that we renovate our spaces. And we’re by the beach….
BW: What do you think about the concept of “moving sideways”?
JC: I feel like that’s just as important as moving forward. I feel like moving sideways a lot of the time is moving forward.
BW: Topless in some cases is physically moving sideways as it does so conceptually.
JC: Yes, we are. A prevalent question in terms of Topless is what is growth? And what does it mean for us? What would we like for it to mean and how would we like for that growth to actualize itself through the program?
BW: Did you have a show that resonated with you personally?
JC: I don’t think I can choose a favorite, but the project in the back space, Topless Projects, with No School, the No School Residency, that was really exciting for me.
BW: Could you describe No School?
JC: No School is run by my friend, artist, Frank Traynor. He started the camp two summers ago in 2015 in participation with the Rockaway-based camp called Arts in Parts, which has existed in Rockaway for several yeas now and is really incredible. No School is a five-day-a-week, four-week program involving artist-led workshops with Rockaway campers.
Frank and I became acquainted our second season when Topless was located next to Arts in Parts, and Frank operated his seltzer shack and mud bath in what I guess I could call Topless’ front yard. Following that season, No School did a retrospective of the campers’ works in our former gallery space when we had moved out for the summer. It was really bittersweet for me because I had my first show going on, on top of work, and so I didn’t have time to personally participate to the degree that I would have liked. When Frank invited me to conduct my own artist-led workshop as a part of No School this past summer, I thought it a ripe moment to get Topless involved. Believing that it would be valuable for the campers to experience their works curated into a series of exhibitions within their own community within the vein of contemporary art.
BW: How did the kids respond?
JC: Frank and Diwa of Arts in Parts would come each weekend with a few campers. It was such a pleasure to engage with them about their responses to the courses and the camp as a whole. We also had Bedwyr Williams’ video, ‘The Starry Messenger’, playing in the main Topless space throughout the span of No School Residency, and so I think that was a really curious work for the kids – they’re 7 – 14 – to take in. Some of the campers were more seriously interested in art than others – typically the older campers, and so it felt like we could offer this lens of what it could be like to pursue art in the less conventional sense. Pursuing art certainly requires a great degree of passion, especially since you can’t just follow a recipe towards “success”.
BW: There is no recipe or if there is one, it's dangerous to follow.
JC: As “scrappy” as Topless may be it did feel important to share our project and our space with these youthful creatives because maybe it made them think a thing or two differently about the prospect of pursuing the arts.
BW: How do you think that your own curatorial work has evolved via Topless? What new projects do you have coming up?
JC: The work that we exhibit at Topless is often very different than the work that I make myself, and I feel like Topless has provided a platform and opportunities for me to explore these other points of view and interests. When presented with an invitation and opportunity I often choose to utilize curation as a tool, as an extension of that which I am exploring in my own work. It often feels like a part of my own practice whether it is immediately apparent or not. And I say that because I have curated a number of shows that maybe more obviously align with my own work and many others where perhaps the link reveals itself more slowly.
My dear friend, Lydia Glenn-Murray – who runs a space called Chin’s Push in LA – and I will be embarking on our second curatorial project together that will be held at a space called Roberta Pelan this January in Toronto. We curated our first exhibition together this past summer at Shanaynay in Paris and it was such a wildly wonderful experience. We really hit it off when bouncing back ideas and continuously challenge each other and expose each other to artists that we may not have been aware of prior and so I feel confident that Lydia and I will have an extended on-going relationship together from here forward.
I’ll also have a small show in Copenhagen this winter.
BW: What new ideas interest you?
BB: If you are referring to my own ideas, these are on my to do list:
1. Skaty cats - a rollerskating rink with 9 rooms, a glass ceiling with cats upstairs and ramps and hiding places for them everywhere.
2. A custom bowling alley - I'm not revealing any details yet
3. The hairy trinity of the big d - a cabinet of curiosities with scientific graphs I'm working on now for Dennis Rodman, Brian Bosworth, and Vanilla Ice.
4. Sofa sculpture - I'm working on this now too. I'm collecting 100 sofas. I just bought a van to make this vision a reality. It will be a painting with rooms combined with what it would look like if 100 sofas fell from the sky.
JC: I’ve been working with this idea of the frame – which I know is not an entirely “new idea” – but the system of the frame is something that I feel like really speaks to the facets of being human - it’s a support structure, providing this space of security, whether it’s the human frame, a photo frame, or an architectural frame… The frame of thought or mind…. I’m pretty influenced by architecture – the emotional affect and perception of a space and how even the most subtle of forms in space can redirect those reactions. I hope this doesn’t all sound vague…
BW: As you’re thinking about the frame, it sounds like, not only in terms of a space, but also in terms of a method of storage about pedagogy, the museum, institution, multiple levels of what we would consider a frame.
JC: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that conversation can be seen in my first exhibition, Upon Reflection, at Y Gallery last summer – these forms that cannot de divorced from the art historical cannon. But this investigation is probably more immediately accessible through my more curatorial pursuits.
BW: What are some of the skills that you feel you’ve acquired throughout that process of managing multiple ventures and being a critical thinker?
JC: I think that slowing down is a skill, really thinking things through – what and why - slowing down in terms of consideration rather than just jumping in to the next thing. Maybe saying no to a project or deciding not to make a piece that you may feel excited about - rather than just taking on another thing - if you don’t really have the time to understand why you’re doing it and what’s important about taking that step.
BW: Saying no is hard too.
JC: It is. It really is.
BW: Doing fewer things better is really important.
JC: Still good to say yes though, right? For me, I feel like yes is my more immediate response. Because I like to take on new projects, new challenges, but like you said I think its beneficial to critically consider why you are doing so.
BW: I think it’s really important to be open to possibilities in the process…saying yes (and specifically yes and to think generatively) is really important. But, saying no when the plate becomes full is also important.
JC: I know and sometimes it feels almost counterintuitive because activity breeds activity. But pausing – stillness - is just as important as motion.
BW: This is why creative energy is weird because I often find, my own best work doesn’t come from the original idea, and maybe not even the second idea, but it’s the third thing after, sometimes the accident.
JC: Maybe that’s a skill we’ve learned to… Accepting “failure” as a part of the process as it leads to the next alternative, which may be the thing we were seeking in the first place.
BW: Yeah, being comfortable with a high failure rate is important.
JC: Maybe adapting would be a skill that I’ve acquired… I like to plan but there is only so much you can prepare for. So, thinking, slowing down, and adapting.
BW: How do you shift and adapt?
JC: I think of adapting in terms of expectations - you’re not really going to learn much if you’re steadfast to one idea as the end all. I think that you should expect that that idea will evolve, perhaps due to something really boring – like logistical or financial reasons – but maybe working towards change itself is when the end result feels most exciting.
I feel like things never really can or will be exactly what you conceive of in your head. That’s why working with a collaborator is so fun – two heads are better than one, right?! I know… I’m so corny… But really though, there is inevitably a higher likelihood of unexpected results when working with someone else. Things are going to continuously evolve. Rolling with the punches is a big one.
BW: Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.
JC: Yeah, that’s pretty good. Thanks, Mike. It’s natural.
That was something that felt important to extend with the No School project in the backspace. It was not always about selecting the work that was maybe the most successful in terms of what the workshop was attempting to accomplish. For example, we weren’t just selecting the most radical, rainbow piece of marbled paper from the marbling workshop. We were picking these pieces that arrived at a sort of place of accidental beauty – what may have been deemed by a camper as an unsuccessful example. That important lesson learned again, things don’t always turn out the way that you anticipate but you really have to be open to and embrace that.
In terms of curating, that’s huge, because when you invite an artist you don’t always know what specific piece you’ll get – you’re decision to work with that artist is in response to their practice, interests and ideas as a whole, and how that relates to the idea that you may be working with. It’s this really awesome mutual and on-going support system.
Below you will find images of work by Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum exhibited outside of Topless.