Scholar and curator Isolde Brielmaier is assistant professor of critical studies in the Department of Photography, Imaging and Emerging Media at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she focuses on contemporary art, global visual culture, and media and technology as platforms within which to rethink storytelling, the politics of representation, and mobility in its broadest sense. She also oversees the arts and cultural programming at the Oculus at the World Trade Center and serves as curator-at-large at the Tang Museum. Brielmaier has written extensively on contemporary art and culture, including numerous exhibition catalogue essays, journal articles, reviews, and books. Among her distinctions, Brielmaier has received fellowships from the Mellon and Ford Foundations as well as the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). She serves on several nonprofit boards and was recently named to the Board of Trustees of the New Museum. Brielmaier is deeply committed to the promotion of arts education, global women’s issues, and criminal justice reform. She holds a PhD from Columbia University.
How did you become interested in art history?
I’ve got a couple of answers to that question. I have a fairly extensive background in the arts. I’m actually a former dancer, trained in both ballet and modern, and I spent over a decade performing. More broadly speaking, when I was young, my parents thought of any and every way to get my brother and me involved in the arts. I come originally from Seattle, which has an incredible theater community and a really great dance community. When I was growing up, there were a lot of free activities, for students and young kids in particular, that yielded opportunities to engage in the arts in so many ways. So the seed was planted very early on, with viewings of African dance, Shakespeare, opera, Japanese drumming, and so on… and then I did go on to dance, and while it is a performative form of art, it also is very much concerned with the visual realm in terms of presentation, costumes, sets, creating contexts, and generating narratives. In a way, it felt like there was a natural link to the visual arts. I am not in any way a visual artist, but I think in certain ways, given my dance background, I very much relate to artists as creators and thinkers and makers. I’d been coming to New York to dance since I was in my teens, but after college I began to intern and volunteer at different museums, and that led to a much deeper involvement in museums, and in particular the Guggenheim, where I worked for two years. It was at that point that I decided to go back to graduate school and focus on art history and cultural studies.
I know you did your IDRF research on photographers in East Africa and a lot of your scholarship focuses on photography, so what drew you to that medium?
I would say my more recent scholarship, in terms of not only the writing, but also the curating, is very broadly focused on contemporary art and contemporary art practices, and visual culture in general—so not just photography. And as of late, I’ve moved much more into the ways in which artists and society at large engage with the digital or virtual realm and how this technology relates to the politics of representation and to racialized and sexualized bodies. And I think that the connective tissue between my earlier work with photography and what I am working on now all very much has to do with representation and voice and issues of agency and resistance. Early on, much of my interest in these issues came out of the work that I did at the Guggenheim. In 1995, I worked with a great team of curators and educators who mounted a large-scale exhibition focused on Africa and African photography at the Guggenheim. When I went to grad school, I carried this topic and interest with me. I focused specifically on East Africa because it is where half of my family is from. I have spent a lot of time there, and grew up around family pictures and photo albums, and as I was working at the Guggenheim, in particular on this project, it piqued my interest in going back and looking at all of this material. That was part of it, and the other part is the issues that still concern me in my later work: voice, presence, and the way in which people self-represent… the way in which they use those images as tools for self-articulation, but also navigating, and exploring, and finding their own space within a culture. My graduate work was really what allowed me to delve deeper into all of that.
You do a lot of curatorial work; how do you balance your roles as a curator and as an academic?
I actually think it’s so interconnected, to the point where there are moments where it just feels very seamless. What I teach—I’m an assistant professor of critical studies at NYU—very much revolves around visual culture, representation, gender, race, class, post- and neocolonial theory, and queer studies, which are all very much about voice and representation. Images arrived out of all of those spaces; they solidified ideas of what we know and what we think we know. Then when I think about that in tandem with what I do in the curatorial space, I am drawn to artists and work that considers aspects of presentation, and visibility, and audiences. I have worked with artists who engage with a range of different ideas and they are very committed to their practice and to the materials they use, whether photography, or paint, or text, and how they can use these materials as tools to propel this exchange and dialogue amongst themselves, and also between their work and society at large. There’s a very strong continuity between my teaching, scholarship, and curating and exhibition-making.
What do you find to be the most interesting or exciting parts of your work?
This sounds a little redundant, but I absolutely love working with artists and thinking through ideas, problems, and both practical and conceptual issues with them, as it relates to the broader world in which we live, and as it relates to their artistic practice and their specific work. I think that is probably one of the most exciting parts of curating. The other piece would be thinking about my teaching and the ways in which I am able to do a very similar thing in my teaching and with students. It’s this constant exchange. I learn something new every day from my students as I do from artists when we’re working on particular projects.
Conversely, what would you say are your biggest challenges in your work?
All of the different spaces that I occupy professionally have their challenges and they vary from day to day. It may be anything from trying to explain or articulate an idea students are having trouble grasping, or maybe that they don’t agree with and they’re finding challenging. It may be some practical issue of trying to get an exhibition with an artist installed. I think the biggest thing is both one of the most joyful aspects, but also the most challenging, and that is balance as well as constantly reminding myself how all of these spheres connect and keeping my eye on why it all matters…especially in these trying times.
You mentioned occupying many spaces. Can you talk about your work as director of arts and culture of Westfield World Trade Center?
The Oculus is a very nontraditional space to think of art. It’s a transportation hub. It’s a place where there are shops. There are places to eat. People are moving to and fro. It’s a very transient audience, which makes it sort of an accidental audience in terms of the idea that when people go to museums they go specifically to see art, and in the Oculus, art culture is something people really stumble upon. We’re in the planning phases right now, but we just recently launched a program with the public art fund where we had a wonderful artist, Hayal Pozanti, take over our screens, and that was the sort of work that punctuated the regular ads that I think people are used to, and hopefully caused people—obviously not everybody—to stop, and think, and pause. And we presented an interactive project called Dots by artist Jonathan Horowitz in which he invited people to sit down and paint and in a sense build community. It’s thinking about space in a very different and nontraditional way, thinking about audiences in a different way, thinking about the idea of public space and what that means, and to whom, and when. And also important is thinking about what kinds of platforms, unique or nontraditional platforms, can be created for artists and their work. I like to think that the Oculus can offer them new spaces of visibility and also new spaces that they can think about and contend with in terms of presenting their work.
You were a member of the 2000 IDRF cohort. How did receiving an IDRF award impact your graduate education?
I can just say it in one word and then explain it: it gave me freedom. At that point, I came into my graduate program at Columbia University fully funded, so I was very, very fortunate. But the funding doesn’t necessarily come without strings, and when I got the IDRF, it really gave me the freedom to plan my overseas research and travel in a very open way without constraints. It allowed me to take a load off of teaching as a graduate assistant, because I was okay without funding. It also gave me the psychological freedom to be able to take off—I spent almost a year and a half, or 14 months, in Mombasa, Kenya, and in Zanzibar, and I traveled up and down the East African coast and on to Europe. The IDRF afforded me a sense of being able to explore, to be open, and I think when you are a graduate student, while you want to be very focused, having that ability to be open to what comes your way, or to explore something new or unexpected that you may have found in your research and that takes you off to a little corner of the world, is incredibly important. The other thing I will say is that when we came back, it was really meaningful to reconnect with all of the fellows. We had an all-day workshop, so we all got to share our work and share our experiences. It was a nice way of building some community around our time overseas.
What do you do outside of teaching and conducting research for fun?
That’s a nice question that very few people in New York ask. I love to travel. When I have time, I love to read. I love to dance and go see dance. I love the outdoors. I value very much my time with family and friends. I’m very committed to social justice work and especially to prison reform. I’m committed to global women’s issues. I volunteer with an organization called Malaika, an all-girls school in Lubumbashi, Congo, which is growing by leaps and bounds. It is very important to me to step outside of the research, work, and teaching, and to live actively and thoughtfully and be a part of the world.
We’ve selected the 2017 cohort; what advice would you give to the incoming fellows?
I would say, in no particular order, do work that you feel really connected to and passionate about; you’re going to live with this for a long time, even if you aren’t necessarily going into academia, which I know not all PhD students do. Do work that will dovetail or be interconnected with your teaching or curating or policy development or change making. If you’re programming or doing policy work, do work that allows you to work in multiple spaces and to be flexible. I also really encourage thinking about your work on both a micro and macro level, in terms of its significance. I think sometimes it’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re working on your dissertation. Consistently ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?” “What does this work mean to my community?” and, “What does it mean for creating space that has meaning in the broader world around us?” I think at the end of the day, no one wants to write a dissertation or do research and shove it in the back of a closet, or maybe some of us do, at least for a time, but this is an opportunity to develop and create work that you can use as a springboard to leap out into the world, and I think, now more than ever, that’s incredibly important and incredibly necessary.