Prem Krishnamurthy is based in Berlin and New York City. He was a founding principal of design studio Project Projects, winner of the Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award, and is currently partner and director of Wkshps, a multidisciplinary design workshop in New York City. Prem is an Artistic Director of the inaugural Fikra Graphic Design Biennial in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; curator of the 13th A.I.R. Biennial, New York; and “Endless Exhibition Maker” at the new Kunsthal Gent, which opens in January 2019. He has curated exhibitions at the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York; The Jewish Museum, New York; Para Site, Hong Kong; Stanley Picker Gallery at Kingston University London; and P!, the “Mom-and-Pop-Kunsthalle” that he founded and directed in New York’s Chinatown from 2012–2017. In 2018, P! opened K,, a yearlong “workshop for exhibition making” in Berlin-Schöneberg, founded in collaboration with KW Institute of Contemporary Art. He has edited books published by Duke University Press, Berkeley Art Museum, Paper Monument, and others. Prem’s experimental memoir/monograph/manifesto, P!DF, was first released by O-R-G in 2017. I spoke with Prem about his multidisciplinary explorations.
The next five images: Installation views, K,, Berlin, 30 October 2018. Photo: P. Krishnamurthy
P! was your wonderful gallery space in the Bowery, what is the concept behind starting up K,?
K, (pronounced “K-Komma”) is one-year program that I’ve opened in collaboration with KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin’s premiere “Kunsthalle” or non-collecting museum. Within the framework of an ambitious, multidisciplinary residency program initiated by the institution’s current director, Krist Gruijthuijsen, KW provided me with an institutional framework and significant financial support for one year with which to found this project. It started quietly in February 2018 and has grown since. Now I feel like we’re finally out of the gate: Karel Martens’ presentation here is actually our thirteenth, marking a turning point that signals the final, culminating chapters of the project. K, will end in January 2019, at which point the space will transition into its next form.
P! was a primarily a place for presentation: a venue for perfect jewels of exhibitions that could collapse an entire world into a small downtown space. P! was extremely outward facing, trying to make the most of its privileged position in New York City’s competitive cultural scene in order to draw attention to timely issues. I think it was quite successful in this, foregrounding certain aspects of contemporary creative production that the more mainstream institutions in New York City had overlooked at the time (though I’m happy to say that some are now finally catching up!).
K,, on the other hand, is about a kind of quiet reflection about the ways and means of exhibitions — what’s actually at stake, and what I can contribute to the field. By calling it a “workshop for exhibition making,” I suggest that it stands somewhere between a project space and a studio, which is periodically opened to the public through our programs. More than anything, it’s a way of “thinking with” other people. The basic format is that we invite artists, designers, curators, and others to spend one or several days in our space, and then hold a public program with a participatory form — from open-ended presentations, group discussions, participatory games, and other setups. Overall, K, is about taking stock, catching one’s breath, and enjoying a moment to look both backwards and forwards at the same time, outside of the hubbub of New York City. In this, it’s the perfect inversion of P!.
You are a designer, curator, writer and may I say, cultural interventionist. How would you describe your goal(s)?
My interests are manifold but focus around certain key points, which also infused the program of P! as well as my work first at Project Projects, now continued in Wkshps. Overall, I believe that the role of the arts is to provide a meaningful and critical counterpoint to the fast-paced consumption of global financial flows and the dominant perspective of entrenched and emerging power structures. In my opinion, too much of the contemporary world — even, sadly, so-called “culture” such as fine art, design, architecture, and curating — is smooth. It’s about surfaces and speed. On the other hand, I have argued for an attention to things that are “bumpy”: approaches, practices, and ideas that create a productive friction and make people think more deeply about the why’s of things. This can take many forms.
In my practice — particularly as an exhibition maker but also extending into other pursuits — I’m interested in championing marginalized practitioners between art and design, who are making significant contributions but whose work remains less known because of factors like gender, race, class, location, specialization, or otherwise. This also feeds into my interest in polymathic practitioners who explode typical genre boundaries (which also typically leads to them being under-recognized, as such a hybrid approach is not what the market likes). A connected interest, which comes out of my two decades of studio practice, is creating the conditions for collective and collaborative production, as well as catalyzing new communities. Infusing all of my work is an acknowledgment that the supposed distinction between “form” and “content” is an illusion: every structural move carries a narrative level and, moreover, every form also is profoundly ideological, in terms of the assumptions it makes and the types of viewers it tries to produce. We have to unpack the power structures behind what appear to be aesthetic gestures.
Given these interests and my growing convictions, it’s been my role within this game called life to be an initiator: a person who conceives and founds new institutions and communities that can tackle pressing problems in a different way. I do believe that one day these structures I’ve helped to nurture will become more widespread, bringing social changes in their wake.
How did the program, which is now underway, begin?
Our program has actually been going since February 2018, but is now just hitting its stride. We began the year with an exhibition of East German designer and exhibition maker Klaus Wittkugel (1910–1985), who played a significant role in shaping visual culture in the former East. This historical show — which included significant loans of posters, graphic materials, photographs, and books that I could not include in the New York version of the show in 2016 — has since “devolved.” Every time I hold another program, objects are added to and taken away from the ongoing exhibition display, creating an organic exhibition, an ever-changing program.
So far, we’ve held thirteen “official” programs plus a handful of more informal ones. Our invited guests have included (in order of appearance): Jeremy ‘Kai’ Aynsley, Emily King, Christopher Kulendran Thomas & Annika Kuhlmann, Na Kim and Emily ‘Kae’ Smith (a.k.a. Kith and Kin), Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Mick ‘K.’ Wilson, Michelle ‘Kleio’ Elligott, Klasse Digitale Grafik (led by Konrad Renner & Christoph Knoth), Anna Kanna Barham, Salem Al-[K]assimi and Maryam Al-[K]assimi, Esen Karol, Alexandra K. Cunningham Cameron, and now Karel Martens. Do you notice any patterns? At the same time, my own name is changing with each event. As the space develops, “Prem Krishnamurthy” will disappear. It feels great, like you can eventually let go of your tightly-held ego and, for a moment, be someone else.
We treat the entire project, from its public programs to the exhibition display to the writing of its idiosyncratic press texts to its website (itself a project called “A Website is Never Ready” by Knoth & Renner), as a process of ongoing prototyping. I have really been appreciating this more responsive, time-based approach to curating and design that is less about the finished products and more about the kinds of improvisation that can happen between people. As curator Emily King and I coined in one of our first programs, “Every event is a rehearsal for the next event” — which you can abstract further as a general principle for life (and beyond), if you’re so inclined.
Karel Martens installing at K,, Berlin, 27 October 2018. Photo: P. Krishnamurthy
Karel Martens in conversation with Emily Smith, Marc Hollenstein, P. Kri, and others at K,, Berlin, 28 October 2018. Photo: Judith Gärtner
You co-curated an year-long exhibit of Elaine Lustig Cohen’s work at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Is this part of a larger strategy of design-cultural events?
All of my projects are part of a larger, long-range plan, which I’m now finally starting to articulate. This yearlong residency in Berlin has been incredibly helpful in moving forward my thinking and goals. In 2017, I released an experimental e-book with David Reinfurt’s imprint, O-R-G. This book is called P!DF; it’s an ever-changing monograph/memoir/manifesto that I update periodically to reflect changes in my own working approach. I’m now working on a complete overhaul and major new release of the book, which will launch on 1 April 2019. At that time, my overall plans, strategies, and goals will become much more clear. You can find out more about P!DF here: http://o-r-g.com/apps/p-df (and I should mention for interested readers, if you purchase the book now, you’ll still be able to download the new version again in the future).
Tell me, what does Prem K want to accomplish in the course of this year? And what’s planned for next?
Although the year is almost out, there are still some major things to come. After Karel Martens, we will have three more programs at K,: a lecture-performance followed by a 24-book project by mysterious game master S. Khajer-Najafi on 23 November; Berlin-based artist Christine Hill a.k.a. Kristine Hill (who was included in our first show at P!), visiting us on 16 December; and a final closing event on 18 January 2019 with canonical curator Kasper König, who will bring an On Kawara date painting with him for discussion. Our website, at http://k-komma.de, is always up to date on the next events.
I’m also working on other exciting projects this Fall. The biggest and most significant is the inaugural Fikra Graphic Design Biennial 01: Ministry of Graphic Design in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, which opens on 9 November. It’s an ambitious new graphic design biennial exhibition that looks at experimental approaches to the field, wrapped within a pseudo-bureaucratic, conceptual structure. The show includes over 40 individual and collective participants from 20 different countries around the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and beyond. For the most part, the work on view is independently-produced, although generally in dialogue with real-life contexts and constraints. I think it will provide a truly international and expanded perspective on the field of graphic design, which has often been too neatly defined by market-driven and geopolitical realities. Together with Na Kim and Emily Smith, my co-artistic directors, and a diverse curatorial team comprised of some of the most talented and exciting designer/curators I know — Alia Al-Sabi, Nina Paim and Corinne Gisel (common-interest), Hala Al-Ani (Mobius Studio), Uzma Z. Rizvi, and Tesuya Goto — we’ve put together an exhibition that looks to graphic design’s multiple futures. I can’t wait for you to see it.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →