Blair Simmons: I am a queer and anxious artist, curator, researcher, storyteller, and technician working in as many mediums as will have me. I enjoy exploring themes of technology, labor, bodies, and pain. My pieces are both critical of and dependent on technology, mirroring the ways technology can be a solution to my chronic pain, and the source of the pain itself. I am currently teaching at the Interactive Media Arts and Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. My research often materializes as objects and performances which have been performed at the likes of Pioneer Works, La Mama’s CultureHub, Wordhack at Babycastles, theBlanc and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have been mentioned in publications like PARtake, The Scotsman, USA Today, The Guardian, NYTimes, etc.
Eden Chinn: I am an artist, curator, and educator whose work explores the performance of femininity and the construction of self through media. Using photography, installation, and bookmaking, my work reflects on how the various media we consume shape our identities and self expression. I am a Co-Founder of an emerging and underrepresented artist gallery and production studio called All Street NYC, with locations in the East Village and Chinatown. I’m also an NYU Tisch IMA Adjunct Faculty member and am completing a Research Residency in the Interactive Telecommunications Program. I’m a youth arts educator at Marquis Studios and a Teaching Artist at the New Museum, where I co-facilitate an LGBTQ teen group focusing on the intersection of contemporary art and issues of identity.
AF: Hi Blair & Eden! We are absolutely delighted to chat with the two of you. To start this interview off, we want to ask you our classic first question: Where are you both from and what are the arts communities like there?
BS: It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Massachusetts and then we moved to San Diego, and then Los Angeles, and now New York. I think the best part of moving around a lot is that I became really good at being the new kid because it forced me to get better at meeting new people and doing different things. And it’s honestly played a lot into my arts practice and curatorial practice. Being the new kid has become a big part of who I am. I love working with other people now, especially people who I have just met. It is fun for me to get to know a new person and work together to figure out how we can collaborate. Now nobody believes that I used to be incredibly shy.
EC: I was born and raised in NYC and have been really lucky to be exposed to a lot of art growing up and throughout my life. Something I would do a lot with my family is go to museums and explore different artists and talk about what we saw, what the history was behind it. Approaching it both with a level of curiosity and analysis that I did not realize was unique and a blessing until later in life. I have also always been drawn to making as a child and through arts classes. After living in Portland Oregon and experiencing a smaller artistic community with a different culture attached to it, I moved back to NYC and started to work in the arts and it really solidified my instincts which were that the art world in NYC is very hard to access. A lot of my friends who I grew up with were also facing the same feelings and this led me and a group of artists to carve out a space for ourselves and for the community.
AF: What was your first ever job? What did you learn from this experience?
BS: Hilariously, I was a camp counselor. Well, that was when I was 18. I suppose before that, my step dad who is an artist would pay me to help organize materials. But I think camp counselor is probably more related to what I’m doing now. Being a camp counselor is really about wrangling people and getting them excited about stuff while also being prepared at all times for many different forms of conflict and chaos. I’m still really good at that. Always prepared.
EC: My first job? I do not know if this is relevant, but I would babysit. What really felt like my first job was being a dark room assistant…no! I was a TA in high school for a drawing class and basically got to teach other high school students. That was a weird dynamic, but it also was very empowering. In college I was a dark room assistant, again, teaching my peers, but I also got to spend hours doing the thing that I loved. And time really stopped existing when I was on shift in the dark room. It really reinforced that when you are really passionate about something and you love to do it, you enter into a flow state and you become the action that you are doing. Nothing else matters.
AF: How did the two of you meet? What was the process like deciding to collaborate together?
BS: I met Eden when she was a Research Resident at NYU ITP, where I am a faculty member. I think there was immediately a really great collaborative energy when we would talk. I could tell we were able to speak each other’s languages and pick up on various nuances of projects together. It was easy to say yes when Eden approached me to co-curate a show because I could already tell we were aligned and excited about ideas around making art accessible and highlighting queer identities.
EC: Blair does not want to say this, but she was my boss, and she really has been a mentor to me as I have begun working with undergrad and grad students at NYU. I felt like I could talk to her in an honest and candid way that is rare in those kinds of academic relationships. She also really reminded me of my sister, which made me feel comfortable around her. After learning more about how she engages theories of queerness in her art practice, art curatorial and teaching practice, I knew that I wanted to work on a project together. At All Street we had decided to dedicate the month of June to a queerness and pride themed show and it seemed like Blair would be the perfect fit as a co-curator. I also think it is important to add that Blair suggested we collaborate with Shuang Cai who is also from NYU. Shuang was an invaluable addition to the team.
AF: Tell us more about your current roles in your career paths.
BS: I just got a new faculty position at NYU ITP. I’m really excited! I start in September. What’s really great about this new job is that it will give me more time to focus on both curating and art making. In particular, as a queer artist who has chronic pain, I’m extremely excited to continue to dive into accessible ways of both making and displaying art. I’d also like to continue to highlight queerness in both areas of my work. Before I had to squeeze art making and curating into mornings, weekends, and vacation days. I am so tired.
EC: I am in the process of finishing my research residency/fellowship at NYU ITP which has really expanded my horizons and enabled me to start teaching at an undergraduate level. I look forward to continuing teaching at NYU and other institutions while developing my curatorial and arts practice at All Street. Actually! We just opened our second location in Chinatown about two months ago. In the basement of that space we are developing an artist studio. The studio will be used by both the collective that runs All Street as well as exhibiting artists and artists in residence.
BS: So cool.
EC: It is so cool.
AF: What does ‘community’ mean to you?
BS: I think community is really an action. I think community for me is something that I have to work at, especially in New York City. And it also means a lot to me. It means a lot to me to be able to actively create spaces and community for people that want it. For me, community is a really exciting way to work and a really valuable thing to strive for.
EC: That was really well said. I definitely agree with everything that you said so far and would add that community is a group of people that gather around a shared purpose or set of values. And community is really foundational to wellbeing, self care and care for others.
AF: Who are some artists and/or leaders that inspire you?
BS: I am often really inspired by the people around me. Especially my students. And especially my coworkers. I practice inclusive pedagogy and part of inclusive pedagogy is continuing to learn and continuing to accept and invite feedback. So for me, the best way to learn and to be inspired is to continue to open up lines of communication with the folks around me. This even translates to becoming friends with my neighbors. I would also say I’m really inspired by Eden and the work that she’s doing because I think that making a gallery that is really community-driven is doing the really hard work of allocating resources and facilitating artist-led shows. But also…Legacy Russell.
EC: Thank you.
BS: Thank you!
EC: I am definitely also inspired by the people around me and witnessing the things that moves them, the people they have been moved by and how it influences their work. It drives me to keep pushing this work forward. Specifically when it comes to seeing the excitement of others from the All Street collective. It really is such a special place. I am also really inspired by Blair…
BS: You do not have to say that!
EC: But really! The ways that she cultivates relationships and the way that she sets a new precedent for the ways that people care for each other. And that unguardedness and silliness opens the way for new possibilities. And I guess a more formal answer, I have been thinking a lot about social practice artists. Like specifically artists who do work in the community instead of thinking about their work in the context of the gallery and museum space before anything else.
AF: What does your daily routine look like, and what’s something you hope you can do more of in the coming months?
BS: Haha, what’s a routine? Just kidding. But also, seriously every single day is different because I’m juggling so many different ways of working. I find a routine is often slipping away from me. It’s at the end of my fingertips at all times. But I do lately… always… journal in the morning while drinking smaller caffeine levels than I used to and then I’ll walk into the office or to the studio or to a meeting. And then after that, Google Calendar is in charge. If it’s not on my Google Calendar, I don’t do it because I forgot. That is the sad truth. Please invite me to the Google Calendar event.
EC: Yeah I definitely second most of that. I feel like during the school year I was in this constant state of overdrive during multiple different teaching jobs, the residency at NYU and co-running the gallery. So…my routine would look like: teaching at one or two institutions per day, then going into the gallery, and even staying up late for a reception or other community programming…and doing it all again the next day. This summer I have just started to slow down and feel how exhausting the last year has been. So these days I have been working at one of our two spaces installing shows, working on curatorial projects, and teaching some workshops.
BS: I think we are both learning how to slow down. We are doing research on naps and how to take them.
EC: And yeah…um…also how to make the work that we are doing actually sustainable in the long term, because I think that is just as important as starting to do it in the first place. You must be able to continue.
AF: As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
BS: I think the best piece of advice I can give is that there’s not one way to do it. There is not a secret path, or a magical wardrobe, especially if you are not independently wealthy, like I am not, it starts to become about carving out spaces for yourself and your fellow community members where you can support each other. It becomes about community building and/or finding.
EC: I think it is important to find a community of people who care about each other and the same things that you do and who are also willing to put in the work alongside you. That has really helped me to feel less alone and that it is possible to achieve our goals, because we are really dedicated to lifting each other up and making something that is bigger than what we could achieve by ourselves.
AF: How do you think the art world can become more transparent?
BS: Pay transparency is a big one for me, as well as continuing to create spaces for artists and curators to have these kinds of transparent conversations. Like the one we are having now!
EC: Yeah, definitely pay transparency, and more transparency about how the market operates. I feel like there is so much I could say to this question because there is so much opacity about how everything works in the art world. I often have found that this is by design.
AF: Is there anything we can look forward to for your curatorial collaboration or other projects in the coming months or year?
BS: Yes! We’ve got something cooking for December. We’re thinking about a show around chronic pain/illness and queerness.
EC: Yeah! We are still working on expanding this idea but we are co-curating this show at All Street in December. I am really excited to do it all again!
AF: Thank you, Blair and Eden, for participating in Frank Talks! It has been wonderful chatting with you. To finish off, we want to know: If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection?
BS: Mimi Ọnụọha, I’m just obsessed with the file cabinet piece. Who else am I obsessed with? It’s all in my slideshows. Let me pull up my slideshow. Nina Katchadourian. Kenji Kawakami, but collecting is antithetical to his arts practice. Allison Parrish. Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy. Stephane Dinkins.
EC: This is such a hard question. Honestly, my dream home is filled, almost exclusively with objects and artworks that people I know and love have made.
BS: Ugh! That is such a better answer!