Taja Cheek Shakes the Walls of the Whitney

The experimental musician and guest curator behind the Whitney Biennial’s performance art brings a freshness of perspective to New York City’s most controversial art show.

Taja Cheek; credit: Courtney Sofia.

Every two years, the Whitney Biennial sows chaos among about-town art enthusiasts. Controversy seems to be an inevitable outcome of the show’s efforts to make assertions about the state of American art in any given year. Sometimes, institutional clumsiness takes the focus off the art completely. It was just two biennials ago, after all, that former Whitney director Adam Weinberg asserted the museum’s inability to “right all the ills of an unjust world” in response to outrage over the institution’s unsavory ties to the military industrial complex. 

This year, it’s the art and not the institutional politics that has onlookers talking. For that, the museum can thank Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli, who jointly organized the show with guest curators Korakrit Arunanondchai, asinnajaq, Greg de Cuir Jr., Zackary Drucker, and Taja Cheek. “We wanted to fold different voices into our curatorial process, to create a deeper and fuller texture to the exhibition,” Iles and Onli said of their approach. “Each of the five curators—artists, performers, writers, and producers—created a program of film and performance whose ideas are interwoven with many of the larger themes of the show, and articulate them in cinematic form.”

Cheek was the sole guest curator working with Iles and Onli on its boundary-pushing performance program. There, she brings the same embrace of genre-bending, category-defining sound that has set her apart as an indie musician to watch under the stage name of L’Rain. And while the performance program includes works from six artists—Holland Andrews, JJJJJerome Ellis, Alex Tatarsky, Debit, and Sarah Hennies—Cheek’s impact resonates across the show’s other categories too. Tatarsky’s performance uses miming and clown theory to interrogate America’s enshrined power structures; yet musician Holly Herndon, of AI Baby fame, and Mat Dryhurst dive further into their explorations of the digital versus physical selves; Holland Andrews’ ethereal soundscapes aren’t constrained to galleries, but spill down the grand Renzo Piano staircase. 

Surface spoke with Cheek about sound as art, a liability, and its power to shake the walls of institutions like the Whitney. 

L: Nikita Gale, Tempo Rubato (Stolen Time), 2023-24. R: Alex Tatarsky, Sad Boys in Harpy Land, 2023.

You’ve spoken about the power of sound to “shake the walls.” Is that meant literally or in relation to a curatorial point of view?

I mean it literally! Music can be a liability in museum and gallery spaces because of the literal vibrations: shaking the walls and floors risks damaging valuable artwork. But it’s easy to then enter the metaphorical realm when zooming out and considering the consequences of these vibrations—we see a glimpse of sound’s potential power to disrupt logistical and bureaucratic systems and even capital. This is slightly ideological but, is it really?

Do you feel that institutions fully understand the power of sound as art?

By and large I don’t think they do. Sound is often feared and misunderstood by institutions. I mean that on a more holistic level; institutions fear the medium of sound and its potential to disrupt objects and exhibitions in a material sense, and they also fear musicians and their audiences in general and see them as different from their “normal” audiences.

Musicians and sound artists are, by default, short-changed as artists. They are often forced to adhere to album cycles rather than more organic cycles of creativity and they aren’t given as many opportunities to express themselves beyond sound. They aren’t often able to adjust, change, or create their performing environments, it’s usually just a stage and a few lights. This has been changing in recent years, but generally, so many institutions include concerts as an aside to their overall program. Concerts are thought of as a vehicle to bring in crowds to see exhibitions rather than as programs that are important in their own right. In these spaces it’s inconceivable that sound artists would be given opportunities to present work beyond the concert format. 

Debit, cover for The Long Count, 2022.

Two of the most interesting works in the biennial right now build anticipation on the absence of sound: Nikita Gale’s Stolen Time and JJJJJerome Ellis’s biennial score. Was that intentional?

I don’t want to speak for either artist. But I do want to share a related thought: I’ve seen a number of artists with an interest in performance thinking through what it means to be visible and what it means to be heard, questioning these notions in very fundamental ways. A majority of these artists I’m thinking about are Black and have other marginalized identities. This feels connected to a re-consideration of what it means to have and share an identity, to be or feel “represented,” and to also question who benefits from visibility. Participation through partial absence is a sort of refusal I am interested in supporting and nurturing because I find myself instead paying attention to details and nuance, and asking questions rather than receiving answers. 

The biennial curatorial team consisted of four curators working on film, and yourself working on the medium of performance. What freedoms or challenges did that present?

Meg and Chrissie were so generous throughout this process that their invitation felt like ultimate freedom. Challenges always arise when working in spaces that have many uses and carry thousands of people a day!

Curating something like the biennial must be incredibly complex, but can you distill your intention for it into a single sentence?

I can probably distill it into a single word: “connection.” Working on this biennial was a search for synergy. It was often easy to find between artists in the biennial; between Meg, Chrissie, and me; between related themes and concepts; between artist and audience.

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