Oh Show Me the Way to the Next Blockbuster Show: Two Young Curators to Take Over One Young Art Space

by Paula Newton July 1, 2013
Paul Fraser and Machine Project’s stylophone workshop at Alabama Song

Paul Fraser and Machine Project’s stylophone workshop at Alabama Song

Houston’s Alabama Song has been up and running for less than a year and it is still taking its time in building a reputation in the local arts scene. The art space, referred to on its website not as a gallery, but as “a community center designed to respond directly to the creative needs of an interested community,” is patiently building an audience that discovers, wants, and uses what it has to offer.

What Alabama Song offers are quirky workshops, presentations, collaborative events, performances, reading groups, and informal artist residencies at a house at 2521 Oakdale Street (the address creates a perfect triangle between Project Row Houses and the Museum District). “It was important that the space be an actual house,” says Director Gabriel Martinez, “because we wanted the focus on hospitality.” The name of the space itself speaks partially to the idea of the underground, creative, and often alcohol-infused nature of the Prohibition-era Speakeasy referred to in the lyrics of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht song of the Speakeasy era: “Show us the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh don’t ask why.” But the reference to the 1927 classic also speaks to its status as an ultimate cover song  (David Bowie did it; The Doors did it; Nina Simone did it—c’mon, you can’t get much higher cover song cred than that!). The cover song reference is not so much about a lack of originality as it about a debt and relationship to past and current artists and art spaces. We lovingly sing each other’s songs in our own peculiar voices.

Almost as an afterthought, Alabama Song also serves as an exhibition space, although Martinez is quick to add, “If you want to hang pictures, there are better places,” pointing out the many windows, bumpy walls, and poor lighting. So, when two young curators with little experience came up with the idea of putting up an experimental weekend show in the space, it seemed like a perfect match.

Olivia Junell and Max Fields

Olivia Junell and Max Fields

Olivia Junell and Max Fields, two junior staff members at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (Junell works in membership; Fields in P.R.), decided they wanted to coordinate a Houston version of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s do it project, which had just recently released the catalogue, do it: the compendium, so they pitched it to Martinez and he was totally game. Not only was he a fan of the Obrist project ever since a friend had given him a catalogue of the very first do it exhibition, but he already knew Junell as an invaluable member of the Alabama Song’s board of directors and was totally confident that she and her cohort could actually pull it off.

Conceived in 1993 during a conversation between curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, do it is promoted as “the longest running exhibition ever to take place.” do it has asked hundreds of artists from around the world to contribute original “scores,” i.e. instructions on creating an artwork that are meant to be interpreted and conceived by another living artist. Usually the emphasis is on the creation of the score—anyone (a gallery assistant, for example) anywhere (on the other side of the planet, maybe) can then follow the instructions and create the artwork. Junell and Fields did not ask artists to compose new scores. In celebration of the twenty years since its conception, they simply invited Houston artists to select and interpret scores from the recently published compendium.

Louise Bourgeois, Instruction (2002) When you are walking, stop and smile at a stranger.

Louise Bourgeois, Instruction (2002)
When you are walking, stop and smile at a stranger.

Hoping to get 15-20 artists to participate, they sent out letters to about thirty people. A few of the artists weren’t that familiar with the do it project; some of them were unfamiliar with Alabama Song; most of them did not know Junell and Fields (at least as curators). Perhaps it was their youthful enthusiasm mixed in with the experimental nature of the space and the project, but somehow the it all worked together to create an exciting and compelling invitation—27 artists agreed to participate in do it: houston.

The list of artists includes some big names, some new names, and some unexpected names, but 27 is a lot for a space like Alabama Song. The artists will create paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos, and installations, as well as present live performances throughout the weekend exhibition. And, oh yeah, there will be an ice cream truck, too.

Alabama Song has remained under the radar almost out of necessity, according to Martinez. “Because of the size of the space, we can’t have blockbuster shows,” he says. “Which is great.”

Uh oh.

do it: houston, which will take place on July 26-27, will be the largest event, by far, that Alabama Song has hosted. As to the level of enthusiastic participation, Martinez says, “I’m surprised, but not really surprised.” Fortunately, Alabama Song prides itself most on its flexibility. “It will be an interesting experiment,” he adds. “A good experiment—I’m looking forward to it.”

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