Meet Ki (right) and Sei (left) Smith, brothers, artists and founders of Apostrophe NYC, an iconoclastic art gallery, and Base 12, a group of artists they manage and help to navigate the contemporary art world. We went to visit the brothers at Apostrophe's temporary home, Mana Contemporary, in Jersey City and after our tour, we chatted with Ki and Sei about what the art world is missing and why New York is the best!
Where did you guys grow up?
Ki: We grew up in NYC in the east village.
How did you get started as artists? Was operating a gallery/collective always the goal?
Ki: Art has always been around us, my mom and both of her parents are artists and my dad is a documentary film maker/TV producer, so unlike most kids my brother and I are lucky enough to have a family that is very supportive of fallowing creativity and passions. So we pretty much grew up always making art and even setting up miniature galleries for our stuffed animals to exhibit art in.
I actually dropped out of high-school at age 16 and went to go work at a gallery (Storefront for Art and Architecture) so I guess I’ve been interested in this field for a while but I think it wasn't till 2011 that my brother and I first started brain storming about opening our own space. I think my brother and I always try and allow Apostrophe NYC to grow naturally and play to opportunities and strengths so its less that we set out with this goal to be in the iteration we are in now and more that we are constantly just thinking about showing art and the experience of seeing and encountering art. You don't have to mimic other galleries to be a gallery in fact doing that will probably only stunt your growth, I’m not saying it isn’t important to learn from contemporaries and the great gallerists and artists from history, because that is super important, what I’m saying is that its important to continuously be learning but using that knowledge to make your own path.
Sei: Since I was a little kid I was always making things, mostly to pass the time and create a nice world for my stuffed animals, now it’s pretty much the same, except instead of my stuffed animals now I’m trying to make a fun world for my friends (and strangers). For me art has always been a two part experience; the action of creating and the action of viewing. I think when you’re young the line between those two is very thin, what you like to see and what you make is often the same thing. Then as you get older, concepts, individuality, culture and things like that bring to awareness the duality.
Operating a gallery/collective was never the goal, but it is the outcome of our less defined goal, which I think is to be creating art experiences that are engaging in their creation, and hopefully to view as well. Our goal is to create as freely as possible (within the constrictions of our society) and the arena of Art and the format of collective leaning gallery seem to offer an effective vehicle.
You had what sounded like a glorious year of operating Apostrophe out of a single space in Brooklyn, before getting shut down by the cops, tell us about that time and what you learned from the experience.
Ki: That was definitely a fun year, and I think one of the biggest things I learned from that year was that diving into something head on is a great way to learn. People learn in a lot of different ways but sometimes I feel like learning in the field and putting yourself in “survival situations” is the best way to see if you can float.
Sei: Looking back that year was fun and filled my past with a plethora of crazy stories to recall, but at the time I remember always wanting more, wanting to feel the weight of life in the present. I wanted to feel like I was “making history” or part of a scene like art/punk/dance clubs of the late 70’s early 80’s, but what i was doing was getting drunk and dancing and hanging out with my friends. Looking back now lots of these people who were getting drunk together are now touring the world playing music or on billboards and stuff like that and it feels like there was some kind of fertile importance in Apostrophe and all the debauchery who knows. I guess the lesson would be, you can never feel time you just live it. You can only feel/understand weight and relevance in retrospect. The real lesson is in the present just get drunk and hang out and in the future say that it was really important.
I always think of the 80s as an especially exciting time for avant-guarde art in NYC, is there a time and place in history that you romanticize for its art?
Ki: I really enjoy looking at the late 60’s/70’s and the SOHO scene that popped up in that time. To me that was a really amazing time for art, artists and galleries. What I find really inspiring about that time is how you had both young artists and young galleries all working together and living and working out of the same neighborhood. And you had a lot of artists pursuing art through all kinds of conditions and most importantly taking risks and experimenting.
Sei: As far as a scene, I also like the late 70’s/ealiry 80’s, with the Mud Club, CBGBs, Club 57, The Loft, Area, all that stuff. It was a great condensing of separate art disciplines into a cohesive scene that spawned cross pollination and a real freedom in the collective creativity. Lots of artists in experimental bands like Gray, interesting curation with something like the Xerox show, and a nice failed real estate market that made it all possible.
For Visual Art in particular I like the 60’s and early 70’s with Earth Art and Minimalism. Micheal Heizer, Walter de Meria, Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, Donald Judd, Puala Cooper, Dick Bellamy, this was a great time for art. And the Art World was small enough then that though all these people weren’t hanging out there were in loose contact and aware and influenced by each other. When reading about these moments in history it nice to see the self awareness of importance as well as the rawness of reality reflected in how people navigated through life.
What do you think the art world is lacking these days? With your guerrilla art shows shows, what are you hoping to change about the status quo?
Ki: I think it lacks a younger generation and I don't just mean young artists, think it is important to have young gallerists, and young dealers as well. Of course I’m not saying the art world is totally devoid of youth and I understand why many people in the art world are hesitant to invest in or take young artists and gallerists seriously but to me art is not about being safe. Our guerrilla pop up shows are part of an ongoing exploration into viewing art, context of art, exhibiting art and working with the tools you have.
Sei: I think the Art World is lacking main stream cultural importance. I really like the way Marvel has invigorated non-comic fans to delve into the lore of comics and their strange creation of worlds. As a kid I was never super into comics but now I’ve been caught up like a lot of people in the fun that is the MCU. Art has this potential to be as engaging as
the Avengers, and art has the benefit of being able to engage beyond entertainment because of it’s legacy. I want people to sit around taking about the latest show at David Zwiener with the same attention to detail as they can comic book movies. It just takes the right kind of foresight, creating a body of shows that have a larger significance is more engaging then one off shows. We think about this, much like Marvel, we’re creating larger narratives around some good stories.
Which artists are making genuinely exciting art right now.
Ki: I actually think that my brother is making some really incredible work currently and is pushing his practice in a very exciting direction. His solo show “Reflection 1” was a huge success and I can’t wait to see where he continues to push his work. “Reflection 1” was comprised of multiple works that use reflection to render color onto the walls. What I find fascinating is how these pieces are comprised and working with all the major elements that every classic painting is working with: light, shadow, color and a object that is being painted, yet he uses the phenomenon of reflection to render what the viewer sees. Through this reflection he transforms hard-edged monochrome and split color works into impossibly soft gradients of light and color. It’s a really clever and contemporary body of work that tastefully draws influence from some of the great minimalist artists such as Dan Flavan, Donald Judd and Tadaaki Kuwayama while simultaneously exploring an unchartered phenomenon.
Sei: Christian Marclay, I think is always interesting, in particular his piece The Clock was one of the best video art pieces I’d seen in a long time. David Horvitz does a good job of using the internet as an effective medium. He also has interesting performances and mail art. I’ve always liked Tony Oursler’s work. As far as really young/contemporary art, I saw a piece by a guy named Lino Fernandez at the Cooper Union graduate show which was really good, playing with light and color in a clever way.
Tell us about The Base 12 Project and what you are all working on right now.
Ki: Currently we are working on the next stage of the Base 12 project, which is giving each of the 12 artist a solo show as well as publishing a hardcover book about the exhibition. To me it’s important to establish each artist as an individual especially in lieu of showing as such a tight knit group.
To me it's important to always try and play into strengths, for example as a group it is easier to make a splash but I see group shows as windows where you can only see so much of each artists’ practice so to me its really great to finally be able to open the door and see the whole picture and all of the artists work in its proper context.
Sei: Right now we’re at the tail end of our residency at Mana Contemporary with our Base 12 Project. The Base 12 Project was originally conceived as an experiment to work with twelve artists who were all working in different realms of Art World categorization and different personal intentionality, but united in a desire to function outside the normative tropes of how art shows are put together, how art is presented, how art careers emerge, etc. The fun thing has been seeing the unplanned twists and turns the project has taken.
You’re working on a project in Coney Island, right? Tell us about that!
Sei: The Coney Island event was one of these unplanned twists. The director of events at Luna Park reached out to us through email after having read about our rouge show at the Whitney. All in all it was a fun event but in true carney fashion almost everything Luna Park promised came out completely different in actuality.
Ki: Coney island was actually an event we did last year. But it was a fun/pretty funny. The whole show came about quite randomly. Luna Park reached out to us and asked us if we wanted to throw an event there and we were like: "sure that sounds hilarious." Unfortunately, they toned our proposals down to make a smaller, tamer event than we were initially thinking, but the funniest part was that just before the headlining music acts were about to play the people from Luna Park freaked out and told us that “This was not Luna Park's crowd” and that they needed us to immediately end the event. So I told them: "cool you do what you need to do, but I’m not gonna be the one that pulls the plug, so shuttling things down is on ya’ll." Sure enough a little while later they literally pulled the plug on the stage and made an announcement that everyone needed to leave. I just found the whole thing super funny especially since they reached out to us and asked us to do an event.
How does being part of a collective affect the art that you make?
Ki: I guess the first thing I’d say is that contrary to popular belief neither Apostrophe NYC nor the Base 12 project is a collective. But I do totally get why people think that since Apostrophe works very closely with the Base 12 artists and is constantly breaking out of the traditional gallery artist relationship. To me it’s important to be constantly thinking about what Apostrophe can do to advance the artists’ careers while simultaneously trying to make a more active viewing experience through the investigation of site, reception and context of art. But yeah working so closely with every one can't be a lot, but busy is good.
Sei: It doesn’t really effect the art I make (at least that I’m aware of) but with curating it’s really opened me up to the specifics of how people view their works and want it to be viewed. This helped me a lot because initially my curatorial style was a lot more controlling and constricting, but working with all these different artists I think I’ve found a better balance of directed openness, which actually leads to a lot more interesting plays off any original idea. A singular idea is never as dynamic as a collective one and I think that’s the main benefit to working in a group.
How have you grown since the creation of Apostrophe NYC? What have you learned about yourselves? How have you changed as artists and curators?
Ki: I think we’ve grown a lot since we opened Apostrophe NYC. Diving into running a business right after you turn 21 is a great way to learn and have time on your side. I also think learning on the job is a very effective way to test ideas. People are always thinking and planning to do “the right or perfect thing” and one thing that I learned after the first gallery got shut down is that things don’t just happen and you can’t sit around dreaming, writing hypothetical business plans and waiting for angel investors, you need to just start doing things and working with what you have. You can let someone else determine if what you did was a success or a failure or whatever, because that doesn’t matter. What matters is to be constantly moving forward and pushing ideas with out the fear of failure.
Sei: It’s always hard to identify any specific origins of growth, but I guess the answer above holds some of the ways I’ve learn from the project. Also I think being around other artists regularly is motivating.
How has living and working in New York City inspired you/helped with your creative ideas?
Ki: NYC is the most incredible city in the world it is a constant sensory overload and you can find everything here! The city never rests, never sleeps and never disappoints! I’m a big believer in the saying: “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.” The currents are strong here, but the streets run thick with inspiration and if you don't get dragged out to sea and spit back out on the main land you can make incredible things happen. Sorry, I’ll bet I sound a bit like a muck-tuck being mad pro NYC, but I was born and raised here and I love this place!!!
Sei: I think it’s really the people that I’ve grown up with here and the people that I meet who have come here who have helped shape my ideas and inspire me. It’s the same with anywhere, but NYC has a draw for artists, probably due to the strong art market and history of art that exists here. It was lucky to grow up here, and definitely we wouldn’t have been able make Apostrophe NYC what it is if we hadn’t been meeting all the fun people we have as a result of being here in The Big Apple our whole lives.
Check out Ki's Playlist:
Check out Sei's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Allie Sarachene - @alliesarachene