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The seventh edition of SPRING/BREAK opened yesterday in Times Square, kicking off a week of fairs and events around New York. The energetic art fair is known for taking up atypical New York spaces, this year being the old Condé Nast headquarters. At an always packed preview, we caught up with Helen Toomer, who was behind two installations on the 22nd floor, both addressing the failures of American policy and healthcare.
The first is A Pressing Conference by Macon Reed. There, we see the White House’s press conference room re-made with Reed’s signature neon colors, appearing soft (as if made of Play Dough), and with chairs dedicated to members of the press (which, in this case, are journalists that have recently been fired, harassed, or killed). SPRING/BREAK visitors are encouraged to stand at the podium and speak their mind, and voice what they want to hear from American leadership.
The second is Psychic Pharmacy by Howard Hurst. In a reflective room, a “doctor” (performance artist Megan M. Garwood) awaits visitors, asking obscure questions to get a “prognosis,” only then to be handed a “treatment” already set aside for us by a “pharmacist.” On the adjacent wall are notes—some reading “I’m my own favorite drinking buddy,” “Your midlife crisis is my Tuesday,” and “Moving to L.A. won’t fix your problems.”
Toomer has held a number of roles in the art world—previously as the director of PULSE and Collective Design, and co-founder of toomer labzda gallery. Currently, she is the co-founder of Stoneleaf Retreat, an artist residency program that harnesses a strong professional development program in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
To hear more about these two installations, Whitewall spoke with Toomer and the artists at SPRING/BREAK.
WHITEWALL: Helen, when did you first come across Macon’s work?
HELEN TOOMER: I first met Macon when she did Eulogy For The Dyke Bar at PULSE. I loved it. I loved the community aspect, and the programmatic aspect, when she brought people together. And then Macon did a residency at Stoneleaf last summer where she was working on the podium, and she was talking about this project. I was like, “This is unbelievable.”
WW: Why did you want this project to appear at SPRING/BREAK, and not somewhere else?
HT: I thought this would be perfect for SPRING/BREAK because it really is a community-based fair. Everybody feels like they’re in it together. When we feel so hopeless, and so beaten down, it’s this beacon of empowerment. When you look at this, it seems so simple to just walk up to the podium and say what you’d like to hear, but because it is a recreation of the actual press room, it’s amazing how it makes you feel. We’re hearing people speak—wanting to eradicate hate speech, have equality for all, equal pay, etc.—and saying these beautiful yet simple things that we’re yearning for and craving. If they can be said, and people can feel like they’re being heard here, then maybe that will empower people more, and there will be more of a collective spirit, and it will grow. That’s obviously the big idea. But it’s about being heard and feeling like we’re not alone in what feels like a really desperate time.
WW: What do you want the audience to feel, or do after this?
HT: I really want the audience to feel empowered and lifted, and to feel hope again. Everything that’s coming out in the news is so oppressive. It’s like a barrage. So even just to feel a glimmer of hope, or feel like, “Yeah! That’s really what I’d like to hear…” But also, “What can I do in my day-to-day life that provides steps toward that happening?” I think it’s going to do a lot of good. I always think that great art is something that is visually enticing (where the artist has created a visual language that welcomes all viewers), and then makes them think. This is what that does.
WW: Macon, what was your starting point?
MACON REED: I thought about creating a platform as starting point. I started paying attention to how the news was being attacked every day, journalists were being attacked around the world, and thought about this space, and the crazy symbols that are involved and thought to re-create that space and create a container for people to come and comment on it however they feel inspired to.
The news cycle has been going so fast—the shit show of different horrible things that’s happening every day. I didn’t know how to keep up in terms of responding in sync, so I’ve been working with this text, On Tyrrany: 20 Lessons From the 20th Century, that has 20 lessons from history about how to stop the rise of authoritarian regimes, and totalitarianism. Every day at SPRING/BREAK, at 1 and 4 p.m., we will have performances—everything from historians to performance artists, musicians, authors, ethics professors, etc.—to come in and do a performance or a lesson loosely based on those 20 prompts from On Tyranny…
WW: Helen, tell us a bit about working with Howard. What is this “pharmacy?”
HT: In the way that Macon’s is playful and connective, Howard’s also is. His is kind of channeling this charming snake oil salesman. It’s this DIY pharmacy where he wants people to come in and see a healer who will tell you everything that’s wrong with you, give you a prognosis, tell you what you should do to make you better…but it’s all fake.
It’s a commentary on how we’re all looking for somebody to tell us we’re going to be okay, or to tell us what medicine to take to be fine. And a commentary on the American health care system—the fact that it’s just “take, take, take” and yet it gives you nothing. He also created 100 unique drawings, individual prognosis like, “Even my cat thinks you’re boring,” and “Quit your job.” And when they’re sold, a stamp is left behind that says “Cured” and the patient’s name, so the patient is left behind in the installation.
WW: Howard, tell us a bit about what propelled you to making this pharmacy.
HH: I was thinking a lot about two things. One, not having health care, which I’ve basically never had as an adult even though we live in this weird, fancy world. I’m privileged, but I’m 31 and I basically haven’t had health care since I was 25. And two, the way I grew up. My parents are super weird. My dad was a monk, and my parents are holistic healers. They do chi healing and all this stuff, so I grew up around people who believe in modern medicine, but to a degree. My dad legitimately has healing machines in the house that do vibrations and heat. They’re cool and they have a pretty good handle on it, but through the years, with them going to classes and teaching classes, I’ve met so many lost souls. Between that and the drug thing, it’s obvious America loves a con man and we’re all looking for a quick fix. We’re obsessed with self-help and hearing, “This is the answer.” I wanted to make something that spoke to that—our obsession with shady characters that can tell us the answer.