As we approach the end of summer 2016, MoMA PS1’s Warm Up nears the end of its nineteenth season, a fine accomplishment for anything music-affiliated in the temporal New York City art scene. Started in 1998 by Lokke Highstein (aka Lo-Ki), the summer concert series follows the experimental mindset of the museum itself, featuring six-hour showcases of pioneering (mostly) electronic artists. Highstein, who conceived the event in order to attract more people to the museum, established three main tenets when he birthed Warm Up; today, even without Highstein, PS1 still abides: artists can’t play too frequently, no theme days (label showcases, for instance), and everyone must get paid, a rule aimed at the common malpractice in which opening DJs are expected to perform purely for “exposure.”
And that’s not the only place where PS1 strives to be fairer and more egalitarian than its institutional brethren. Admission to the museum is free for New Yorkers, for instance, and admission fees to Warm Up are waived for residents of Long Island City, where the museum is located. Both are welcome statements about accessibility, especially relative to the prohibitive prices of many of New York’s museums.
I had the opportunity to catch the final Warm Up of July. When I arrived, I entered through the museum’s adjacent courtyard, the hosting grounds for the Saturday event (weekly from June – August). Varicolored ropes crisscrossed the venue. At the fore of the space, which is capable of holding 6,000 people, dozens of pink two-liter water bottles hung above turntables on a raised stage. They bobbed and swayed throughout the day, hovering like an aquatic crown to the talented DJs and producers that helmed the decks.
Brooklyn-based producer Ohal, a native Israeli and outspoken activist for Palestinian rights, opened the day with beat-wrapped renderings of her unique sonic experiments. Garbed in an industrial overlay, Ohal’s obscure vocals and ghostly synthesizers moved in granular patches, climaxing as outbursts that were capable of conveying her political frustrations.
LA’s Palmbomen II followed, layering cosmic blips and generative beats reminiscent of Aphex Twin. His “transcendental house” set unfolded over the course of an hour, capping the day’s live portion (each Warm Up opens with some kind of live act—e.g. live electronic sets, rappers, etc.).
Three DJ sets followed. First was a straight-ahead techno performance from Hoboken’s Joey Anderson. Young Detroit up-and-comer, Jay Daniel, followed with a vinyl-heavy set. And headliner Maya Jane Coles, one of the world’s most intriguing DJ’s these past two years (she’s graced the covers of Mixmag and Village Voice, and she’s had coverage in such diverse publications as Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Men’s Health), brought the event to a close. With deft hands and an unalloyed confidence, Coles carried her crowd through each transition and each new sound. She proved, over the course of two hours, that she is one of the world’s most polished turntablists.
En masse, the day fulfilled a number of sonic touchstones. It was eclectic and yet decidedly congruent in its diversity—a testament to both the grade ‘A’ artistry and the excellent curatorial efforts of the Warm Up team. Before the music began, I had the opportunity to speak with Curatorial Assistant Taja Cheek in PS1’s spacious Director’s Office. We talked about the program’s history, next year’s 20th anniversary preparation, and the Warm Up committee’s seamless collaboration—the lynchpin behind one of New York’s most exciting event series.
So what’s the process? How do you curate a particular day?
It’s fairly collaborative. The committee’s made of six people this year [Dean Bein, True Panther Sounds; Jace Clayton, Dj/rupture; Jonathan Galkin, DFA Records; Eliza Ryan; Brandon Stosuy, Pitchfork; Imogene Strauss, Cool Managers; and Matt Werth, RVNG Intl] and I also help. We often start with the headliner, for logistical reasons, and it also helps anchor the day. So we start from there and then people pitch who they think makes sense, in terms of the vibe and mood. Sometimes it’s a matter of contrasting from the headliner, or, if something’s more atmospheric or ambient, having something a little bit more upbeat. The committee’s been together a very long time at this point; they work so collaboratively and so seamlessly that we have this sense about which curator will bring which acts to the table. And, sometimes, specific people will oversee one particular day.
Does each person have a slightly different role? Or is it pretty communal?
We meet in person a couple times throughout the year just to talk about things, especially in the early stages. But we’re in touch constantly. It’s super collaborative. Everyone’s equal.
So how did you specifically get involved with being on the committee?
I started in January. Warm Up has always sort of been its own separate program, but obviously very tied into the curatorial mission here. For the first time, we’re being run through the live programs department officially. When Lokke was here, his role was overseeing Warm Up and also the other music programming throughout the museum. And then he left and there were a bunch of people just focusing on Warm Up because it had grown so immensely.
So who are some of the artists that you’ve selected and pitched to the committee this year, and what about them made them a good fit for Warm Up?
Deantoni Parks is someone I was really excited about, just because he’s not often thought of in terms of dance music circles, but his new project definitely has a relationship to techno. DJ Premier specifically. [Parks] ended up being on the same day as DJ Premier because someone suggested that we have him on that day. I spoke to him when he was here and he said, ‘oh my god, DJ Premier was such a big influence on me on my record.’ And I didn’t know that for sure at the time. It just sort of ended up being a perfect match.
I mean it’s so collaborative that a lot of us end up suggesting some of the same people. BEARCAT I was really excited about because I think the Discwoman collective is really important. Elysia Crampton and Ash Koosha on the last date, too. And I was really sad that MC Bin Laden couldn’t be here.
Can you talk about today’s lineup specifically?
People are really excited about Maya Jane Coles, so we basically planned the day around her. We’ve had a lot of people from Detroit doing stuff so it’s cool to have Jay [Daniel] on the lineup also. And then the two first acts are live, which is really important. We try to have some element of live for each performance, whether it’s a rapper doing something or someone just making music live. The first two acts are live today and I love hardware, so I’m really excited about those two in particular.
I know that MoMA PS1 is more experimental than most museums and Warm Up seems to take a similar approach in being at the vanguard of the music scene. Was there talk at the beginning of the season that you were going to push techno, or push grime, or something like that?
Not really. Honestly, I think it comes from a very pure place. A lot of us go to a lot of shows and see a lot of stuff, so it’s very important that there are a lot of local acts, and that we’re having a connection with the local community, but it’s not really a conscious thing. It just kind of happens. In terms of genres, I don’t think that’s really a conversation that’s had unless we’re missing something.
I read a quote where you said: “The thread linking all of my jobs and projects is a desire to confront the exclusivity of mainstream visual art spaces.” Do you feel like MoMA PS1 confronts that issue?
Yeah, we have a lot of internal discussions about that. Constantly. Because it’s at the forefront of what we’re always trying to do. Literally constantly.
As a committee, or personally, do you talk about where you want to see Warm Ups go, whether it’s by the end of the season, or a year from now?
I think it’s specific to each year just because the music industry changes so frequently, so I don’t know if we think that far ahead, but at the beginning of the year there’s an evaluation where we talk about that a little. Although next year is the 20th anniversary so I’ve already started thinking about ways of approaching that.
If you could bring anyone here, who would it be?
This is a really nerdy answer [laughs]. Wendy Carlos. But she would never do it because she doesn’t like dance music. I mean she’s been so influential in the development of Moog, but she’s been very public about feeling conflicted over the synth as an instrument. And how it’s used and how it can be used in a really rigorous way. So I think it would be awesome to have her here. I don’t know what kind of statement that would necessarily make. It’d be a confusing one, but it would be cool.