August 2008, Max Presneill Interview
After 10 years of activity Raid Projects is closing as an exhibition venue. Raid’s Director Max Presneill and I sat down to discuss the history of Raid and its experimental presence in the Los Angeles artscene.
When did you come to Los Angeles and when did you begin Raid Projects?
I moved to California in February of 1997 and opened up the first gallery in April of 1997. I started doing Raid Projects as a sideline to the gallery in 1998.
What was the first Raid Project?
I had done a number of shows in empty store fronts and people began anticipating the next “Raid.” The first time I sat down with people to discuss the name we had always said that we were raiding new places and then people kept asking about the next project so we just put the two concepts together as Raid Projects. It wasn’t until later that somebody pointed out that it was the name of the bug spray.
Like the band Black Flag which also references bug spray. That is really interesting because Raid has a kind of punk rock aesthetic about it, a sense of inverting the power structure of the artworld. Has that been your curatorial point of view since Raid’s first inception?
Look, I am totally open to the idea of failure in shows and taking chances on things that might or might not work. My original idea was to curate shows the way an artist makes an artwork; curating as a way of reflecting and interconnecting widely like an artist. If an idea is interesting and has a lot of theoretical depth, then I try to be as open as possible to the widest showcase of the idea. When people think of Raid they think of unknown artists, but a lot of artists we have bought from other countries have been Turner prize winners or participants in Documenta, Venice Biennale, etc. We were perhaps the first space dedicated to bringing people like that to Los Angeles to show side by side with unknowns on a regular basis. I have tried to balance international shows with exposure of L.A. based emerging artists who were totally new or outside of the whole exhibition scene.
This is often where real chance taking occurred. The first show that was an organized “Raid Project” was Strange Bedfellows in an empty ex-gallery. It was again a one night event with temporary lighting, artwork and a disc jockey. That was the show that began it in earnest. Then we curated Spurgeon Experience in the Spurgeon building in Santa Ana. The Spurgeon Experience was co-curated with Mike McGee, 106 artists participated, each with a solo show opening on the same night in their own separate room. The bands played all night. We did it again 6 months later with 114 artists, this time co-curated with Carl Berg. Shortly after that we were offered a space By Ed Giardina Contemporary Art, as they were leaving and offered us their gallery space. A year and a half after that we approached the owner of the Brewery, Richard Carlson, and described what we wanted and were able to obtain our current space. Basically we started doing shows in the Brewery space under the umbrella idea of trying to find more open-ended ways to curate. A lot of the early shows here tried to show oblique connections between different artists and their artworks to reflect upon the way artists take in multiple reference points when making work and the odd intersections of ideas. We wanted to curate and highlight the complex investigative process of the artist. We also wanted to balance the art world luminaries with our mission to expose people that deserved it but hadn’t gotten it yet. A lot of work in Los Angeles wasn’t getting attention because it wasn’t saleable or easy to access. Those things will take a few years of mulling over before we know what we did well, what we got right and wrong, etc.
Certainly having shows as overall informal occasions is a strategy to make the opening experience like the process of making art. Its something you create actively rather than passively. Even from the first show viewers had to actively make connections between pieces rather than spelling it out for them. I think too many shows depict an illustration of the curator’s position. We curate the artists, rarely the artworks alone. Some people are offended by that because it’s not a traditional curator’s role. The best art does take chances and curation should too. That is what really makes an artist-curator versus a traditional historically trained curator. Formal curators prescribe the experience too much and sometimes take the life out of it. A great show should feel like a party, a connection.
Okay but on another level there has always been music at Raid openings and a lot of dancing. There is a general easiness about the space, has that been intentional?
We wanted to keep it informal and more enjoyable than the wine and cheese style “vernissage” events. We wanted it to be a less hallowed hall not a place where children and dancing weren’t allowed. Has the definition of Raid changed and what will it be in the future? Raid will continue but only with Artist In Residence Programs. We will be stopping the exhibition program. It is because of the time and the monthly grind of cranking out a new show every month. We have also covered a lot of bases and I don’t want to do it just to do it.
I like to refer to you as an “international man of mystery” because of your ability to ask big questions publicly in so many arenas. Since Raid will no longer be fulfilling that role in your life what is next?
I am in the process of trying to establish a small curatorial group to take shows abroad and bring international shows here to Los Angeles. I think it is important to foster the connection between Los Angeles and the international artworld. I am planning fewer shows with larger exhibitions at bigger venues. We have a show opening in October in London in a space that is 15,000 square feet co-curated by myself, Simon Rumley and Zavier Ellis. I also want to work more in the studio and paint. But, I don’t want to give up the curatorial activities completely because they are so exciting and engaging.
What shows/artists stand out over the last 10 years?
Impossible to say, because one’s tastes change over time, and the avenues to explore shift. It has been really odd to watch people whose work I really liked take off. Its heartening and exciting, on a baser level its like being a fan boy for a great band. There have been so many great artists that have stood out; Shaun Gladwell, Saadane Afif and Mario Ybarra have all shown here in the past, as well as Martin Creed and Gillian Wearing – but these are only some of the better known ones – there have been many great works here, I like to think.
What has Raid brought to you personally as an artist?
Its the conversation , the friendships and being involved in the artworld. Also, if you see enough art it can’t help but improve your own practice. It has been a great motivator to not be easy and force my own work into better and more critical territories.
Who are the people who have made Raid happen over the years?
Janet Owen worked for over a year with us and was really influential in getting the place focused as a space. Colton Stenke has helped improve efficiency and maintains the website. Valerie Lambert had been here working hard. The interns whose help has been invaluable. Julie Spielman, Ayca Cakmakli, Kutae Kim, and Tricia Tongo to name a few, as well as Bob Arieas in the early years. All of the curators, like Matt Wardell who has done a number of shows over the last six months. Of course all of the artists and visitors that participated - there are really a lot of people who made Raid happen.
When was the first moment you saw how good Raid could become?
There were a bunch of moments really: when I saw a new artist and felt proud of what was on the wall or on the floor. A lot of my closest friends I met as artists in shows here. A lot of times talking to a young artist here and realizing that they were going to go back to their studios reinvigorated. I have also watched a lot of curators reach a sense of fulfillment. On the inside you are in the bubble of the experience, it’s hard to judge the value of Raid except through pleasant subjective experiences. A great Raid project has a invigorating feeling to it like a party that is going well and everybody is jiving. I think we have had a lot of great times. My thanks to everybody who came.
-Mary Anna Pomonis