The Guggenheim in Jackson Heights: Q&A with Curator David van der Leer

An upcoming art project from the Guggenheim Museum is, literally, off the wall.

stillspotting nyc, a two-year multidisciplinary project, aims to shake up any preconceived notions of what art is, by taking those looking for art out of the museum and onto the streets. stillspotting is an exploration of self and place, sound and city life, home and identity. For its third season, the project moves to Jackson Heights, Queens, where “Transhistoria” will explore urban life through immigrant stories and cultural narratives.

The third installment of stillspotting nyc explores Jackson Heights, Queens, shown here in an aerial view. Photo by Iwan Baan.Photo by Iwan Baan.

The Guggenheim partnered with the Brooklyn-based design firm Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO – IL) to  feature stories from Queens-affiliated writers, including authors such as Roger Sedarat, René Georg Vasicek, Maria Terrone, Erik Baard, Premilla Nadasen, Nicole Steinberg and Alan Briceland, and rappers such as Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu of Das Racist. During the four weekends of “Transhistoria,” Jackson Heights residents will tell these stories in six neighborhood spaces.

David van der Leer, Assistant Curator for Architecture and Urban Studies at the Guggenheim, and the curator of stillspotting, spoke with MetroFocus via email while he was in Mumbai.

Q: Is stillspotting “art”? If not, what is it?

A: By raising questions about the noise and anxiety we live with on a day-to-day basis in our city, stillspotting nyc encourages a larger discussion on the need for more frequent moments and spaces of stillness, without running the risk of losing the wonderful sense of excitement New York City provides us. stillspotting nyc has become an interdisciplinary program that not only works with artists, as some may expect from us as a museum, but also with composers, poets, sound artists, architects, designers, social scientists and writers. It is my hope that these installations, events and projects around the city help us see our city in a different way, and make fellow New Yorkers more vocal about our need for calm.

By taking our program out of the museum we can connect to different audiences that may or may not think about cities, but that do live in them on a day-to-day basis. Why does thinking and creating for cities start and end with city officials, architects and designers? I believe that as curators we can play a role in the development of ideas, not only ideas by artists and architects, but also the ideas of inspired city officials, and most importantly, ideas of the many different inhabitants of this city.

Q: Why present this outside the context of a museum?

A: stillspotting nyc goes out into the city instead of looking at cities from the safe space of the conventional exhibition set-up in a gallery. It is very important that when speaking and thinking about cities we don’t only do this from auditoriums, from behind university desks or in gallery settings, but do this in the actual cities that we are talking about. By taking a project such as stillspotting nyc out into the streets, we help people sense things they may have not picked up on before.

That is also a reason why we started a collaboration with the Department of Transportation for this project. Together, we offer a free bike tour in each of the areas we are going to this year, so that after the visit to the actual stillspotting project people can keep exploring but then on their bicycles.


This video study by Zony Maya was part of the first stillspotting nyc exhibit, “Sanatorium.”  More video studies are available on the stillspotting nyc YouTube page. Videos courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Q: What can attendees expect to learn? Or feel?

A: For this edition of stillspotting nyc the architects at SO-IL have selected a series of spaces that would normally not be easily accessible to the general public. These spaces vary from rooftops to residential spaces. In two-hour, self-guided tours starting at the Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Avenue subway station, visitors will encounter four personal stories that frame the special experiences of these stories of migration, displacement and finding familiarity and identity in Jackson Heights.

Q: How do the themes of “Transhistoria” – migration, displacement, finding home – work within the framework of stillspotting?

A: The first two editions of stillspotting nyc were focused on finding stillness in the context of the public spaces in our city, and on finding stillness as a mental space.  What neither of those editions really touched on much was the role the home can play in our constant pursuit of stillness. I was very glad that Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu of SO-IL were interested in exploring the issues of stillness in the domestic space. After all, the home is where many of us try to find, define or refine a rare moment of peace and calm. For the Queens edition, SO-IL worked with authors that each have a specific affiliation to Jackson Heights. Together they created a project that looks at what it means to create a home, and what it means to create a home away from home.

Q: Why does sound, or noise, play such an important role in our lives?

A: Many of the cities we live in around the world are exciting bustling places, but they are also places where it can be difficult not to get affected by the constant noise. Stillness is usually not something we immediately associate as one of the important goals of city development. When we think of improvement to cities we think of hard goals such as effective public transportation, good housing, productive economic systems and quality education among others.

I wonder what would happen to our well-being, health and productivity, if we make a claim to moments and places of stillness in the city on our urban wish lists. For that reason stillspotting nyc, is not organized as a sound art project (although we occasionally work with sound artists.) It is a multi-disciplinary program that helps us think through questions such as: Where do we find quiet moments during busy days? Where can we find respite from the anxiety of our work, phones and constant traffic?

In this concept photograph, a Jackson Heights resident tells her Transhistoria story to visitors. Photo by Akira Yamada.

Q: What have you discovered about New York City while curating stillspotting?

A: New York City is an amazingly diverse city. stillspotting nyc takes us around the city, into the streets, into neighborhoods that we sometimes know and sometimes don’t know, and it shows so much potential for a quiet cityscape that is still very exciting. Even though the project is perhaps just a subtle call for less anxiety and noise in the city, for me it has also become a celebration of the diversity of its inhabitants, its possibilities and its many beautiful pockets around the five boroughs.

Q: How do stories of immigrants shape the story of New York City?

A: We live in a city of immigrants and their many stories: beautiful, impressive and also heartbreaking stories from all over the world. When I still lived in Holland, I heard a story about a tailor who traveled on the Holland-America Line decades ago, and during the voyage got so disturbed with all the sounds on the boat he used a needle to forever end his hearing. An awful thought, but a remarkable story. The stories about Jackson Heights capture elements of the neighborhood that would be difficult to capture in other ways: the story allows for intimacy and reflection.

stillspotting nyc
Where: Tours initiate from the stillspotting ticketing kiosk just south of the Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Ave. transit hub at 40-40 75th Street. Jackson Heights, Queens.
Opening: April 14-15, 20-21, 28-29 and May 5-6, 2012
Price: $10, $8 members, free under 12


Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.



MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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