“I’ve worked out of this studio, on Canal Street, roughly where Chinatown and the Lower East Side meet, since 1994. My landlord, who’s probably in his 70s, got the building as a bar mitzvah present. When I first started working here, the neighborhood was extra dicey — there was a Chinese brothel two floors below me and a sweatshop visible out my window. I remember working up my nerve just to leave the building at night. Now it’s groovy galleries and restaurants devoted to gourmet grilled cheese and such. The sweatshop has been replaced by some sort of internet startup; its open-plan layout is pretty much the same as before, except there are computer workstations where the sewing machines used to be.
My studio is about 400 square feet and came with a locked safe about as big a refrigerator, probably because the building originally housed jewelers. Sometime in the late 90s I decided to have the safe picked because I needed the space. I was hoping there might be something special inside or maybe something spooky, but it was empty. Now I use it to store my master tapes and papers that I would like not to burn in a fire.”
Neil Goldberg has been exhibiting his work since 1992 at venues including The Museum of Modern Art; TheNew Museum of Contemporary Art; The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum; The Wexner Center for the Arts; The Hammer Museum; The Jewish Museum; The Kitchen; Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre; The Pacific Film Archive; Neue Gesellschaft fuer bildende Kunst Kunsthalle Berlin; El Centro de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona; and the British Film Institute. His work has been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Experimental Television Center, CEC ArtsLink, and the MacDowell Colony, among others. Goldberg’s work was recently the subject of a critically acclaimed mid-career survey at the Museum of the City of New York. Neil graduated from Brown University in 1986 with a degree in history and computer science.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
NEIL GOLDBERG: I work in a bunch of different ways. I shoot video and take photographs, which mostly happens out on the street. I use my space primarily for editing — which takes tons of time — and for figuring out how to present the work.
NG: One of my favorites is my mom’s old Mah Jongg card. My mom was a pretty depressed person, but she really came alive for her weekly Mah Jongg game. I’d love it when she hosted — the house smelled of coffee and pound cake and cigarettes. The women would gossip and fight and I’d listen from the stairs. There was the clinking of Mah Jongg tiles and the obscure language of the game: “One bam, two crack.” I still don’t know what that means.
FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?
NG: Most required: The computer. Favorite: I have a lot of respect for the “self-healing” mat on which I cut out prints. It deliciously absorbs the sharp edge of a fresh X-Acto blade (another tool I love) and is none the worse for it.
NG: I loved his aesthetic. He had a workshop in the basement and would make things for around the house — cabinets, tables, shelves — and he had this way of putting materials together that felt on the one hand outrageously clunky and improbable but also somehow absolutely inevitable. I was embarrassingly into magic, like a lot of Jewish boys growing up in the 70s, and we’d spend hours together in his workshop building big, garish magic tricks — or, as I liked to call them, “illusions.” I count those times as the beginning of my art making.
There’s nothing like the feeling of skipping stations.
FYD: What do you love about ritual in New York City? Is ritual the same as routine or perhaps they’re interchangeable?
NG: It’s interesting to contemplate the difference between ritual and routine. Maybe ritual is what happens when you bring a certain quality of mindfulness to routine? In any case, I don’t particularly love either one. What I love are moments that have a certain overlooked and/or unexpected emotional valence: people orienting themselves as they emerge from the subway; old folks pulling themselves up the stairs of a city bus. And perhaps these moments are often found tucked away inside routine, but that’s not what necessarily attracts me to them.
FYD: The green foliage in your Subway Trapezoids capture another peephole or window. What do you love about exiting the subway and what does one do once they exit?
NG: I can’t say I love exiting the subway. Most of the time I feel pretty happy down there: tucked in, cozy, sort of the opposite of claustrophobic. I think time in the subway provides the opportunity for an enforced break from the various ways we stay busy and distracted, and I try to welcome it, though of I’m not always successful, of course.
FYD: In your Wind Tunnel, talk about the disappointment riders feel when they miss a train? Is it a sliding doors feeling with a domino effect crashing down on their schedule?
NG: What I find interesting about the disappointment people feel when they miss the subway is that it is totalizing — it completely fills their consciousness. The disparity in scale between that all-encompassing emotion and the relatively minor tragedy that triggers feels rich, meaningful.
FYD: Do you have a favorite train or time of day to capture riders?
NG: I like a train that has well-spaced express stops — there’s nothing like the feeling of skipping stations. The A train is pretty great as far as that goes — the express stretch from 125th St to 59th St is unparalleled. Especially back in the late 80s early 90s when the conductors would drive like maniacs and you’d find yourself slamming into the sides of the car. I also like the B/D express run from 34th to West 4th Street mostly because it skips 14th Street, which feels heretical and badass.
FYD: We all forget little things, much like daily decisions we blindly make. How do you create momentum with someone making a simple decision as what to eat for lunch in your Salad Bar?
NG: The question of momentum is important in my work, especially in those pieces that, as you suggest, are about “the little things.” Some of the material is so ostensibly insignificant it verges on being invisible, even more so, paradoxically, when you try to string it all together. I find it’s important to find a rhythm or a beat that occurs within each shot and also connects one shot to the next. I don’t think the beat consciously registers with the viewer, but without it the piece just doesn’t hold together.
I can’t say I actually love exiting the subway.
FYD: New York is always in motion — even in the rain. How did decide to capture your 19 Rainstorms. Do people and rain work in tandem?
NG: I decided to make 19 Rainstorms after an outdoor shoot had to be cancelled on account of rain, which happens a lot. This time I figured, as long as the rain was calling the shots, let’s go all the way with it. I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and hung it from trees and street lights, letting it record whatever it would as it was blown by the wind and rain. And I repeated this ritual for maybe five years, when a shoot was rained out. One of the most interesting things about taping was experiencing what it was like simply to stay out in the rain. It feels so counterintuitive and wrong — when it rains you’re supposed to run inside. But once you get past that it’s really rich, interesting experience. I realize I speak from the privileged position of having a place to come in from out of the rain.
FYD: What does “Hallelujah Anyway” mean to you?
NG: Hallelujah Anyway is the title of a book of poems by Kenneth Patchen. For me it’s a way of holding both the incredible suffering of life and also its beauty without denying or privileging either one.
Visit Neil’s site here.