Stephen Kwok’s Experimentations with Social Technologies

The artist, and newly appointed curator of public engagement at Dia Art Foundation, brings people together through artist-led virtual meetings

BY Terence Trouillot in Features , Profiles | 01 JUN 22

A few weekends ago, during a benefit luncheon at Dia Beacon in upstate New York, one of the curators was gracious enough to offer a group of us a private walk-through of Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West (1967/2002), one of the foundation’s more famous site-specific installations. Although I had seen the piece several times from behind the glass barricade, this was my first intimate encounter with the land artist’s work: four vertiginous steel indentations (measuring up to six metres deep) cut into the concrete ground of the space. The experience was in equal parts frightening and awe-inspiring – and it made for a great end to an unusually hot day in May.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #411 b, d, e: Isometric figure with progressively darker gradiations of grey ink wash on each plane , 1984/2003. Installation view at Dia Beacon, Riggio Galle ries, Beacon, NY. Collection Dia Art Foundation; gift of the artist. Photo: Richard Barns. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #411 b, d, e: Isometric figure with progressively darker gradiations of grey ink wash on each plane, 1984/2003, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Dia Art Foundation, New York; photograph: Richard Barns.

The curator in question was Stephen Kwok, Dia’s newly appointed curator of public engagement. Formerly an artist-educator with the ‘Learning and Engagement’ department at Dia, Kwok is also an artist who explores social technologies to create participatory performances, while fostering experimental forms of learning. Kwok didn’t come from a traditional art background or have any formal training before he began making work as an artist, however. He studied business during his undergraduate years at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. ‘Growing up in a traditional Chinese-American family and community in the suburbs,’ he told me over the phone recently, ‘contemporary art was not something I had access to.’ Through what he terms a series of ‘happy coincidences’, Kwok stumbled into the art world. He cites Sol LeWitt as one of his greatest inspirations to become an artist. ‘The first time I went to Dia Beacon was the first time I encountered LeWitt’s work, and its poetic use of systems made a lasting impression on me.’

Stephen Kwok, headshot
Stephen Kwok. Courtesy: the artist and Dia Art Foundation, New York

In 2009, a few years after graduating from USC, Kwok moved to New Orleans to start his own artistic practice, which grew out a fascination with minimalism and conceptual art, working primarily in sculpture and performance. ‘At the time, I was making what I would call “conceptual sculpture”, and I was learning how to make work by exposing myself to other artists on the internet.’ Kwok would also drive back periodically to Houston, where he is from, to visit the library at Rice University to research other artists. ‘I would go to the art stacks and just start pulling out books. I would search for phrases on the database like “art and anxiety” or “art and technology” and go from there. It was all about self-learning.’

In 2010, with some fellow artists, he co-founded T-Lot – an 800 m2 studio and art space in St. Claude arts district in New Orleans. ‘In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a lot of funding available for education and the arts in New Orleans, so I started working as an educator for various programmes around the city. T-Lot was not only home to several artists’ studios, it also hosted a range of public events – from film screenings and talks to weddings and flea markets.’ During this time, Kwok was also building his portfolio to apply to MFA programmes, having never really made any substantial work before. New Orleans became the ‘perfect place’ for him to explore not only his artistic predilections but the other pursuits that would later define his practice: education, performance and community engagement. 

Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West, 1967/2002. Dia Art Foundation; Gift of Lannan Foundation. © Michael Heizer, courtesy the artist and Gagosian. Photo: Tom Vinetz, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York
Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West, 1967/2002. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian and Dia Art Foundation, New York; photograph: Tom Vinetz

‘At the time, I was working on a series of white sculptures. For my very first show, however, I did a socially engaged project called To Do Lists [2010], in which I went around town in a single day with 30 other people collecting to-do lists from New Orleanians.’ The lists were then pinned geographically onto a map on a wall in Trouser House – another artist-run space in St. Claude. The project grounded Kwok’s interest in working with community members in experimental ways and developing new connections with people – something he believes is a by-product of his business-school training: ‘I think a lot of my practice stems from thinking about human behaviour at large.’

Stephen Kwok, To Do List: New Orleans (2010)
Stephen Kwok, To Do List: New Orleans, 2010. Courtesy: the artist and Dia Art Foundation, New York

This combination of business strategy and aesthetics fully came to fruition when Kwok pursued his MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied under artist and filmmaker Robin Deacon, whose works include performance-based lectures such as Harry and Me (2004). This led Kwok to experiment with meeting-based technologies, such as Skype and Zoom, to explore ideas around community and knowledge-sharing. ‘I’m really interested in technology and the culture that surrounds it,’ Kwok told me when we spoke. ‘Even To Do Lists was, in essence, a response to this idea of crowdsourcing and collecting data.’ These investigations led to ‘Recreational Meeting’ (2012) – a live performance in a conference room for which Kwok invited people to participate in absurdist activities. In 2021, he brought ‘Recreational Meetings’ to Dia, as part of the foundation’s educational and public programme, a series of Zoom-based performances inviting a poet, writer, artist or architect for each session to engage on a specific topic – such as ‘moving image’, ‘architecture’ or ‘language’ –  with different members of Dia’s community during the height of the pandemic. While Kwok’s attempt to subvert sterile, big-tech communication platforms in order to create a more experiential form of artistic engagement may seem optimistic, his ambition is admirable, and speaks to what makes his artistic and curatorial practices so unique.

Documentation image from Recreational Meeting: Moving Image, from the 2021 program
Stephen Kwok and Eduardo Williams, Recreational Meeting: Moving Image, 2021, documentation. Courtesy: the artist and Dia Art Foundation, New York

After the Dia luncheon, Kwok invited us to spend some time with him and friends in the neighbouring city of Newburgh, just across the Hudson River from Beacon. We spoke briefly about his tentative plans to partner with the Chelsea Recreation Centre – a stone’s throw away from Dia’s Manhattan location – for future programming, but Kwok is still exploring ideas on what he plans to achieve as curator of public engagement. ‘What’s great about this position is that I still get to continue the way I’ve always worked as an artist, knowing there’s room for experimentation and creating new forms.’

Main image: Stephen Kwok, Recreational Meeting, 2012. Courtesy: the artist, Dia Art Foundation, New York; photograph: Wei Hsinyen

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.