Welcome to the third edition of our ongoing interview series Meet the NYC Art Community. In the spirit of May Day, this week I spoke with art worker Diya Vij, who currently serves as Associate Curator of Public Programs at the High Line. We chatted about her interest in nurturing “the health and well-being of individuals, the city, and the planet through art-centered and civically oriented happenings, on and off the High Line.”
In her official role, Vij organizes and oversees all adult-focused live events including performances, festivals, workshops, talks, walks, and strategic partnerships. Prior to joining the High Line, Vij oversaw special projects for the Commissioner’s Unit in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, through which she created the Public Artists in Residence program, a municipal residency program that embeds artists into city agencies to address New York City’s most pressing issues. Participating artists have included Tania Bruguera, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Onyedika Chuke, and Ebony Noelle Golden. [Additionally, she was a project lead for the Agency’s citywide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative, and played an active role in public monument efforts, CreateNYC — New York City’s first cultural plan — and various arts-based projects for the Mayor and First Lady of New York City. She has organized several large-scale programs including “What Can We Do? Immigration Summit for Cultural Organizations” in 2018. A former curatorial fellow and communications manager at the Queens Museum, Vij received her MA in Art History from Hunter College in 2015 and her BA from Bard College in 2008.
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Where do you consider home?
New York City. I’ve been in Brooklyn for the past 11 years. I was born and raised in an immigrant family from India that found its way to Trumbull, CT, a small American suburb of 20,000 which boasts a movie theater and a mall.
What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?
I always knew I’d move here. I had been coming to New York since I was a kid. Jackson Heights was the closest place to get Indian groceries for most of my childhood. After stints in Delhi and Los Angeles, I moved back here to start a curatorial fellowship at the Queens Museum. I stayed because I found my people — artists, organizers, neighbors, friends of friends, and people pushing the boundaries of culture — who connect people together and hold their communities down. While working in Queens and for the [New York City Department of Cultural Affairs], I traveled all over the five boroughs many times over and got to see how creativity lives in every language in every corner of this city — art practices that are rooted in community care, preservation, collectivity, and activism.
Tell me about your first memory of art.
As a Gemini rising, the melodrama of Bollywood was probably the first thing that really piqued my interest, but I really first entered art through books and stories in school like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I remember spending hours and hours making a really intricate diorama of the machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Around the same time, I started taking photography, the only class I really thrived in, and began learning about contemporary art. I got really into social documentary image-making and learned about artists like Gordon Parks and Nan Goldin. I also started learning about activism and groups like the Young Lords and Act Up. I was starting to see that art takes many forms and has an inherent connection of politics. Shout out to art teachers for shaping lives every day.
How would you describe your practice?
On a macro level, I think that we suffer from a deficit in radical imagination and that artists-organizers should be at every decision-making table. I try to create platforms for artists to lead — from starting the Department of Cultural Affairs’s Public Artists in Residence program with Shirley Levy to launching an artist-led performance festival on the High Line, a structure that we plan to hand over to a different artist every year. I have always been drawn to artwork that exists outside of traditional art contexts and work that is made in collaboration with or alongside of people outside the traditional art world — work that is embedded within its social and political realities. As a curator of public programs, I’m always trying to create two-way dialogue between the communities we serve and the institution. When programming around an artwork or an issue, I always start by asking, who is already doing this work? I try to connect people to create meaningful — joyful, critical, dialogue-based — moments of interaction.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a number of public programs that I was excited to share with you all but given our current state of isolation, I’ll have to wait a little bit longer to do so. I am working with playwright Jeremy O’Harris to co-curate a performance festival, as mentioned above. We’re really leaning into the spirit of collaboration and the practice of remembering. I recently worked with a historian, Ben Serby, to understand the history of social and cultural movements in the neighborhoods surrounding the High Line starting from the bustling Lenape fishing village it once was to the year the High Line became an organization in 2000. This research serves as a tool for me to build from and to be accountable to these histories that feel so present.
Right now, I’m asking a lot of questions on my own and with peers, like what is our changing relationship to public space? How do we continue to center practices of care, accessibility, mutual aid, and collaboration? How do we collectively grieve? What’s our role in re-learning how to be together? I’m working to design programs around these questions.
As an organization, the High Line has distributed free meals in the neighborhood and staff, myself included, are volunteering to make weekly phone calls to elders.
Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?
My heart is breaking for the city. I think what keeps me up at night is probably the same thing that gets me out of bed in the morning: the Groundhog’s Day of history repeating itself. That feeling that we’ve been here over and over again, in different versions and iterations, and we can’t seem to break these cycles of gross inequity.
There are so many people proposing alternatives from different disciplines, and it’s incredible to see intersectional movements for prison abolition, economic justice, and environmental justice grow. I’m trying to be a student and participant however I can. There are amazing examples of alternatives from artists and arts organizations too, like The Laundromat Project and Recess and The Underground Museum and A Blade of Grass, and many others who work with the awareness that there is no separation between art and our responsibilities as neighbors and community members.
What are you reading currently?
I’m having such a hard time concentrating on much right now, so I have a few books in rotation: OnCurating Issue 42: WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT AIDS COULD FILL A MUSEUM, edited by Theodore (ted) Kerr; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.
What is your favorite way of experiencing art?
I love learning about participatory projects from the beginning. It’s such a privilege to get to read a proposal and talk through ideas with artists and peers, and if I’m really lucky, to be part of the journey to help realize those projects.
I really like being around people, but my favorite way to see an exhibition is alone, with my headphones on. Sometimes I’m not even playing music. I’m just in solo mode trying to get lost in the work by myself.
Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?
I was really drawn into the surreal worlds of Noah Davis at David Zwirner and Nicholas Moufarrege at the Queens Museum, as well as to Jeffrey Gibson’s intervention into settler colonial narratives at the Brooklyn Museum. I really wish I saw Colored People Time: Banal Presents with Carolyn Lazard, Cameron Rowland, and Sable Elyse Smith at the ICA in Philadelphia.
This is not an exhibition, but I absolutely love Performance Space’s 02020. For the whole year, they’ve handed their keys and backend over to Brujas and The New Red Order to push the organization in a new direction.
In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?
If we believe that art is a public good, then why haven’t we built stable, sustainable systems that support this work and its workers? What does a system that cares more about people than objects look like? Can we build it together now?