In a Living Room
Going to the Living Room Light Exchange in NYC with journalist/curator Sarah Burke
On one of the first warm nights in New York this spring, I pressed into a gleaming elevator with a crowd of similarly sweaty strangers. We rode up together to a previously designated floor. The doors slid open, straight into an industrial loft—soft white and natural fibers, sleek wood and metal—filled with people poised around large pillows, lit by the bright square of a projector against a vast white wall.
We were walking into season three, meeting two of Living Room Light Exchange New York (lrlxny). Lrlx was founded in the Bay Area by artists Liat Berdugo and Elia Vargas, and now has outposts in Tel Aviv, Paris, and New York. Each series is based on the original model—a monthly salon held in rotating living rooms, featuring three artists whose work falls somewhere along the intersection of art and technology. It grew out of a desire for candid critical discussions of these topics, both implicitly charged in the Bay Area; and a space for both artists and the public to discuss work outside the confines of an institution.
Sarah Burke, who moved here last fall after years in the Bay, is one of the curators, along with Nupur Mathur and Morehshin Allahyari, of New York’s season three. She became involved with lrlx after writing an article about the series for the East Bay Express, where she was a former managing editor, and wrote widely about arts and culture.
“What Living Room Light Exchange does is allow for the kinds of conversation you don’t get to have in other spaces,” Burke tells me later that week in a cafe. “There is no money involved. Artists can ask questions and look for feedback that they wouldn’t be able to in a museum or conference. They don’t have to come with everything figured out, and hopefully they get something valuable in return.”
The night’s invited artists were Ann Kidder, a visual and video artist, Prince Harvey, a rapper and music producer, and Dhruv Mehrotra, an activist and engineer. Each presenter is given fifteen minutes to speak, followed by questions, with time at the end for general discussion. Kidder went first, with photos of batteries that are charged by human blood, that she’d built to question nationalism and identity. She asked the audience about how the dark vials looped with copper wires made them feel—did they feel any different knowing the blood came from a Korean person? What about Korean-American? Harvey spoke about how he’d refused to follow music industry expectations, and instead used consumer capitalism to his advantage to produce an entire album in a Manhattan Apple store. Mehrotra came with questions for the audience about his own responsibilities to the people of Brooklyn after building and teaching teens to manage the burrough’s very own intranet. What is an artist’s responsibility to those who consume their work? Does that responsibility ever end?
In the Bay, Burke was co-founder of the open resource center Antilab, along with Holly Meadows-Smith, and co-curator of the 2017 Oakland Book Festival. She is also one of the founders of independent publisher Irrelevant Press. When she moved to New York, she began volunteering with lrlxny partly as a way to find a dedicated arts community in a busy, telescoping city.
“After moving to New York, I missed the arts community in the Bay. It defined me and my writing,” says Burke. “It’s tightknit, so if you write about someone’s work, it feels like it really matters.”
Now that her work is for a larger audience—Burke is an editor at Broadly, a VICE website—she says that the challenges she faces are different, even if the way she thinks about her writing is still much the same.
“Writing is about the way you approach interviews, include quotes, ethics, how you describe someone’s identity. I’ve taken all that with me from the Bay,” she says. “Now that the audience is broader, I’ve realized I can write specifically to the queer community, for example. Writing on a national scale, I can choose to focus on a community that might be too small in a smaller place, so it’s broadened my ideas of what I can write about. I’ve been able to continue working with some Bay Area artists too, and it’s been interesting to see their growth, to bring their work to a national, even international, outlet.”
In the loft, Burke and her co-curators fielded questions from the audience. Light bounced back from the projector, still lit, on both audience and artists, who were already dispersed among the couches. Someone standing by the door wondered how technology can help artists claim space in both physical and virtual spaces? From a pillow on the floor, someone wondered how hacking can be applied to traditionally artistic concerns. Allahyari added that she saw ways in which all of these artists were hacking their own mediums: How do we hack a human body? Hack consumerism? How can we use art to hack the capitalist systems inherent to the structure of tech?
In both her journalistic and curatorial work, Burke stresses the need for sharing knowledge and responsibility; for creating opportunity for people who might not otherwise have access; and for breaking through fabricated institutional barriers.
“I always encourage students to work at alt weeklies. It’s the experience of connecting with a place and a community, rather than blogging or doing small pieces for some large media company,” she says. “Sometimes, I hear people in journalism say things like, ‘No one knows how to write anymore.’ Then mentor someone! Every journalist should mentor at least one young person.”
As the presenters began to mingle with the crowd, everyone moving to the table littered with crinkled chip bags and halfempty bottles of wine, she recalled a line one of the lrlx founders once said to her about the singular value of living rooms.
“In a living room where no one has been before, everyone has to ask where the bathroom is.”—Claire Mullen