Performing the Institution: ICA Philadelphia’s Trevor Shimizu: Performance Artist at Kunsthalle Lissabon

By Emily Leifer

What is an institution? Is it a building, a budget, a mission statement? These are the questions that I is for Institute, an initiative by the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, has been trying to answer. The project’s latest endeavor entails an international exchange between art institutions. For the next few months, the ICA Philadelphia will be inhabiting Kunsthalle Lissabon, Portugal, and in 2020, it will be hosting Raw Material Company from Senegal. These exchanges are something of an experiment. Is an institution geographically transferable? Can you take it “on the road”? I had the opportunity to speak with ICA’s Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber (CHE’60) Curator Alex Klein about the ICA Philadelphia exhibition Trevor Shimizu: Performance Artist, which opens at Kunsthalle Lissabon, Portugal on November 20, 2019, and runs through February 1, 2020. In our conversation, we discussed the multimedia artist’s engagement with video in our media-saturated world and what it might mean to show this work in an international context.  

Klein walked me through the checklist of Trevor Shimizu: Performance Artist, providing a virtual tour of the exhibition that, alas, I will never see in person (unless one of you wants to send me to Portugal). However, we can take heart in the fact that several of Shimizu’s videos will be streaming on the ICA Philadelphia website during the exhibition. This access provides another node in the international display of this Shimizu’s digital video and another point at which to consider what constitutes an institution. Is an institution a website? The curator’s walkthrough and the review are certainly practices that help to build an institution, respectively clarifying the institution’s motivations and establishing an audience. Klein’s description emphasized Shimizu’s formal experimentation, his engagement with previous art traditions, and his intense involvement with contemporary culture. In my opinion, this combination of museum research with the timeliness of a gallery is particular to the Institute of Contemporary Art model. Furthermore, it is not only the exhibition or the curator that establishes an institution, but also its reception. Thus this article itself, its tone, who reads it, and where it is published also contribute to the construction of the art institution. This very moment itself serves to shape the institution.    

In our talk, Klein described the first part of the exhibition as an introduction to the artist, to his work, and the blurry boundary between the two. In Memoir (2015), a short text-based video, the phrase “Hi, My Name is Trevor Shimizu” flashes across the screen, followed by a choppy recollection of his childhood among the cows and aging hippies of Northern California. In addition to a literal greeting, this piece announces the deadpan humor and contemporary boredom that characterize the other works in this show. Klein explained that the Trevor Shimizu in Memoir (2015), however, is not identical to Trevor Shimizu the artist. This ambiguous level of remove and sly self-critique is characteristic of both Shimizu’s video and painting work. Throughout the exhibition, the artist evokes a series of surrogates which each allow him to examine not only our contemporary media landscape but the type of subjects it calls forth. Klein comments that these characters, often sad and insecure, present a refreshing male vulnerability, one without the anger that has come to dominate the popular idea of the male misfit.

Trevor Shimizu, still from “The Lonely Loser Trilogy: Skate Videos,” 2013, single-channel video, color, sound, 14:02 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI).

The Lonely Loser Trilogy can be found on the second floor of the exhibition. Consisting of four videos—more of Shimizu’s brand of humor—the series includes Skate Videos (2013), Browsing Snowboards and Snowboard Gear (2015), Mountain Bikes (2015), and Internet Concert (2018). In Skate Videos, one sees the familiar rectangle of an iPad, held by a figure who remains just off-screen, playing videos of skateboarders. In a recent interview, Shimizu said, “I think skateboarding is one of the most difficult things a person can do. That Lonely Loser Skate video came about when I was trying to skate again. I was watching some videos by people twenty years younger than me and basically just felt like a lonely loser who couldn’t skate.” [1] Beyond this wry self-pity, something else stands out about Skate. Looking at a still from the work, I began to notice its unusual framing and partially visible figure. Klein revealed that these elements are due to the fact that the work was filmed on an early model of Google Glass, or “smart glasses.” Not only does this device allow the viewer to relive the first-person experience of watching Internet videos on the couch, but it adds to one’s understanding of the person just off-screen. Shimizu explained later in the same interview, “The gear was essential to the Lonely Loser series… The thing felt ridiculous, but it determined everything I did—how I moved, interacted with my surroundings—and I quickly became addicted to using it to shoot videos. I became the character I was parodying. I became the tech guy, lounging around the house, researching his hobbies on an iPad.” [2] This all-too-familiar, tech-savvy couch-potato returns in the other three videos of the series, shopping for snowboards, learning about mountain bikes, and even attending a concert via an electronic device. 

Bringing an art historical eye to these high tech snippets of contemporary ennui, Klein related this repetitive and time-based media performance—the shopping, surfing, streaming, and its documentation—to some of the earliest experiments with video art in the 1970s. When video technology first became commercially available, artists took to investigating its capabilities. They tested its ability to capture the passage of time by filming repetitive actions and tested configuring space by pointing it at mirrors, at monitors, and other cameras. Klein saw Shimizu as enacting these types of experiments for the Internet age. Perhaps the repeated scrolling on the touch screen of a phone can tell us something about the time of the Internet. Perhaps filming an iPad through the lens of Google Glass can tell us something about its space. And finally, perhaps the displacement of ICA Philadelphia to Portugal can tell us something about the Internet-mediated time and space we live in. 

Trevor Shimizu: Performance Artist is not simply an exchange exhibition (if you are concerned you missed the show in town, you haven’t). The show will open for the first and only time at Kunsthalle, Lissabon. The name Kunsthalle Lissabon is itself a comment on the often free-floating geography of contemporary art. “Kunsthalle” designates a non-collecting art institution, one that puts on temporary shows. Artworks flow in and out of the space, possibly on an itinerary around the world. This title is usually followed by a specific geographical site, differing one Kunsthalle from another; but where is Lissabon? The answer is somewhere between Portugal and Germany, in the international flux of art, artists, and audiences. Germany is a major center of the international art world and “Lissabon” is “Lisbon” in German. It is a fitting name for a venue playing host to this multilayered experiment with the idea of an art institution and the space of new media. 

During the run of what Klein described as a decidedly ICA show, the European art space will have “ICA” written on the door, will include wall text and gallery notes in ICA style, and will likely include ICA’s usual opening curator-artist dialogue. Almost all the things that signal the ICA as an institution will be transported to and fully inhabit this other institution. This unique opportunity comes on the occasion of Kunsthalle Lissabon’s 10-year anniversary. Kunsthalle Lissabon has developed a close relationship with the ICA through the “I is for Institute” project and shares its goal of investigating the meaning of the art institution. To celebrate their decade of existence, Kunsthalle Lissabon decided to disappear, temporarily. While they take this time to reflect on their own instutionality, they have decided to open their doors to four international partners. According to their website, “…four like-minded institutions will take over the space we will leave vacant. Not only the space but also our production and communication infrastructure, our resources and even our online presence…They will have to negotiate with and interact with a context that is not their own but for which they will have to work publicly.”[3]

Taking up this challenge to publicly interact with a new context, Klein has chosen to exhibit an artist she sees as particularly “American.” She was interested to see how Shimizu’s brand of humor and up-to-the-minute cultural reference read to a Portuguese audience. What of Shimizu’s practice will be legible and what will not? At the beginning of our conversation, I had been unclear on the connection between Shimuzu’s work, which does not deal in an obvious way with the art institution or with international exchange, and the I is for Institute project. However, once Klein explained her reading of Shimizu’s work in light of 1970s formal video experiments, and her reading of Shimizu as an “American” artist, the choice started to make sense to me. I realized that while Shimizu’s chosen forms—video, memes, Instagram stories—may travel seamlessly, his content—self-deprecating comedy predicated on specific ideas of age, gender, and race—may not. I began to see what the combination of easily transferable media and less easily transferable culture might have to do with the stakes and goals of a contemporary art institution in our globalized world. By shifting the physical setting and audience for these works and paying particular attention to the consequences of these moves, one begins to see what is unique to each art institution: the experience of art in a specific place and within a local community. In my opinion, by choosing Shimizu’s work, depictions of a lonely guy lost in the international placelessness of the Internet, and by showing it far away from the ICA community and location, this exhibition successfully highlights the importance of sociability and physicality to the art institution and to the ICA Philadelphia itself. 

Trevor Shimizu: Performance Artist, organized by the ICA Philadelphia at Kunsthalle Lissabon runs from November 20, 2019–February 1, 2020. Select works of Shimizu will be available on ICA’s website throughout the run of the exhibition.

Emily Leifer is a graduate student in the History of Art Ph.D. program at Bryn Mawr College. She studies modern and contemporary art, focusing on the 1960s and 1970s. Her research investigates the intersections of art, technology, and environmentalism during this period. She received her M.A. from Williams College and her B.A. from Brandeis University.

[1] C. Spencer Yeh and Trevor Shimizu, “Confusing and Accurate and Deadpan,” Bomb Magazine, Feb 19, 2019, Accessed November 3, 2019:

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Project,” Kunsthalle Lissabon Website, Accessed 3 November 2019: