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Ki and Sei Smith, founders of the Apostrophe NYC art collectivevia Apostrophe NYC / Facebook

The art duo who broke into a museum to show their work

Ki and Sei Smith snuck into the prestigious Whitney to stage their own show – and have now been slapped with a lifetime ban

You may already have heard about the guerilla attack on the Whitney last Friday. The New York museum, whose hallowed halls have long been reserved for the biggest names in the art world, got unexpectedly hijacked by ‘Apostrophe NYC’: a Bushwick-based gallery who craftily installed 12 new paintings in the building’s back stairwell. According to various reports, the works stayed in the museum for 40 minutes before security caught on – with many guests convinced it was part of the Whitney’s regular lineup. “Our mantra has always been dive in and start swimming, the water always feels warmer when you’ve been swimming around for a bit,” justifies Sei Smith, who started the collective with his brother Ki. “We were both too excited by the art, music and ideas around us to not start doing something.”

The pair have since been slapped with a lifetime ban from the Whitney, though they assure it hasn’t put them off more guerilla tactics. In fact, their latest project – known simply as Base 12 – promises a slew of similar stunts: with pop-ups set to appear in more unorthodox (and secret) locations around the city. “If you have an idea that doesn’t fall apart through critical scrutiny but instead gets more intriguing, just start doing it,” Sei adds. “The details will work out if the concept is stable.” I caught up with the duo to find out more.

First thing’s first: what made you decide to hijack the Whitney?

Ki Smith: It's exciting when a museum opens – or, in this case, expands. My brother and I realised that many of the ideas that we had begun to explore in our Apostrophe subway shows could be pushed forward and expanded upon using a high profile site like the Whitney. 

“(The art scene is) tentative, disbanded, and unconfident. I'm young, but if I have any advice I'd say stop being scared, and just start doing” – Ki Smith

Were you aware of all the publicity it would cause? 

Ki Smith: You never know how an outside viewer will interpret a piece or project like this, so I think the press we have gotten so far is not only very humbling, but also reassuring. It’s important because it’s a way to expand the ideas, thoughts and processes that bring a project to fruition. It's a way of vicariously participating in an event or moment – which, in this case, is very important because of the fleeting guerrilla nature of the show. 

You say it was mostly a comment on the museum’s use of space, but the guerilla-like aspect of it made it feel more like a critique of the Whitney, or a comment on its elitism. Is there something in that interpretation?

Sei Smith: It’s a comment on barriers and how art curated in museums is viewed differently than it would be in a street or gallery. It’s exciting to curate shows that explore context and open up dialogue around these ideas. I think the goal of a project like this is to create an environment in which people feel compelled to critique the Whitney and the elitism of institutionalised art, or to celebrate the wealth of amazing art that museums offer – both of which are true and should be done. 

In contrast to the unconventional way it was presented, the work is quite classic – with a heavy focus on paintings and portraiture. Do you feel that form of work is neglected in the modern art scene?

Sei Smith: I think often in contemporary art, people falsely equate new ways of making with new ways of thinking. Using a tried and true medium like painting focuses the attention back on the artists and the art. It’s more intriguing to see how an artist uses a medium as a tool, rather than as a discovery.

You've been banned from the museum for life now. How does that make you feel?

Ki Smith: I feel great. The guards were just doing their job and I can promise that I'll be back in the Whitney. 

Sei Smith: I feel fine. I’ve been banned from Whole Foods for years and I still shop there sometimes, I just don’t shoplift anymore. I think these bans are less about punishment and more about respect. If we go to the Whitney to respectfully see a show, I’m sure it won’t be too much of a problem. 

What’s the art scene like for young creatives in New York right now?

Sei Smith: In New York right now there are so many different art scenes, I think the feeling is so different scene to scene. It feels very exciting around us, but I know it’s only a small section of the larger art world. And I think this is indicative of a universal problem right now. Within small communities, we feel great – but we feel no connection to the larger scene we exist in.

Ki Smith: Tentative, disbanded, and unconfident. I'm young, but if I have any advice I'd say stop being scared, and just start doing.

Read more about the Apostrophe NYC collective on their website here