Meet the comedy duo running a New York gallery dedicated to pop culture guilty pleasures.
Photos by Kelsey Lawrence
There is no more delicious roll of the dice than showing someone you've just met your favorite, go-to bizarre YouTube video—not a widely-consumed viral video; maybe one with less than 200,000 hits. Whether or not that person "gets it" can make or break any future bonding. Now, imagine that moment turned into a museum. This is the particular feeling that Viviana Olen and Matt Harkins—cofounders of THNK1994, a pop culture gallery in Brooklyn—create. It's the space that would have emerged if you and your high school best friend grew up, moved in together, and created a museum dedicated to your lovingly referential, specific interests and inside jokes.
Walking into THNK1994's Bed-Stuy storefront feels like walking into the apartment of a travel journalist in the '90s. This is how Olen describes it to me as I enter a room of dulcet Southwestern colors, with an open staircase and a loft above. The current exhibit—the first in their new space—is an ode to a 42-second, cult-hit video of Kim Cattrall scat-singing with her ex-partner Mark Levinson. It's a video of mysterious origins, featuring something your comfortably artsy, overtly sexual aunt would perhaps try out at a get-together: doing some cringe-inducing spoken word poetry while her partner plays the upright bass.
Harkins and Olen built a tender shrine to this Sexual Intelligence-era Kim Cattrall moment in the form of an exhibit featuring interpretations of the video by artists (and Kim fans). Some works include a video station of clips from Kim Cattrall interviews, an Art Deco fireplace Harkins constructed out of decoupaged Sex and the City scenes, and a series of paintings with a crown jewel of a resigned but regal Samantha Jones at Carrie's book party after a chemical peel.
This is Harkins and Olen's third exhibit. Their first in 2015, The Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum, was displayed in the hallway of their Williamsburg apartment. Last year, their second exhibit, Olsen Twins Hiding From the Paparazzi, was in an abandoned doctor's office.
"The idea of [the Kim Cattrall video] being an exhibit came right after the Olsen Twins ended, and we met with another gallery," Olen explains. "They were like 'Do you have any ideas for another exhibit?' and we were like, 'Ummmm, Yami Kippi Ya Bo?' [The video] is the one thing we would show everybody when they came over, like 'Have you seen this?' We met people who had seen it, and it was one of those things where if you know about it, we're going to be best friends."
Olen leans in and waits a beat.
"That gallery did not get back to us," she says.
Olen and Harkins are co-curators, roommates, best friends, and fellow pizza slingers when they're not manning the museum. They're both comedians who met and first connected over, what else, the theory that Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando left New York City in a car together after 9/11. After that, the pair "spent six months on [her] couch, chain-smoking, watching Real Housewives, and swiping through Tinder and just being like 'You're great,' 'No, you're great,'" Olen says.
"We're best friends," Olen explains when I ask what creating a space like THNK1994 means to them. "I did not become as confident or accepting of myself until I met him and vice versa. I think that's where our mission statement and what we can do for other people came in. We met at a time where the people we work with stopped calling. I had been here for a decade trying to do comedy, and all of my friends were making it and I was just kind of like..." she says, trailing off with a sigh. "When the first exhibit started and people started submitting art, we just passed that love on. People put love and energy into it and were giving us things, and wanted to tell us their stories."
Art may feel more democratized in the age of the internet, but there's still a hidden element of constriction and elitism. What Matt and Viviana have created is obviously different than a Chelsea gallery, but it does bring to mind what a gallery space could be if art were truly accessible. Hanging out in THNK1994 might be the most comfortable, relatable art gallery experience I've ever had. A comfy, bright yellow Victorian chair and ottoman (courtesy of Harkins' grandmother) sit in the main space, next to a white wicker table displaying a vase of pink flowers. The walls aren't gallery-white and, while most of the art is hung and framed, a few pieces—beautifully illustrated Kim Cattrall tarot cards, specially—sit on the table.
"We want each exhibit to feel like a full experience," Harkins says. "When we built out the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan museum, we really were like 'How do we make this as cool as possible?' We want to give people a full experience."
The pair approach their subjects with reverence, humor and care. They're quick to establish that they're not making fun of Cattrall, but rather, appreciating a bizarre moment where, as Harkins describes, "A human being is going 110 percent and maybe it doesn't work out the way they thought it would, but it's still so much fun to watch."
"Sometimes people are like, 'Oh, are you making fun of her?' And that's such a weird way of thinking, or at least maybe a straight guy way of thinking," he explains. "It's either like you're laughing at this person, or you relate to them and love them. But it's so boring if you're only fanning out for people you relate to and understand."
That may be the best part of what Harkins and Olen do with THNK1994. To view any of their exhibits as an ironic ode is to view it through a constrained context. (Perhaps, as Harkins says, one of a straight man's.) What we view as pop culture guilty pleasures are often carefully framed in the context of Oh, but I also love these tasteful things, so it's OK. THNK1994 doesn't create a wry distance between what Harkins and Olen like and the work they create.
This is evidenced in an unexpectedly poignant mid-May panel on Britney Spears, featuring the set designer from Spears' recent "Slumber Party" video. The audience gathered on the floor together, and while there were four official panelists, everyone in the room posed questions freely. There were many small but affecting moments, like one man sharing a story of how Britney helped him become more comfortable with his sexuality, and a discussion about mental illness and what the singer went through being asked about her sex life in the public eye at the young age of 16.
The next night, the pair's artist friend was supposed to host a show called the Whitney (Houston) Biennial—a play on the Whitney Biennial—at THNK1994, but cancelled last minute. A group of about 10 people gathered around Olen as she called the artist on speakerphone to ask why he didn't show up. "Well," the voice on the other end said, "my friends wouldn't have come out in the rain." Olen laughed, looking around at the people who had, in fact, come out in the rain. Unphased, she and Harkins led the event instead: a curated assortment of strange, delightful YouTube clips including the Tandi DuPree ceiling death drop and a bizarre 1972 dance performance where everyone appears to be on MDMA.
Upcoming THNK1994 exhibits include a collaboration with early-2000s celebrity archivist Pop Culture Died in 2009 and another collaboration with Chicago artist Laura Collins for a series called Real Housewives Pointing At You. (It will be a "very emotional experience," Olen hints about the Real Housewives exhibit.) I tell Olen and Harkins that their museum reminds me of a new incarnation of URL-to-IRL culture, where typically-online discussions of niche moments in pop culture are frozen into meaningful, real-life experiences. Like at the Whitney (Houston) Biennial, when audiences gathered to watch a truly dynamic, precise recreation of Beyoncé's "Countdown" performed by a teenage boy wearing a Snuggie. Afterwards, viewers were simultaneously marveling and laughing over the incredibleness of the whole thing. Harkins gestured to the screen and said vehemently, " This belongs in a fucking museum."
And that's exactly what THNK1994 and its founders create: an environment where artists who find beauty in Real Housewives and Britney Spears superfans can make art about things they love unabashedly. Sometimes it feels like you're supposed to consume "guilty pleasures" in a specific and almost performative way, ironically referencing something but not fully embracing it. This is simply not so at THNK1994's, where you can explore all things weird, delightful, and yes, pleasurable—no explanation necessary.