Not having any problem with the columns in the gallery at Bemis Center, Elisabeth Kley imagines a pavilion: a venue for performance or ritual, open to the elements and to people, a social space for public life.
The columns have their own story, feeling. They inflect whatever is added and precipitate meaning. Givens or prepossessing conditions in an exhibition space is something Kley is interested in. They begin a thought that is coextensive with her sculptures and fabrics about how to transform shape and surface without modifying what is there already.
Pattern has similar amplitude. It too does something to a space to do with inherence and invention. Kley has a feeling for history and is unafraid to improvise. She is a researcher and admirer of many intersecting traditions of performance and decorative arts. Kley is serious about pattern as a method. What do I mean? She sees how a single gesture can be its own smallest unit and the set of transformational rules that determine the structure of its appearance over time—an absurd atomism and also wallpaper.
What I want to say is how complicated pattern is. How is it made? Through the winding and unwinding of form and time. On the outskirts of taxonomy. Through a negotiation of value or some desire to keep going. In Minutes of Sand, pattern is wayfinding—wellspring—scenography—score. It keeps track of time in formal relationships and figures things out about variation and repetition. It also… comes loose a little. Pours out of its forms. Is tuned to the imaginative activity of appearance as well as the meaning: a logic that defies logic through its intricacy.
These sculptures and fabrics are pattern’s objects, meaning pattern is their source. Yardage in particular can’t be rushed out of the mind: beginning with a large volume of drawings, Kley divided her chosen patterns into elements by color then painted each on a film to silkscreen these pieces with the help of two technicians at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. The “and, and, and” of it, also the doubling back of fabric required to start the next layer, makes me think of pattern as being built up from the inside, as a recursive sort of blooming as much as an accretion of influence—
Did silkscreening make you think differently about pattern, I say, and Kley says, not really, but maybe it should—
Kley draws a lot to arrive at patterns, scaling from shape to room, so I guess I meant the part about the silkscreen process beginning with one that’s finished. But pattern tells that teleology does nothing to diminish the beguiling experience of what pattern is. History is a formal and emotional problem for Kley and her works come to be on the way to imaginary solutions. Visual inference and citation, working with what is there already, are ways she makes clear that what she shares with the legendary set designers and artisans she references is a desire for the explosion of affect in a time-limited world.
Carlo Bugatti; the Bloomsbury Group; Assyrian antiquity; Jean Cocteau; Léon Bakst and Natalia Goncharova; chinoiserie; Weiner Werkstätte; frescos from Nebamun’s tomb—Kley collects formal residue. Not all of these are in Kley’s lexicon but her intense engagement with aesthetics allows that everything is inessential, nothing is superfluous. And anyway form offers only a halo of containment: influence for Kley is a moving thing.
A sculpture with four gridded legs and what looks like a ceremonial gate painted on its top is only like a table. The yardage is a river. For Alfred Jarry, the Symbolist writer who Minutes of Sand is named for, memory’s transference was memory’s truest object.
The Morgan Library calls the gold insignia on the cover of Jarry’s Les minutes de sable mémorial “heraldic”, making me think of angels and messages and faith and/or waiting. Is pattern language? Pattern is more code than message, and code is the social part of language (Lacan says). I’m trying to sort out what is shared and what is personal in pattern’s appearance because pattern doesn’t just appear; it is conjured up, passed down, inhabited, transferred. Pattern is environmental. Pattern is a habit (like some monks wear). A form of faith (and/or waiting) where the garment is an import from collective to self.
See: the ballet dancer. See: the priest. The outermost layer does something to appearance (meaning affective reality) to do with belief. The vestment or costume is how the priest transcends individuality in the eyes of the faithful and how—Paul P. wrote this about Kley’s work—Nijinsky was the faun. A fulcrum between identity and identification, performer and role—investing in this activity of the outfit, Kley calls the way her terracotta sculptures come to be patterned “dressing”: once a shape is first fired, she sticks pieces of paper painted with patterns on its body to determine what to paint and glaze.
Funny to think of terracotta as a paper doll or fit model, making clay’s commitment to the part seem agnostic. This is interesting in relation to Kley’s test tiles, rehearsals of her signature black and white patterning, which I have on hand. Each slab specifies a single element or motif, lending pattern figural presence that Kley actively undermines through the physical interaction of paint and glaze. Wateriness at the edges of a black flower or blueish speckles in a ground of white or feathering where color dissipates in transparent clots all convey an attitude. Everything is available; nothing is promised. The goal stays to collude with ambiguity. Not to signify, to transform.
Kley’s flowers alone infer complicated histories of design’s attempts to re-entangle nature and culture and ritual’s evidence that they were never separate to begin with. This is a lot for a flower to do and of course flowers are always doing this. Motif in Kley’s work opens the door to conflicted imaginaries, to economy as well as decadence. Even stripes or waves or arches, even formal givens like flowers or columns show themselves to be capable of weirdness, imprecision, antagonism and beauty—of being wagers. Of resisting standardization above all.
Tell me about William Morris, a friend says, and I say, OK: he wanted to spread pattern over everything. But cultivation is more important to Kley than infinity. For her 2019 show with Tabboo! at Gordon Robichaux, she made planters and a fountain complete with coins out of box shapes and arches. The show was called Garden; the gallery looked wet and fecund. Inside and outside, already eccentric, became only relatively true. Is pattern propaganda, the friend says, or just a different way of describing the real thing?
Can pattern be trusted? What does it want? To create a shifting context for reality, maybe. Kley is always fighting with the desire to make a stage set, which she does in Minutes of Sand, but differently. Here, the ability to be and not be oneself that pattern stands for has to do with a sense of futurity or faith in the inexhaustible within the apparently self-disclosing. Kley believes in continuity as well as subterfuge. The curtain goes up and the audience improvises.
On a residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, Eric N. Mack installed big reds, holey oranges, droopy blues, filamented purples: another outfit or posture for the desert body of light and air. Swathes of textile stretched from wall to wall, draped, gathered, suspended, stitched, and woven. Everywhere, metal skeletons—antennae, clotheslines, umbrellas—and cardboard keeled over in support.
Mack held an open studio for visitors, but passersby could see his workings through a shopfront window he left uncovered, partly to invite such unplanned looking, partly because—Mack is a painter—he thinks about surface in relation to light.
Lots of pink, some yellow, a found patchwork quilt. I don’t know if Mack thinks about material as such, at least not in the way that would give “found” a special meaning. He thinks about composition, or color and shape pitched together by a kind of situatedness or sense of the work as its own good neighbor, open to resonance and contrast and chance yet purposeful in how it meets itself and the atmosphere. In sculptural parlance Mack’s work is assemblage. But Mack is (the writer Mahfuz Sultan has noted) more interested in styling or the activity of the look.
Can resistance be luxurious? Mack’s work is both, does both. Its many surfaces—textures, patterns, reverse sides, detailing—give a maximum amount of information in an abstract language. So much of it is transparent and still the work keeps something for itself.
Then the time changes and the work is a sundial. Then the scene changes and the work is a lens. Mack is relaxed about describing his work as having use. He calls it a scrim when it crosses the gallery window or a shelter for the body of a model in a photograph. Mack dressed an abandoned gas station in Coachella Valley with membranous Missoni fabric and called it Halter (2019). When this work was vandalized, the violence foreclosed the time the work had to complete itself but not its use, meaning its ability to anticipate a possibility of transformation.
Mack approached his 2023 work in the atrium of Venice’s Palazzo Grassi as a kind of resurrection for Halter. Working with a large team and a high degree of predetermination, he installed textiles in a dramatic sequence of swoops and peaks in white and pink and green on a large metal mobile, with a drift of pale greens and yellows and sinewy navy under that. At one point the shape looked too much like a pirate ship but then Mack thought of Vivienne Westwood or work that, like Westwood’s, Mack says, “shifts with the air.” At this scale, improvisation became even more important. Mack was working to not discount what moves were available based on those he’d made already.
This turn-taking with environment, down to the tiny textile scraps in glasses of water in Scampolo! at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, tells me something about how Mack finds form. Nothing is ruled out in a composition. Mack uses the phrase “uneasy harmony” to describe how his work comes together and stays together, and how this coming together and staying together depends on a kind of homeostasis of dependence and difference. The floating scraps look like specimens or “moments,” Mack says, from a future work’s self-image. Are they preserved or dissolving? Every scampolo (remnant) is suspended in options.
Graham Hamilton wanted to bring flowers to New York and here—open your arms! Open your eyes! Do you know who you are?
All kinds of visual and material fullnesses populate Dearly. The spirit is of generosity and doubt. Hamilton is homesick. A sincere question hovers in these prints and sculpture about how art ultimately resolves or finds itself in a superabundant world and whether meaning is as eschatologically dispersed as a camera flash on flowers.
Fashion photography is not what I expected to say next but Hamilton is interested in collecting and arranging and therefore in economies of desire. He has a real love for movements (Art Nouveau) and places (flea markets) and I guess industries (luxury fashion) that recycle material history and derive their strange yet inviting aesthetics from obsession and flawed taxonomy.
But back to photography… What Peter Schjeldahl wrote about Wolfgang Tillmans dropping a figurative but also literal pane of glass through a party with his photographs might help me say how Hamilton’s methods, from screenprinting to iPhone scanning to flower arranging to framing, both are and are in his images. Stars are a technology. Hamilton has a knack for timeliness. What is being tested is how faithfully the intervention of making into living can be shown without becoming a metaphor.
Since it is me who risks overburdening the work, I will say that what I think art wants from poetry is to employ the meaningful and affective qualities of language without the yoke of discourse. I can relate. I too want writing to be additive, to find freedom in my own formal and material processes. A poem adds up to tension as well as image and reserves the right not to be instrumentalized for or against itself. This may explain a perverse streak in Dearly’s elaborateness and resplendence where what I come away with is unsolid.
So if I stick with this and call enjambment the break in the framing system or the schism of sign from symbol or the discoloration of cells in the laserjet prints, I can better say how Dearly—layers of life and matter and allusion, improvised and appropriated systems of reference and inference and artifact—affects me with the surprising spareness of the gift. And why I keep thinking about John Ashbery, who had to apologize for his poetry. For the uncertainty or flaw that sensitized his work to the world, ecstatically repeating and compounding in its subject matter and the way it is made.
Mist and Nuts contains 17 painting assemblages by Siobhan Liddell. 17 images with ceramic and other sculptural elements such as wire, straws, fabric, and foil. Here are 17 figures of Liddell’s feeling for form and material. 17 pieces of life on Earth. Here are 17 arrangements of what is at hand or at heart. 17 intuitions of rest and work. There are 17 days in this quixotic month.
Liddell started these paintings last summer. She had lost several people close to her and time was opening to swallow. Liddell meditates and has space for emptiness. What she didn’t expect in these works was form. They are not about loss but about change. Here are 17 experiments with time and mutability. 17 takes on the infinitude alive in bounded things.
“Leg of Lamb” comes between “April 21” and “April 22” in Bernadette Mayer’s Works and Days. Liddell’s works also treat the everyday as superadded. Figures play beyond edges and parts that hang or drape or frame reverse visual encounter with texture, so that the eye is asked to feel before it sees. Liddell stands accused of affinity with “poor materials.” The New York Times called Liddell’s work “odd poetry,” which is one way to say that she includes in composition what is out of place.
Oddness estranges and compels. Weird, someone says, feeling jealous, curious, or in awe. Oddness disarranges consciousness and opens up vision. Is the empty cardboard box or the drained pool a cenotaph? Are ceramics to image what shape is to sky? Liddell’s material impulses get worked over. Liddell makes minor architectures of touch and feeling. These ask questions: What is memory? What is seeing? Where does image come from?
Ovid sends Iris for visions to the palace of sleep. I get the sense that image arrives similarly in Liddell’s work, outside the daylight of consciousness. Her varied sources—photographs, memories, in-the-world, mind’s eye—obviate distinctions of “outer” and “inner” vision. Image in Liddell’s work is a visitation, sensed before it is seen. Image is a filter sense passes through on its way to form. Specific like a body, bodied like a hand. Image intercedes in being and is its shape.
Liddell’s friend Matt Connors wrote that painting isn’t about vision, painting is vision. These uncharacteristically figurative works ask me to look at what they’re depicting, as well as how they appear, and when I do, they start to seem more like figurative abstractions in which (even) narrativity points to the fact of their making. Lucio Fontana’s crucifixes improbably come to mind. Liddell is a maker and material is her subject matter. Here are 17 times image is inseparable from material which is vision.
Sprung from the grey estate building, the wire, like an eye, casts barely into space. This wire is fishing for the work’s extents, which are serious and sincere, even as the nuts and bolts of it are disappearing. Mist settles, improbable, Johanna Fateman wrote, enchanted. Back to Iris. Form is magic. Image is restless. Liddell communes with the solid and the shifting. Ceramic doily over painted torso, sun rising toward fabric skies, love under branches and in blue jeans, an impossibly pink story on this regular, regular English afternoon.
Something I keep thinking about in relation to Rebecca Fortnum’s Les Praticiennes is
if portraits can be both real and not true. I am haunted by this possibly self-collapsing question of veracity and can’t get past it. Why?
When I visited Fortnum, she told me that she likes that portraiture hasn’t been considered ‘real art’ for a long time. ‘Real’ is a funny word here. Read slantwise and without quotes—no importation of contested meaning to stifle (my) sincerity —it says a lot about how meaning is made and how authenticity and criticality are presumed foreclosed if the object of a work is a credible likeness.
So what is a portrait? Or rather, what is a face? To treat them as fungible is not so silly. Think about when you see a lover again after a long time. The face is both different and the same, more and less like what you imagined. Profile becomes experience and this has more to do with the compression of layers of images in reality than with the transfiguration of image into thing. Some fiction is lost and replaced with something else. The story is overwritten but also edified by new meaning. This describes a dynamic of intimacy as well as painting.
How a face is a life is important to Fortnum. She wants to know how relationships with friends and lovers and art and time might show up for real in portraiture or the face as work. In Les Praticiennes, Fortnum gets at this through a process of translation: a buildup of interpretation from live model to sculpture via the work of another artist, to images of the work on Fortnum’s computer screen, to the pictures she makes of that work in paint or carbon. What translation and portraiture have in common is the slipperiness of the source. They describe an approach to reality in which speculation is possible without metaphor.
All of the artists whose sculpture Fortnum works from crossed paths with Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) but this is usually one of their lesser anecdotes. The actress and sculptor Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), for instance, nursed her dying husband, a failed actor and morphine addict, before carving a funerary bust in marble that Fortnum draws. In faces by Camille Claudel (1864–1943) and Jessie Lipscomb (1861–1952), Fortnum sees the two women’s tricky friendship: Lipscomb as Rodin’s reluctant go-between with Claudel; Claudel renouncing Lipscomb; Lipscomb returning to visit Claudel during her long incarceration in Montdevergues Asylum and asking her husband to photograph them standing side by side.
Because Fortnum has seen very few of the sculptures in person, she relies on what
is accessible to understand who she is picturing. This includes images and also writing, theses, biographies and archival papers. Ottilie MacLaren Wallace’s (1875–1947) letters, which her husband kept, were written under the penname Shulamith and contained rose petals. In her early ideas for Les Praticiennes, Fortnum planned to write in the voices of the artists. A trial epistolary piece from Wallace ends: “Alone here at night in Paris I think of you in London and touch myself in your stead”.
This is a clue. So is the light, which seems to come from nowhere. Vision isn’t durable or to be trusted. Appearance in this series is conditional, induced. Fortnum’s way of posing the problem of looking and what looking wants frees the face to a more fluid state of purpose in that the eyes point back to the hand that is at work. When, among the drawings, the head of Wallace’s father bursts from material darkness like a newborn or anomaly, his eyes are empty of self-knowledge. Fortnum is working economically with history and memory while intervening in the number of subjectivities that can flow through one face.
Supposedly, dogs don’t look at the faces of other dogs but are studious of human faces because they understand that’s how humans communicate their intentions. This makes me think that to treat allegory as interchangeable with meaning in a portrait is to mistake something about what a face is. A face is a sign and also a surface. A face may say less about the appearance of the mind, as Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) suggested, than it does about the in-the- world-ness of appearances…
… Say how Alberto Giacometti (1901–66) fused two or more flat views in his sculptures and proved on some level — by confounding and contriving profile — what is needed to make a face. These heads are helpful as I’m trying to understand what type of appearance faces negotiate. With a portrait you have to imagine — which feels like seeing — the back of the head. Every part of Les Praticiennes bolsters the fiction of my real desire to see: the artist and her subjects, who are not the people in the pictures; and the portraits, sculpture and wallpaper, silkscreened and fading as it nears the floor as if saying something about light and time.
Giacometti conceals profile in the round. Fortnum brings faces about through similar gestures of pressing, prying, pinching and the idea of composition as a provisional state, but backwards. She searches, collates, zooms and so on to approximate first-hand seeing and at the pixel limit, invents. What is allowed to come through in her facture is historical proprioception or a sense of where she is in time. The little porcelain hand, derived from 3D modelling, is a cipher. Painting and drawing become kinds of impossible touching. The effect is very tender without being familiar at all.
I want to write “who is Fortnum painting” to use reading’s reflexivity to link these artists —Fortnum and her group of fifteen — with the faces in the portraits in the way that the poet and essayist Joan Retallack (b. 1941) describes using ‘I’ to index the transformation of medium and subject matter (which may include herself) through the activity of working. Disarticulating the subject feels appropriate because Fortnum employs identity to trace material collisions. She doesn’t want to be right. A student looking at a self-portrait once asked Fortnum whether Rembrandt (1606–69) was a nice person. The first and best mistake is to compare the creation with what is made by God.
How much of this is a Pygmalion story? All these layers of time, attention and matter are condensed here. Maybe it’s not so eucharistic. I’m thinking of the large, painterly blots on the (probably erotic) sections of MacLaren Wallace’s letters. Fortnum is working with occlusions that can’t be transubstantiated. She chose these artists for their extraordinary and sometimes catastrophic lives as well as for the patchy afterlives of their work in words and images. And here the subject, I, a woman working, is intending something about time’s treachery and incarnation as a resource —
The artist Luc Tuymans (b. 1958) once said that he was “uninterested in renderings of people where the meaning comes from ‘the inside out'”, but when does that ever happen? Possibly the worst thing you could say about a Tuymans painting is that it is real. Or beautiful, confusing the surface of the artwork with that of the face. But manner or way of looking in Fortnum’s work encompasses such apophatic blind spots. The face as a composition or sequence of gestures is the face that converts source into sign open-endedly. These pictures that are sensate truths are speculative appearances. They are about portraiture in the way that Tuymans’s work is about painting but the face remains an extended thing.
Am I looking for sly facticity or to gain access to a feeling? One drawing that stands out is from a work by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955), who met Rodin only once and was allegedly disappointed. Fortnum drew from images of Vonnoh’s maquette of Sarah Bernhardt which is missing a face. The head without one is like a door or mirror in that I see my own desire to look or move. Vonnoh was known for her small bronzes but Fortnum’s drawing is larger than life, sort of like Rodin’s Monument to Balzac 1898 except that Bernhardt seems nonplussed. Expression without appearance. This is one of those moments where I am thinking about reality meaning what is possible. Something else Fortnum told me from Maclaren Wallace’s diaries is that she wanted to be happy but she also wanted to be a good artist.
Every part has a role to play in Nairy Baghramian’s work. Although she is very much a sculptor, a recent recipient of both the prestigious Nasher Prize and the Metropolitan Museum in New York’s 2023 façade commission, she is deeply attuned to performance and thinks in groupings even within a single work. Showing contingency as well as contradiction is part of her method. This is apparent in the construction of the works—in her various techniques of casting, molding, carving, and joining, and in her formal language of bends, droops, arcs, and blobs. It’s also there, sometimes indirectly, in the titling of her works or exhibitions, which always in some way anticipate and respond to the conditions of their setting and the dynamic unravelling of perspective an audience brings.
“Grouping” is Baghramian’s chosen word. She prefers it to “series” or “collaboration”—no forced harmony. A grouping can be an ongoing body of work, like the large, colorful polyurethane and silicone Sitzengebliebene/Stay Downers (2016–), or a selection of works for a specific exhibition. It can also describe Baghramian’s relationships with other artists, including the interior designer Janette Laverrière, the contemporary choreographer Maria Hassabi, the midcentury architect Carlo Mollino, or the modernist writer Jane Bowles. Their work might appear in or alongside Baghramian’s own work—in her forms or titles, or when she turns a solo into a group show.
In the case of Laverrière, Baghramian found what is still the only monograph of her work in a bookshop in New York in 2007. In it was a photograph of Laverrière’s work, Entre deux actes: Le loge d’actrice—Between Two Acts: An Actress’s Dressing Room, a collection of furniture she presented at a design salon in Paris in 1947, designed for her friend, a professional singer, who had suddenly stopped performing, left Paris altogether, and disappeared. After learning that Laverrière was still alive and living in Paris at the age of 98, Baghramian travelled to meet her. The two began an intense and productive dialogue that evolved into ideas for new work, and when Baghramian was asked to do an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Baden Baden in Germany, she invited Laverrière to restage Entre deux actes. She later called their partnership a “co-existence.”
The new version of Entre Deux Actes—Loge De Comédienne (2009) was an installation by way of impression. Each original piece was either reduced to its bare structure or cursorily exaggerated like shapes in a dream. The colors were inverted and shadows solidified, using logics of memory and afterimage. The reimagined work felt improvisational and playful: a tiger skin rug was replaced by a chalk outline.
Baghramian’s work is never funny ha-ha, but it has an incredible way with irony, sharp in the way that history is—tragedy not excluded. In the original Entre deux actes, Laverrière gives her friend one more appearance, a private moment of space and time, in the form of an ensemble. In the restaged work, there’s still no body there. But the missing actress re-finds her audience in a new, uneasy context, and Laverrière and Baghramian work up complicated dynamics of disappearance and presence with a group of elements as forms of life.
How can a work be not like itself? I’m trying to identify some irreducible element of Baghramian’s practice that is to do with relationships. She herself has titled more than one exhibition ménage. At Performa in New York Baghramian staged Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre) (2019) for which she installed the actress’s reimagined quarters along with Mollino’s erotic Polaroids, and a durational work by Hassabi where the dancers got very close but never touched. Their co-existence relied on a micron of autonomy. The dictionary definition of ménage is household, which also says a lot about desire and sublimation, about split infinitives and trust.
That there is never just one body in Baghramian’s work is maybe clear by now. She often uses the example of doing away with the “to-scale” individual used in architectural models. Harder to account for is that there’s every body and there’s no body. Even when a work—bent over in sections of mottled pink and white marble reinforced by cast stainless steel—is called Knee and Elbow (2020), Baghramian’s approach to the body is figural rather than figurative: about impressions and exchanges. Her complex bargains of levity and gravity, her insertion of multiple, contradictory vantages, and the almost animistic drive her work seems to have toward formal evolution, are always in service of the subtle body of sculpture rather than the human body of mind and heart.
Baghramian is conscious of display, always bringing it into the work. Frames, struts, stands, or other supportive or interruptive apparatuses are often part of the grouping of a work. Sometimes the rigid or sharp or generally unyielding metal that otherwise plays a remedial role is left alone to make a structure, as in Scruff of the Neck (2016): bare, arcing lines of polished aluminum or steel intersect with one another and the wall. They leave the mind nowhere to hide. Except in the titles, which are also lacerating in some instinctual way.
This feels important to spell out because of how reflexively and easily the modes and methods of collectivity in Baghramian’s practice can get softened. What looks organic is really hard, cast silicone. Baghramian works with context, not influence. She isn’t interested in collecting what she likes. She is interested in figuring difference, in making work that edges ever closer to what sculpture really is for her—a way of putting things together heterogeneously—somewhere between the audience and the object.
This third body again. I can only try to make a shape around it. Both knotted ends of Treat (Marrowbone) (2016), a large wax bone, feel like fists approaching my solar plexus. The Portraits (2016), a grouping of framed C-prints or Baryte prints of billowing smokestacks, subtitled: The concept-artist smoking head, Stand-In, make “me” neither here nor there. All of these are gathered together again for “Jupon du Corps” at the Aspen Art Museum—another reconfiguration or working through of iteration, proximity, timeliness, and boundaries. The universe is expanding—meaning the distance between things or the scale of space is growing. Baghramian’s universe expands via the innovative and complex ways she keeps the pieces as close as possible while holding them apart.
In her first co-existence with Laverrière, La Lampe dans l’horloge (2008), or The Lamp in the Clock, named for the Surrealist writer André Breton, Baghramian made a “room” of freestanding colorful walls for Laverrière’s iconographic mirror sculptures, or “useless objects,” inside Berlin’s Schinkel Pavilion. The “useless objects” were the designer’s last works—homages to her creative and political heroes. The walls showed the works and kept them hidden, to an extent. Baghramian was dealing with how to strike a concomitance or equality of output and energy in a cross-generational partnership, against the still-pervasive trend of recuperating “lost” practitioners in contemporary art. When she remade a version of the installation within Work Desk for the Ambassador’s Wife (2019), a posthumous show with Laverrière at Marian Goodman, she redesigned (dissolved) the walls in Plexiglass. It was still about interiority, but more in the way that air is interior to the legs of a table.
Baghramian brings systems of analysis to work in order to change her own structures. It might be too much to call this infrastructural. So I will say instead that she shows the mechanics of work. Work Desk for the Ambassador’s Wife included maquettes and drawings by Baghramian that were never meant to be made into sculptures. In Modèle vivant (2022) at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Baghramian seemed to wonder what artwork might look like from an archaeological perspective—that is, dug up after it has become extinct. New work—including enormous, fossil- or dental mold-like impressions on elaborate dark blue, green, and violet powder-coated metal stands, and geometric aluminum panels suspended from the ceiling on polished stainless-steel poles, with other, coarser aluminum elements and C-prints of flies on animal skins attached—were all arranged around works from the museum’s collection. If the job of Baghramian’s sculpture was in some ways to be analogy, the historical works were asked to sincerely and somewhat anachronistically model how time changes shape.
Live models. Life models. Imagine being responsible for making—or being—a model of life. Baghramian was intending something, I think, about artistic process and labor. How much can I rely on the artwork, or figure of the artist? What will she give me to help me understand? A recurring figure in the work since 2008, perhaps a counterpart to Laverrière’s actress, is the male escort, as in the exhibition, The Walker’s Day Off (2008) at the Kunsthalle Baden Baden. He needs structural support too; he bears the weight of our demand for charm and novelty. Beauty, a currency in every sense, is a complicated part of his job.
Baghramian’s studio is in an industrial part of Berlin—something she does not want to fetishize. But it is where the actual mechanics are. When she first moved to the city with her family from Iran in the mid-1980s, it was customary for new buildings to receive colloquial nicknames, like the Washing Machine or the Oyster. This is something Baghramian thinks about: the shortest distance from alien to understanding, the economy of language and images, the way form enters into circulation through experience. Her sculptures must contend with the world they inhabit, one obsessed with legibility and output. How do works so heavy and in so abstract a language stay tenable; how do they live a life rather than only gesture at one?
I really believe that form and its challenges are fundamental, and I think Baghramian does too. Form is the organization of meaning; it is nimble and living. Baghramian’s ability is in part to leverage the medium of sculpture in circulating formal ideas. As she wrote in the Frieze Masters magazine in 2018 , “my view on the present through the lens of the past is diverted by meandering around my surroundings and my own history”. The works address the anxiety and frustration and joy of universality as well as subjectivity. They will remain possible. They and I and she and all of it are just another part.
Swap; start with two things.
With the scene in a jewel heist film, where a heavy, dirt-filled leather bag is
placed on a sensitive pedestal in place of a sought-after treasure, which one then runs away with.
Maybe the dirt from the bag is spilling everywhere, really stressing the not-there-
ness, essential to the prize-ness, of the prize. And the jewel is sharp-edged, getting streaked
and smudged with the dirt and the sweat in hands and pockets.
And one has both. One is both.
Is it more like a rotating door? This supplementing, this one that runs away,
those large wood or glass pivot doors that turn on a central axis and so
have no front or back, are all front, all back, all turn.
A switch, a role reversal, two sides of the imaged equation meet at a bar: head-tail-head-
tail-head-tail-head, like a spinning coin flashing its sequence with only modulation between
faces, a constant, invisible series of repetitions and adjustments that accompany inherent
gaps or failures in any effort to really, truly repeat,
summoning and shaking out some sort of new form and form’s (and new’s) opposite.
What painting trades back and forth are these
figures and gestures and ideas and sources as functions and tunings and bargains and re-
commencements. The idea is to make two and fuck with one.
That’s three things.
And where we started was dirty in a good way: one who supplants one and one who plants one on one, who
swaps with one, passes it back and forth for taste, makes it twice—how you start is how you finish (painting).
Maybe recursion is a lover’s conspiracy in that the object (image) is collision, a sort of setting into motion, subjunctively.
Man: I’m sorry, I guess I dialed the wrong number.
Casey: So why’d you dial it again?
Man: To apologize.
“Didn’t you ever consider that the phone might be broken?” “No,” I said, “I thought a lot of things but I never thought of that.”
Lynne Tillman, ‘Hung Up’, Tellus #7 (1985)
Better use telepathy ‘cause you can’t use my phone
Erykah Badu, ‘Caint Use My Phone (Suite)’ (2015)
Every repetition, to be what it is, brings something new with it.
Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book (1989)
For society, culture, and politics, press mute.
To complain about the environment, press dollar.
To complain about the demiurge, press sterling pound.
For complaints related to physics, press four.
Press ten to hear these options again.
Camille Henrot, excerpt from Enough is Enough (2015)
A maid answers the landline in her employer’s house. “Hello,” says a man’s voice, “is my wife around?” “No, sir,” the maid responds. “She’s upstairs with the gardener.” Enraged, the voice at the end of the line orders the maid to kill both the lady of the house and the gardener. Having committed the murders, the maid returns to the phone to ask how she should dispose of the bodies. “Toss them in the pool,” the voice replies. The maid is silent for several seconds. “Pool, sir?” Silence at the other end, and then: “Is this 417 – 6739?”
In another version, the voice—always a male voice—announces to the maid that he’s finally ready to run away with her, but first she must dispose of his wife. As long as there’s a mouth at one end, an ear at the other, a body count and a missing signifier, what’s said on the call can change with each retelling—which is what makes the joke feel odd, or somehow out of focus. Was the maid bloodthirsty or coerced? Was the voice who he claimed to be? The ‘real’ content of the call remains uncertain, as if there actually was a call and the person telling the joke saw the events play out without hearing what was said. The call is powerful; even as a fiction, it circumscribes and occludes the joke itself.
Confusion, diversion, even tragedy attend connectivity and exchange—the telephone didn’t make this true, but its mechanism introduced new, or greater, awareness of mediation and interruption as integral to communication. To hear via, to speak via; true to its origin in machines for the speaking-impaired, the telephone locates the voice beyond the body, where it becomes at once privileged and more tenuous, its identity less certain, its passage less sure. Messages are wont to scramble; bad reception haunts a good line. A conversation might start well but end with one’s good intentions wrecked on the rocks inside the other’s head. Freud famously analogized telephony to the role of the analyst, who’s own unconscious attempts to decode the “transmissions” of the patient in the same way a telephone converts electric current back into soundwaves. But the father of talk therapy also refused to keep a telephone in his rooms, fearing another ‘ear’ would perforate the hermetic relationship.
The telephone’s portentous quality, with which it vibrates even or perhaps especially in its resting state, makes it a singular trope in popular culture: at best, the call comes just in time; at worst, it comes from inside the house. In The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell notes that the telephone is fateful, even fearsome, because to answer a call is to answer the call—to make ourselves answerable. The call begins even before we accept it: phones ‘ring’; morphologically, they belong in a category of things that alert and surprise. Bells and alarms, instruments of arrival and departure—rings, not dissimilar to a wedding ring, or the rings inside a tree trunk, or the rings of a fungus that calls for treatment, that tell us when it’s time. Ominous yet luminous, “the telephone operates both sides of the life-and-death switchboard”.
This logic of starts and ends also accounts for the telephone’s particular ability to make us wait. The call is framed by liminality— after “Hello?” and before “This is…”, after “Goodbye” and before disconnection—a condition of distance that structures telephonic space, requiring us to proceed linearly and with patience, minding the temporal and geographic gap: first an ear, pause, then a hand, or first a mouth, pause, then an ear.
Landline telephony’s organization of our space, time and selves finds its least desirable form in Interactive Voice Response technology, also known as Automatic Attendants, those intermediary answering systems that prompt the caller to input selections from successive sets of options in order to route a request. Ostensibly tree-like in structure, they are inevitably closer to a thick hedge or a bundle of sticks. Yet they persist, frustrating contemporary ideas about networks as smooth, navigable fields of instantaneity. We are left to press buttons, suspended in anticipation of an answer that may never arrive, in the apparent service of service itself.
In her 2015 solo exhibition at Metro Pictures, the artist Camille Henrot invited visitors to luxuriate in this fugue with nine interactive telephone sculptures—eight wall-mounted and a desktop-style on its own wooden table with one leg torqued at Fibonacci-like intervals—programmed with individual scripts co-written by Henrot and the poet Jacob Bromberg. Instructed by gallery staff to “pick up the phones,” people held the Seuss-like receivers, pressed the variably shaped keys and dialed something like the headquarters of the bureaucratic uncanny.
“Maso Meet Maso” (2015), with its globular purple receiver and spiral of buttons, contained an IVR-style menu that began as a dating hotline (“Welcome, guest. 16 men are currently waiting to meet you.”); “Is He Cheating” (2015), a grey rectangle warped in a sensible curve and set with six turquoise QWERTY tiles, aggressively cautioned against its own forthcoming content in the style of reality TV. If the scripts started benignly enough, they unfurled into variable cacophonies of attitude and mood, with the ‘speaker’ becoming more disinterested or accusatory or hysterical at each prompt. The experience was familiar: attempting to communicate with an automation that is at once inherently impersonal and overly intimate, unquestioning yet demanding, and unassailably in charge.
And yet, Henrot’s phones didn’t ring. Visitors both sounded and answered their own “calls to action.” If the joke was that interactivity parodies communication and confuses agency, the punch line was that the calls still got made. We still attempted connection. We still put ourselves on the line. Entertaining if vaguely stressful, the narratives about bad dads and abusive dogs became poignant when the characters seemed to acknowledge—irritably or resignedly or with deranged loneliness—the insurmountable distance between them and us. “When did you stop loving me?!” the “Is He Cheating” bot cries. “Answer me!”
But we couldn’t ever, not really. In The Surprising Phenomenon of Human Communication, Vilém Flusser argues that telephones cannot satisfy our urge to dialogue because “we get at the message but we cannot get at the other person”. Flusser was writing in 1975, when the inability to achieve “admittance of the other” via phone was attributed to the landline’s lack of full-bodiedness and the inescapability of delay. Mobile telephony has inverted the problem, rather than solved it: always with us, the phone reclaims the entire body as its proxy; we’re no longer a fixed point at a discoverable distance but a moving target. Whether we answer or not, we’re always there, so the time is always now.
Perhaps what’s interesting, finally, is the way the phones looked. At once retro and futuristic, their shapes and colors spoke of the film adaptations of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, iconic depictions of corporate psychosis, pastel-colored cynicism and the disappointments of modernities past. When did you stop loving me? Perhaps the landline’s clearest call is to our anxious present, but at Henrot’s table, we phone it, dialing back and calling forward in order to stand apart, and still.
“Play is an occasion of pure waste… As for the professionals…it is clear that they are not players but workers. When they play, it is at some other game”
—Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (1961)
We open in a rainforest, shortly after sunrise or a little before dusk. Birds and bugs and breeze hum a chorus. A man wearing cargo shorts is driving a stone hatchet from an earlier video into a thin tree trunk. He is shirtless and barefoot. He is a YouTube star.
This man’s channel, Primitive Technology, has over three million subscribers and two hundred million-plus page views. His 28 videos show him using only natural, found materials and his body to create extremely intricate and functional shelter, weaponry, machines and tools from scratch. He never speaks, and he is always busy: in the first 15 seconds of ‘Bow and Arrow’, he goes at the tree with the handmade axe from several angles, then works the branch back and forth like a lever until it is loosed.
Jump cuts happen every few seconds in Primitive Technology because each video compresses dozens, sometimes hundreds of hours of work. The most popular and widely appropriated post, ‘Tiled Roof Hut’, shows the build of a clayed mud structure complete with a clay-tiled roof and from-scratch resin lamp. The video, which has over 31 million views, abridges 102 days of arduous labor undoubtedly containing countless stops, starts, attempts, re-tries and Google searches, into just 14 minutes and eight seconds of pure productivity.
PT has sort of a doleful look. We see it in ‘Bow and Arrow’ when he angles the branch toward the camera to show that after who knows how long stripping it with a sharp implement, the wood is now straight. His weathered face stays in focus as the end of the bough blurs; he seems serious and distant. You could take him for sad, or at least dispassionate. But besides a few scattered details—the camera he uses (Nikon D3200), the area of Australia where he lives and the fact that he used to mow lawns “freelance”—PT keeps his off-screen life private. We are left only with the sense that here, in the Far North Queensland of our minds, a remote, tropical tip of the internet where just one pair of cargo shorts survives, we may have arrived at the end of the world.
Q. What stops the rain from washing the mud off the hut wallsA. The roof.
Q. What dangerous animals are there?A. Only venomous snakes and I need to watch where I step.
—FAQ, Primitive Technology blog
About a year and a half ago, PT joined Patreon, an online funding platform that describes its mission as: “Oh, nothing short of helping every creator in the world achieve sustainable income.” To date, PT has amassed over $5000 in donations from 2,693 users for each new video he creates. “I still do one mowing job because my last customer can’t find a new mowing contractor so I’m waiting for him to get a new one,” he wrote on his blog in 2016. “But apart from that I quit mowing lawns and this hobby is my job now.”
The underlying principle of Patreon is that donors invest in something—and someone—they believe in. Use value seems to factor only marginally. In PT’s case, his physical creations are as innately redundant as they are innately useful and, although he gives detailed descriptions of his process for each project on his blog, the level of knowledge and skill required to complete every step make it effectively impossible for viewers to treat the videos as instructional.
PT’s patrons often leave comments. Unlike the mixed bag on YouTube, they tend to take on the benevolent, gently exhortative tone of parents who have just lent float money for a lemonade stand. “Really look forward to relaxing with just nature sounds and those great demonstrations”, one user writes. And: “Would love to see you make a clay flute or whistle”; “Our human ancestors would be proud!”
The assumption is that we will all be ancestors. The hope is that we would all be proud. Having split and peeled the wood, our protagonist runs a sharpened stone along the tip of the bow to form a taper. His body curves neatly around action like spacetime warped by mass: one hand grips, one hand works the tool, two feet steady the branch. The birds are still singing. The camera jumps and— if a camera could seem pleased—we see “finished stave” whittled to its pale inner, hovering on the ground like a poised snake.
Gazing at a canopy, the camera pans the length of “unknown tree with fibrous bark.” PT appears at the base to chop and peel the tree in fitfully edited fragments; he spools the bark around his hand and carries it, bundled, to somewhere off-screen. Later, he will weave the coarse fibers to make surprisingly durable twine for the string of the bow. We hit close up on a delicate green sprout at the base of the hacked-off trunk. “This type of tree is resilient,” the closed captions tell us, “and grows back quickly.”
In ‘On Being Subject to Objects’, an unpublished essay meant for Artforum and likely written in the late 1980s, Vilém Flusser speculated that the continued advancement of automation would be accompanied by the abandonment of the values that led to its development. Just as the onset of technology in prehistory delivered us from what Flusser calls “the abyss”, he warned that the coming arrival of “everything we’ve ever wanted” without “some as yet unthinkable method to [choose] values” will return us once again to the edge.
Which is not the same as the quixotic idea favored by Hollywood directors and Silicon Valley preppers that the end will look a lot like the beginning—but perhaps that’s old news. The drama of survival is very complex and very simple. Put another way, PT’s superior ability with what he calls “primitive” strategies has become indivisible from his other, hyper-contemporary success. This is one of many contradictions posed by Primitive Technology that both nags—why is he doing this? why are we watching?—and soothes—he is doing this. We are watching. As it turns out, the contradiction of anxiety inlayed with its own abatement turns our viewing forensic: process starts to read as proof.
“An infinite expanse of isolated individuals unaware of each other’s presence, and an infinite number of white golf balls.”
—Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work (2009)
We want to know that we will survive. But more than that—perhaps because it is easier to imagine a “primitive” future than one with a meaningfully evolved economic system—we want to know where value will come from. Already, we understand that life is labor for some and lifestyle a living for others. But in attempting to imagine a time and place beyond what we can imagine, we are compelled, even convinced, by the promise that the exhaustive labor of living can become a product, too.
Live from this so-dreamt moment, PT lightly grazes the edge of a feather with a hot coal. The feather has been firmly stuck to the stick with resin and reinforced with bark fiber—a technique that closed captions assure us will make the arrow fly straight. After assembling an elegant quiver from bark in less than ten seconds, PT draws his loaded bow. He aims, shoots and strikes. Again he draws; again he shoots and strikes. This continues until all six arrows have been fired. To date, over 22 million people have seen him hit his target: a small tree stump, distant yet evidently reachable.
This text is also available to read here in Dutch, translated by and published in De Witte Raaf in 2018.
Life has no outside, say the psyche-celestial Ladies of Liberty with their microphones, say the fulgent cacti fountains, says the blooming pussy flower with an unmistakable wink.
This is the pact The Köln Concert stages with its audience, among its works, between its artists, Juliette Blightman and Dorothy Iannone, who draw down time into all-encompassing symbologies of love, sex, care, work, autonomy, joy and other selfhoods.
When I say symbol, I mean images that speak broadly and concentrate personally, that are partly mnemonic and partly divinatory, in which breakfast lives alongside Art Nouveau and narrative takes the place of noses. In The Köln Concert, forms, figures, messages layer in counterpoint, a leitmotif of sorts, the coexistence of harmony and clash played by Blightman and Iannone so that they too may listen.
Not that everything is practice but that practice reticulates: Blightman made the fountains in her stepfather’s garage, perhaps with her young daughter’s help. It is possible to imagine their visit to the hardware store to select the paint, a lurid yet somehow utilitarian green. Here in the world of handy things, also misappropriation, high jinks, making do, the phalluses’ gentle eruptions rely on whatever energy they can gather via solar panels; when stilled, they earnestly hold court as choruses performing in the rounds of paddling pools.
Something’s always growing, which is to say requiring tending, in Blightman’s work. Children and plants, but also limitations, perspective, desire, sense of self: care is a matter of patterning, of understanding subject and process as one and the same. Daughter is a process; so is body, so is home. The pencil and guache works in Stages of Seed Development (2020) appear at first as windows until their serialized arrangement suggests something more vociferous, perhaps phrases, at once contingent and complete.
These works in particular speak, sing, move to their muse, Ta)Rot Pack (1968-69), Iannone’s ecstatic allegory of life with her late partner, Dieter Roth, which offers some phrases of its own: This Card Brings a Brief Respite Maybe, says a nude Roth wandering a trippy Swiss path; This Card Brings What Everyone Wants, say the adorned lovers in tantric embrace. Iannone has said that this ability—to bring things—is the only way her cards reflect the (other) tarot. I would venture another: that the Ta(Rot) Pack, like Blightman’s Stages, celebrates a sense of everyday consequence that is not without a cosmic sense of humor.
Which may have something to do with itinerancy, an underlying cadence here. These works spring from places both loved and abided, and from the need amid frequent departures to sometimes return—to the United States, for instance, where Iannone and her Ladies of Liberty were born, to Germany, where Blightman first raised, and first painted, her daughter, and to the Rhineland specifically, where Iannone lived with Roth and began the Ta(Rot) Pack in the late 1960s.
Image is how to get there: The Story Of Bern (Or) Showing Colors (1970), originally an artist book, shown in The Köln Concert as a diaporama, tells that highly generative periods are often live with contention and struggle. And that at the end of it all, when we finally surface, we can know only through reflection that the triumphal arc stands somewhere in the distance.
The night before our interview, Denise Scott Brown called. ‘Hello, Amelia’, she said, ‘This is Denise Scott Brown’. She hoped I didn’t mind her phoning so late, but was I driving from New York to Philadelphia? Which roads would I take? There’s a café she likes in town; could we break for lunch? And had I seen The Garden of the Finzi-Continis? It might help me envisage her garden.
Denise is, as they say, formidable. She is considered one of the most influential architects and planners in recent history, known for developing a theory and practice of postmodern architecture that emphasised pop vernacular and urbanist strategies as critical concerns. Her work permeated broader culture in a way such things rarely do; many who don’t know or care about design or city planning have learned from Learning from Las Vegas, the first survey of Las Vegas’ strip urbanism, co-authored by Denise and her husband, Bob Venturi, in 1972.
Denise lives with Bob, Grant (their 20-year-old ‘handyperson’), and Aalto the dog in an art nouveau-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Inside, constellations of form and pattern cover every surface. Although Denise no longer formally practices architecture, she remains prolific. Her digital slideshows combine her own work with found images of CT scans and Paul Klee paintings in associative digital fields communicating complex arguments about activity and structure. ‘They used to say you can’t learn anything past age 30’, she said. ‘But I say the great lessons in life are in your old age. You have to learn or you won’t survive’.
Most of this interview took place as I trailed Denise around her garden, which stretches behind the house on a gentle slope. Like everything she creates, the garden is a nuanced yet intuitive construction of space, on which Denise is perennially and fervently at work.
How did you find this house?
Driving to Bob’s mother’s house, we saw this driveway. And down it and through layers of window, we spotted the ‘front’ yard behind. I say the garden side is the front—do you have this problem?
No, I’d call this the back of the house.
Well, English people call it the front lawn. Anyway, like everyone else in the world, we drove down to see how the house could be transparent. Near the end I said, ‘I can’t believe those two windows—art nouveau is not an American house style.’ In California, there’s mission style, but that’s really arts and crafts. An Australian—an itinerant carpenter, earning a living as he travelled—recognized our woodwork as a Venezuelan hardwood much used in Germany. You can’t believe how hard it is. In the early 20th century a German architect, Hermann Muthesius, wrote Das Englische Haus. Germans loved his descriptions of the English house and landscape. So ours is an American version of a German art nouveau house, in a German version of an 18th-century English romantic landscape. We maintain the garden as the first owners built and planted it; so before an old tree dies we plant a new one of the same species near it.
So that it will grow to replace the old one?
Yes, the new one’s already begun. We have two locations for each tree; this is part of stewardship. Everything here is to do with stewardship. But although the new one is there, it won’t provide shade for years, and new patterns form in the sunlight. These things here are ‘weeds’, but they’re showing us a new pattern. To fill in gaps, we interpret the changing patterns and follow the forces that condition them—natural, structural, and more. Working with them is fun and inspiring. During our last repainting of the house, my cataracts were removed and my lenses replaced. Before the operation, the sky looked greenish, autumn leaves technicoloured, and the rest shades of parchment. Then one eye was fixed and I had two visions: one Las Vegas, the other North Pole. Today, things have settled down and look merry enough, but at first I missed the warmth of my cataract eyes. While I still had them, I gave instructions for painting the house. That’s why it’s a chalky white. It was meant to be mushroom-coloured.
Your relationship to colour is so strong; did it trouble you when you had problems with your eyesight?
I see colour well now, and I love what I see—except for the white house. It wasn’t all bad. Given my links to all things visual, I tried to make the most of my temporary bicolour perception, and I returned to photography. Years ago I told myself, ‘Just shoot’, reasoning that if you pause to edit, it’s gone. And then you kick yourself when you work out later why you wanted it. Last year I looked out of my window and saw icicles hanging from the eaves. They were beautiful in the early dawn, and as the sun rose a pink blush moved across them. I caught it by iPhone. I had stopped photographing in 1968.
Why did you stop?
I dropped the camera and hurt the lens. But basically, with a child, a practice, and studios to teach, I was too busy. But I didn’t really give up, as we used photography in lecturing and in our practice. I’m writing now on how architectural photography has changed during our careers. It was something architects did for the record. Robert Scott Brown and I journeyed to see buildings in the round that we had studied in books; we photographed them while we could. During apartheid, South Africans feared losing their passports and travelled as soon as the opportunity arose. We spent some years abroad studying, working, travelling, and photographing as if we might not go again. Along the way our ideas grew, and we took shots to convey them as well as to record buildings. Later, I used them in lecturing, and eventually they and photographs by our students supported our Learning from Las Vegas study and ‘Signs of Life’ show at the Smithsonian Institution in 1976. In our practice, photography aided research, design, documenting, recording, and marketing. Its role grew over the years and, with computers, it spread throughout architecture. It can now be considered one of architecture’s disciplines, like history, theory, and structures. We worked with many photographers, but Henri Cartier-Bresson is my beacon. Although ‘just shoot’ did not come from him, catching the propitious moment did and seeing the camera as part of your hand. And to learn about urban patterns, I tell students to examine his pictures of people in public places.
Do you draw?
Architects in English schools learn to draw very well. I took life classes and several forms of architectural drawing and I drafted very well. Bob draws marvelously, but he thinks drafting is more important. And we both had to learn to work with people who use computers. Bob didn’t photograph, but he would sometimes ask me, ‘Can you please get that? Can you make sure you get that?’ We have a couple of pictures taken by his eye and my finger. We also photographed each other in the Las Vegas desert. The differences are telling. Mine of him plays with scale, makes mannerist digs and refers to René Magritte. His of me is a record shot, but in it I was playing—hamming.
How often did you go home to South Africa after you left?
Twice while I was in England, then in 1957 to 1958 we spent a year and a half working and travelling in South Africa before making for the US. In 1959, when Robert died, I went home, my life upended. But both families pushed me to return to Penn. I went again with Bob in 1970 to show him my childhood. That was the last time. I hesitate when saying ‘I went home’, because in South Africa to call England ‘home’ was to announce your social superiority. An article I wrote, called ‘Invention and Tradition in the Making of American Place’, started with my overhearing three women in a bus in Johannesburg. The first said to the second, ‘I can tell from your accent that you’re from home’. She replied, ‘Yes, I left home 30 years ago’, and the third said, ‘I’ve never been home but one day I hope to go’. They were not just being sociable, they were establishing themselves as members of a caste.
I read that your father’s family owned a boarding house and your mother grew up on a farm. Is that right?
We were from Eastern Europe. My father’s father was a businessman, but his parents took in lodgers from the old country. A picture shows my mother’s mother as an elegant 18 year old in Riga, with her hair swept up, wearing a white Edwardian lace shirt. She looks like a Gibson Girl. But when next you see her, she’s wearing an apron and cooking with a three-legged iron pot over an outdoor fire.
That was when they had moved to Africa, the family?
Yes, there are African huts in the background. My mother’s family went from Courland, in Latvia, to the Rhodesias, and my father’s from a shtetl in Lithuania to Johannesburg. I come at things as an African. Care for the environment— sustainability, we say now—was a necessity there. Robert’s family had a small farm and grew their food. Land erosion was an enormous problem that had involved them in soil conservation and organic farming. And we learned methods of sun protection and water retention in architecture school. But in America, when I said, ‘You’re facing the building the wrong way’, people in the office responded, ‘That’s why we have air conditioning’. Now they don’t say that. Here’s where the water runs down—you can see the lines over there, and the moss. Isn’t this moss lovely?
The smell is beautiful.
From that end, you see a symphony. Cherry blossoms and azaleas come out first, then dogwoods. Living things answer each other over time and make patterns in our garden through their relationships to sun, soil, and each other. In architecture, too, there are basic relationships. As beginners we learn simple ones: the size of a closet and where it should be in a bedroom, how bedrooms relate to bathrooms, and the living room to the dining room. We know these patterns—although for unconventional clients we might change them, combine rooms or leave the tub in the open, in general, clients want architects to maintain accepted patterns. It’s the same in cities. Forces of nature and society form patterns of settlement long before architects get there. Planners call the basic city-forming relationships ‘linkages’ or ‘city physics’. They’re functionalism for cities. Yet while we accept linkage relationships inside buildings and call ourselves functionalists, we run from them on the outside. Put the word ‘urban’ in the chapter title and architects go on to the next chapter. That’s where I think we lose our creativity, not to speak of our ability to satisfy people. And we have caused a lot of social harm. Urban renewal upsets of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the admonitions of Jane Jacobs, and the reasoning of Herbert Gans derive from what architects would not let themselves learn. When we first moved in to this house we got cold feet—
What year was this?
It was in 1972. How could we have been so crazy as to buy this old white elephant? The developer who intended to build houses on unbuilt land in the front couldn’t proceed until the old house was sold, so eventually his price came down to one we could afford. But when the deal was done, Bob cried, ‘How can we support all this?’ I was frantic; we had a 15-month-old son and a monster of a house, and I had a husband saying, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing here’. ‘Who can help?’ I pondered, ‘Who might like to?’ Architecture students, of course! We could pay them grad student hourly rates for their work if we also put them up and fed them, and if they saw their summer with us as a seminar. We went ahead on faith. Architecture students painted and mended the house, and pruned and weeded the grounds. We never failed to find a ‘handyperson’. Our attic floor has two small rooms and a bathroom. They stay there. ‘If you want friends to visit’, we say, ‘that’s fine’. And some help to mulch or clean the fishpond. The companionship of these young architects was wonderful for Jim, our son, as he grew up. And Bob and I, having worked with them most of our lives, loved and needed the company, too. We still do, and their architectural training makes them especially useful. They think holistically. In architecture, if you misstep on even one item, the building may fail. So we must research and design in the overall, like it or not. But urbanists from the social sciences see architects as totally intuitive—‘Oh, those artists!’ they say. Yet they’re less holistic than architects. And in deciding what to research, they too can be irresponsible and egotistical. Peter and Alison Smithson were starting their careers in London when I studied there. Although I could not be their student, I turned to them for advice. Peter said, ‘Go to Louis Kahn’. Kahn taught that while an artist may sculpt a car with square wheels to symbolize something, we architects must design them with wheels that work. It’s an interesting difference—perhaps the interesting difference—and if you believe no art can come from it, I think you’re wrong. In the ‘50s, city rebuilding was the main task, and architects with intelligence and talent saw urbanism as a focus for good and for architectural art. Now architects think you turned to urban planning because you weren’t a good designer. Do you want to see our frogs?
Cheeky things—there’s a tonne of them. They don’t move when you go near. I’ve got too much algae in the pond, but if you take it out, it just grows back. We’ve got a vegetable garden over here, too; when I first came to this house, we got various tradespeople to come and work with us, and they’d always tell me about the old woman who lived here and how they always went off with a basket of tomatoes. She must have been overwhelmed with tomatoes. And, see, these are very old hedges that we’ve planted.
What sort of conditions do tomato plants like?
Lots of heat, lots of sun. We have done a little urban plan for this garden. It’s got a crossroads where you can take the wheelbarrow and turn it around. We have a whole lot of them down there and we’re going to make sure that they don’t fall on the floor.
They’re looking happy, those tomatoes. They’re looking nice and fat.
Yes, but we had other trees, which were really more climbing trees than these are. If you look down there, there’s a coach house, but these split-level ranchers were built later. This is a racially mixed suburb, integrated for idealistic reasons during Philadelphia’s post–World War II era of liberal Democrat government. That government had close ties with the University of Pennsylvania, where social planning originated. No one knows how good Penn’s planning school was! And it’s indirectly why Peter Smithson said, ‘Go there’. I was in both the planning and the architecture department. The planners were more interesting than the architects—Bob apart. He understood. His mother, Vanna, was a socialist and pacifist. She went to school hungry as a child and dropped out of school when her winter coat got too short. But before she left, a schoolteacher had noticed her brilliant young pupil. Vanna and Miss Caroll formed a lasting friendship and out-of-school teaching guided the young woman to become the poised beauty her husband-to-be saw at a ball at the Bellevue Hotel. Bob’s dad hoped to be an architect, but left school when his father died to help his mother run the family business, a retail fruit and produce market on South Street—the street we later helped to save. After World War I, Venturi Inc. became a purveyor to institutions and hotels, and it prospered. Bob went to private schools and Princeton and on to the American Academy in Rome. His was not too different a family story from mine, but their ascent was more vertical take-off than upward mobility. We met at my first Penn faculty meeting and, in the debate that day, found we were kindred spirits. To me, other Penn architects seemed aloof and rigid. I felt they were taking the worst, not the best, from ‘30s modernism, and I disliked the authoritarianism of their studios and juries. Planning school was different. In studio, we worked in teams and on one project, which contained many elements of design but also went beyond the physical to include social, economic, and environmental policy, research as well as design, and processes for bringing them all together. By spanning disciplines and working to link our analysis to our design, we hoped our plans would be functional and creative—even beautiful, but in their own way. My approach added a return to early modernism and concepts of ‘firmness, commodity, and delight’ to planning doctrines and methods. And as we critiqued modern architecture, Bob and I took it up in a new way. Form, for us, emerges complexly from more than function, and so does beauty. Forces make form, too, and letting ‘volunteer’ vegetation grow and following its patterns is one way. Another is ‘city physics’. Both bring richness and fun to the far-from-simple search for functionality and beauty. Architects design public places that the public doesn’t use, and sociologists say you can’t name a place ‘public’; the public makes it so when you satisfy their needs. But mapped analyses of our projects’ campus movement systems and activity patterns, and planned sequences of steps to pull them into a design, result in people moving along routes and using places as we had hoped.
I suppose architects are often accused of thinking they’re making independent objects—the structure as this sovereign entity, without even necessarily a relationship to the structures that surround it.
Absolutely, but I bang them on the head. I think lessons on where vegetation grows help. As small children, my mother took us walking in patches of veld remaining near us on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She showed us, as her governess showed her in Rhodesia, what lived in grass and sand. And like Miss Tobin, her governess, she coaxed musical notes from grasses and leaves and was always making things—with a walnut shell, a scrap of paper, glue, a pin, and a flag, she made a boat to float under a bridge and down a stream. As a beginning architecture student, I excavated for fossils in the wilderness during our July vacations. We camped, and our work was hard, but when I could I lay under a tree, looked up at foliage patterns and listened to veld sounds. My mother kept a pet monkey on a roof near her studio at Wits University. She had three brothers and no sisters and thought playing with girls was not what you did. You played with boys.
She thought playing with the girls was boring?
Yes, and so, of course, did I. As a student I would say, ‘I’d like to share my apartment with someone, but it’d have to be a man’. Then I found some women I liked, and they too wanted to play with the boys. Later we learned we were wrong: women must move up together or not at all. This group formed women’s lib. When Bob and I married, we each had years of experience— the last seven we’d spent in close collaboration, even teaching together. So when I joined the still-new office of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, we adapted our patterns of working together to fit professional routines and practices and to include the creativity of others. Design ideas were generated in many ways, mostly under our leadership, but also under that of others—and often, though not always, via ping-pong with a team. Many offices know the excitement of this unrecognized creative process. But critics in the profession said, ‘Well, she must be Bob’s business manager’ or, ‘She moved up by marrying the boss’. They couldn’t, and many still can’t, conceive that we were colleagues from the start; that I was inspiration to him and he to me, and that our practice was a joint work where design ideas came from both of us, and others.
I read your piece, ‘Sexism and the Star System’, about the way people have tended to assume your practice was peripheral to Bob’s. This has come up again recently, with the campaign out of Harvard to have your work recognised with a Pritzker. Do you think this has had an impact on your design? Do you think it made you tougher, or fiercer in your convictions somehow?
No, I think it made me feel inadequate. It said, ‘You must be no good, they all say you’re no good’. It was debilitating. But as long as I was working with Bob and others, and our ideas were flowing, I felt happy. At Penn, I listened to Bob’s weekly theory lectures and loved his take on things that I loved, too. Feeling incredibly energised, I wanted to run out and do things. So did he. And through our collaboration, our themes crept into each other’s work. When I joined the practice, my abilities expanded Bob’s and broadened our scope. I remember his happiness at discovering I’m good at patterns— I’m an urbanist after all, and I photograph—because they’re necessary, but not quite his thing. And I can say, ‘On the other hand—’ which makes me a pain, but useful. For example, the opposite of collaboration is individual work, and a studio or office must have both. At certain points, people need to go away from the group, think on their own, and come back with something. Each one must offer something. And a project leader’s skills must include sensing when each is needed. All this makes for a full life. I adore practice; I adore teaching. I used to think, how could practice ever be as interesting? Yet I got to love it even more, and now it’s not open to me—no one is going to give us jobs. But everyone wants to do what you’re doing—come and talk with me. This is nice; I love it. And I love making collages of my slides to illustrate my points when I lecture. I call it curating, and I can talk to one slide for 20 minutes. I put together things that are evocative, heuristic, and interesting—but they must also be beautiful or no one will watch them. Sometimes I see two images together that look absolutely wonderful but make no point at all, but I can’t resist showing them, so I do. Then, suddenly, the reason they go together becomes apparent. This is my locus today for creativity, my venue for ‘making things’ as my mother taught me, and for finding beauty. It and writing are what I do now.
In 1974, computer scientist, philosopher, and Original Visionary of the World Wide Web Ted Nelson published Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a Whole Earth Catalog-by-way-of-Stanislaw Lem manifesto for the future of personal computing. “New freedoms through computer science – a Minority Report”, reads the strap-line of one Computer Lib’s two front covers, illustrated with an image of a Clark Kent-ish, civilian superhero reaching for a square of light in the darkness.
Between era-appropriate drawings from “the great Robert Crumb”, a Mickey Mouse Vitruvian Man and hand-drawn section headings – “HOLOGRAPHY puts you in the picture, and you, and you …” – Nelson advanced a then-unfamiliar theory of user-oriented computer design. Computers could be more than just machines for calculation, he exhorted, in freewheeling, emphatic style. They could be used to read and write, to facilitate learning, to democratise knowledge. The screen could become a “magical space” where information could be placed not only in relation but also in context, through parallel texts and multidirectional, visible connections. This was the basis for Xanadu, “my dream”, named for a Coleridge poem printed in Computer Lib in full. In its first conceptualisation, Xanadu was a learning system with both graphics and text capabilities and the capacity to send and receive messages, “at a price anyone can afford”. “A screen in your home from which you can see into the world’s hypertext libraries”, Nelson wrote, adding in parentheses, “The fact that the world doesn’t have any hypertext libraries – yet – is a minor point.” Several years prior, Nelson coined the term “hypertext”, describing a system of interconnection of documents entirely unrecognisable from modern hypertext. His original paper from the late 60s, imagined for hypertext “the capacity for intricate and idiosyncratic arrangements, total modifiability, undecided alternatives, and thorough internal documentation”.
Depending on what you read, Nelson is an oddity or a genius, maligned, a figure celebrated, or controversial. Nelson explains this by his being “beyond the paradigm”. He means, at least in part, that computer orthodoxy, already ossifying when he wrote Computer Lib, has settled seemingly for good on a page-based interface. One page, like a book, from which we can move forwards or back but not through, in the sense that Nelson envisaged. The depth that Nelson’s model would constitute, which would include the ability to trace not just texts but individual lines of text back to their source because of the functions of parallel pages and visible connections, is, yes, entirely outside the current paradigm. So much so that it’s at once germane and inconceivable, presumably as much then as now.
I first learned of Nelson via the Werner Herzog documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), in which Herzog portrays The Internet – big T, big I – through anti-EMF (electromagnetic field) campaigners, a cyberbullying victim’s bereaved family, and Elon Musk. Nelson’s segments are brief, his presence at once luminous and viscerally angry: an apparent visionary who just missed the mainstream, standing dockside in a windbreaker, describing a quasi-spiritual childhood experience of water through his fingers that informed a theory of personal computing as a tool for expressing and representing the non-linear interconnection of information. Inside his office, which is attached to the dock and bobs slightly, Nelson demonstrates a recent prototype of Xanadu, modelled on the King James Bible, wherein sources and references for specific lines are indicated via two-way links. Nelson cycles through the wheel of pages, which zoom to the front of the screen from the depths, stretching the colourful tether graphics of their various interconnections. “To us, you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane,” says Herzog, genuine, if condescending. “No one has ever said that before,” Nelson replies, delighted. He pulls a small digital camera from his pocket in a way that suggests this is a thing he does and snaps a portrait of Werner and the crew.
Nelson has described his life’s work as unfinished, which seems both accurate, in that Xanadu has yet to be released as a fully formed product decades after conception, and a regrettably narrow concept of finitude. A couple of years ago, at a Ted Nelson tribute conference titled “Intertwingled”, his word for the vast interconnection, as knowledge, of all aspects of the universe, Jaron Lanier told an audience of peers that the tenability of technology, if not humanity, necessitates that we, or perhaps they, “gradually, in a sense, find our way back to Ted”. Lanier then went on to elaborate what this means, with Nelson, seated in the front row, making frequent interruptions, corrections, addendums – always, inevitably, yet at the same time hopefully not the last word on what it means to get back to Ted.
So firstly, thank you very much for your time.
I won’t do anything like this again, because there are so many things happening. Okay.
In the interview you gave to Werner Herzog, you described running your hand through water, and experiencing understanding of connectivity that was very sensory.
Well, it wasn’t just sensory. It was the imagining of a vast three-or-more-dimensional system of interconnections concentrating. I would call it imaginative.
I was thinking about the link between the tactile and the visual.
No, I’m much more intellectual. Everything I see, immediately, is intellect.
How did this idea of visual parallelism and horizontality occur to you?
It’s just obvious. You could say it started when I was trying to write papers in high school. I could never bear to leave anything out. My papers got longer and longer. The problem with conventional writing is that you must grade the connections and put them in sequence for the reader to reassemble them in the mind. That’s wrong. That’s intrinsically evil. Writing is a false sequentialisation of what is not sequential.
In the YouTube comments on your videos, half the people are saying, “Oh my God, someone’s finally thought of a program that represents the way that I think”. And half are saying, “Oh, but this is just how I think. This is really obvious”.
That’s interesting. You’re reading the comments differently from the way I’m reading them.
How do you read them?
I see them more as rambling and negative, but there are a lot of people who connect with it.
What stuck with me was this dichotomy: something that could be both extremely provocative and lead people to marginalise you and your ideas, but also occur to some people as natural, intuitive, too obvious.
Right. Well, there you are. It’s an issue of paradigms. Once you’re in a paradigm, it’s very hard to break it. People who are in the conventional paradigm of text are naturally offended. To contradict the paradigm is to offend them spiritually.
This is a fairly abstract question: if your system had become predominant, how do you think it may have affected the way that people think?
It is impossible to say. The consequences of anything you put out in the world are unknowable. So many things have had consequences we didn’t expect, and so many things did not have the wonderful consequences we expected. It’s all kind of random.
Do you see anything now that reflects something of the capabilities that you would’ve hoped that Xanadu would implement?
No, because that’s my paradigm. I have prepared a brief video on things I’ve learned about that, which do have parallelism. For example, I didn’t know that – I think it’s PageMaker and some Adobe program – both allow marginal stuff on paper. So, you can have parallel text on paper, but not visibly connected, but you can put things in the margin all over, and that can be translated into a PDF, which is then a portable format. It’s not the kind of parallelism I’m talking about. But it’s something.
Jaron Lanier said that your work had the broader potential to encourage social responsibility.
Well, that’s taking it a little far. I’m talking about a literary genre that I endorsed, but the word responsibility … has too many syllables.
With something like Xanadu…
There’s nothing like Xanadu. Either it’s Xanadu, o … I still have hopes of getting something up next year, so it’s not dead yet. I’ll take that back. I’ve learned never to give a prediction of time. So even to say next year is too specific.
Tell me about the product.
I give it a new name for every product definition. This one’s called Xanabase, and it will allow you to assemble content from anywhere on the internet, rather than restricted locales, and it will allow you to publish. And it will have multiple windows. That’s it.
I’m trying to get at something of the experience that you’ve had of being, in a sense, the parallel path. I’m very interested in this concept of trying to execute an idea for the length of time that you’ve been working on Xanadu.
Until 1990, I didn’t think it was the parallel path. I thought it was the path, and I was blindsided by the Web. I was shocked.
What I’m trying to ask about is your drive.
Well, go into history and look at any theologian. They’ll keep up with the same thing for forty years, fifty years. So, in a sense, I’m a theologian.
Do you feel that your work has an ideological component?
Can you speak a little about that?
No. It is what it is. It’s a very specific structure and mechanism, and people can be inspired by that in all directions because wherever you have an idea, you have variants.
Right. But it involves a certain kind of belief on your part, wouldn’t you say?
Well, it’s the hope that truth will bubble to the top, that people will be motivated and capable of finding what’s right, but, I’m now beginning to doubt that, looking at the state of the world.
To have the sense that you’re ultimately serving a function of truth.
Yeah, well, ask the Pope.
Yeah, but I’m asking you.
Well, I’ll give the same answer, because it’s the truth. It’s been revealed to me by means over which I have no control.I’m sorry to say, that’s how the thing is. There are so many other things I wanted to do. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker. But then I saw what computer screens could do, and said, “Okay, the interactive screen will be the new home of the human race.” And was I wrong? So, I said, “Okay, I can design the documents for that.” And that got me onto this treadmill. Some of it is hereditary. My parents had a very strong drive. They worked together, but independently, and both had very successful careers in ﬁlm.
I remember an interview where you spoke about reading [American engineer and inventor] Vannevar Bush around the dining room table.
Well, I think so. I was eight, but I believe we did. My grandparents, who raised me, were extremely supportive of my intellect. I was intrinsically intellectual, and that was always important. My grandmother told me later that she thought I would be a historian. Well, kind of.
You’ve said that one of your strong beliefs is elegance in design.
I’ll give you some examples. The lava lamp is a lovely example of elegance, to me. Because all it is, is a base that contains a light bulb, and a funny-shaped bottle, and if you take off the top, it’s got a regular bottle cap. And inside the bottle is a ball of wax. The light bulb heats the wax. It expands and rises to the top, then it cools, it breaks into sections, and more goes to the top and falls back. It’s so simple and elegant: water, a bottle, wax, and a bottle cap. That, to me, is elegance. Another example is the Hammond organ. There was a guy named Hammond. I met him, and he told me this story, which doesn’t match the conventional story that you read on Wikipedia. He made clocks, and I had a Hammond clock. The problem with electric clocks in the 20s was that if the electricity stopped and restarted, the clock would resume turning, and you wouldn’t know it was wrong. Hammond made a clock which you had to restart if it stopped, making you conscious of the fact that it was not correct.
I was driving a taxi cab in New York at the time, and he was a passenger, and he said, “I had a successful clock business, but then some body else made the same clock. I found them and it turned out that that clock was patented the year I was born. There I was, I had these parts, I had all these little wheels with flat sides, which you need to synchronise the clock with the wall current”. Instead, he put an induction coil next to the wheel, turned it and made a very nice sound. And he started making electric organs that consisted of a rod with wheels. One wheel might have nine sides, another wheel would have sixteen sides, and as they turned inside of the coil, each would make a different sound, and the organist, pushing on a key, would move that induction coil closer to that particular wheel, thus creating a very pleasing sound. That was the birth of the Hammond organ. It is very elegant because it’s so simple.
It has an aesthetic quality, but it’s not just a good-looking thing.
It’s like elegance in mathematics. I’m not a mathematician. I hate numbers. But I understand what the mathematicians mean by elegance. It means simplicity and clarity. Good software design should be elegant, especially interactive software, which is getting more and more horrible. I hate cellphone apps because if you have the so-called desktop on your computer, at least it’s a rational, organised structure. But these stinky little apps each have their own tricks to memorise. I hate that.
You’ve said that your life’s work is unfinished, that Xanadu is unfinished. I’m curious how you think about the quality of something being finished or resolved.
I have finished thousands of pieces of writing. I have a huge archive, but most of it’s not published. In the case of writing, finishing means allocating the time and sitting on it and redoing it and redoing it and redoing it, until it’s done. I generally print out one version and correct it by hand, and then will sometimes cut and paste it into new arrangements, physically cutting and pasting, except I use staples. I call each rewrite a grind. For example, I just did a nine- grind piece, and it takes a long time and a lot of effort. The word used by architects is charette. That means I’m now concentrating on one thing, and I’m not going to sleep, or what- ever, until it’s done. I have to decide what is most important to write this spring. I think one of them is my overview of history for YouTube, and the other is my indignant overview of mathematics for YouTube. What I wish they had told me when they were teaching mathematics. Because I hated mathematics so much, and the insights I managed to find since have changed my attitude. I still hate numbers. I still can’t calculate, but at the same time, for people like me, who are theoretically minded, such insights could be very useful.
My first week of the programming course was like being hit by lightning. This was 1960. And they’d been lying about computers: people thought they were mathematical, people thought they were numerical – no! They were all-purpose. They could be made to do anything. And this completely incorrect stereotype spread throughout the world … That’s why I wrote Computer Lib. My collaborator Roger Gregory is still working on Xanadu Classic. And it’s a very wonderful program, and would’ve been finished in 1990, if I hadn’t made a huge mistake. We didn’t finish until 1998. And then there’s the ver- sion I’m working on now, which is internet-based. It’s still the same model. You can create collages of content and parallel pages.
And you understand that work as something that will ultimately be finished…
I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m very pessimistic about the future of the world. The world could end before this happens. I think there’s a very good chance that humanity will not survive another decade.
What’s your relationship to that?
I keep doing my work as if there’s a future.
A hawk flies through an ever-decreasing series of apertures: drama of strategization, self-manipulation, will. But also, irrationality, inventiveness, wit.
Partly, it — flight — is a question of translating calculations so instantaneous as to be instinctual into the formal movement of claws, breast, wings.
But when the bird is slowed to the speed of sight, it becomes possible to see that every subsequent flight is a translation of flight, calibrated by each new aperture doubled back on itself as squeeze.
Redact will and underline wit.
I am curious about how recursion and porousness live together. How certain frictions cause accretion, affinities, but not synthesis. (Ruskin: “I spoke of the constant vexation I suffered because I could not draw better.”)
Logic of rubbing and being rubbed off on. Serialize (libidinize) the mark, the note.
Players say that the piano line of Erik Satie’s Vexations (1893) can’t be memorized and must be reattempted each time. The composition calls for 840 repetitions, a ceremony of dilation and reduction with infinite paths in and out, only performed in full for the first time in 1963, in a recital led by John Cage.
To the listener, the figure in the carpet is never revealed. I believe this is why one critic, at the end, said Encore.
“Everything will become infrastructure bathed in artificial light and energy,” wrote French theorist Jean Baudrillard in America, part-travelogue, part-cultural critique, in 1989. “The brilliant superstructure, the crazy verticality will have disappeared. New York is the final fling of this baroque verticality, this centrifugal eccentricity, before the horizontal dismantling arrives, and the subterranean implosion that will follow.”
On a humid afternoon in Soho, New York feels less in a state of finality than of inexorable expansion. Overhead, construction works to digest remaining slivers of space. Seated in a corner booth in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, the Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel recalls the work of his friend. “Jean … had a strong influence,” he says in French, via a translator. “Whether it’s fatality or seduction, those are notions that never leave me. I try to fight one with the other.”
It’s been two years since Nouvel last visited New York, which he calls “the prototype of the modern vertical city”. “Do you know an architect who doesn’t love New York and is not bowled over by New York?” he asks. “To build in New York, for a European architect, is a dream.”
Nouvel is here to launch his most significant contribution thus far: 53W53, or 53 West 53rd Street, a 1,050ft tower containing 139 residences and three new gallery levels of the adjoining Museum of Modern Art. Although not as tall as One World Trade Center, 53W53 will surpass the Chrysler Building, once the world’s tallest, and challenge the Empire State – a dramatic insertion into the midtown skyline, on a site only about half the size of Central Park’s Wollman Rink.
Nouvel’s initial inspiration for 53W53 were early 20th-century American architect Hugh Ferriss’ charcoal renderings of classic New York skyscrapers, such as the Majestic Hotel and the Woolworth Building – but final renders of 53W53 show far less platonic geometry. The building’s structure comprises interconnected segments that taper according to varying height and setback limits within its site. Each segment has an individual flat-edged, shard-like form, so no side of the envelope is homogeneous. The structural frame, a visible concrete skeleton Nouvel calls the “diagrid”, culminates in a peak as sharp as a Stanley blade – an arrow to some inconceivable height that even 53W53 itself, originally slated for 1,250 feet, proves we have not yet reached.
“[Architecture] is the art of using the force of your opponent against himself,” Nouvel says of the site’s complex restrictions, which caused years of delay and a reported $85.3m purchase of 240,000 square feet of air rights. “It’s like judo. Every time you have a constraint, you need to use it. You need to push it to its limits; you need to give it a sense other than the constraint, so that it will look as if you did it on purpose.”
Despite what Baudrillard might have called its “crazy verticality”, Nouvel’s aspirations for 53W53, scheduled for completion in fall 2018, sound almost modest: “It’s going to try to hold its place,” he says. “It’s going to try to be good enough for New York … it’s going to try to make its own small contribution, and it’s done in a way that ensures this contribution is readable, understandable, and it’s maybe a bit more precious than others. And it’s a little linked to this notion – a fairly disputed notion these days – that architecture is still an art, sometimes.”
Born in Fumel, France, in 1945, Nouvel graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris with a diploma in architecture in 1972. As a student, Nouvel worked for architect Claude Parent and philosopher Paul Virilio, known for their Oblique Function concept, based on research into abandoned second world war bunkers, which emphasised sloping floors to challenge conventional socio-spatial dynamics. As “architecture principe”, Parent and Virilio made drawings and models without a single 90-degree angle, shifting the paradigm of one of architecture’s most fundamental features: the wall.
Nouvel is still “very attached” to his early mentors. “They will be an influence for ever,” he says. “They taught me what it is to be an architect, and how to make architecture that comes from ideas.”
Nouvel founded his firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, with Michel Pélissié in 1994. His first office, Jean Nouvel & Associés, went bankrupt during the early 90s real estate crash, largely due to debts incurred by the project known as “tour sans fins” (tower without end). The unbuilt high-rise, for the La Défense area west of Paris, would have been Europe’s tallest building. Tour Sans Fins continues to symbolise the outer limits of architectural imagination: according to plans, the peak of its shard-like form would have disappeared among the clouds.
In his early work with Ateliers, Nouvel extended Parent and Virilio’s experimentations such that the question became not what a building’s form was, but whether it had one. His sensitivity to light and the structural potential of indeterminacy informed shimmering, sometimes kinetic façades that interact with their surroundings. The 1994 Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain’s grid of glass and steel supports extends beyond the edges of the building itself, and is transparent or reflective depending on the time of day. Outside the 1987 Institut du Monde Arabe’s south-western façade, metal panels of mashrabiya, or latticework, reinforce its flat verticality. Inside, they act as a brise-soleil with adjustable aperture size, perforating the architecture without relinquishing any of its magnitude.
“It’s a question of eroticism,” Nouvel says of his interest in ambiguity. “From the moment you understand and see everything, you’re not interested any longer; you understand everything at once. You need to experience something; you need to live something. Above all, you need to get inside something that you don’t know, something which promises depth. You need to believe that you’re never going to touch the end.”
The Institut du Monde Arabe is also an instance where Nouvel’s vision for a building’s features got muddled in implementation. Nouvel had programmed the facade’s apertures to expand and contract based on the ideal amount of sunlight throughout the day. Instead, the Institut’s administration reprogrammed the mechanism to open and close every hour. A related example is the Philharmonie de Paris: last month, Nouvel lost a much-publicised battle to remove his name from the building following its completion. His case cited 26 incidents of “non-compliance” with his original design.
At times, Nouvel’s work bears a less sympathetic relationship to its surroundings. The 2004 Torre Agbar, a bullet-shaped tower nicknamed “el supositorio” (the suppository) is a headquarters for Spanish water company Agbar. While it makes reference to Catalan modernist architect Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família church, it ultimately dwarfs the Barcelonan icon. Nouvel nicknamed 100 Eleventh Avenue, a 23-storey apartment building on Manhattan’s west side, the “vision machine”, for the angled glass panels in its curvilinear curtain wall. This emphasis on windows and on looking was unfortunately Foucauldian given the building’s neighbour: the Bayview correctional facility women’s prison.
At his boldest, Nouvel is at the edge of what Baudrillard called “the sparkle and violence of American cities”. Both critics and admirers have commented that he eschews a formal language and, in a 2008 profile, the New York Times wrote that Nouvel’s work lacks even a “readily apparent common sensibility”.
“They’re very right to say that,” Nouvel says, with quiet intensity, then a smile. “I’m very proud of that. I’m not a painter or a writer; I don’t work in my room, I work in different cities with different people. I’m more akin to a movie-maker who makes movies on completely different subjects. To reduce style to the adoption of a formal language is such a short-sighted vision that if anybody is reproaching me for this, I would reproach their reproach.”
In the near-decade since it was announced, 53W53 has also garnered its share of censure. As part of MoMA’s widely criticised expansion, the tower is implicated in the demolition – although it will not occupy the site – of the former American Folk Art Museum building. It also suffered funding shortfalls, partly due to the 2008 recession. Developers Hines and Goldman Sachs were rescued in 2013 by an equity investment from Pontiac Land Group, and again in 2014 by a reported $860m construction loan from a consortium of Singaporean and Malaysian banks. Real estate blog Curbed NY reported 53W53’s apartments are set to list for $3m to more than $50m.
All of which raises the redundant question: does New York need more luxury housing? In January, the New York Times reported that the city will receive 6,500 new condominium apartments in 2015, with only 800 in the so-called “entry-level”, $1,700-per-square-foot bracket. As Curbed commented, the New York housing market defies fundamental economic logic: it’s hard to believe the ostensible effect of this supply on demand will do anything to lower the overall average cost.
Whether the city’s affordable housing problem should fall at all within Nouvel’s, or even 53W53’s, purview is up for debate – especially as other comparable structures represent greater spatial (Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue) and economic (the Time Warner Center) interpolations. And throughout his practice, especially prior to 1994, Nouvel has often engaged issues related to social housing and urbanism – a term he dislikes.
“I did social housing in France that changed the paradigm,” Nouvel says, referring to his 1987 constructions Nemausus I and Nemausus II in Nîmes, “and actually the public housing office never forgave me for that, because I got into what they should have been doing and were not doing”.
Nouvel has frequently denounced “the way cities are built today – through technocratic and simplistic laws”, but acknowledges that “sensitive laws” are “difficult”; “an oxymoron”.
“Architects are today very relative, because they’re no longer taking part in the fundamental urban decision-making … I think that from the moment you’re not in the decision-making that takes into account the landscape, the colours, the relationship with the other buildings, the context, you can’t really go anywhere interesting; because then each person is just doing their own little thing.”
The increasingly global nature of architecture makes its relationship to context – social, economic, political, historical – even more complex. To what extent must an architect contend with the expanded significance and impact of their work? When, and under what circumstances, should a building be considered sovereign?
Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre building in the Saadiyat Island cultural district is scheduled for completion later this year. Architectural projects on the island have been plagued by these questions. After the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar, the site of Nouvel’s forthcoming National Museum, Zaha Hadid, the architect of the al-Wakrah stadium, caused uproar when she said: “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.”
Nouvel never ignores context. It is a crucial factor in his practice; it is the reason his work is brilliant, or sometimes less successful, or sometimes problematic. But he does believe context is a slippery thing – difficult to quantify, and so perhaps difficult to consider in terms of responsibility.
“I think that judgments on those countries concerning democracy, they’re cultural judgments, because they have to do with religion,” Nouvel says, referring to Abu Dhabi and Qatar. “That can take us to very fundamental discussions, because we often look at them but it’s difficult for us to look at ourselves; it’s not a simple thing.”
Shortly before our interview ends – Nouvel has to make it in time for the launch of 53W53 at MoMA, where he will field yet another round of questions from film-maker Matthew Tyrnauer in front of future condo buyers, MoMA benefactors, fellow architects, journalists and others – he recommended a book by another French theorist, Jacques Derrida. Voyous, or Rogues in English, which he said “also talks about the limits of democracy in the great western countries.”
In Rogues, Derrida refers to the concept of Khōra: an interval, a space-maker between two forms, a space that is enacted upon, where something happens.
“No politics, no ethics, and no law can be, as it were, deduced from this thought,” Derrida writes. “To be sure, nothing can be done … with it. And so one would have nothing to do with it. But should we then conclude that this thought leaves no trace on what is to be done – for example in the politics, the ethics, or the law to come?”
This series of passages explores how transparency, reflectivity and opacity can adhere to, encroach on and confuse ideas about colour. It imagines a spectrum not just of light but of the mediation of light by these surface properties, which transmit, reflect and absorb light in time and space in ways both distinct from and connected to colour. Using the models of windows, mirrors and holes, and the examples of the barreleye fish, sunglasses and Swiss cheese, among others, this piece asks what we see when we look at, through, and into surfaces.
The Macropinna microstoma, or barreleye, or spookfish, is a small, deep-sea fish with tubular eyes that rotate within its transparent head. Its optic structure contains both a mirror and a lens, making its eyes highly receptive to light. It can look upward through the surface of itself to see potential predators silhouetted in the darkness. It can also look forward to see the bioluminescent clearness of its food, the jellyfish. The barreleye sees by seeing itself clearly — seeing through its clear self. But what does the barreleye know of clarity? Can it contemplate the transparency of its own head without contemplating the transparency or opacity of the heads of others?
Like color, transparency is constituted by light: as a material property of surfaces, transparency describes the transmission of light; as a visual quality, it describes the reception of light. But transparency is difficult to see without seeing through. In Remarks on Color, Wittgenstein argues that the transparent green of green glass is different to the opaque green of a sheet of green paper.[i] Although he can describe the way green glass modifies the appearance of an object behind it, he cannot say how transparency modifies the color except to say that it makes it transparent and not opaque. Citing Runge, who famously wrote that “white water which is pure is as inconceivable as clear milk,” Wittgenstein observes: “That means we cannot describe (e.g. paint), how something white and clear would look, and that means: we don’t know what description, portrayal, these words demand of us.”
On what side of glass does transparency begin? In his Notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci asked where interstice meets substance: “What is it…that divides the atmosphere from the water? It is necessary that there should be a common boundary which is neither air nor water but is without substance, because a body interposed between two bodies prevents their contact, and this does not happen in water with air.”[ii] In Holes and Other Superficialities. Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi carry da Vinci’s question into the fourth dimension by asking: “How many surfaces does a fish break when it jumps out of the ocean?”[iii]
In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott trades the 23rd century formula for transparent aluminum for 1980s plexiglass needed by the crew to build a tank for two humpback whales. In 2009, a team of scientists at Oxford University blasted aluminium with soft X-ray laser, removing one electron from each atom while leaving their crystalline structure unaltered, turning the metal transparent. The effect lasted for forty femtoseconds. This suggests a third iteration of transparency, other than a property of material or a visual quality, is as a state.
Perhaps transparency belongs on an alternative spectrum for ontologically challenging surfaces, with a mirror at one end and a hole at the other. This spectrum is arranged according to the way surfaces mediate light, and therefore accounts for a temporal dimension: transparency is not just clear, it transmits light; a mirror is not just shiny, it reflects light; and a hole is not just dark, it absorbs light. Like light, surface is always in action.
In The Shape of Things, Vilém Flusser writes: “[A wall] is made up of two walls… The outside is political, the inside wall secretive… Anyone who can’t stand secretness should go ahead and knock walls down. But even secret-mongers and patriots have to knock holes in walls. Windows and doors. So as to be able to look outside and go out.”[iv] While Flusser doubts the perspicacity of the view from the window—he compares it to the Greek theoria, “perception without danger and without experiencing anything”— he is even more suspicious of the door: “One goes out to experience the world, and there one loses oneself, and one returns home to find oneself again, and in so doing one loses the world that one set out to conquer.” Flusser’s solution to this flawed construction is not to seal it up or knock it down (at least, not entirely) but to break it open. Since cables already perforate the house like “Swiss cheese,” with a television replacing the window and a garage replacing the door, the new house must achieve an even more radical permeability. In order to facilitate exchange in all directions, the structure must consist entirely of reversible windows and doors. With the opaque wall removed, the dark potentiality of the door electrifies the illuminating transparency of the window, generating a kind of conductivity across the structure’s surface. Interpersonal relationships are carried as information across a network of these houses, such that the houses themselves become beacons; “projectors of alternative worlds accessible to all human beings.” “Such a method of building houses,” Flusser writes, “would be a dangerous adventure.”
In a dystopic present, radical permeability looks something like Paul Virilio’s smart home, where, bathed in the artificial glow of real time via the screen, “it is less light than speed which helps us to see.”[v] The screen’s “spatio-temporal transparency,” which collapses distance into simultaneity, subsumes all velocity and proximity such that we are no longer required to move. The control room becomes the most important room in the house; we can trigger and “interact” without leaving the captain’s seat—or, as Virilio insists, the couch. Besides physical paralysis, Virilio argues that in this place of perpetual light, we are also blind. Although, perhaps what befalls us is not sightlessness but something else: as the only part of the house not emitting or transmitting light, we become darkness; a hole into which the light of the screen pours, no longer furnishing or inhabiting our environment, but “inhabited or engulfed by the domestic organs that populate it.”
In A Landscape of Events, Virilio describes the artificial nighttime evinced by sleep aids and sunglasses, “those optical instruments designed for you not to see the light of the sun and to provide the sensation of going unnoticed in broad daylight”.[vi] For Virilio, the falseness of this false dark is both a material property of the tinted lenses and a function of their being seen by a second, external set of eyes—of their exposure in the clear light of day. Virilio notes that the technology was adopted early on by “movie stars and torturers”—those who wish not just to avoid seeing, but to avoid seeing themselves as they are seen. Unlike the barreleye’s self-reflective optics, which allow her to see both herself and those who see her, Virilio’s transparent mirrors display only the inward image of the wearer, who, in order to render the world dark, must believe him- or herself to be the sun.
The barreleye was first seen in 1939, but was not seen through until 2004. All previous attempts to retrieve a specimen from the depths had destroyed the delicate tissue of the barreleye’s head, so the discovery of its transparency—recorded by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium via remotely operated vehicles equipped with video cameras—was a surprise. This suggests that transparency is a question not only of whether someone (or something) is looking, but who.
To ask “who is looking?” is also to implicitly ask, “who is allowed to look?” What is transparency augmented to mediate certain gazes and counter-gazes? On the enigmatic NSA building in Fort Meade, Maryland, Jack Self writes: “when the NSA closes a door, it stays closed. Conversely, when we close our own front doors, the NSA floats right through, as invisible as ghosts. The headquarters is hiding in plain sight, perfectly detectable but completely inscrutable.”[vii] If the NSA dreams, perhaps it sees a future in which its power is not limited to opacity or invisibility, but encompasses the deflective transparency of its headquarters’ gleaming blue-black glass—in other words, when its exposure in the public sphere creates a more total blindness or complacency toward its operations than secrecy ever could. The filmmaker Constanze Ruhm recently recalled[viii] an observation made by Harun Farocki during his research into factories, the previous century’s paradigm of surveillance and control, for his film Deep Play (2007): “the real problem was that these organizations had nothing to hide anymore: the thing that had to be hidden was that there was nothing to hide. The lack of secrets was the secret.”
In their work on ‘Black Transparency’, Metahaven describe an “indispensable, hydra-headed, chaos-mongering powerhouse,”[ix] not a unified entity but an architecture of counter-surveillance and subversion built in part by WikiLeaks, Anonymous and others, whose activities are characterized by the redirection, hoarding and re-circulating of previously privileged information—what Metahaven call “a public redistribution of goods of the state.” Unlike the NSA, which plugs holes as it mines them, leaving only smooth, shiny surface, the amorphous Black Transparency takes up temporary residence in gaps, blind spots and “legal and political loopholes of the states whose legitimacy it opposes,” exploiting darkness to evade detection as it works to bring the hidden to light.
Or: not to bring “to light”—which can blind, sterilize, white out—but to transparency. To make clear: to make not just visible, but legible.
In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch argued that a successful city is a legible one, comprised of recognizable symbols that can be easily grasped. “It must be granted that there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment,” he writes. “[But] there must be no danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out…”[x] Lynch’s emphasis on the readily apparent and the illuminated as the basis for autonomous movement and discovery discounts a certain potentiality that is only present in disorientation, indeterminacy and darkness. A city can’t be just a tunnel, but it can’t be just a bridge, either. Underground space, hidden space, empty space, dark space, holey space[xi] has existed historically as much as a threat to order and safety as a space of resistance and protection. Douglas Coupland recently wrote: “the fear of a glossy sheen is actually the fear that the surface is the content.”[xii] A hole is potent because it offers no clues as to its content, if it has any, at surface level. Anything could be down there, and everything probably is.
Two rooms for the holes where no light goes: the kitchen and the bathroom, where we connect our holes to the holes of humanity’s most essential shared infrastructure, plumbing. Except, in these rooms, our process is paradoxically reflected back at us in the gleam of porcelain, metal and glass, a tenuously closed loop of domestic “privacy,” denying the dark, hidden, communal space of our refuse. If a bathroom dreams, perhaps it sees itself rendered at last in the negative image of what its shininess works to deny. In an unpublished text titled ‘Notebook from the Apocalypse’, Tom Melick describes such a state: “A sublime mess in the bathroom. Oddly, plastic bath animals with oversized eyes—a fish, a frog, a hippopotamus, a crocodile and so on— are delicately placed amongst the most cosmic dispersal of shit imaginable… The substance has otherworldly dimensions and does not submit to any known laws. No drain will swallow it. It overwhelms every sponge, wet-wipe, mop and squeegee…The fish, frog, hippopotamus, crocodile and so on keep grinning from atop the muck, saying nothing. Do they know the secret of living, happy and loftless, in base materialism shit?”[xiii]
We are repeatedly reassured that the NSA has more shit on its hands than it knows what to do with. When Wittgenstein describes a black mirror, he observes that its darkness is at once reflective, transparent and opaque; that that which is seen in it “does not appear ‘dirty’ but ‘deep’.”[xiv] The formlessness of big data, the hole, is also a barrier of indeterminate density, like the surface of a black mirror, perhaps the last thing deflecting our complete exposure.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s footage of the barreleye shows it floating motionless at 600 to 800 meters below sea level, where all light from the surface fades to black. At such depths, the dark contains everything, even clarity.
[i] Wittgenstein, L. 1978. Remarks on Colour. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Cited in Casati, R., Varzi, A.C. 1994. Holes and Other Superficialities. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[iv] Flusser, V. 1999. ‘With As Many Hole As a Swiss Cheese’. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. London: Reaktion Books.
[v] Virilio,P. 1999. Polar Inertia. London: SAGE Publications.
[vi] Virilio, P. 2000. A Landscape of Events. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[vii] Self, J. 2015. ‘Opinion:”The authorised information available on this building could be published in a single tweet”’. Dezeen. [Online]. [Accessed 1 June 2015]. Available from: <http://www.dezeen.com/2015/03/26/nsa-headquarters-fort-meade-maryland-privacy-home-jack-self-opinion/>
[viii] Ruhm, C. 2015. ‘Attachment:’. e-flux. [Online]. [Accessed 29 June 2015]. Available from: <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/attachment/>.
[ix] Metahaven. 2012. ‘Transparency II’. Frieze (DE). [Online]. [Accessed 3 June 2015]. Available from: < http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/kolumnen/transparenz-ii/?lang=en>
[x] Lynch, K. 1960. The Image of the City. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[xi] Deleuze, G., 1980. ‘Treatise on Nomadology—The War Marchine’. Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
[xii] Coupland, D., 2015. ‘Shiny’. Supercommunity: e-flux journal 56th Venice Biennale. [Online]. [Accessed 23 May 2015]. Available from: <http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/douglas-coupland/>
[xiii] Melick, T. 2015. Notebook from the Apocalypse. Unpublished.
[xiv] Wittgenstein, L. 1978.
“Few would look at a concrete highway system or an electrical grid and perceive agency in their static arrangement,” writes Keller Easterling, architect, writer, and professor at the Yale School of Architecture, in “An Internet of Things.” “Spaces and urban arrangements are usually treated as collections of objects or volumes, not as actors. Yet the organization itself is active. It is doing something.”
By now, we are familiar with the idea that what we can’t see can be powerful. We know that “invisible” does not mean “immaterial”; that we can experience effect without defined cause. Mobile phones and computers are just conduits for a vast network circulating in the ether. Society’s organizing structures—governments, markets, non-governmental bodies practicing the kind of “soft law” Easterling calls “extrastatecraft”—influence through mechanisms of abstraction: opaque regulatory standards, capital flows, drone strikes, tacit consensus, hiding in plain sight.
In her latest book, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Easterling argues that such organizations of “space, information and power” are infrastructural: “not the urban substructure, but the urban structure itself.” Repeatable and contagious formulas for urban space like Special Economic Zones, golf communities, and Starbucks behave like software, updating and adapting to new information and requirements across time. But key to Easterling’s argument—what makes the book exciting, not bleak—is that the workings of infrastructure are neither abstract nor exotic. Infrastructure is practical and spatial, and subject to design. The very same principles of repeatability and contagion that facilitate the proliferation of SEZs are there for the co-opting.
Easterling calls such formulas “active form.” Where “object form” refers to more traditional, physical products of design, “active form” refers to infrastructures, in which information is carried in activity: not a building with kinetic components, but a system of relations unfolding across time. It is entirely possible (although, as Easterling reiterates throughout her work, the idea “must still struggle against many powerful habits of mind”) for architects to think in terms of active form, gleaning techniques and strategies from models like SEZs to modulate spatial information and therefore its effects.
This is, to borrow the title of Easterling’s 2012 TEDx talk, the space in which we’re swimming. And Easterling has been swimming in it since she was an undergraduate, studying theater at Princeton. As an actor and later a playwright, she observed the way theater writing contained “the trace of an infinitive,” “a notation for an action,” an indeterminate potentiality played out spatially and temporally. “Uncertainty doesn’t preclude action,” Easterling writes elsewhere. “It is the stuff of a more finely grained and stealthy political world where one works with the indeterminate to be not only more practical but also more vigilant.” As a playwright sets up a set of conditions, leaving room for the infinitive, so too can an architect design to alter, to subvert, to recast, to open.
You were twenty in 1979, the year Shenzhen, China, was declared a Special Economic Zone, and roughly the time the Internet was being launched. You write extensively about SEZs and the Internet as infrastructural networks—do you think living through that time period has had an influence on your research?
I suppose that one has the greatest amnesia for the recent past, and, growing up where I did, I wouldn’t have known the slightest thing about what was happening in the world. It would never occur to me to map my research against events in my life, and the recent history of globalization seems to be part of someone else’s life. Still, maybe I have been trying to fill in a history or address that amnesia for the recent past. There’s so much that’s opaque about the ways in which extra layers of global governance have developed since Pax Americana and really accelerated in these last thirty, forty years. But at the moment, I am trying to return to being a teenager.
I suppose, with that question, I’m also trying to ask what it was like to witness the advent of the Internet.
It doesn’t seem that long ago, or it seems like just one in a series of innovations and platform changes that are always happening. But, in the ’90s, there was a digital euphoria that accompanies any new infrastructure platform. Whether railroads or electricity or the Internet, there is always some sense that this is the new, redemptive platform—that finally, finally, we’ve found the platform that will allow us all to lead a democratic, global existence, where all problems will be solved. And the idea that the old platform becomes obsolete, “this kills that,” and so on, also often accompanies the advent of a new technology. The digital platform is no exception.
The notions of frontier that accompanied the mid-century highways also scripted the Internet. In fact, in 1994, at Columbia, I taught a course called “Interstate to Internet.” We were trying to identify scripts attending the digital platform. There were many revivals of the most conservative parts of cybernetic thinking related to predictability, feedback, or homeostatic organizations. Sci-fi, of course, was another prominent script. We were tracking Kevin Kelly [founding editor of Wired magazine and editor of the Whole Earth Review] as the next generation of Stewart Brand [founder of the Whole Earth Catalog], and we were looking at the ways in which the Internet was almost instantly becoming a tool for the political right, as reflected in contemporary cultural ephemera—websites, a newsletter titled “Forbes ASAP,” etc.
I am talking about some of the same things now—about seeing beyond digital technologies to see space itself as an information system. As Gregory Bateson would say: a man, a tree, and an axe is an information system. I have recently had conversations with some friends about that moment in the mid-’90s, and when I go back to read things I wrote then, it is clear that I keep coming back to these ideas.
You were also writing plays in the mid-’90s. Can you tell me about that?
I started as an actress and later became a playwright. If there is anything personal that maps onto my architecture work, it’s that I was trained in theater before being trained in architecture. And I’ve transposed techniques from theater to architecture. The whole idea of action being a carrier of information is something that comes directly from theater. That’s, in some ways, the one thing I’ve been trying to contribute. I still write things outside of architecture—not really fiction, but not nonfiction. I like dialogue as a form, because the text is only the trace of an action. The consequential information is carried in the action you choose to put on that text.
What led you from theater to architecture?
I thought it would offer a mix of the artful and practical. It seemed cooler than some of the other options in the university. The lights were on in the architecture school when I got out of rehearsal at night. And I thought the men were handsome.
Bruno Latour, whose actor-network theory you reference in Extrastatecraft, actually presented a theater production at The Kitchen in New York last year. Do you see theater not just as an applicable field for the kinds of concepts you’re writing about, but as an effective language? You’ve said before that theatrical writing always contains a trace of the infinitive, and this applies to the idea of “disposition,” or potentiality of form, that you discuss in Extrastatecraft.
Unlike Latour, I would never want to do a theater piece about what I write about in architecture. That’s kind of like when people used to ask me, “Oh, you’re an architect who’s interested in theater, I guess you do set design?” It’s not going to appear in theater, but as a habit of mind. It may be unfathomable in architecture, but it is very practical, or routine, for a person in theater to use action. You have the line, “Come home, son,” but you can’t play that line by going out and being a mother; you can’t be a noun. But you can play to smother your son; you can play to grovel to your son. Again, the real information is carried in action. And, to an annoying degree, theater people talk to each other in infinitive expressions. If you don’t have a vivid verb to describe what you’re doing, you’re probably going to be a pretty bad actress.
The director is always asking, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” That has always fascinated me, and always seemed to open up architectural territory that’s under-grazed. Just by converting to another part of speech or another register, you can redouble the material you have to work with. In some ways Extrastatecraft is about looking at the object forms that my profession is trained to deal with, but trying to see them almost like the line “Come home, son.” If the object was the noun, seeing how that noun can be positioned to be more active in culture —to have an action, to carry more information.
The difference between what you call “object form” and “active form” is one of the major concepts of Extrastatecraft, and when it was time for audience questions after a recent talk you gave at Columbia, it was clear that people were having trouble understanding “active form” as essentially a series of relationships. They were getting stuck on the “form” part. Why is an “active form” still a form?
I used the word “form” for a number of reasons, and I don’t want “active form” to be regarded as a term, but it was a convenient way to gesture to things that we’re already doing and know how to do, but in which we are under-rehearsed. There’s nothing exotic about active form, and it’s within our purview as a discipline. Architecture does sometimes use the word “form” as one would use the word “shape” or “outline” or “silhouette”—whereas the word, across many disciplines, from poetry to visual arts to film, means something different. I guess I wanted to develop a comfort with this extended repertoire of form. How does object form partner with active form to become a multiplier, or a switch? What does it enact? Every good architect is already thinking in this way. But in the context of the kind of infrastructure space I’m looking at, I’m making a very unlikely argument by saying that all the stuff that’s repeated, from spatial products to whole cities, which looks so daunting to architects, might be especially empowering. At this moment, it might be harder to make a meaningful object form alone, but easier to make an active form that can piggyback on those multipliers to recondition spaces in a politically significant way.
I love making object form; I wish I was doing more of it. I admire the research of my colleagues, and sometimes it makes me sad when their beautiful work—the deep dives into formal research and nuances of geometry and so on—ends up circling in more and more circumscribed contexts. I wish they were more powerful. It’s not a modern proposition. Active form doesn’t kill object form. I want my students to have all those skills related to geometry, shape, measure, scale, etc., plus skills for using space to manipulate power in the world.
As you say, those skills of geometry and measure and so on are the traditional skills for designing an object form. Is there a comparable set of skills for designing an active form?
There is a comfort with design that may be a detail, rather than a building; comfort with form that is time-released and never finished. How do you represent an instruction set that will play out in time? There may be slightly different kinds of documents for representing those forms, and different skills for advocating change outside of our fee-for-service habits.
Maybe this also relates to another idea you raise in Extrastatecraft, that designing an active form has its own particular aesthetic pleasures. It sounds like, from what you’re saying, time is somehow one of these pleasures—being able to design in time.
In architecture, to do anything beyond object form is often treated as something extra-disciplinary—something outside the discipline that has nothing to do with art. So I’m making it clear that this is an artistic choice. It’s not everyone’s artistic choice. Some people should choose only to make object form because that’s what gives them pleasure. But there are people for whom aesthetic pleasure comes from doing something else, and why would you deny that choice? It’s another autonomous choice. For instance—it wasn’t an architect who did this, but if it had been an architect, it would have been a good day’s work: there was a marketing person who convinced Walmart that their products sold better in daylight than electric light. It would have been interesting if an architect had deliberately designed this change with all its spatial consequences in mind, thinking about how the change would multiply across all the square footage of all the roofs of all the Walmarts in the world. It would have been a beautiful trick—a physical, practical, political pleasure. A change that could be amplified by its own mechanism. A way to exploit those who exploit. Again, it’s not for everyone.
In Subtraction, your volume of the journal Critical Spatial Practice, you argue that “unbuilding” can actually be a form of growth. In another text, The Action Is the Form, you use the Invisible Man as an example of exactly how subtraction can function as a design protocol: “The Invisible Man was only powerful and sneaky because he both appeared and disappeared. When the man himself was not visible, the space that he disturbed was visible.” When you talk about “subtraction,” do people think you’re being conceptual?
I am not sure. When students and colleagues read it and use it, I don’t think it seems especially conceptual to them. Architects and urbanists are fascinated with cities that are shrinking, like the Rust Belt cities. Or, alternatively, we are fascinated with the growth of favelas and informal settlements. The 2008 financial crisis made these changes more extreme. The subtraction protocols rehearse a way of thinking about multiple properties in counterbalancing interdependence—not just the shaping of one property but the ratcheting interplay between properties. Again, its one of those habits of mind in which we’re under-rehearsed. Borrowing from [philosopher] Gilbert Ryle, this work involves not just “knowing that,” but “knowing how.” And again, it’s quite practical. If you’re steering a boat down a river, it’s not something about which you can know that. You can only know how to do it. It’s unfinished, it has no start-stop time, it’s fluid. Practicality relies on indeterminate markers. It’s just another kind of knowledge that’s sexy, in a certain way. It’s reactive, and often physical. I just wrote an article for e-flux that was trying to describe this. And I’m writing some not-nonfiction about someone who only knows how—who doesn’t have the capacity to know that. The knowing how part of their mind is so well-developed that knowing that—knowing the right answer as a single, executive decision—is very foreign.
In State of Exception, Giorgio Agamben calls states of exception “ambiguous zones” where sovereignty is declared and normal law is suspended based on supposed necessity. Agamben argues that states of exception have become ubiquitous—in other words, no longer exceptional. You footnote Agamben at one point, but you don’t really compare states of exception with SEZs, although there are some face-value similarities.
Agamben talks about the “zone d’attentes of our airports and certain outskirts of our cities” that seem to take on this paradigm of exception—ubiquitous, as you say. Extrastatecraft is nourished by Agamben’s thinking, without question. But then there was a moment where I had to recognize that the zone doesn’t embody exactly the same idea of exception that Agamben describes. There is no single emergency or exception, but rather multiple states and extra-state players. The zone offers a mongrel form of exception with a scatter of exemptions that are harder to trace within camouflaged jurisdictions and nested forms of sovereignty. For instance, who is responsible for oversight, especially when it comes to the treatment of labor in many of these zones? It is nourishing to read Agamben and gain insight about the contemporary state of labor that finds itself in what might be called a—legally—lawless area like the zone. But then I also find it nourishing to read someone like [anthropologist] Aihwa Ong, who’s looking not only at the evacuation of law, but at the network of all kinds of players—from NGOs to human traffickers—within which labor is caught. Both models are nourishing.
When you describe these kinds of extra-governmental organizations in Extrastatecraft, it’s scary, because they are at once totally nebulous and totally opaque. You couldn’t make that kind of bureaucracy up—the real thing is the superlative of the cliché. For instance, you describe the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an independent agency responsible for enforcing “standards.” The way these “standards” are constituted and assessed, especially with regard to SEZs, allows for hugely broad jurisdiction, but without even basic transparency requirements!
There are dangers surrounding innocuousness and consensus and habit. ISO organizes hundreds of people on technical committees who are, no doubt, trying to do their best. But the standards in some cases end up reinforcing violence and destruction thousands of miles away. At a talk I gave at Harvard recently, someone asked about positioning spatial studies within a university. I’ve been trying to elevate the status of spatial studies to make it more relevant to other disciplines. Rather than asking architecture to be more interdisciplinary—a perennial issue within the discipline—I am suggesting that other disciplines might exploit the powers of architecture and urbanism. When addressing urgent situations, whether it’s the depletion of the rainforest or abuse of labor, well-meaning people are working with tools, like standards, that seem like very blunt instruments. I am suggesting that spatial variables that are underexploited in governance might add to that repertoire.
It’s about us, as architects, but also for people who are in global governance, having a chance to think first about spatial variables as something that can leverage change in governance. Right now, that’s not what we use; it’s always econometrics or standards or some other technical language. To use these great, lumpy, heavy things of space as little machines that can be used in interplay, that’s another potential pleasure.
You’ve traveled to many of the places you write about and have seen many zones in action. Is there a particular place you’ve visited or event you’ve witnessed that was especially influential in your work?
Here is one example: on a visit to Kenya, I spoke with the permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication, Dr. Bitange Ndemo. He showed me a pamphlet that McKinsey had helped to organize, and the person meeting with him after me was someone from the World Bank. It’s funny how much one learns from context. Throughout that entire visit, with all its meetings, there was an experience of the place that taught me things I couldn’t learn by reading global newswires. The fact that I learned so much makes me wish that I could visit more places. So many of the zones, of course, are closed, so one knows about them only in secondhand ways. My research has only scratched the surface. There are thousands of zones around the world. There’s just so much work to do.
Oscar Tuazon is an unlikely American in Paris. The artist’s first living space was a geodesic dome built by his parents in small town Washington State, he didn’t leave America until he was 32 and only speaks rudimentary French. And yet, after years of living between New York, LA and Tacoma, he followed his wife Dorothée Perret, editor of culture journal PARIS, LA, to the social housing apartment in Paris where the couple still lives with their three children: Rain, 1; Tacoma, 5; Nuage, 11. Tuazon had always worked with building/living experiments but it was in this apartment that his large-scale sculpture absorbed the bedroom, bathroom and even some living room furniture. (Perhaps the best example of this is Bed (2007-2010), named for its original function, now housed by Saatchi Gallery.) But Tuazon thrives on this kind of basic dialogue with architecture, and with recent solo shows at the ICA, London, and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, as well as significant contributions to the 2012 Whitney Biennale and the 54th Venice Biennale, it is clear that lack of immediate space did not hinder the artist’s output.
I met Tuazon in New York, before the opening of People: three new sculptures on the Brooklyn waterfront commissioned by the Public Art Fund for Brooklyn Bridge Park. The structures are made mostly of cement and the trunks of local trees, and can be used as basketball hoops, handball walls, and springs for water. They are temporarily installed, and this is how Tuazon likes it. His is a sort of inverse architecture in which the transience of a work, and the materials that comprise it, is honored and even encouraged. Natural materials do not promise anything. They are made available to the artist or maker on the condition that they will return to the earth with time. This is a temporary custodianship that begins with Tuazon’s earliest experiences of architecture, and which the artist continues to take very seriously.
You grew up in Seattle, Washington. Tell me about your family home.
When I was ten the architect Ibsen Nelsen designed a house for us, and my parents built it. It was not a big house but each of the elements, the bedroom, the kitchen, were sort of separate elements that you walked between. My parents are bookbinders so there was also a bookbindery in there. They made blank books: sketch books, photo albums. It was really a two-person operation. It was just them and then, when I got old enough, I was helping out. My brother too. It was a family business. They’d come to know the architect because he would order these custom-made sketchbooks and I think they may have traded him some books for architectural work.
They traded notebooks for the design of your house? That seems like an imbalanced trade.
It does, doesn’t it? There’s probably more to the story, but that’s how I remember it. But the house that I was actually born in is a geodesic dome that my parents built together. And I think, even though I didn’t grow up there, that house has been really important to me. It’s in my DNA.
Was it a geodesic dome that succeeded structurally?
No, not really. As soon as I was born they moved out. It was leaky, the windows were plastic sheeting. It was totally hand built by two people who have never built anything in their lives so it was bound to have a lot of problems.
Geodesic domes were usually built in clusters, right? Someone would build one and then their friends would build one right next door.
Yeah, of course, a lot of it comes from a communal context. But in this case it was just in the middle of the forest. Now it’s funny because all of the forest around there has been cut and so it’s there in the middle of a barren hillside looking very strange. I think it’s now used as a horse barn. Somebody lived there for a long time but now it’s for animals, which is probably more appropriate.
So, the geodesic dome is obviously there in your work, as a structure that can be dismantled and as a structure that essentially failed repeatedly upon execution.
Initially what attracted me was that I felt like a lot of those technical failures also had an interesting relationship to the ideological context that produced the geodesic dome, which in my mind is the sort of back-to-the-land movement and this moment of frustration with the urban situation. Although I’m not so much involved with the geodesic question anymore, what remains interesting is the technical problems. I’m always interested in the way a structure could fail. In a lot of ways, in architecture particularly, when a building fails it can be more interesting than when it performs the way it’s supposed to. That iconic image of a Buckminster Fuller dome on fire, years after the Montreal Expo, with black smoke pouring out of it, I think that’s kind of fascinating.
Do you think your relationship to natural materials will change as they become scarce? Wood is integral to your work but it is also a finite resource.
I actually feel more like that about stone. Certain kinds of stones are quite rare. But it’s not something I really think about, actually. For me what’s more interesting in terms of a material is its lifespan — how a thing ages. It’s interesting in terms of an art object, which has traditionally been conceived of as a physical object. What I like to think about is that object decaying and falling apart and ultimately being replaced. One of the things I’m trying to work on now is the idea that a work will need to be repaired. Buildings are thought about that way: as a brick building ages it will need to be repointed or bricks need to be repaired. Somehow the form of the building and the essence of the building is able to be the same while the materials ultimately can be completely replaced. In wood buildings that’s even more typical, right? You’ll have to replace the siding and eventually replace the roof, replace the foundation. What is the object? I now try to think about designing that into an artwork or structure, so it becomes something that is in other people’s hands.
You’ve said that before about a work – I think it might have been built in the woods – about how you liked the idea that it was going to exist on its own with no need for anyone or anything else.
Yeah, I think that was probably this piece that’s a marble block in a tree?
Yeah, that’s the one.
That’s something which, rather than decaying, is growing. It’s like I’ve set up a situation and now it’s making its own decisions and creating its own form and, to me, it has autonomy that way. It’s got its own life.
What is appealing about that idea?
Well, I think in one way it disintegrates the aura of an artwork. It returns it to being a thing. I’ve just done this project here in Brooklyn Bridge Park and to me, what’s exciting is that those things exist and will be interacted with and perceived completely independent of me or of being artworks at all. They’re just things that are going to function in the park and people are going to play basketball with them or take a nap on them without having to perceive them as artworks.
In a way, what you’re describing is the inverse of what a monument is supposed to be. A monument is not an artwork but is supposed to be revered and not used in a utilitarian way and not touched or approached.
Yeah, they should be anti-monumental, that’s really true.
You’ve said that with the Brooklyn Bridge Park sculptures you didn’t want to compete with the New York City skyline — but do you ever feel as if you just want to make intrusive alterations on a huge scale?
No, I don’t actually, and it’s weird because I like to work large — but it’s not a question of scale, it’s a question of size. To do that kind of grand, monumental gesture… I don’t know. Those kinds of things have less impact on me than something I can interact with on a one-to-one basis. The fountain piece [in Brooklyn Bridge Park] is something you can perceive at a distance but its effect is very subtle. It asks you to come close to it. For me, the effective moment in that work is to be able to touch it and feel the water.
When you look at a monument, the only thing you can perceive is the person who made it. In terms of the Manhattan skyline, what I think is important is to somehow turn your back on it and to create an experience where you’re more able to think about yourself and have the space for yourself.
“Have the space for yourself” is a great choice of words.
Yeah, I thought about parks a lot. A good park can give you the feeling of seeing things that nobody else has seen. It’s discovery, basically. You find an area in a park that you’ve never been to or you feel like nobody has ever been to, which of course is absurd in a city of ten million people, but there are seasonal things in a park that are completely new all the time.
Why did you move to Paris?
I met my wife. She’s French. At the time I was living in Tacoma and so for a while, for a year, we were having this very long distance relationship. Finally someone had to move and I tried to convince her to come to Tacoma but ultimately I decided to move to Paris. It was nice because it gave me a lot of freedom — just the freedom of being disoriented and not knowing French.
It must have been intense for your wife to always have to act as your translator.
[Laughs] Yeah, and it’s true, she’s been very supportive and taken good care of me. I found it nice, it’s like being a child where you can’t understand what the grown ups are saying.
Do you feel more American in Paris?
Definitely, yeah. I always thought it was funny that I was a sculptor in Paris, because, really, the urban situation — the housing, the spaces you can find — isn’t conducive to sculpture. In a weird way, you could write the history of modern art and contemporary art just based on the architecture of the different cities in which that art developed. At least at the moment in Paris, the scene is very… I mean, it always has had a very strong conceptual element to it, a conceptual, immaterial tendency, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that people have these small apartments and can’t afford studios. And then you think about, I don’t know, the kind of work that’s developed in New York, post-war painting and sculpture, it had something to do with the particular kinds of spaces that were available. Anyways, I just thought it was quite ridiculous that I was living in Paris and doing large-scale sculpture.
What does your house look like in Paris?
It’s an apartment, social housing, that my wife has had since before I moved there. For a long time I would build things into the apartment. I had this huge bed structure on the upper floor and I had my studio there for some time, which was insane. I was running power tools and mixing cement in the bathtub. I was really working in the living room, making these sculptures that would fit exactly the dimensions of the elevator. Now I have a studio in the outskirts of Paris, it’s very rough and I can do whatever I want, so the apartment has kind of returned to normal.
When you build a utilitarian object like a bed, do you find yourself wanting to make it sculptural?
I think the line between a design object and a sculpture is interesting. I would like to invent a new way of thinking about a bed, about a table. I’m fascinated with tables because you can’t argue with the functionality of what a table is supposed to do, but I always feel like somehow there is a way of reinventing it – and not in an aesthetic way at all. Just that simple thing of making a horizontal plane at a certain height that people can eat at. In a way, that’s a really open set of requirements. So, of course, you can find a million different ways to get there.
I suppose you’re still dealing with parameters like the size of the room.
Sculpture needs to have that same criteria built into it for it to be successful. I don’t think you can just go into the studio and be like, I want to make something that looks nice. I try to think of making a sculpture like making a table. I may not be able to explain the criteria that it is trying to fulfill as clearly as in the case of a table, but it needs to have that kind of structure built into it.
Do parameters ever frustrate you?
No, no, for me that’s the most exciting thing: to work against parameters and to work with parameters. I’ve worked in architecture with Vito Acconci for a couple of years and that was a huge revelation for me. You could use the parameters to form the work in a way that I found more open or more subtle or more challenging than the idea of how site specificity had been practiced in sculpture up to that point.
Where parameters were limitations?
Yeah, and in very stark terms. I think the development of site specificity in sculpture came out of an ideological struggle that presented things in an almost cartoonishly simple way. What you find in architecture is that the program is so complex and the process of having to plan a building is so multifaceted that you can’t always sustain an ideological position in the overall construction of something like a building. So, to me, it was exciting to find that mode of working. I’ve always worked with architecture — the thing at the Whitney Museum was almost becoming its own building, in a way — but I’ve just bought a cabin in the woods on the Olympic Peninsula, I’ve started to think about actually designing and building that structure. I am not sure what I can say about it other than that it should be, like I said, a house as a sculpture or something. I guess I am interested in taking the various functions of a house and atomizing it, breaking it down into a number of smaller different events. I’m into building small, interconnected rooms, which is a funny idea for a place where it’s raining 328 days a year, to try to explode the house out, it doesn’t make sense yet. If you can think of a table as a sculpture, you can think of a shower as a sculpture.
How did you come to work with Vito Acconci?
I had always been an admirer of his work and he came to speak at the Whitney program while I was there. After he left he needed somebody to pack up his studio because he was moving to a new space, so I got hired just to pack boxes. I had no architectural background at all other than an interest, so I was the odd man out in that studio because it was, like, ten architects. Anyways, I kind of never left. I was never really offered a position but I found things I could do to make myself useful there and stuck around.
Your wife is Dorothée Perret [editor of Paris, LA]. How did she feel when you started to make alterations to the house?
She was always very open about that [laughs]. It’s kind of a crazy adventure. One of the things that I always admired, and this comes back to the dome thing — the kind of architecture that I like — is always this impulse to build your own space and then have to adapt your way of living to that space. One of the things I’ve been interested in over the years is this nomadic or quasi-homeless or backwoods way of living. The idea is that the architecture is so demanding and so difficult that you have to adapt your whole lifestyle. I’m not that hardcore, I just made a weird bed in my house, but I think that’s the ideal that architecture should aspire to: not to accommodate existing functions or existing uses, but to demand new ways of living.
I read that the bed you built eventually got bought by Saatchi Gallery.
Yeah, it’s funny how these things happen. I’d never thought of it as an independent work, it was more a way that I could hide the bed underneath the floor so that I could move into the guest room and make my studio there. That, to me, is the perfect formula for making something interesting: it was never meant to be an artwork, it was just this problem solving process. But then, yeah, we had a fire and the bed was either going to get trashed or… [laughs] Oh, I really should not say that: “It was either going to the dump or to some collector’s house.” But it’s this thing of an artwork in the process of decay.
Do you imagine the conversations you might have with your one year-old daughter when she starts building things out of wooden blocks?
Well, I’ve got two older daughters as well: I’ve got a five year-old and Dorothée has an eleven year-old. They’ve always been pretty active in what I do. Nuage, the older one, she would work in the studio with me when I had it at home and now she’s at the age where I’ll sometimes take her if I’m going to install a show or something. Sometimes she likes it and sometimes she thinks it’s stupid, which is kind of her age.
Like it’s another item on her chores list.
Yeah, exactly. She’s also like, “It’s dirty in here, it’s disgusting.” There are certain things she likes though. We’ve made work together. It’s pretty amazing actually. One time when we went to the studio together I had a work that I needed to make that I’d kind of been putting off, and I knew the materials I wanted to make it out of and I knew, somehow, the dimensions. You know, I was in that beginning phase. And so we talked about it together, I tried to explain what I was thinking and — it was amazing — she started doing some drawings and she knows my work very well, so she made these drawings that were very perceptive about the volume and the structure that I was talking about, and we conceived the work together. It was really cool. And it’s rare, actually, because I work with a lot of people and that process I’m comfortable with, and like I say there are people I collaborate with, but it can be difficult to have that level of comfort.
The way your folks lived has obviously influenced your life in a direct way. Do you think your career could influence your kids in an inverse way, where they want to get as far away as possible from art, from spaces that transform constantly?
My parents were constantly building houses or remodeling houses and I think I absorbed the excitement of transforming a space just naturally, from being around that. I have no conception of what it must be like to grow up for Tacoma or Rain or Nuage. I didn’t leave the country until I was probably 32. I didn’t really leave Washington State until I was 18. I grew up in a very small town. Rain, she’s going to turn one this week, and she’s already been back and forth between France and the US five times. She took her first trip when she was 10 days old. She draws upon a completely different environment. I try to incorporate the whole family in what I do but what I do means travelling all the time and living this very strange lifestyle. In a way, I do try — I think — to replicate or explore some of the things that were interesting for me as a kid but it’s completely different. Maybe they’re going to want to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
When you move around so much, does it influence your relationship to accruing stuff?
I do try to shed stuff and we don’t have a whole lot of stuff. At the same time, being a sculptor, you’re constantly producing things. The studio is always full of material, I’m always ordering material, I need it for projects, and one of the things that drives the work is just this compulsion to empty the space out. I’d like to have the space empty of stuff, of materials, of half-finished works, even of furniture. Because [the studio] is a squat it came with some old furniture, chairs and desks and tables and stuff, and those have all been cannibalized and turned into works. Just to clear the space. But the flipside of that is, of course, I’m creating this ocean of stuff that goes out into the world. I always wonder, where the hell does it go? I mean, sometimes I know, but a lot of times it just disappears into some weird storage space. It gets moved around, lost track of… I have a feeling that it never comes out of the crates, but that’s another story.
Do you feel attached to where a work ends up?
No. It’s that joke about it being trash. I think it’s really true. There’s this great essay by Helen Molesworth that talks about the Rauschenberg newspaper paintings in terms of excrement; that an old newspaper is garbage, it’s trash, it’s even shit, and there’s something wrong about preserving that somehow. The artworks, at least from my perspective, really are almost like trash.
Yeah. But you know, at the same time, I think it’s great to think about them from someone else’s perspective. That they might enjoy them or lose them or preserve them, I find that an awesome and humbling thing that anybody would find something I do valuable enough to live with. That is totally cool. But from my own perspective, I really don’t want to have anything to do with it [laughs]. I don’t want it around anymore. I want to get it out of the way so I can move on to the next thing.
Please build a simple structure in your mind. Start from the ground. Make a window, or some space between solid surfaces where inside receives outside. Outside is “nature,” the elements, light.
Look around; this is your environment. Look out there; that is the environment. Your regard for what’s out there is estimable. But how does the environment regard you? What does outside think of inside? How does nature feel about what you’ve built? You might think nature has already yielded, that the imposition of your structure on a certain site means “the environment” — previously intact? — is sublimated. Or, perhaps you expect nature will eventually overcome your little place. Wind and water will reduce it to dust; this whole project is only temporary.
Nature is indifferent to structure, most of the time. It acquiesces, it co-exists, occasionally it ravages, but nature has no attachment to, no care or disdain for, no opinion of your building at all — most of the time, that is.
How does architecture relate to nature? Reversing the nouns in this question has been part of Tadao Ando’s project for over fifty years. The decorated, self-trained architect, former pro boxer and human being has designed residences, gardens, an insect observation hall, art museums, hospitals and memorials from Japan to Mexico.
“The world is composed of the balance between the artificial (man-made) and the nature,” says Ando, “and if man-made things are claimed to be destruction of nature then there will not be any future for architecture.”
“What’s most important for me when I start with each project is the dialog and the Harmony with the site and the surrounding nature. I try to discover and to bring out the distinct characteristics and special essence of the site through architecture. With such process and ways of thinking, I begin to see the image of the space and the scenery I have experienced overlapping with the site, and the new idea for the architecture might appear.”
In 1986, Ando built a small chapel on Mount Rokkō, a group of mountains in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture. To enter the space, visitors walk a 40 meter tunnel made of matte glass and steel, open at the end not to the chapel — the entrance to this space is inconspicuously set to one side — but to the mountain’s green. A mountain is monumental, but it is also a mountain, a fact, plain and simple. It is not a setting, but begins and ends on its own terms; there would still be a mountain without a tunnel to frame it. As Ando celebrates this sovereignty, he encourages the mountain’s participation with a worthy structure.
The chapel is narrow and tall, closed to the mountain on all sides but one: the left wall is made from four glass panels, divided by a concrete cross. The wall behind the alter sits separate and forward, seemingly independent of the structure at large. Slim gaps on three sides allow natural light to edge in, but the light does not serve to illuminate. Instead, it maintains its autonomy as a welcome guest. The wall becomes subject to this designation from “outside,”appearing as though held in place by the glow.
Ando does not employ light; he invites it. And although light does not necessarily need an invitation, it seems to appreciate a thoughtful and dramatic opportunity to engage. Church of the Light, built in 1989, is famous for providing such a summons in the middle of suburban Ibaraki, Osaka. Like the chapel on Mount Rokkō, the structure is concrete and spare. The church is dark but for the pure white light that bursts through an extrusion in the east wall, forming a crucifix, spanning the length and width of the small church. The balance is between light and dark, but also between light and the structure. Both are required, invited to assert respective but symbiotic presences, so that the totem of contemplation — the cross — and the contemplative space can exist.
“Formality of the building type is not significant for me,” says Ando. “If space where people can confront and reflect on their own mind and feelings is desired [whether] it’s a church, temple, residence or even museum, the way I approach the architecture is all the same.”
“I constantly like to create an original and new space. To explain what I mean by original space, it is a space defined by natural elements which cannot be seen by naked eyes such as light and wind. I search for an original space [that is] appropriate for a specific area and for the specific program. With such a mind process, space for contemplation begins to form.”
Ando built Water Temple in 1991 on Awaji Island in the Hyōgo Prefecture, for the Shingon Buddhist Sect. Where Church of the Light evokes transcendent asceticism, Water Temple manifests elemental suspension, depth, distance and submergence. To approach, visitors must follow a long path through the temple’s former premises and cemetery. A large circular pool filled to its brim punctuates access to the temple surrounds. The pool mirrors the sky and nearby green; all of nature reflected in a single element, at once delimited and boundless. Entrance to the temple begins with a descent, via a concrete stairway, into the centre of the pool. The inner passageway is circuitous, encircling the temple’s sacred centre, the intensity of the walls’ red hue increasing with proximity.
“Human spirits cannot be described plain and simple like in the digital world,” says Ando. “In order to turn from the present atmosphere to an extraordinary space (spiritual space) it requires a transition pace to increase the inner spirituality of each individual.”
In Church on the Water, built in Hokkaido in 1988, contemplative space and atmospheric transition are less definitely demarcated. In fact, contemplation is at-large, drawn outwards from inside the structure by a glass wall overlooking a vast pond, with a mass of trees and grass surrounding. The church’s symbolic focus, the cross, is set at the center of the pond, anchoring vision and pulling it toward the elements. In a sense, this is Church of the Light’s inversion: nature is not channeled or invited in; instead, nature is unrestricted and absorptive, the true space in the space. Here, it is nature who invites visitors out, and the condition of this expansion is that they turn within.
“To transport the human mind as close as it can to nothingness, the stoic representation is appropriate,” Ando says. “When people feel the light, the wind and the breeze from each season in such silent space, people begin to face their own minds.”
Part way into Amie Siegel’s video work, The Architects, which finished last month at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, you begin to wonder if all architectural offices in New York City are, in fact, a single, interminable loft space. The work, for which Siegel filmed 10 prominent firms, ‘from Fifth Avenue to downtown to Brooklyn’, unfolds in relentlessly lateral tracking – a smooth cross-section of Dell computers and Herman Miller chairs, an inside skyline in more ways than one.
The Architects was commissioned by Storefront for OfficeUS, the US Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice. OfficeUS, itself an architectural research firm, founded on the occasion of the Biennale by Storefront’s executive director and chief curator Eva Franch i Gilabert, with architects Ashley Schafer, Ana Miljački and Amanda Reeser, posited that the architectural office is a primary export of American architecture. In the 1950s, US corporate spatial generics – the open-plan, communal tables, breakout zones, fluorescent troffer ceiling grids – became architectural spatial generics, epitomised and distributed by SOM, adopted globally over the remaining half of the century. Modern architectural firms came to uniformly resemble US architectural firms, and US corporate culture implicitly impacted global work habits.
Siegel is aligned with this dialectic of sameness and difference. Her works often utilise remake, in particular Black Moon (2010), which involved a partial recreation of Louis Malle’s 1975 film transposed to foreclosed properties in California and Florida, and Berlin Remake (2005), a two-channel installation that showed the Berlin of state-run East German film studio movies alongside shot-for-shot footage.
The Architects opens on what appears to be an establishing shot of Manhattan, but as the camera starts to track, the city is revealed to be a digital render on a firm’s pinboard – the first of many false ‘outsides’. As Siegel slides from one large firm to the next, the spaces appear of a piece all the more because they are not identical, but assert personality through inescapably corporate, decorative modalities. The type of candy and colour of bowl change to match the plant pots; the fact of potted plants and bowls of candy endures.
The repetitions begin to create suspense: Siegel’s panning lens seems always on the verge of uncovering yet another man in a blue shirt, perhaps on the phone beneath a maneki-neko, at a book shelf, or drawing on a render, surrounded by a group of similarly attired, younger men. These seemingly arbitrary samenesses are funny, and at the same time invoke questions of cultural entrenchment. Perhaps the principle is less one of generics than of multiverses: within an infinite Bürolandschaft, banality left unexamined repeats itself.
While The Architects’ definite article would seem to presage a typology of its noun, the work is as much about habitat as species. The animals are there, nearly cropped out of frame or half-hidden behind partitions, but we never meet one. Their voices are reduced to backgrounded hum, drowned out by typing and scanning. Siegel affords subject status to the unusually curvilinear form of a reception desk, or a table of drawings, or the printer that accomplishes the only task completed in the work’s chronology by printing a single page. Siegel’s emphasis on objects, especially electronics, can feel didactic: the camera sails coolly across two young, probably unpaid staff scoring wood blocks with Stanley knives only to break tracking for several seconds mimicking the motion of a MakerBot 3D printer.
In a recent lecture at Cooper Union, Siegel expressed agnosticism toward the Le Corbusier furniture at the centre of her 2013 work, Provenance. For that work, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Siegel followed the passage (in reverse, like a provenance document) of chairs and desks from Corbusier’s development at Chandigarh, India, through the machinations of freight to the backrooms of auction houses and restorers, into the homes (and yacht) of European collectors. In a review for Frieze, Jason Farago wrote that Siegel’s refusal to make her implicit critique – of the art object as a mechanism of capital flow, of International Style, of socio-economic exploitation across continents, among other things – meant that the work threatened to reinforce, rather than expose or challenge, problematic structures.
The Architects is no Playtime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy, in which the provincial Monsieur Hulot bursts into a corporate, modernist Paris in all his inconvenient physicality and chaos ensues. Siegel never breaks The Architects’ consensus; she doesn’t offer a foil. Zooming in on a printed digital render, she tracks from a modular, Tetris-like beachfront resort into the ocean, an absorbingly beautiful moment in which the frame fills with pixel sea and the background hum goes quiet. A quick cut to a new firm – with its Dells and its bookshelves, albeit with a little more colour and a few more smiles (stereotype dictates this is probably ‘Brooklyn’) – only reminds us that The Architects’ dichotomy of inside and outside is frustratingly unresolved.
The architects are inside. Even the firms are inside, somehow retreating into and digesting themselves. The suggestion that the camera and the audience are outsiders together – established in a shot of one of the offices filmed from an adjacent building, where the camera sneaks glimpses into the impossibly lit office from the dark – is unconvincing. Instead, the viewer is suspended in some airless interstice, neither in nor out. At the work’s durational yet oddly atemporal pace, the experience is somewhat like being on an aeroplane: layers of disconnected movement (you, the other passengers, the vessel and the distant earth) create an overall sensation of stasis.
Siegel’s reluctance to situate herself, and, as a consequence, the viewer, obfuscates the work’s relationship to its subject, and the subject’s relationship to the outside world. Whole cities are contained within these offices; we know, because we’ve watched them being adjusted atop plinths, under studio lights, by a blue-shirted photographer. Most surfaces in the offices are literally littered with skyscrapers; maquettes of vaguely familiar cities are spiked with unfamiliar monoliths, waiting to be made real. In these moments, one starts to wish for Monsieur Hulot, an absurd intervention, to prove that this too shall pass.
When the artist David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications in New York in 1992, his Magic Box — an Indian River Citrus crate containing about eighty items, from stones and beads to a toy watch to a monkey skull painted International Klein Blue — was found under his bed. This box, about which few knew and Wojnarowicz wrote little, is now held at the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU, which the artist Samuel Hodge visited for the first time this summer. Like Wojnarowicz, Hodge works with autobiography. His work is funny, sad, silly, profound, literal or sly, depending on who’s looking and when. Hodge is known for photography but says that clay, which he uses for the first time in his current show, ‘Skate or Die’, is a particularly potent medium in this regard: it is, in Hodge’s words, “wet forever”; never ossified, endlessly malleable. ‘Skate or Die’ is as personal as Hodge’s childhood in Glen Innes, a town in rural Australia — looking in on heterosexuality, making his own action figures — and as universal as stratifications of culture, sexuality and privilege. Wojnarowicz is only one of these currents. But still, it’s hard not to think about the inscrutable Magic Box — because what is an autobiography but a bunch of totemic memory-objects, sum significance shifting and cryptic even to its owner, perpetually shuffled and reshuffled according to who’s looking and when?
This show brings together a lot of different threads, all interconnected; your childhood in rural Australia, exclusion from straight subcultures, your visit to the David Wojnarowicz archives at NYU… Let’s start with the title. Tell me about “Skate or Die”.
I wanted to skate so much as a kid and I knew everything about skate culture but I could never really fit in. A few years ago, a friend said to me that being a white straight Australian man is just, like, the best thing ever. They never have to worry about anything, they’re always having such a good time [laughs]. They’re all on sweet street. I’m not sure how true that is, but I was thinking about that again recently when I saw some guy wearing a Skate or Die t-shirt. When you think about it, the meaning is actually quite intense; it’s this bravado thing that’s really straight. The photos of the boys behind the words [in the titular work] are inspired by these images of snowball fights from, I think, Princeton University from 1910 or 1913, where they would take portraits of themselves after they’d beat the shit out of each other. They’d show off these massive bruises and cuts with pride, but that’s something that straight men have the freedom to do. They get to be proud of their bruises and black eyes as if it’s a badge of honor. You see a straight guy walking down the street with a black eye and it’s like, oh, he got into a good punch up. But if it’s a gay guy or a woman…
It’s associated with victimhood.
Yeah. People get defensive about which culture belongs to who. Also, “skate or die” is a pretty dumb term. I spoke to a gay skater recently who was like, oh, that’s a pretty old one; there are new terms now. Some other skater had asked him, why are you so defensive all the time? And he was like, you don’t know what it’s like to have to constantly explain your position within a particular scene.
And this is one of the places where David Wojnarowicz comes in. Toward the end of his life especially, he became quite vitriolic. Close to the Knives is a great book and also an incredibly angry one.
He’d just gotten to a point where it was enough. You get to a point where you’re tired of having to smile and nod through bullshit. What I like about David Wojnarowicz is that he taught himself. He never studied, but also had that insecurity, which I relate to, about not studying and wanting to have the access that people who have studied have. In his diaries he writes about talking to his friends about wanting to have access to universities in France to be with his boyfriend but not being able to get a visa. But he just kept making his work anyway. One of the works in the show is called ‘I want to farm that blow boy’; that was written in one of David Wojnarowicz’s notebooks in the archives, just on the back of a page. He was on a residency in a small rural area in 1991, I think, and he was really sick with AIDS at that point, and so the whole diary was him talking about his fear of death, over and over and over again, and then there was just this funny little line written on the back, all by itself. Going through his diaries I could see that that was his practice, in a lot of ways: taking notes and writing. Someone bought that work who used to live in New York in the 80s, and his friend was a really good friend of David Wojnarowicz. He bought the work as a present for his friend, to take back to New York.
This is the first time you’ve used clay for a show, or made work that is more sculptural than purely photographic. Can you tell me about this?
I started practicing with clay about five years ago and I made some pieces but they didn’t work so I just put them aside. I recently found out that with paintings by the old masters, the canvas degrades but the oil paint doesn’t so conservationists can literally peel off the painting and put it on to a new canvas. It’s sculptural, ultimately. When I found that out I was so inspired. I started working in a studio, and started looking for other ways to interpret the clay. It’s what I always used as a kid; it was how I could make toys that kind of looked like other toys, because we were too poor to get the real toys so I’d make my own. I would make my own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and take them to school, then go home and roll them out and make them again, and they would always get so squashed and dirty. The clay I’m using is that same kids’ modeling clay. That hanging installation took a lot of practice to get it to not break. That took, weirdly, months to figure out, and it was really simple in the end. The day before the show I remade everything. All the words are remade about four times from the same word. I would make the word and remake it again and again until it changed font and changed style and all the clay marbled. The good thing about clay is that if it gets dirty you can just roll it out and it sort of cleans itself in this weird way. The dirt gets hidden and then it’s clean again.
That’s an evocative metaphor.
It’s a bit dangerous because it’s borderline first year university stuff, working with these ideas. But they’re ideas I’ve never focused on before and I feel in a safe space to work on something like this without making it sentimental; to have a distance to understand it and to understand the beauty of the situation. I’m not making art therapy; I’m more interested in these things from a distance, minus the sentimentality or the emotion. I’ve really looked back to things I didn’t get to complete, in a way. When I was making these things as a kid I was so obsessed with clay as a medium, like most kids, but then you’re kind of forced to put it aside and move on to more sophisticated things. I think the work I can do now involves being able to look at stuff that happened a long time ago, realizing that it is interesting and it is strange in the sociological sense. Maybe it’s more anthropological: groups of people, exclusion, all that stuff is really intriguing to me.
So much of the show concerns subjects that are generally considered to be very serious and painful — gay bashing, cultural exclusion — but the work frames these subjects in funny and often absurd ways.
I’m trying to think why. It’s kind of been a natural progression, and I think that’s also my sense of humor. I suppose I can quite easily place those [subjects] in that space. The humor is probably the most personal thing. When I was going through the Wojnarowicz archives at NYU, I found this letter from the Bowery Bank from 1980 or 1981 and I thought it was kind of strange. I opened it up and it had all of the paraphernalia for applying for life insurance — everything, even the return address envelope, nothing had been thrown out. And there was this letter that said, “Dear Marcel Duchamp, thank you for your interest in life insurance with the Bowery Bank.” I just loved that David Wojnarowicz was going into banks for fun and signing up Marcel Duchamp for life insurance. I think the themes translate in different ways, as well; I don’t really want to keep bringing up the gay-straight divide, but the ‘Dedicated Top’ and ‘Spiritual Bottom’ bead works got purchased by two straight women. One of the women said she interpreted “spiritual bottom” as a person who has reached their spiritual bottom in life, which I thought was so beautiful and totally relevant. When the title of your Grindr profile is “spiritual bottom” then maybe you have kind of bottomed out spiritually [laughs].
Sometimes, for portraits, Harry Houdini wore a loincloth. One photograph dated 1899 shows him standing barefoot on a carpeted floor, a black, spangled triangle of fabric at his waist, his wrists crossed before him in a kind of strongman vogue. Although his stance is steady, his posture is forced forward by the angle of his neck, which is fastened with a padlocked chain that wraps his arms and stomach, drawing his upper body toward his shackled ankles via a system of locks and weights.
Over a hundred years later, the image seems benignly earnest: the chains against Houdini’s pillowy flesh feel platonic; the loincloth reads as camp. Nothing – the point is – up his sleeve. And yet, squarely facing the camera, one eyebrow cocked beneath his curls, Houdini’s expression flickers with defiance. His gaze tilts upward to meet ours. Suddenly, we see that he is not straining but bowing. The gesture of reverence is at once a provocation and a gift.
In a good magic trick, the drama of what could happen overshadows what is happening, and what is happening is only visible in part, such that what we don’t or can’t see gives charge to what we think we are about to. Of course, ‘nothing up his sleeve’ encourages the question, ‘what about the other sleeve?’ So a good magician shows us both sleeves before pointing out that he is not wearing a shirt or jacket. Which might explain why, with all the clarity of hindsight, we can look at Houdini in his near-total exposure and still miss what he is barely hiding: his hands.
According to Vilém Flusser, what remains of the myth of flight after the invention of air travel is the dream of possessing with our whole bodies the three-dimensional, or non-planar, capabilities of a disembodied hand. The only creatures with “the freedom to apprehend, comprehend, conceive, and modify in depth” or in space, he says, are birds. And fish, sort of. Astronauts also come close. But generally, the unique potentiality of “a hand free of a body, a body turned into a hand” remains closed to terrestrial beings.
Imagine now that the spatial field described in Flusser’s proposition was flattened to an image plane, so that apprehension, comprehension, conception and modification took place not “in depth” but on the surface. The disembodied hand retains its mythological freedom, but now this freedom exists only in relationship to the eye. A white dove is loosed from its cage, flies across the stage and disappears. Whatever a disembodied hand makes apparent is as such when there is an audience – when the hand holds our attention and is in turn beheld.
“It’s all about the choreography of attention,” Apollo Robbins told The New Yorker’s Adam Green, after removing Green’s wallet without him noticing. Robbins is famous for his near-supernatural abilities with sleight-of-hand, in which the primary audience is almost always the subject. He not only lifts their wallet but, as demonstrated on The Today Show, replaces their pen cartridge with a $100 note and returns the whole thing to their pocket. “Even though he had explained each step along the way,” Green writes, palpably astonished, “I hadn’t felt a thing.”
Held undivided and choreographed skillfully, attention becomes a material that can be handled and manipulated. On the one hand, attention is the object. On the other, the hand is the only body allowed on stage: the magician makes theatre by challenging bodied-ness – by performing a feat only a disembodied hand could achieve, or by manipulating the audience’s attention so that they begin to question their corporeality: How did I not feel that? What did I just see?
Assistants, in particular, are too distracting to remain intact. They get sawn into segments or penetrated with swords; the magician drowns her (and it is inevitably a ‘her’) or, more contemporarily, themselves. The body on stage is tied up, suspended, buried, scrutinised – only the hand is free.
“What else is the world than a figure?” asks Oliver Haddo, the titular character in W Somerset Maugham’s The Magician.
“When you begin to talk of magic and mysticism I confess that I am out of my depth,” Arthur Burdon, a surgeon, replies.
“Yet magic is no more than the art of employing consciously invisible means to produce visible affects,” says Haddo, “…Magic has but one dogma, namely, that the seen is the measure of the unseen.”
When Maugham’s novel was published in 1908, the practice of surgery was undergoing rapid advancement due to discoveries in anaesthetics, antiseptics and x-ray technology. Paradoxically, science’s vigorous pursuit of the tractable body also renewed public interest in the body as esoteric metaphor, drawing magician and surgeon, operators on the figure, into counterpart. Later, in 1936, Walter Benjamin placed the two in ‘arrangement’ to describe the difference in distance struck by painter and cinematographer in relation to a subject. But at the turn of the century, magician and surgeon were sibling paradigms of proximity.
Sibling – which is to say, not quite twin. At the hands of a surgeon, certain mysteries of corporeal life become material reality; at the hands of a magician, certain material realities mystify. By the end of The Magician, Haddo has subsumed his counterpart’s abilities by successfully breeding homunculi, which he feeds on the virgin blood of Burden’s fiancé Margaret. On discovering Margaret’s fate, Burdon strangles Haddo, only to find that, in a darkened room, without an audience, the body, and therefore the act, has vanished.
Is gesture – taken to be, as Roland Barthes has it, “indeterminate and inexhaustible”, the sum of that which “surrounds the action with an atmosphere” – extricable from a relationship to touch?
Is it possible to consider Louis Althusser’s early notion of “the hand as the agent for the transformation of all matter” without also considering the later bipolar episode in which he strangled his wife while giving her a massage?
“Few theories are pure in their application,” writes David Pocock, advancing a theory in his foreword to Marcel Mauss’s A General Theory of Magic. A gesture is a hypothesis and a prophecy? A hand is a tool and a sign? Distilled to its purest, Althusser’s theoretical gesture wrought the final transformation – the termination – of a human life.
Perhaps the hand’s greater potentiality lies not with its ability to transform matter, but context:
In The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Wayne Koestenbaum describes the many figures of Harpo, a nonlogician, a mute, a curly-headed catalyst, a victim of violence, an “abstract actor”, at once irrepressibly physical and a shape-shifting metaphor. Frequently without agency, Harpo improvises. Conjecture becomes instrument and vice versa; wave, point, grin. “Harpo’s gestures can’t be reduced to ideology,” Koestenbaum writes. “…Each motion reminds me that I have already encountered it and am free to greet it again.”
Harpo who throws hexes through bunched hands. Harpo who tells that power can be marginal. Harpo who deals in substitution and suggestion, offering his leg for his part in a handshake: ‘The Switch Trick’. “Notice the pleasure that hits when one thing replaces another. You expect a fist. You receive, instead, a flower.”
It’s possible to derive a taxonomy of two-ness from our hands’ synchronous autonomy. Doubling, division, mirroring, difference, contrast, contradiction, transposition, supplementation, inversion, concealment – the whole choreography of agreement and divergence, of left and right, is given to us here. A faculty, in Michel Serres’ terms: not special, never specific. The possibility of doing something in general.
By the mid-1920s, Houdini had become a driven sceptic. In A Magician Among the Spirits, he claims to have attended over 100 séances and exposed as many mediums, fashioning a kind of second act deducing and then revealing to the public the tricks used to falsify contact with the dead.
His most famous target was Mina Crandon. A renowned medium, Crandon was famous for her theatrical ‘proofs’, including an ectoplasmic hand that emanated from her vagina or belly button during séances. (Her surgeon husband, Dr Le Roi Crandon was renowned for a similar trick: appendectomy via the navel.) In photographs, the hand, said to belong to Crandon’s deceased brother Walter, possesses the distinctive color and texture of liver tissue, a little fat around the fingers, not unlike a starfish. In some images, the wrists and arms of attendees enter from beyond the frame, reaching over Mina’s bunched skirt to touch Walter’s fingers or accept his handshake.
Houdini’s eyes hit middle distance this time. He is standing behind a high table or desk, looking collegiate in a shirt and tie. His sleeves are rolled up; he is at work. Surrounded by several large glass beakers, he leans slightly forward into his task, supporting with his left hand and displaying with his right a large wax model, indistinguishable from the real in form yet indicated by three earlier examples on the table below: wax hands, false hands, modeled on Houdini’s own in order to manifest the unreality of the spirit-hands he sought to debunk.
Giorgio Agamben writes: Gesture is the display of mediation, the making visible of a means as such.
Poised between fixity and melt, Houdini’s hands float in process, all surface, at once means and ends and neither wholly both. They drip at the fingers, approximate, impossible, ready to act.
This is a conversation between four people about living in the present. Which means, at least for our purposes, a conversation about inevitability and possibility, anxiety and hope, the flexible and the fixed. About life and how it happens: where, in what, and with whom. Stephanie Macdonald is a found- ing director of 6a Architects, whose work is distinguished by its sensitivity to the relationship between structure and environment; Vinca Petersen is a photographer who documented Europe’s raver and traveller scene and has since co-founded Future Youth Project, a charity facilitating what she calls ‘physical and emotional journeys’. Jack Self is an architect and director of REAL Foundation, dedicated to alternative forms of development, property, and ownership. We met on a Thursday morning in London.
I want to begin by asking how each of you experience the present, or what that means to you.
Jack Self: There’s this great British author, JG Ballard. Many of his stories focus on dystopias of the extreme present and often begin with very minor and inconsequential accidents, but by the end you’ve reached an incredibly extreme condition. You think, ‘Yeah, that’s totally fair, he should go and steal his neighbour’s post’, but before you know it, he’s eating his neighbour’s dog over a fire, and that seems perfectly natural. In a sense, the relationship I have with the present is that small things which have been building over the last decade, arguably two, are all seeming to come to a head in a way that, I think, obscures an obvious future.
Stephanie Macdonald: Maybe there’s a more positive slant to it. Take someone like Richard Wentworth, a sculptor who we found very influential, who documents the everyday, the small things that are happening in the city, in an almost pathological way, and uncovers from that really deep trajectories through culture. His project, ‘Making Do and Getting By’, has been reiterated and expanded by him over years and years, but it’s a lovely place to start: it’s just the cataloguing of one street, and its changes and its unruliness. There are all these clues in our built environment, and if you see that, you can be articulate with it.
Jack: I think you’ve actually hit it perfectly—a critique of everyday life, where the very minor signs of everyday life, the detritus, but also the spatial relationships, are really interesting in the sense that they represent much larger, more abstract concepts—political, economic, and so on—but then also reinforce possibilities within the built environment and within everyday life. Looking at questions of patriarchy and gender relations within the home, it’s very significant that the head of the table is both the literal head of the table and the metaphorical head of the household. All of these systems of indirect control have very precise spatial relationships. And as architects we have a positivity, because we believe that you can intervene in everyday life through de- sign and have quite a significant—we would like to think—possibility of changing society.
Stephanie: Richard’s discourse about this is also incredibly positive and optimistic and ten- der. There’s a humanity to it, the way someone has displayed all their gnomes on their balcony, or the display in a second-hand shop, or the care taken with things, or the misbehaving, like propping a door with a boot.
Vinca Petersen: I was listening to what you were saying about this idea of small things leading you to strange places. I think that pretty much describes what happened to me from 16 to about 30. I left home at 16 and went to live in this squat in London and started raving, then I found the travellers, who were living this free way of being, not just dancing all night and taking drugs, but actually living in a different way. I ended up living in a live-in vehicle—several different ones. My interior design and architecture improved over the years, but they always had wheels, until I was 31 and became pregnant, and decided I should live in a house. I suppose what I’m saying is that people look at parts of that time in my life and think it’s quite extreme, but I ended up there in such a logical way, to me, through small decisions, and not necessarily being aware of the present but having no value for any other time. I see it almost as a problem now, or when I tried to reintegrate back into what was available as society and culture.
Jack: Are you a nostalgic person?
Vinca: No, not at all.
Jack: Because I think that we live in an era where the absence of a stable future has made a lot of people very anxious, wanting to grab on to some sort of past, real or imagined, so we see a rise in nostalgia, and conservatism, in many ways. I feel zero nostalgia. I haven’t had a great past, maybe that’s why. There are always great things that you look back on fondly, but I think there’s a profound difference between thinking fondly of the past and feeling nostalgia, which is almost like a homesickness for another time.
Stephanie: One is an awareness of the past and the other is a sort of—
Jack: Longing for it.
Vinca: We had this phrase, ‘We live now and in the future’. If you started to talk about the past, or relate to it in any way, people would sort of glaze over. We found that it strips away prejudice. If you don’t have a past, and no one’s interested in your past, or what you’ve done, or where you’ve come from, it’s a really nice place to start.
I want to discuss this relationship between ideas you had about past, present, and future, and the home structure you were living in at that time.
Vinca: My space was completely constructed around being able to move quickly, being able to adapt. Being able to be, I guess, undercover. If you relate that to more solid spaces, and solid homes, that fluidity goes really quickly. But I find I live within houses in a very similar way: I can let them go very quickly, and move and adapt, almost like a hermit crab changing a shell. It would be interesting, in architecture, if it was very changeable, so you could constantly adapt to what you’re doing and who you are at the time. It would be more relevant to living life in the present.
Stephanie: A lot of our buildings try to not necessarily be a house, or an office. We’ve worked with a lot of houses that turn into galleries, or houses that became fire stations, and fire stations that then became galleries, and houses that became cafés, and then the other way around. When we were designing Juergen Teller’s studio spaces, the planning policy in that zone is all about work, so it could only ever be a workspace. But many workspaces make amazing houses, so that was always in the back of my head: that you could live there one day, if you wanted to. And that comes down to having a really good relationship with the external spaces, our place in nature, our place in ecology, and recognising that we are a constructed world. That’s the grass, the tarmac, us, the buildings, the bees; we’re all the same, in a sense. If one thinks about it like that, then the spaces start to change and perhaps become a little more fluid.
Vinca: Is that because people want to feel like that in a space?
Stephanie: Well, when you were talking about your travels, it reminded me of this exploration of how we exist with our external environment. How much of the city is concreted, how much is actually allowed to grow? What’s a room? Is it with a tree in it, or is it with a desk in it? Where do you work better? I met these two amazing women at a school that we looked at in Woking, who work with children from an area that had a lot of problems, and to work with these children, they brought the idea of teaching change through nature, through cycles—that change is a natural and inevitable part of human life. This was a very unusual and progressive curriculum, and it brought a huge stability to that school. It was amazing—all these seasonal rituals and things that they did, with big standing stones outside. As much of the class was conducted in the landscape around them as in the class- room. It feels like that’s what you, Vinca, were also getting in touch with: being outside of the structure of just being part of the GDP.
Jack: To go back one step—not very far actually—one of my long-term rants has been against ideas of functionalism, which I think is at the essence of what you’re describing. Modernist architecture had an idea of functional- ism which came out of factory production and production lines, and it wasn’t very long after optimising Ford’s factories that people were like, ‘What happens if you do this to a house?’ Of course, the consequence of that is you start doing things like designing kitchens, which had never really been conceived of as a space before. What you ended up with were highly gendered spaces where you get girly kitchens with long benches optimised for one woman at home during the day to make meals for her family. But if you change the family structure, if you have two or three people cooking in one of those kitchens, it becomes entirely impractical. For me, the terrace house is probably the greatest piece of architecture that Britain has ever come up with. Because they’re not based around functional activities; every floor just has two rooms: one large, one smaller. The depth of the room and the height of the ceiling are in proportion, so that you can read a book at the back of the room during the day without artificial light. They’re based on good abstract qualities of space, which have good environ- mental qualities to them. And as a result they end up being used for all sorts of things. A floor can be a bedroom and a large bathroom, or two bedrooms, or a living room, or a studio.
Stephanie: They’re also fantastically specific about their relation to light, to the street, to privacy. You know, the really big windows on the first floor, the piano nobile, the setback of the light well below ground, so you have a bit of privacy from the street.
Jack: I mean, for architects, with a terrace house, it’s like the best of times and the worst of times, because they have on the one hand so much possibility and on the other hand they’re so specifically designed that they’re very difficult to do something new with.
Vinca: When I stopped living in a truck with a seven-and-a-half tonne box lorry in the end, it was brilliant, but I had to start living, so I moved into this small terrace house in London. I couldn’t afford it in the end, so I moved to Ramsgate and bought a much taller house, because I could, and then had to fit it full of lodgers to pay for it. And I’ve ended up, in the past year, moving into a small, two-up, two- down terrace. And something happened when I went into that space, which is exactly what you said: it’s blocks. It’s four blocks and a couple of blocks on the back. And every block is brilliantly useful. I love that house, and it feels like I’ve got a shell again. I’m not living in a house, I’m living, and it’s the perfect fit. It feels like how my truck used to feel.
Jack: This is a question of the appropriation of space, because a lot of architects often make the mistake of saying, ‘OK, we’ll make lots of moving screens and moving partitions and walls’. Look at the Pompidou Centre in Paris: the entire interior is non-structural so you can arrange it in any way you want, and it was supposed to be infinitely configurable. They found one setting they liked about 30 years ago, and they’ve just never changed it. I think it’s much better to say, ‘How can we create spaces which are extremely rigid, and extremely fixed, where you only do them once, but anyone who comes in to that space—ideally, irrespective of cultural background, gender, power relations, and family structure—can find a place for themselves within that home, and can adapt it to their own desires for life’. That design for the present, in fact, does give you a type of positive vision for the future.
Would you say that’s the difference between home and house?
Jack: For me, a house is a very technical object. It’s a consequence of construction methodologies, planning regulations, available materials, and different types of labour conditions, as well as the geography of the site, and topography and so on. The home is a psychological and emotional construct. It’s a very fragile relationship between people and objects in a space, which is what can make a yacht a home, which is what can make a seven-and-a-half- tonne truck a home. Which is what can make a terrace house a home. For me, the construction of normality comes about from a familiarity with these objects and people and space, and they’re constantly falling away, and new ones are coming in. And if that change is very slow, you don’t notice that your home has evolved, and if that change is very rapid, you feel a sudden rupture. But that, I think, is also where that positive possibility for the future comes in, through an intervention in the present. You might only change one thing—you might change the table from being rectangular to circular—and as a consequence have a minor alteration in the structure of that family, which then has a consequence much further down the line.
Stephanie: You make me think of Georges Perec as well, writing about the infra-ordinary, in his Species of Spaces. One of his exercises was to have your kitchen in the bathroom, or to go and sleep in the living room. Move around each day. Try a different space. And I think I’m with you on the kind of modernist thing of not being interested in function or lots of moveable screens, and flexibility—that’s a misnomer. The more specific a space is, the more adaptable it is. That might be a super tall or a really large space, but if it’s got the right light, and it’s picking things up to make it really inhabitable, and it’s delightful to be in, if there’s the shadow of a tree leaf playing across the space, and you’ve got seasonality, if you can see across and there’s a view in its courtyard. The gap between houses or a road or something. It’s partly contextual and it’s partly material. The authenticity of materials is really important. You read if it’s developer spec, and that this is not about you but about the square-metre value, and everything feels like it’s paper thin. Paper thin can be great, depending on what you’re doing, but you read the intention. There’s a lot of translation in architecture, and I think it’s really good to try to strip that back. That’s what’s so great about a van: there’s no translation there, it is what it is and you can move. It’s got a steering wheel. It’s not about being righteous or virtuous about it, it’s more about having a kind of comprehension of what you’re in, and how that fits culturally. You understand where you are. And that does provide a framework for you to change in it.
Vinca: The first thing that came to my mind was that there’s an honesty in a home. I suppose you could say that a home really is about the person that’s in it, and them being honest with themselves. The first book I ever made was a photographic book in 1999 called No System, and it looks quite extreme now, but at the time I thought I had produced quite a palatable book, basically inviting people to come and live like I did. I felt like it was a brochure.
And living like you did at that time meant—
Vinca: Everyone did it for different reasons, and in different ways. It was highly political in one sense, and just absolutely back to basics in another. In relation to living in the moment, it was all about doing what you want to do, when you wanted to do it, in the way you wanted to do it. So, something you desire maybe in your early 20s. And then politically, obviously, it was about not being observed or measured or examined.
Jack: I’m fascinated by that. You describe on the one hand quite an individualistic concept of doing what you want when you want, but of course, for people to live together, you also have to have some sense of social contract or community. I’m wondering if you can somehow capture what that community might have been like?
Vinca: I’m probably the worst to ask, because I always felt like I was an outsider in that community. I always had an urge to move more, to not be pinned down even within those groups. But I think what happens any time a group of human beings gets together is they have to create a certain structure, and there are always leaders. And leaders can come in different forms, like DJs that are really good, or people who are good at cooking, or the person that’s got the generator at that time. It was always very practical, but the politics would come about over time. My idea of a nightmare now would be to live in a hippie community.
Jack: I mean, it’s a tale as old as the shift from nomadic to agrarian, fixed lifestyle. As soon as you stop moving, someone’s going to want to be the king.
Vinca: When I stopped living on the road, which was a kind of free space, supposedly, but was always very intense, socially and practically, I could suddenly choose my space. And there was a freedom in that for me. At the same time, how do you move from living in a way which is very unstructured to living in a way that isn’t? How do you not live life in the present? I find it incredibly difficult to plan anything, not because I’ve got a brain that can’t plan, but because I have no value systems for the future. I’ve been living in a house now for 14 years, and it’s still a difficult thing.
Jack: I think it’s a shift between questions of abstraction and questions of presence in the world. I have two radically different concepts of myself. One is a being that is present in the world and has a sensitivity to time and space. That being’s favourite activity is to lie in the sea on my back, looking through my feet at the horizon, because in geological and deep earth time, the colour of the sea and the sky was fixed billions of years ago, which means that it is the only permanent, if you could call it, landscape of the planet. And when I’m in that water, especially if it’s warm, that’s when I feel most at one. Then you have this sort of game that you play, which is almost like chess, in which you recognise there are specific pieces with specific rules. You can play well or play badly. You can’t get out of the game; you have to engage with it in some manner, to navigate through this human construction. Very few people will explain the rules to you, which sometimes makes the motions of the pieces very abstract and con- fusing. I think there’s a huge variation in individual disposition, between people who live purely in that present sense of being, which I guess in its most ultimate fantasised form—at least for me—would be a kind of yogi, or a medieval hermit. And then at the other end are some of my young students, who are not challenging me or my colleagues, and inheriting verbatim the social structures and assumptions of their parents. Which means that they’re not even aware of the fact that they’re within that game of chess.
I think that has a lot to do with anxiety about the future, and the different ways people mitigate that.
Jack: In my opinion, the possibility of punk is the possibility of being able to live free from the previous generation, whether that’s through the welfare state, whether that’s through squatting or occupation of different kinds. I have only one dream—this is my dream for society and what I dedicate my en- tire life to—which is that no one would ever have to pay for housing ever again, and that they would always have a high-quality and appropriate standard of housing, of whatever kind, and in whatever location they wanted, because I think removing the pressures of how you will be housed radically changes your en- tire relationship to what you do with your day. It changes how you relate to other people, and what you conceive of as your life and as the present. That’s the only thing I’m trying to do, and that’s why I’ve recently rethought how to do that.
Stephanie: On that level, my dream would be that everyone gets free education with that. Because then I think, it doesn’t matter where you live, you can comprehend, you can understand and make sense of the world. And you can challenge orthodoxies like religion and politics. If anything, that’s the biggest tool for equality, if we’re going big.
We’re at the end, so we have to go big.
Vinca: Poverty, in a way, creates ultimate forms of living life in the moment. That’s what we haven’t talked about. We’ve talked about hedonism and all that, but actually if you’re going to a favela, when you talk to someone about what’s going on, it will be about that day. I am a photographer, and I always had a camera, so I always felt like I was a bit of a fraud, because part of the hedonism and the ethos of living like I did was living life absolutely for the moment, but I really wanted to take a picture as well, or go back and write something down, just because I thought it was so great that I had to petrify it, solidify it, carve it into something. So, for years and years, I lived on the road and was again never quite there when everyone was living life for the moment. When my son was one, I had a massive mortgage with my partner, and he was working 12 hours a day, and I had a baby that didn’t sleep through the night till he was five. My father was living alone, and he was 86, and one day he phoned me up and said he was lonely and not well, and I said I was lonely too. I looked after him in the last seven months of his life. It was the most intense, hardcore, difficult, but incredibly wonderful experience I have ever had. One day, I was on the lawn hanging out the washing. And I’d left the one year old sort of vaguely safe, and the 86 year old was moaning about something, but he’d had food, and he’d been to the loo, and it was kind of alright. I was hanging out the washing, I was halfway along, and I suddenly went, ‘Oh my god, I’m living life completely in the moment. I’m utterly here, there is nothing else, anywhere, that is important. Everything is this moment, and me hanging out the washing’.
Last year, the German artist Lena Henke visited Rome for the first time and freaked out.
“I freaked out!”, she says. “Of course, I’m a big Bernini fan. I also visited the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican where every village in Italy is painted, so when you walk through it, you walk through all of Italy.” Henke stopped in the Eternal City on her way to the 2015 Venice Biennale, where she and Marie Karlberg held a group show titled Please Respond as part of their New York-based curatorial project, M/L Artspace. From Rome, she traveled north to the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, a 16th-century garden famed for the total strangeness of its monsters, a group of monumental Mannerist sculptures by Simone Moschino. One of the park’s best-known works is the head of Orcus, an underworld god from Greek and Roman mythology, carved out of the local bedrock. Inside Orcus’s mouth, which is frozen open in a cavernous scream, his tongue forms a table. “The sculpture is the architecture,” says Henke. “The friend I went with said how she wanted to build her own house, and suddenly I thought, ‘That’s a really good idea.’ I think a sculptor’s dream is really to build your own world and environment.”
In Henke’s Williamsburg studio, posters of Bomarzo’s monsters line the walls alongside print-outs of the East River bridges. Her window looks out to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, under which M/L Artspace held their first exhibition, a four-hour sculpture show called Under the BQE in 2013. “Here you go, New York,” wrote Caroline Busta in a text accompanying the exhibition. “Here is your living underground, your young artists squatting — occupying! — that mythic zone the city is said to have once possessed.” Weird topographies, Robert Moses-era city planning, and the undersides, backsides, and flipsides of public space and structure point to some big questions in Henke’s work: what factors — temporal, physical, political — demarcate and program space? What is navigability? What is obstruction? When is form fixed and when is material reclaimable? How does one make a map?
Henke grew up in Warburg, Germany, and moved to New York in 2013 after studying under Michael Krebber at Frankfurt’s Städelschule. Without a permanent studio, Henke worked mostly from the local Starbucks, where she would sit and draw the way fellow customers’ bodies hung on “these long benches where everyone is back-to-back, Skyping.” It was the inspiration for Hang Harder (2012), her first institutional solo show at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein in Germany, where she presented 40 panels of wood coated with tarpaper and epoxy resin that she variously laid flat on the floor or propped up against the walls and in the corners, often atop borrowed folding chairs. Henke mentions Richard Serra in relation to Hang Harder’s tar, and he’s there in the architecture as well, as is Starbucks — except that where a Serra sculpture and corporate interiors constrict the body, Hang Harder leaves the body alone and constricts space, the acute angle of its largest piece concealing the gallery windows and fire-exit doors, blanketing all possibilities other than itself. Once the show was over, Henke used its materials to build Core, Cut, Care (2012), at the Oldenburger Kunstverein. She arranged the new series of sculptures, again based on Starbucks-like interiors, into various tableaux across the gallery.
In Henke’s mapmaking, relationships between elements become content, and what often ends up materialized are imprints, inverses, interiorities, and impressions. In a 2015 joint show with Max Brand entitled Looking at you (revived) again at Off Vendome gallery in New York, Henke exhibited her Female Fatigue series: abstract geometric representations of landmark Manhattan buildings (and one incident, the Hurricane Sandy crane collapse) fabricated in brushed stainless steel, inhabited by small, recumbent female forms cast in sand. As the women appeared to dissolve — into steely New York, into private, enveloping fatigue — their jock-cup-like molds, which Henke also exhibited, insisted on exteriority, cohesion, and containment.
Henke is currently working on an illustrated self-portrait of sorts, something like a Lena Henke Gallery of Maps, or a Lena Henke Orcus head, or even a Robert Moses-like vision for the urban structure of Lena Henke. Drafts in her studio depict an outline of Manhattan (de)formed into a large horse’s head, filled with totems of Henke’s New York: the real Orcus is there, along with works from Female Fatigue, the BQE, and a floating slogan from the gardens of Bomarzo that exhorts all who enter to surrender reason (“lasciate ogni pensiero voi ch’entrate”). Where the horse’s brain would be, a cutaway into the Freedom Tower reveals Henke herself, surveying her city, rearranging miniatures of each element to determine what comes next.
Last summer, in the group show To Do As One Would at London’s David Zwirner, New York-based sculptor Ann Greene Kelly exhibited “Untitled”, a sculpture made up of a stuffed, blue vinyl oblate draped with orange shag and a metal pole angled upward with a cup-like stone attached to its end, like the receiver of a marble telephone.
Kelly’s parents’ neighbours were at the opening. Beneath the shag and the periscopic stone and metal, they recognised something: the top of one of their bar stools. Kelly’s studio lies in her parents’ apartment building’s basement, a shared space where the stools had sat abandoned for years. The neighbours liked the sculpture but asked for the seat back once the show was over – Kelly still hasn’t told them she hacksawed it from its rusted base.
This is how Kelly’s sculptures often are: not so much assembled parts as confluences of the disassembled, materials vibrating in curious company, amputated or otherwise altered, but alive. ForInTouch (2015), her first artist book, published by Peradam Press, Kelly took a similar approach. She used Sharpies to erase most of InTouch magazine’s “Holidays from Hell” issue, leaving only the hands marooned together on every page, adding images of her studio as the finishing touch — stones, gloves, clamps. Below, Kelly speaks about making her mark on stone.
Where did the idea for InTouch come from?
One summer during college I was back home and I’d been making art all semester and it was kind of the first time I realised I couldn’t just stop making art because I was out of school. I drew on the New York Times and covered everything but the hands, but with graphite. I’d always had in my head that it would be really cool to do a whole magazine. But it is a time consuming, weirdly boring thing!
It’d be kind of meditative too, because you’re not adding anything, you’re just…
Taking everything away! And it’s funny because you get to know the magazine really well. This one is the Kardashian issue and the cover says “Holidays from Hell”. InTouch is funny because it’s also the most vacant magazine. I’m pretty sure every issue of InTouch magazine has the same number of pages, which is crazy to me. Content has nothing to do with the size.
Why did you choose to focus on hands?
It’s to do with touch, taking away everything they’re touching so the hands become inactive but also theatrical. They suddenly say a lot. In ads or whatever, you see people doing things with their hands and the hands are kind of supported by the objects, so you’re taking away the support. In this, so many of them were texting [laughs]. While I was travelling I kept noticing the hands of sculpture; they were always so expressive and almost where the skill [of the sculptor] was. When you’re learning to draw, you just draw your hands because they’re the hardest things to capture.
How did you decide on which images to insert?
I take so many pictures in my studio with my cell phone, so these images were like ‘adding my touch’. I feel like a lot of the work I do with stone, the way I think about it, is just the indent of my hand in something. Even when I use tools, how I think about the spaces that I want to make is through my fingers. I’ll trace it with my hands and then use the tool to make that space.
Do you choose stone based on how you can work on it, or how it feels?
Totally on how it feels or how it sits. I’ll go to the place where I buy stone and just hang out down there, and if something looks interesting I’ll pick it up. Some stones can only sit one way. I’m not as into it when I make an entire shape out of a piece of stone. I like to just have a stone and expose part of it, or make something fit into it, or make it fit into something else. It’s kind of based on what the stone is already doing.
Do you remember what made you want to start making sculpture?
I feel like sculpture was a slow road for me. The wood shop and the metal shop at school were always really intimidating, and I didn’t grow up around people making stuff — which I think was also good. Understanding how things are made or thinking about what could possibly hold two things together is so exciting to me. I think that’s where a lot of my work comes from, but it took me a long time just to get to actually making things.
I saw a show in my freshman year that had Rachel Harrison, Franz West and Isa Genzken and it just blew my mind. It was so weirdly direct. I saw the show and I was like, ‘that’s it’. Art school is so weird, which is also what’s good about it. It’s constantly, ‘why is this important?’ And ‘what’s art doing?’ And, ‘art’s not doing anything! [laughs]. I never got good crits because it was always like: ‘why is this tennis ball on this piece of stuff? What is this doing?’ But when I saw those sculptures I was like: ‘I don’t know if I can talk about it, but this is fucking doing something.’ There’s not a doubt in my mind. They just felt so important and clarifying. I felt like I was learning and understanding so much from them, and they gave me this belief. They made me feel like it was okay to try to make stuff.
In the winter of 1971, Alvin Boyarsky was campaigning to take over leadership of London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, known as the AA. The school, independent since its founding in 1847, had avoided subsumption by the public Imperial College only to emerge in financial disrepair, near to shutdown, in need of new direction and an entirely new structure.
In his notes, included in Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarksy and the Architectural Association, at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Boyarsky congratulates the AA for “maintaining a spirit of independent survival”. Independence, he writes, depends on “vigorous ambience”. A handwritten addendum reads: “Open up all the doors and blow the cobwebs away.”
As Boyarsky would have it, the doors – and windows – of Drawing Ambience are open. The exhibition showcases early sketches, drawings and prints by architects including Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas from Boyarsky’s archive, RISD’s Fleet library and four AA publications. In its fluid unfolding, Drawing Ambience materialises the “vigorous ambience” of the AA during Boyarsky’s chairmanship, which lasted until his death in 1990.
Boyarsky considered drawing its own form of architecture. He encouraged students to experiment rigorously, developing their own intuitive language of representation without concern for the operational potential of an idea. Jeremie Frank’s The Macrophone (1981), which forms a possible entry into Drawing Ambience, is one of the exhibition’s more straight-faced commitments to fantasy: a large machine, like half an X-wedge engine, rendered in airbrush, collage, graphite and technical pen. Frank studied at the AA in the late 1970s under Peter Cook and Ron Herron, founding members of English neofuturist architecture group Archigram, also known for flights of technological fancy such as the 1964 Plug-in City, a hypothetical metropolis comprised of pure infrastructure.
Archigram embodied Boyarsky’s belief that playful, seemingly inconsequential, abstract or conceptual concerns were fertile ground for design. The imaginary structures and systems they developed through drawing feel no less real or habitable than the built world – and the projects are no less ambitious. Opposite a wall of posters by 1960s collective Superstudio, from the Radical period of Italian design, a drawing by former Archigram member Michael Webb almost disappears. The delicate pencil markings have become faint, but, in their faintness, Webb’s exacting geometry and manipulation of formal representational elements radiate.
The work is part of Webb’s Temple Island project, which was first exhibited at the AA in 1987, based on his childhood memory of the titular landmark at Henley-on-Thames. In an adjacent vitrine, spreads from the catalogue, Temple Island: A Study, describe the dizzying substructure of Webb’s project: filtering memory through optics to develop a spatiality of time.
Inside the exhibition’s “courtyard, loosely inspired by the AA’s Bedford Square, a grey-carpeted display box contains 20 offset lithographs from AA alum Bernard Tschumi’s La Case Vide: La Villette folio (1985). In 1983, Tschumi had won a competition to redevelop the Parc de la Villette in Paris (a negative photostat of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture’s runner-up site-plan is displayed on the opposite wall). His plan comprised points, lines and surfaces, where the “points” were so-called follies, or structures of open-ended, non-prescribed usage – folie, poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida explains in the folio text, implies psychosis and delusion. As ground was being broken at the site, Tschumi exhibited new imaginings of his system at the AA – at once a reflection on and prediction of the physical design, and an invitation to connect the dots.
Across Drawing Ambience, physicality has little to do with a drawing’s relationship to real structures and more to do with the presence of the hand. Looking at one of John Hejduk’s sketches for his Victims project (1986), it is difficult to imagine a more evocative and living representation of his 67 unbuilt structures, designed for the grounds of the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, than his lexigram-like grid of quick lines in felt-tip and ink on notebook paper. In their drawing for the ICI Trade Pavilion in Stoneleigh, England (1983), Christopher Macdonald and Peter Salter have managed to invoke the labor of the ox, depicted in the drawing’s lower left-hand corner, with layers of erasure, collage and scraping – a way to remove technical pen – that have worn the surface of the vellum.
In the adjacent Paula and Leonard Granoff Galleries, Drawing Ambience’s curators Jan Howard and Igor Marjanović have extended the physical space of the exhibition by installing architectural drawings and related materials from RISD’s collection among the ceramic teapots and Mark Rothko paintings. Constructivist architect Yakov Chernikov’s The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms (1931) is open at a page of structures more than likely instrumental to Tschumi, Archigram and many other figures in Drawing Ambience.
Across a plinth, Friedrich St Florian’s Underlay for the New York Birdcage (1968) articulates the essentially urban concern of so much imaginary architecture. As St Florian pointed out at the exhibition’s opening, he wanted to visualise the holding patterns of planes over New York – forming the “birdcages” – to understand an imminent but not-yet-visible reality: in 1968, Buckminster Fuller was working to convince the world that, in the future, all travel would take place in the sky.
The flying car did not eventuate, and by the end of Boyarsky’s life, the world’s focus was on a far more advanced machine. Computers became central to architectural education, and drawing software introduced whole new sets of aesthetic, technical and representational possibilities. By the 1990s, architectural discourse had shifted to emphasise the operation of an idea over its representation.
Although the works in Drawing Ambience may be read as part of a historical chapter, their time is not finished. If it is possible to say “flying cars did not materialise”, it is also possible to say “flying cars did not materialise yet”. Drawing Ambience upends familiar ideas about progression, succession and antecedence; the works’ questions and propositions are asking to be taken up, retranslated, rejected or otherwise lived in the present. The exhibition’s expanded space means Drawing Ambience ends as it opens: with an invitation to the body, and, by extension, the hand.
In Carol Bove’s studio, there are many rooms. From the windows of the first, one can look out onto the street: garages; asphalt lots; roofs of other buildings much like this one. There is little to draw focus but the Red Hook waterfront is nearby, and many stories about the artist begin with the piece of driftwood or sea foam she picked up on her way here. The natural material comes later though. This first room is the book room.
Piled from edge to edge on a large, rectangular table at the room’s center are Bove’s books: mimeographed poetry magazines, copies of In Orbit by Wright Morris (“In the space of one day, Jubal E. Gainer, high school dropout and draft dodger, manages to rack up an impressive array of crimes…”), C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and A Power Set Apart by Joseph McHugh, given to Bove by her friend’s father. There are issues of VIEW magazine, the 1940s publication by artist Charles Henri Ford and critic Parker Tyler, one of which contains a black and white collage by Marcel Duchamp.
Bove does not like books that are especially valuable. Many on the table have been selected for her, or at least brought to her attention, by her friend Phillip, a book dealer. “He had never heard of Sol LeWitt,” she tells me, and it is clear that this is a good thing. Phillip’s interest is in poetry and literature. He knows Vito Acconci instead.
“We live with information in a different way from fifteen years ago,” says Bove. “It has become increasingly important to devise a system to place limits on what types and how much information we consume. But it’s a puzzle to design a semi-permeable membrane that allows a variety of different types of information in and isn’t completely predetermined by one’s current expectations. It should allow surprises to enter.”
Books have a place in Bove’s sculptures as both reference and component. She groups them in twos and threes with spines facing out and props them open to image centerfolds on mid-century modern wooden shelves beside other found objects like metronomes or peacock feathers. One such work, The Dyadic Cyclone (2006), is titled after a 1976 book of the same name by neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher and inventor of the isolation tank, John Cunningham Lilly, and his wife, Antonietta. The book is autobiographical and explores the Lillys’ concern with merging centers — their own, figuratively, and those of two counter-spinning cyclones.
Bove’s Cyclone is a three-tiered shelf bearing several stacked books with one propped open to a double-page picture, taken from the ground beneath two stone high-rise buildings. Pinned to the wall above the shelves is an image of a sphere containing forms in a state of merging. A piece of driftwood on the uppermost shelf sits touching a stack of three books, liberated from the sea but still belonging to the depths — similar in essence to Lilly’s inquiries, which never quite belonged to the conscious mind.
“With artists and authors, I don’t want to colonize their work,” Bove says. “I want to present their work as autonomous statements which remain completely intact. I’m mostly working on the framing and display of things. Of course, by suggesting a context and a possible vector of approach I’m interfering with their meaning and reception so I also want to acknowledge the existence of forced collaboration with these artists.”
“I also want to make space for the viewer. I’m not sure if I can explain it. It has something to do with making things that are extremely obvious — so obvious that I feel that they existed before. When I make something that seems like the articulation of the obvious I feel like I’ve come the closest to making something that doesn’t have anything to do with my individual personality.”
Much has been made of Bove’s interest in the late 60s and early 70s, although “interest” is an understatement: her research into the period is intrepid and ongoing. It has informed much of her work in some way since she graduated from New York University in the late 90s. Bove’s shelf installations challenge a linear hierarchy of meaning: the books and objects are not of this moment but they are still here, being witnessed, and thus have present energy. At the same time, Bove avoids, even criticizes, deification of objects as mascots of history. She questions their status as artifacts, insofar as “artifact” suggests that an object’s truest meaning has expired.
It takes a particular grace to deal with subject matter so recent and yet somehow so overexposed. In Below Your Mind (2004), published in conjunction with Bove’s first international solo exhibition at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Gregory Williams calls Bove’s research an “excavation” — and it is precisely this. Bove invokes insights and ideas from the 60s and 70s that are assumed to have lapsed or lost traction, revealing them as the basis for much of what we claim as “modern.” Her approach is consistent, regardless of whether an idea or action has come to be thought of as wrong or right, a success or a failure.
“I think it’s an inherently interesting time but my continuing interest is probably a result of my own biography, which begins there [in 1971],” says Bove. “The work I made in school was not really related to the work I am making now but… it has had continuity. When I got out of school, thirty years had passed since the late 60s. My belief is that thirty years constitutes a full fashion-cycle. Thirty-year-old stuff looks great and vibrates with relevance and so there was that irresistible draw. Twelve years later, I continue to think of 1969/70 as the aperture where I can enter history but I allow myself much more freedom to move around.”
Where perhaps the first room in Bove’s studio is in service of accumulation — of information, of objects — the second is for distillation. On a tall set of industrial shelves toward the back of the room, dozens of elaborate shells are arranged in an unknowable order. They are from the Philippines and were given to Bove en masse. Their forms are perfect and they have retained their pink, which would not be exceptional but for the fact that these shells are from the 1940s. To one side, lesser specimens are heaped in a wheelbarrow.
Bove approaches nature with a “conservator’s ethic.” When elements from the natural world are utilized in a work, nothing is glued in a way where it cannot be unglued. It is important to Bove that an object appropriated from nature has the right to reassert its autonomy once a sculpture is disassembled. “When the sculpture is not on display the elements are removed,” she says. “Its energetic state is more relaxed when it is off duty. The sculpture is performing with the greatest tension and effort when it is being publicly exhibited.”
The steel structure that elevates the organic matter in Bove’s shell sculptures, for example, elevates each shell as a star if only for a short time. The steel affords potential and the idea of movement, belying its true function — to hold the shells temporarily in place. It is as though, once off-duty as subjects in Bove’s work, the shells have someplace else to be.
One such steel and shell configuration exists in The Foamy Saliva of a Horse, Bove’s installation for the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Components appeared on a large plinth that spanned the room, somewhere between actors in the wings and models in a presentation, awaiting reception. The plinth also held a flat net hung from a beam and rendered cylindrical by optical illusion; a piece of driftwood suspended from a rectangular brass frame; an outsized piece of rusted metal scrunched like a rejected draft and a log with fixtures attached, stood on its end.
“I’ve been using natural materials in the same way as authored human-made objects since 2005 with increasing regularity,” Bove says. “I think the nature in my work is always nature being observed by a cultured human subject. On the other hand, when we look at art we think what we’re doing is discerning and reading but maybe all of the mental processing to the side of intellect takes up the greater portion of the activity. And it remains unacknowledged, since that part of our experience can’t speak for itself.”
“I’ve been trying to find ways of frustrating ‘the reader’, i.e. the part of the viewer that interprets artworks, while at the same time encouraging reading in an effort to reach a kind of suspended thinking where binaries dissolve, and mutually exclusive positions coexist. I’ve also been thinking about the types of art experience that seem consciously uninteresting or even disgusting that are actually satisfying unconscious needs.”
At the time of my visit, Bove was completing her contribution to Documenta 13, the 100-day art festival that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany. She made four works, collectively titled Flora’s Garden: a large white tubular “glyph,” a low-lying bronze platform, a sculpture consisting of many prefinished brass hexahedrons screwed together to form an asymmetric matrix and a plinth with a piece of petrified wood attached. These pieces are still on exhibition in the gardens of the Orangerie, a former conservatory. The spatial logic of the garden, which is 300 feet long and 30 feet wide, necessitates what Bove terms “a linear encounter” with the work.
Bove has often observed the level of indifference shown to rusted wire or stray organic matter while collecting such material at the waterfront. It is similar, she says, to the level of indifference directed at “generic outdoor sculpture.” The piece of petrified wood in Flora’s Garden is a manifestation of this visible/invisible paradox: it is the perfect cast of a log, the nearest one could get to a piece of “invisible wood,” as Bove describes it: “it’s closer to an image or solid illusion than what it actually is, but it is an illusion making no effort to be an illusion.”
At the end of the hall is one last room. It is the closest thing Bove’s studio has to a control room; it contains Bove’s office, her assistant’s desk and many files. Each work of Bove’s that can be deconstructed, and will therefore necessitate reconstruction, comes with a manual. These manuals are several pages long with instructions and pictures detailing every step of the assembly process. Bove recalls the time when a shelf work was photographed for a catalogue in Germany with a book opened to the wrong page. “The placement is not arbitrary,” she says. “It’s not just ‘ish.’”
“Since people are looking at artwork on the Internet, most people who know my work know it from reproduction,” she says. “The official photo [of a work] takes one moment from its life and confers on it a special status. The official photo makes the assemblages appear to be stable objects, which is not how I think about them. I want to counteract the stabilizing tendency of repeat exposure to these images; the manuals do that.”
“In official photos, the assemblages are reduced to two dimensions and from this one point of view they ‘work’ compositionally. The more successful the documentary images are as photos the more distracting they are, that is, the more they obscure the shifting quality of the three-dimensional sculpture. In real life there are many positions from which the sculptures don’t work. Encountering them in real life you have to search for views. As you move around the sculpture, they keep coming together and falling apart.”
The manuals are made using the default settings of Microsoft Word. They are aesthetically un-arresting, save for the presence of a hand — often Bove’s own hand — that holds parts of a work aloft for pictures. The hand harks back to children’s craft books or instructive art textbooks from the 1970s. The hand proves the sculpture’s dimensionality and immediacy; the work can be held and moved, just like other “normal stuff,” according to Bove.
“The fact of the manual points to the need to take the sculpture apart and reassemble it,” she says. “It also suggests that the sculpture is not attached to one particular form or to one particular moment. Someday, the manuals will develop the air of mystery from an irretrievable time but for now they have none; they are as familiar and unglamorous as .pdf attachments. As a result, the objects they depict are closer to us, in this world and not the romantic world of photography that you can’t have or touch.”
“I think of the sculptures as tactile more than visual. You learn about them through your eyes, but when you see them you think about what it would be like to touch them. The visual aspect provides important clues about how they feel and what they are. The surface of a thing is not simply the most superficial aspect; it proceeds from its interior. The textures have their own intelligences and histories.
This building, like most in Red Hook, is old. Someone occupied it before Bove was making art, even before Bove was born. In the studio’s last room, there is a walk-in safe full of belongings left by a previous tenant over 30 years ago. There are papers and boxes and personal effects, including a fur coat. Bove has not removed these possessions nor has she investigated them especially thoroughly. Somehow, this completes a picture of Bove’s incredible restraint — of her innate understanding of what belongs to when, and which belongs to whom, and at what moments it is necessary to play with these attributions.
“You asked me to tell you about the people I encountered in my research. I can’t remember what I already told you. I spoke with a lot of botanical librarians, also people who worked within the institutions that maintain the records of naming, and some hybridizers and growers, too. Did I tell you about the librarian who had a fresh flower in her gray hair held in place by a paper clip? I doubt I’m conveying to you how magic this all seems to me — that people create flowers and organize them and keep track of their history, their part in civilization.”
This is Janine Lariviere, artist, writing to Bove in a letter titled ‘Garden Flowers’ and dated ‘Spring 2003’. The correspondence is reprinted in Below Your Mind. Pay attention to a single sentence in this text: “I doubt I’m conveying to you how magic this all seems to me.” Consider what it means to discover, and what it means to share. Consider what it means to act with intention, to look at what many have laid eyes on and see something untapped. It is the work of an explorer; a maker; a guardian. It is the work of Carol Bove.
In a corner of his Greenwich Village apartment, the artist Jack Pierson keeps a photograph by another artist, 19th century Frenchman Louis Igout. The picture shows a naked man in repose, his hands and feet carefully splayed at his sides, his small dark cloud of pubic hair a sort of center of gravity. Pierson explained to me that Igout’s project was to photograph all the possible poses a human body can strike, the sum of which would form a reference guide for life drawing. Igout photographed every type of body; male, female, old, young — one form, the human form; endless variation.
Pierson too likes multiples, and this is why he collects. He has, for instance, a forest of crystals in front of his fireplace. He has not one home but two, the apartment in Greenwich Village and a house in Twentynine Palms, California. His studio is full of antique letters, some as big as a wheel on a Mack truck, grouped according to color or alphabetic character. He uses these in three-dimensional word assemblages, either wall-mounted or freestanding, not quite sculpture, according to Pierson, but something like it. He has what he swears is a whittled-down stack of original prints from Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild, a photographic agency founded in 1945 that produced prints of oiled, sculpted nude men in what were euphemistically called bodybuilding poses.
And then there’re Pierson’s photographs. From a stack on his dining table, he shows me his most recent work: young nude men, almost classical-looking, leaning on plinths or set against roughly rigged backdrops. They are beautiful, perfectly muscled and smooth, but it’s not quite Mizer, and it’s not quite Igout. It’s Pierson’s own exploration of the possibilities of form, the human form, and the collection is still expanding.
I’m fascinated by the way Americans — New Yorkers, particularly — live bi-coastal. That to me is a completely Northern Hemisphere idea, that you can maintain two homes. But that’s how you live, right?
It seems like it, yes. For the last 14 years I’ve had the house in California, but I don’t spend that much time there. I should chart how many days I actually get there, maybe like 30 a year.
But does it feel like a home to you there?
Yes, super. Kind of even more than here, only because you walk around and it’s your land and it’s sunshine and you feel your feet on the earth And I guess part of what makes the desert more homely for me is that I can actually entertain people there. I can have company and people staying over. Here, I just have a one-bedroom apartment, it’s mine and maybe somebody stays over once in a while or sleeps on the couch, but I could go there for 10 days with a few people and hang out and really have a home life. I have someone that stays at my house in the desert, my dear friend, Chris, and he lives there, and when I come out, I live there with him. And it’s great and we love it. But when he comes here even for like 10 days, if he sleeps on the couch, it’s like, “What are you doing?” What the fuck are you doing? You are going to watch TV now? It’s 6 o’clock at night!”Just because I have to walk by, it’s just a different, weird dynamic.
Did your parents have a lot of people around the house when you were growing up?
Well, no, not necessarily. Even though we lived in a summer town, we had a summer house that was sort of like camping. It didn’t have electricity or water, you had to pump water, and it was by a lake. It was only 13 miles from my house, but we’d go there on the weekends and that’s where I would have one of my friends sleep over if they were going to sleep. It was very, like, you could depend on a Sunday in the summer to just show up there, and there would be food, you would bring some food, you could swim and everybody would be there. And there is that sense at my house in the desert a little bit.
So, I was thinking about the desert, because your place is really in what you’d call the desert.
Yes, it’s sand. I mean, people call Palm Springs the desert and, in fact, it is, but you don’t really get it. You’re not confronted with sand. In the summer, I spend a lot of time on Cape Cod, which is the beach. And people sort of think, “Oh, he’s such a beach person. How can he like the desert?” But the desert seems a lot like the beach to me. I never really spent much time on an island, but I feel like I have a grasp of an island sensibility or even a beach sensibility, where it could attract the same kind of people who feel like they just want to live well and — could be — cheaply. I think there is an enormous amount of peace in being able to see a horizon line, which I think is part of what makes New York especially frantic and maybe creative. Very few people [in New York] have access to a horizon line. In the desert, you see it 360 degrees. It feels exotic to me. Where I live, it’s basically the same microclimate as Afghanistan — that’s why there’s a big military base there. So it’s exotic compared to where I grew up on the Northeast. If I go straight from the desert and drive up to Massachusetts on I-95, it feels like you’re in Amazon but it’s just some oak trees or scrub. It’s like, “How can they have so many trees? You can’t even see off the road!” But, you know, the main reason I’m in the desert and I can be there is because it’s so incredibly cheap where I live. It’s really at the end of where you would want to live. It’s almost at the end of the middle of nowhere.
There must be a powerful spatial element to it, work-wise. You’re living between two extremes: one is endless space to the point where it’s almost a void, the other one is New York, where it’s…
Right. Does being in the desert impact how you think about making things?
I wonder if it’s had too much of an impact on me out there.
What would be too much?
I don’t know. I mean, not too much at all. I think with these last pieces I did, last year, things got enormous. It had something to do with spending time in front of the ocean and in the desert where you’re just like, “OK, it can get big.” But where I live is also near Joshua Tree and I have the experience of always wanting to try to photograph Joshua Tree and I feel every time I’ve ever done it, it’s always weak or something. There’s just no point trying to. It never looks like how I feel it when I’m there. You know, there’s a million pictures of a sunset and you can sort of get the sunset to at least be a signifier of a sunset. But I never feel in Joshua Tree National Park that I can get anything that looks like an adequate signifier of what it is, because you don’t get the scale, you don’t get the… I don’t know what it is. That’s the other reason I’m there. I live in close proximity to really incredible landscape. My immediate landscape is kind of a wasteland, but it’s still pretty because it’s vast. But then there is this thing out there that is just magical, that can bring tears to people’s eyes.
Is that frustrating, to live right near this thing that you continuously try to capture and just can’t?
No, because I don’t even care that much. It makes it better for me because I’m a very lazy photographer. So, for instance, hiking three miles into Joshua Tree Park, I’d rather not carry a camera. And I’ve learned now there’s no point to it for me anyway. I mean, maybe somebody can do it. Probably somebody can do it, but I haven’t been able to do it. I’d rather just be there to experience it.
Cell phone cameras: thumbs up or thumbs down?
I’m so into them. I would like to have the balls to just do everything with them.
I feel like some photographers hate them because it means that anyone can…
Yes. I guess with that it’s like, the secret’s out. Anyone can. Get with it, photographers. It makes people up their game, I think. I mean, no one can do Ansel Adams until you’re willing to trudge in there with the 8 x 10, figure it all out and do that — and then maybe you’ll get a cool picture of Joshua Tree.
I know that you don’t think of your word sculptures as sculptures, exactly. Do you think of them as almost a form of poetry?
I do, I guess, necessarily. I sort of don’t like to find myself saying that.
I don’t know, because it’s like saying you’re spiritual. One hopes that somebody else will say it, maybe. I was a teen poet and I read poetry and I thought about being a poet for a couple of years when I was a teenager until I realized I can’t really do it. And then, right after that, I wanted to be a graphic designer. So it’s halfway between the two. It’s this ultimate commercial non-art design and ultimate art-ified, rarified ivory-tower-poet thing.
Do you still write poetry?
I’ve been trying to recently in a weird way, because somebody asked me to read my work. They wanted me to come to a poetry reading and read the words I had done and I was like, “No fucking way, that sounds like it’s going to be me reading a list of the names of my pieces.” And so, I started to write little bits. Again, you can call anything poetry. I feel bad for poets if all of a sudden I’m saying, “Oh, this is poem.”
Then that begs the question, what is the criteria for a poem? For you, it sounds like the criteria is that it has to be written by a self-identified poet.
So did you do the reading?
I didn’t wind up doing it. I’m so sad about it. I wonder if the guys are ever going to ask me again. I just couldn’t work it out in the schedule to do it. But I have read things before and I’m kind of a writer. I can write a little bit on demand. My poems are not… I don’t work on them. It’s more like I have one line that comes out of my mind. It’s basically a sentence with spaces, and that’s what makes it a poem to me.
You’re saying Poetry with a capital P is more like this work that’s been shaped and worked over.
Exactly. Which I will do with one sentence a little bit, but not in the way I think poets do it. Or maybe exactly in that way, but not on a daily basis.
Tell me about the letters. I saw them in your studio before, they’re these really powerful enormous physical forms, but they’re also just letters, but then they end up…
So they’re really like relics.
Yeah, like pieces of civilization, I guess. And when they are all in groups like that, people get so seduced by it somehow, and I guess I did too. The first time I ever saw them laying around some place was here in New York — there used to be a kind of permanent flea market on Houston Street and Second Avenue. I just walked in and there was a box of them. I don’t know why they are so compelling. I just immediately — with the box of letters this big — started playing with them. I made my first piece in the flea market and bought it, sort of.
And now you have just letters upon letters upon letters. Is it like having a box of old postcards that you feel compelled to go through and sort out?
There’s lots to do with sorting and collecting and a lot of my aesthetic is about collecting. I come from a very collector-y impulse. I don’t collect in a way where I’m documenting or even researching, it’s just, “OK, I want a lot of this stuff around.” Like those crystals. The guy tells me as I buy them, “Oh, this is rosette verisimilitude,” or something, and I’m like “Really?” And he goes, “Yes, it gives you good powers of seduction and finance,” or something like that. And so, I have a collection. I don’t pay attention to it really, but I like the idea of a mass of things. With the letters sometimes I’m like, “Put all the green ones here,” and then I look for what can come out of that. With that piece Late Afternoon, in a million years I never would have thought, “I’m going to do a piece called Late Afternoon,” but I put all the gold letters together and there were two big Os. I was thinking, “What’s a word with two big Os?” Noon? What the fuck is noon? But that’s how it came out, and it has all kinds of resonance for me.
Tell me about your relationship to old things. With the letters specifically, I think your work is more about preserving than repurposing.
There were three brothers, born one year after the other in my family. And then 13 years went by and they had me. My mother was sort of the same way; there had been a whole family of five before her and then 13 years later, in 1925, she was born. So I had access to this mother who had access to an older generation. She was sort of a trinket, a very sentimental person. I had a sense of the past because of that and it seemed sort of cool to me. And having teenage brothers, I worshipped what they liked and skipped over what I was supposed to like.
I like the idea of adopting a history that’s not your history.
When I went to art school in the 1980s, we were obsessed with the ‘50s. And you could go to the thrift stores and find all this stuff from the ‘50s. We lived the ‘50s down to the socks and underwear for a couple of years. We only went to places that look like the ‘50s, I feel like I lived in the ‘50s because we did it so well. But then, in the 2000s or something, I noticed kids were into the ‘80s, which was everything I was trying to avoid. In the ‘80s, I was like, “Oh, we live in the worst time. The ‘80s are so gross. We have to live in the ‘50s.” And most of my friends agreed. And it’s just because every 30 years, the mothers dump everything into thrift stores. So whatever is in the thrift stores is what you end up thinking is cool. You’re like, “Look at this weird Members Only jacket, I’m going to wear it.”
My ex-boyfriend used to wear Members Only jacket.
It’s like the letters. They’re so not of our time that they feel modern. They’re continuous. They’re of the past but they’re also of the future.
Right. They’re too far in the past, but at the same time, they look beautiful to us now. They have this kind of resonance in the present.
Your recent photographs are of boys in almost retro poses, or maybe it’s more classical. Classical gestures.
I stopped taking pictures of boys until a year ago or so just because I thought it seemed unseemly for an older gentleman, or something like that, and with most of my work up until then people had the feeling that maybe [the subjects] were my sex partners or something, which was never usually the case or sometimes it was. It was a blurred line. And usually I tried to get it to look like that — that intimacy. But then I thought, “I still want to be in the presence of naked young people. How do I do that?” So I make it clear that it’s a studio situation and try to be formal about it, so it’s clear that, yes, this is about the body, or this is about ‘50s things. A model can go there for you, and it’s a set up situation but it’s also a moment. I guess it has to be somewhat sexual that I want that, but it’s also just eternal somehow. I want to be part of the system that preserves this gesture for a minute.
A tuning fork is a small metal instrument that when struck vibrates at a frequency which resonates with innate frequencies of things in the world. I often refer to a tuning fork to explain how sometimes I feel a sense of resonance that pre-exists analysis, attuned equally to what I understand and can’t possibly, always first an index of pure pleasure, a density, a wave. A friend called it affinity, this resonance that does not draw things closer but rather attunes to what is radiant. I like this idea of affinity as intimacy at a distance—a sort of friendship, let’s say, in which what can be known is known innately and what can never be known remains opaque, with room between sensing and knowing for things to disappear and reappear, explaining, at least in part, how affinity often takes form as constellation, can transcend without collapsing near and far.
Affinity is also what the artist Julie Ault, in the book Two Cabins (2011), calls the artist James Benning’s feeling for the transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. Attunement is how she describes Thoreau’s own feeling for the natural world, and for his cabin at Walden Pond, which Benning replicated, along with the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s, in meticulous detail. Ault writes that Benning’s own tuning fork moment occurred when he returned to Thoreau’s Walden after several years teaching a class called “Looking and Listening,” and read this passage, “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?”
I am thinking about affinity—as a form of friendship, a constellation, the discipline of looking at what is to be seen (what Ault calls Benning’s “looking as method, form, and subject”)—while I’m viewing, or visiting, “Down the Rabbit Hole: JB in JT,” an exhibition by Benning arranged by Ault and artist Martin Beck, with Scott Cameron Weaver of O-Town House. The exhibition is staged in and around Ault and Beck’s home in Joshua Tree, and at O-Town House, the way most things are at at the moment, which is to say @. It consists of some 25 works Benning has made for, given to, or traded with, Ault and Beck, or that he made at their home or somehow with them, since 2004: books, such as Two Cabins, photographs, paintings, artefacts, each photographed at close range on Ault and Beck’s walls and shelves, in cabinets and outside, with anecdotal captions written by the four friends. Ault too used this method to document works in her 2013 show, Macho Man Tell it to My Heart, mostly purchased from, or given to her by, friends, as did Benning for his 2018 show, 31 Friends, at O-Town House.
Looking into Ault and Beck’s home from my home in central London, I see Benning, photographed on December 25, 2011, seated at a table with his back turned to me, facing a view of desert rocks. Below, in his introductory text, Weaver writes that the idea for the exhibition “was hatched last Christmas, a time when the gang usually descends on Joshua Tree for some quality time,” then crystallized when the friends gathered in “JT” for lockdown and found that an online format answered the question of how to manage exhibition visitors in Ault and Beck’s home.
Fittingly, the images stage a proximity, an intimacy, that is at once extreme — in the placement of works among filing trays and fruit bowls, in the waxing or waning dust of desert light — and impossible, in a time when both proximity and distance are painfully fraught. But what I suppose I’m trying to say about resonance, about affinity, about the logic of showing and telling that Benning and friends employ, is that it affirms the possibility of a mode, a method, a form of life and work in which neither are negated and both are true. This is how we know each other, essentially, the colloquial way one might contextualize an old friend for a new, historicizing a shared present in which This is how we may come to know each other is implicit. To observe, which is to say imagine, the particular friendship of two sugar pinecones with an outdoor bench, or a pink-rimmed bowl with After Noland (smiling) , Benning’s silkscreened image of the Manson Family’s Ruth Ann Moorehouse, with Beck’s caption, “At first, I wasn’t sure why James thought I should have [it],” or a mint-green floor and red shag carpet with After Warhol (smiling), 2014, with Ault’s remark, “I love this sexy exuberant photograph of Andy Warhol, grabbing Parker Tyler’s crotch,” is to savour such pleasures of presence and potential.
And Noland and Moorehouse and Warhol remind me that these same strategies of recollection and looking and friendship, applied in“Down the Rabbit Hole” to shared histories of life and work, have been applied by the friends to many others: Thoreau and Kaczynski, Henry Darger, Chris Burden, Marie Menken, Bill Traylor, Vanessa Basilio, a young artist and student with whom Benning made a trade, the 31 friends of 31 Friends, and more. Benning has called it “counterpoint”, this coexistence of complement and contrast, which he says, “crosses the wires between good and bad.”
Resonance is then simply a record of what is moving. Friendship, looking, recollection, do not, at least here and now, describe hidden layers surfaced but rather practices of affinity, diagramming what Weaver calls “lines across time.” With my back turned to you, I am watching footage of Benning speaking to students at the Hammer Museum. He shows excerpts of his 1997 film, Four Corners, and a Google Maps view of the Sierra Nevada mountains where the two cabins of Two Cabins were built. He talks about the hundred paintings he made after Traylor. Then he gets to Thoreau, and the rediscovery of Walden that so resonated, spurred him to work. He reads the passage again, and I’ll place it here so we can read it together, which is what Thoreau describes: where the work ends and the world, which is to say the work, begins again.
But while we are confined to books… we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
“It’s inexplicable how or why somebody is a great artist. It transcends any reason. As a poet, you have to work with your mind, because you’re working with absolute truths. I’ve been a Buddhist in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition for 45 years; Fanny Howe is a devout Roman Catholic. She’s worked with her mind so much. Every year she goes to a Benedictine retreat in Ireland where they do Gregorian chants only for six weeks. It’s like Buddhist meditation, and you just rest your mind in the sound of these chants. Whatever ‘wisdom’ is, the wisdom that’s beyond all concepts – every one of her lines is like that, and she gets to it by being a Roman Catholic meditator, in a sense. Roman Catholics don’t use the word ‘meditation’, they say ‘contemplation’. It’s all just resting the mind. The mind is very magical. By training it or letting it relax, this true wisdom arrives.”
John Giorno is 78; Fanny Howe is 74. They recently became friends, though Giorno has loved her work for 40 years. He says they never felt they were part of a generation, “but now that we’re at the end of our lives…” The artist and poet, and star of Warhol’s Sleep, is about to have his first major retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. For Giorno, poetry is temporal, spiritual, spatial, “one big soup”. He breathes in, he meditates; he breathes out, he performs. He writes all morning on one level of the Bowery building he’s lived in since the 60s, and paints on another. Today he’s in the kitchen, seated between a painting, his own, reading “Life is a Killer” and his meditation altar.
Jennifer Bartlett at the kitchen sink, views over London. A clock in every gridded painting. I remember you from childhood.
End table. Rain journal. A 66-page sleeve of figs.
Fig.271—They were in Sweden, a city in Sweden, with two tickets to hear the classical orchestra play in the concert hall with the beautiful coffered ceilings. When they took their seats, she saw the ceilings. They were beautiful. The orchestra started to play and at some point, somehow, she realized that one of the orchestra’s members had died in his seat. I can’t tell you which instrument he played; I do not know. But he had died, right there, in his seat, while they were playing. She was—not in disbelief. In awe. She had witnessed something very profound, very moving, very beautiful. And, in fact, the music continued shortly after because the conductor announced—a Swedish woman was sitting beside her, and translated his message—that the orchestra member who had died minutes beforehand would have preferred it this way.
John Hartford’s ‘Housing Project.’ Dinner in the Victorian house in the Twilight Zone movie (Every Heart Has A Trapdoor). The Exterminating Angel. James Ensor skeletons at home in pastels.
Carol’s room. Black Sun. Carol in a red scarf on the leather reclining chair. The wheel of fate, which I saw in a dream once, made of touch- smoothed wood, turned by kings, queens and giants.
John Berger’s quetsch plums, which we ate in a tart at KaDeWe.
Glass orb filled with blue, viscous liquid, on a black plastic stand. LOU-ANA hat. Silhouetted woman in the bathroom, painted green, it was the biggest and most obvious clue, which is why I missed it. A good lesson, let’s be honest. It was a yellow Smeg fridge.
Marco’s coin acrobats surfing gesture. Tension-set cent piles. (I love you too, Chucky Change.)
A pressed tin sun earringed with the symbols of world religions, 1988. The beautiful sun shines for all.
On my back in a lightning storm, the most dangerous thing you can do, float on, you razors in the Atlantic, everyone has to live.
What seemed like a forest of crystals and geodes under the window in the sun room on 74th Street. A towel under the water jug to sop up future problems of a minor nature.
In early 2014, Martin Beck met with James Voorhies, then the Director of Harvard University’s Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (CCVA), to discuss an invitation for Beck to design the spatial environment for a coffee bar on the Center’s third floor.
Although Beck is a visual artist, the request was not altogether arbitrary: Beck’s work looks at the social histories of space and structure, as well as how spatial strategies such as display can and have been used to manipulate meaning. His seemingly impartial yet highly systematized revisitations of records and artifacts make space from time, returning materiality and form to historical events, forgotten theories, ephemeral phenomena or old controversies.
It is possible to imagine ways in which a coffee bar could become a frame for such concerns—but after spending some time in the Carpenter Center’s archives, Beck chose not to ‘intervene’, as they say, in the space; instead, he decided to haunt it.
The resulting engagement, simply titled Program, was structured as a sequence of ten ‘episodes’ that took place at the Carpenter Center from 2014 to 2016. Several installments hinged on the redisplay and recirculation of archival material from early in the Center’s founding; another involved the screening and DVD distribution of a 1971 16mm documentary about the Center’s academic life; another was presented as an “artist lecture” that, as Beck describes in our interview, both was and was not.
While “program” might suggest an experience that is propositional or instructional in nature, Beck’s Program was closer to an invitation. Through each subsequent episode, audiences encountered opportunities to examine how the Carpenter Center formed and continues to form and reform itself as an institution—to reflect on the ways it considers, communicates, reinforces and queries itself; to see and think and act as it does.
In order to create an environment in which this could occur, Beck opted not to be physically present for much of his “residency.” He neither dominated nor absconded entirely; instead, he handled his presence with the same measured neutrality as he handled every element of the project, including Le Corbusier’s iconic architecture—as points in a constellation, each only as vital as the other.
It’s almost difficult to begin an interview about this project without talking about Le Corbusier. I suppose he would have wanted it that way.
Le Corbusier’s building is, of course, always the background for whatever one does at the Carpenter Center. But from an artistic perspective, in 2014, which is when my project there started, Corbusier as a topic felt a little tired. After the initial site visits and conversations with the director about the invitation my interest became more about the institution’s identity as a whole: how the institution understands itself as an amalgam of building, curriculum, exhibition, events program, and their respective constituencies.
But Corbusier tends to hang around: the structure of Program is very much about sequencing time and space, sequencing experience in the way that Corbusier explicitly intended to do with the design of the Carpenter Center.
Maybe I should specify a little more: when I use or reference architecture in my work, it is usually more about the images a discourse generates than images of buildings, per se. The decision was not to screen out Corbusier or his architecture; it was to understand their presence as one element in the way the institution as a whole communicates.
Le Corbusier still appears as one of the subjects highlighted in the CCVA’s inaugural press release, which I redistributed for one of the early episodes, and as the maker of a sun-drenched exhibition space in the building that ended up necessitating curtains along the perimeter windows to protect light sensitive exhibits. But my focus was not on him or his building; it was on how the institution operates within and beyond that framework.
After learning about the institution’s history and digging substantially into its archive, I focused on the founding period of the CCVA and how it constituted itself through the communicative channels it used to interact with its constituencies.
For that purpose, Harvard mobilized a number of elements: an iconic building by a star architect, a curriculum to address the challenges of the visual world, a collection of photographs, academic rituals and routines, formal and informal modes of engagement, forms and formats of communication. In all these the building has a presence, as it is the location where these threads intersect. What emerges then is not an image of an institution ‘as a building’ but an abstract image—of the institution—that is constructed by relationships between tangible and intangible components.
In the lecture episode, I remember you spoke about the idea of an archive as a form without form. And that formlessness is sort of in tension with the very intentional systems, ideologies and structures that comprise an institution, not to mention the very dominant form of the building itself.
My interest was really in the institution as a set of relations, and that extended into the present tense. James Voorhies, the Director at the time, was hired to reinvent the Carpenter Center, and his process of reviving and rebranding and what I, at his invitation, was constructing in my project were, in a way, parallel projects: although they differed in ambition and goal, they both engaged with the making of an institution.
For some time now, I’ve been thinking about the functionalizing element of institutional invitations in which artists are asked to do a project by intervening in a defined context and changing something, architectural or otherwise. One is sometimes invited to solve a problem for an institution, by, for instance, activating a certain space—the idea being that an artist might have a more ‘creative’ solution to a problem than an administrator, designer, or architect.
That is how the discussion started: James asked me to develop a spatial frame for a coffee bar at the CCVA, to increase social and communicative exchanges in the building. But I was more interested in taking a step back to address the larger situation: the institution identifies a problem and wants a change, and believes I, as the invited artist, can deliver a solution. Rather than offering the anticipated solution, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to understand the relationship between the institution and its communicative behavior, to understand how the various channels of communication contribute to the institution’s self-understanding.
From memory, quite a few of the episodes had to do with photographic archives and photographic record keeping. There was that collection of installation photographs of one of the early exhibitions held at the Carpenter Center where most of the shots were of the crowd and the flower arrangements… and I thought it was really interesting that, in seeking to make the inner workings or psyche of the institution visible, you often focused on a medium that is so involved with the mechanics of vision, with optics.
Most documentation of the early exhibitions at the Carpenter Center reflects the convention of photographing shows without any visitors in the images. Interestingly then—and a total anomaly—was that almost all the installation photographs of a 1973 exhibition titled The Social Question are populated by audience members and show arrangements of asters distributed along the walls of the exhibitions. The Social Question presented late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of the social conditions of laborers, some of them fairly grim—which turns the presence of audience members in the installation images into a curious comment on the exhibition’s subject matter. And then this peculiarity becomes even more heightened by the flower arrangements: one could think of the mode of installation and documentation—of how the exhibition was supposed to be remembered—as somewhat cynical. But there is also a strangely generous and touching aspect to it that speaks of an awareness of the audience’s role, as well as a self-consciousness about the way the exhibition wants to be remembered.
I’m realizing as you’re speaking that photography was present in Program as both a means of making visible and a symbol of the act of making visible. It was there for its content—it’s showing something historical—but also to sort of represent visibility itself.
The last episode, Fifty Photographs at Harvard, presented parts of the CCVA’s 1960s photography collection, which was created for educational purposes so students could engage with original works. But, curiously enough, that collection was mostly of photographs from early expeditions into the American Southwest. One has to wonder about the thinking behind it: why, in 1966, foreground photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, John K. Hillers, etcetera? What is the educational agenda behind such a collection?
One of the primary things about working with archives must be the joy and humor in seeing what people thought would become important.
That was certainly the case with finding visitor tallies in the archive. Before 1970 there is no record of the institution’s documenting audience numbers, but from then on attendance sheets have been archived. So I asked myself, why in 1970 and not before?
It’s so great because it’s sort of where the humanity enters. You know, with the visitor tally, it’s meant to be this quite objective record of behavior and how people interact with the institution, but it’s also just one person’s funny decision, to think that that particular thing is going to tell anyone anything.
It speaks to that but it also speaks to a change in the institution’s self understanding. Somebody made the decision to start collecting these—today nobody knows why. But maybe the larger university administration pressured the CCVA to document audience numbers for their shows to show that there was an active constituency and thus legitimize their exhibition expenses. There is an institutional narrative embedded into these tallies, but looked at out of context, they are also beautiful abstract drawings.
That’s really fundamental to your engagement, as you’ve said: to work with all this material insofar as it reveals how the institution conceptualized or imagined itself. And then, in doing that work, you become part of the way the institution is conceptualizing or imagining itself now. How did you conceive of your presence over those two years?
Throughout the course of my project, I enjoyed using a specific metaphor when describing what I was doing: the idea of the ghost. My presence at the CCVA was being billed as a residency, although after the initial research I didn’t really stay there much. But through the project and the concept of ‘residing,’ I was always there, as a ‘spirit,’ even when I wasn’t there as a physical body. In relation to this, the timing and form of my ‘artist lecture’ at the tail end of the project was very deliberate. A year and a half had gone by and various episodes, some of them quite ephemeral, had unfolded. People get interested in one way or another, but, for many, it is difficult to put a finger on what the project is because there was never a ‘this-is-it’ moment. Then, toward the end, the speaking format of the artist lecture introduces my physical body, the body of the artist, into the equation.
My lecture was composed of a script consisting mostly of quotations from 1960s and ‘70s books on creativity enhancement. The visual element was a video showing a sequence of heuristic terms from that context against a continuously changing, brightly colored backdrop. The artist lecture is the site where schools and artists come into physical contact—a body appears from behind the work—so I wanted to create an almost hypnotic environment in which I, and my body, were, yet again, able to remain in the shadows.
A ghost is a perfect metaphor. You know, people talk about the trace, and when you gave a version of that lecture at Columbia someone mentioned the trace, and I thought, oh god, the trace. It always seems too easy and too obfuscating at the same time. I like how a ghost is much more about personhood, and has a much more complicated yet also more specific relationship to temporality and form and space.
Le Corbusier repeatedly used the metaphor of the human breathing apparatus to describe his ambition for the building—the Carpenter Center’s ramp representing the windpipe and the flanking volumes the lungs, making the building very much about the movement of air. This connects almost too well with the idea of the ghost as, most often, a ghost is only noticed when air starts to move in a space without an apparent cause. The idea of being there and not, the questioning of the concept of residing, became quite intriguing. It wasn’t something I started out with, but the longer the project went, the more I enjoyed the metaphor of the ghost—not only in relation to my presence/absence but also in relation to activating some of the histories of the CCVA.
I’m wondering, how would you describe—and I know it was called Program, so I would understand if you just said ‘a program’—what was made? I was thinking you could talk about it as a kind of atmosphere, or you could talk about it as another kind of archive that you’ve made in the process of activating the old archive. Two years is, I would say, an unusually long engagement for that kind of project. You could even call it a calendar or a timeline, if you want to think of the episodes like that.
I would describe it as constructing and activating a web of relationships in order to change the atmosphere. I always referred to the various manifestations as episodes—as used in the context of television, but also in the medical sense: episodes as being temporarily affected by a specified condition. Each episode inhabited one of the institution’s various modalities of speech. Together, interwoven, they not only construct an abstract image of the institution but also something sensible.
You mentioned Arnheim in the lecture and I was thinking of Gestalt, which is a similar idea.
One of the Arnheim quotes I used in the lecture is about form finding. In his Visual Thinking, Arnheim describes the process of identifying star constellations: from an assortment of bright dots in the night sky, one can connect certain stars to outline a figure, a shape. He points out that the brightness of certain stars, as well as the empty space around groupings, are factors that allow for the construction of forms that are then marked and further identified as constellations. Those forms do not exist in the night sky, per se. They are something the stargazer puts together. I was thinking of the existence of form in a similar manner in my project.
I was going to say form without form, but it’s more like form and no form at the same time.
Just like the ghost—
Gruyères is a medieval town with a present population of roughly 2,000 and an annual visitor count of over a million. It sits atop a small, freestanding mountain in the valley of the Sarine River, north of the Alps, in the canton of Fribourg. From the generous parking lot, steep steps lead to cobbled roads and stout stone buildings set against white peaks and green valleys, prototypical and bright even when curtained by rain.
All of Switzerland offers a variation on picturesque, so tourist towns need a ‘sell’, and Gruyères has two: an eponymous cheese and the HR Giger Museum and Bar. You’ve seen Alien, right? Ridley Scott commissioned Giger, a painter, sculptor, and designer, to make the creature after seeing Giger’s paintings (Necronom IV and Necronom V) in his first book, Necronomicon. Like all of Giger’s creations, that mighty vertebrate, with its tapered ellipsoidal head and cetacean-like skin, seems sent from some teeming transhumanist world, at once imminent and primordial, erotic and grotesque.
It was raining when I arrived in Gruyères two summers ago. My friend and I had been driving all morning, looking for a mountain of smoky quartz we’d heard about in Lausanne, but the mountain was nowhere and the road was becoming precarious. Gruyères’ parking lot appeared like a clearing. We lunched quickly; then we walked.
Gruyères spans less than 30km2 and seems on an incline in all directions. It’s benignly scenic, a strange place to encounter any Giger, let alone a lot. But Giger’s previous standalone venues—a bar in his hometown, Chur, across the röstigraben, and another bar in Tokyo built, according to Giger, ‘against [his] will’—hadn’t worked out. Tokyo closed in the late ‘90s after allegedly being taken over by yakuza; Chur still stands but has never gained much traction as a tourist destination. When Giger visited Gruyères in 1990 during an exhibition of his work at the Château de Gruyères, he was thrilled by its popularity and subsequently arranged to purchase the adjacent Château St Germain.
Compared to its turreted, barbicaned neighbour, Château St Germain looks less like a 13th-century castle than an 18th-century house, with shuttered windows and a modestly pitched roof. Nearing the top of a concrete walkway, I saw a small sign above the parabolic archway that divides the château’s two wings, bearing white embossed text in a nondescript font: MUSEUM HR GIGER. The museum, which opened in the north wing in 1998, contains the largest permanent collection of Giger’s work in the world. Although the sign doesn’t mention it, the south wing holds the HR Giger Bar.
The bar’s interior renovations took Giger four years, from 1999 to 2003. The result is a cavernous corrugation of slate-coloured ribs connected vertically by spines, the synthetic vertebrae fixed like concave ammunition belts, with outsized lancet-arched windows still only half the height of the room. Where the Tokyo bar was more pre-Matrix industrial kitsch and the Chur spot more BDSM spaceship, the Giger bar in Gruyères is full-scale alien whale carcass: unnervingly anatomical, a flight of heavy, meticulous fantasy.
We joined the queue for the bar. There was no maître d’ in sight, but we waited dutifully, wordlessly, because although the room was barely populated, it was by no means empty. All around, ridge-backed, pelvis-crowned forms made of polished bone-coloured fibreglass stood hulking and mean, a whole species bred from a single mould. Their distinctiveness made their replication uncanny—simulacrums with no apparent original.
Perhaps you’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet-Pontd’Arc Cave; paradigmatically empty, around two million years old and likely unentered for tens of thousands of years. To finish his documentary, Herzog must have felt it his job to resolve this emptiness, so in the last 15 minutes of the film he introduces bodies: the cave’s current occupants (the world’s oldest figurative drawings; forms, if two-dimensional, of animals and people) and those he speculates are incoming (a species of mutant albino crocodile from a nuclear-powered greenhouse nearby).
But a room wants for a different kind of occupancy. Bodies alone are not sufficient. Take the Latin derivation of ‘interstice’: inter, meaning ‘between’, and sistere, meaning ‘to stand’. This suggests that a space may contain many standing bodies but is technically interstitial unless these bodies have somewhere to sit. To be not-empty, a room requires furniture. Specifically, a room requires chairs.
Why chairs? Or rather, why not tables?
In Between the Furniture and the Building (Between a Rock and a Hard Place), the artist Jimmie Durham recalls Sharon Stone’s infamous Basic Instinct scene, in which she is seated on a leather office chair at the centre of a police interrogation room. Her position tells us that she is somehow subject to. (A similar arrangement takes place in Reservoir Dogs, when Michael Madsen dances around a bound, seated Kirk Baltz, before slicing off Baltz’s ear. The dance is the ultimate taunt, showing Madsen’s encompassing menace and Baltz’s spatial vulnerability, but it’s the chair that makes it possible. On the radio, Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ plays: Well I don’t know why I came here tonight / I got the feeling that something ain’t right / I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair.)
If a table were positioned in front of Stone, Durham argues, this would immediately place her in the ‘power position’. ‘If I want my papers stamped’, he writes, ‘I must be completely subservient to her’. A table can modify a chair. But if Stone’s chair were to be removed, if she were found standing behind the table, the whole scene becomes nonsensical. The table is contingent; a chair can still stand, for lack of a better word, alone.
The Harkonnen chair was supposed to be just one element of Giger’s set for the film adaptation of Dune. But when David Lynch took over from Alejandro Jodorowsky as the film’s director, he scrapped Giger’s designs, claiming their aesthetic was overexposed following the success of Alien. But the Harkonnen was already alive.
In his notes for the production design of Harkonnen Castle, home to Dune’s ruling dynasty, Giger describes a kingdom of sentient objects with malicious, desirous psychologies: the castle swivels on a circular track and ‘hides its evil deep inside’, spewing up excrement at will; the spears guarding its entrance ‘have an independent existence and often impale the citizens just for fun’. And it’s conceivable that, five or so years after his excision from Dune, Giger started building bars because the Harkonnen chair wanted to be sat on.
Actually, we never made it inside. We had to keep driving before it got too dark, and accommodation is expensive in the little town. And I’m not sure that leaving was such a bad thing. As Durham writes, ‘Chairs centre us to suit themselves’. They are ‘not on the side of our liberation’. But a Harkonnen chair does not so much centre as partially swallow the sitter. The chair is the source—the seat, if you will—of power, a power that overwhelms. Without it, we are civilians with cameras and windbreakers. Within it, we are the cautious custodians of a loosely domesticated beast.
I encountered the Harkonnen again last summer in New York, at the opening of an exhibition at the Swiss Institute titled ‘Fin de Siècle’, which everyone was calling ‘the chair show’. It featured famous chairs by Robert Venturi, Alessandro Mendini, Marcel Breuer, and around 30 other 20th-century designers. The large exhibition space was divided into various ‘sets’, each with its own mise en scène; some appeared to be climbing out of, or withdrawing into, packing crates, others vogued under washes of tinted light or faced off against each other.
At the front of the show, a single Harkonnen sat atop an enormous plinth, looming above a semicircle of mostly wood, mostly modern models beneath. It looked ferocious and just a little bit camp, as Giger would have had it. A friend later pointed out that Giger had died in May, only months before the show opened, and the Harkonnen’s dominion over its decidedly more earthly counterparts was perhaps a gesture of tribute. For a while I watched the Harkonnen watching the visitors, guarding the gateway, silently granting entrance and exit to each who passed. It was empty, but the room was full.
There’s a page on Penelope Slinger’s website, under the heading “Bio-Sphere TM,” titled “My Life as Art.” The page pictorializes Slinger’s biography as a red circle surrounded by dozens of miniature hyperlinked images. At the top of the circle is a thermal color picture of Slinger’s parents in 1946 on their wedding day, titled PreConception. Slinger’s timeline proceeds around the curve, with the most recent entries nearing the first. At the centre of the circle is a picture of Slinger wearing all red and a big smile. Her hands, set wide, appear to be holding an invisible square, indistinguishable from the black background of the page against which her portrait is set. Slinger’s square contains a reproduction of the entire page, complete with a mini Slinger at its centre. And this mini Slinger is holding her own mini invisible square, which contains a reproduction — smaller still — of the entire page. The pattern repeats ad infinitum, further than the eye can perceive, as if to suggest that the evolution of Slinger’s biography is contingent on the cycle of all that has come before it.
Website biographies do not usually demonstrate their subject’s worldview so comprehensively — but then, there is nothing usual about Penelope Slinger. When we speak, Slinger is on the phone from the Garden of Forgiveness, her compound in Boulder Creek, California. The property was founded in 1989 by Christopher Hills, yogi, distinguished scientist (often nicknamed “The Father of Spirulina”) and Slinger’s partner from 1994 until his death in 1997. From the Garden, she runs Goddess International, dedicated to exploring the transformative powers of what Slinger terms the Awakened Feminine and to facilitating creative projects onsite.
Slinger’s early work is perhaps her best known: in 1971, she published 50% The Visible Woman, a book of black-and-white collages that explore the sublimated feminine aspect of surrealism. Through the mid 70s she exhibited sculpture and photographs in London and New York, including Opening’s erotic wedding cake. An Exorcism, published in 1977, is a similarly surreal but perhaps more cosmic and romantic representation of the female psychic journey.
At the end of the 70s, Slinger’s trajectory as an artist in the commercial sense paused. She moved to the Caribbean with her partner at the time, tantric practitioner, author, art dealer and archaeologist Nik Douglas. She stayed for 15 years, working extensively on art projects inspired by the previous inhabitants of the islands, the Arawak Indians, before moving back to California, meeting Hills, and settling in Boulder Creek.
Recently, Slinger has been thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of life. At the end of last year, she revisited her collage work from the 70s for concurrent exhibitions at Riflemaker in London and Broadway 1602 in New York — her first in over 35 years. As Slinger describes below, she will soon return to An Exorcism due to a chance encounter with an old friend and collaborator, but with many more years of experience as a woman and an artist to inform her work. It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, Slinger’s evolution is in her hands.
What are you working on at the moment? What are you thinking about?
I have been working on this project called The 64 Dakini Oracle for many years, and I’m still working on that. I got it out in a certain form, but that’s a rather multimedia, multidimensional kind of project, so it still has many evolutions.
I have audio and video studios here on the land, which I put here because I wanted to be able to do that kind of work, but in the seclusion of my own space so that I could work with this media in a more meditative way, and outside of the normal timeframe of the world. Over the years, I’ve been doing my own projects here; but we also work with other people that we have some kind of affinity with. At the moment, we’re doing production; recording music with this wonderful group of musicians and doing a music video for them.
And then I would say the third thing is a rather exciting new addition. Since I went back to England last year, I reconnected with the woman who is in An Exorcism with me, and who was a very close friend, but who I completely lost touch with for 30 years and thought she was dead and didn’t think I’d ever see again. Anyway, when I had my exhibition of this work in London, she showed up at my talk as a surprise and it was so wonderful to see her again. And now she’s coming out here next month and we are going to go in the studio and create a whole lot of new work, both photographic with collage and video material. We’ll do new versions with us at this time in our lives, and see what kind of reflections and imaging can be evolved from what we did in An Exorcism. The working title is Reflections on the Liberation of the Feminine.
There seems to be a cyclical aspect to a lot of the work that you do.
You know, there’ve been different spaces and stages, and different ways in which I’ve applied myself and my aesthetics according to the context, but at the same time, I feel it’s all one big trajectory, which is why when I made my biography on my website, my “Bio-sphere,” as I called it, the name I gave it was “My Life As Art.” I do believe that the whole nature of existence is cyclical, so one’s life does work in that way. I see everything that I’ve been doing, one thing evolving into another, as a natural kind of evolution.
The lifecycle of a connection is interesting. One can experience a connection with a place or a person and then it can disappear — and if it happens to reignite, it’s as though it had never fallen away at all.
And it’s also very interesting how, when the timing isn’t lined up, you can be somewhere but feel completely disconnected as if you’d never been there at all. I remember going back to London and feeling as though I was in this sort of vacuum, as if I’d never had a life there; and it seemed to me so strange and inexplicable, really, to feel like that. And so it did feel good to be able to weave the threads back together again, because it is all one fabric, you know.
The feeling of connection can be so ephemeral. Do you find that in other aspects of your life, not just related to work?
I do, you know. And when you get those times in your life when everything does work by the magic of connection, the grid lights up and you see how everything really is connected. You suddenly you see how that connected to that, to that, to that, which came to this. And, to me, those moments are what this life is all about. And it is really a mystery to me when it doesn’t work like that! But then all of life is really like an ebb and flow. I guess we wouldn’t be so happy with the highs if we didn’t have the lows to measure them by. That’s what they say, anyway. [Laughs]
A lot was written about the fact that you had not shown work in a gallery for about 30 years before these recent shows. Was this gap the result of a decision, or did it happen naturally?
One of the reasons was my deep disappointment back in ‘74, when I put on my exhibition of erotic tabletops called Opening. This was a few years before Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. I didn’t know about her till years later. I wanted to do an opening that would be a totemic event, and I even had backing from the British Film Institute to film it. I wanted to create an erotic wedding banquet, and for everyone to come as a bride and/or groom. My invitation was actually the image of me as the wedding cake.
We were going to do it in the mews outside the gallery, and at the last minute, Angela Flowers — whose gallery it was — got cold feet and thought the neighbors were going to get upset and said, no, we’d just have to do a regular opening. And I was so disappointed and felt that it sterilized the nature of the work. I’d wanted my pieces to be totems of an experience. This is something I always talked about: I don’t want to just show people my work; I want to give them an experience. The experience I had planned out was thwarted, so I planned with a few people I knew in the press that I was going to make this dramatic event at the end of the exhibition: all the pieces remaining, I was going to burn publicly and have it filmed as a protest against the sterility of the art world. In point of fact, I didn’t actually do it. The morning I was going to do it, there were headlines in the paper saying, “Molten plastic falls on children’s heads.” The night before, there was an amusement arcade fire and a lot of children got hurt with the kind of materials that I was using in my show, so I didn’t do it.
I tried once more in ‘77 to do a show with the Patrick Seale Gallery, but that was a complete fiasco, and I closed it after a few days. It’s a whole other story, but he was really insulting. Then I just rented a space and opened it myself and did it there, but that was my final fling in London. In ‘82, I did a retrospective exhibition at a gallery in New York, and having been in the Caribbean for a while, I thought “Oh, great, New York. That’s a sophisticated art market. They’re going to get it.” But, again, I was very disappointed with the reaction. I guess it centered around three particularly powerful men who wanted to buy the collection, or a bunch of it — but then when they found out that I didn’t come with it, they got particularly unpleasant and it made me go, “Okay, these are the signs they’re not ready for this work,” and back off to the Islands.
Then there was a question: “Well, shall I continue to do this kind of cutting-edge work and send it off to London and New York? What’s the point? I think I’ll try to make a bridge through my art with the local culture here.” So that was the choice I made. I was there until ’94. It was not so much an exact choice, but kind of going with the flow of things, and then being in that situation of trying to see, “Well, why am I here and what is the meaning of this?”
When I got together with my partner Nik Douglas, we had a whole outburst of new work that was influenced by tantra — not tantra the religion of sex, but tantra the way of spiritualizing everything in your material life so you’re in this non-dual embracive existence. I thought that was the best spiritual path I’d ever heard of. It didn’t have all the dogma and all the blame and shame.
There’s an aspect of your work that deals with reconciling divisions, reconciling the taboo with the acceptable. I can see that it is connected with tantra, but it also seems like an almost psychoanalytic approach.
Someone who did an astrology reading for me once said that I could be a great psychiatrist or psychologist, but I didn’t have a normal approach. Mine was a much more hands-on approach [laughs] in the sense that I got my hands dirty. I tended to use myself as my main subject. I like Jung much better than Freud, because I found Freud way too reductive, and Jung looked at the collective unconscious and all of this expansive alchemy of the being. As I say, when I discovered tantra, I found so many wonderful tools for self-transformation, and I’ve always been particularly interested in that. The other aspect that they mentioned in the astrology, or some of the numerology, was that I had the ability to turn a defect into an asset. And I think that’s actually a really important thing: if we can all latch onto that particular program, there’s no limit to what anyone can do.
You have said that, at the end of An Exorcism, the heroine emerges more fully realized after undergoing these — I think you used the word “harrowing” — experiences. It’s an interesting idea, the role of negative experience in self-transformation.
I sometimes find myself saying that, these days, I don’t think there’s any art worth its salt that isn’t a form of healing art. We come in whole, yes, but we’re all kind of wounded too; and it’s how you deal with those things. And how do you recognize that you have these [wounds]? So, for me, my middle name is Delve. It’s my grandmother’s maiden name, but it means, obviously, to delve into things completely, and I’ve always liked to do that. And then my birth name being Penelope, I didn’t like that at first because I didn’t like the idea of patience. [Laughs] I wanted to be the explorer and not the one staying at home weaving. But after time’s gone on, I like it, because one of the meanings of tantra is to weave. I like to talk about how to weave the tapestry of one’s life, with all those threads connected. It’s exciting.
I’ve always loved your statement that 50% The Visible Woman was about making the female side of surrealism visible. It’s that same idea of delving into the unrealized and unrecognized, perhaps even more than it is a feminist idea.
I’ve never considered myself a feminist as such, because I’ve much more been interested in the power of women being recognized rather than women having the same kind of power as men. There’s a subtle distinction, but a very important one, I think. Because, of course, all the political changes needed to happen — but at the same time, I felt that women who were really on the forefront of the feminist movement were often throwing the baby out with the bath water, in the sense of seeming that they didn’t want to be considered sexual. They didn’t want to be all these feminine things, because they wanted these equal rights. But I’ve always been striving for the qualities that are the right of the feminine, and for those to be able to be seen in a position of strength and equality. When we have that, then we have the opportunity for a new kind of sacred marriage between the male and female within, which reflects in a harmonious balance of those energies in the world at large. So, for me, it’s never been about wanting dominance of women, which I don’t even think the feminists really wanted. They too, of course, did want equal rights, but I’m talking about a liberation of consciousness in general so that it’s not a sexist thing per se, but instead becomes about the recognition, the acceptance, the honoring of the feminine within male and female alike. You know, the opening of the heart and the understanding of compassion as being a prime factor in the world, and a shifting of values away from this lopsided grasping after power that’s been the ruling factor.
What you are describing reminds me of that alchemical idea where the two opposites — masculine and feminine — join together, and there is the birth of a third aspect that transcends them both.
Yes, I’ve always been fascinated with that, because I believe it happens on an inner and an outer level. I really feel that every creation is about that marriage and that union within, and that then finding form and manifesting. And so, yes, we as whole beings need to be able to unite those principles within ourselves as well as have them in healthy and dynamic balance in our lives. That’s why the pendulum needs to swing over to the feminine, I believe — you know, seeing the connectedness of everything, and in seeing that connectedness, we understand the connection between all living things and start to honor that quality and then start to be able to live in harmony with our environment. I believe it’s a reflection of the natural evolution that each being goes through in its life. When you’re growing up, you are naturally going to be selfish and self-centered at a certain point because you have to be, because you’re trying to find out who you are. “Who am I, what’s me, and what’s society and how can I separate myself from the projections of others in order to know who I am?” That’s very much what the work of An Exorcism was all about. “Who am I, what’s me, and what is the environment and the values in which I find myself incarnated at this time? What skeletons in the cupboard do I have to look at in order to see who I am in that process?”
Tell me about the presence of nature in your work.
A lot of the surreal images, which blend the anthropomorphic/zoomorphic figures — heads of birds, of animals, or things that are growing and Daphne turning into a tree, any of these things — I’ve always loved them and just been fascinated by the surrealness of them. But it is also very much a reflection of how connected I feel to the world of animals and birds and insects and creatures and trees and flowers and water and air. It’s much easier to relate to nature than to people in a way, because it’s so direct and simple, and just relies on energy and emotion. I do think that the natural state of being here on earth is that we are all beings from all different forms of life: fur or chlorophyll or liquid or solidity. All of them are able to be in communication with each other. The land itself holds resonance. The trees will speak to you. They are all like antenna connecting to each other and receiving and transmitting energy and information, and they all relate to the — well, how do I say it — psycho-emotional frequency.
You and Christopher Hills would obviously have shared so many of these ideas.
Oh, yes. It was such a blessing to meet him and to spend not many years together, but a really powerful and connected time with such a man who combined the heft of his intellect with the vastness of his heart, and the strength of his vision, and the ability to manifest. He was a real optimist; a mixture between a yogi and a druid. He had come late in his life to discover the Goddess, and he said, “I’ve written 32 books, I’ve had all these businesses; but right now, you know, it all means nothing. What we need is the Goddess to press the heart button of the world, and then people will wonder why they did things in that old energy-inefficient way before.”
It was actually quite funny: in the time just before he was dying, we were in the living room and he looked up at a painting I had done and he said, “I didn’t want to tell you before, because I didn’t want it to go to your head — but I just want to tell you what an incredible artist you are.” And then he went on to describe for a good long time all the things he saw in the work which told him that. I would say, for me, he offered me the greatest gift I think one can have, which was to recognize and appreciate my highest self, and in that way, allow me to move into my full potential. Him offering me that gift is what made me want to try to keep offering that to others, and to be able to recognize and appreciate the highest qualities in others.
I like the idea of potential. It’s an idea that fits well with art, because before you begin anything creative it exists in energetic terms as infinite potential.
With all my art, I feel I’m making such poor approximations of what I really see. You know, it’s how to translate and bring that vision space, that mind’s eye, down into some kind of tangible form. But the tools at our disposal are getting more and more wonderful. I know people have said to me, “Why are you working with digital collage instead of with cut and paste?” But how could I not? You can play with the transparency without having to go into a darkroom. You can paint to scale. Your colors are light, rather than pigment. It’s a bigger pallet of frequency when it’s light, you know. It’s so beautiful. So it’s, to me, a natural evolution.
Why do you think people are surprised that you are interested in using technology?
Because they have limits to what they see art to be, you know. And because, well, let’s face it: it’s a kind of complex world we’re in right now. Collage has been my favorite art form, whether I’m doing three-dimensional or two-dimensional, I really like bringing different things together to create a new reality out of these parts of reality. But if you look at modern advertising and fashion and all these things, the predominant way of creating the art that they’re showing is collage. In a way, it’s become the most popular art form and yet, in that context, it’s not really seen as an art form, per se. It’s an applied art. We’ve got these fuzzy edges.
It’s all to do with association, and it is also a question of what defines the art from the not-art. It’s in the intention; in what one is bringing to consciousness with the choice of images that one uses.
You know, there’s this horrible archetype of the artist suffering and starving in a garret and having this terrible life in one way or another; that only struggle produces the great art. But I didn’t think this was a very satisfactory archetype at all. Everything in one’s life is a form of art, and that’s a much more inclusive archetype for everybody to find the art within. One of the roles of the artist is to help people to find that. It could be inspiring.
Charlotte Moorman claimed to hate the term avant-garde.
“There’s no such thing,” she told Stephen Varble, experimental playwright and artist, in a 1973 interview. “Doesn’t avant-garde mean ‘ahead of the time’? The works I perform are of this time. They’re performed in the present tense. How can they be ahead of their time? Whew!”
The truth is that Moorman’s work was neither of nor ahead of its time. The time did not situate the work; instead, the work resolutely helped to define the time.
As an artist, performer and classically trained cellist, Moorman was a key figure in the Fluxus movement. Rather than supplying a set of parameters, Moorman’s involvement reflected and refined her inherent values: experimentation, collaboration, equanimity, awareness and overcoming for the sake of art.
Moorman only ever really did what she felt was vital. On one occasion this meant playing long-time collaborator Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique half-naked. The official charge was indecent exposure, but the real repercussion was infamy. This was 1967, a time when attempts to reconcile art and the human body still had the power to shock.
Before people came to know her this way, Moorman had been working to solidify the place of experimental art in the hearts of a still-undecided New York City public. From 1963 to 1982, she organized fifteen New York Avant-Garde Festivals. It is a testament to Moorman’s gentility that she was able to work in agreement with local bureaucracy rather than against it.
The name of the event for which Moorman is most famous also incorporates her least favorite words, but the use of avant-garde was more about classifying the content of the festivals than trying to typify the intent of the artists or the nature of their work. At the first of these events, named 6 Concerts ’63, John Cage’s performance hurt the hearing of an unsuspecting patron who promptly filed suit. Moorman felt that she had to utilize some recognizable terminology to prevent future confusion.
The festivals themselves were curated chaos – a platform for the multifarious work of her contemporaries, including Joseph Beuys, Jim McWilliams and Yoko Ono. Each event had the richness of a movement but remained self-reflexive and accessible enough to avoid solipsism.
The process of making and presenting art in a city with such limited open space meant that spatial concerns became creative concerns. Moorman broke ground with the use of public sites for artistic purposes, successfully pursuing New York’s biggest venues. Over the course of fifteen festivals, she secured Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, Shea Stadium and Grand Central Station. One particularly innovative year, the entire festival was held as a parade that ran the length of Central Park West.
In an open invitation sent to artists entitled Plans for the 12th New York Avant-Garde Festival, Moorman outlines highlights from previous festivals and gives details for the next event. There are venue specifications, a list of secured acts (including Marilyn Woods and the Celebrations group, Jud Yalkut and Stanley Marsh) and Moorman’s own home phone number.
As if sending a sign of her boundless inclusiveness and faith in the power of the artistic masses, she signs off to her faceless recipient:
“I hope you will want to be a part of the festival, because we will not feel that it is complete without you. Sincerely, Charlotte Moorman.”
An active quarry might be a mile long and half as wide and as deep as a zeppelin standing on end. It takes decades to engineer a hole so big, but decades are still only a fraction of the time it takes to make a rock: thousands, sometimes millions of years of pressure and submersion in water or slow cooling or intense heat. A rock is a petrifaction not only of minerals but of the earth’s dynamic process.
One protracted system undoes another: this is the operating principle of a quarry. Two monumental chronologies meet in a transitional moment that defines them both. The whole thing — the doing and the undoing, the advancement of the quarry and the attrition of the rock — depends on a string of instants: a blast; another blast; another blast.
In response to these layered temporalities, the artist Naoya Hatakeyama developed his own. Since 1995, Hatakeyama has produced 39 photographs of four different quarry sites in Japan for his series Blast. With the assistance of an explosives expert, who is able to predict the direction in which atomized matter will fly, and a remote-control camera, Hatakeyama documents the moment of fracture at close range.
In an earlier series, Lime Works, for which he was awarded the 22nd Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award in 1997, Hatakeyama photographed Japan’s limestone quarries as one might the pyramids at Giza: some images convey the magnitude of the entire setup from an aerial perspective; others, especially those that depict the quarries’ industrial structures, seem almost three-dimensional in their angular intricacy. The Blast series presents a polar approach: the sense of place is so abstracted that many pictures could reasonably be mistaken for images of meteorites striking the surface of Mars.
In Blast #13609 (2007), white, cloudlike pillars shoot at an acute angle from the base of a rock face. Further from the lens, where the rock turns burnt orange, smaller smoke pillars erupt. Blast #09420 (2007) is pure atomization. The sky is pale and overcast — in Blast #13609 it is cerulean — and there is no rock face, only two or three apparent points of disruption and airborne particles, from boulders to shards to dust.
One controlled act captures another: this is the operating principle of the Blast series. But control as it pertains to nature is complicated; the idea of complete control, we are shown time and again, is illusory. Hatakeyama understands this deeply. On March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which precipitated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, effectively razed Rikuzentakata, Hatakeyama’s home city. He lost his mother, the house he grew up in, much of his community and the landscape of his childhood.
Hatakeyama returned to Rikuzentakata just days after the disaster. In the following months, he photographed the collapsed architecture and devastated surroundings — his city rendered temporarily unfamiliar. The result, a series of 60 images titled Rikuzentakata, was exhibited in 2012 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of Hatakeyama’s retrospective, Natural Stories.
Natural Stories contained photographs from the Blast, Lime Hills and Rikuzentakata series, among others, as well as a video installation, Twenty-Four Blasts (2011), formed from a sequence of still photographs from Blast. The video signifies a poetic arc from the dynamism of explosions to the stasis of photographs to the controlled motion of digital video. To say that this arc progresses would be too prescriptive as ‘progress’ implies a single, forward direction. The transfiguration of movement from blast to Blast to Twenty-Four Blasts is not so much progress as a sort of continuity.
If Twenty-Four Blasts and the Blast photographs capture force itself, evinced by matter instantaneously displaced, the Rikuzentakata pictures show force as a specter, recognizable only through inference — by the negation and stillness it leaves in its wake. Blast concerns the moment of transition, Rikuzentakata its aftermath. Both express the power of an instant to radically reconfigure the age-old and familiar.
The finality of natural disaster and the diminution of limited natural resources seem to confirm that history is a linear timeline comprised of irrevocable markers. This is one way to think of moments of rupture: points of no return. But the Blast and Rikuzentakata series demand a more complex theory.
In a letter to his friend Albert Oeri dated January 4th 1959, Carl Jung wrote: “When something happens here at point A which touches upon or affects the collective unconscious, it has happened everywhere.” In Hatakeyama’s works, rupture does not indicate that we are hurtling towards an inevitable future. Extrapolating from Jung, the instants suspended in Blast and Rikuzentakata are not only simultaneous but un-beginning and un-ending: they have happened always.
Can you please describe what awe feels like for you?
Awe is the emotion that arises from feeling an unusual power from an object—and being unable to approach it. Basically, it is a type of fear, but this fear is mixed with reverence for the object. The coexistence of the normally incompatible emotions of fear and reverence is an exceptional situation; it provokes surprise, and pushes the person who perceives it towards self-reflection. This is why, rather than running away from this fear, people choose to stand paralyzed in front of it. Indeed, the simultaneous experience of such contradictory emotions is one of the important themes of modern art since Romanticism.
I watched a video on YouTube where you mention the feeling of isolation as part of experiencing awe. How does this relate to your work as a photographer?
If one gets too close to this “unusual power,” one becomes enveloped in it, and the balance between fear and respect is destroyed—here, “awe” vanishes like mist. In other words, in order to not lose “awe,” it is essential to not get too close to that power and to maintain one’s distance from it. In some way, this is suggestive of our attitude when we photograph. I will think a bit more about this reason below.
Resolving to “take a photograph,” this is the same as resolving to “go behind the camera.” For example, even in the middle of an enjoyable party, a photographer must separate from the group. No matter how compelling the scene in front of her eyes may be, she cannot allow herself to be enthralled by the scene. Paradoxically, in order to preserve and share its attractive qualities, she must voluntarily stand outside of it and give it a single frame. In other words, the body must be detached from the image. In this way, photographers can be called people who voluntarily choose isolation for themselves. Of course this “isolation” is not a societal kind of “isolation” but rather a more personal, as it were introspective one.
We could say that a person who is accustomed to the act of shooting, in other words a photographer, is someone who, whether consciously or unconsciously, is familiar with such isolation. For this kind of person, the physical or psychological distance they secure for themselves while confronting a compelling scene could be called a kind of courtesy. “Not drawing close, maintaining a distance from power” is a behavior familiar to photographers, and among such people, those with a high degree of consciousness will, through the act of shooting, actively experience “awe” through various things. Their own photographic expression includes the possibility of creating a new sense of “awe”—and, perhaps, even the possibility of transmitting this impression to another person.
I think that the concepts which you have mentioned in your question—“awe,” “isolation,” “photographer”—can be connected in the way I have indicated above. Within this line of thinking, I feel that the image of typical modern artists since Romanticism rises to the surface. To go further, the problem of physical and psychological distance with respect to the subject and object relates to discussions of so-called objectivity or neutrality; active and passive observation, as well as nonparticipation; and finally ethics and politics. Photographers are always vexed by the tendency to link these discussions together.
I recently read that in Carrara, Italy, the marble quarry workers describe the stone in an anthropomorphised way (the marble is said to be “asleep,” “awake,” “singing,” and so on). The workers also describe the act of quarrying as a reciprocal exchange the marble is a dynamic, living thing that participates in the process. Do you relate to natural material in this way? Does this inform the way you photograph landscape and even the limestone in the Blast series?
Like copper, iron or other metals, rocks are hard and heavy, but they are very brittle, so they cannot be bent or extended. When applying force to rocks, it’s very difficult to predict how they will break apart; the only way to make a rock take on a desired form is to shave it down. Rocks do not conform to the human will like metal, and a feeling like “I hope this goes well” often emerges when working with them; this feeling could be called a “prayer” instead. If the rock breaks apart in the desired way, then the “prayer” reached the rock; we could call this a “conversation.” Humans worked on rocks with their hands for hundreds of thousands of years before working with metal, so it is not strange that the custom of referring to a “conversational” relation to rocks has continued until the present day. Even now in Japan, people who construct stone walls and the like still often say things like “listen to the voice of the rock.” This kind of “conversation” is not limited to natural materials like rocks, but extends to plants, animals, terrain, the weather—in short, everything under the heading of what we call “nature.” This conversation has been carried on for ages.
In any event, I am skeptical about the idea that the quarry workers in Carrara refer to rocks in “an anthropomorphized way.” If they feel that rocks are speaking or sleeping, this is nothing like “anthropomorphication.” I think for them this is nothing other than an actual fact. But for someone who can only look on from outside (a modern person), it is impossible to distinguish whether this is an actual fact or mere rhetoric. In either case, though, the word “anthropomorphosis” is correct, and this is why modern people can use this word—as well as words like “myth” and “religion”—so lightly.
If we call the disposition of speaking to a lifeless thing or hearing its voice—things that, to a person of the scientific age, seems strange—“anthropomorphosis,” then we must also call speaking to dead people or the past, or hearing their voices, “anthropomorphosis” as well. But, from the perspective of our actual experience, this is nonsense: we can never stop talking to dead people or the past, because we are always desperate to listen to them. I think there is a logical reason for why primitive words like “spirit,” “soul” and “heart” are still essential to us.
僕は確かに岩石の写真を撮りますが、僕は石工ではなく写真家なのです。ですから、僕にとっての素材（natural material）は、石ではなく、フィルムや印画紙、カメラといったものです。（それらに「光」とか「イメージ」という、素材と呼べるかどうか危ういものを、つけ加える必要があるかもしれません。） 僕は、石工たちが石に対して「asleep」「awake」「singing」などと述べる時の気持ちを、自身の写真の経験から類推するようにして、想像することができます。しかしながら、このような語彙を、彼らのように、こと「石」という素材に対して実際に用いることは、僕には無理です。ひとつの素材との間に、対話関係を築くのには、時間が必要なのです。
While I certainly take photographs of rocks, I am a photographer and not a quarry worker. So, for me, my “natural material” is not stone but rather film, photographic paper and cameras. (It is dangerous to call “light” and “images” material, but perhaps it is necessary to add them to this list.) Through the experience of my own photographs, I can imagine what the quarry workers feel when they say that the rock is “asleep,” “awake” or “singing.” However, it is impossible for me to use these words in the same way that they do with respect to stones. It takes time to form a communicative bond with a material.
Also, in Carrara, there is marble dust in the air and drinking water so the workers ingest the marble as they quarry it. How much do you believe humans are transformed by their environment, whether on a psychological or physical level?
A swimmer comes to look like a fish when they are in the water. The fingers of a sculptor who works every day to mold their work will, after a long time, flatten out like a trowel or a spatula. But I do not have even the slightest bit of information about how someone working at a quarry might be transformed. I would first like to hear more from you about such a transformation.
永い間写真を撮っている人が、目とか腕とかが変形したなんて話は聞いたことがありま せん。（僕の場合は、永くカメラバッグを左肩にかけて仕事していたため、真っ直ぐに 立つと、左肩が右肩よりも上がっていますけれど…。）普通の人より、ものの見えに対する意識が高くなった、つまり目がよくなった、とか、暗室の薬品のせいで、指が黒くなったとか病気になったとか、そんなことは時々聞きますけれども。
I have never heard about the fingers or arms of someone who has taken photographs for a long time being transformed. (In my case, after wearing a camera bag over my left shoulder for a long time, it will be somewhat higher than my right when I stand up straight…) I do, however, sometimes hear that someone’s consciousness with respect to looking at things is higher than that of a normal person—in other words, their eye got better—or that someone got sick, or their fingers turned black, from darkroom chemicals.
The so-called acquired characteristics of the swimmer and the sculptor are not said to be passed down, but if, for example, the average height of the population of Japan increases, the shape of people’s profiles changes, or the number of people with allergies increases, it would be possible to think that the environment of the city is functioning in a hereditary way. In regards to the psychological transformations created by cities, nothing but boring words like “stress brought on by urban life” come into my head. Rather than someone like me, I think that inquiring into the field of societal studies, folklore, psychology or history will lead to more impressive examples.
When humans enact huge changes on their physical environment, do you see this as violent or necessary behavior? or both?
I think that the answer to this question will change depending on the way that we perceive the “breadth” of time. For example, for someone caught up in a vortex of poverty, or someone caught up in material pleasures, the “breadth” of time will correspond to “now,” “today” or some other short period. For someone whose material desires are more or less satisfied, this avarice is controlled, and this person will want to preserve the comfort of this condition. Taking into account their children or people in other regions, this person will perceive the “breadth” of time in the middle-term units of years or decades. Finally, such thoughts of the material world are violently changed for someone affected by a sudden natural disaster or a war; here, in a single stroke, the “breadth” of time will acquire the long-term unit of hundreds or thousands of years.
The things that the person with the “short” perception of time consider “necessary” will appear “violent” to the person with the “middle” perception of time. All of these things, in turn, will appear transient to the person with the “long” view. In reality, all these perceptions of time exist together within individuals, and this makes it difficult for me to answer this question.
Whether something is “violent” or “necessary” is directly connected to the “greatest happiness” principle within the English tradition of utilitarian ethics. One’s own greatest happiness, and how to mediate the greatest happiness of others, is the greatest task of actual democratic politics. Even today’s prominent political leaders are struggling to work on these difficult problems, and it’s natural that individuals have difficulty preparing sufficient answers themselves. However, there is no point in living in this world if we give up thinking and speaking. I believe that the significance of art lies in showing this (“don’t give up!”) to people.
Can you describe the environment or landscape that has had the biggest impact on you, and on your work?
In my childhood, it was the extremely large concrete wall near the entrance of a railroad tunnel at the headwaters of a river I often visited. More recently, my hometown after the tsunami.
Even when the subject of your work is seemingly unapproachable or immense (a mountain, a vast landscape) the photographs always feel like the record of a close experience or encounter. Do you aim to photograph your experience, or do you experience through the act of photographing?
I do both.
What makes stone stone? Does it cease to be stone once it has been exploded and quarried? Why or why not?
To shoot “Blast,” I often visited the quarries of a company called “Mitsubishi Material.” Although this is a Japanese company, the word “material” is not written using a Japanese word but rather a Japanese phoneticization of the English word itself. It is an appropriate word because the company deals with both stone and metal, but each time I visited I was reminded of the fact that this word derives from the word “matter.”
When used as a noun, “matter” has the simple meaning of referring to a body or substance that occupies a space, while “material” refers to a substance from which something can be made. Before anything else, we could say that an explosion—a human approach to nature—changes stone from “matter” to “material.” It might be an exaggeration, but in the afterword to Blast, I wrote: “The moment when limestone is burst apart could instead be called the moment when nature changes into the city.”
The question, “what makes stone stone?” could be re-stated: “what is the essence of stone?” Certainly, casting aside discussions of function or use, asking about the essence of a thing is something that only humans can do; it is understandable that many philosophers have flocked to answer this question, but—to repeat—I am a photographer. I think the foremost virtue of photography is that it shows people that a thing cannot be reduced to its essence.
It might be far from your question, but the word “stone” reminded me of the afterword to my book from many years ago, Underground, which I will quote from here: The most exciting moment is when I find the picture that I want to do next. Luckily, I have spent my time walking from one place to the next, guided by my pictures. It’s like kicking a stone and chasing it. When I made my first kick at a limestone quarry, I never imagined that I would eventually be led to the underground environment of Tokyo. I’ll probably keep kicking my stone, just as I did as a schoolboy on my way home, but this time with no direction. I move forward guided only by the stone I’m kicking. And as I encounter unexpected scenes, so the stone becomes more and more precious to me.
When light comes through the french doors of Leslie Hewitt’s studio, it sweeps downward, hits the white walls and the skirting board before pooling on the floor. This light has a particular assuredness in its angle; you cannot mistake where it’s coming from or where it’s going. This light is also the light that can be seen in many of Hewitt’s photo sculptures: it comes from somewhere outside the frame, strikes the objects composed within the image — books, papers, clay, fruit — and demands that they become dimensional.
When Hewitt installs her photographs, it’s a similar story. She exhibits them in wooden frames standing on the floor, propped against the wall. The gallery’s light source catches them from an angle and suddenly the back and sides of the photo-object are just as important as the front. Occasionally, such as in Make it Plain (2006), one of the objects from the photograph is affixed to the gallery floor, as if to welcome the pictures to their newfound objecthood.
Light is important to Hewitt’s work because time is, too. In several of Hewitt’s series, objects are rearranged and recaptured at different moments. As the day’s light changes, new shadows are cast and a temporality is created that cannot be ignored.
This temporality, however, is complicated. Part of Hewitt’s project is to break down time’s perceived linearity, and she does this not only with light but also with the specific objects depicted in her work. In Riffs on Real Time (2002-2005), a series of ten, some of which were exhibited as part of MoMA’s New Photography 2009 exhibition, Hewitt photographed family photographs, letters, magazines and books against wooden floorboards and shag pile rugs. Several histories collide: the objects are artifacts that span several eras, but they are also apprehended in “real time.”
Leslie Hewitt: Sudden Glare of the Sun (2012), Hewitt’s solo show at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, includes several photo sculptures from the Blue Skies, Warm Sunlight series (2011). This work presented varying arrangements of objects, snapshots and books, including a partially legible copy of The Politics of Protest (1969), “the study of the socio-political climate surrounding the anti-war and civil rights protests in America during the 1960s.” This book points to a very specific moment in American history, but its inclusion in Hewitt’s work means it is also here, now. The object contains the memory of the social and political conditions that gave rise to its production — and here, beside objects as quotidian as personal photographs and a piece of plywood, the viewer is asked to reconcile this history with the object’s newly immediate presence. If I am being honest though, it is not fair to say that Hewitt asks the viewer to do anything. Her work is not imposing by any means; instead, it gently invites reception, consideration and engagement, all those processes of applied attention through which an artwork — and history itself — can become infinitely rich.
What are you thinking about these days in terms of your work?
Most recently, my days are filled with a collaborative project with cinematographer Bradford Young. Rashida Bumbray [independent curator and former curator at The Kitchen, New York] introduced us in 2010. We met and, in essence, began a conversation, which has continued until now. The way that Mr. Young conceptualizes time and space parallels the way that I address similar concerns – although he has a completely different approach and ultimately a distinct chain of transmission, our collaboration has shifted the way I approach the concept of time. Moving from work with still photography and sculpture to exploring the potential of the moving image and installation is a record of this shift. Together we explore du- al-channel projections, short silent vignettes, color and film speed, expanding our collective visual vocabulary. Our collaboration engages time as a material, looking at hidden arcs in 20th century historical narratives and positioning such moments in relation to our contemporary moment in time.
Does cinema feel like a completely new language?
I always wanted the photographic image to act differently, to somehow encompass more. Keeping in mind that still photography and cinematography have a strong relationship, it is very new for me to deal with time in time; exploring what can happen across a succession of frames. It is exciting really. I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with still photography, but my discomfort, I think, allows for me to push against set conventions and to imagine the photographic plane in ways that strive to address nuance and perception, bringing the photographic moment closer to a sense of reality, in material and sculptural terms. In this regard, I was introduced to Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: Redemption of Physical Reality via the critical work of Miriam Bratu Hansen while I was a fellow in Berlin at the American Academy in the spring. The text investigates the materiality of early film and the cinematic experience. Reading it expanded and affirmed the paradigm shift we are experiencing today in a truly uncanny way.
You have dealt with the idea of trying to get outside of the photographic plane in your still photography, by exploring the sculptural dimension of photography. Is film able to be physical and sculptural in the same way?
I feel so. The sculptural moment is the cinematic moment, the cinematic experience, the space between the viewer and the actual film moving in time, right? I think the moment one’s sense of reality shifts or is changed in some way, to include more than the optical experience, means the notion of sculpture is operating. I also feel that the moment one’s sense of space and time is relying on, engaged with, or challenged by the laws of gravity and physics, the notion of sculpture is operating. There’s still this relationship to viewing that I keep in perspective while working with film, where the film can be mirrored in the physical installation and you can literally enter the work. There is an ideal point of perspective for the work in this regard.
The ideal point of perspective for sculpture is an interesting idea. I am aware of sculptors who don’t believe in an ideal point of perspective because to reduce the available vantage points sort of flattens the object.
You can experience my sculptures in terms of the peripheral view, which I think is embedded in what I photograph, too. It’s not only about the center. The center is often blocked. Everything kind of happens outside of the center. I feel like perspective is what links the language of optics to the viewing experience, which is older than photography — it is the study of the eye, the study of how we see. It’s the science of it. Perspective in terms of what art history inherited is only part of the narrative. Discussing the idea of an ideal perspective is, in essence, about returning the dialogue to the viewer, to that personal connection with a work. I rely on that. I feel like that’s the conversation, and that’s contingent on having the potential for an ideal perspective — that moment where a work becomes clear.
I read an interview that you did with Colleen Smith for BOMB and she discussed how filmmakers in the 1970s shaped people’s cultural memory with their anticipations of the future. Do you think in those terms when you’re working with film? Are you concerned with that idea of retrospectively shaping memory?
Colleen is amazing in this analysis of the energy and intentionality of a certain generation of filmmakers who were visualizing the future, linking it to notions of progress and a complex reality that moved through the known traumas of the 20th century. I get it, but the ’60s avant-garde film practice of Third Cinema has exposed me to a very direct premise. If you want to tell a new story, a distinctly counter-narrative, you have to be fearless, not only in terms of narrative structure but also in grappling with the aesthetic form.
To answer your question regarding memory, I am very interested in how an art practice can engage with time and history. Pulling aspects of history into the present tense for critical engagement — I am completely invested in this act. The shift to working with film as a material has exposed me to new ways to address these concerns.
Do you believe that time is linear?
I do understand that time moves in a certain trajectory, but what is amazing about exploring the impact of certain historical narratives in the medium of photography and, in this regard, film, is that you have to open up the notion of time to look critically. You have to break rules, which is why in a photograph I will show material cultural artifacts referencing 1968 along with objects referencing 1989, for example. They are connected, obviously not through sharing the same space and time in terms of point of origin, but through the act of photographing them together. They are linked and the power of association opens up the notion of time, where the moment lingers in the present tense, exploring the space in between, the unpictured moments, exposing the hidden interlocutor, the eye of the photographer. I’m not a historian, per se. I’m an artist who utilizes history, the historiographical as material. I don’t want to say that I manipulate history because that may sound sinister and inauthentic. What I do feel is the freedom to shape material to point to genuine sentiments and critical ideas around concrete historical facts.
It is often assumed that there is a very literal, even reductive relationship between an artist’s references and their work. I read an interview where someone was suggesting that you reference minimalism and so on, and you sort of refused to be pinned down in that way.
I feel it is perhaps easier to refer to movements and moments in art history that are securely within the canon. But something is lost in that: the moment to craft a new argument. Influenced, yes, but there are so many influences that deserve and need a platform of articulation, expressing how artists are transforming in their own time. When we can only address the past and not look to describe how artistic gestures are operating now, in our contemporary moment, what does that mean? Why do we have such blind spots? It really points to the inadequacy of language at crucial times to address the complex nature of the creative process.
Perhaps it’s an aesthetic problem, where people forget that an image is also three-dimensional and in-the-world. There is something about photography especially — perhaps its flatness, as it’s closer to a two-dimensional image — where people think of it as one point in a straight historical line, in a tradition.
The exciting thing about conceptual photography, which really emerged alongside minimalism and Third Cinema in the 1960s, is that these artists and filmmakers were asking for their medium to do something different. There had to be a break. I guess contemporary photographers now are doing some- thing similar, exploring the picture plane in immensely interesting ways. It is hard to pin down. It is a lyrical moment, really.
Many artists are reluctant to acknowledge art and the sociopolitical framework as inextricable in the way that you do. It seems that no one wants to be a “political artist.”
Artists exist in society. Even an apolitical position is a political position. We are always connected to the time that we’re in. However that manifests for artists is the genuine position of that moment. All of the conditions of our time, as complex as they are, are what we have to bear. We are in the late stage of global capitalism; artists have to contend with that. We are also technically still at war in the US; artists have to contend with that. Fifty years from now, when someone looks back and says, “What was happening?” artists have to contend with that. Moving from the 20th century into the 21st, visuality has radically shifted. The dematerialization of the photographic image and the virtual space we inhabit, at this point, are inextricably part of and literally shape the atmosphere we experience. Artists are involved with this and that, in essence, is a political gesture.
Amelia Stein is a writer, editor and teacher based in London.