Through Either Side: Interview with Simon Anderson
Keeley Haftner: So Simon, this will be somewhat of a traditional interview, but punctuated with my mention of selections from George Brecht’s Water Yam for you to respond to. Sound good?
Simon Anderson: Okay!
KH: Let’s begin with:
SA: Brecht was a scientist, so he kept good notes and drawings. He begins by playing with electric lights for different durations. Around this time he’s in a class with John Cage, where they work very closely and developed a bond. Cage kind of allows him to relax a little and open up his work. So, after all of his experiments engaging the complexity of electronics, he just goes with two durations: red and green, which I think is a lovely piece. I’ve done it myself and seen it done in many ways. Of all of them I think my favourite is eating the green salad and drinking the red wine – a most excellent version! A Japanese artist called Takehisa Kosugi first performed it this way England in the 1970s, and it was Kosugi who did the drinking and eating. I performed it this way for a conference where I was asked to think of a reason why this work was valid, and I realized that what he’s simply doing is asking you to pay attention to different lengths of time. Because that’s mostly what Brecht does – he asks you to pay attention. In class I’ve done it on a chalkboard with red and green chalk, which is the hardest to got off and therefore the most annoying. [Laughs] This is what Fluxus does; it asks you to think of something through a particular lens and then you can start to apply it all over the place. Two Durations crops up as a motorist or pedestrian in Chicago, for example. You get these incredible avenues of red changing to green as you wait. One can’t but help but think of this in terms of George Brecht!
KH: Brecht’s obituary in New York Times described his efforts to ensure that “the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed.” What might you say is the importance of this concept today? Has it become more or less important over time?
SA: Heavy! One of the things that is very instructive for me is to look at Brecht’s history and position and learn from that. His “event-scores” came right out of music scores. I’ve got a little piece of evidence here that I want to show you. [Opens package] This is a facsimile reproduction of his notebooks to the John Cage class in the 1950s. In this first class, “Experimental Compositions” with John Cage, he makes a note about “events in sound space.” He’s already thinking in terms of events and what an event actually is. He saw events as things that happen around you, where the event-score operates like the musical score by giving you permission to listen. Like the musical score, you read the crotchets and quavers and all of that, which that brings you in tune with the instrument. The event score is five-dimensional permission to notice the things that he’s noted, and of course, very easily from that, everything else. I think everyone notices everything today. Perhaps too much. [Laughs]
KH: So after our lessons from Fluxus artists, perhaps we should attempt to notice less?
SA: I think it’s quite complicated. Luckily, because that’s what keeps it interesting! Of course both Brecht and Fluxus weren’t alone in their concentration on the everyday in the 1950s and 1960s. But Brecht had a particular aesthetic and he was also, like, really concentrating. In the stories one hears about him, he was all about virtuosity and paid a great deal of attention to detail. He took conceptual care in building things. I guess we’re all infatuated with the everyday today, and Brecht is a great saint in the panoply somehow.
THREE CHAIR EVENTS
- Sitting on a black chair
- Yellow chair.
- On (or near) a white chair.
SA: Chairs were big for Brecht. He sat down, a lot, presumably. [Laughs] The point of the chair for him is that it’s everyday and has many functions that operate as gateways to other things. I can sit down and have a cup of tea. I can sit down and think. I can sit down to have an interview. A chair is just one of those things that permeates the everyday, and unless you’re Gerrit Rietveld or someone, you don’t pay attention to the chair. There were other artist’s working with chairs, like Scott Burton and Richard Artschwager, but they were very sculptural and quoting the minimal or post-minimal. Brecht’s chairs were pre-minimal. And they were for you to sit on. That’s what people loved about them – it was the art life dichotomy that everyone was talking about, solved.
KH: It actually reminds me a lot of Lawrence Weiner’s conceptualist children’s book about the table, Something to Put Something On. That book really rocked my world!
SA: Sure, and I also want to say that contemporaneously with Brecht: Ben Vautier the French Fluxus artist was performing pieces where he would sit in public places and just hold a sign that said ‘to look at me is enough’: “Regardez moi cela suffit,” There are some great movies of him just sitting there with all the people watching him, and it is enough! Viewers are spending as long looking at that as they are when the shuffle in front of the famous work of art in the Louvre.
KH: The artist is present, as it were… [Laughs] So with regard to Brecht’s event-scores, he is quoted as having said they were “like little enlightenments” he wanted to communicate to his friends who would know what to do with them. Were you one of those friends, and would you say that you know what to do with them?
SA: [Laughs] – I wrote to a lot of Fluxus artists when I was an undergraduate student, simply because I wanted to know a little bit more about what they were doing. Brecht was one of the people who wrote me back. So in that sense, I may not be a friend, but rather someone who he has helped with some advice. First of all, he said, “Fluxus is a blue peanut.” Okay, thank you very much; what do I do with that? And then, he said, “as for what you should do, I’d suggest research on the spot.” I’ve taken that advice. There’s nothing like trying to find out what’s going on right now where you are in order to understand what’s going on with other people where they are. So that was a hook.
KH: In a previous interview you mentioned that back in the 1970s you were drawn to mail art because there wasn’t much responsibility involved. Why are you drawn to things that lack responsibility?
SA: That’s a deep one, isn’t it! After a while one develops one’s aesthetic; you realize what you’re interested in and what you’re not. I’m not interested in making big statements or professing anything too rigidly. Because I change my mind, like everyone. I like the freedom that not having or taking responsibility gives to you. Mail art was great because they said, no jury, no returns, no fee. I was unemployed, I never did well in selection, and I liked that you never had to see the thing again. One could feel abstractly that you were part of something but it didn’t weigh on you. And, you got stuff back. Some artists cared deeply and spent hours making delicious collages for people, but others it would fart in an envelope and seal it, like “here it is; have fun with it.” [Laughs] It was very empowering and relaxing.
SA: Brecht was one of those people who early on showed the fun and possibility of art through the mail. It was part of The Yam Festival that he and Robert Watts organized. They did this thing called delivery event. You would send them a certain amount of money ranging from about $1 to $20, and they would send you something in return. And one of the things Brecht would often send was an exit sign. What is powerful I think about Word Event is that people are exiting the world all the time. It’s pretty profound. Everyone has to do it. No one can avoid doing that piece. And can you do it badly? Is there a bad exit?
KH: Perhaps you can claim Britain’s most recent exit as your own interpretation of Brecht’s piece. (Laughs)
SA: I actually did do an interpretation of that work in a similar context! There is a photo of me in a crowd at the Tate Turbine Hall from a concert I conducted there in May of 2008, where I am carrying a red EXIT protest sign, well before Brexit.
SA: A moving exit is a nice… This prompts me to think of what has happened to Fluxus now, how the work has been inflated and solidified in museums, sometimes for good and sometimes maybe not so. Who knows? That’s its fate. And that again circles back to the weirdness of the everyday being paramount.
KH: For me, perhaps the most powerful component of happenings like that of Brecht’s event-scores is that the work never ceases. It has the potential to be reimagined endlessly in new sites and contexts, and in that way, perhaps optimistically, can be seen as endlessly relevant, endlessly capable of recontextualisation and renegotiation. Is this too optimistic?
SA: Well, I think that the artists themselves loved reinterpretation. They reproduced each other’s work over and over, until eventually it would be claimed as one of their own. It happened most famously with Nam June Paik who did La Monte Young’s score Draw a Straight Line and Follow It, which became Zen for Head. Every decade or so someone will say, “do you mean to say that nowadays Fluxus is anything you want?” To which we say, yes, still is. [Laughs] I don’t think they would care about ownership, except maybe when they’re old and crotchety and need dental care. Generally I think they didn’t care to think about monetising their work, or trying to put a barrier around it. Brecht was famous for that. Like, ‘relax, kids. Fluxus is a Latin word that George Maciunas dug up. I never studied Latin.’ Not exactly true you see, because in his book he’s written multum in parvo, which is Latin tag meaning “much in little.” Key to the whole minimalist thing, I think. And then later on he says “Marcel Duchamp plays chess, I play pick up sticks”. Fluxus is just a word someone thought up; consider opposing it.
KH: The way that you’re talking about this, commodities aside, I’m wondering… and this might be an inane question, but…
SA: …Oh, there are no inane questions!
KH: …Would you make a distinction between the way the artist interprets their own work and the way that the audience interprets it as instructions, or do you find them to be the one in the same?
SA: It’s far from an inane question – it’s one I’ve obsessed over for a long time. For me that’s where things get a bit interesting. I’ve been talking so loosely about music and sculptures and happenings, as if the intermediate air we breathe is natural, but it’s not. Music has a tradition, art has a tradition, and in this case they collide to a certain extent. Where would we be if we believed that Haydyn had to play his own piano pieces to you? You’d be like, “oh, I bet they were good!” [Laughs] And so it’s a different tradition and it comes with the permission to redo. And that permission is limited and hedged around allegro ma non troppo [fast but not too much]. One of the things that Cage and Brecht were trying to do was make music that wasn’t hedged in by all of that. They wanted to free it.
KH: If we could pretend that it doesn’t matter whether the work is the original or an interpretation, than I’m wondering: when the objects in an event-score obsolesce, do you feel that perhaps the work should be laid to rest, or that the work should be reinterpreted with existing objects and ideas?
SA: Another very difficult question. I mean, there are whole conferences about exactly this stuff. Down at the University of Chicago they’ve got this big concrete thing they’ve had to conserve…
KH: …Oh, the Wolf Vostell?
SA: ….Yes, the Vostell. And so this question is uppermost in everyone’s mind. One of my favourite pieces is a piece by George Maciunas. It’s called In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti. Adriano Olivetti was a great mind who designed the famous portable typewriter, and this beautiful adding machine. The machine used adding machine rolls, which became the score. When was the last time you saw an adding machine? For a while I had people in the office collect the rolls for me. But I have to use them really quickly because the ink is different and it fades. I got my store out the other day to do this piece and it was a blank roll!
KH: That’s kind of beautiful though…
SA: Yes, it’s great! So, you know sometimes it’s ridiculous to try and conserve the thing. Fluxus is named after change and flow; you’ve got to accept that you can’t step into the same river twice.
THREE TELEPHONE EVENTS
- When the telephone rings, it is allowed to continue to ringing, until it stops.
- When the telephone rings, the receiver is lifted, then replaced.
- When the telephone rings, it is answered.
SA: The very case in point! Telephones don’t ring anymore; they have tones. When that was written 1961, the telephone was a place. We got our first telephone when I was in my early teens and it was at the bottom of the stairs. Why? Because it was huge! No answering machine. So, you could just leave it ringing, and it would probably carry on ringing forever if the caller didn’t hang up. Pick it up and put it down? Well there are a million excuses for that today, right? Keep it ringing? It’s going to voice mail anyway: who cares, I didn’t really want to talk to you. So everything’s different, everything’s the same. What does it mean to perform this when the phone is no longer a place but a person? I’m not calling home; I’m calling you. It’s a pain when have to carry your place around with you and you can’t escape it! But we’ll develop decorum, I’m sure. I think Brecht would get a kick out of that change.
KH: My own perspective your character as an instructor seems to be that of the provoker or trickster. What would you say is your relationship to instigation and defiance, particularly as it relates to working within a bureaucratic institution?
SA: Well, as you know, I’ve been teaching for a long time. I was taught a lot about teaching from these characters. Brecht, along with Bob Watts and Allan Kaprow, put together a proposal for new teaching methods in the early 1960s. They put a grant forward for which they never got the money, but they went on to teach in quite unconventional ways and to help people be unconventional as artists because of that. My education is through that experience. I consider myself privileged because I also got to see a lot of the original people perform their own pieces, and learn how they did or what they thought was important. Going to the dinner before the concert while they’re planning the concert – that is so informative!
So, let’s pretend we want to look at and think about Caravaggio here [gestures to poster on the wall of Caravaggio’s Boy with Basket of Fruit]. What do we do? We go and stand in front of the painting. We maybe go to the house where it was exhibited; we might read about Caravaggio; we might even watch the wretched films about Caravaggio depending on what our level of interest was. If you’ve never seen Water Yam performed, or if you’ve only see it in a vitrine or whatever, how do you learn about it? I’m interested in is things that are by their nature fugitive, but yet they can be recreated. As an art historian I’m interested in explaining infrastructure that surrounded that creative moment as closely as I can. It’s essentially what we all do when we think about all artworks. We are all intuitively recreating them all the time. Some of them you have to go to Italy to see. Some of them you can get in the plastic box. And I like the plastic box thing. [Laughs] I want what I’m interested in to remain open. Or at least, I don’t want to take responsibility for closing it.
SA: Eric Anderson is a Danish Fluxus artist who will be in the Fluxus and Film Symposium on May 5th and 6th at University of Chicago, so head’s up there. He used to have a button piece that said “if you’ve only done it once you haven’t done it at all.” Brecht was very interested in randomness. He worked harder than most people I know to achieve it. This is pre-computer, when it was quite difficult. He actually had a copy of the book, A Million Random Digits, published homonymically enough by the RAND Corporation. But in the end he realized that searching for randomness is like writing stuff down: you lose the thing in the excitement of the chase. So just try doing it again, and you’ll realize that you’ve done something different. And if you thought the first time you did it was impossible, is the second time you do it more impossible or less impossible? These are very interesting questions because they’ve already chipped away at the idea of possibility. In the 1990s they called these ideas “thought experiments,” and then they became terribly unpopular because the secretary of defense at the time started using them to justify war. These characters as I mentioned were not full-time artists, and they often came from different backgrounds, technical scientific engineering. They just thought about art in a different way.
KH: Brecht was a chemist, also, working for Johnson & Johnson, Mobil Oil, among others. I’m interested in this overlapping of art and science in a more personal way, but also it seems somewhat in fashion today. Do you see Brecht’s chemistry background as having an influence on his work, or being in direct relation to it in some way?
SA: I see it being integral. And let’s not forget that all these folks had been in the military, because it was the 1950s and there was still the draft for Second World War. So these people were used to dealing with institutions – they knew how the machine worked. Anyone interested in science at this time knew about the future and the possibilities that were on the horizon. People had worked in radar and knew that television was on the way. The famous 1968 exhibition Some More Beginnings: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) had a lot of Fluxus artists in the show and featured in the catalogue. So Brecht is certainly not alone; even into the late 1960s Fluxus artists were still thinking about science and applying it in art.
THREE AQUEOUS EVENTS
SA: I had a student once do a fabulous interpretation of this on a stage with an electric clothes iron and an ice cube. They held the clothes iron upside down horizontal, put the ice cube on it, and just waited.
KH: That’s very nice…
SA: It is very nice! It’s about matter and form changing and staying the same. What are we actually witnessing when we instigate a state change? We’re not just making iced tea into hot tea. We’re witnessing this real thing that is vital to our existence, and we’re also witnessing something that is almost magic – almost alchemy. We have the solid turn into the liquid and then turn into the air itself. The question of quality and quantity was big for those artists – when quantity brings about a change in a quality. It’s a Hegelian question, essentially, but also a scientific one. I could get very boring that one… Better to have the cup of tea!
KH: Anything you’d like to say to close?
SA: Maybe we’ll let chance have a say. [Draws an event-score from Water Yam] Oh yes, here’s a nice one:
- Through either side
…That’s very Brechtian. He gives you a statement and asks you to consider opposing it. To look at things through either side.
KH: That’s a lovely place to end!
SA: And we just picked it out at random, very good.
Simon Anderson is a British-born-and-educated cultural historian and Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute. You can find his complete bio here.