Several months ago, I was invited to share a blog with a stranger. On that blog, I was asked to write about art & reciprocity. I met Erik Hagoort that way. I read his posts and he read mine. Sometimes we responded to one another. The blog itself came from a larger project artists Kirsten Leenaars and Lise Haller Baggesen were curating. That show, Mutualisms, (opens this Friday September 9th at the CoProsperity Sphere) features work made by artists paired together–half of the pair comes from the Netherlands, the other half is local to Chicago. Over the last six+ months, these pairs have been working together, building a dialogue more or less from scratch, in order to install work here. It’s a show about networks and relationships. It’s a show about community, and how that can arise with an ocean between us. In addition to the exhibit, CoPro is also hosting a symposium on Sunday (September 11th, from 1-5) to address the issue of art and reciprocity: an interesting question, given that so much of what we think about in terms of community building and art relies on expectations of return, or taking turns, or sharing. How do those themes also manifest themselves in a discrete work of art born from collaboration? In the following interview, Erik and I asked Lise and Kirsten some questions about the origin of the show, how to think about it critically, and even how its global perspective addresses arts funding strategies.
Caroline Picard: So often an exhibition is the culmination of work; while of course, Mutualisms is a culmination,there has been an on-going dialogue taking place on-line via blogs (both the one that you all keep as the Mutualisms site, and of course the blog you invited me to participate on with Erik). How did you think to frame the project via blogs and exhibitions? And what was it like pairing artists in different parts of the world?
Kirsten Leenaars & Lise Haller Baggesen: We had just met in Chicago last year, right before the Propeller Fund application was due. One of the things we had been talking about is that we at times had missed an international influx of artists in Chicago. The other thing that struck us is that while having both lived in Amsterdam and now in Chicago we had been part of quite different artistic and friend networks that only partially overlapped. Adding these elements up thought we could combine our networks to create an extended grid from which to organize a show. So, you could say that the show also came about as a mutual exchange between us [Kirsten and Lise], due to a need of expanding our own artistic and social horizons, the main idea being that the art world functions more or less through connections and relationships. We wanted to create a platform through which we could facilitate these relationships and form new connections amongst our combined networks.
Because we both are primarily artists, makers, and curators and thinkers secondarily, we curated the show very much from the point of view of the individual artist’s practice, rather than as an illustration of an intellectual or theoretical idea (not that we are anti-intellectuals, far from it!). So, we tried to combine artists that we felt had a similar approach or a similar sensibility, hoping that the connections we observed were something they could see too, or that they might discover their own links through a dialogue with each other about their own practices. When we invited the artists to participate in the show we made very clear that the dialogue between each pair was an essential part of the concept and that they needed to be willing to engage in this what undoubtedly was at times-especially at first – potentially an awkward exchange. Kind of like any first date can be. Some of the pairs readily jumped to the occasion and hit it off immediately, others definitively needed a little bit more time and coercing. Both and even the potential for a mismatch are part of concept of the show and we guess in some ways a risk we as the curators or organizers took. Our main objective really was to plant some seeds for potential mutual relationships that would grow and develop and extend beyond the scope of the Mutualisms project.
The blogs seemed to just be a very logic consequence of the fact that the artists were residing on different continents and the blog became a space where they could meet. Not just as a pair but also as the group on a whole. The blog allowed them to also see how the other pairs were connecting and what ideas were being exchanged. In addition we thought it would be make this process visible and public — often this kind of exchange often remains quite private – because the dialogue can get quite personal – but it gives great insight to the artist’s practice and creates almost organically a context for the work and the show on the whole.
CP: There are some really incredible (and devastating, I think) movements in Europe (I guess I’m thinking largely about the UK) to cut funding for philosophy departments, art departments and even departments of literature. I understand from talking to you all the first day we met that a similar situation is taking place in Holland–and then too, I feel like some of the fears have twinged American consciousness as well (for instance, I’m thinking of what compelled Martha Nassbaum to write Not-for-Profit, which struck me as a defense of the arts). How do you feel this show might speak to that? In some ways, I’m asking because you’re relating two vastly different arts-funding strategies (the mostly private American version vs. the largely government subsidized (is that even the right way to think about it?)) and suddenly the work of those systems is materializing here in Chicago which is so interesting, I think. Maybe especially because you both have had such extensive experience in both worlds…
KL & LHB: To begin with, the show was curated ‘organically’, from a practice kind of view; it’s not really meant to illustrate a point about the pro’s and con’s of arts funding, or anything like that. That kind of got thrown in the mix, because of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Netherlands, which came about simultaneously to us curating the show and, ironically, receiving a considerate amount of financial support from the Netherlands, for the show. So it kind of both reinforced the cliche about the ‘spoiled’ European artists, while at the same time highlighting the possibilities and the fragility that kind of position affords. Through that government support, Dutch artists were able to all come to Chicago, allowing for the artist pairs to actually meet. We have noticed that these physical encounters fortified the connections and dialogue and are raising the show to the next level. Bearing in mind too that the show in Chicago is only part one. Next summer we hope to host a show in the Netherlands, and we are asking the current participating artists to continue their dialogue with each other. How we will fund this show will be our next challenge…
Funnily enough, both sides of the arts funding argument like to pull the ‘quality’ card, as an argument for their stance. I.e. a private art market leads to ‘better art’ because the artists have to fend for themselves vs. art funding leads to ‘better quality’ art because you have a ’peer support system’ that is free of commercial interests. But, when you look around in the show, it’s not lack of quality that characterizes either group, to the contrary! There are different sensibilities of course, that are typical of American vs. European works, that has to do with a sense of place and belonging to a certain cultural heritage, but just as often it’s hard to tell off hand which is which, and quality wise they are certainly level pecking!
Erik Hogaart: Since the mid nineties of the last century the so-called relational tendency in the art world seems to prevail. This is not only referring to Nicolas Bourriaud’s famous statement of art being a state of encounter. The ‘relational’ has had a much wider impact, even extending into a feeling that networks of artists, curators, and audience not only surround the art work but become even artworks in themselves. This doesn’t exclude the appreciation of artworks of course, artists and curators involve other artists and curators on the basis of what they make and do. Yet, relations, even friendship seems to take a bigger part of the “art’s cake”. Russian curator Viktor Misiano has called it the tendency of confidentiality. And a project such as Mutualisms could, thinking along, also be called a confidential project. What do you, Lise and Kirsten, think of this? What is the balance for you between creating an opportunity for artists to make works, and creating an opportunity for artists to relate to one another. These two aspects of Mutualisms are of course connected, but in what way?
KL & LHB: Two things were very clear from the beginning. One, we wanted to be transparent about
the way we had curated the show and where these artists were coming from. Yes, these artists were selected from our pool of friends and acquaintances. This is perhaps often an unspoken given — something acknowledged behind closed doors — but being transparent about that is really at the base of our concept for the show. And in that sense never confidential. In addition these relationships are documented and visible for the public on our blogs. Secondly, yes, the primary reason for choosing each of the artists was based on their own strong practices, not on how much we liked the individual. One does not exclude the other, and what could be potentially more productive than fostering a relationship between a pair of driven practitioners? The dialogue ultimately has the objective to allow new ways of looking at each other’s practice, to inspire a dialogue about ways of thinking and making that ultimately find their ways back to an artist’s practice. Of course if the match truly was a productive one, perhaps this can lead to other opportunities, further productions and collaborations etc. We do hope for these relationships – as mentioned before – to extend beyond Mutualisms. And if friendships are formed through this dialogue as well, than that is an added bonus.
EH: A question, which is philosophically triggered by Jacques Derrida’s statement: “the artwork is vertical, and slightly leaning.” This idea of the verticality of the artwork stresses confrontation, awe, being struck. Quite opposite is the idea of relationships and networks, which stresses horizontality, encounter between entities in the same/ equal position. Especially when artists connect to each other, and form mutual networks, how does these two models fit in? Mutualism, or reciprocity: how does it relate to these two concepts. Is there still space for the vertical within the horizontal?
KL & LHB: What you are implying here, is that inherent to an open ‘democratic’ curatorial process is the risk that the resulting product will also be ‘democratic: i.e. not ‘sublime’, a risk you are also touching on with your questions for the symposium when you state: ‘in the arts a strong tradition has opposed reciprocity. Art’s autonomy should prevail above exchange.’
Yes, that is a risk, and a risk we embraced as we were preparing for the show, because the encounter or the exchange that this structure entails, also invites the possibility of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Just like the idea of democracy: ‘together we are strong’ this show was an open invitation to the artists to participate in a dialogue, in which they could make new art works that lay outside the boundaries of their own practice, or by pairing individual (existing) works that would allow the work to be contextualized in a new way. Some of the artists involved really stepped up to this challenge and engaged in a creative process, with an outcome that was surprising both to us, and to themselves. Others, you could say, ‘played it safe’ and are showing more in parallel.
Every art work implies an encounter, social relationship. Namely between the art work and the viewer. Approaching art in this way implies an investigation of the social situation in which art takes place and encounters society. It focuses on the encounter in the moment of perception and communication, it underlines the role of projection in the exchange with a spectator, a public which is constantly being reconstituted. What does that ephemeral, individual or collective imagination bring forth? In what way does imagination not only produce the artwork, but also a social relationship? This question is the primary one. Each of the artists that participate, create work. They have different ways of engaging in this process. But for none of the artists is the encounter in itself the artwork. Neither do we as the curators of the show, see the encounter, or the relationship as the work. The show is a model for exchange, this exchange happens between the artists, the curators and ultimately between the viewer and the work that is on display – a result of prior conversations. So with this show we also ask who participates in this process, and what does participation mean in this context? So the horizontal and vertical in our Mutualisms project are two axes in a grid where each of the artists individually and as pairs can be located on different positions within this grid.
The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ft location in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects specifically for the collection and opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011). Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?
What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.
As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)
That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:
Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed. Thank you so much. Yours truly.
Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.
On Saturday, August 13th Penny Duff and Michael Slaboch put together a series of “intimate music and audio art” events throughout Chicago’s Ukranian Village. Various musicians and artists performed between 1 and 6 pm, peppered through the neighborhood on a kind of walking tour.
It began on the front porch of 1042 N Winchester St. A Cheshire Cat made out of stained opalescent glass sat in the window of the front door, just over Plastic Crimewave’s shoulder. Sitting in colored pants and socks, (shoes placed neatly beside him on the edge of the stairs) he played a morning raga on his banjo.
From there, we traveled a few blocks to the backyard of 1032 N Wood and watched a honky tonk band, The Lawrence Peters Outfit. Overhead the sky grew dark. There were rumors of a storm and the telephone lines blew back and forth vigorously as LPO played their set ending with a song about a storm.
At 2:00 we walked over to Corbett vs. Dempsey–a mainstay of neighborhood, experimental music performance–to see Mark Booth’s live collage of “reconditioned and recontextualized aural fragments.” Outside it began to hail and the sky was exceptionally dark. The sound of ice pellets punctuated Booth’s gramaphone samples.
By the time we made it outside the weather had more or less passed. Although it had deterred the in-transit, shopping cart performance by Heartichoke–we still went on to see Andy Slater at 2047 W Walton St. Slater played a homemade monochord slide bass who sometimes mimicked heavy metal riffs on his twangy slab of wood. Dogs wandered around the backyard while he played and people stood around him on all but one side, some (like me) by the back gate, others on the stairs at his back.
Following this were several performances I didn’t get the chance to see: the meme on 2337 W Thomas, Matthew Hale Clark at 2237 W Rice, Piss Piss Moan Moan Moan and Shearing Pinx at Permanent Records and, finally at the Rainbo Club: Judson Claiborne and the Found Sound After Party.
That’s more or less the wrap up. What I wanted to say, though, what it made me think about, was how important interrupting regular experience is. Seeing an organized music event that takes place along a neighborhood walk amplifies your experience of the neighborhood and the music. Like an art show in an apartment, there is something domestic and, even, banal about the setting. With the exception of a block party, these spaces, streets and alleys are not generally intended for a shared, public experience. One’s expectations of the performance consequently and curiously suspended, insecure; anything could happen within this ill-defined and intimate structure. Furthermore, the freedom the audience has to stumble upon the event, or depart nonchalantly: there is no cost, no obvious gain for those organizing the experience. There are free scones on a front porch, new faces come at certain events as others depart, each porch/backyard is organized differently, inadvertently acknowledging the lifestyles of its flanking domeciles. Such moments deeply interest me because their naturalness does not appear, at first, contingent on any audience. Plastic Crimewave might just sit on a porch and play for his own pleasure. We might be just happening upon it. There happens to be a honky tonk band in that backyard. The people in attendance appear to know what they are doing, even though they say very little to one another and stand, for the most part, as strangers do–not touching. This is one of Chicago’s greatest strengths: that people administrate such events and, more so, that a public rallies behind them, activating the potential for aesthetic experiences in banal, everyday settings.
I am an unabashed and biased fan of comics–the integration of text and imagery connects the whimsy of fantastic worlds, flip reflections and twee confessions to the more transcendental preoccupations available in illuminated manuscripts or, even, Jung’s famous Red Book. Given the deep pockets of Hollywood super hero blockbusters, it’s easy to forget that comics mean much more than our tight-clad, cape and mask “Here I come to save the day.” In the following interview, I had the chance to talk to Chicago-comic artist/writer Sara Drake. We discuss the form of comics, the flexibility their formal structure affords, its relationship to gender and (!) her forthcoming trip to Cambodia. Come November, Drake is going to Phnom Pehn with the help of Arts Network Asia and Anne Elizabeth Moore to teach a 2-month class on self-publishing and comics to young women. Together they will explore and suss out the medium alongside the ethos of self-publishing and dissemination. What does it mean to share one’s own reflections? How or why would this be significant? As the center of this discourse, comics become a cross cultural stimulant, exhibiting once more their hybrid form.
Caroline Picard: In addition to your own work as a visual artist and writer, I know you do a lot of work in the city; you run Ear Eater, a collaborative reading series and have also curated visual exhibits. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your various creative endeavors and how you feel them working together in the routine of your life.
Sara Drake: I come from a specific mid-western DIY mentality, rooted in communal and local sharing of how culture gets produced. Most of what I do is about supporting or interacting within a community of other people which then becomes a lens I use to view most everything that gets created. There’s this great Joan Didion quote that I keep coming back to, “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” I tend to engage in different things all the time and consider a lot of what I do, whether I’m curating an experimental poetry reading in my apartment, making comics, or just hanging out and doodling with friends, as a process of becoming. I don’t particularly want to separate or categorize things, the hybridity, for me, is what’s important. I think the hybridity is what attracted me to comics. No one really knows how to think or agree upon what they are culturally. I find that when people talk about comics, they describe them in terms of other mediums (literature, film, poetry). Comics can do all sorts of weird, crazy things, and they exist on this personal, experiential scale. It allows me to engage with an idea or experience in an array of ways, depending on what I’m interested in investigating.
SD: Well, I would be hesitant to define “comics” as a genre. Comics are a medium, like poetry or literature or painting, a way to express or convey oneself. I’m actually having a hard time answering your question, I’m not exactly sure what “kind” or “genre” of comic it is that I make. I’ve never liked the labels like “graphic novel” or “experimental comic” because the titles don’t really make sense to me. Comics have always been lowbrow, underground, or something that the mainstream world didn’t deem valuable. Right now, so much in comics is changing, and changing very quickly. I am a direct product of that change too, which is both unsettling and curious. Being able to graduate at an art school and say that you’ve made comics is a pretty recent development, and one worth paying attention too. I have to hope that the self-taught-ness that has been so much apart of comics history doesn’t get lost or forgotten in younger generations of cartoonists who encounter the medium for the first time at art school.
SD: Holy moly! There are so many different ways to talk about hybrids when we talk about comics. Perhaps the one that I see as most important is that a comic is time-based. Time can exist logically: from one panel to the next. Time can exist simultaneously and also sequentially: you could depict a single setting that has many actions that happen within that setting, each at different times. Time can hop around at random and sometimes gets lost between panels. As a reader, you can go forwards and backwards. Comics just work on perplexing levels depending on how you want to interact with them. Even the lenses that I use to read comics are always shifting, one day I may pay a lot of attention to the writing of a comic, then the next to the drawing style and how it relates to the mood or tone, and this list could go on and on.
CP: Recently you’ve been part of a project spearheaded by Anne Elizabeth Moore examining the way lady drawers (comics) are under-represented in the comic world. How did you get involved with this project and what has your role been? How does the project shape your expectations/visions for your own work as a lady drawer?
I’ve always been involved a community that has had a vocal sensitivity to issues pertaining to gender and identity. More specifically though, my partner at the time was Anne’s research assistant. Through proximity to Anne’s project, gender discrimination and disparity became a part of my daily conversation and head space. Once you start looking at the rate of women in practically all comics anthologies you can’t really help but keep seeing a problem most everywhere you look. I was then asked to do the cover of the Women’s Comics Anthology, and later helped with Anne’s new Ladydrawers column on Truthout. My involvement thus far has been helping to create media to make the issues more visible. Although the people who should get credit for inspiring my awareness are all of the intelligent and inventive students who have participated in Anne’s class at SAIC or who have collaborated on gathering statics. My involvement with Ladydrawers has definitely opened some uncharted dark waters for me. On a weird personal level, I have a lot of close friends in the comics industry who feel attacked by the argument. This often becomes a heated debate or a bedraggled attempt at discussing the issue. Which, for me, becomes a daily issue of having to think seriously and critically about what is at stake when we ask questions about participation within a given medium. On a different level, the project has enabled me to work with a lot of amazing people, including Anne. I see Anne’s interest in working with young people uncommonly admirable. Her presentation of herself and her ideas are really infectious within the SAIC community and pretty soon, EVERYONE wanted to chat it up about gender and comics during downtime. So the project creates and allows participation within a community, and one that is centered around questioning cultural production at an art school and on a broader scale. Also worth noting, I probably wouldn’t be going to Cambodia to teach comics to ladies if I hadn’t become involved. So, you could say Ladydrawers really stimulates global media creation – I don’t want to think that that is so far off from the truth.
CP: You’re also in the middle of a kickstarter campaign to raise money to go to Cambodia as part of fellowship. Can you talk about what you would do there and how the project came together? What is the Arts Network Asia?
SD: The project, Independent Youth-Driven Cultural Production in Cambodia (IYDCPC), is based on and was founded by Anne’s collaborative independent publishing work in Cambodia. (read all about it in her really amazing and generous book, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-publishing in Phnom Penh, CANTANKTEROUS TITLES.) I first heard about the project through Anne herself. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and the right place was an art exhibition with her work in it. We bumped into each other, and after chatting for a while she pulled an unassuming business-like card out of her pocket with a website on it. Anne said she could give me a thousand bucks to go to Cambodia. Who in their right mind would pass up an offer like that? Everything about that moment was weird and doesn’t sound like real life. I remember that evening I decided to apply not really thinking that a proposal to teach and make comics would get accepted. Skip ahead five months later and I’ve got a plane ticket and a bunch of bristol board rearing to go teach comics in Southeast Asia.
We are still in the planning phase of what I will actually be able to accomplish while I am there. As of now, I am traveling into Phnom Phen, Cambodia for two months beginning in November. I intend to teach a comics and self-publishing course to young women in conjunction with local collaborators. The goal of the course will be to offer a space in which young women can share their own ideas, and to promote real media creation in a cultural space that has historically denied women the ability to do so. We will also be working towards creating an archive of student work using local resources and available networks. The project will be documented via a comics blog and hopefully a digital archive for future students or just interested Cambodians to have access too. I have aspirations to self-publish or to create some sort of document of the comics I make while I am there to exist in the US.
Arts Network Asia was established by an independent group of artists, cultural workers and arts activists from Asia—I think, originally, Singapore, and come from the theater world. They are a grant-making body that encourages and supports regional artistic collaboration. They’re deeply invested in fostering an engaged cultural community across Asia, and I’m so honored to work with them, since they see local value in what i’m doing in Phnom Penh—which is so much more important than “international” value. Or “cool points.” Anyway, they’re great to work with, very supportive. They just want to make sure Cambodians have access to interesting ideas.
CP: What is it about Cambodia that has inspired this project? Are your interests specific to Phnom Penh?
SD: Phnom Penh is where I have a network of support already in place, due to Anne having already done work and reporting there. To answer the question, I do need to be aware that all of my current knowledge of Phnom Penh (and an entire nation) has been acquired through media and not through direct experience. I will try my best to be honest. And actually, seeking out media and information about Cambodia in the US is really frustrating at times. In one way, it’s important for me to see the disparities between how the US tends to represent Cambodia and my actual experiences of being there.
From my understanding, there is little to no educational structure in Cambodia, so providing a potential structure or a place to view structure becomes, potentially, important. Historically, Cambodia has accidentally forgotten about women’s education. After the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia’s intellectual and cultural life the country has been in the process of rebuilding after it’s tragic past. School’s being rebuilt in the 1990s didn’t necessarily discriminate students on the basis of gender but strict traditional gender roles, lack of female housing options, and economic imperatives made young women’s participation within an educational system really difficult. Comics currently being produced in Cambodia are mostly made and distributed by NGO’s and promote comics as a way to help combat low literacy rates. I’m hoping teaching will encourage real media creation that can exist outside of this system.
I feel really responsible, although I’m not entirely sure I can define what it is that I am responsible for. It’s a really bizarre space to occupy, and I learn to deal with it by being open to being wrong and naive often. The more I seek information about the history of Cambodia, I notice how whack a lot of the media that the Western world has to offer is, and how little I actually know or understand how globalization or a nation in poverty works (or in reality doesn’t). I also, have a difficult time locating myself and my own thoughts on women’s rights within a culture I’ve yet to experience, where the rules are completely different than how I would normally perceive them. I’m really excited and anxious about trying to encourage a bunch of young women to wield a medium of expression, in my case comics, with very little working knowledge about how comics or even self-expression exists for them.
“A question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back” (Derrida, Spectres of Marx).
What follows is a longer correspondence that began as a casual conversation at the Hyde Park Art Center. After talking for a bit, I emailed Anthony Elms, “Can I interview you about ghosts?” That was several months ago and ever since, we’ve been emailing back and forth at various interim. Why might I want to ask about ghosts? How does that pertain to a website about contemporary art? Partly, my interest stems from a Q&A I witnessed not too long ago. The conversation centered on the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Consensus assumed the ghost a literary device on Shakespeare’s part. “What if the ghost is real?” someone asked. Blank stares darted around the room. There was an almost impalpable twinge of embarrassment mixed with misunderstanding, “Of course the ghost is only a metaphor,” silence seemed to imply, “ghosts aren’t real.” And the conversation went on to other things.
I got stuck on this notion; what did it mean to say the ghost isn’t real? There is no reason to think the ghost any less real than Hamlet; both characters share the same frame of reference for the audience. And then I began to wonder what it might mean for any ghost to be real. I started reading Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, which is when I encountered Anthony Elms. “I love that book,” he said. “I’ve only just started it,” I said. “Do you think ghosts are real?”
Anthony Elms is an artist, a curator, a writer and an editor of the wondrous press, White Walls, where he has curated a number of projects. His writings have appeared in Afterall, Art Asia Pacific, Art Papers, Artforum, Artforum.com, Cakewalk, May Revue, Modern Painters, New Art Examiner, and Time Out Chicago, but his accomplishments resist a concise sentence. For this and so many reasons, he seemed an especially good person to talk to. I have included the extent of our virtual conversation below. We talk about ghosts for their own sake, try to devise their locations and energetic habits while linking them (perhaps to Elms’ chagrin) to artistic experience.
Caroline Picard: When did your awareness of ghosts begin?
Anthony Elms: I cannot actually remember a time when I was not aware of ghosts. Some of the earliest encounters I can think of are in Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, not surprisingly, and elaborate costumes my mother would make for Halloween.
CP: How did that process take place?
AE: I really don’t know. I did not grow up in a superstitious family. So it isn’t that there was an environment of believers. That said, when I was growing up we lived in a series of large houses that were empty a lot of the time, and I would often be left to myself, and I never felt alone. A friend in high school really believed in ghosts, and he lived in a house said to be haunted by many. I never saw anything there. Others did. In undergraduate I lived in a place where I was always seeing things. I was never sure. I have had moments over the years where I feel watched by the dead.
CP: How would you describe them?
AE: How would I describe ghosts, you mean?
As a presence that troubles, follows, affects, desires, drives and disturbs.
CP: Do you feel like particular cities have more ghosts than others?
AE: Without doubt. Some cities belong to ghosts more than to the people who live there.
AE: As you know Caroline, it has taken me almost a month to respond to you questions. Most unhelpful to getting this conversation on track for a proper back-and-forth. You were calling out to no response. No pun intended. In part because the questions and thoughts are difficult ones. And, I’ll be honest, in part because of the turn of the
conversation, of trying to think about ghosts in the context of art. I wasn’t particularly excited about trying to frame my thoughts relative to art–for me ghosts are so much larger and more interesting than their relation to aesthetics–but in time I found my way and made peace. It happened rereading filmmaker Raul Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema. In the chapter “Mystery and Ministry” Ruiz sums up Western Civilization as basically a war between the two. He writes:
“Ministry’s police repression favors (if not actually creates) the subversive function of Mystery; and in the very heat of battle, its hierarchical orders command the publication of Mystery’s secrets, and therefore its conversion to Ministry. All this has happened many times. Ministry gains in secrets–which, for it, is a way of losing; while Mystery, whose substance consists only of shadows, cannot help but vanish as it comes forth into the light–therefore it loses as well. These circles could have gone on spinning indefinitely, if in this century the very nature of Mystery had not begun to change. Instead of discretion it now prefers public exhibition, and indeed it never risks even that without clarifying everything beforehand; there is no longer a shadow zone where the mysterious players can marshall their forces and practice their moves. We call this phenomenon a ministerialization of Mystery: its immediate consequence is to affect the nature of Ministers, who themselves become increasingly mysterious.” (p.102)
So first, I will get ahead of myself and answer that, yes, a seance can and should be art. Now, I did not see the piece you mention and neither want to give it validation or critique. We are stuck with the good, the bad and the ugly. However, it is important to always stand in potential, and with respect. One of my favorite moments ever witnessed was a lecture by artist/composer Carl Michael von Hausswolff. He talked about a work made in collaboration with Andrew McKenzie of The Hafler Trio, Dale Travous and Annie Sprinkle. They combined, in different locations but synchronized in time, attempting to marshall technological, magical and sexual energies to rid Iceland of NATO. At the end of the gathering of forces the airbase was still there. However, during the time of their exorcism, a volcano erupted in the Philippines, smothering a U.S. airbase with ash, closing the base. Hausswolff explained that their focus was right, but obviously their aim imprecise. A student incredulously challenged, “Are you serious?” Hausswolff responded: “Sure. What is to be gained if I’m not serious?” Case closed.
Back to the Ruiz. His assessment is correct: “there is no longer a shadow zone where the mysterious players can marshall their forces and practice their moves.” And still mystery does exist. Lurking in the daylight. Art is one such realm. The space of art, much like the screen of a moving image or the stage of a musical performance is a zone where we don’t just allow ourselves to encounter the unknown, we ready ourselves for a connection with the unknown. And this sometimes happens in the classroom too. You can sit there with all your administrative powers: attendance requirements, assigned readings,schedule, lecture notes, project assignments, and still you can never predict what will be summoned when all the individuals come to the table. And in fact it is those very structures and borders that set
the place for the unknown–good and bad–that does happen. It is the platform from which risk jumps. And to follow Ruiz’s playful implication, anyone who has tried to get anything done that involved a large bureaucracy (the post office, a university administration, a city government all come to immediate mind) has witnessed under fluorescent light just how mysterious things can seem when everything is presented before you in plain 12 point type.
By the way: I love to swim, run. I enjoy yoga and have an unhealthy attachment to a rowing machine. What all these share in common is rote activity: repetition and pattern. The actions don’t surprise me, I know what I am doing, for how long and where my actions are leading me. But in these moments I usually find my mind explodes, struck by
something I had either overlooked, or had not even recognized as a possibility. Or the unpredictable flow/feel of a limb, it has moved that way a thousand times and yet now it has discovered something in that movement it was never attentive to before. Or this does not happen. And of course this doesn’t happen when I watch someone else swim, run, yoga, row. But maybe if someone shared with me the unknowing experience of their swim, run, yoga, row I could get there. Let me witness for a moment the behaviors by which matter changes for this other person. It is too easy to confuse facts for spaces of engagement in art: large amplifiers = heavy metal, or in your example, building an alter and lighting candles = spiritual evocation. Still, be generous. We would never say of a book that the cover ruins our surprise of the contents because it’s sturdiness is a parody of a story’s beginning and end, we are likely to talk about bad cover
design and poorly told stories. A crucial element of your listed troubles, and where the art seance chooses a path: unpredictable or parody, is related by art critic Jan Verwoert in “Under the Sign and In the Spirit of a Stoa: On the Work of Cerith Wyn Evans,” republished in his collection Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want.
A passage, funny enough, that segues quite nicely from Ruiz’s administered mysteries.
“Besides, you never know with spirits. There is no guarantee that they’ll come when called. They appear when they want to. So seances are a tricky technique for dealing with creatures from the past. Citations, conversely, are more controlling; the one who cites takes possession of what is cited. Things work differently in a seance. With spirits you must negotiate. And if you lose the upper hand in this process you might end up being the one possessed. Power relations are not predetermined; they are subject to negotiation. In contrast to the act of citation, the ceremony of convocation remains perilously performative and open ended. It cannot coerce a community (among and with spirits) to come into being.” (p.213)
Perhaps the student lost sight of convocation and ended up in citation. Ghost hunter Michael Esposito once remarked, “we like recordings more than we like to listen.” Or maybe the spirits were having a laugh at the student’s expense that day. For spirits to survive, it is imperative to support Hausswolff and his request, “What is to be gained if I’m not serious.” Which does not promise success at every attempt. If Hausswolff didn’t help the wrong volcano to erupt,
what kind of a world do we live in? No world I’ll come home to.
AE: I referenced a chapter from Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, by Avery F. Gordon about the disappeared in Argentina. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed by the dictatorship. Obviously people are dead. The government for a majority of cases never admitted to imprisoning the individuals, and never
issued death certificates. So yes, people basically vanished, preserved in an unresolved gap. A question with no sounded answer. The absence is palpable because a clean label cannot be applied: living, dead, employed, institutionalized, etc., and the desire we feel for a name, a descriptive, is left wanting. French philosopher Jean-Luc
Nancy, in Being Singular Plural, shares “willing (or desire) is not a thinking; it is a disturbance, an echo, a reverberating shock.” It is not trivializing the disappeared to say they were incompatible to the existing dominant structures. That is why they were disappeared. And now the reverberating shock has no perimeters to catch and stop the waves.”
I should resist, but I will now risk gross trivialization to somehow thread the loose threads of our exchange together by drawing an artistic analogy to the felt missing out there. Again, Verwoert, but this time from his essay “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real: On the Risk of Bearing Witness and the Art of Affective Labour” from the same collection mentioned above.
“Except perhaps whistle a tune, like people do when they walk alone at night. It’s a strange habit. You whistle to chase away the thought that someone or something else might be out there with you. But for whom would you be intoning the tune if not for them, whoever or whatever they may be? Whistling in the dark is a way of relating to something out there like it was both there and not there. It is therefore a most suitable way of relating to ghosts; as the embodiment of the unavowed, ghosts are what they are because they are there and not there. Good art and thinking is always a bit like a tune whistled in a manner that echoes the possible presence of something or someone out there.” (p.292)
This, ultimately, I am not sure why, reminds me: I think timing and a tune is the key to ghosts.
AE: Underneath the plaster and lathe of the walls were denim jeans. Obviously used as a cheap readily available insulation. So many jeans. My friend Matt and I jumped when the jeans came for us, clinging to our crowbars. Please do not feel embarrassed by my calling you out for wrong details, we need to keep this going… misremembering is key to
the sense of missed time that unleashes ghosts.
Anyway, to answer if it is empathic imagination or something intrinsic to the objects, the answer is both and neither, pending. Let’s be distinct. Some objects hold my empathetic imagination: a somewhat useless antique chair that pressed uncomfortably into my stomach in the back seat of an economy car on a ride back from Washington D.C. in
the 70s, a vase I bought my mother for a Christmas gift once and now sadly own, a painted portrait my father made of me when I was about four. These objects contain my attention, my care, my devotion and my love. They do not hold any ghosts. There are objects that seem haunted, my CD player that randomly turns off on its own accord, the VCR player that at times has a display light and at times does not. These objects raise my ire. They do not hold ghosts. And the others: a photograph I cannot imagine discarding, because I know some bad will befall me if so, the novel that for some reason radiates love from the shelf whenever my eye catches the spine, that album that exorcises the bad demons from any untoward moment, the Christmas ornament–owned less than 24 hours–that fell and broke and elicited instant tears, the ottoman I never wanted to see again. These objects hold ghosts.
Can I prove any of the above? Absolutely not. This does not make the above nonsense. This is precisely why we need to give these types of objects and responses more attention. And resist received wisdom. And I also wonder why we should require that our empathic imagination cannot be something intrinsic to the object? Verwoert appears here
again, and once again from his text on Cerith Wyn Evans, an artist who often references past texts and histories in his art, or arranges situations that call back to and bring forth past histories–Lettrists, Georges Bataille, W. S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin–often without a clear reason for the recall. But they are not puzzles for decoding.
“The mode in which Wyn Evans relates to Lettrist principle is thus not so much a form of reference but of reverence. Instead of displaying knowledge, he invests passion in the invocation of a spirit. He communicates the fascination inherent to a certain manner of freely engaging with cinema and literature…. What counts is spiritual affinity. It is through a gesture of reverence, therefore, that Wyn Evans creates proximity between characters and evokes the spirit of their collective subjectivity.” (p.208)
Perhaps, when our empathic imagination rests on an object with which it shares a spiritual affinity, we see the ghosts?
AE: An artistic experience that does not bristle your arms, or at least shut off your self-assured all-knowing voice is not worth having. Simply put. In fact, maybe an artistic experience that does not put you in touch with some form of spirit is not an artistic experience. And all this is possible in a photocopied booklet, paint and canvas, a snapshot, 16 mm film, tape and cardboard, store-bought product, graphite, a rock. You name it. I must appeal for the eternal return of
Verwoert, to quote him again from his essay “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real: On the Risk of Bearing Witness and the Art of Affective Labour”:
“Spiritual as they are, if all spirits were exorcised, then art, writing, love and friendship would equally cease to exist. As artists, writers, lovers and friends, we are therefore not afraid of ghosts. On the contrary. Our biggest fear may be no ghosts. Without ghosts to converse with, we would have nothing to do and no right to be. But since we cannot scientifically prove their existence, our vocation to write, make art or love and be loyal friends will always remain questionable. …
Still, there is evidence that sometimes magic tricks work, spells are broken, curses lifted, and the load of unresolved emotions prevented from being passed on, when the load is cast out from the body, not onto another person, but openly transferred onto objects, pictures, gestures or words, to be arrested by and in them, not so that the load can be cast away and forgotten, no, on the contrary, so that the pain and joy it contains can be avowed and owned, together, by artist and viewer, writer and reader, temporarily sharing an experience, and freely avowing it, like lovers might.” (p.270)
AE: Impregnated does indeed seem a very funny choice. Imbued? Go back to that comment “We like recordings more than we like to listen.” I think we are–most of us–pretty bad at paying attention to the notions that we feel but don’t know why. Rarely do we stop to think and interrogate these moments. Not interrogate to kill them, or rationalize them into an easy understanding, but to try to sharpen our ability to recognize things like love, avoidance, unease, or even that we are not by ourselves in the room. Perhaps having many objects around a room is kind of like billboards on the highway for our lazy intuition to catch wind of the changes in the breeze.
AE: I don’t think it possible to prescribe a process for the interrogation, because obviously there will be any number of methods for any number of types of moments. Being active and being attentive are both crucial to the process. Obviously a level of rationalizing and discernment is crucial to taking an experience apart in reflection. Or in being critical in the moment.
As far as the rational… I think it is important to look closely at the cracks in any structure. To also look at the sweeping large-scale shapes and drives and to be prepared to be surprised, to not know, to have an experience and be accepting of something that exceeds your current understanding. So in looking to learn from an experience, particularly of ghosts or haunting, do not work to explain away the unjustified remainders, the parts that do not quite add up, the details that seem unreal. Possibly treat these details as suspect, not as meaningless or impossible or silly. Use attentiveness to accept something beyond what you expect can or should happen and that may be even absurd. Nod. “Yes, this is a place I haven’t been before and I do not know how I got here.” Accept that your own limits are far below those the world routinely offers. Be open. The desire to understand can be a disturbance that creates the experience that is needed, particularly if the desire goes unfulfilled completely.
AE: Oof, I need to say I am always suspicious when objects are described as having “democratic disposition”, particularly when being held in opposition to items that somehow lack “democratic disposition.” The frames need to be drawn very tight for that distinction to matter in a meaningful manner that is not glib or carefree. To the topic at hand:
Yes, I too had interactions with Ouija boards…I suppose many American kids did, particularly when they became mass produced by a gaming company and available at almost any toy store. To this day I’m not sure what happened in those times spent with the Ouija board: did one of the people at the table manipulate the direction? Did we conveniently together somehow agree what answers should come our way? Or did the spirits appear. I don’t really care what caused the experience, I’m more interested in the fact that an experience happened. And I think it important to recognize something happened in a place with the intention to contact something beyond the assembled
group, even if some hood-winkery enters the frame. I do not doubt that some objects do indeed carry curious energy. But I think the importance of thinking with ghosts or spirits is not just to treat them as real, but to treat the spaces where the unexpected happens seriously and to not try and explain away the particular, beyond clean explanation experience.
In this light, I myself am not interested in seeking an answering, or even asking questions such as, “Do you think that common or shared mythologies create these instances?” I’d rather ask, “What common space did you share at that moment?” “What conflicting desires were in the people around that table, and how did these mix?” “What did you
reach for–mentally, emotionally, physically–to help ground you when the experience moved beyond expectations?” “How does the preparation for an experience focus the senses?” “What cannot be focused in such a situation?” Any question that looks at the space created in the action, rather than asking a sort of causal sociology.
AE: Of course, but we need not be able to recognize that history. Or even recognize it as a history.
AE: There could be an absence or there could also be too much presence. Something extra. Either way, there are many writers who would answer this question much better, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy all come to mind, and all at times attended themselves to notions of otherness and how to be with another and the other.
Let’s somewhat glibly gloss thoughts from these three, it is important to let the other be other, to not try to append our definitions and rules to the other. To recognize the sovereignty of the other’s position and begin to negotiate rather than to assimilate or absorb. This doesn’t mean to give up the ability to react, respond, disagree, judge or confront that other, but to recognize it as a distinct presence (or absence) that may not play to our ways of being.
The importance of the issue of ghosts, haunting, and many of the points touched on is also that there is no way out of a subjective experience of activity. I cannot prove feeling of love or sadness or fear or boredom in any way that would make the histories for those feelings concrete or embedded in objects in a way that you would necessarily have to experience the feelings in the same manner. Still you might be able to sense, in a moment, that my relationship to an
object is based in some relationship that you do not share or understand. You might even sense that an object sits in a way that doesn’t quite seem in line with the way the other objects around are sitting. There’s just something off…
To wildly misuse a quote, British artist Victor Burgin in his essay ”Perverse Space” writes, “There is no objectification without identification.” Closeness and detachment require each other. And when feeling one we should not pretend the other is not lurking. To not recognize is to identify a difference and understand something is not of your kind. And this lack of recognition does not prevent, to use Verwoert’s wonderful phrase again, “temporarily sharing an experience, and freely avowing it, like lovers might.”
CP: Does anything else come to mind for you? Something we haven’t covered? In much of this I have been steering (a little wildly) towards answers, but I also can’t help feeling like I might not be asking the right questions. Not that I’m dissatisfied with your answers (on the contrary) but I still feel like I’m grasping at sand, something elusive and vanishing. Is there something I am missing in all this? Have you ever tried to hunt a ghost?
AE: Oh come now… I don’t think you’ve asked the wrong questions. I think we have covered a lot it seems, and without reading back through anything I can’t think off the top of my head.
I have tried to hunt a ghost. 3 or so times. Never success. I find them best when I’m not looking.