August 2, 2013 · Print This Article
Today Richard had the good fortune to e-mail interview friend, former colleague, mischief maker, and all around giant of consciousness Colleen Becker.
Colleen Becker is an American writer and academic living in London. Her published work spans fiction and non-fiction genres, including flash fiction, academic articles, journalism, art reviews, and essays, and she has read at numerous venues including Princeton University, the Tate Modern, and Foyles Bookshop. She holds PhD, MPhil and MA degrees from Columbia University and a MA from NYU, and she is a 2013-14 Visiting Fellow at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies. She has text based artwork included in an exhibition at the Anatomy Museum, King’s College London. “Translation Games”Curated by Ricarda Vidal (KCL) and Jenny Chamarette (QM) which runs from 31st July to 2nd August 2013
Richard Holland: Colleen Becker, welcome to Bad at Sports!
Colleen Becker: Thanks! I’m so happy to participate in this interview!
RH: You are currently, among a vast number of other titles and pursuits, a visiting fellow at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies, Institute for Germanic and Romance Studies. What are your researching?
CB: I’m doing a post-doctoral fellowship within IGRS’s Centre for Cultural Memory. Broadly speaking, my area of research is the cultural history of German nationalism. My project is titled: “The Art of Becoming a Nation: Turn-of-the-Century German Visual Culture,” and if you’re still reading, I will be examining and positioning artifacts of visual culture as manifestations of identity that memorialize understandings of the self in relation to others, from the individual act of depicting one’s own or another’s milieu to the collective feat of representing an entire community in both political and visual terms.
RH: What are “Translation Games”?
CB: “Translation Games” is the brainchild of curators Ricarda Vidal (King’s College, London) and Jenny Chamarette (Queen Mary, London), who were interested in exploring the concept of translation through various textual, auditory, and visual media. They hired me to write a flash fiction piece of 250 words, with a conventional narrative structure (beginning, middle, end). My story “What We Made” formed the basis for a game of “Chinese Whispers” (“Telephone” in American English), in which only a couple of the artists or foreign language translators received the original text while all of the others worked off of received “translations.” Interestingly, the first textile designer who read my work was dyslexic and misread the story before passing it along to the other textile artists—so, even the original version was “lost in translation.”
RH: The Anatomy Museum, sounds dirty, what is the Anatomy museum and is it a contemporary art venue, or is in more like the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago which is *not* and art venue but has the occasional show to be quirky?
CB: I have a soft spot in my heart for the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. During my most memorable visit, a swarm of flies hovered menacingly over the vitrine of Pompeian gynecological instruments.
The Anatomy Museum is part of King’s College, which is Ricarda’s affiliated institution. It has a creepily fascinating Victorian history as an anatomy theatre, but it’s not a contemporary art space per se.
So the project takes language, in this particular case a short story that you have written, and through the process of translation and retranslation the text evolves into a new form, is that a fair summary of the core idea? Yes.
RH: Are you familiar with Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”? Lucier made a recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recorded it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated over and over again. All volumes of space have characteristic resonant frequencies, the repeated recording and re-recording eventually acts to, in essence, filter out the language and what is left is a set of frequencies emphasized as they resonate in the room. Finally the words become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself like a signature. This project seems like the language version of Lucier’s piece. If you were to translate and retranslate over and over, do you eventually end up with the resonant frequency of the translator or of the text itself, common tonal elements that could not be lost in translation?
CB: Thank you for the enormously flattering comparison! In addition to the physical works of art, the story and its translations also have been performed a number of times. At a workshop in early July, for example, Ricarda and Jenny grouped artists and translators together and we read the text all at once, or in orchestrated sections, and the result was a living Tower of Babel. There is a certain musical quality, and rhythm, to each group reading, which is possibly best experienced by viewing the video of the performance. “What We Made” was translated into several different languages, and then retranslated back into English, which changed the length of the text in each instance. So when the translated versions were read out loud at the same time as the original version, the distinctions between them were quite noticeable.
RH: In addition to the linguistic part of the project, the text is re (and re-re- and re-re-re- etc.) interpreted through varieties of art media as well. I wonder how the 27th re-re to the 27th iteration of the work will relate to the original text.
CB: Curiously, the common elements you described in the previous question were more obvious in the works of art. Even though artists were working from received translations, rather than the original text, we noticed that they all seemed to convey a similar mood, attitude, or tone, also found within the story.
RH: You have had an impressively diverse and fascinating career as an author, a critic and an academic. Over the course of this career have you found that, to speak in clichés, your ideas are at times lost in translation, and somehow fail to make the leap from what we assume to be a common symbolic language (text)utilized to convey ideas to each other? In the face of, for example, an English fluent reader missing the point of an English language text, when your work has been translated in to other languages it must be a source of concern that your ideas are additional steps away from the original meaning and stand a reduced risk of reaching the target audience in pure form.
CB: It’s a challenge for any writer, working in any genre or format, to precisely convey their ideas to their audience. I’ve always been fascinated by what happens at the intersection of intention and reception; there’s a bit of alchemy, in my view. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I doubt there’s any such thing as pure or unmediated communication. On the other hand, I’m a thorough editor and unflinching critic of my own writing.
RH: Is the answer then to sit everyone down and explain your ideas specifically? I suppose that assumes a world where the person listening is *actually* listening and not checking twitter on their phone.
CB: It’s the writer’s responsibility to connect the dots, but also to communicate in terms that are appropriate for the intended audience. When you publish something, you don’t know how it’s going to be received and there’s no accounting for other peoples’ attentiveness, or lack thereof. But I think the best writers are able to hold their readers’ attention for the duration of their engagement with the work.
RH: How did you become involved with this project?
CB: Ricarda remembered me from the Shortness at Tate Modern conference, which she organized along with Irini Marinaki and Konstantinos Stefanis. She approached me about writing a text for Translation Games.
RH: You were a participant in the “[V]ery short conference and a very long dinner” called SHORTNESS AT TATE MODERN, along with DJ Spooky, Jonathan Allen, Matthew Steven Carlos, Steven Connor and others. You spoke under the auspices of being a “flash fiction writer”. I like the idea of short conferences and long dinners. What is flash fiction and what was the focus of the conference?
CB: Flash fiction is a story written in 1,000 words or less. The most famous example is Ernest Hemmingway’s “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” which is the entire narrative. I’m fascinated by the way in which subtext provides as much, or even more, of the story to the reader. More so than other genres, flash fiction operates at the interface between the writer and the reader.
Shortness At Tate Modern had two components: conference papers presented in an auditorium and a long dinner in an upstairs room that was interrupted by various performances, demonstrations and interventions. That’s where I read my short story “B&I,” which is set in Chicago. I was pretty nervous about presenting to an audience that included DJ Spooky, since I’m an admirer of his and I had taught his work to undergraduates at Barnard the previous year.
RH: You recently did a reading at Foyles Bookshopin London, the write up of which referenced you are working on your second screenplay. Aren’t the 8 degrees, lovely family, multiple book projects, art projects and being a Huffington Post correspondent enough? Screenplays? I recently completed my work on Angry Birds Star Wars (admittedly playing it not developing it, but it was hard work to defeat Darth Pig). Now, c’mon, you are just embarrassing the rest of us. What is your most recent screenplay about? We have a huge Hollywood studio exec. fan base.
CB: I wrote a feature-length screenplay a couple of years ago, marketed it, and stirred up enough interest to motivate me to write another one. At the moment, I’m writing a contained location action-thriller.
Usually, I work on fiction and non-fiction projects in tandem, exploring concepts and narratives through different genres. Some things that work in fiction just don’t pan out in non-fiction and vice-versa. Lots of projects remain unfinished, or are discarded along the way but that doesn’t bother me since I usually manage to recycle ideas. I’m easily bored, and it’s easier for me to accomplish tasks when I’m slightly distracted so I tend to toggle back and forth between projects. When I lose my focus with one thing, I go to the other, and then back again.
And, yeah, I wake up every morning and think to myself: How can I make Richard Holland feel like less of a person today?
RH: Very popular choice, there is a support group out there, I think they give out grants.
CB: Something to look forward to! Some of what you’re responding to is my effort, as a former full-time mom, to find some means of engaging myself intellectually while remaining present for my children. When you’re pushing a kid on a swing for forty minutes straight, it’s useful to occupy your mind with thoughts of something other than pushing a swing. A story or an article that’s already been threshed out in your mind comes much quicker to the page.
RH: What are you working on currently?
CB: I’m focused on the academic work described above, speaking at the GSA conference this fall, and putting together a seminar at IGRS for next spring titled “Emotional Response in Historical Practice: Methodological Approaches to Representing Collective Experience.” I’m also publishing an article about Aby Warburg, historiography, and metaphors of German national identity in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Art Historiography. Through “What We Made,” an independent publisher approached me about writing long-format fiction and so in my spare time I’m also rewriting a novel I had roughed out a few years ago in addition to working on the screenplay.
RH: Thank you for joining us! We need to get together for an audio interview the next time we end up in relatively the same city. Thanks!!
CB: It was my pleasure! These were great questions!
RH: I’ll pass along the compliment to my writing staff.
After losing his job and apartment on the same day a couple of years ago, Los Angeles-based street artist Gune Monster says he contemplated a suicide. Instead, he picked up a marker and begin drawing the toothy, ghoulish figures that would eventually become the hallmark of his alter ego.
First, he drew about 50 stickers a day. The number quickly climbed to upwards of 350 hand drawn, colored and cut stickers , many of which would eventually make their way onto the poles, benches and other public spaces scattered around Los Angeles. Larger murals would eventually follow as the street artist’s ambitions grew.
“Murals change people’s lives” he says. “They change your opinion of the wall. It changes it from being some ratty wall that’s got some tag or some weird penis that’s got some hair to an amazing, beautiful mural that’s got a hummingbird flying through the sky with birds and mountains.”
Gune Monster also feels that creating murals offers developing graffiti artists an opportunity to mature by forcing them to openly confront the public with their work in a more much more personal and direct way.
“You’ve no longer going out at night” he says. “You’re no longer hiding in a gallery. You’re no longer putting up stickers. You are now in daylight, in the public, being judged by everybody that sees you. And that’s when you’re at that point where you’re confident enough to spread your art.”
Gune Monster returned to his hometown of Kansas City this past June to live mural at the City Ice Arts Building — a converted warehouse in the city’s arts district that houses a collective of local artists and artisans. Though he wasn’t able to paint at the Kansrocksas Music Festival (the event was cancelled), his new clothing line and projects in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Las Vegas continue to keep this elusive artist fully occupied.
Check out his website for more great images of his work.
Words by Carolyn Okomo, a Kansas City, MO-based writer.
Images by Dave Dumay of City Ice Arts and Carolyn Okomo.
Barbie and La Nouvelle Vague (part 3)
I’m on the porch rifling through Barbie posters and notes on what she would prefer when running away to a deserted island. I know Barbie would want to be with Ken. The way “Marianne,” played by Anna Karina in “Pierrot le fou” (“Pete the madman”), ran away with “Ferdinand,” played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, to live in the French Riviera. The couple ran away for two different reasons, and their fears kept them together. At the end of the film, I like to reinvent different outcomes. Perhaps they should have stayed in town.
This argument applies to play with Barbie as well. I take her outside of the box, adjust her arms and legs, and am free to imagine Barbie in a variety of ways. She is Ken’s girlfriend getting ready for date night when I put black high heels on her. She is Midge’s friend getting ready for brunch when I put strappy sandals on her. She is Skipper’s sister getting ready for a yogurt run when I put sparkly flats on her. I assign Barbie various identities, and each time the fictional truths may be compared to real-world cultural representations.
My adjustments to Barbie’s identity are necessary. For many she seems such a frivolous thing. Questions about her importance reinforce the idea that Barbie encourages the creative interpretation of identity. I cannot escape her. I have spent so much time alone with her. Some have not understood, but many have been supportive—my man included. (I say “man” because after a certain age “boyfriend” just doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the weight of an adult relationship.) Things changed along the way. I changed when I got close to the essence of Barbie. I got close to myself. I learned to trust myself. I learned about the superficial sting.
I also know that Barbie is “plastic” and “anatomically incorrect”—like some “real” women that I know. But, she’s gotten a “bad rap.” I know that I “just can’t change” the opinion of some. That sometimes it just “is what it is.” That Barbie is made for “art’s sake” and that some “art” is inspired by Barbie. That Barbie “inspired” the long list of female characters of La Nouvelle Vague. Consider Artist Nickolay Lamm’s “comparison of bodies.” Lamm suggests that the “average” woman’s body is “no match.” In fact, Lamm found “unrealistic measurements of 36-18-33, compared to the typical 19-year old girl’s 32-31-33” (Revealed: What Barbie would look like as a Real Woman). This explains why Barbie can’t stand-up on her own.
I’ll admit, I “agree.” She sends the “wrong message” to “impressionable” girls. Barbie is not for the “weak.” I learned this my “first year” in Chicago. We went to some “pop-up” art gallery on a Friday night and there was Barbie—“decapitated,” lying in the “middle” of the room, on the “floor.” I asked the artist “why” he’d done this. He calmly, “sipped” red wine out of a mason jar, said “I used to do this to my older sister’s Barbie when I was a kid.” He then joked about Barbie’s “power” to revert him to “childhood.” This has always stayed with me. Barbie brings out the angry adolescent in every adult.
Who is not disappointed, enchanted, or tempted by Barbie? Most days, in the world of Barbie, the view from the porch provides a narrow balconyscape which hosts the angular silhouettes of red-tipped bricks. Sometimes we have company and they join us on the porch. In these moments the table is cluttered with wine glasses, water crackers, cheese platters, Barbie, Midge, and Skipper. On an eventful evening, Barbie is a kaleidoscope twirling from hand to hand. Soon we are scampering. There aren’t enough hours. There is never enough time, just the way time ran out for “Ferdinand.”
Soon, I feel the twin twinkle of goodbye kisses. It’s just me at the door. At the heart of La Nouvelle Vague is a breathless, powerful glance because it is difficult to turn away from the beautiful tragedy. It is difficult to answer and dispute the fullness that Barbie deserves. I only rarely come close to completing the lanky jigsaw puzzle. I cannot really see the end. The journey is mine, this Barbie pink path that leads to the unknown, the pink purgatory.
Jamie Kazay teaches in the English Department at Columbia College. A California native, she holds a BA in English from California State University, Northridge and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Columbia College. She co-curates the Revolving Door Reading Series and is currently reading of a lot of Camus, Derrida, and Dorothy Allison. Her collection, Small Hollering, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2011.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn
Every Sternberg/Semiotext(e)/Verso volume with Yale Design School layout is an impenetrable brick of ostensible magic that’s going to save the human race. I really think this for a range of 10 minutes to 10 years per book. Yet even though I have been reading October every day for three years on every NYC Transit route there was only one time I was ever confronted about it & the guy was laughing! Still, the mystery of the text is irresistible, though after chatting with other arts writers, there seems to be a concern about the future of art criticism; that it’s not as integral a part of the structure & motivational force of the art world as it used to be, & furthermore, there is confusion in identifying an audience. The source of this anxiety is varied & not everyone subscribes to it. Still, through my personal experience with theory I can understand why a frustration exists, both for authors & audience.
It’s difficult to read art theory & criticism. It’s impossible for me to know how other people interpret text, but as an a person of average intelligence I can describe a sensation of mental aimlessness & meandering when trying to parse an uphill paragraph. Putting on blinders & focusing intently on the words the I gradually collect rewarding instances of realization & perspective. This is enough of a carrot to keep me reading. Still, the going is slow. Theory is slow, the contemporary is fast: it’s entirely possible that this is the final conclusion. Like most professional fields, the barrier of slowness is a mental hazing method but the rewards here don’t seem to pay off enough for large-scale generation-defying fraternities. However, if it’s true that it’s losing connection or usefulness to its own field, the effort can start to seem myopic.
Barnett Newman famously said that “aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.” Birds are not only not interested in ornithology but they are incapable of being interested in it. Such a terse reading of that quote might be a little unforgiving, but it’s interesting to revisit this notion from late-Modernist times today in regards to the perceived identity crisis of art writing. All artists are certainly not unaware of it, but it is easier today to be an artist without a knowledge or involvement in traditional art theoretical discourse. Faster modes of communication than text (images) are more conducive to conversation today. The image response, as the most expedient & accurate modes of communicating quickly, is a much more handy tool. ASCII, Unicode, & Emoji: day to day communication is condensed (& the phrase “hard to follow” now refers to twitter), alienating the dry over-enunciated walls of text that make up theoretical contributions.
As Hal Foster points out, during ArtForum’s heyday in the 60s & 70s,”late-modernist criticism made fine distinctions on which the fate of art was thought to depend—the difference, say, between a ‘deductive structure’ by Frank Stella and a “specific object” by Donald Judd—and often it presented these differences as absolute.” This necessity for theoretical discussion is not totally absent today- but art dependent on by critical analysis has become a genre of sorts. Boris Groys says that
“A work of art is traditionally understood as something that wholly embodies art[…]When we go to an art exhibition we generally assume that whatever is there on display–paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, readymades, or installations, must be art. The individual artworks can of course in one way or another make reference to things that they are not, maybe to real-world objects or to certain political issues, but they are not thought to refer to art itself, because they themselves are art. However, this traditional assumption has proven to be increasingly misleading. Besides finding works of art, present-day art spaces also confront us with the documentation of art.” 
Although Groys is referring to the position of the artwork in the exhibition space as the documentation of the art itself, the statement is haunted by the situation of an exhibition space with placeholder artworks that function solely as referents to outside documentation & unstable explanations to be determined by later analysis. Movement away from aesthetic to conceptual merit is now common practice, though certainly more in some cases than others. Aesthetic attractiveness is more often seen now as a measure or capability of capitalist valuation of the object rather than an agent for a deeper social commentary or revolution. Thus, birds interested in ornithology & birds uninterested.
Lately I have found art theory exhaustingly cynical. I suppose the word “criticism” has a lot to do with this, however much of it seems to only a self-serving end. Often as a reader I approach the text with wonder & leave it feeling like a fluorescent light has been turned on to reveal all pleasant things have poisonous blemishes. A person can only take so much of this before becoming fed up or hopeless or annoyed that something prescient about how to live life is being ignored because the art community is busy circle-jerking to their exclusive & privileged (negative) perspectives on the world. That said, art theory ensconces beautiful ideas within its heavy labyrinthine walls of referential grandiloquent & excessively punctuated & footnoted jargon (“International Art English”?), & somehow this keeps me (us?) going. However, more & more, it has been exceedingly reassuring to go to the exhibition & realize that art has been growing & still grows around you when you & intellectuals aren’t looking.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Foster, Hal. “Critical Condition,” Artforum International, Sep2012, Vol. 51 Issue 1, p147-148
2. Groys, Boris. e-flux, December 2009, Issue 11, p1-11
Guest Post by Young Joon KwakHello from Los Angeles! I’ll be posting a monthly series of conversations with art folks in Los Angeles for the next couple of months. These conversations take place at my current studio/beauty salon, aka Mutant Salon. The salon atmosphere is particularly conducive to dishing real talk and shooting the shit, which is why I thought it’d be the ideal setting for these in-depth conversations to take place. The first person I talked with was man-about-town and big sweetie Michael Ned Holte. Happy reading!
Michael Ned Holte is a writer, curator, and professor of contemporary art history at CalArts; along with Connie Butler, he is the co-curator of the upcoming LA biennial Made in LA, which will take place at the Hammer Museum in 2014. In 2012, He curated the exhibition Temporary Landmarks and Moving Situations, which was featured at Expo Chicago art fair at Navy Pier. Originally from southwest Wisconsin, Michael Ned Holte moved to LA in 1995. He got an MA in Art Theory and Criticism from Art Center in 2004, at the same time artists like Stephen G. Rhodes and Sterling Ruby were in grad school. When I first met him for a studio visit last fall, I had recently moved from Chicago to LA for grad school, and he made me feel welcome to the city by assuring me that there were great local communities of weirdo/artist/musician/mutants to get to know and become part of. I invited him back to Mutant Salon for this interview in June, where we discussed teaching, studio visits, writing, the next Made in LA exhibition and catalogue, his book Proper Names (from Golden Spike Press), and how ultimately he hopes to help artists articulate what they do.
Young Joon Kwak: How would you describe what you do to someone who’s unfamiliar with your practice?
Michael Ned Holte: What I do now is primarily teaching, writing, and making exhibitions, probably in that order. There’s a quote from Lucy Lippard in her preface to the reprint of her book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where she talks about being a critic, and starting to make exhibitions when it was unusual for a critic to curate exhibitions, and she would do projects with artists that seemed sometimes to be breaking boundaries of what it meant to be a critic, but she held to this idea that a critic should be allowed to have an expansive project the way that an artist can have an expansive project. So as a teacher, writer, and curator, I can think of those as being a very fluid and expansive project.
YJK: It seems like writing is central to all of these activities.
MNH: Yes, text is primary to everything I do. There’s a discursive element to everything I do, and with studio visits, I try to help artists articulate what their project is. And that’s true of me as a critic—writing essays and reviews, and me making an exhibition as well. In putting together an exhibition I’m always thinking about the text that accompanies it.
YJK: Like the catalogue or the press release for an exhibition?
MNH: Yes, both. I did a show at Wallspace in 2007 called Laying Bricks, and for the press release I made a multiple-choice, true-false exam. There was also a publication for that show that was printed on newsprint, and I had each of the four artists do a poster for the publication. None of them knew each other at the time, and they all did something different without knowing what the others would be doing. And then I wrote a text for it called “Frequently Asked Questions,” and I used that format of a frequently asked question, so it was almost a self-interview, and at some point, the kind of cool neutrality of that format gives way to this kind of schizophrenic tussle with myself. In part, it was a rejection of wanting to write an essay to explain my show and how it worked, and trying to find other ways of talking about it or talking around it.
YJK: Do you have plans to similarly explore the relationship between the Made in LA exhibition and the publications for it? What does the catalogue bring to one’s experience of the exhibition, or is it a site unto itself?
MNH: I think you just said it. We are thinking about the catalogue as a site in and of itself. It’s the thing that lives on in perpetuity. Only so many people will see the show in the three months that it’s up, and the catalogue is the thing that sticks around. The catalogue is a different structure with a different temporality to it, and it runs parallel to the exhibition, and I’m interested in how these things work together and separately. I can’t talk too much about the publication for Made in LA because we’re still working on it, but I will say that Connie Butler (co-curator) and I will each write our own essays, along with some additional writers, which is already different from the format of the last Made in LA catalogue, where all five curators wrote a single five-part essay. But the conversation of the publication has been happening from the outset, in tandem with the exhibition. In some ways, the conversation of the publication is leading the conversation about the show.
YJK: What’s a bad studio visit like for you?
MNH: Umm, I’ve had them, but maybe you should ask the artists who’ve had bad studio visits with me. I don’t know; they’re all different. Artists are like snowflakes, and studio visits are like snowflakes, haha. I’m not a super judgmental person, and perhaps that makes me somewhat less effective as a critic, but I’m always curious how artists think about what they do. I think the worst studio visits for me are the ones where the artists are really fixed on what they’re doing and aren’t interested in entertaining a conversation about change. I might define a bad studio visit as one that I may forget a day later. Most of the time, I take part of it with me, which is why I can usually do no more than two a day in the world. The best studio visits are often my second or third or fourth visit with somebody. I met with somebody last weekend, and it was the third time I’ve done a visit with him. It’s probably been about four years since I’d last had a visit with him, and I’ve been kind of tracking this person for a long time, so we can kind of dive in to a conversation at this point. The first time you meet with somebody, it’s like two dogs sniffing each other’s butts, and that’s inevitable.
YJK: What are some trends or common things you’ve seen in recent studio visits?
MNH: I’m intensely resistant to trends. I have to say, going into the process of organizing Made in LA, one of the words I kept on coming back to was “heterogeneity.” I’m really interested in difference. I’m really excited about difference, and it’s the thing I’m looking for I think the most. Which is kind of the opposite in some ways—thinking about an artist who is making work in a way that’s completely different from the way any other artist I can think of, to the degree that’s possible. I mean, I’ll see things that my students will do that are possibly trends or familiar solutions to recurring problems and I’ll see an MFA student do something I saw an MFA do three years earlier, because it’s a common solution to a certain problem, and artists are always a product of their time. Me too. We can’t escape the context of living and working in 2013 in LA or wherever, and most of us are involved in a community or communities of artists, and we know what our friends are doing. If we were all doing things that were completely different, there would be no basis for conversation. So, I’m also interested in proximity of things too, or maybe the way two artists will arrive at something from completely different places. I’m asking myself a lot of questions about those very things right now. But I’m hesitant to identify any trends.
YJK: When was the last instance that a studio visit with an artist has shaped how you think about or talk about art?
MNH: It happens all the time, really. Yesterday I had a studio visit with Jennifer Moon, and she’s an artist I’ve known about from afar, but had never met before. She did a show at Young Chung’s space Commonwealth & Council, and most recently at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow. I had such an exciting conversation with her about the boundaries of what she’s doing as an art practice…. I should also say I’ve been trying to reframe the word “practice” as “project” lately, and thinking about the difference between those things. How I’ve defined it to my students is: Practice is the way you do what you do to pay your bills, or what you do to imagine how you pay your bills, and a project is the thing that gets you up in the morning. Anyway, Jennifer and I got into a conversation about where the boundaries of her project lie—in terms of revolution and making art, and there are objects that can be displayed in a gallery context, like photographs and books and artifacts and relics, like a lot of performance projects too, where the audience wonders—what is this thing? Is that the residue of the thing, or is it a byproduct or the product? Is this where the art resides, or does the art lie somewhere else in the performance, in a live context for example. I said to her, maybe the better question is—when are you not making art? And then we both kind of looked at each other like…? It’s true for me too—when am I not working? I’m working on an essay while I’m driving or making dinner.
YJK: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how certain routine patterns of procrastination in the studio are essential parts of my project.
MNH: In the fall, I taught a class called Routine Pleasures, which is named after the Jean-Pierre Gorin film, and this is where the idea of the project bubbled to the surface. At some point, in the process of planning one of my lectures for the class, I came to the realization that my project or at least the thing that I think I do really well, is procrastination. So for most of my life, extending back to my teenage years, I’ve thought of myself as a really terrible procrastinator. And then, last fall, I said, what if I’m really a terrific procrastinator? What if that’s the thing I do really well?
YJK: A radical procrastinator?
MNH: Haha, maybe. Or just a really good one, and that realization transformed things for me. Anyway, in this meeting with Jennifer Moon yesterday, just asking her this basic question really opened up something for both of us. I think that’s fair to say. And when one’s doing a lot of studio visits, it’s inevitable that questions that get raised in one that will carry on to the next, and there’s a kind of viral quality to the discourse that happens.
YJK: Who were some writers or other people that were influential when you were first starting out?
MNH: I’ve often referred to Bruce Hainley as my guardian angel. I think Bruce is the person that helped me most get on my path, and remained a mentor out of school. He was a really great guide, and then at some point I decided I needed to leave him alone and make my own decisions. There are also people like Lucy Lippard, who’s been an important model for me—in terms of thinking about what I do and how these compartments overlap or intermingle. But I’ve never met her.
YJK: What’s your approach to teaching art history at CalArts?
MNH: I’ve learned to teach art history while teaching art history. There is no art history department at CalArts. Within another higher education institution where there is a degree being offered in an art history department, part of what one’s doing when one’s teaching art history is perpetuating that field. I don’t feel like I have that same pressure because my students are artists. Some of them might become art historians, and I alert them to that possibility. I also tell them that I’m not trained as an art historian. But I want art history to be useful and relevant and alive to them, and also something that they can engage with critically, and the thing I leave them with is that they have a lot of control over shaping art history, because art history is continually being revised and reshaped.
YJK: With art history as a field, there’s always a delay in the legitimization of projects that are more experimental or make use of unconventional materials, which makes it difficult for some artists to find role models within art historical discourse. How do you feel artists, and especially students should negotiate with art history, when it is essentially on them to be brave in breaking certain conventions of that field?
MNH: Well, that’s what artists get to do. Artists get to remake history by virtue of what histories they decide to channel and acknowledge and smash together at some point. It’s important to be brave. I try to encourage my students to be brave and occasionally irresponsible. Because they’re not art historians, they’re artists. But I also love the idea that some of my BFA students could go on to be art historians after going through a BFA studio program at CalArts—I mean, what a great thing for art historians to have knowledge and experience of having a studio practice.
YJK: As much as I am interested myself in the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, some of these boundaries provide context for measuring the successes and failures of the work one does in these fields. I just wonder, what are some of the criteria by which someone like you or other critic/writer/historian/curators judge the successes and failures of the work they do? How is the work being checked?
MNH: I don’t know if there is a system of checks and balances in the art world that we work in. There’s such an overwhelming shadow of the market right now. In some ways it’s like the movie Independence Day or something, where a giant spaceship shows up and the shadow covers NYC, or DC, or Los Angeles. In some ways, I feel like the market has that omnipresent shadowing effect, and it’s a little grotesque, and teaching at CalArts helps me feel at least 34 miles away from that shadow some days, though not everyday. If that’s true that the market is the only metric of the art world, I feel like it’s only a reflection of our larger society.
YJK: So do you feel like the market is our only metric right now?
MNH: Well, I think it’s a very temporary metric. I think history actually revises things so we eventually realize the importance of certain people, like Lee Lozano, who is one of my favorite artists ever. Lozano wrote herself out of the art world, but has now been reclaimed by it, and is now represented by Hauser & Wirth, which is an extraordinary turn of events that I’m sure would shock her. But, history has written her back in, and that’s not just a product of the market. I think time will tell if what any of us does is important historically. I do think of how my writing as a critic could shape how historians write about certain artists or write about my peers, twenty or 30 or 40 years from now. I’ve often thought about that, in part because I’ve spent so much time looking at art magazines from 30 or 40 years ago, and I am acutely aware how important it is that those critics wrote about those artists at that time. But information travels differently now. There was no Internet then, of course. The other thing I should mention is that when I organize an exhibition, there’s usually criticism written about it, so organizing an exhibition can be an interesting way of inciting a dialogue. Moreso than when I write criticism. And when I have professional peers commenting on something I’ve done in another context, I’m always excited to read those reviews.
YJK: Do artists who you’ve written about not so favorably ever hold grudges?
MNH: I don’t know. The only case I can think of came after I’d written one of those little 200 word Critics’ Picks on Artforum.com. I didn’t know the artist at that time, and have gotten to know her better since, but it was about two or three years after the review when I got a card in the mail—to thank me for the review, and also to correct some statement I’d made in the review. That moment revealed to me that the artists I’m writing about tend to be the most important audience for what I’m writing. And that was really important for me. It led to a studio visit, or several. And that’s why I go back to what I was saying about the one thing I do in all of my various guises is to help artists articulate what it is they’re doing…even if they don’t always agree with what I’m saying.
YJK: I’m very interested in your book Proper Names, because it seems very much to me like an artist’s book. How would you describe this project?
MNH: When I give that book to people, and people seem puzzled by it, I say it’s a book of a list of names, and that’s what it is. Some people have read it as an artist’s book or an artistic project, and I can understand why, because it certainly has some characteristics of such a thing.
YJK: What your book does for me, and one of the reasons it seems like an artist’s book is that through the format of a list, you dissolve the signifying power of singular names/signifieds, by which you propose an open and continuously changing meaning by each name’s relationship to the collective.
MNH: That’s a nice way of putting it. It’s a collection of 1000 readymades. I wanted it to be a big enough list that one couldn’t guess how many names there would be, but also a number that someone could realistically sit down and read from beginning to end. I was interested in how much significance we attach to a name, and what happens when you put two things next to each other. This is an old trick of collage from Dada or the Kuleshov Effect from filmmaking—if you put any two pieces of film next to each other, it produces meaning—and you can do this with names too. Listed names appear all over the place, in an ad for a group show in Artforum, or a list of names on a donor plaque, or a list of names on my class roster. But they are usually gathered in a way that we can identify a kind of coherence, and in that coherence there is also usually some connotation of value, whether the list is democratic or elitist. The way one encounters those names in my book is not unlike how one would encounter names in the world, because there are students of mine intermingled with celebrities, intermingled with theorists, artists…
YJK: Yeah, I love that names of subjective significance are included, and names that you have claimed or reclaimed, like your mother’s, with her maiden name.
MNH: But my mother with her maiden name is also the name of an artist in San Francisco, which I think is really funny. I saw her name on a list for a show in Artforum. I love the idea that my mom is secretly an artist, and has kept that from me, even as I was writing for Artforum.
YJK: And they’re not all people you can get behind, some are contentious with each other.
MNH: There are some truly terrible people on that list. It’s not necessarily people I like, or even necessarily names that I like. They’re names that went through my head and stuck. I wanted it to not be systematic. I don’t want there to be some kind of legible system, and there’s not. Maggie Nelson, who’s a writer I respect enormously, asked me if it was done with free association, and I responded by saying I don’t know if there is such a thing as free association after Google. The way we encounter information, and the way it can lead us into different information is something that I’m really interested in. I think a lot of people who see the book will look up a lot of those names as they’re going through it. And I like that somebody would read that book while working Google on their phone.
YJK: My boyfriend loves it and thinks it’s hilarious.
MNH: Yeah, I’m just happy to get it out into the world. It got read on kchung on Reading Radio, and they fucked up almost every name, which I think is kind of perfect. One of my favorite things about the book is how much it destabilizes hierarchies in terms of the values we place on specific names, collectively and individually, and their reading of the book further destabilizes hierarchies by fucking up so many of the names in the book, including the author’s own name. I couldn’t have done that, but they nailed it.