In keeping with my interests and research in phenomenology and embodiment, this article addresses four disparate works that are currently on view in Atlanta. Drawn from four separate shows — Coloring and In Translation at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), Live Amateurs at MINT Gallery, and Gyun Hur – A System of Interiority at Get This! Gallery — these installations address and provoke bodily experience. Unlike the other works in these shows, other than possibly Anne Lindberg’s at ACAC, these works invite the viewer to inhabit the space they create. Each of these installation-based and -esque works instantiate a world within the particular gallery space. Broadly, these four pieces can be grouped into two categories: color fields/dimensions and bodily encounters. Rutherford Chang’s We Buy White Albums at ACAC and Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority at Get This! both open to the viewer an experience of color. Jonathan Bouknight’s Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other at ACAC and Maggie Ginestra’s Angel of the Interior Heaven at MINT create moments of encounters with the human form, its materiality, and that of our own.
Traces of Color
In our everyday existence, our perception of color does not correspond to a geometrical color wheel. We do not necessarily examine the red of a fire truck when we see it wheeling towards us in our rear view mirror; rather, the red speaks to us, telling us to pull over, signaling to us that there is a fire, a situation, somewhere that needs to be tended to. In this confrontation with color, the pure red that exists as a particular wavelength does not concern us. The object, the red firetruck, exists as a phenomenon in our everyday being. Both Rutherford Chang’s and Gyun Hur’s installations create situations where objects are allowed to rest in their object-ness and our perception of their colors in their particularity are brought forth.
Rutherford Chang. “We Buy White Albums.” 2006 – ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.
In the case of Rutherford Chang’s installation We Buy White Albums, included in the show Coloring at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the color white, which, depending on which theory of color and perception you choose, may not be a color at all. Chang, in his use of a white object, exemplifies the ways in which bodies and objects collide, rub off on each other, imprint themselves upon the other. If white here is considered the gathering of all light on the spectrum, we can push the metaphorics of accumulation and negation; white as a manifestation of maybe both of these. By a process of collecting first-presses of the Beatles’ White Album, Chang presents us with cultural signifiers that have visibly and explicitly been shaped and affected by bodies. Though each of these vinyl covers is white and was released in 1968, the installation presents the viewer with a range of color, wear-and-tear. Some of the album covers have drawings on them. Some have stains and spills. Some have an exaggerated impression of the vinyl disc lying inside; years of pressure worn into the album sleeve. The wall installation, though not touchable, allows the arranged albums to resonate with touch; the fingertips “feel” the cover without touching it; the fingertips can sense those who have touched the album before. Apart from the wall are album bins that the viewer can sift through, allowing her to touch these objects with her own hands, connecting to the hands that have touched this very object before. The signs of history and others’ beings are traced, etched, scuffed, buffed, and impressed into these seemingly identical and mass-produced commodities. Accompanying the installation is an audio piece that is a layering of 100 copies of the songs from the White Album on top of each other, which illuminates the subtle differences between each of the albums; the “various scratches, dust, and differences in the pressing of the records.”  Even though these commodities are machine-made, the audio points to the object’s own materiality and the ways in which the body’s handling of them further affects their material conditions. In a way, Chang’s piece illuminates the ways in which, as Merleau-Ponty states, “each object … is the mirror of all others.” 
Gyun Hur. “A System of Interiority.” 2013. Image author’s own.
At Get This! Gallery, Gyun Hur’s new installation work A System of Interiority creates a constantly changing experience of color for the viewer through its use of multiple constructed layers. Built in an L-shape against two walls of the gallery, the work consists of a structure made of glass panes resting on columns of bricks with mirror panels connecting the glass to the cement floor. On top of the glass panels are three piles of hand-shredded silk flowers and powders in magenta, yellow, and orange. Underneath the glass panes, on the cement floor, is a ground of brown/black dirt and another material that sparkles. Above, a lighting system in three parts: a two-sided color-changing track, a standard can light, and a panel holding a grid of naked lightbulbs. This installation does not give itself easily to any vantage point; it requires exploration. Sitting on the ground at the vertex, the point where the two large glass panes converge, I witness the piles multiply in the mirrors against the back walls and those on the ground partially covered in dirt. Peering under the panes, into the dirt directly, a miniature landscape opens up that gives the illusion of a highway underpass; the stacked bricks transformed into concrete columns. The earthy brown contrasts with the black sparkles that reflect the lights above. The magenta, yellow, and orange piles, radiate color on top of the glass while the mirrors underneath them reflect other, more muted colors. The ways that the surfaces of glass, mirrors, piles of powders, and dirt reflect each other and the viewer, opening a field of tranparently-opaque relations, which according to Merleau-Ponty is a certain translucence: “The fully realized object is translucent.”  We delve into it in our perception of it, but only to a certain extent; not all of the object is perceptible at once; it hides something within itself.
Constructed Bodily Encounters
In our everyday experience, when we see bodies, we recognize them as human bodies like that of our own. However, Descartes (in)famously states in his Meditations of First Philosophy from 1641 that those bodies wearing hats and coats he views from his window could in fact not be human bodies at all: “But what do I see aside from hats and clothes, which could conceal automata?”  In art works that make use of the human body, particularly that of the living, breathing, fleshy human body, the problem becomes how to regard these bodies. Since they are part of a work of art, what is their status as objects of my gaze? Who are these people I am looking at? Is it ethical for me to gaze upon their forms? How should I contemplate them?
Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.
Jonathan Bouknight’s installation, included in the show In Translation, also at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, consisting of a video monitor on one wall and five 7.5 ft tall drawings on the opposite wall, is a manifestation of the problematic experience of watching moving bodies and then viewing a seemingly static representation of them. The piece, part of Bouknight’s Gaze Series, the work’s process creates multiple possibilities of embodiment. The video depicts two dancers; a man and a woman, wearing grey – the woman in a grey top and shorts, the man in only grey shorts, bare-chested. The angle of the video, at first disorienting, allows the viewer to penetrate the space between these two bodies that are at times intermingled, at times only touching. The layers of drawings on 7.5 ft tall pieces of butcher paper gaze at this video. Each day of the exhibition, Bouknight works in the installation space and draws the video. In order to see the video, Bouknight has to turn his back to the drawings, thus making them blind contour. The drawings, made using black acrylic paint, have a movement all of their own. When focusing on the drawings, the audience is not able to see the video, and vice versa. This limited perception, intentionally created by the artist, allows the viewer to see each aspect of the work on its own – the drawings are not merely illustrations of the video. They are a layered exercise in line and movement. The viewer can lift one drawing to reveal more layers of drawings underneath. Each layer a manifestation of a particular viewing experience that is translated onto paper. Both these aspects of the work produce certain corporeal consciousness and affectivity. The layers of drawings bring about a similar weightiness that is felt when attending to the video of the two dancers; a play of movement, shifting arrangements, and physics enter into my own bones, muscles, and sinews.
Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of “Angel of the Interior Heaven.” 2014. Image by unknown photographer. Courtesy of artist.
At MINT Gallery, within the jam-packed show Live Amateurs, lives Maggie Ginestra’s performance and installation Angel of the Interior Heaven #s 1 – 4. A card table with four folding chairs surrounding it is in a back corner of the gallery. On the table is a plate of nibbled on cookies, cards, and hand-felted scarves. Now, these chairs are empty. They were complete with sitters at the opening on January 11, 2014. They will remain empty until the closing of Live Amateurs on February 7, 2014. During the first performance, the sitters, naked save the hand-felted scarves, conversed with each other over cards, cookies, and wine. Other than trips to the bathroom, these nudes remained inside a privately public space; audience members were onlookers except when sneaking a cookie. These bodies, so exposed to the viewer, yet also so distant, provoked otherworldly and mystical imagery. They might have been those gods sitting atop Mount Olympus watching the mortals below. However, these gods were not concerned with we mortals; they seemed indifferent to our presence. These performers, on display for us, elicited somatic responses. The viewer was faced with the decision to gaze — perhaps only a sidelong glance, a glance perhaps engendered in our gender. It was not necessarily the initial confrontation with the naked human form that created a moment of discomfort; something else in this arrangement blocked my gaze. Perhaps something related to the poetry Ginestra provides with the performance/installation: “For the angels of the more interior heaven are able to speak with men by means of spirits of the interior heaven, thus this is effected mediately.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, from The Spiritual Diary (1747). The terms “interior” and “mediately” being most important here. The gallery during an opening is usually an openly voyeuristic place: we gaze at the art on display and the other patrons that for the night share our space. But in this case, it was uncertain what my role here was: mere onlooker, voyeur, participant; there is an unease provoked by this ambiguity. Do these beings want me to interact with them? Am I supposed to serve as a sort of mediary between their internal space and their external surroundings? Or, do they want me just to leave them be? This is the moment of decision that I have to grapple with, which demands me to negotiate my bodily arrangement and positionality.
Return to Our Perceiving Flesh
Perceiving artwork is a bodily experience; the viewer is always perceiving the work from somewhere in some body, in some particular embodiment. This is not only true for installation work that more or less explicitly invites the viewer’s body into the scene, but also for paintings, digital work, and etc. In Heidegger’s essay “Origin of the Work of Art,” he describes a painting of peasant shoes made by Van Gogh as the creation of a particular world that we gain access to; we can imagine the possibilities of these shoes and the way they become equipment for the person wearing them.  I’m interested in how works are able to create new worlds for us to inhabit, on the micro scale — Chang quite literally creates the space of a record store in the gallery that we can peruse, though we always find the “same” record with every turn, and also on a macro scale — Ginestra’s “angels” trace out an almost ethereal world that we cautiously navigate. These installations make us hyperaware that in our viewing of them, we have to negotiate the space the works carve out and the other viewers’ bodies that are also present. In doing so, we are forced to return to our contoured, fleshy, perceiving bodies.
Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013. Image courtesy the ACAC.
Both In Translation and Coloring are on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until March 8, 2014.
Live Amateurs is on view at MINT Gallery until the closing reception on February 7, 2014. Maggie Ginestra will stage another instantiation of Angel of the Interior Heaven during the closing reception from 7-11pm.
Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority is on view at Get This! Gallery until March 1, 2014. The gallery will stay open until 7pm on Wednesdays in order to experience the light change to night in the installation.
 Rutherford Chang’s statement for Coloring.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 71.
 René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” , trans. Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2000), 112.
 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper, 1993).
Amelia Peláez’s Havana Hilton Hotel mural, ca. 1957. Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries.
Travelogue: Three Cities, Three Retrospectives
Beyond the stuffed animal selfies at PS1, LACMA and PAMM
It’s been a wild winter break, but What’s the T? is back in Chicago in time for dibs season and motivated by the artists brave enough to exhibit in the tundra. For those of you holed up in your apartment licking the radiator for warmth (like I am), here’s a recap of some shows outside of the snow globe.
Closing next Sunday, February 2nd (with a performance by Kim Gordon), is the exhibition that’s been blowing up my feed since it opened at PS1 in October of 2013. Mike Kelley’s retrospective is a 40,000 square foot sprawling colossus of an exhibition. Although I could have lived without the seemingly endless rooms of Kandors (a reference to the miniaturized capital city of Superman’s rival Brianiac) on the first floor, the exhibition impressively filled the sprawling school house and gave me a new appreciation for the artist.
Birdhouses by Mike Kelley at PS1.
Never before in my life have I seen so many swastikas and phallus and felt pretty ok about the whole thing. Arguably the greatest mindfuck in the entire exhibition (taking up an entire floor, the cacophonous a/v installation Day is Done was a close second), Pay for Your Pleasure, a corridor of large portrait paintings and quotations from famous intellectuals effectively complicated the relationship between violence and creativity. By the time I reached the end of the corridor I had completely lost the ability to tell right from wrong.
Kelley’s banners in the hallway at PS1.
The oft-posted Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites was among the least interesting rooms (also the one with the longest line). Watching people pose in front of the hulking mass of leftover toys, I wondered how Kelley himself might have felt about powerful installation’s transmutation into a selfie photo-op. I did pop a huge boner for the dysfunctional birdhouses and the artist’s drawings of his own name. Most disappointing though was PS1′s lack of snacks. The M. Wells Dinette conceptual Mike Kelley menu was admirable, but would it kill PS1 to sell a girl a croissant or fruit cup? I traveled all the way to Queens for this.
Mike Kelley at PS1.
Thankfully, we missed the Turrell retrospective at the Gug (heard the lines were unbearable even if the hole was amazing) in favor of seeing the exhibition in full splendor at LACMA. Apparently the artist, an LA native, made moves to stem the line issue by limiting the amount of guests allowed through the exhibition each day (and no photos allowed!). By the time my party of 5 arrived at LACMA , the $25 exhibition was completely sold out for the day. It was only through the loophole of student membership and my lovely friend, Conor Fields, that I was even able to see the exhibition. The antidote to the packed Kelley exhibition, my first glimpse of Afrum (White), the exemplary white cube that is the first of many light installations, was as religious an art experience as I’ve ever felt.
#today in (art) history
Carrie Mae Weems, The Assassination of Medger, Malcom, and Martin, 2008. Archival pigment print, 61 x 51 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Other works, such as “Bullwinkle,” a modest projection in the shape of an antique television screen, featured plaques helpfully suggesting minimal viewing times to aid visitors in experiencing the desired effects of Turrell’s complex combinations of light and color. Guests moved leisurely through the exhibition. The immersive installations were smartly punctuated with wall-based work, such as the artist’s delicate aqua-tint etchings and hologram series. Despite the 20 minute wait, the paramount moment of the exhibition was Breathing Light (2013), a absorptive environment that mindfucks you in an entirely angle than Kelley’s Pay for Your Pleasure. Heats of eight are invited to take their shoes off, don booties, and spend five minutes in the space which features rounded walls and a deeply saturated bath of LED light that slowly gradients between red and blue. Shout out to the world’s best docent, Rikki Williams, for doing an impeccable job at keeping the antsy visitors to Breathing Light in check (and for letting me stay an extra minute).
LA’s other most famous dude, Frank Ghery, also deserves a shoutout for the unbelievably well designed Calder exhibition in the same building as Breathing Light and the other (reservation only) large-scale immersive Turrell spaces. Having seen a couple of attempts of shoving a bunch of mobiles and stabiles into a large room (including the MCA’s most recent attempt), I can truthfully say I’ve never seen a better presentation of the artists work. Ghery’s specially built pedestals wind around the gallery and create niches that isolate and accommodate each piece. His specially designed walls and plinths allow the viewer to see the delicate balance present in individual works instead of a mess of primary colored circles and wires hanging everywhere.
You’re okay too, Wei Wei.
Not to be outdone by other major metropolitan areas massive surveys of mostly male work, the Perez Museum of Art Miami (still known to me as the Miami Art Museum) opened it doors in December with an inaugural retrospective by Ai Wei Wei. While the exhibition has a few highlights, I found the smaller retrospective of works by little known Cuban modernist, Amelia Peláez, to be a far more compelling and apt exhibition for the brand new bayside contemporary art museum.
Painting by Peláez at PAMM.
I thought the inclusion of the furniture was a little much, but I loved the objects made by Peláez herself. Her ceramic work epitomizes the bright colors and modern, bold markings of her still-life paintings on shapely vases and cups. I would take the espresso set. The show was thoughtfully put together and I was delighted to learn of the artist’s life and work. Now I just wish I could go back in time to Cuba and see her Havana Hilton Hotel mural.
Back in Chicago, I’m waiting on my invite for what will be either the awesomest or worstest retrospective in Chicago history: David Bowie Is. Stay tuned.
Header image features Breathing Light, 2013, by James Turrell at LACMA.
Still from Faith Wilding’s “Waiting” performance as seen in the 1974 film “Womanhouse” by Johanna Demetrakas, (1974, USA, 47 min.) (courtesy of Johanna Demetrakas and Three Walls Gallery).
The Weekly debuts with hilarious email chain. Sunday was a big day for Chicago poet, Anthony Opal. Not only did he trudge through the snow to talk drama with Sofia Leiby at Devening Projects, he also launched The Weekly with some “Revolutionary Interactive Storytelling” by the very entertaining and all around solid dude, Fred Sasaki. Enjoy.
Abstract painting is coming off the walls. It is evolving. Zoe Nelson talks with Bad at Sports about her engagement and participation in the evolution of abstraction, which appears in her work, to be a deconstruction of traditional painting parameters. Through a physical dismantling of the images’ supports, Nelson blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, creating perpetually shifting spatial dynamics.
The Chase, 2013 oil on canvas, metal, holes 16″ x 12″
Kevin Blake: Chicago artist Sophia Leiby recently turned me onto an essay in the Brooklyn Rail, Worlds With Us by Katy Siegel, in which she suggests, “In terms of art, unthinking the opposition between representation and abstraction is particularly vital to understanding art objects and practices afresh.” I’m wondering how you have arrived at abstraction. It seems to me that artists arrive at abstraction out of some sort of necessity that is the resultant of a struggle with conceptual as well as formal frameworks. As I was looking through your archives on your website, I could see a departure from representation, and it occurred to me that this was a relatively common evolution for abstract painters. Abstraction does not seem like something you just set out to do one day. I’m wondering if abstraction, for you, has been a product or a solution to struggling with the idea of representation and abstraction as polar opposites.
Zoe Nelson: When I started grad school at Columbia University in 2007, I was working on a series of portraits of friends with their demons. Imagining what my friends’ (and my own) demons might look like if they were externalized allowed me to begin to think about the entire space of the canvas as a loaded psychological space, with all parts of the canvas (foreground, background, demon, person etc) having the potential to be equally descriptive of the psychological state of the person. It was at this point that a shift occurred and I started to become more interested in the potential of the “background” or psychological space around the person than in the portrait. As a challenge to myself, I decided to try to remove the figure from the work, while continuing to make an interesting painting. I’d say that my first conscious plunge into abstraction occurred with this initial act of negation–the negation of the figure. Absence and negation continue to be strong conceptual and formal frameworks for my work, as you can see in my current body of cut-out paintings. What is cut-out or not depicted in my work is often defined by- and defines- the form and content of the painting.
Going back to your Katy Siegel quote, I would agree on the importance of deconstructing a binary understanding of abstraction and representation in painting. I arrived at abstraction through representation, and in some ways one could say that I am currently working through abstraction to arrive at a type of active, moving representation: a representation of liminal psychological spaces and shifting states of being.
KB: Literally cutting sections out of the painting seems like an almost radical action against representation–in the sense of negating recognizable imagery–and simultaneously, it might be seen as a way of evoking a discussion about the state of being represented. Opening the canvas to view the guts of a painting, so to speak, allows the viewer to look past the painted surface and into the physical space behind it, calling attention to its objecthood. In your recent show at Western Exhibitions, some of the paintings protrude from the wall rather than hanging flush on it, further interrupting the spatial dynamic while creating a dialogue with it. Can you talk about the paintings existing in the third dimension and how do these issues perpetuate this idea about abstraction and representation being more of a consequence of one another rather than visually articulated opposites?
Installation View Western Exhibitions, Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, photograph by James Prinz
ZN: As I cut into the canvas, I uncover parts of the stretcher bar support, which inevitably opens up a whole chain of questions regarding the relationship between support, canvas and the physical space behind and around the paintings. Each painting deals with this relationship in a different way, I believe, and the double-sided paintings evolved as a natural extension of the work becoming more sculptural. When the frame is exposed, all of the sudden there are edges and different physical planes to consider, and the next logical step was to consider the “back” of the painting as well. Through privileging all sides of the painting, I hope to destabilize the hierarchy of front over back, and hanging the work perpendicular to the wall is a playful invitation for the viewer to walk around the paintings and take part in this process.
The paintings and installation at Western look completely different depending on where you stand in the room, and these shifting states are integral to the form and content of the series. If multiple people are in the room, you might see a hand or head or shoulder through the cuts in a painting, and these people (or body parts) momentarily become a part of the work as well. Blurring the lines between artist, painting, and viewer in this way is conceptually exciting for me, and I think circles back around to how the current work still references back to my initial interests in representing the body and psychological states of being, albeit in a performative way, and while operating within a realm of abstraction.
Installation View Western Exhibitions Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, photograph by James Prinz
KB: The first time you cut a painting, was it due to what you perceived to be a mistake? Looking at the evolution of your work, I sense a strong influence of painter Amy Sillman whose work seems to depend on the occurrence of mistakes and even more so on the corrective production emerging from those mistakes. Does your work engage with that dialogue?
ZN: Whenever I move to a new location, or even a new studio, I find that my practice often shifts with the move. After graduate school, I spent a year working on a series of process paintings about the idea of unwinding. It wasn’t until a year later, when I moved to Chicago, that I was able to take the project a step further and actually start to undo the surface of the painting through cutting into the canvas.
Although my initial cuts into the canvas were not exactly a mistake, they did stem from a place of anxiety and fear. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I didn’t know the city at all, barely knew the art community, and only had a couple of names of friends of friends to contact. Everything around me seemed unstable, unknown and overwhelming that year, and the studio was the one place that I was able to channel all of that anxiety and fear into artistic risk-taking.
I worked with Amy Sillman in grad school, and she continues to be a huge influence for me–both her work and in the smart discourse that she engages in around her practice and painting. I’ve noticed in my own practice that if I have an idea for a painting, and I execute that idea really quickly, the work often doesn’t hold up a few days later. I think this failure ties back to the importance of the mistake: perhaps the reason that these paintings often don’t hold up, is because that struggle–of making, identifying, and working-through the mistake–hasn’t yet occurred. When the work falls short like that, there is often a part of the painting that has seduced me, and it’s only through literally cutting out or removing the seductive part that I am able to rework the painting as a whole, rather than as a showcase for one special element.
I think that the importance of the mistake also ties into the importance of feeling and intuition. Amy Sillman has an awesome zine, the O-G v3, in which she challenges the hierarchy of mind over body when discussing and making paintings. At the end of the zine, Amy advocates for the conceptual possibilities of painting specifically through “the radical merging of mind and body!” While it is often easier to talk about formal or conceptual concerns in painting rather than trying to find a smart way to talk about intuition, I am of the mindset that the two are not mutually exclusive. In my practice, intuition, feeling, mistakes, and elusiveness are just as important to the process of painting as the formal painterly concerns that I am also responding to.
KB: When I listen to other artists talk about their work, I always look for a takeaway-something useful to apply to my own practice or in this case regurgitate as a means of preserving the idea in my frontal lobe. I recently listened to artist Cesare Pietroiusti speak in Boston, and of the many things I retained from his talk, he said something profound that resonates in relation to our conversation. He said, “when there is discomfort, fear, and anxiety-go there.” It seems you have intuitively done just that and this impulse has yielded some positive results. Have you been able to abandon these themes as you have gotten settled into Chicago and more so into the community? Or do they continue to be the driving force of your work?
ZN: Anxiety and discomfort continue to be strong themes in my work, though the driving force (or one driving force–there are definitely many) has become the work itself. I have grown to love living and working in Chicago, and have met fantastic artists and worked with great galleries here, such as Roots & Culture, Lloyd Dobler, and most recently Western Exhibitions. I think that anxiety, fear, and crisis are all incredibly powerful emotions (or psychological states), and they hold an equally powerful potential for risk-taking in an art practice. That said, I also think that it can be hard to issue rigor and restraint in a place of real anxiety or crisis, as everything has such urgency and there is a lack of control. Thankfully, I am more settled now and I find that the work is organically building on itself. Each painting opens up a new set of questions and formal challenges, which lead to new decisions and new paintings. Right now I am in the exciting place where I have a number of ideas for new paintings and specific installations, and am juggling these different trajectories in my practice. I am able to continue to explore themes of anxiety and crisis while mitigating those states with humor, play, and pleasure in the work. Of course waves of anxiety, failure, and fear play a part in this process, and no matter how thoroughly I conceptualize a painting before I start it, the beginning almost always feels like a shot in the dark.
KB: The end result being a complete departure from the pre-conceptualized form makes me think about conflicting loyalties. You have loyalties to your methods which allow all the nuances and intuitive moments to take place within the process of making a painting, and being loyal to yourself in these allowances is an important if not essential part of your practice. However, you also have a loyalty to what you might still do, or what the painting might still become, which always seems to be connected to the pre-conceptualized form. How do you negotiate conflicting loyalties in this sense? Are your sketches or ideas of a final product just a jumping point or do you struggle to maintain those forms throughout the process of making a painting?
ZN: When I start a new painting, I usually try to either identify a psychological state, or a feeling attached to a specific moment, that I want to articulate. I then respond to this initial idea by imposing a set of formal parameters on the work, which also define the subject matter. For example, the painting “Skype Breakdown” started with an idea to make a painting about frustration, blocked communication, and distortion. I made the painting (and most of the work up at Western) this past fall, while I was at a wonderful six-week residency called the Lighthouse Works. The residency was on a small island off of NY with spotty internet connection, and after looking at my partner’s frozen and pixilated face on the computer screen for the umpteenth time, I decided to channel my frustration (and objective interest in the abstracted image on my screen) into a painting. Using the idea of arrested communication and distortion as a starting off point, I began the painting by first making mask-like cuts into the top layer of canvas. Any discernible figure or face is cut-out and totally abstracted, and this act of negation also becomes subject matter. Circling back to you initial question about juggling pre-conceived concepts with method and intuition, I’d say that I try to stay true to the initial motivation and abstract idea behind a painting, while being open to chance, intuition, and the unknown in the process of making a painting.
Skype Breakdown, 2013 oil on canvas, holes 34″ x 30″
KB: Speaking of making new paintings, what are you currently working on, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?
ZN: I am working on a few different projects at the moment, including a nascent but exciting collaborative project with a composer, and paintings for a couple of installation ideas. Just a few days ago I was asked to take part in an artists lecture series called “Artists Now” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next spring, which should be a lot of fun, and I am working on an exhibition proposal for the fall of 2014 at the moment. Having the show at Western has allowed me to take some time to reflect on the work, and see the paintings in a different context. I am particularly excited to hole-up in my studio as the show comes to a close, and make some new work!
Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Gallery 291)
Extended until April 20, 2014
All photographs courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Lucky for us in Chicago that Amar Kanwar is no stranger to our city. The Renaissance Society brought him in 2003 after Susanne Ghez, a co-curator of Documenta 11 saw his video, A Season Outside. Like gallery goers here and elsewhere, I’ve been following Kanwar since his Documenta/Ren debut. The sensuality and aesthetics of his work intrigue me—along with the heart-mind that infuses it. A longue durée of roaming, studying, and living in India further whets my interest in Kanwar. The past four months I’ve shared this interest with over a dozen friends, arranging visits to see and talk together about The Lightning Testimonies along with Artemisia Gentileschi’s formidable painting, Judith and Holofernes.
The Lightning Testimonies premiered in 2007 at Documenta 12, and since then it’s traveled the world. The School of the Art Institute invited Kanwar to Chicago in 2011 for its visiting artist series. He spoke about and screened past and current work, including Torn Pages and The Sovereign Forest, an ongoing multimedia, multi-site project. The Chicago opening of The Lightning Testimonies in October 2013 coincided with Kanwar’s delivery of the AIC’s annual Speyer memorial lecture on contemporary art. In the lecture, Kanwar talked about the big ideas he explores through his work—the passage of time, loss, and memory, violence and its celebrations, crime, evidence, and the struggle for justice, nationalist ideology and state power, poetry and prophecy.
Viewers get to The Lightning Testimonies after walking through two bright white galleries adorned with colorful artwork. White text on a black wall announces Kanwar’s piece. A dark passageway gives eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. The Lightning Testimonies is a multi-channel video installation: 8 screens on 4 walls; color and black and white synchronized video running 33.5 minutes in a loop. As director, Kanwar gets the lion’s share of credit, but he’s quick to acknowledge editor Sameera Jain and Ranjan Palit on camera for their integral artistic role as long-time collaborators, and the whole crew’s invaluable contributions.
The work begins with the title page appearing on all 8 screens. Briefly a succession of images fills all the screens simultaneously. Then a dispersal begins as different images begin to fill each screen that consist of written fragments of spoken memories accompanied by footage, photos, drawings, and archival images that connect each memory to a specific place on the Indian subcontinent and to a particular moment in historical time. This multiplicity across the screens continues for about 20 minutes until 7 screens go black and the screen that’s alone on its wall remains live until the title shot fills all the screens again.
Even if eyes can adjust quickly to the change in light, most viewers—myself repeatedly one of them—can’t prepare for what’s to come. Odds are that the viewer enters at a point when different images fill 8 screens. The absence of an obvious pathway through this work understandably challenges and unsettles those viewers who prefer more certainty about where to direct their attention.
The video formally starts with a short, stark black-and-white title shot. Soon comes the only time we hear Kanwar’s voice. It asks, “How to remember what remains and what gets submerged?” The 8 screens blossom into a blaze of red poinsettias. Later the screens fill with yellow sunlight ricocheting off the window of a moving train. Throughout the work beautiful images come and go. We see the lush green perpendiculars of rice terraces, dewdrops balanced on tips of grass, delicate faces of young women. But it doesn’t take long to realize the picture isn’t pretty. Iconic black and white images of the subcontinent’s 1947 partition appear that show a moving train bulging with people and a woman being pulled to its packed roof. On another rooftop under laundry fluttering in the breeze, a baby lies on its back vulnerable and alone.
The Lightning Testimonies doesn’t show images of the violence it interrogates. By citing the words of those who remember it, the work evokes a hair-raising sense of its pervasiveness, its lurking menace, and the impunity which it normally meets. For example, one witness rues, “Do you wonder sometimes how the attackers could be so brutal? Why they were not afraid. Is it because they knew they would not be prosecuted?” Images and words continue to pile up like survivors on a lifeboat. Just when you think it’s going to capsize, the different fragments of testimony on the eight screens start here and there to loop. If the viewer stays long enough, this screen-specific looping might allay anxiety about where to look and how much is being missed.
Whether it’s the rhythm of the rails, crackling fire, temple bells, plaintive saxophone, or the blood-curdling cry “Ma Ho” by acclaimed Manipuri actor Sabitri Heisnam as she rehearses and then performs her role in Draupadi, the sound design by Suresh Rajamani gives viewers an aural guide. It also complements and augments the work’s visual effects. Perhaps taking a cue from the grieving mother who wove an exquisite pattern into cloth to commemorate her daughter and the long struggle to bring her murderer to justice, image and sound are the warp and woof of The Lightning Testimonies.
The climax of the work—and this is where it especially resonates with the sure hand of Gentileschi and her Judith—is the unforgettable footage of women protesting in the northeastern state of Manipur outside the gate to an Assam Rifles post. The protest echoes Draupadi as the women decry both this paramilitary force for decades of criminal violence and the government of India that abets the violence by refusing to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). The protesting women’s rage and pain are even more searing than Indian poets and singers in Kanwar’s Night of Prophecy (2003).
With so many ways for voices of authority to stake questionable claims—for example the Assam Rifles official website asserting, “Through its long deployment in the tribal belt, the Assam Rifles have developed an ethos primarily based on friendship with the people of the region and have earned their complete confidence,” or a pair of Columbia University professors rehabilitating the reputation of Prime Minister hopeful Narendra Modi in a letter to the Economist—I’m immensely grateful for Kanwar’s deliberative work. As for the relevance of the professors’ letter, Kanwar attributes the explorations resulting in The Lightning Testimonies to his shock at the celebratory response to the rampage of rape, mutilation, and murder in Gujarat that took place in 2002 when Modi led the state as Chief Minister.
I’ve heard viewers criticize the work for being overwhelming, hard to follow, didactic, too documentary-like, and other aesthetic missteps. In the end our aesthetic judgments are based on our experiences of the work and mine tell me that this finely tuned team of artists succeeded in its complex, heart-rending, and hugely humane endeavor. Although Kanwar said he wasn’t familiar with Images in Spite of All, The Lightning Testimonies breathes life into Didi-Huberman’s ideas about montage and makes them visible: “Montage is valuable only when it doesn’t hasten to conclude or to close: it is valuable when it opens up our apprehension of history and makes it more complex, not when it falsely schematizes; when it gives us access to the singularities of time and hence to its essential multiplicity.”
In his Speyer lecture, Kanwar asked, “If a crime continues to occur is it invisible?” And later he said, “It does come down to the way we look, how we perceive.” His montage starts in South Asia yet reaches wherever there are men and women. Whether we see them or not, signs of violence against women and girls are all around us all the time. Maybe it’s a glamorous ingenue’s broken forearm or a woman on Michigan Avenue the night of the Speyer lecture begging for bus fare to a domestic violence shelter. Or just possibly it’s a trucking company forgoing its usual leprechaun and shamrocks to create a mobile testimonial: a truck painted the funereal purple of domestic violence awareness crawling through morning rush hour on the Eisenhower Expressway. It announces the name of a woman and the year of her birth and death. It’s a co-worker’s lament and memorial for his cherished friend whose life was stolen by a murderous man.
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.
The first time I went to Adam Overton‘s house, I sang a song. I don’t remember what song, but I remember showing up, sitting down, and Adam turning on a song, a hit song, something that probably had just been on in the car, as we were driving – there were about twelve of us, maybe sixteen, five in my car – and beginning to sing along, very tentatively. By the end of the song, all of us were singing, without any prompt or encouragement from Adam, without any internal discussion, without consideration of who would sing what, without worrying about whether or not we knew the song or if it was in our range, without giving each other puzzled or encouraging looks, without giggling, without any hesitation or embarrassment or even any thought. It was one of the most magical musical experiences I’ve ever been part of. The second time I went to Adam’s house, to conduct the interview that appears, with very little editing, below, he offered me some key limes – now is the time of year when citrus drops in southern California, baskets of oranges and limes and lemons everywhere – and some homemade ginger concentrate with seltzer water.
Adam’s dog sat on my lap for most of the interview that follows, and contributes in a minor fashion to our dialogue. Adam’s cat made a brief appearance to scuffle with the dog, but is not mentioned or referred to in the interview, although certainly at least one portion of our chat could be interpreted so as to refer to the cat. For instance, did you know that chat is cat in French?
This is the first in a series of interviews on the subject of listening.
JW: Hi Adam.
JW: Maybe we should just talk about your various projects before we get to anything else. Does that sound reasonable?
AO: Sure. Yeah, if there’s any…
JW: And also, like, kind of how you…well good, I didn’t bring my notes. So this will be less professional. Remember when like, the, uh, CCA social practice horde descended upon you?
AO: Oh so you were, oh so that’s how you know Dave…
JW: Yeah, that’s how I know Dave, and that’s how I know you, yeah…
JW: I mean, I don’t think I introduced myself then, umm, I don’t know.
AO: See that’s when I started loosening up about remembering faces was when I started teaching because it became so hard to keep track of…
JW: I think, yeah, I’m kind of losing my…yeah.
AO: Yeah. Don’t start teaching.
JW: Yeah, ok.
AO: Or, if you want to loosen up.
JW: See, ok, maybe we can talk about that: what’s been your, uh…maybe it’s a grass is always greener thing, like I’m not teaching now so I’d really like to teach and I keep thinking about classes I want to teach and thinking like “oh, that’d be really fun,” or interesting, or both, but you’re saying you’re tired of teaching…what’s the…why?
AO: Why am I tired of teaching?
AO: I’m sick of dealing with shitty employers, basically.
AO: And that’s ultimately what my regular, um, that’s the typical experience that I’m having right now, is working with shitty employers. Like really shitty employers. And, uh, the places that are really steady, in terms of work, are the shittiest, or have been, at least for the kind of work that I get, and the ones that are better are ones where I only have electives, and I come in and I teach a class and they’re like “wow that class was great, everyone really loved it, maybe you can come back and teach in in two or three years…” But there’s a big unionizing push going on right now, in Los Angeles and Boston and potentially nationwide to unionize adjunct professors, so I’m getting really interested in seeing how that goes…
JW: I’ve heard a bit about that. Are you teaching at multiple schools right now or just one?
AO: Uhhh, right now I just had my classes reduced from three classes to half a class over the holidays by one of the schools that I teach at.
JW: That sucks. Are you teaching arts courses or are teaching more like skills, skill-based…
AO: At one place, at the for-profit that I teach at, I teach mostly web-related programming skills. So that’s usually the steadiest stuff…I used to teach more like digital – like Adobe Suite – stuff at a community college, so that was also kind of steady, but more design-oriented than my background calls for…
AO: And then the stuff that, uh, when I get to teach what I want to teach, or when schools offer me courses that are closer to the range of what I want to teach, typically it’s somewhere in the range of sound art, performance art, and/or um..uh… I got to teach this one class that was pretty fantastic related to activism and education and media…like streaming and stuff, technologies like that. And there’s one school that I teach at, that I get to teach about once a year and I get to teach an experimental video workshop there, and I hope they don’t read this, but I have no experience – like I don’t make video – but when I first signed on to work there about four years ago, I signed on and I realized I had this whole library of video art, and this whole background as a viewer of video art that was really influential on me as a performer, and it’s ultimately just a class where we look at stuff, we talk about it, and then they have a loose assignment based around an experimental strategy, which could easily be, you know, a performance class or a sound class or whatever, it’s loose enough that it’s about strategies, it’s not specifically about editing, and that class is probably the best class I’ve ever had my entire life, because it’s talking to commercial film kids about non-entertainment based, non-commercial work, and I want to say they love it, but it’s not that they love it…
JW: They love it!
AO: All the sudden they realize there’s this other thing and they’re hungry for something that’s not just commercial narrative. And it’s at a film school, so the students there are so much more interdisciplinary than any other school I’ve ever…
JW: In what way?
AO: At this film school, this is the only place – I mean, I’ve taught at other art schools, like Otis and elsewhere – but this is the only art school this is the only school that I’ve ever taught at where students will not only say “oh, I like to write,” but many of them identify as writers, so you can talk about text and they won’t rebel; almost all of them have experience editing video, of course, but because they’ve done that they also almost all have experience working with audio; and since some of them are coming out of an acting background, or have worked with actors, they also have connection to performance. And so you can come to them and do a movement-based workshop – like we always do a movement-based workshop based off on some Simone Forti and Hana Vanderkolk exercises – and they gobble it up. Whereas if you do something like that at Otis, I mean, sometimes half the class will really dig it, but I’ve had students come up to me and be like, wait, are you a sculptor, and I’ll be like no, and someone actually said like, “well then why are you here?” and it’s like “ok, because you’re in the Sculpture/New Genres department?” But so, but I’ve never gotten flak for, I mean, anyways that interdisciplinarity, and kind of confusion of where one lies in the medium spectrum, is particularly strong at this film school, which is great.
JW: But it probably doesn’t matter to them too much where they lie on the medium spectrum, I mean, am I generalizing too much, or…?
AO: Maybe a little bit? Just because it is a professional-track thing, and so they do identify as “I’m a director,” “I’m an editor,” “I’m a cinematographer,” so they do have these professional kind of things that they hump down into. And on their evaluations every once in a while you get, you know, “was this class valuable to you?” and someone will say, “no, because I’m a director, I loved it but it wasn’t useful because I’m a director,” which I still don’t understand. But anyways, yeah, I teach a lot of things at a lot of different places, and I’m trying to…ideally what would be best for me teaching-wise would be…what feels best is teaching classes where it’s this awesome conversation and people are experimenting and trying things out, but unfortunately those classes are just electives in my schedule and not enough to live off of. They just feel like little rewards, like a a mini-grant for three months. And so the regular ones are these kind of shitty corporate places that don’t give a fuck about you or the students. So that’s really where I am – that’s why I looking for other work. Other quote-unquote professional work. If anyone out there is looking for very talented uh…I’m really good at making cocktails…
JW: Have you considered applying at bars or anything?
AO: I’m really intimidated because I’ve never worked in restaurants or anything like that, but actually I’d be terribly interested to work as a barback or a cocktail apprentice, because I’m really into cocktails right now.
JW: I’ve been really thinking about, um…
AO: And I’m a night owl, so it would kind of work.
JW: I mean, I’ve been kind of getting into wine a bit more, and for a minute I was kind of thinking of opening a coffee shop, and now my pet dream is to open a cooperative grocery store, that would have maybe within it a coffeeshop/bar situatation, but I don’t know, whatever. But like I feel like there’s a lot of people – a lot of artists who are veering towards more service industry-related things…I mean, I don’t know, we don’t have to talk about that much, but I curious about that kind of transition of like, and it’s often people whose practices I really identify with, where generosity or collaboration or like a concern…
AO: Well, I think the language in the social practice arena primarily goes towards generosity, and I think that’s there, but I see it as desperation, like artists are trying to figure out how to fit in and find part-time and/or full-time work that feels useful or and is productive for them in some way, shape, or form. But there is a trend, because actually in the experimental music community in Los Angeles, what you’re talking about is very common. In terms of people brainstorming, but not necessarily following through. I don’t know if you know James Klopfleisch…
JW: No, but I was playing with Ted Byrnes on Monday and he mentioned James…
AO: Yeah, he’s involved with the wulf., and the Southland Ensemble…I think that’s what they’re called. But he for a while had an idea for, um…he wanted to do like an ice cream truck, except it was like a coffee, like an iced coffee, and like experimental music coming out of the speakers…and he seemed really serious about it, but then he went off on a cruise ship for a couple years.
JW: To play?
JW: Oh wow. I’ve heard that’s like the worst thing to do…
AO: He loves it!
JW: I guess if you have the right kind of mindframe, it would be ok, but it just seems like…
AO: I think it fit his personality…he likes people, and talking to weird people…
JW: And yeah, that seems like a very weird place.
AO: Your background is as a musician, right? Did you do your undergraduate as a musician?
JW: I did, yeah. And a lot of people went to ships…
AO: Yeah, I was a jazz major in Atlanta, and a number of my friends did the ship thing. And I remember thinking about it…I never got the phone number. But it was very possible. It’s either you go to New York or you go to the ship in the Caribbean.
JW: Or both.
AO: Or both, yeah.
JW: And then you give up somewhere.
AO: Yeah. Oh there was one other precedent though, too, that actually got really close, there was a composer named Gary Schultz, who lived here, who now lives in Berlin, but he was gonna start, well, we joke that it was going to be “Gary’s Juice,” but it was really gonna be more of like “Gary’s Juiceteria,” and he was going to be doing the juice selection at a place, some health food store in the West Side, and he got as far as the designs and was setting stuff up, but I think the store closed before it open.
JW: Yeah I feel like there’s a pool of money that one has to have to open anything like that that I do not have access to that right now, but that’s also ok.
AO: Yeah. But actually that’s the next thing – it’s just dawned on me in the last two months – there was like the big wave – I’m 34 now – there was the big wave of “all my friends are getting married” and now the big wave is “now all my friends are starting businesses,” and it’s weird because when they were getting married I was like “oh, I don’t want to get married,” and now that they’re starting business I’m like “oh, should I start a business?” “no, I don’t want to start a business,” or maybe I should, or…you know, like…
JW: I think it’s still a bit of this desperation thing that you were talking about. I think it’s like “well, I don’t know what to do now, so maybe I should just invent a job, or…” So did you go to Emory or something?
AO: No, Georgia State. Georgia State had a really good program, at least for Georgia. And it was situation downtown, which was the only place that jazz existed in the state of Georgia, except for Valdosta, I mean there was one other jazz program in Valdosta.
JW: Where is Valdosta?
AO: It’s on the border with Florida.
JW: Are you from Georgia?
AO: Yeah, I’m from the suburbs of Atlanta.
JW: One of my best friends lives in Athens.
AO: I would never go to Athens.
AO: I mean, it was kind of like a high school angst-ridden principle, that UGA and Athens represented high school part II, and I was very anti-high school and that point, and so for me going to school in the city that was…
JW: He grew up in Athens, and I think he feels that way…he has a very clear marker, or at least he did until a couple of years ago, of a street that he would not cross, because that was the UGA side of Athens.
AO: Right, yeah. I’m much more grown up about it now, and I feel like I missed out on a really beautiful town that I could’ve visited more, and a music community that was probably worth checking out when I was there.
JW: It’s still there, it’s still good. So when did you move to California?
AO: In 2003 I came here, to go to grad school at CalArts.
JW: Was it all CalArts or partially the allure of California?
AO: Well I actually almost went to Mills…I thought I wanted to go to Mills more because I thought I wanted to go to the Bay more and I’d only ever heard bad things about Los Angeles, but in the end I ended up going to CalArts because I realized I wanted to go to an art school, not just a music school, and then when I got there I found out that LA is fucking incredible and I found out that San Francisco is really provincial and very un-integrated, so it ended up being a really fantastic decision for me.
JW: So did you go to grad school for music?
AO: Yeah, I was in the music school there. But I figured out really quick how to get out of the music school and into other departments, which was ultimately the most useful for me.
JW: Did you head to CalArts with an idea in your mind that you were going to move out of music?
AO: I know going into CalArts, or into grad school, that my practice was….that I considered myself…well one I didn’t consider myself a composer heading in…
AO: Do you need some water?
JW: Sure! Maybe I’ll eat a mint, too, that’s what my mom does when she starts coughing uncontrollably. I guess I’m just curious about the transition between, for you, the transition between, for you, the transition between being a composer and, sorry buddy…
AO: Is he getting annoying?
JW: No, I just sat on his tail.
AO: I didn’t consider myself a composer. I mean, I had taken some composition classes and I was doing computer music, but you know I got to grad school and I met composers and they’re the kind of people that could look at notes on a page and hear them in their head, and I didn’t have that ability and I didn’t have a background in harmony, and I knew I was going to an experimental school so that wasn’t necessarily a requirement when I got in, but I thought of myself as a sound artist and even more so as a performance artist who was using sound.
AO: So I was doing work that involved attaching sensors to my body and the work that I was looking at was not sound art necessarily, but I was really attracted to body artists at that point, like Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovic, the Vienna Actionists, Fluxus, et cetera, like that was what I was looking to, at least right before I got into school. And doing my sound things as kind of like looking into the performance of the body.
AO: My whole experience, though, is just one of transitioning from one medium to another and feeling like there’s a thread running throughout all of it and therefore I don’t know this thing anymore. So for instance, you know I was a jazz drummer, and there were many moments where I just realized once I got into the computer, doing computer music, that I don’t need drums to do the thing that I want to do. And with jazz, one of the attractions was this notion of moment-form, like being in the moment, and this notion of working intuitively or even psychically with other people, and working within constraints or structures together and seeing what happens, and those sorts of things have continued in some shape or form throughout. So the mediums keep shifting, but…the general progression is like jazz drums, sensors attached to the body, then there was a big breakthrough halfway through grad school where it was, um, what I call biometric pieces, but minus the sensors where we used our fingers instead, where it was like checking someone’s pulse at the neck and watching their blinks. And all the sudden the tunnel vision got like this because all the sudden you’re staring into someone’s eyes for sixteen minutes in a piece and it’s really intimate and it was like “wow, this is amazing and it’s so much fun and really weird and I’m falling love with people just looking at them,” and it’s really uncomfortable…so I dropped the electronics at that point and I was writing text scores, just instructions for how to perform things, and that brought in – you know, I’ve always enjoyed words, so – it was just like coming out of the closet as someone who likes text. And ever since then text and writing has been a really big part of my practice no matter what. There’s a lot of different places we could pop into whatever…
JW: How do you view the relationship between writing and – because I too have a penchant for setting up bureaucratic entities or…I guess, yeah I don’t know, I don’t know how you want to talk about Guru Rugu, or the Bureau for Experimental Meditation, or…
AO: Well what were you just about to say, though, about your practice?
JW: That I have a penchant for creating these kind of bureaucratic organizations or pseudonyms or things like this and I always kind of wonder if that’s tied to an improvisational approach to composition where it’s composing not as “here’s this set thing that everyone has to this” but “here’s this structure that a bunch of people can be part of”…I don’t know, I’ve always just kind of wondered why I started doing that. And I’m wondering if there’s anything that you can see…
AO: Well the kind of flippant answer for me would be that it’s genetic. My dad’s professional was that he was a copy-editor in the sports section of the newspaper, and I remember very vividly growing up and being little and him talking about headline writing as a form of haiku, you know, and it’s not like we did exercises, but that kind of attention to what a few words can do, how they can resonate together…
JW: Have you ever read the book How to Do Things With Words?
JW: Neither have I, but it’s a great title! And apparently it’s also a really interesting book. It’s by this Oxford philosopher and Judith Butler writes about it a lot…uhh, but it’s sort of…there’s the performative, there’s the something else…like, you know, there’s things that you say that you do while you’re doing them, like “I name this ship blah blah blah” or “I now pronounce you man and wife” or blah blah blah and there’s things that you say where they’re referencing an action that happened before, or, whatever…I don’t remember the terms so it’s kind of not worth talking about.
AO: Yeah. Some other ways I think about it is, like, for me, coming into writing text scores…Text scores, ultimately in the tradition of them, they’re like prompts, and especially Fluxus and that tradition it’s like one-liners, it borders on humor or punchlines, and there’s this sense that through a single command or prompt there can be…there’s like an activity or process or group activity lying beyond that statement that’s much more complex or interesting and fun, or just something to do. Another thing that you probably know from the realm of music is that it’s really fun coming up with band names, that’s a really big tradition, but also band names have a huge influence over…ultimately they can be prompts for a certain kind of action or performance demeanor…
JW: Or the people that are in a band can be sort of the limits of what that band is or what it can do or what direction it’s going. Do you think of the Bureau of Experimental Meditation as a band?
AO: Well, it’s actually the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, and the Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses.
JW: Right, sorry.
AO: They do, I mean when I started creating some of them, especially Experimental Meditation Center, cofounding it with Guru Rugu, or BESHT with Professor Padu-Paga, like, I didn’t think of them as band names, but I don’t know, it’s just fun to invent names…or sometimes it’s you invent a name and you’re like “what does this thing do,” but other times it’s like “what sums up this thing that we want to do together?” and like you kind of said, with a band, when you create a band name the identities of the people in the band kind of get subsumed under this, so you can be a guitarist or a drummer in a band, or you could be in multiple bands, but it’s not necessarily your band, it’s that thing. And so these platforms – I think of them as platforms, ultimately, they’re platforms, they’re prompts, for people to come in and do things that they wouldn’t normally…that might be part of their practice, but might not…one of the first ones where I consciously had an experience was that was with the Eternal Telethon. I don’t know if you know them…
AO: It came out of CalArts, and it was a group who started doing these fundraisers, these telethons, of varying durations, at different locations, that were streamed online using Ustream when it first came out, and the goal was to raise money for a convalescent home for retired artists, and it would located be at the Salton Sea, and so the hope was that anybody who became part of it would then be a part of Telethon and would one day be able to retire along with us at the Salton Sea.
JW: That’s a great idea.
AO: A lot of the people who got involved – it was basically a variety show with MCs ranting in between – and a lot of the people who participated were not performance artists. It was primarily a performance thing, but a lot of people were not performance artists. So you saw a lot of artists who didn’t typically perform doing performances, you saw writers performing, you saw people – just creative people…and so that of course seemed really exciting. The stakes were really low, like it was broadcast online, but nobody’s watching, and I’m interested in that phenomenon, and you can see it very clearly happening again in a much larger way at KCHUNG radio right now, because they’re broadcasting, there might not be anybody listening, it’s a radio/sound thing/phenomenon with primarily a lot of artists doing stuff, many of whom have never done anything with sound before, or even performed before, so I don’t know, I like that kind of experiment or that kind of platform or that kind of theme-based thing. You see that happening with theme-based shows, theme-based group exhibitions, too, you know like, “hey Jacob, do you want to be in this show about dogs and cats?” and you’re like “I don’t really make work about dogs and cats, but sure.”
JW: Well, I like this dog.
JW: There’s also something really interesting about having a broadcast that everyone is part of that brings people together to make this broadcast that everybody knows nobody is listening to.
AO: Well, some people do.
JW: Well, but something about the direction towards a public that doesn’t exist that allows people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.
AO: I mean, in LA too, there’s a tradition of, like…like people here don’t come out to performances the way they do in New York. In New York, or even Berlin, when I go see friends’ performances, there are lots of people there watching who are not their friends, and the tradition that I’ve witnessed in LA, at least among experimental arts stuff, is that typically the people who are watching are your friends. And it’s less and less so, places like the wulf. are growing, and people go there more regularly to see things by people they don’t know, and same thing with Human Resources there’ll be like a hundred people now for something, but my experience with it here in LA and in Atlanta is like “I’m doing this for and with my friends,” and I’m neither for or against either model, but I come out of being interested in this kind of, what kind of things that can happen in that sort of space. I mean, when you don’t know people, there’s a certain kind of vulnerability that can take place when things are more anonymous, which is similar to the kind of things that can happen on craigslist or on dating sites, because you can do certain things there that you wouldn’t normally do. But there’s also things you can do with friends that you wouldn’t do with strangers.
AO: A lot of my work, at least with the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, or Signify, Sanctify, Believe, the stuff that kind of focuses on ritual or religious or spiritual technology, kind of focuses on like what kind of things happen within the privacy of a concert hall or what I would call a magic circle or something.
JW: Well, maybe that’s a good transition point to start actually talking about listening, which was sort of the pretext of our conversation. So I’m really excited about listening as a – we probably have like 10 minutes, right?
AO: No, well 10 minutes until the alarm, 20 minutes until I need to…25 minutes. Sorry about getting bookended.
JW: No, it’s fine, it’s really fine. So I’m really excited about listening as an aesthetic activity that places the agency to have an experience on the listener, the viewer, the participant…somebody else who’s not like “here’s this experience you’re having,” but also that’s not a new thing, that’s what really excited El Lissitsky about exhibition design, or what excited some conceptual artists about making non-existent work or whatever, it was always this excitement about bestowing upon the viewer this magical agency which is, you know, I think I have to think about it more to really kvetch about. I mean these spaces – the concert hall, magic circle, any kind of religious situation – there’s a lot of ritual things happening, but there’s always this practice of listening.
AO: Well I mean broadly, my notion of listening is not ear-based anymore. I would like to say that it’s focus-based, like I would like to say that listening is about focusing on something, but even that is too narrow, like as someone with an undiagnosed form of ADD, some of my biggest breakthroughs in listening to experimental music have been when I let go of trying to focus and allowed my mind to bounce around the room and, you know, quote-unquote not pay attention, and release from the shackles of having to focus in what I thought was the right way.
AO: So I’m definitely interested in a more embodied notion of listening. One that’s maybe more about presence more than anything else. Which was actually my approach to Occupy…for Occupy LA or Occupy Wall Street, I didn’t necessarily find all the entryways I wanted to in terms of political stances, but I felt it was really important just to be there, just to follow that prompt and to Occupy, be present, whether I agree or disagree or whatnot. But similarly, there’s this…I don’t know. I think that’s a period there. I was going to say something else, but I forgot.
JW: So you’re talking a bunch of the intersection ritual practices and music and you say this one line in here that…what do you think about it? I mean it’s really interesting to read and it’s a very nice history of these practices, but you…
AO: What’s the line?
JW: “LaVey’s one-man band demonstrates satanism’s infatuated embrace of uncompromising, self-satisfied, alienated individuality, similar in some ways to ahbez’s lonely wanderer. These albums, then, are the egomaniacal satanic masterworks of one man in a recorded universe where he is finally the king of his own masturbatory, musical jungle.” So it seems like you almost have a contempt for these practices that like…
AO: Contempt? No. Masturbation is great!
JW: Yeah, ok, that’s true.
AO: No, yeah, that line in particular is about the embodiment of…like LaVey’s thing – LaVey and Satanism – is this complete self-centered ego…like it’s just about satisfying your own ego, not anybody else’s, and it’s about self-reliance, it’s about DIY, it’s about doing it yourself, not doing it together, doing it by yourself, potentially, unless you need someone else, and you get it from them, take it from them…it’s very objectivist and it’s very egoistic and egotistic. But I don’t mean those necessarily in bad ways. I identify with those on certain days and on certain subjects. His thing is about selfishness, and not being ashamed of that. It’s about the worship of being a sensuous being and about obeying these emotions and drives that you feel. That’s the way he thinks and talks about it. And actually I used to be really interested in Ayn Rand’s writing. Because in high school I loved her writing, because I had a lot of self-doubt and I had a lot of angst, and I had a lot of…what’s the word…you know, I just didn’t like myself. And her books actually helped me learn to like myself and to have pride, and so in that way that stuff was actually very useful, like for someone who’s depressed, but later on I moved into Buddhist and other things, but Anton LaVey pulls out of the ultimate kind of selfishness of pride. Which becomes misanthropic and angry and…
JW: Maybe what was interesting…Whatever, I don’t know what I was thinking when I brought that up. But maybe something that is interesting, that’s even related to what we were talking about just before I brought that up, but it seems like…I’ve never listened to LaVey’s music, I mean I’ve seen a YouTube video of him playing organ, which is incredible…
AO: He’s an amazing musician.
JW: But it seems like that would be kind of a debilitating musical experience, like there would be no room to hear anything else besides Anton LaVey.
AO: You mean at one of the services he did?
JW: Or maybe just listening to the recording. But probably moreso at a service. Which I think points out a little bit of the silliness of my dream of listening as this radically active thing, where sometimes there’s actual no other alternative but to hear what’s enveloping you. But I feel the total opposite might be Pauline Oliveros…[loud noise]…oh, I think I got a text message. Yeah, I did.
AO: What I would say is…if we’re just going to talk about listening, I would say that while yes I agree with the notion of like placing this agency in the listener, ultimately what I feel like is if we’re still going to enjoy this division of the listener and the performer or the listener and the artist or the observer and the artist – which is fine, it’s a fun kind of role-playing to do ultimately – it’s not that the listener/viewer has all that agency, it’s that the artist has the opportunity to facilitate a kind of listening, or a kind of framework to see things through, and for me listening has never just been about just sound, or sight has never been about light, it’s always based on information that one has while one is listening to something, and by information you can also think of it as a framework, so this article is a framework through which you can listen to this music again. I have a very vivid memory, in high school, when I was first learning how to play jazz drums, my teacher gave me this jazz video, and I remember watching it – and we had been doing the ding-ding-da-ding thing on the cymbal – and I watched it and I literally cried out of frustration – tears down my face – because I could not follow a single beat of it.
JW: Was it a drum video where you were supposed to follow along?
AO: No it was a performance. And it was absolutely frustrating because what was happening was I had a little bit of the framework – I had the ding-ding-a-ding – but I didn’t yet have the jazz framework of listening to that. And now…I mean, I can’t remember if I ever listened to it a year or two later, but now I would be able to listen to that and I would probably be able to appreciate it, or not appreciate it, but still because I knew about the politics that it represented, within the jazz world or whatever. So Anton LaVey’s work is actually really horrible to listen to if you’re listening to it for sonic qualities, but if you know a little bit about his history and whatnot, and if you see him play, too, it kind of damns the music, you know what I mean? And so ultimately if you’re talking about a framework of listening, you’re talking ultimately about a belief system, right? And even if it’s a temporary one, it’s still like, “I believe that music is this right now, and because of this my constitution tells me that I need to listen for the harmonics.” Because I’m listening to James Tenney or Cat Lamb, and if you’re listening for the fundamental pitch – which I’ve done throughout all their concerts – you’re missing the concert. But all the sudden if you believe in all these angelic harmonies, or these harmonics, or these weird physical things that are happening in your ears that aren’t even in the room…and I’ve had that experience, like listening to music once and having no idea, or listening to the wrong part of it, and listening to it again, or listening to that kind of music again, and being like oh, duh, why didn’t anyone tell me that before? It doesn’t have to be a belief system, but it’s related to one. Because a belief system gives you a way to view the world, a way to be an observer and an agent in the world, just as activism does, and politics does…
JW: That makes sense to me. The idea that listening allows for being aware that there are multiple different frameworks through which to have any kind of given experience.
AO: And it’s totally fun subscribing to those things, too.
JW: Yeah, but I think what’s exciting, that’s maybe available in music, especially in improvised music, that might not be available everywhere else, is the constant knowledge that there might be something else you could be listening for, or another way to experience a given thing, so I’m much more open to intentionally having the wrong experience. I find it really generative. I mean, I don’t know, Claire Fontaine came and talked to the CCA Social Practice class, and I don’t know, I was late and a little hungover and they were tired and the discussion was not very good, but it was a really – because it’s two of them and they have a child and for some reason the entire time they were at at CCA only Fulvia was talking and James wasn’t saying anything and the baby was just screaming a lot – and I started experiencing the discussion as a performance rather than a discussion and it was infinitely more satisfying. I mean, it was great.
AO: I feel like there’s no reason to be disappointed – I mean I get disappointed all the time – and I have a piece called Listening Performances, and it’s just a list of different ways to be at a concert or whatever that you’re not digging or whatever. When I teach I actually talk about this a lot, just as an introduction if someone’s coming from one medium and moving to another, but there’s this quote from Alan Kaprow where he says “what if I were to think that art is just paying attention?” and it’s this notion of art begins with me focusing on something. I like to replace his “think” with “believe” and say “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” which moves it into this notion of that you’re kind of creating this universe and through this process you’re beginning to include things into what you’re seeing, but you’re also excluding things. For instance, to kind of wrap this around in a weird way, I have plenty of friends who are really angry about being brought up as Christian, like they were hardcore believers and really mean to people as a result, up to a certain point, and then they stopped. And when they stopped being mean to people they ultimately stopped being a certain kind of Christian, or Christian whatever. I kind of feel the same way about drums, like that was my religion growing up for ten years, and I love drumming, but I’m a little bit bitter because there was probably a period of four to six years where I only listened to drummers on recordings, and so there’s this whole period of a half decade or more, where I witnessed so much amazing music and I totally lost out because I didn’t even listen to the piano player, or I didn’t listen to the trumpet player. There was a moment where I actually tried listening to a saxophone solo, maybe seven years in, and it really felt like I had never listened to a saxophone solo. So I don’t know, I’m interested in that kind of focusing…
JW: Not just focus, but believing. Believe is a different verb than focus.
AO: No, exactly. For instance, we use the term belief, because at least in cinema, but in other things too, we talk about the suspension of disbelief, which I translate as temporary belief, belief that’s bookended, potentially by your entering the space. And it is…you’re becoming vulnerable, you’re going into a suggestive state hypothetically, you allow yourself to listen, you go through the program, you see the title, maybe you listen to it based on what the title says, you look at the name under it…that’s a huge thing actually, really interesting thing, actually, my friends love their friends music, and many of them hate strangers’ music.
JW: I’m the same way.
AO: But as soon as they meet somebody and get to know them, they become huge fans of their music, when they hated it before, and you see how just a name can change the way someone listens to it, or knowing someone’s background, studying their history – who was Anton LaVey, you know? – so listening is just so…what’s the word…it’s just so easy.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles.
Adam Overton is an experimental and conceptual artist based in Los Angeles who works between performance, writing, publishing, experimental music, workshops, event production, and massage.