We are all, I am sure, familiar with the concept of “the chilling effect,” by which legitimate forms of expression are discouraged by fear of consequences such as censorship, lawsuit, or arrest. The chilling effect is one of, if the the most, dangerous consequences of censorship in any field, and particularly in regard to art, because it shrinks the area in which our ideas compete for recognition, slowing intellectual progress. Here it is important to recognize most emphatically that it does not matter if an individual, censored idea was meritorious; you’ve got to get through a lot of bad ideas to get to a good one.
It had seemed that the culture wars were largely over. Mapplethorpe, the leader of the pack, has been safely canonized, and Serrano wasn’t far behind. Round two was the Chris Ofili dust up, but by that point, the war was over, and Rudy Giuliani was left looking like a senile old man telling the art world to get off his lawn.
If these names all seem familiar to you, you (or perhaps the artists) have the culture wars to thank. There is something of a silver lining to the cloud of censorship, what I’m inclined to term a “micro-privilege.” To censor you, they have to say your name. In a world where everybody’s fighting for attention, to have someone pay enough attention to you to bother censoring your work, or attempting to do so, is in itself a sort of miniature victory. We could debate how well Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Ofili would be known if not for their roles in the culture wars, but without a doubt it has only contributed to their reputations.
It mustn’t have been long after the first act of censorship that people started thinking that making one’s self a target for censorship could be an effective strategy for self-promotion. The generation that grew up in the 1980s must remember hearing, in hushed tones on the schoolyard, of a film called, “Faces of Death.” Like so many schoolyard rumors, it was the taboo nature of the film that formed the heart of its appeal. It was at times implied that it was illegal to possess, that it contained “snuff” footage of murders committed specifically to make the film, etc. These were untrue, but the film itself was promoted as being “Banned in 40+ Countries.” The effort at censorship was exaggerated, then recruited as an advertising slogan.
Back in 2010, Chicago-based performance artist Joseph Ravens was the center of a minor, local controversty (http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/this-guys-penis-is-a-work-of-art/Content?oid=1981925), pertaining to an issue of nudity in a storefront pop-up gallery. It was the kind of silly footnote that distracts from the work itself, as Joseph himself, I’m sure, would agree. Joseph and I have become friends and have worked together, and I take him at his word when he says that he never intended to create any controversy.
However, in the comments of the above-linked Reader article, one commenter posted a link to a film in which Ravens had appeared, entitled “Penis Demilo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm0Tbyig1NA). While the film was uploaded in 2010, and the copyright notice in the credits is to that year, it appears much older, perhaps late 1990s. The film was produced by the group Joy Farm, with whom Ravens has been working since 1993.
Ravens portrays an artist named Ennui, who has created a sculpture called Penis Demilo. The artwork was scheduled to be unveiled at the opening of Municipal Gallery. Protestors arrive (“I’m protesting about that filthy penis in there!”) and the decision is made to remove the piece. The protests, however, draw publicity, crowds of viewers arrive, and the gallery prepares to unveil the piece. A bomb threat is phoned in, and as the building is being evacuated, Ennui announces that, “If I cannot share my art with you, no one will ever see it” He topples the still-draped sculpture, which shatters into pieces and dust. Reporter Floss Mulligan reports, “Well, it looks as though he’s made the bold step into performance art.” The film concludes with a scene of Ennui paying the leader of the protestors and contracting them to protest again next month for his new piece, “Protein Smile.”
Cynics were quick to take Ravens’ participation in this film as evidence in support of the theory that the 2010 “dick in a window” controversy was itself a publicity stunt. Ravens himself told me that he had totally forgotten about the film, and I believe him. Instead, it seems to me the sort of coincidence that happens from time to time.
Perhaps I am sympathetic in this case because I have run into issues of censorship myself from time to time. In graduate school, one of my pieces was to be displayed in a window of the college’s gallery. A complaint followed, and the issue was put to the director of my graduate program, Grace Hartigan. I wasn’t present for the conversation, but according to several people present, she immediately agreed to remove the work. One of these friends called me, and so I was able to act pre-emptively. I dashed off a quick announcement, written in the voice of the college, announcing the need to censor the work. I covered the painting with a black sheet and hung the notice in front of it. Of course this made the college look bad, and the decision was made to remove the covering and allow the piece to be shown (accompanied by a denial of any attempt to censor the piece in the first place).
In an earlier incident, in undergrad at Humboldt State, an arguably more obscene piece was censored; my effort to drape the piece was in this case denied. Immediately upon my removing the piece, a friend purchased it, in part because of the controversy. The “Penis Demilo effect” was in play here. (My first experience with censorship occurred early in elemenary school; officials took my drawing of a man urinating as evidence that I was being molested by my parents, a totally false conclusion, and I had to spend a week in a foster home while the whole thing was sorted out.)
These issues, and in particular the Penis Demilo film, were on my mind as I watched the recent drama over The Interview play out. This was, apparently, a different case than the earlier fine art culture wars. Here, rather than alleged that a law was being broken or funds misused, Sony Pictures claimed to have been hacked, and then a threat was made that 9/11-type attacks would be directed at any theater showing the film. Major theater chains refused to show the film, a few indie theaters promised to show it as planned, then Sony pulled the release. Some theaters (the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, for example) planned to show Team America in its place, then Paramount refused to license the showings of that film. Obama chimed in, telling Americans to “go to the movies,” echoing Bush’s 9/11 admonition that Americans “go shopping.”
Ultimately, The Interview was shown as video-on-demand. I got together with my wife, my sister, and a few friends, and we paid our three bucks or whatever and watched the thing. It was exactly what it had appeared to be in the initial, pre-scandal previews: a lackluster bromance against a backdrop of North Korea’s tragically comical flaws. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it had its moments. It was no Team America, but it was no Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, either.
I’ve heard cynicism similar to that around Ravens’ performance scandal in regard to The Interview. Was it all a publicity stunt? North Korea itself denied involvement in the hacking, though the FBI concluded that they had been at least partially behind it (a conclusion widely debated by other experts), resulting in US sanctions against North Korean interests. North Korea’s denial is itself puzzling, considering their threats as long ago as June of last year, promising to treat the film’s release as “an act of war.”
Regardless of who was responsible for the cyber attack and theater threats (which may have been by the same party, or perhaps others), a lot of people seem (on Facebook, at least) to consider it now to be their patriotic duty to see The Interview. I certainly felt compelled to watch it. Would I have, otherwise? Probably. I go to the movies a lot, and I mean this as distinctly opposed to “looking at film.” I enjoy a good two-nour nepenthe pretty regularly. But I certainly felt more compelled to see The Interview after being told that there were people who didn’t want me to see it.
The cynics probably go too far, though, in suggesting that Sony, themselves, may have fabricated the threats in order to drum up publicity for the film. It doesn’t seem to make economic sense. Sure, they managed some $15 million in streaming profits in the first four days (plus just under $3 million from the few independent theaters which showed the film), but with a $44 million budget, Sony is far from breaking even. They would have done far better had they allowed the theatrical release to go ahead, and there’s no evidence that there was any reason, other than the threats, to cancel the release.
From Joseph Ravens’ penis to the assassination of a baby-faced tyrant, anal fisting to a crucifix in urine, and let’s not forget Our Lady of the Jiggling Butt Cheeks, creative expression invariably steps on some toes. All the sensation created by controversy may bring with it some small benefits in terms of publicity. But if we forget the chilling effect it is to our peril. Even if you don’t care for the current comedy/painting/photograph of a dictator/buttfucking/saint, tolerating its censorship (even soft censorship such as a private donor threatening to withdraw funds) shrinks the envelope of exploration. The next time someone pitches a movie making fun of a dictator, the studios, remembering The Interview, make balk, even if the new movie has more potential than its predecessor did.
The same is true in the art world. If faculty, fearing for their jobs, refuse to support students in the face of threatened censorship by the University, those students will learn the lesson that some subjects cannot be discussed, some media can not be used, some ideas can not be expressed. This extends at every level of the scene, from a museum pulling a show due to criticism, or a coffee shop with a “no nudes” policy for the community artwork it allows on its walls. None of this is to say that only dirty work is worthwhile; indeed, shock is a well-worn strategy and much “offensive” work is in fact merely boring. But if we are to maintain an open forum for conversation, such works must be allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits, or lack thereof, rather than being preemptively excluded from discussion for failing to meet a lowest-common-denominator standard of decency.
Shipping containers may be the very apparatus of globalism, but in South London they have come to rest in the community. Recycled and refurbished with windows, light and double power points, it is hoped they will create Brixton’s newest and most creative destination.
Based at a former ice rink, Pop Brixton aims to provide a home for start ups, creative businesses, events, workshops, cafes and local retail outlets. It may look to some like retail mall BoxPark in Shoreditch, but a localist focus promises a completely different agenda.
After all, shopping BoxPark for trainers, you are unlikely to stray across many artists in residence. Pop Brixton, on the other hand, is planning to invite not one but two artists to reside with them in the first twelve months of operating.
There are other social-minded touches, which spokesperson Valentina Fois told me about via phone earlier in the week. At their own expense, architects Carl Turner are giving work and training to apprentices from Lambeth College.
Meanwhile the brief for signage has gone to students at nearby Camberwell College of Art. “The plan is they’re going to come on site. We’re going to work with them. We’re going to be very close and support them as much as we can,” says Fois.
As such it will be one of the few places an undergrad in graphic design can learn how to fit out a shipping container, or even how to market a successful local enterprise. They may also get to use containers for community events, prompting unprecedented levels of student/civilian interaction.
Fois recaps the project origins: “Last year Lambeth Council held an open call to regenerate the site on Pope Road in Brixton. Carl Turner Architects submitted a proposal and won it.”
“It wasn’t in use for a very long time and it wasn’t very nice,” she adds. “But it’s not just about the aesthetic. It didn’t have any purpose. It didn’t serve anyone, let alone the community, for sure.”
When she’s not promoting urban regeneration projects, Fois is also a gallerist and digital curator. So it was imperative to ask her about the differing worlds of art and creative business. “Okay, that’s a tricky one,” she laughs.”I don’t divide the two.”
“Well, when I think about art I don’t think about ‘Art’, as such, like as a temporary world detached from the rest. So, I always consider art as such a mixture of sound, and, it could be cinema. It could be everything really.”
“I don’t see much difference between working on an art project and a project like this, because the two things can be combined,” she continues. Her artists in residence and signage briefs are a case in point. And so vital are Pop Brixton plans, TEDx Brixton has recently shown an interest, which Fois is thrilled about.
“This is a 3-year project so it is very hard to generate a substantial profit from it in such a short amount of time,” she says. “That’s one of the things we really want to make sure people understand. It is easy to assume that the project is lead by another big developer who wants to gentrify the area, but this is not the case. CTA is an architectural company interested in place making”.
The plans, at least, for the site on Pope Road look green and idyllic. And Brixton, which has changed a lot in recent years, hardly needs the helping hand of gentrification.
Fois concludes that Carl Turner the lead architects are more interested in people than profits. “I know it’s going to sound a little bit naive,” she says.
“But the way they work in architecture is to create spaces for people which really mean something, that can engage with the community and change the way people perceive the common space”.
It would seem art and enterprise, like globalism and localism, can indeed pop up together. Let us see how the rapprochement goes.
here and there pink melon joy @ Cultural Center until January 4, 2015
here and there pink melon joy~~an exhibition in three acts
by Lise McKean
Cast: Artist, Audience Members, Composer, Gallery Director, Invited Expert, Set and Costume Designer, Writer
The exhibition, here and there pink melon joy provides the place and impetus for two separate conversations: a public one with Artist, Composer, Gallery Director, Invited Expert, and Audience; and a private one between Set Designer and Writer. The exhibition is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and fills the three interconnected galleries of the Cultural Center’s Chicago Rooms. Gallery 1 is inferno, Gallery 2 is purgatorio, and Gallery 3 is paradiso.
The installation is composed of clocks, hanging lamps, paintings on mirrors, video, and a large-scale fountain made of carved and painted styrofoam. It explores classic themes of self-exploration and transformation and motifs from the Divine Comedy, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Gertrude Stein’s book for children, The World Is Round. Each gallery has a sound element, song of melon joy, I, II, III, but on some days the sound isn’t working. The exhibition’s viewers enter and depart through the Inferno.
once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’
Act I Inferno
Artist: Many of the pieces were made over years, and one work might use several pieces. The work enfolds the sound. The elements are staged for a conversation with viewers and the objects are embodied with life force. You’ll see a lot of circles, and they have a lot of references—the circles of hell, eternity, the cycle of rebirth that Hindus call samsara.
Composer: When I went to meet the Artist I saw a drum set at her house and wanted to use them. The drums fit in with overall form of the work.
Artist: A few years ago I wanted to learn to play drums and form a band.
Composer: I work with drones. Here the military drum has a fascist sound. Ideally the sound in the Inferno would be loud and booming.
Invited Expert: There’s a tension between the objects and the military sound.
Artist: Working with sound can be tricky. I did an installation in Auckland where the sound turned out to be oppressive and overpowered the work.
Gallery Director: I found the eyes kind of unsettling when I first entered Gallery 1. There are so many clichés around eyes—surveillance, self-knowledge.
Artist: With their mirrors, the objects look back at us. How do we liberate the eye from all the clichés?
Set Designer: This black and white piece caught me when I first entered. It makes me a little dizzy. It has the appearance of a black and white photo, but obviously it’s three dimensional. There’s something tricky about its flatness. The dimensionality is smeared.
Writer: There’s the suggestion of regularity in the lattice but at the same time it’s collapsing. The collapsing structure is a good image for the Inferno.
Writer: A couple nights ago I had dinner with a friend who’s a volcano expert, so I’ve got lava on my mind. Some of this looks like lava rock and the florescent orange parts could be molten lava flows.
Set Designer: Yes, it’s like glowing hot lava. That’s another connection to the Divine Comedy and the Inferno with the descent into the fiery depths of the earth.
Set Designer: I’m trying to recall other images of the Divine Comedy. I’m thinking of the famous ones by the French artist Doré. I see parallels between the first piece and his black and white engravings.
Artist: Getting ready to write about this show got me reading Dante. My copy has the Doré illustrations—I hadn’t seen them in years. The book was my parents and I remember looking at it as a kid and feeling that the pictures were weird and intriguing. This piece’s illusion of flatness is the inverse of how Dore’s engravings create the illusion of depth.
Set Designer: I like the clock ticking. I saw another one in here. Where is it?
Writer: There’s one there [pointing to a clock]. And there’s another one over here. And this thing over here on the floor [pointing to a work by the entrance], it reminds me of a fun house mirror. Look, it’s the kind that stretches you out into a giant.
Artist: In conducting research for this show, I had to ask what is hellish and see how love is involved too. Each room has an accidental Duchamp reference. His The Large Glass ruined artists’ lives.
I want people to use common sense when interacting with the work. They can walk on the mirror but of course I don’t want them to stomp on it. I’m a toucher and want people to touch the work. The pieces explore how the grotesque can be seductive. That means you can want to touch them but also find them repulsive.
Invited Expert: Is your work really all that grotesque? They’re very pleasurable and beautiful, like geodes. The referents can be seen as grotesque.
Artist: We can consider the grotesqueness as the fact that we’re attracted to objects made of spray foam—the grotesque as toxic. We have to coat it because it degrades when it’s not covered. So the grotesqueness is underneath. As an artist, I feel vulnerable making work that is grotesque and embarrassingly seductive.
Set Designer: I like the transparent surfaces. There are a million ways to use them—glass, acrylic, scrim, or tulle—with things painted on them. It can be really interesting, and you can draw a lot of formal sense from it.
Writer: And there’s even more glass and reflections with these spectacular windows.
Set Designer: What could unite this better is if one of these pieces hanging from the chain were much larger than the others. If one were twice as big, it might hold the whole composition together better. I saw on the website the projection on the wall. Now that’s really interesting, it grabbed the whole space. In this space I see just separate pieces.
Writer: What about the experience of walking through the separate pieces? Is that a way they become less separate? Could the way the viewer looks at it while moving through the space be what might give it unity? It’s a different kind of animation of the space than that of a stage set with actors.
Set Designer: I think some special lighting would help.
Writer: The lighting in this space is a problem.
Set Designer: Are the lights are on all the time?
Writer: Yes, it’s one of the challenges for artists showing here. Look at these yellow lights. I’ve never seen a yellow compact fluorescent bulb before.
Set Designer: I like real things put in unusual contexts.
Writer: And then there are the fire extinguishers and exit signs. When I take the photos of shows in these galleries, I take some that include them.
Set Designer: Like I was telling you, when I walk around and see ordinary things in this context, all of the sudden they have another sense.
Act II Purgatorio
[The drip-drip sound in Gallery 2 evokes the experience of time passing slowly. The inferno has only two clocks but there’s a whole tower of them in purgatorio where time is of the essence]
Artist: The doorways between galleries are tall but they’re narrow, only 40 inches wide. I had to cut and manipulate pieces to get them in. The fountain was designed so that a tube could carry water up and then it would trickle down. But it turned out we can’t use water here.
Composer: I’m a composer in real life. I became friends with the Artist when trying to put a fountain at the Merchandise Mart for an installation. Water was a problem there too because of the lobby’s marble floor. Since we can’t have water here, I modified the sound element. To get the water sounds for this piece I held a microphone above the toilet and made a recording. I wanted that steady repetitive sound. Modulation in the sounds is a way to think about time. Even though I don’t feel sound is integral to this work, a small time-based element can increase the animation of a strong figural presence. And look [pointing to the Michigan Avenue windows] this work mirrors the real fountain and grass across the street in Millennium Park.
Invited Expert: Purgatory is like a zombie world between life and death. I can’t tell if the plants are fake or alive.
Audience Member: What did this body of work bring to you?
Artist: I’m not sure yet. I did some floor pieces at Oxbow. What’s here is two years’ worth of work, though I’ve really been four years working on it. For a recent installation at the Franklin I made a fake stone façade.
Set Designer: I’m thinking about my friend’s show in Moscow that I sent you photos of. He teaches set design and directing. He works with students to build things are going to involve real actors. A strength of that his installation is that it didn’t use symbolism. The pieces referred to specific shows. For example, there was an explosion in one of his shows and the works in the installation are broken teacups.
What’s here is more of a technique of absolute freedom. At first I thought it was an expression of happiness and of a carefree person. Of how she would like to express herself and technique.
Writer: The title here and there pink melon joy suggests that. Especially the work in this gallery.
Set Designer: I like this room more than the first one.
Writer: The other room is the inferno, what’s there to like about hell?
[At this point the Set Designer and Writer have been in the exhibition about one hour.]
Invited Expert: This is a serious investment in styrofoam. Can you talk about materiality and pleasure?
Artist: Pleasure is political. Pleasure is complex. It’s tied up with suffering and pain. It’s tied to class issues. My mother was a poor kid from the Bronx and she collected antique clocks. We had a small apartment full of old clocks. You could say my background is white-collar working class. You know, the people with fake stone facades on their houses.
I’m not interested in the unmonumental but in deconstructing and reconstruction. I’m reinstalling re-enchantment. I’m not a post-modern. I designed a playground with an architect but nothing has come of it yet. The fountain also relates to my interests in Hindu ideas and motifs: the linga and yoni; how to live a spiritual life as a householder who’s still entangled in kama, the excesses of pleasure and materiality, and the struggle with stuff and attachment to it.
Audience Member: What’s the role of humor in your work?
Artist: Humor comes effortlessly. Like Nabokov, I make things for myself. I need to laugh when I look at my own things. A couple came in to the show and looked and laughed. They saw things they thought were funny.
Set Designer: I work a lot with styrofoam. It can be very fruitful. What’s really good about this work is that it’s interesting to look at it for a long time. There are different rhythms, textures, different details. This side is very different from that. I can tell she enjoyed doing it.
[The members of a lively threesome look, talk, laugh, and take photos while leisurely making their way through the exhibition. The Writer introduces herself as writing about the show and they start talking together. They’re all artists—a brother, sister, and friend— visiting from Los Angeles. They love Chicago and could imagine living here. Except for winter. The Writer tells them that the Artist is from LA and lives here.]
Writer: This is the anthropologist side of me, talking like this with people.
[Set Designer points to the windows facing the interior courtyard.]
Set Designer: They’re like a big black mirror.
Writer: She wanted this to be a fountain but they wouldn’t let her use water.
Set Designer: Yes, water is always a problem.
Writer: And there’s supposed to be sound here but it’s not on today.
Set Designer: It would be great to have splashes on the wall.
Writer: Gertrude Stein wrote a children’s book called the World Is Round. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland in that everything is plausible and implausible at the same time. Its main character is Rose. Her favorite color is blue. She decides to take a blue chair to the top of a mountain. You see it here. [Pointing to the top of the fountain.] See, the Artist got her Rose up to the top too. You don’t need to know all that, but since I read the book, I can see the Artist is doing those things. For herself really.
Artist: One collector said that the colors I use are frivolous and don’t challenge conventions of serious art, its use of dark colors. How does a woman function in that realm? How do you do double looking? I rejected Louise Bourgeois while she was alive and now I embrace her. Along with Eva Hess. Doing this type of work is a kind of purgatory. It’s not taken as seriously as what’s deemed serious art.
Writer: In my mind I’ve been comparing Dante’s voyage with Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round. Dante’s got Virgil but Alice and Rose don’t have anyone. Alice finds herself among animals that talk and the sharp-tongued Queen. At every point she’s criticized for being who she is, a girl. The strangers she meets find fault with her. People talk about the archetype of the hero and the journey. In the Divine Comedy, a touchstone of the genre, Beatrice sends Virgil to Dante to guide him through hell and purgatory and all the way to heaven’s gate. Alice and Rose have to figure things out pretty much on their own during their journeys. This strikes me as resonant with what the Artist described as her experience making and exhibiting art.
Writer: Are you familiar with Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose?” Repetition is very important in her writings. She repeats herself but also plays with different sorts of variations.
Set Designer: I like variation. I do it myself sometimes. I like when I have to do the same show twice or three times because I can try out different things. When you do it once, there’s always something you didn’t do. Then you find something else. And by the way, my last show, the first time we did it in Moscow, the second time, I knew exactly what I had to do. And now in my drawing and painting, I’m drawing some crazy birds, always the same one though with variations. Maybe it’s a kind of therapy.
Writer: Are you exploring a theme by developing it, like in music?
Set Designer: In music it’s more structured.
Writer: But there’s also jazz, that can give room to improvise and break out of the structure.
Set Designer: There’s some rhythmic feel, the bubbles, the mirror, the round clock.
Writer: Another thing that the Artist said about the aesthetic she’s exploring here is that she grew up in Beverly Hills, but her family was not wealthy at all. They lived in a small apartment. Her mother loved ornate things. Their place was packed with rococo, gilt things, symbols of opulence and luxury. So she plays around with that. This is all styrofoam, but she dresses it up with metallic paint and shiny enamel.
Set Designer: Telling me about her environment got me started thinking about where I live now. It’s my wife’s parents’ house. There’s a flamingo mixed with furniture from the twenties. My wife wanted to get rid of it all, but I said no. I feel really good in there. These people just put things together. It wasn’t irritating. Sometimes I go to a place that’s really decorated and I hate it. Somehow this just came together and it doesn’t bother me.
Writer: Maybe your wife doesn’t like it because she grew up with it and wants to get rid of it because she wants her own things.
Set Designer: Yes, and my daughter, she used to hate it too. Really hate it. At first she wanted modern contemporary furniture. But now after seeing what’s at her friends’ houses, she says what we have is more interesting.
Writer: After looking at the pink of the flowers on top of the fountains so close to bright light of the gallery, when I look at the windows with the dark building beyond, it seems like I’m getting a retinal effect of the pink against the dark glass. Do you see the rainbow streaking at the top of the window? Oh, maybe it’s an effect of the UV glass. And see, the colors of the paint on the fountain are similar to the colors on the window!
Set Designer: Is the glass is tinted? You can get that effect from the tinting. The old windows at our house were wavy and you got colors too. The new windows are really flat but if you pay attention there’s a single curve and you can see colors. I like when there are those unexpected things. This happens in set design too, the unexpected.
Writer: I’ve experienced that with artists too. They like to hear what I see when I look closely and when I find things that they didn’t plan for or see themselves.
Writer: [Looking at a piece with a mirror behind it on the wall.] Oh that’s interesting, it’s reflecting the tree. I was thinking the tree is over there.
Set Designer: This is excellent, the use of mirrors throughout the installation.
Writer: I can imagine when the sun comes in, though this time of year it’s far south. In the morning, the light will be doing a lot of things, especially with the mirrors. I saw dust and hair accumulating on the mirror on the floor in the other gallery.
Set Designer: It’s my favorite thing to work with glass and mirrors. I do it different in ways. I always appreciate when I see it done. And everyone works with them in different ways, like with canvas. People have been using canvas for centuries and the things you can do are endless. There’s endless possibilities with glass and mirrors too.
Set Designer: Once I was working on a Hamlet production here in Chicago. A big part of the set was mirrors, old mirrors, and other things transparent or black. It was an old kitschy theater. The set was made of those mirrors. It was the imperial period, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. The stage was small. Usually lighting designers add some smoke for Hamlet. It’s almost traditional because the way the light works with it. In this case, because we had a huge reflecting surface of mirrors, all of the sudden the people in the audience could see themselves. And they could see what was happening behind them—the ghost appeared behind them, Hamlet’s father, the shade. Then the smoke was hanging over the audience and reflecting off the mirrors. It connected the audience and the stage directly. The smoke was like fog for the exterior scenes at Elsinore. But for the interior scenes it looked like cigarette smoke, they were smoking a lot on stage. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t expect it. It just happened. Everything made sense.
Artist: Everything that was difficult or a mistake ends up being the best part.
Set Designer: I like the way the design works, the mixture of textures and some goofy stuff. When I moved here 22 years ago, I saw students carrying their work around. Once I saw a student carrying what looked like prison bars that were wrapped in synthetic pink fur.
Writer: Some of the works here feel Kabbalistic and echo the collapsing lattice. They could be a lot of different things. And look out the window, forms on this piece resonate with the Pritzker Pavilion.
Set Designer: What’s important to me in addition to how it looks is how it’s made and what it makes me think about. The first thing that interested me when I was a child was what it was about. And then the most important thing was how it is done. You can repeat things others have done if you do it in your own way and it’s better and more interesting. Now I’m thinking the most important thing when I look at a piece of art or read a book is what it makes me think about.
Writer: I would say perception, thinking, and experience. Feeling and thinking together. Isn’t that what aesthetics is about? One thing that distinguishes a work as art is that it gives you a distinct experience. Through the physical and mental act of seeing, hearing or whatever sense, we get feelings and ideas that are different from our experiences of the stuff around us in everyday life. Some people are affected spiritually too.
Set Designer: These days I read really weird books sometimes or look at things that I wouldn’t have paid attention to before. All of the sudden somehow it catches and holds me. And I find that it makes me think about something else. Even if it’s badly written.
Writer: That’s the conversation. There’s some way into it for you. One of the unfortunate things about a lot of contemporary art is that for people who are not inside a particular academic, contemporary art way of looking, thinking, and talking about things—and that’s most of the world—they have no way in. It’s very hard to get in.
Set Designer: Do you think it’s because they don’t have experience or they’re not educated about art?
Writer: A lot of artwork, of work that’s out there as contemporary art, you could say fails because it fails to deliver an experience to people who are not somehow already inside that conversation. It’s not opening a door to a conversation.
Set Designer: That’s maybe why they have to write so much to explain it.
Writer: Yes, I also think when audiences don’t have that much experience with art, they start with the meaning. What does it mean instead of what am I seeing, and how does it make me feel? So if the meaning of something isn’t obvious to them, they’d like to be told. They’re coming to it in a more passive way. Or instead of looking directly or even reading about it, they interact with the art by taking photos and selfies with it. If you go to the Art Institute or MCA, you see people walking through the galleries looking at the art through their phone cameras.
Set Designer: Or listening to the audio. I had two friends who came over from Russia and they were with me for a week. When we were driving around to see things, they would check on their cell phones for information. They were more interested in reading information about the places than in looking at them.
Writer: Looking and seeing. That’s what I do with art writing, I explore looking and seeing. I think people want to enjoy art and come into the conversation but habits of daily life make it hard to slow down and look or listen to what’s in front of you.
Set Designer: It definitely helps me when I read about a picture, but first I have to look. I got a book on Andrew Wyeth. At first I didn’t pay attention to what was written but after I looked at the pictures, then I read a few lines about every picture. But first it has to catch my eye.
Writer: You already have an eye. A lot of people haven’t had an opportunity to cultivate theirs. In this digital age, images are so constantly in front of our eyes that it’s not easy to develop the skills and habits of looking and thinking about what you’re seeing.
Set Designer: When my daughter was in school and I would visit, it was horrible—all the posters on the walls. Bad paper, horrible colors. They spend six or seven hours in that environment looking at them and they think it’s okay. I can’t stand it for half an hour. They grow in it. She was there for 10 years. A lot of those posters are sold to schools. They’re not done by students and teachers. Students’ drawings are fine, I love my daughter’s old pictures.
Set Designer: I have never seen uglier things. I had a feeling when I was at the school that it’s not just because they don’t care what it looks like. It’s more like some evil rules them, and leads them to the specifically irritating and horrible—like those posters in the school. Whole walls are covered with that stuff. Posters, posters, pictures. Kids don’t pay attention but it still affects their brain.
Writer: The tall narrow passageways make the galleries very dramatic.
Set Designer: I never noticed it before.
Writer: Okay, so are we ready for paradise? Here we go through another narrow passage.
Act III Paradiso
[A four-channel video animation, to perceive the invisible in you, is projected on the gallery’s three walls and run through a program that coordinates the distortion of the image and sound (prismatic synthesis). Round mirrors on the wall ricochet reflections around the room. A drum set rises like a linga in the middle of the yoni-like circular bench.]
Artist: When first entering this gallery, viewers might be disturbed by the black or darkness. After the bright light in the other two galleries, the viewer needs to be patient to experience the effects in here. For me the flow of the text has a relation to mark-making and spray-painting. The video projection of text across walls uses a program that links sound and text into a pattern. The composition runs through a sub-woofer, drums, and cymbals. It has a single sonic character with a mirroring effect. The software alters the original video.
Invited Expert: The text reflects back out to the body. The text controls you and the mirrors reflect the text rather than you.
Artist: The text is from ecstatic love poetry and Gertrude Stein’s love letters to Alice Toklas, which are very funny. This is also a spiritual environment.
Writer: So this is paradise. We’ve got mirrors on the wall here too. She’s repeating the mirrors.
Set Designer: It’s good thinking, three rooms, three fragments. When there’s not the projection, the mirrors look like windows.
Writer: Like portholes on a ship.
[Set Designer and Writer move to the darkest corner in Paradiso.]
Writer: Here it’s darker. I’d like to see it even darker. They could put a curtain over the passageway.
Set Designer: It’s interesting that paradise is the darkest room.
Together Set Designer and Writer read aloud the projected text: “When the sweet glance of my true love caught my eye like alchemy it transformed my copper like soul…I searched for him with a thousand hands.”
Writer: If you move through the gallery, you have the words going over you, you could be inside them. Look, are they all backwards or just some? It’s like how writing is backwards in a mirror. And then the writing gets so that it’s almost like your mind when you’re thinking. You start with a train of thought….
Set Designer: It’s like one of Nabokov’s novels. He wrote that he would like to write a whole book about the layers in your mind. You know, how many things you think about at the same time. You sing some song while you’re thinking about your family, about your work, about art. All of it at the same time.
Writer: In fact, time is another thing the Artist said she’s exploring. She’s playing with clocks as a straightforward reference to time. Oh look, the text is making hearts and other shapes. She said there’s some kind of program that does that. It’s hard to read after a certain point just like it can be hard to follow a strand of thought or conversation. You start with a strand, and like you said, it layers or branches.
Speaking of time, I meant to ask earlier, how long you can stay? I don’t know how much time you have today. I’m happy to talk as long as you can be here.
There are no clocks in paradiso and the Set Designer and Writer are in no rush to leave. They sit contentedly on the round bench talking about Russian literature and émigré experiences.
December 19, 2014 · Print This Article
I met Roberto Cruz Arzabal, Cinthya García Leyva, and Susana González Aktories at a corner café in Coyoacan, a neighborhood adjacent to UNAM. Cruz, García, and González are three of six members of the laboratory of extended literature and other materialities (lleom), a roving and expansive group that presents walks, talks, readings, exhibitions, and other events around emergent forms of writing. Although I am usually wary of talking about art in cafes, I was encouraged by what I perceived as similarities between this café and the café I talked to Renzo Martens in back in April. I ordered a matcha cake, which for some reason I did not expect to be giant and neon green. I began by asking what lleom is.
*This interview was conducted in English.
CGL: It’s a space of experimentation. We met in school, in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM, and we share some similar questions about literature in general: how literature literally expands its forms, its communications, and its relations. We try to exercise these expansions, and we try to invite people to experiment with us. We are developing research, seminars, sound walks, very different ways of approaching experimental literature.
RCA: lleom is not a physical space. It’s a cognitive space with cognitive experiments. We want to try to new concepts and new approaches, both to the old media, to the old literature, as well as to the new literature, the new ways and territories in which literature is operating in this moment.
JW: What do you mean by the new literature?
SGA: Emergent ways of creation, mainly. “New” is a difficult term to define.
RCA: Yes. What is emerging may not be new. We are in a very wide space, which I think allows us to look for other encounters between artists, writers, web artists, and even traditional, or almost-traditional, poets.
JW: I’m really interested in the last half of your acronym, the “other materialities.” What are some other materialities?
SGA: Vocal traditions, for instance. Not only oral ways of communication in ancient cultures, but also in contemporary ways, which often include new technologies. Sound poetry and all of its different derivations is fascinating. Our viewpoint starts from the avant-garde movements and comes back to almost yesterday. We’re looking around at new publications and trying to discuss how they are evolving. Are they actually new? What is “new”? What does recreation mean? Of course, we get back to the figure of the Author, of the Original, of how we read. The distinction between reading out loud and singing, the distinction between imagining the text in silence and reading it in silence: these are different materialities which lead you to a different literary object. The approach, the theoretical approach at least, has to change.
RCA: The traditional approach in academia is the text as a text. We don’t see the text just as a text; we see it in an oral way, in a printed way, in a digital way. We are trying to understand the text as a process, the book as a process, the book as an interface for the text. We also have a few studies about the social context of the text: publishing, the relation between writers and other artists. That’s another materiality, the social materiality of literature. We can think the text before or after it is published, before or after it is reviewed or made an object for critical discussion. These are conditions of existence for the text. We don’t read a text. We read a material and we integrate that material into our experience—in our living experience, in our aesthetic experience.
JW: Why “laboratory,” and not workshop or thinktank or any of those other words?
RCA: Because workshop, at least in Mexico, has two connotations. One is the handmade, as in crafts; but also it’s the way in which writers work on writing, in a very professional, material way. We are trying to get out of this idea and to think in a more cognitive space, to be able to really experiment with ideas. We don’t work with material; we work more with ideas and experiments.
CGL: A laboratory also allows for a free way of studying. We try to ask questions about academic work: how we approach academic work, what we understand as academic work.
SGA: Literary matters or other cultural matters are always discussed as things that have already passed. Concluded matters: that’s what makes them objective. Very few people have the courage—I don’t know if it’s courage, but maybe it is—to approach things that are in process, because you can’t know what’s going to come out of them. Here in Mexico, and everywhere, the tendency is to work with writers who have already died. It is much safer to work with dead writers than to work with writers who are still alive. We are letting ourselves be creative a little bit, not just a researchers who stand beside the matter itself, who are always a third element in all the processes and equations, but rather allowing ourselves to experience some kind of creative situation ourselves. It gives us a whole perspective. This is what is generally lacking, at least here in Mexico.
JW: Is lleom this a goal-oriented organization? Is it reaching towards some kind of conclusion or is it fanning out?
SGA: I have my own personal answer for this. We have all these different interests: people decide they want to pursue one thing or another, and we support them. I hope that we, as intellectuals, as an academic group, do not always recreate this same kind of discourse that is always saying that literature is not important to society, that culture is in the periphery of things. I truly believe that culture, literature, and literary studies as such should be considered as the center of many other things that are not only literary, including sociopolitical matters.
RCA: There are a lot of museums, a lot of centers, a lot of schools in Mexico, and they all have that attitude that everything is wrong, that everything is catastrophic.
SGA: Mainly regarding culture: culture is always marginal, culture is never interesting…
JW: What is important if culture is not?
RCL: Money, the economy, the government, the traditional political sphere, traditional media, pop stars, and so on. We are living in a global country, in a global space. We are in an ideological space, in the center of society. If we don’t think that, we are lying to ourselves. That’s the political importance of our work. In the center of the laboratory there are two main interests. One is objects and materiality; the other is the experience and the experience as a process. The experience can make us see reality—the arts, the political—in another way. If we see the experience and the objects, we can think not only the traditional materiality of the book, the poem, but also the way in which the society is thinking itself around those objects right now.
CGL: That’s why we also have an interest in the way the Internet works, in our experience as users of the Internet, literary works that exist in digital space, and also as users of literary works that exist in material or physical space. We return to the book in the second degree. We visualize the book after the Internet.
JW: I noticed on your website that one of the many interests of lleom is “post-Internet.” Is that what you mean? The book after the Internet?
SGA: The question is actually the physical object: the Internet can make you make decisions more consciously. If you decide to make a book object today, it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did at the beginning of the twentieth century, even if it is almost the same. That’s what makes it so fascinating and so exuberant. The last talk, with Leonardo [Valencia, a Ecuadorian author], was about this. He had had the experience of making a digital book, but he realized after this experience that he wanted to turn back to a more conscious way of making, writing, and editing physical books. That gives it a whole new meaning, a whole new experience of writing and of reading.
RCA: The important thing is that it’s conscious. “I want to write in handwriting, I want to publish on the Internet, I want to publish a print book.” These should be conscious decisions. Why are you doing it?
CGL: How we read, and how we write, in the most literal way: we are touching the screen, we are touching the book, we are writing in a screen that we don’t know what it is exactly, or we are writing with ink—
JW: It seems to me the most important thing we can do as academics or artists or anything is to make people aware that they are making a decision. What is this book? Where did it come from? Where was it printed? What was it printed on? These are all questions we should be asking. Where does this paper come from? The answers aren’t always necessarily good ones, or are often horrifying, but it’s important to ask the question and to reconcile yourself to the answer, somehow.
[A server delivers two Americanos, one for Jacob, one for Cinthya.]
JW: When we sat down, I was saying that part of the reason I moved to Mexico City was that I kept on hearing, from other expats, from other foreigners living in Mexico or who had visited Mexico, that it is such an exciting place, that there is so much happening here, and your response was, “yeah, I’ve been hearing that a lot.” Is it true? As people who live in Mexico City, who have been living in Mexico City, is now exciting? Are things different than they were 10 years ago, for instance?
SGA: Definitely. For me, yes. I see it almost in the everyday way of life. Things are changing—not always in a positive way, but often in a positive way. In my case, having come back from Spain just now, I again realized, while talking to my friends, and while having had the opportunity to stay actually abroad—my mother is German, I studied in Germany and then got my doctorate degree in Spain—there are many things that can still be done. The structures are not so stable. There are so many ways in which you can reinvent things.
RCA: Yes. We have a very interesting city and a very interesting university, for example, and I’d like to say that good things are happening in the city, in the country, in the university. I think that if we are a neoliberal lab, we can answer some things from here, because we are in a very particular space.
JW: Did you say “neoliberal lab”?
RCA: Yes, yes. We are not Ciudad Juarez, and we are not Chile, which was the first neoliberal lab in Latin America, but we are nonetheless a neoliberal lab. We have to think local reality and global reality from our particular position. I think we can find, if not some answers, at least some perspectives. Some different ways of thinking, of organizing. As a lab, as an academic lab, as a cultural lab, we have a possibility to exist in a different way. Which is political, also.
CGL: Also, just to think together. That’s really important.
RCA: That is very important to our work. To think together, to talk about reality together, that’s a very important thing.
SGA: I mean, that’s our infrastructure. Thought. That’s the only thing we have so far. That’s why we haven’t asked for any financial support from any institutions, that’s why we also decided to make this lab outside of the realm of our institution, UNAM, which could probably give us some sort of support, but would also bind us to all sorts of administrative things. That would be very difficult: we would be judged according to parameters that are not related to what we do.
Roberto Cruz Arzabal is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM and a member of lleom. His research interests include post-digital literature, object-oriented ontology, conceptualisms, materiality and virtuality of poetry, material culture, and intermediality.
Cinthya García Leyva is a Masters candidate in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM, a member of lleom, and a curator. Her research interests include intermediality, sound art, materiality and virtuality of poetry, and objects.
Susana González Aktories teaches in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM and is a member of lleom. Her research interests include intermediality, experimental sound and/or visual poetry, applied semiotics, and materiality and virtuality of poetry.
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