Robert Burnier, “Iota,” 2013. Primer on aluminum, 24 x 31″
This interview has been long in the making — it began months ago after I visited Robert Burnier’s solo show at Design Cloud in the West Loop. It began because I’d seen Burnier’s work over the preceding summer at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, and again at Chicago Art EXPO; it began because I kept wondering about his crumpled aluminum wall sculptures — what to me have always seemed like the wreckage of a minimalist object, still pristine, still auratic, and yet all the more difficult to resolve somehow. The following interview, conducted largely by email, paralleled other conversations we had begun about what is and is not considered natural — a conversation embedded in my own curatorial research at the moment — and how our understanding of digital space is influencing our understanding of a material landscape. Not surprisingly, Burnier yielded a wealth of insight and I’m happy to share at least some of that dialogue here.
Caroline Picard: How do you think about landscape? Does that question emerge when you’re composing your abstract aluminum works?
Robert Burnier: I definitely have to be conscious of landscape in the sense that anything for the wall can be seen in that way. Beyond this, though, I’ve often made work that hovers or vibrates between the categories of landscape and figure, or landscape and terrain. By “landscape and terrain” I mean a difference between pictorial space and experiential space. For the sculptures, specifically, the idea of terrain is very important. As opposed to a more direct kind of construction and mark making, I think about operating within something that comes with its own history and peculiar spatial configuration. As I move through these spaces, I look for something interesting to emerge. They also essentially operate on me as they proscribe certain actions through their boundaries and character, and by how every move simultaneously closes some pathways as it opens others. And yet they don’t completely dictate what I will actually do with them as a whole.
CP: You’ve mentioned the situationist dérive in conjunction with your aluminum pieces — as though to suggest that the ways in which you improvise, negotiate, fold and crumple the material is a kind psychogeographical exploration of that same material. Would you agree with that?
RB: Yes, I would agree with that to a large extent. In retrospect, I think I’ve been interested in something like that for a long time, actually. I’ve always had a penchant for wandering urban spaces in a way reminiscent of what Guy Debord describes in his essay on the theory of dérive. So it’s made its way into my practice more or less consciously. While dérive was a response to physical urban spaces, we also experience our contemporary urban geography through virtual structures, with populations acting in concert with communications networks and sets of common interfaces and devices, etc. In my work, I’ve put virtual and physical spaces on par in certain ways. They are both material for use. I might use off the shelf CAD systems, readily available physical materials and commercial paints. What I do with them resembles a dérive in the sense that I “walk” through prefigured fields of shapes — or terrains as described above — while translating between virtual and physical mediums. Certain complexities play out on their differences. For example, a form in a CAD system may be contradictory or at least untenable in the physical incarnation. So I’m discovering certain things as I “test” them [those digital systems] in, say, sheet metal. I start out by following the lines, by scoring and cutting by the potentially “problematic” drawing, but then I take detours and make other choices that go against the line, and ultimately still produces something that contains and expresses that original trajectory. In a very general way, I like to think that whenever I use a CAD system, a can of spray paint, or a gel pen, I’m definitely handing a lot of what happens over to the nature of that system or material. Its not exactly collaboration, but its a kind of acceptance of mass technological culture in the work. At the same time I try to make these things go beyond themselves rather than have them pass unfiltered.
CP: Is your background in computer science present to you when you are working artistically?
RB: More than anything right now, certain states of mind that come from working with computer technology and software have a bearing on what I do. I am focused on process and algorithms as ways of approaching art where the steps I lay out matter to me as much as whatever actually happens. I should add: “as much as”, but “not more than”. Often what I’m trying to do is come at these things from a decidedly different vantage — by taking something precisely, mathematically defined and putting it through the vagaries of some physical challenge, or employing techniques that are at cross purposes with straightforward execution, or by making two things interfere with each other somehow. But its also critical that I be me in the studio doing something. Its not just about a fascination with wreckage or a glitch, or winding up elaborate systems that plays themselves out.
Robert Burnier, “Thirty Six,” 2013. Aluminum, polyproylene foam, lacquer, 22 1/2 x 12 x 12″
CP: How has minimalist sculpture influenced you?
RB: The direct and experiential aspect of minimalism always attracted me. One thing I take from it is the idea of art as a demonstration; a thing put forward as a concrete suggestion. But I never think about this concrete presence as some completely stable, impenetrable unity. I like to see what is real, in front of us being what it is and also something else. It can be a material that is made to appear like a different material, for instance — something that creates an impression that goes beyond itself. I get excited when a sculpture appears simple or decisive in some way, while being difficult to add up. Minimalism often worked to achieve a kind of wholeness that I sympathize with, and at the same time I try to complicate that.
CP: Do you worry about scale at all?
RB: There are current tendencies toward the non-monumental I can identify with, though I don’t feel especially constrained by them. Right now I am making generally smaller work that enters painting dialogue and exists in a somewhat more intimate individual space. I like to think someone can enter into a piece and follow me when they are presented with what happened as much or more than they would if they were confronted by something especially sizable. What a minimalist approach does for me is increase my focus on small moves and their potential significance. Of the few elements I do bring together in the work, however, I like them to play against each other subtly rather then be simply aiming toward the same whole.
CP: Do have expectations for what a work of art should do? Where do those come from?
RB: Minimalism turned over a lot of fundamental things about what constitutes a work of art. Is it supposed to absorb or repel a viewer? Be autonomous or relative to its environment? Instantaneous or durational? However I answer those kinds of questions now, thinking about Minimalism has made an indelible mark on the way I approach my work even if only in the kinds of questions I ask of it.
CP: You work in other mediums as well, which require their own strategies…
RB: I like the term “strategy”, which implies a consideration of means to an end. I like to try different things out. Hans Haacke’s “project based” approach comes to mind. But I also have a thing for the ineffable surprises to be found in the arrangements of an artist like Richard Tuttle and how he can burrow in on an investigation through as series of objects. When it comes down to it, though, I actually think in a very physical and experiential way about what I do and source things from experimentation and a process of discovery. I remember Terry Myers telling me of his impression that I was “tinkering” around in the best possible sense. That sticks with me.
Robert Burnier, “Ten (Standing)”, 2013. Gel pen on Baltic Birch plywood, 62 1/2 x 62 1/2″
CP: You have series of line drawings on plywood where you reproduce wood grain. Where did that body of work came from?
RB: So with the drawings on plywood panel, I wanted to see what would happen if I took a few elements, thoughts and actions and wove them together. Plywood is interesting as a kind of hybrid, something natural that has been made artificially stable through geometry and chemistry, like a prepared and preserved food. And yet it has this natural wood grain. I thought the most direct approach would be to have a square of the material, and to work within the boundaries of that space by drawing something equally basic — a series of lines from edge to edge. The lines get very complex when you draw enough of them next to each other freehand. I could have predicted the moire pattern, and I chose a color that was a really good not-quite-match for the Baltic Birch, hoping it would “sink” into the wood visually. But it turned out even better than I imagined, judging by the way you read the lines as virtual wood grain.
CP: Do you feel, regardless of medium, that your work addresses related themes? Is that important to you?
RB: Yes. A culturally situated identity or a logically constrained action are important touchstones, for example. Mediated marks, subsumed images and ruptured natures are important, such as in the plywood drawings or a fully representational, painted sky scape I separated onto multiple panels and turned sideways to transform into a minimal color grade. I always try to confuse and mix these things. In all of it I hope a little bit of expression will sneak out from under a pile of process, enter through the back door of an algorithm, or emerge from a bunch of repetitive doing. On the subject of constrained identity, I’ve been thinking about and talking with a number of Chicago artists who may share some of my mixed cultural and racial background. The more time I spend on that the more I think there’s something I have to find in that. Along those lines, choices like the use of Baltic Birch and African Mahogany plywood for my drawings resonate, given my 50/50 Northern European and African genetics. African Mahogany, I’ve discovered, also has something called chatoyancy which causes its color to change appearance depending on the angle of view.
2013 was a huge year for us at Bad at Sports. We did a ton of big projects with places like the St Louis Contemporary Art Museum, EXPO Chicago, Open Engagement, Orange County Art Center, and Cannonball, but perhaps the biggest deal of all was that Caroline Picard took over as Bad at Sports’s most important collaborator and contributor, our Blog Czar. Caroline took the torch from Claudine Ise, who took it from Meg Onli, who was the spark that lit our blog, and like them she took us further then we had a right to ask her to. It is now her turn to pass that torch.
As you know Bad at Sports takes a “barn raising” like approach to the notion of “art journalism.” We are the voice of an art world. We are that voice because we choose to speak for and about the things we most care about. We are the artists, educators, curators, and writers that make up your world and we do this because we love it. Bad at Sports as a rule doesn’t make any money. It is 100% volunteer and for the last 8 years any money “it” made went to pay its bills so that a few of us are not continually paying them “out of pocket,” and Blog Czar is the hardest job we have. It means you are the bottle neck for everyone’s problems and contently chasing folks for the things they said they would do. Caroline has done it beautifully and gracefully, and her calm and stability will be missed.
Caroline presided over massive and continual change as the blog progressed and developed its scope and national interests. She supported the development of 20 new voices and instituted several new columns. She brought back an impulse to post daily and pushed for discussion around the issues that face performance art and the context of social practice. In short she has been incredible and our collective work has been pushed, pulled, and forever changed by her participation.
For Caroline this departure is nothing but the heralding of big things to come. As we speak she is grabbing coffee in a Paris cafe while she rocks a French residency and works through a number of ideas around object oriented philosophy and the animal world. When she returns to Chicago in May it will be just in time to publish a number of new books through the Green Lantern Press and start a new Chicago exhibition space in Logan Square. She promised that Bad at Sports will not be completely without her voice and she will remain a consistent contributor.
We owe her a huge thank you and a lot of love.
But now is the time of Jamilee Polson Lacy! Jamilee is one of the most interesting independent curators in Chicago and if anyone can fill Caroline’s shoe it will be her.
This is only the start of what will be an incredible and change filled year at Bad at Sports. Get ready.
Six months earlier, the proprietors of Chicago’s New Capital Projects, Ben Foch and Chelsea Culp, began a twenty-five day round-the-clock closing event for their gallery. Foch and Culp had, from the outset, planned a limited, two-year run of public exhibitions at their venue. And having reached the end of their finite schedule they threw open the doors to everyone interested in one last collaborative endeavor entitled “24HRS/25DAYS.” Whither came the funding for such a spectacle? In 2011, the Propeller Fund announced that Foch and Culp were recipients of a 6000 USD award.
Rather than being a survey of contemporary programming, this installment of Chicago Art in Pictures is a historical offering. If New Capital Projects’ success (and it was a success) seemed contingent upon its engagement with artists, its monetary subsidization, and its relatively brief public existence, then maybe too it was the case that only an informal, ethical consensus allowed for a momentary sort of Utopia within the city’s crumbling West Side.
While planning what might be possible for the future, it’s helpful to remember what has worked in the past. And so, some of the activity surrounding New Capital Projects in the year 2012 is suggested by the imagery below. A full schedule for “24HRS/25DAYS” is still available at New Capital Projects’ website. All artwork copyright original artists; photography copyright Paul Germanos.
Above: Ben Foch, left, and Chelsea Culp, center, with ACRE‘s (Moustache Phil) Philip Kaufmann, right, at New Capital Projects on a hot summer night, June 30, 2012.
Above: Estonian performance collective NON GRATA‘s “Force Majeure” in Chicago, at New Capital Projects, March 4, 2012.
Above: Meg Noe in “I, Who Have Known the Horror of Mirrors” on December 6, 2012, in “24HRS/25DAYS.”
Above: Northwestern’s Sofia Leiby lectures Seth Sher at New Capital Projects, June 30, 2012.
Above: “A bowl of soup, a coffin, a door” installation by MCA’s Karsten Lund, SAIC’s Dana DeGiulio, Corbett vs. Dempsey’s Julia V. Hendrickson, and Sofia Leiby, on November 25, 2012, in “24HRS/25DAYS.”
Above: The Hills Esthetic Center’s Michael Kloss, left, and ACRE’s Emily Green, right, in AUSIKAITIS/KLOSS at New Capital Projects, September 1, 2012.
Above: Seth Sher, a/k/a Psychic Steel, left, and Meg Noe, right, at New Capital Projects, September 1, 2012.
Above: Conor Creagan in “Wonderful Tonight” on December 2, 2012, in “24HRS/25DAYS.”
Above: Roxaboxen’s (formerly) Liz McCarthy with Moustache Phil at New Capital Projects, June 30, 2012.
Above: Lynn Basa, left, shows “Burnt Journals” work to Sarah Weber, right, on November 24, 2012, in “24HRS/25DAYS.”
Chicago has had characters – both architects and buildings – throughout it’s development as a place where things get built, regardless of if people want it or not. Bruce Goff, a transplanted Chicagoan, was a character and produced them. Goff was a child prodigy that started practicing architecture at 12-fucking-years-old and was doing weird things before they were cool i.e. Pre-PoMo; hell, pre-WWII.
The Bachman house was completed in 1947 and landmarked in the 1980s. This single-family home sports a straight-up sheet metal façade that’s closer to a shed than a home. The sharp triangulation and peak of the Bachman House roof volume gets bisected by an even more acute triangle, held up by two symmetrical equilateral ones – architects did love drawing with their triangles! The front and center in-your-face nature of this bungalow only gets weirder by placing it within a typical Chicago neighborhood laden with brick 3-flats and masonry walk-ups. Goff’s fortress (many people compare his work to castles) does not embrace local flavor superficially. Instead, it totally engages with Chicago’s, “build first and ask questions later” attitude to architectural culture. Unfortunately, that approach comes with a disclaimer that the Daley’s and Rahm both espouse: “nothing or no one stands in the way of development.” Meaning not even landmark status can save buildings anymore in Chicago.
Maybe they didn’t get the memo that architects are used to projects never getting built, let alone mostly working in virtual reality, so you can kill a building but you can’t kill architecture.
Featuring work generated rounds of Harkins’ own game, Native American Fax Machine is on view through May 25th at Happy Collaborationists. If these .gif’s are any indication (which they obviously are), this show is definitely worth checking out. Bonus points for contributing to the landline trend! The instructions for your own round of Native American Fax Machine are included below:
A game played with 6 or more players.
Each player selects a card with a noun.
Each player has 3 minutes to draw the noun.
The players move the drawings clockwise.
Players then have 1 minute to copy the drawing.
Players pass the drawings until they have made the same amount of copies as players.
The last person to draw the noun has to guess the original noun on the card.
Composite of “caribou” from the NAFM
.gif of “caribou” from the NAFM
E-Dogz: Zombie Apocalyptic Refuge Center
Something to ease the loss of “Walking Dead”
When the zombie apocalypse goes down, we’ll all have to think on their toes– watching our backs as we hit the roads– escaping the ravenous army of undead relentlessly pursuing our cranial tissues. The living will have to eat too and the mobile kitchen of E-Dogz will be a beacon of nourishment in these end days. Eric “E-Dog” May has teamed up with Rimas Simaitis to equip the food trailer to travel land and sea, feeding the people in these dyer times. The zombie plague actually began generations ago, conjured through black magic by Voodoo priests on island nations during the glory days of the high seas. To honor the zombie resistance of yore, E-Dogz: Zombie Apocalypse Refuge Center will host a tiki party to ward off zombies and serve up doomsday cuisine and circuses. This event may feature, but will not be limited to: Spam nigiri, entomophagy (look it up), flaming cocktails, and/or coconut short wave radios.
Eric May & Rimas Simaitis present:
E-Dogz: Zombie Apocalyptic Refuge Center
May 13th, 5pm– 7pm Gallery 400
in response to Halflifers
I came on as the Managing Editor of the Bad at Sports blog about a month ago. It’s been an exciting turn and I hope to do well by it. A few people have asked what my vision going forward is, and I thought I might say something about it here. I hope to continue reflecting on the dynamic energy in Chicago’s contemporary art world while connecting to conversations and aesthetic agendas in other cities and disciplines. That agenda was set in place a while ago and I believe I can continue to guide and focus that intention. There is room for experimentation in that vision, which seems necessary to me. Bad at Sports has never presented a tidy, singular package and as such, I believe it would go against the nature of the project to filter content and tone through a single, editorial lens. Its roots in independent, DIY and Punk Rock collectivism remain at the heart of the project’s vitality and the blog is a platform for unique and individual voices that pass through the subject of contemporary art and culture. As such it becomes a nexus of concerns and responses to culture at large. That is something I hope to preserve under my stewardship. As an artist-run forum, Bad at Sports has the unique capacity to reflect on a host of subjects, exposing the intellectual, aesthetic and social networks that define and subsequently influence cultural production. I believe it is our job to explore and discuss the contexts we inhabit. In doing so, we further establish a living touchstone and future archive of contemporary discourse.
Some changes should be apparent already — others will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle in the coming months. The process is organic, but I’ve been trying to set up a casual, thematic architecture that unfolds over the course of a given week. Eventually, I hope to schedule two posts a day, one before 2pm and one after. Built in to this, is room for special occasions and guest writers — those posts would either go live in the evenings, or fill in existing gaps. To that end I’ve been inviting a number of new writers, many of whom I have admired for a long time.
Here is something of a loose schedule:
Mondays: Essays and reflections from old favorites Jeriah Hildewin, Shane McAdams and Nicholas O’Brien — writers who have been posting with consistent dedication. In addition, I’m excited to announce a new bi-weekly column by Dana Bassett, whom you may know for her ACRE Newsletters.
Tuesdays are dedicated to three subjects: Performance, Social Practice, Language (or the performance thereof) and Object Oriented Ontology. Confirmed participants include longstanding contributor Abigail Satinsky and Mary Jane Jacob (Social Practice), Anthony Romero and João Florêncio (performance), Gene Tanta (language), Robert Jackson (OOO).
On Wednesdays, we will read about artists and art in other cities. The following writers will post on rotation: Jeffery Songco is covering the Bay Area, Sam Davis continues to represent Bad at Sports’ Los Angeles Bureau, Sarah Margolis-Pineo is writing about Portland. Juliana Driever will be relaying posts, interviews and artist profiles about New York, and then we’ll bring it back to the Midwest with Kelly Shindler’s dispatch from St. Louis, and Jamilee Polson Lacy writing about Kansas City.
Thursdays herald our illustrious Stephanie Burke’s Top 5 Weekend Picks and a new monthly contribution from author/translator Johannes Göransson whose writing you can also find here.
Fridays have been set aside for art reviews and artist profiles with contributions from Danny Orendoff, Monica Westin, Abraham Ritchie and myself.
WEEKENDS will feature a range and flux of the above, plus Brit Barton’s Endless Opportunities, cultural reflections and short essays by Terri Griffith, continued posts from Jesse Malmed, in addition to a monthly contribution from the newly confirmed Bailey Romaine and Adrienne Harris.
My last note is this — there is room in this schedule for additional posts, posts that would feature special events, festivals and conferences in the city. That space would also be available to, at times, connect the blog and the podcast. As a first indication of this, we will be highlighting IN>TIME, a performance festival that is going on as we speak, from January until March.
Otherwise if you have any comments, suggestions or, even guest posts you would like to submit, please feel free to contact me at: email@example.com