Over the last eight or ten months, I have been taking advantage of the opportunity this space provides by interviewing people whose work I admire or whose organizations I am curious about. I have not had an explicit plan or frame for these interviews: for their structure, for the people I talked to, etc. I have been interviewing people who I like, people whose work I like, people who work for organizations I am interested in—often all three at once. Nonetheless, we often ended up talking about the same things: art’s supportive position in a brutally dehumanizing financial system, and the arbitrary nature of validating art as art.
It should not be surprising that art occupies a supportive position in today’s neoliberal market—art, particularly “fine” art, has always been made for or by those in power. The art market is sustained by financiers, venture capitalists, CEOs, etc. Art is either produced directly for this market or produced in some imagined resistance to it. Those who produce art or who engage in local or global art worlds are, by and large—including myself—born into some kind of wealth and afforded some kind of privilege. As Renzo Martens put it in my conversation with him, “half of the world’s population that never has a fucking cappuccino while thinking about one’s own ideas because they’re just working in mines and cleaning bedrooms and god knows what.” To be an artist or even an art enthusiast, you must be able to afford to work unpaid jobs, buy cappuccinos, and so on. This has always been true. Bach wrote for the Austrian royal court, Koons makes sculpture for the ultra-rich. The difference is negligible. When I talked to Keith J Varadi about my nagging suspicion that punk simply serves as the appropriate entropy for sustaining late capitalism, he mentioned awareness of one’s own position in the world as a key part of what, for him, defines punk. When you buy a used car and convert it to bio-diesel, he mentioned, you are still participating in the larger, exploitative economy: either mass deforestation due to the planting of GMO biodiesel corn or the international industrial-scale production and distribution of vegetable oil. When you become a freegan, you are still taking and using things that were likely made in horrific labor environments (most things are) or that were distributed along an international freight network, which itself is outrageously polluting and violent. Whether or not you pay for your shrimp is arbitrary: it has already been farmed in Laos or Thailand using slave labor and shipped in an airplane halfway across the world.
We make art, we think about art, we recognize the existence of art because we are rich, because we can afford to be interested in something, because we are not so exhausted from working in a mine or cleaning shit and vomit in a hotel or zigzagging across four part-time jobs that all we can do is pass out. Again, this has always been true. It is not interesting. What might actually be interesting is the validation of art: what makes art art. I have asked almost everyone I’ve interviewed what makes art art, and have received a surprisingly similar array of answers. When I interviewed Adam Overton in Januray, he recalled a quote by Allan Kaprow: “what if I were to think art was just paying attention?” Overton replaced think with believe: “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” It reminded me of a feeling I have regarding Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” namely that there appears to be no reason why the Van Gogh he is looking at gets to be art and not the hat or the rifle. Although Heidegger spends the whole essay explaining why the Van Gogh is art and the hat/rifle are not, the explanation does not actually have to do with qualities inherent to the work of art; rather, the idea is that what art does that other things do not do—the artness of art—is make the viewer aware of her own consciousness. For Heidegger, the shoes of the peasant girl in the Van Gogh (was it it even a Van Gogh? my books are in limbo, I have nothing to reference), caused him to realize that his opinion of peasantry, which he had never considered, was man-made, and that it existed in contradistinction to some kind of deeper truth about peasantry or humanity, that, further, truths in general exist in relation to some kind of deeper Truth, and that this Truth is neither moral nor singular—it is not explicit—but operates in a relation to other truths the way umami operates in relation to other tastes. In any case, there is no reason why the hat or the rifle couldn’t also be art, had Heidegger had a different sort of day or lived in a different sort of era. There is no reason why anything is or is not art, except for what we believe and how that thing—or experience, aural space, whatever—operates in relation to what we believe.
Similarly, when I sat down with Aandrea Stang, formerly of the MOCA, where she coordinated, among other things, a massive re-happening of much of Alan Kaprow’s work and Engagement Party, a four-year series of socially- or otherwise publicly-engaged work. She now runs OxyArts, an arts programming initiative at Occidental College, also in LA. I talked to her shorty after We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, conceived by Finishing School with Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher, had been installed in front of the school’s auditorium. WWSYFHD is a full-scale mockup of a Predator drone, covered in adobe in a simultaneously familial and antagonistic gesture over the course of three days by the artists and a smattering of the general public—the artists’ friends, some students, some people who happened to be there. I was curious a number of things: about the horizontal organizing structure of Engagement Party, which I knew nothing about and which seemed—and still seems—to be to be as exciting an artwork as any that happened as part of the series; about the drone; about what the hell OxyArts was supposed to be. Mostly I was curious about what drew Aandrea to this kind of work. “I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of one’s situation,” she said. “Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork.” Again, the aesthetics of one’s situation, as she succinctly put it, have to do not with inherent qualities but with validating systems, and encountering the former often includes recognizing the latter. A Donald Judd is a Donald Judd because it is a Donald Judd, and for no other reason. If it were not a Donald Judd it would be ductwork, or a box.
This is not a judgment. When I interviewed Conrad Freiburg—artist, musician, carpenter, man of the hour—he brought up the saying “art is as serious as your life.” Is your life serious right now? Will it be serious in five minutes, when you go to the vending machine? One’s life becomes serious because one decides to get serious or because something happens that one recognizes that something is serious. Seriousness is performed; so is art. We wondered—I still wonder, actually, and probably Conrad does, too, although we haven’t talked since he went to Ohio and I went to Mexico—if practicing not giving a fuck would be a way to catch oneself getting serious and have a chance to decide whether things were actually serious or not.
Maybe what is exciting or useful about art, if there is anything exciting or useful about art at all, is its ability to give a chance to decide if things are actually serious or not. Maybe looking at a Donald Judd makes us wonder why this piece of ductwork is art while that piece of ductwork is not, and maybe in our wondering we will wonder who or what decides that art is art and what their motivations might be. In March, after failing or forgetting to interview somebody in February, I met Renzo Martens at a cafe. I think Renzo thought I wanted to talk about Enjoy Poverty, because everybody does, but I actually wanted to talk to him about the Institute for Human Activities, a venture that rides some kind of line between being incredibly straightforward and incredibly surreal. The previous summer had seen the first summer of the IHA, an arts residency and “gentrification program” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had ended in the surprisingly violent suppression and removal of the Institute by a Canadian palm oil interest. Thinking of Adam, maybe, and myself, certainly, I asked Renzo if he considered the Institute art, and whether it mattered if the Institute was art or not. He answered, emphatically, yes, that it mattered that it was art because he likes art, because art is the rare form of expression that shows—or can show—its “suspending apparatus,” as Martens put it, that this dome above your head that you know is not a dome is not magic, but trompe l’oeil, a technique that is known and can be used, a machine for making a flat ceiling a dome or a wall an apple tree. For Martens, the Institute is an opportunity to be the machine, so to speak:
I told you the problem if I’m a critical artist and I do it from my studio in Brooklyn, for example, so if I don’t take into account the bigger economic structures, my work is just going to be a little thing in a machine, and it won’t reflect the machine itself, other than symbolically, and even that symbolic reflection will function in that machine, right? What I need to do is own the machine. That’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. That’s why we can’t be an artist, we can’t be a curator, we have to be an institution, but even more than that, we need to be the economic forces that are derived from that institution.
That is to say, Martens is hoping that, by sincerely an unabashedly using the language and mechanisms of the larger economic system—in this case, the kind of art NGO that has been popping up all of the world in the last five or ten years—he can gain access to and leverage within that system and redirect some of the money that usually just circles around the system towards, for instance, paying exploited Congolese palm oil workers to do something besides work in a fucked up palm oil plantation. This is surely what the Canadian firm that pushed the IHA out of its original position was literally in arms over.
Lane Relyea has written extensively about artists becoming institutions and the economic forces derived from these institutions. The everyday, hailed as a sort of quotidian utopia by art discourse for the past century, is not so everyday at all. The everyday is structured, often dictated, by abstract forms of control: from implicit understandings and unspoken agreements of how to act in a given space to a labor system that reduces human life to automated workforce management. In Your Everyday Art World, Relyea picks apart institutions, artists, and artists who have become institutions to highlight the webs of finance and control that support them and point out that, regardless of whether or not an artist or institution or artist-institution hails itself as resistant or revolutionary, the artist/institution/artist-institution still operates in full support of and fully supported by the market it rails against. In our interview, I tried very hard to get Relyea to make a judgment about this. Is it bad that art is naive? Yes, Lane said, it is. But it is more than judging this or that painting or this or that social practice intervention, Relyea, pointed out, it is that
the artworld imaginary right now sees artists making work not in society but in things that are more local and performative, more temporally local as well as spatially local—cliques, friends, hangouts—in the zone of everyday life, which relieves people of having to think of high and low, or about privilege and elitism. Which, in parallel, feeds the romanticizing that happens in social practice with the déclassé, with these pockets of dispossession that artists will come in and somehow alleviate or enlighten.
Naive “radical” art blocks our ability to see the very things it is supposedly railing against. This is why it sells so well, why it is so well-supported by the global art world. This is, as Relyea put it, “an impoverishment,” a diminishing of the potential of art. If art has the potential to allow us a chance to recognize our options, as I would like to believe, then the legions of naive revolutionaries flying across the globe to make it to the next Creative Time Summit are drastically, violently reducing that potential. This is not to say that these people are bad people or that they are intentionally making bad art, although there are certainly assholes and bad art everywhere, but rather that the artworld imaginary is just that—imaginary—and should be recognized as such.
My last two interviews, conducted after I arrived in Mexico City, have elaborated on that point. As both Carla Herrera-Prats and Arturo Ortiz Struck pointed out, very nearly every single Mexican president—and most of the people that form the government of Mexico—come from wealthy families and have received graduate degrees from Ivy League schools in the US. These presidents, and their governments, apply the economic wet dreams of the neoliberal free market to an actual country—Mexico—with disastrous results. This is not necessarily because they are bad people, although some of them certainly are; it is because they are living in a reality that is abstracted from actual life in Mexico. For Herrera-Prats, this highlights that education is currency, that proof that one has attended a recognized institution increases one’s market value, and that, as such, the American Graduate Degree is one of the United States’s most powerful economic and ideological exports. For Ortiz Struck, the implementation of an economic strategy in Mexico that has very little to do with actual life in Mexico has resulted in a series of very real, very terrible structures being built for people who don’t exist, structures that ignore or obstruct human life.
In general, it is clear in Mexico that human life is not in the interest of the market, the government, or the narcotics cartels that the government colludes with. It is clear that recent reforms and public works are ploys to encourage further foreign investment which will likely never be enforced or built; it is clear that the government is ineffective and unaware—Ortiz Struck described the men and women of the government as not necessarily bad or evil people, just people who had no idea what was going on; it is clear that the police are corrupt, violent, and dangerous; it is clear that those born into poverty here will very lead lives of crushing that they will never be able to escape from. The clarity is refreshing. In the United States, as in Mexico, the government is ineffectual, the police are violent, and those born into poverty will never be able to escape poverty. The United States just has a better story, a better imaginary, a dream.
If you read about social practice or read about Silicon Valley, if you read the news or watch television, you will hear quite a bit about how you are part of some story: maybe your story, maybe the story. You will also hear about a game that you might be in, a game that is changing, because of this or that artist or because of this or that app. When you pick up your next bottle of Coca-Cola, your name or your friend’s name will be on the side of the bottle; when you request your next Über, you’ll be “evolving the way the world moves.” Indeed, Über’s corporate language is enlightening:
Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.
The language of Über, and increasingly the language of corporate marketing worldwide, matches the language of the contemporary artist statement. This is the language of meta-narratives, stories that have already begun sometime close to now and proceed into an ill-defined or permanently deferred future. By buying a Coca-Cola or buying the work of Theaster Gates, you are participating, changing, progressing, innovating, remembering, making, thinking, transgressing, transforming, evolving, -ing, -ing, -ing. You are a visionary, Coca-Cola is a visionary, you are a visionary for choosing to be part of the community of visionary persons who drink Coca-Cola. What such visionary projects do is enforce the idea that this or that imaginary is true, that it operates absolutely and without relation to any internal or external circumstances. In so doing, they impoverish or obstruct our ability to see, to recognize ourselves as participating in this or that system, that or the other imaginary.
These interviews have clarified something for me: I am against visionary art. What I like about art, what makes art worthwhile for me, is the opportunity it can afford to see myself, to hear myself, to catch myself or others. Visionary art makes it difficult to see, to hear, to catch myself or others; it sucks me into a story that I may not be able to get myself out of, a story that operates in total indifference to me, my particularity, what I think or believe or feel. As I’ve mentioned several times before, what struck me most about reading through the materials that eventually made it into the second edition of What We Want is Free was that, while almost all of the projects included had artist statements—meta-narratives—very few had descriptions of what actually happened: who came, what their names were, how they felt, what they wanted, how their face creased when they smiled or frowned. They operate and validate themselves using the same mechanism that Über or Cisco Systems uses to operate and validate themselves. Art must cease using this mechanism. Art is art because it says it is, and it must stop saying that it is visionary. If art is to be useful, if it is to have any effect on the calamitous state of the world, if it is to alter, in a real way, a city or a moment, it must stop being visionary. No more visionary art.
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
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 thatÂ chat isÂ catÂ in French?
This is the first in a series of interviews on the subject of listening.
JW:Â Hi Adam.
JW:Â Maybe we should just talk about your various projects before we get to anything else. Does that sound reasonable?
AO:Â Sure. Yeah, if there’s any…
JW:Â 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:Â Oh so you were, oh so that’s how you know Dave…
JW:Â Yeah, that’s how I know Dave, and that’s how I know you, yeah…
JW:Â I mean, I don’t think I introduced myself then, umm, I don’t know.
AO:Â 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:Â I think, yeah, I’m kind of losing my…yeah.
AO:Â Yeah. Don’t start teaching.
JW:Â Yeah, ok.
AO:Â Or, if you want to loosen up.
JW:Â 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:Â Why am I tired of teaching?
AO:Â I’m sick of dealing with shitty employers, basically.
AO:Â 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:Â I’ve heard a bit about that. Are you teaching at multiple schools right now or just one?
AO:Â 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:Â That sucks. Are you teaching arts courses or are teaching more like skills, skill-based…
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â They love it!
AO:Â 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:Â In what way?
AO:Â 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?”Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â Have you considered applying at bars or anything?
AO:Â 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:Â I’ve been really thinking about, um…
AO:Â And I’m a night owl, so it would kind of work.
JW:Â 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:Â 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:Â No, but I was playing with Ted Byrnes on Monday and he mentioned James…
AO:Â 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:Â To play?
JW:Â Oh wow. I’ve heard that’s like the worst thing to do…
AO:Â He loves it!
JW:Â I guess if you have the right kind of mindframe, it would be ok, but it just seems like…
AO:Â I think it fit his personality…he likes people, and talking to weird people…
JW:Â And yeah, that seems like a very weird place.
AO:Â Your background is as a musician, right? Did you do your undergraduate as a musician?
JW:Â I did, yeah. And a lot of people went to ships…
AO:Â 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:Â Or both.
AO:Â Or both, yeah.
JW:Â And then you give up somewhere.
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â 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…”Â So did you go to Emory or something?
AO:Â 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:Â Where is Valdosta?
AO:Â It’s on the border with Florida.
JW:Â Are you from Georgia?
AO:Â Yeah, I’m from the suburbs of Atlanta.
JW:Â One of my best friends lives in Athens.
AO:Â I would never go to Athens.
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â It’s still there, it’s still good. So when did you move to California?
AO:Â In 2003 I came here, to go to grad school at CalArts.
JW:Â Was it all CalArts or partially the allure of California?
AO:Â 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:Â So did you go to grad school for music?
AO:Â 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:Â Did you head to CalArts with an idea in your mind that you were going to move out of music?
AO:Â 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:Â Do you need some water?
JW:Â 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:Â Is he getting annoying?
JW:Â No, I just sat on his tail.
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â Well what were you just about to say, though, about your practice?
JW:Â 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 toÂ 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:Â 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:Â Have you ever read the book How to Do Things With Words?
JW:Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â Well, it’s actually the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, and the Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses.
JW:Â Right, sorry.
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â That’s a great idea.
AO:Â 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:Â Well, I like this dog.
JW:Â 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:Â Well, some people do.
JW:Â 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:Â 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.Â 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:Â 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:Â 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:Â No, well 10 minutes until the alarm, 20 minutes until I need to…25 minutes. Sorry about getting bookended.
JW:Â No, it’s fine, it’s really fine.Â 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:Â 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:Â 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.
AO:Â Thanks, thanks for reading it.
JW:Â 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:Â What’s the line?
JW:Â “LaVeyâ€™s one-man band demonstrates satanismâ€™s infatuated embrace of uncompromising, self-satisfied, alienated individuality, similar in some ways to ahbezâ€™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:Â Contempt? No. Masturbation is great!
JW:Â Yeah, ok, that’s true.
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â He’s an amazing musician.
JW:Â 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:Â You mean at one of the services he did?
JW:Â 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:Â 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:Â Was it a drum video where you were supposed to follow along?
AO:Â 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:Â 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:Â And it’s totally fun subscribing to those things, too.
JW:Â 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:Â 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:Â Not just focus, but believing. Believe is a different verb than focus.
AO:Â 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:Â I’m the same way.
AO:Â 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 OvertonÂ is an experimental and conceptual artist based in Los Angeles who works between performance, writing, publishing, experimental music, workshops, event production, and massage.