Guest Post by Young Joon KwakHello from Los Angeles! I’ll be posting a monthly series of conversations with art folks in Los Angeles for the next couple of months. These conversations take place at my current studio/beauty salon, aka Mutant Salon. The salon atmosphere is particularly conducive to dishing real talk and shooting the shit, which is why I thought it’d be the ideal setting for these in-depth conversations to take place. The first person I talked with was man-about-town and big sweetie Michael Ned Holte. Happy reading!
Michael Ned Holte is a writer, curator, and professor of contemporary art history at CalArts; along with Connie Butler, he is the co-curator of the upcoming LA biennial Made in LA, which will take place at the Hammer Museum in 2014. In 2012, He curated the exhibition Temporary Landmarks and Moving Situations, which was featured at Expo Chicago art fair at Navy Pier. Originally from southwest Wisconsin, Michael Ned Holte moved to LA in 1995. He got an MA in Art Theory and Criticism from Art Center in 2004, at the same time artists like Stephen G. Rhodes and Sterling Ruby were in grad school. When I first met him for a studio visit last fall, I had recently moved from Chicago to LA for grad school, and he made me feel welcome to the city by assuring me that there were great local communities of weirdo/artist/musician/mutants to get to know and become part of. I invited him back to Mutant Salon for this interview in June, where we discussed teaching, studio visits, writing, the next Made in LA exhibition and catalogue, his book Proper Names (from Golden Spike Press), and how ultimately he hopes to help artists articulate what they do.
Young Joon Kwak: How would you describe what you do to someone who’s unfamiliar with your practice?
Michael Ned Holte: What I do now is primarily teaching, writing, and making exhibitions, probably in that order. There’s a quote from Lucy Lippard in her preface to the reprint of her book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where she talks about being a critic, and starting to make exhibitions when it was unusual for a critic to curate exhibitions, and she would do projects with artists that seemed sometimes to be breaking boundaries of what it meant to be a critic, but she held to this idea that a critic should be allowed to have an expansive project the way that an artist can have an expansive project. So as a teacher, writer, and curator, I can think of those as being a very fluid and expansive project.
YJK: It seems like writing is central to all of these activities.
MNH: Yes, text is primary to everything I do. There’s a discursive element to everything I do, and with studio visits, I try to help artists articulate what their project is. And that’s true of me as a critic—writing essays and reviews, and me making an exhibition as well. In putting together an exhibition I’m always thinking about the text that accompanies it.
YJK: Like the catalogue or the press release for an exhibition?
MNH: Yes, both. I did a show at Wallspace in 2007 called Laying Bricks, and for the press release I made a multiple-choice, true-false exam. There was also a publication for that show that was printed on newsprint, and I had each of the four artists do a poster for the publication. None of them knew each other at the time, and they all did something different without knowing what the others would be doing. And then I wrote a text for it called “Frequently Asked Questions,” and I used that format of a frequently asked question, so it was almost a self-interview, and at some point, the kind of cool neutrality of that format gives way to this kind of schizophrenic tussle with myself. In part, it was a rejection of wanting to write an essay to explain my show and how it worked, and trying to find other ways of talking about it or talking around it.
YJK: Do you have plans to similarly explore the relationship between the Made in LA exhibition and the publications for it? What does the catalogue bring to one’s experience of the exhibition, or is it a site unto itself?
MNH: I think you just said it. We are thinking about the catalogue as a site in and of itself. It’s the thing that lives on in perpetuity. Only so many people will see the show in the three months that it’s up, and the catalogue is the thing that sticks around. The catalogue is a different structure with a different temporality to it, and it runs parallel to the exhibition, and I’m interested in how these things work together and separately. I can’t talk too much about the publication for Made in LA because we’re still working on it, but I will say that Connie Butler (co-curator) and I will each write our own essays, along with some additional writers, which is already different from the format of the last Made in LA catalogue, where all five curators wrote a single five-part essay. But the conversation of the publication has been happening from the outset, in tandem with the exhibition. In some ways, the conversation of the publication is leading the conversation about the show.
YJK: What’s a bad studio visit like for you?
MNH: Umm, I’ve had them, but maybe you should ask the artists who’ve had bad studio visits with me. I don’t know; they’re all different. Artists are like snowflakes, and studio visits are like snowflakes, haha. I’m not a super judgmental person, and perhaps that makes me somewhat less effective as a critic, but I’m always curious how artists think about what they do. I think the worst studio visits for me are the ones where the artists are really fixed on what they’re doing and aren’t interested in entertaining a conversation about change. I might define a bad studio visit as one that I may forget a day later. Most of the time, I take part of it with me, which is why I can usually do no more than two a day in the world. The best studio visits are often my second or third or fourth visit with somebody. I met with somebody last weekend, and it was the third time I’ve done a visit with him. It’s probably been about four years since I’d last had a visit with him, and I’ve been kind of tracking this person for a long time, so we can kind of dive in to a conversation at this point. The first time you meet with somebody, it’s like two dogs sniffing each other’s butts, and that’s inevitable.
YJK: What are some trends or common things you’ve seen in recent studio visits?
MNH: I’m intensely resistant to trends. I have to say, going into the process of organizing Made in LA, one of the words I kept on coming back to was “heterogeneity.” I’m really interested in difference. I’m really excited about difference, and it’s the thing I’m looking for I think the most. Which is kind of the opposite in some ways—thinking about an artist who is making work in a way that’s completely different from the way any other artist I can think of, to the degree that’s possible. I mean, I’ll see things that my students will do that are possibly trends or familiar solutions to recurring problems and I’ll see an MFA student do something I saw an MFA do three years earlier, because it’s a common solution to a certain problem, and artists are always a product of their time. Me too. We can’t escape the context of living and working in 2013 in LA or wherever, and most of us are involved in a community or communities of artists, and we know what our friends are doing. If we were all doing things that were completely different, there would be no basis for conversation. So, I’m also interested in proximity of things too, or maybe the way two artists will arrive at something from completely different places. I’m asking myself a lot of questions about those very things right now. But I’m hesitant to identify any trends.
YJK: When was the last instance that a studio visit with an artist has shaped how you think about or talk about art?
MNH: It happens all the time, really. Yesterday I had a studio visit with Jennifer Moon, and she’s an artist I’ve known about from afar, but had never met before. She did a show at Young Chung’s space Commonwealth & Council, and most recently at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow. I had such an exciting conversation with her about the boundaries of what she’s doing as an art practice…. I should also say I’ve been trying to reframe the word “practice” as “project” lately, and thinking about the difference between those things. How I’ve defined it to my students is: Practice is the way you do what you do to pay your bills, or what you do to imagine how you pay your bills, and a project is the thing that gets you up in the morning. Anyway, Jennifer and I got into a conversation about where the boundaries of her project lie—in terms of revolution and making art, and there are objects that can be displayed in a gallery context, like photographs and books and artifacts and relics, like a lot of performance projects too, where the audience wonders—what is this thing? Is that the residue of the thing, or is it a byproduct or the product? Is this where the art resides, or does the art lie somewhere else in the performance, in a live context for example. I said to her, maybe the better question is—when are you not making art? And then we both kind of looked at each other like…? It’s true for me too—when am I not working? I’m working on an essay while I’m driving or making dinner.
YJK: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how certain routine patterns of procrastination in the studio are essential parts of my project.
MNH: In the fall, I taught a class called Routine Pleasures, which is named after the Jean-Pierre Gorin film, and this is where the idea of the project bubbled to the surface. At some point, in the process of planning one of my lectures for the class, I came to the realization that my project or at least the thing that I think I do really well, is procrastination. So for most of my life, extending back to my teenage years, I’ve thought of myself as a really terrible procrastinator. And then, last fall, I said, what if I’m really a terrific procrastinator? What if that’s the thing I do really well?
YJK: A radical procrastinator?
MNH: Haha, maybe. Or just a really good one, and that realization transformed things for me. Anyway, in this meeting with Jennifer Moon yesterday, just asking her this basic question really opened up something for both of us. I think that’s fair to say. And when one’s doing a lot of studio visits, it’s inevitable that questions that get raised in one that will carry on to the next, and there’s a kind of viral quality to the discourse that happens.
YJK: Who were some writers or other people that were influential when you were first starting out?
MNH: I’ve often referred to Bruce Hainley as my guardian angel. I think Bruce is the person that helped me most get on my path, and remained a mentor out of school. He was a really great guide, and then at some point I decided I needed to leave him alone and make my own decisions. There are also people like Lucy Lippard, who’s been an important model for me—in terms of thinking about what I do and how these compartments overlap or intermingle. But I’ve never met her.
YJK: What’s your approach to teaching art history at CalArts?
MNH: I’ve learned to teach art history while teaching art history. There is no art history department at CalArts. Within another higher education institution where there is a degree being offered in an art history department, part of what one’s doing when one’s teaching art history is perpetuating that field. I don’t feel like I have that same pressure because my students are artists. Some of them might become art historians, and I alert them to that possibility. I also tell them that I’m not trained as an art historian. But I want art history to be useful and relevant and alive to them, and also something that they can engage with critically, and the thing I leave them with is that they have a lot of control over shaping art history, because art history is continually being revised and reshaped.
YJK: With art history as a field, there’s always a delay in the legitimization of projects that are more experimental or make use of unconventional materials, which makes it difficult for some artists to find role models within art historical discourse. How do you feel artists, and especially students should negotiate with art history, when it is essentially on them to be brave in breaking certain conventions of that field?
MNH: Well, that’s what artists get to do. Artists get to remake history by virtue of what histories they decide to channel and acknowledge and smash together at some point. It’s important to be brave. I try to encourage my students to be brave and occasionally irresponsible. Because they’re not art historians, they’re artists. But I also love the idea that some of my BFA students could go on to be art historians after going through a BFA studio program at CalArts—I mean, what a great thing for art historians to have knowledge and experience of having a studio practice.
YJK: As much as I am interested myself in the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, some of these boundaries provide context for measuring the successes and failures of the work one does in these fields. I just wonder, what are some of the criteria by which someone like you or other critic/writer/historian/curators judge the successes and failures of the work they do? How is the work being checked?
MNH: I don’t know if there is a system of checks and balances in the art world that we work in. There’s such an overwhelming shadow of the market right now. In some ways it’s like the movie Independence Day or something, where a giant spaceship shows up and the shadow covers NYC, or DC, or Los Angeles. In some ways, I feel like the market has that omnipresent shadowing effect, and it’s a little grotesque, and teaching at CalArts helps me feel at least 34 miles away from that shadow some days, though not everyday. If that’s true that the market is the only metric of the art world, I feel like it’s only a reflection of our larger society.
YJK: So do you feel like the market is our only metric right now?
MNH: Well, I think it’s a very temporary metric. I think history actually revises things so we eventually realize the importance of certain people, like Lee Lozano, who is one of my favorite artists ever. Lozano wrote herself out of the art world, but has now been reclaimed by it, and is now represented by Hauser & Wirth, which is an extraordinary turn of events that I’m sure would shock her. But, history has written her back in, and that’s not just a product of the market. I think time will tell if what any of us does is important historically. I do think of how my writing as a critic could shape how historians write about certain artists or write about my peers, twenty or 30 or 40 years from now. I’ve often thought about that, in part because I’ve spent so much time looking at art magazines from 30 or 40 years ago, and I am acutely aware how important it is that those critics wrote about those artists at that time. But information travels differently now. There was no Internet then, of course. The other thing I should mention is that when I organize an exhibition, there’s usually criticism written about it, so organizing an exhibition can be an interesting way of inciting a dialogue. Moreso than when I write criticism. And when I have professional peers commenting on something I’ve done in another context, I’m always excited to read those reviews.
YJK: Do artists who you’ve written about not so favorably ever hold grudges?
MNH: I don’t know. The only case I can think of came after I’d written one of those little 200 word Critics’ Picks on Artforum.com. I didn’t know the artist at that time, and have gotten to know her better since, but it was about two or three years after the review when I got a card in the mail—to thank me for the review, and also to correct some statement I’d made in the review. That moment revealed to me that the artists I’m writing about tend to be the most important audience for what I’m writing. And that was really important for me. It led to a studio visit, or several. And that’s why I go back to what I was saying about the one thing I do in all of my various guises is to help artists articulate what it is they’re doing…even if they don’t always agree with what I’m saying.
YJK: I’m very interested in your book Proper Names, because it seems very much to me like an artist’s book. How would you describe this project?
MNH: When I give that book to people, and people seem puzzled by it, I say it’s a book of a list of names, and that’s what it is. Some people have read it as an artist’s book or an artistic project, and I can understand why, because it certainly has some characteristics of such a thing.
YJK: What your book does for me, and one of the reasons it seems like an artist’s book is that through the format of a list, you dissolve the signifying power of singular names/signifieds, by which you propose an open and continuously changing meaning by each name’s relationship to the collective.
MNH: That’s a nice way of putting it. It’s a collection of 1000 readymades. I wanted it to be a big enough list that one couldn’t guess how many names there would be, but also a number that someone could realistically sit down and read from beginning to end. I was interested in how much significance we attach to a name, and what happens when you put two things next to each other. This is an old trick of collage from Dada or the Kuleshov Effect from filmmaking—if you put any two pieces of film next to each other, it produces meaning—and you can do this with names too. Listed names appear all over the place, in an ad for a group show in Artforum, or a list of names on a donor plaque, or a list of names on my class roster. But they are usually gathered in a way that we can identify a kind of coherence, and in that coherence there is also usually some connotation of value, whether the list is democratic or elitist. The way one encounters those names in my book is not unlike how one would encounter names in the world, because there are students of mine intermingled with celebrities, intermingled with theorists, artists…
YJK: Yeah, I love that names of subjective significance are included, and names that you have claimed or reclaimed, like your mother’s, with her maiden name.
MNH: But my mother with her maiden name is also the name of an artist in San Francisco, which I think is really funny. I saw her name on a list for a show in Artforum. I love the idea that my mom is secretly an artist, and has kept that from me, even as I was writing for Artforum.
YJK: And they’re not all people you can get behind, some are contentious with each other.
MNH: There are some truly terrible people on that list. It’s not necessarily people I like, or even necessarily names that I like. They’re names that went through my head and stuck. I wanted it to not be systematic. I don’t want there to be some kind of legible system, and there’s not. Maggie Nelson, who’s a writer I respect enormously, asked me if it was done with free association, and I responded by saying I don’t know if there is such a thing as free association after Google. The way we encounter information, and the way it can lead us into different information is something that I’m really interested in. I think a lot of people who see the book will look up a lot of those names as they’re going through it. And I like that somebody would read that book while working Google on their phone.
YJK: My boyfriend loves it and thinks it’s hilarious.
MNH: Yeah, I’m just happy to get it out into the world. It got read on kchung on Reading Radio, and they fucked up almost every name, which I think is kind of perfect. One of my favorite things about the book is how much it destabilizes hierarchies in terms of the values we place on specific names, collectively and individually, and their reading of the book further destabilizes hierarchies by fucking up so many of the names in the book, including the author’s own name. I couldn’t have done that, but they nailed it.