August 2, 2013 · Print This Article
Today Richard had the good fortune to e-mail interview friend, former colleague, mischief maker, and all around giant of consciousness Colleen Becker.
Colleen Becker is an American writer and academic living in London. Her published work spans fiction and non-fiction genres, including flash fiction, academic articles, journalism, art reviews, and essays, and she has read at numerous venues including Princeton University, the Tate Modern, and Foyles Bookshop. She holds PhD, MPhil and MA degrees from Columbia University and a MA from NYU, and she is a 2013-14 Visiting Fellow at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies. She has text based artwork included in an exhibition at the Anatomy Museum, King’s College London. “Translation Games”Curated by Ricarda Vidal (KCL) and Jenny Chamarette (QM) which runs from 31st July to 2nd August 2013
Richard Holland: Colleen Becker, welcome to Bad at Sports!
Colleen Becker: Thanks! I’m so happy to participate in this interview!
RH: You are currently, among a vast number of other titles and pursuits, a visiting fellow at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies, Institute for Germanic and Romance Studies. What are your researching?
CB: I’m doing a post-doctoral fellowship within IGRS’s Centre for Cultural Memory. Broadly speaking, my area of research is the cultural history of German nationalism. My project is titled: “The Art of Becoming a Nation: Turn-of-the-Century German Visual Culture,” and if you’re still reading, I will be examining and positioning artifacts of visual culture as manifestations of identity that memorialize understandings of the self in relation to others, from the individual act of depicting one’s own or another’s milieu to the collective feat of representing an entire community in both political and visual terms.
RH: What are “Translation Games”?
CB: “Translation Games” is the brainchild of curators Ricarda Vidal (King’s College, London) and Jenny Chamarette (Queen Mary, London), who were interested in exploring the concept of translation through various textual, auditory, and visual media. They hired me to write a flash fiction piece of 250 words, with a conventional narrative structure (beginning, middle, end). My story “What We Made” formed the basis for a game of “Chinese Whispers” (“Telephone” in American English), in which only a couple of the artists or foreign language translators received the original text while all of the others worked off of received “translations.” Interestingly, the first textile designer who read my work was dyslexic and misread the story before passing it along to the other textile artists—so, even the original version was “lost in translation.”
RH: The Anatomy Museum, sounds dirty, what is the Anatomy museum and is it a contemporary art venue, or is in more like the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago which is *not* and art venue but has the occasional show to be quirky?
CB: I have a soft spot in my heart for the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. During my most memorable visit, a swarm of flies hovered menacingly over the vitrine of Pompeian gynecological instruments.
The Anatomy Museum is part of King’s College, which is Ricarda’s affiliated institution. It has a creepily fascinating Victorian history as an anatomy theatre, but it’s not a contemporary art space per se.
So the project takes language, in this particular case a short story that you have written, and through the process of translation and retranslation the text evolves into a new form, is that a fair summary of the core idea? Yes.
RH: Are you familiar with Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”? Lucier made a recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recorded it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated over and over again. All volumes of space have characteristic resonant frequencies, the repeated recording and re-recording eventually acts to, in essence, filter out the language and what is left is a set of frequencies emphasized as they resonate in the room. Finally the words become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself like a signature. This project seems like the language version of Lucier’s piece. If you were to translate and retranslate over and over, do you eventually end up with the resonant frequency of the translator or of the text itself, common tonal elements that could not be lost in translation?
CB: Thank you for the enormously flattering comparison! In addition to the physical works of art, the story and its translations also have been performed a number of times. At a workshop in early July, for example, Ricarda and Jenny grouped artists and translators together and we read the text all at once, or in orchestrated sections, and the result was a living Tower of Babel. There is a certain musical quality, and rhythm, to each group reading, which is possibly best experienced by viewing the video of the performance. “What We Made” was translated into several different languages, and then retranslated back into English, which changed the length of the text in each instance. So when the translated versions were read out loud at the same time as the original version, the distinctions between them were quite noticeable.
RH: In addition to the linguistic part of the project, the text is re (and re-re- and re-re-re- etc.) interpreted through varieties of art media as well. I wonder how the 27th re-re to the 27th iteration of the work will relate to the original text.
CB: Curiously, the common elements you described in the previous question were more obvious in the works of art. Even though artists were working from received translations, rather than the original text, we noticed that they all seemed to convey a similar mood, attitude, or tone, also found within the story.
RH: You have had an impressively diverse and fascinating career as an author, a critic and an academic. Over the course of this career have you found that, to speak in clichés, your ideas are at times lost in translation, and somehow fail to make the leap from what we assume to be a common symbolic language (text)utilized to convey ideas to each other? In the face of, for example, an English fluent reader missing the point of an English language text, when your work has been translated in to other languages it must be a source of concern that your ideas are additional steps away from the original meaning and stand a reduced risk of reaching the target audience in pure form.
CB: It’s a challenge for any writer, working in any genre or format, to precisely convey their ideas to their audience. I’ve always been fascinated by what happens at the intersection of intention and reception; there’s a bit of alchemy, in my view. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I doubt there’s any such thing as pure or unmediated communication. On the other hand, I’m a thorough editor and unflinching critic of my own writing.
RH: Is the answer then to sit everyone down and explain your ideas specifically? I suppose that assumes a world where the person listening is *actually* listening and not checking twitter on their phone.
CB: It’s the writer’s responsibility to connect the dots, but also to communicate in terms that are appropriate for the intended audience. When you publish something, you don’t know how it’s going to be received and there’s no accounting for other peoples’ attentiveness, or lack thereof. But I think the best writers are able to hold their readers’ attention for the duration of their engagement with the work.
RH: How did you become involved with this project?
CB: Ricarda remembered me from the Shortness at Tate Modern conference, which she organized along with Irini Marinaki and Konstantinos Stefanis. She approached me about writing a text for Translation Games.
RH: You were a participant in the “[V]ery short conference and a very long dinner” called SHORTNESS AT TATE MODERN, along with DJ Spooky, Jonathan Allen, Matthew Steven Carlos, Steven Connor and others. You spoke under the auspices of being a “flash fiction writer”. I like the idea of short conferences and long dinners. What is flash fiction and what was the focus of the conference?
CB: Flash fiction is a story written in 1,000 words or less. The most famous example is Ernest Hemmingway’s “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” which is the entire narrative. I’m fascinated by the way in which subtext provides as much, or even more, of the story to the reader. More so than other genres, flash fiction operates at the interface between the writer and the reader.
Shortness At Tate Modern had two components: conference papers presented in an auditorium and a long dinner in an upstairs room that was interrupted by various performances, demonstrations and interventions. That’s where I read my short story “B&I,” which is set in Chicago. I was pretty nervous about presenting to an audience that included DJ Spooky, since I’m an admirer of his and I had taught his work to undergraduates at Barnard the previous year.
RH: You recently did a reading at Foyles Bookshopin London, the write up of which referenced you are working on your second screenplay. Aren’t the 8 degrees, lovely family, multiple book projects, art projects and being a Huffington Post correspondent enough? Screenplays? I recently completed my work on Angry Birds Star Wars (admittedly playing it not developing it, but it was hard work to defeat Darth Pig). Now, c’mon, you are just embarrassing the rest of us. What is your most recent screenplay about? We have a huge Hollywood studio exec. fan base.
CB: I wrote a feature-length screenplay a couple of years ago, marketed it, and stirred up enough interest to motivate me to write another one. At the moment, I’m writing a contained location action-thriller.
Usually, I work on fiction and non-fiction projects in tandem, exploring concepts and narratives through different genres. Some things that work in fiction just don’t pan out in non-fiction and vice-versa. Lots of projects remain unfinished, or are discarded along the way but that doesn’t bother me since I usually manage to recycle ideas. I’m easily bored, and it’s easier for me to accomplish tasks when I’m slightly distracted so I tend to toggle back and forth between projects. When I lose my focus with one thing, I go to the other, and then back again.
And, yeah, I wake up every morning and think to myself: How can I make Richard Holland feel like less of a person today?
RH: Very popular choice, there is a support group out there, I think they give out grants.
CB: Something to look forward to! Some of what you’re responding to is my effort, as a former full-time mom, to find some means of engaging myself intellectually while remaining present for my children. When you’re pushing a kid on a swing for forty minutes straight, it’s useful to occupy your mind with thoughts of something other than pushing a swing. A story or an article that’s already been threshed out in your mind comes much quicker to the page.
RH: What are you working on currently?
CB: I’m focused on the academic work described above, speaking at the GSA conference this fall, and putting together a seminar at IGRS for next spring titled “Emotional Response in Historical Practice: Methodological Approaches to Representing Collective Experience.” I’m also publishing an article about Aby Warburg, historiography, and metaphors of German national identity in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Art Historiography. Through “What We Made,” an independent publisher approached me about writing long-format fiction and so in my spare time I’m also rewriting a novel I had roughed out a few years ago in addition to working on the screenplay.
RH: Thank you for joining us! We need to get together for an audio interview the next time we end up in relatively the same city. Thanks!!
CB: It was my pleasure! These were great questions!
RH: I’ll pass along the compliment to my writing staff.
Hackney in East London is an area which could easily be compared to Brooklyn: it is also London’s poorest borough and has become a breeding nest for artist.
I get off the bus and the wind almost knocks me off my feet. Sophie Adams, an artist whom I’d pitched tonight’s event is following. The streets are silent; everyone is wrapped in heavy winter jackets since a five day blizzard has been sweeping away any hope of summer.
Our destination is an old Inn I thought closed for a long time. The Islam green paint is peeling off and scaffoldings are plugged onto the pub’s façade like a fixation ring on a triple fracture. Through the window, there are no more chairs, no tables, the juke box is burst open; panels have been ripped off the wall and the paper is shredded; what was once a warm public house has been lynched and hurled in a corner left in shock. As the door opens Sophie hides behind me.
We are here for Black Metal Chicken an event organised by the band Corporate Psychosis, an apocalyptic noise band funded by Henrik Heinonen with Oscar Gaynor and Matthew Peers. At first it looks like the building is being squatted and these events are not common in London. Since squatting was made a criminal offence in the wake of the 2012 Olympics as part of a right-wing “clean-up”, it is tough: facing a maximum imprisonment of 6 months and a hefty £5.000 ($7600) fine, most places would avoid promoting their cultural stand unless acting for the community. But this is not a squat, it’s a rented space that will be knocked down in a month and turned into flats.
It is colder inside than outside but at least we’re off the freezing wind; booze will be de riguer. Two sofas, a large wooden table and a huge brown chrysalid mounted on the wheeling stem of an office chair are what makes the furniture. An empty television with a mannequin’s face in it is lit by red spotlights; wrapped in the leg of a woman’s tight, little hooks are stringed to tiny engines pulling on the fabric; the face swells. It’s repelling, edgy and bleak.
“Mutation and identity is what’s center to my work, it is noisey, a kind of kitsch overload,” tells me Victor Ivanov a tall and broad bleached blond man. “What’s the plan tonight? What are we meant to see?” I bluff. “We don’t know…yet,” he answers secretly. “We have been asked to be here but we don’t know what we are meant to do. Although we have ideas but we are just waiting for them to be called into action.”
For the next 20 minutes I will be talking with Ivanov and Andie Macario – another of the artist who wears a luxurious violet wig she combs with her fingers. We discuss London and how much we all struggle to afford a living. Sophie comes back from the corner shop with a bottle of vodka and a mango juice carton.
People slowly arrive and I can tell looking at their faces that I am the only one who knows what is going to happen: risky masochistic performance, violent creative clashes mocking humanity, Noise – but in what order?… The lights are dimmed and candles are lit up. There is no music but the constant hubbub of people conversation as the place is filling up.
It’s nine pm and it seems that nothing is in the way to start. Artists have mixed with the crowd, and they don’t know what is meant to happen. They seem to be waiting for the curator, Heinonen running around hectically, like a Gerbil in a small cage. In fact it’s all in the role play he’ll later tell me. “Are you the ceremony master?” I ask him. “I got Ivanov and Macario to be present here tonight because I trust what they do and I like the way they work, they are very serious.”
“Tonight there is a collection of people who are concerned about what is happening to us. But I wouldn’t call myself a curator. I hate the word curator; my work is more like “organising exhibition”. It starts with a space, place, site and it always has some particularly meaning, narrative, its history and also ideological connotations that comes with the space, which you have to take into account. I don’t work in a studio, I am not into this tradition of gallery space and so on. I think we have to figure out something else, something different from art with a big “A”.”
Suddenly, we’re told it’s time to eat and that “black food” will be served. On the table are smoking breaded lamb hearts, fried calves liver, haggis, roasted aubergine and black bread, all free of charge. It feels like a feast of vanity. “Why Black Metal Chicken?” I ask Ivanov. “Because we wanted to stuff speakers into that cooked chicken and play Black Metal through it.”
Then there’s a move. As about fifteen of us are sat around the table, the Benny Hill tune is hurled out of the speakers from the back of the pub and I see Ivanov wrapping his hands around Macario’s neck, strangling her. Macario’s face has turned a reddish mauve; she coughs, a touch of white foam forming at the corner of her mouth, gasping for air like a fish out of water. It doesn’t feel real but I can tell by the sombre air behind Ivanov’s mask that he is choking her. Everyone has left the table, and stand around the performing couple. Should it be stopped?
“Why are we watching that? Are you all right?” erupts Sophie. Macario is about to pass out.
And release. The music stops and a long silence floats thick in the air. It was somewhere sexy but very grotesque and we watched. Till the end. He could have left her dead. We wouldn’t have moved…
But it was meant to be a performance; something shocking that was played to aggress. Adrenaline had kicked in and it was hard to go back to the food. We wanted more. Suddenly, the whole place roared with discussions.I hear that it was the first time they’d performed in front of other people. Ivanov is shaking, speaks very fast and occasionally stutters. “It was a good feeling but there were dangers. It was good because nobody knew what was going to happen, then this girl asks “are all right darling?” It was quite something.”
He seems hard for him to stay focus. Sophie appears on my back: “I thought the timing was good,” she says. “Just as the audience were eating, helping themselves to food. If I didn’t know it was a performance, I would have been concerned, it relied heavily on our knowledge and trust that this was a performance. I think, they were trying to communicate the uncanny, notions of sadism, the erotic. Perhaps, too, how vulnerable we are to another person’s decision to harm us?”
“It was nerve racking,” says Macario very slowly. “I didn’t know when it was coming. We decided not have control when it was actually done so the curator put on the Benny Hill theme tune and we got cued in.” The anticipation as well was quite…But I have quite a high tolerance. I am in the fetish theme and I have this character that has a name, she is a performer and she likes to be looked at…it’s kind of pieced to my art practice; it is a separate theme but I like to do things in public. Throughout my whole life I have been fed this idea that women are baby making machines and need to serve their man; I like to play with the idea of over-performing feminine identity through the use of drag and creating various characters for myself.”
“Is it artistic?” I ask.
“I am an artist first and it is part of the world of the artist to perform a character as well; or a caricature from themselves. Because that’s only the way you are able to be free and to be truly yourself. Because it’s okay for an artist to be crazy; it’s acceptable.”
“You are quite limited, you have quite a lot of boundaries as a person. When you’re an artist, or a performer it gives you this elevated freedom that perhaps you wouldn’t have normally.”
The second act starts. Heinonen puts on his baby mask and follows destructive sound performance with made up guitar, keg drumming and screams and shouts.
At that point I just wandered where I’d walked into. I was baffled and very much wandering whether this had any aesthetic sense or any meaning really. It felt as if we’d come to a point of transition, that moment when genre mutates and it’s dirty and we put everything together and, chew, eat and digest; aesthetic was being stretched beyond rupture point to find its limits and ours. Theory and beauty mixed with the bloody guts of feminism, artifice and hyperreality. I saw rituals, erotico-porno art; hazy narratives and no reliable truths.
However, I felt the whole a bit too clumsy. As if playing too much with the shock factor in a way that “this shouldn’t be shown, so here it comes.” I saw their approach as a sort of unfocused radiating violence; they don’t speak; they shout. They don’t cuddle; they choke. They recycle the streets, they “attack” morals, social behavior and contracts, all at once and from every direction. A bit like a campaign without program.
Heinonen would later tell me that it started as a joke during a video show of Raymond Petitbon until it evolved into Black Metal Chicken.
The group believes that we are all “un-dead corpses” or “human being without a subject” since we live in a world preconditioned for social performance. Comparing liberal democracy to a totalitarian regime like Soviet Communism, Fascism or National Socialism, they engage the crowd to discuss and react within their own socio-political “trauma” in order to redefine themselves.
In a very Adorno-istic way, the group concentrates on cultural criticism and it’s modernity: machine, violence, hyper reality and Post modernism exclusion: we have wandered too far out of the cave and lost our sense of humanity and the best way to re-identify as human beings is to test our morals; our emotions; our senses and nerves, all of what makes us humans.
“I am little bit more optimistic,” Heinonen cuts. “This is what I try to express, I don’t know if I succeed but our identity, ourselves is passed on to us by our parents and family and our identity is a form of power, limitation and control. Out of this we have to go “too far” if we are seriously gonna have some form understanding of ourselves. Seeing shocking images on the internet, where people are almost abusing themselves, as hard as I can, I try to see humanity in there. I try to see something beautiful or touching, or something that tells about this person, what is inside him or her. See, I take Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers) work very seriously, I think he manages to do something good out of this crazy jumble of stories, It’s grotesque but it’s beautiful.
There is a fox in the museum. It is the only thing that moves in the whole space: is this why the fox’s presence is so striking? Because it alone is unpredictable within the camera frame? Because it might do something to the paintings? No one else is present. Nighttime is inferred. The title of this work The Nightwatch suggests some kind of threat. Perhaps we are witnessing footage from an apocalypse. More likely, the museum is just closed. The stillness of the room adds to the potency of our fox. It passes like a shadow through the National Portait Gallery — the only representative of flesh and blood. It doesn’t notice the fine work hung on its bounding walls. And why should it? It has no relation to these figures, or at least it didn’t before it entered the museum. It stops and pokes its head through what might be a fireplace. Looking for a way outside? When one discovers a mouse in a high rise apartment, one imagines an unknown, or secret, exit. One, perhaps, not built to the human scale. In the case of our fox, the artist is the entrance and the exit. This is the fox of Francis Alÿs — the man who ties magnets to his feet and walks around Mexico City collecting metal. He has similarly pushed a giant block of ice around until it melted to a nub the size of a stone. There must have been a crook in his back by then. He also chases tornadoes and has lead a flock of sheep around a city square like a Pied Piper. The Nightwatch was one of seven works commissioned by London-based Artangel, wherein Alÿs was asked to make work in response to the city. I saw a striking video at PS1 last summer that was part of this same series, in which Alÿs videoed the English guard marching, at first alone, though the deserted city, and then slowly finding one another, growing every more comfortable as their number grew. The sound of their feet grew louder and louder, echoing through the empty corridors. Yet, I am most interested in his fox at the moment.
The fox articulates a non-human space within the cultural architecture of humanity. It is not simply that the museum was built by human enterprise, but that it functions as a temple of sorts, a house for historical works. The museum is a proper place, full of oil paintings and serious faces, poised with solemn and practiced grace. These works have survived the test of time. In that respect their presence is partly due to chance, for it is likely some have travelled great distances, across the sea for instance, barring wreckage, flooding, fires and sunlight. They hang now, like static vampires in gold frames, very much preserved. They are representatives of posterity: examples one might find inspiration in. The fox disrupts their solemnity, destabilizing whatever authority they might possess. The animal is so dynamic by comparison, trotting around with speed and self-possession. What is that statistic? In a matter of weeks the jungle would encroach upon New York City if human kind were not present to fend it off. It would take so little time to be gobbled up by trash, vines and rats — and then the larger beasts would come to sniff through our bodegas.
Joseph Beuys brought a coyote into a gallery in 1974. The interaction between Beuys and the coyote became a work of art, the performance of a developing relationship. It illustrated the process of equilibreum as it was discovered between a four-legged beast and a human being. Between two cultures, one wild, the other civilized. The coyote, of course, is endemic to American mythology — a trickster, a mirror, a scavenger. Alÿs’ fox, on the other hand, is closer to English lore. There are any number of pubs named after it. For Sunday sport, English gentry used to set out on horseback to hunt it. But foxes are also tricksters, though these (apparently) can sometimes climb trees. In Nightwatch, the artist is absent. Instead the fox interacts with the object of art-space; that physical space becomes a conduit for history, not, as in the case with Beuys, the artist and his props.
Alÿs began his project with the idea of using CCTV footage from surveillance cameras all over London. While it is legal for any member of the public to watch the footage, it is illegal to use it for some other purpose. Alÿs adjusted his plan and focused instead on the National Portrait Gallery as a site. They have state of the art surveillance cameras. To test this, to engage our interest in the strangeness of animals, he set a fox called Bandit loose in the museum at night. What is it that we are looking for when we watch this fox? Go here to watch an excerpt from this piece.
Emerging in the late 1960s alongside artists including Richard Long and Gilbert and George, Hamish Fulton’s work began to explore new possibilities for sculpture and for a direct relationship between landscape and art, shifting the focus from the resulting art as an object on to the experience of the landscape. With influences ranging from American Indian culture to the subject of the environment itself, Fulton began to take short walks and take photographs to document the experiences of these walks.
After a monumental journey walking 1,022 miles from John O’Groats to Lands End Fulton made walking the sole subject of his art claiming to then make “only art resulting from the experience of individual walks”. He believes that each walk has a life of its own, and this cannot be rendered into a physical artwork; as the artist says “an artwork may be purchased but a walk cannot be sold”.
Fulton undertakes these walks by himself and so is the only person to directly experience them; however the images, photographs and text allow viewers to engage with the artist’s experiences.
Born in London in 1946 Hamish Fulton studied at St Martin’s College of Art, 1966-1968, and the Royal College of Art, 1968-1969, both in London and has had numerous solo shows at various institutions, amongst them Tate Britain and Kunst Museum, Basel, and has exhibited internationally including shows in New York, Tokyo and Munich. Fulton’s work is also kept by collections ranging from the British Council and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Versailles art show hit by injunction bid
From the wet dreams of the marketing people behind Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami’s show at Versailles a descendant of the man who built the Versailles Palace in France is seeking an injunction to prevent modern works by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami from being shown there. The legal battle is fronted by Sixte Henri de Bourbon-Parme in defence of “respecting the chateau and ancestors.” The ultra-conservative royalist has united with a group, the Versailles Defence Coordination, to file the suit, in which they stake a claim for the “right to access to heritage.” Read more here
Prince Charles offers to oversee London architectural planning
This week in “What could possibly go wrong?” Prince Charles offers to take on key architectural planning role in the vaccum created by the quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation that had its funding axed in the comprehensive spending review. The offer, announced by the foundation’s chief executive, Hank Dittmar, has been met with dismay by leading modernist architects who fear Prince Charles may use the role to advance his own traditional tastes in design. Read more here
Studio Manager Anne McIlleron talks about her boss William Kentridge
William Kentridge who is the focus of Art:21′s first feature length documentary (recently reviewed here and just broadcast on PBS this week) let his Studio Manager Anne McIlleron speak on what looks to be B-roll of the Art:21 documentary, its interesting but I am still of the opinion that William Kentridge wasn’t the best subject in the world to get this kind of treatment, just me I am sure. See more here
Kronos Quartet Interviewed
I cant get enough of Art Babble I admit and double so for the Kronos Quartet (which Duncan & I caught in concert last time they were in Chicago and were amazing) so when you merge the two together it’s PB&J perfection. See More Here
New Yorker cartoonist Leo Cullum died
Leo Cullum, whose cartoons kept readers of The New Yorker laughing for 33 years, has died. He was 68. Read more here
The art world’s own Bernie Madoff
Lawrence Salander Read more here
Google DemoSlam is previewed
Google has previewed a new site called demoslam built to encourage the creation and rank the best tech demonstrations on the net, part of me has long thought this was something the art world should have created a long time ago, free idea (hey get what you pay for) to whoever has the time and wants to put the work into it, Youtube was built for the Art world and a project like this (even though we all wish it looked like Vimeo). Have at it and God bless at this point I just want a life for a while lol. Read more here