Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Aandrea Stang in her office, which sits waist-level with passing-by students on their way to the dormitory across the way, twice. The second time, I brought her a raspberry glaze cronut from the donut place near my house, which, like most donut places in LA, is called LA 24-Hour Donut or Donut 24-Hour LA or LA Donut 24-hour or something like that. Their cronuts are truly marvelous, and their donuts are great. Their coffee is terrible. I asked Aandrea about the program she now runs at Occidental College, a small, residential liberal arts college nestled the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles. That program, OxyArts, is currently presenting We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a participatory sculpture project by Los Angeles-based artist collective Finishing School in collaboration with artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher (on view through May 9), and The Trouble Between Us: An exhibition organized by Kenneth Tam (on view through April 19). Watch a time-lapse video of the installation of We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a full-size replica of a MQ-1B Predator drone aircraft that was covered in mud over the course of two days by participants from Occidental College and beyond, here.
JW: Do you have free reign over all aspects of what you’re doing here?
AS: Do I have free reign to do whatever I want here?
AS: Can you narrow the question please?
JW: I guess that’s just a really roundabout way of asking what you’re doing here. What is OxyArts? What are you meant to be doing? What is its relation to the school? It looks to me like it’s the sort of thing that an art institution—a museum—that’s attached to a college operates, like the Wattis [at the California College of the Arts] or whatever, but there’s no museum here—I mean I guess there’s the gallery, but…so is it an offshoot of the gallery?
AS: Well, the college president is really interested in the arts. He was at the New School before he came here, and he likes contemporary art—he has a stumbling-on-a-Jenny-Holzer story that he likes to tell. He really is interested in seeing the college’s arts programming be more visible, and he’s also interested in the college having a greater relationship to the arts community in southern California. So, as the one urban liberal arts school in southern California, and perhaps in California and possibly—I mean, I don’t know how many residential urban liberal arts schools there are—so the president really wants to take advantage of that and position this school as having a partnership/relationship with the arts community in southern California. There was a strategic plan written for the college several years ago and the arts were really strongly written into the strategic plan, and they saw my availability as an opportunity.
JW: What is the strategic plan a strategy towards?
AS: I haven’t read the whole thing, but it talks about where the college is ideally headed. Before this president came in, there was a lot of tumult; there was three or four presidents in two years. The economic downturn impacted the endowment. The school wasn’t in an ideal place, so the strategic plan was written to move forward—to aggressively move forward. [Occidental College president Jonathan] Veitch wanted to have the arts included. So I’ve been brought in to manage the brand of the arts, and especially the presenting component of the arts, on the campus, to the campus itself and also to a larger audience outside the campus. The overall list of things they want from this office is pretty long…
JW: Were you able to whittle down the list of things? It sounds like you’re asked to do everything.
AS: Yeah. For example they’d like me to be in charge of the college’s collection, which is currently housed in special collections in the college’s library, and given the pressing responsibilities the collection’s going to have to stay there until plans and policies are created. Additionally I am overseeing the gallery program and they are interested in seeing interventionist projects occurring on campus.
JW: Are you supposed to write any curricula or teach any classes? Or is it mostly an administrative position?
AS: For right now it’s an administrative position. We’ve talked about my teaching—and I adjuncted before I came here, teaching a class on how LA became a modern and contemporary art city—but it was agreed when I signed my letter for this job, while it was presented to me as a job description, that what I was signing was the description for my office, not for my job.
JW: It seems like you have some qualms—how much you’re being asked to do. Were you sort of trepidatious about working here, or…
AS: No. I’m not afraid of hard work, that’s fine. I was nervous about coming to an academic institution and what that meant—
JW: What does that mean?
AS: At MOCA, there was an acceptance that anything presented there was art. You know, you’re at MOCA, this is a project that’s being produced by MOCA, usually what I was doing was within the bounds of MOCA—not always within the physical space—but it was a museum project and therefore it was accepted as art. Here, the art department is small. Overall there are about 2000 students and I would say maybe 30 of them are art majors, or visual arts majors, so when you’re putting on a big project like Finishing School’s We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust or Liz Collins’ Knitting Nation, people don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at. Since this campus is used so much for film shoots, half the time the students assume that an artwork is part of a set.
JW: Wow, ok.
AS: Welcome to southern California. This was California University for Beverly Hills 90210, and it’s been every college campus you’ve ever seen in the movies and on TV. Part of my learning curve is understanding that that’s the dynamic here.
JW: I noticed that the first couple of things you did here were in the gallery.
AS: The first thing I did was Liz Collins’ project, Knitting Nation, which I did with the sculpture professor [Mary Beth Heffernan] She and her sculpture students were very involved in the project—one of the course assignments was to work with Collins on the project. I was more involved in a managerial, administrative, logistical role. Going into the project I didn’t know Liz, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but it was a good first project. We got on well and the collaboration with Mary Beth was a supportive way to ease myself into how things work at Occidental.
JW: How is OxyArts funded? Is it funded entirely by the college’s endowment or are there also private donors?
AS: One of my constraints here is budget, so I can’t do a lot of big programs until I have proper funding in place. Fortunately a generous family foundation is supporting an artist-in-residence program that’s starting this fall. Lucky Dragons is going to be our first semester-long artist-in-residence, which we’re really excited about. The foundation was interested in seeing the Artist in Residence program start last fall but since I had just started at Occidental I explained that it was too soon to put an effective plan in place. Their response was remarkable. They asked what kind of projects we could do for the coming year. We discussed these smaller residencies, which they were very amenable to. That’s when I began to consider what was possible.
JW: Do you think people receive these projects differently here than they would have had you done them at MOCA?
AS: Yeah, well the first gallery show [Devon Tsuno: Watershed] was really well received. It was comprised of lush beautiful paintings and other attractive elements. The show that’s up now [The Trouble Between Us organized by Kenneth Tam] doesn’t appeal to a general audience as much, but it starts an interesting dialogue. The students studying time-based media are mostly working in either documentary or fictional narrative, so this show has been an interesting teaching tool for their professors. I don’t know how the drone would have been received had it been sited in an art environment. It may have been perceived as didactic. Here I think it works. Here it is pedagogical. The artists understand their audience. When I was told that there is one military veteran enrolled on campus, that made me that much more interested in doing this project. The airmen controlling the drones—or playing the videogames that control the drones—are the same age as the students here. And if there’s a class thing that you accept about who’s in our military now—that’s not the student body here. It is my assumption that the Occidental student body doesn’t have much of a relationship with our present-day military. I think making that actually tangible is an interesting thing. And there’s the whole making it tangible part, having people come and put the mud on it.
JW: To be part of this celebratory social experience of putting a drone in mud.
AS: Yeah, and having it be this sort of generous, barn-raising kind of moment where you’re patting down hellfire missiles. I think that has had a pretty provocative impact on the community here. On Friday I had an art history student in my office who was asking for some direction about a job after college. It wasn’t a conversation she was particularly comfortable having with me, a stranger. We got to talking about the drone project, and her whole demeanor changed. She went from being very reserved to very honestly and comfortably expressing her excitement about the project. There’s a student in either history or politics doing a paper on it; one of the Diplomacy and World Affairs professors used it for her drone unit. It’s getting some traction. I think in a museum I might’ve pushed the artists away from a project like this.
JW: Because it was too didactic?
AS: Yeah. And here that gets flipped around and handled well. The setting of a beautiful college campus, the fact that every movie gets shot here because it looks like Joe College, that works to the advantage of this project. If you’d put this in front of something that looks like what we think a contemporary art museum looks like, how exciting would that be? I mean it’s still a big giant airplane covered in mud with Hellfire missiles, so it would still be exciting, but I think the setting…
JW: And it’s not even in front of an art building, it’s in front of an auditorium, right?
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it works here.
JW: How would you say the work you’re doing here relates to the work you were doing at MOCA?
AS: Engagement Party—how to answer this?—it’s really interesting to look at this from the other side. You know, when we got the funding for the project I was really excited, and I had also been at the museum for eight years at that point, so…
JW: What had you been doing until then?
AS: Public programs. That had started to stretch into other programming. We received funding from the Irvine Foundation, as part of their Artistic Innovation Fund. At the time they were inviting the big cultural institutions in California—not just museums, but the symphony orchestras and the big theaters—to apply for projects that would be innovative in terms of both the artistic program—in how the institution interacted with its audience—and also innovative in a managerial sense. A lot was asked of this program. I had been interested in what we now think of as social practice for a long time. I had been looking at community-based art-making—what it was in the 1970s and 80s, what it became in the 90s, and how that transmogrified into what we think of as social practice. At the time of the application I was very involved in Allan Kaprow—Art as Life, working towards remaking his Happenings as part of the exhibition. For the year leading up to the exhibition opening I had been studying his work. As a result one of the things that I thought was important was to think about the idea of innovation broadly: how in a collecting museum do you support non-object-based work? On the managerial side of things, MOCA had always claimed that it was committed to hiring artists and other culture workers. That idea influenced how I selected the project team. I chose either front-line or junior-level staffpeople—in some instances, middle-management—from most departments. This group collectively was responsible for both the managerial and curatorial oversight for this project.
JW: How long were people on this decision-making board?
AS: As long as they wanted to be. There were some people that were on it from beginning to end, four of us I think. For various reasons other people rotated out and were replaced, usually by people from the same department. We tried to keep a representative balance.
JW: And it was a consensus-based decision-making thing?
AS: Yeah. And you know, museums are pretty hierarchical spaces and it was really hard for a lot of people to accept the flat management within the pyramid, to cut the line thorugh the triangle. It was interesting to me who wanted to be involved, who didn’t want to be involved, and which department heads were willing to have their people be part of the project. In some cases, the people who I thought were going to be totally behind it, didn’t want to give up that much of their person’s time, and…
JW: How much of a person’s time was it?
AS: It was a an hour and a half meeting each week. With each cycle, as we drew closer to project dates, there were more things to do and more of the group members’ time was needed.
JW: How big was the group?
AS: The original group was thirteen people including one full-time staff person dedicated to the project.
JW: How did a typical meeting go? Was it you present a project and then talk about it and then vote?
AS: It was everything from soup to nuts. When we first started, I presented the group with the framework of the program, explaining that as a group we would have to complete the program design. At the same time—because of the limited timeline—we were working on the program design and making decisions about what artists we were going to be selecting. During the selection process for the first artists with whom we’d work, I was scheduled to go on vacation to Montana. I let the group know that while I was gone they needed to make a decision from the final two or three artist groups. It wasn’t a tactic on my part. I was going to be away, my voice was one of thirteen and we needed to keep the process moving. I got back, they had chosen the artists, and they understood that I was serious when I said that the program was a going to be a consensus-based management process and that they were really part of it. It wasn’t intentional; I was just going to Montana because I needed some time away.
JW: Where did the name come from?
AS: One of the educator’s husbands came up with it. We were trying to come up with a good name, and I asked widely for help. I don’t like having my picture taken and I can’t come up with interesting names for projects. Bonnie’s husband came up with it. Thank you William.
JW: It’s a good name.
AS: It’s a good name. It’s sort of a double-edged sword, though, because the artists doing the projects wanted to be taken seriously and if the work is part of something called Engagement Party is it really serious?
JW: Well, for one thing, there’s also political parties and those are pretty serious.
JW: But also I feel like something that’s nice about Engagement Party is that, at least in the social practice environment now, looking back at Engagement Party, it’s nice to see something that isn’t being weighed down by overly—it’s not couched in terms that are only accessible to people that are within this very small niche of social practice within the art world.
AS: That was the whole intention—and I think coming out of an education department had a lot to do with that. We thought a lot about and worked on how to present work that would garner the interest of the younger art world set, but would also will be something that a wider audience could participate in.
JW: Why were these audiences not already going to MOCA?
AS: They were, but the point was to try to get them more invested in the institution, not just as a place to visit but as something they were a part of, and what makes you feel more of a part of something than social practice?
AS: A place like MOCA needs to accept that it is an elitist institution, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—if you have an extremely limited amount of leisure time, unless you’re deeply dedicated to art, MOCA’s not going to be your first choice of what to do. Coming here was stimulating to me because that notion of audience is completely turned around, and I’m really interested in exploring that. Not everybody’s coming to the projects with any kind of aesthetic language, much less the same one—or they have an aesthetic language, but don’t know what it is, and I find that a really motivating challenge.
JW: How to make things make sense to people—how to make them intelligible as art?
AS: Does it matter that it’s an artwork? If a bunch of people are knitting on mechanical knit machines, and students are walking through the same space, what is their engagement? Are they there to watch, are they there because their economics professor wants—to talk about things, including labor…
JW: Like labor practices? Like people knitting as labor? Were they being paid?
AS: The artist was being paid, the non-student participants were being paid, and the student participants were there as part of a class assignment and were not being paid.
JW: Huh. Sounds like that would make a good class about labor practices.
AS: With Devon’s exhibitions, one room was painting, and one room had sculptural objects that looked very mundane, very banal, but were all hand-produced. I think Devon’s show was a really good moment with the students because I think they started to understand that a lot of things are artwork…
JW: Or a lot of things could be artwork…I guess maybe that’s the exciting thing about being here, is that a person can just walk by the drone and not think about it. Like inhabit the same space as it, but not notice it as art or even think to notice as art, not be an audience or a participant or a viewer or whatever—just be walking by.
AS: Last Friday, the senior media majors showed their final projects, their films. They had a reception beforehand in the plaza in front of that auditorium, where the drone is sited. Every person attending the event was forced to interact with the project in some way. Some people were just trying to move around it—in a Tilted Arc kind of way. But many people were really engaging it.
JW: Is that something that you—are you always interested in what’s going to happen? Is that something you look for in projects? The possibility of a scenario where you don’t know what’s going to happen?
AS: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. Maybe that’s the product of too much time spent with Kaprow. I don’t know how happy I would be working in circumstances where I know what the end result is going to be. I like working on projects that have some element of random chance. As a result, working on the exhibitions in the galleries has been interesting for me—exploring how that fits into what I’m thinking about. I like not knowing the outcomes of an art project. That said, I can appreciate people that go to the symphony to see the same piece of music many times. Whenever I go to MOMA I tend to go see the same works. And there’s comfort in that—but I don’t always like to be comfortable. Of course, I say this from this place where…
JW: We’re sitting under a veranda in comfy chairs with birds singing.
AS: Right, I find that a little—I don’t know. Look at what Pussy Riot is doing, or any number of political art groups—you know, they’re uncomfortable! I’m not uncomfortable.
JW: It seems like the experience you’re seeking here, with the projects you’re setting up, is this sort of aesthetic discomfort. Students walking into the gallery and seeing a milk crate that isn’t a milk crate introduces the idea that any milk crate might be a work of art, which is a different possibility. It’s a different sort of discomfort, which I guess is valued differently—because, you know, we like heroes and dying and all that—but it’s discomfort nonetheless.
AS: Yeah. I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of their situation. Sometimes something’s just a shopping cart, sometimes it’s not. Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork. Does looking at a Donald Judd make you look at ductwork differently? Kind of.
Aandrea Stang is the recently appointed director of OxyArts, a newly created multidisciplinary arts programming initiative at Occidental College. From 2002 until 2012 she served as Senior Education Program Manager at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) where she developed and produced the museum’s public programming. From 2008 to 2012 she oversaw MOCA’s Engagement Party program, which offered Southern California–based artist collectives opportunities to make new artworks, interacting with the museum in unexpected ways. Stang has held positions at local government and community-based arts organizations and served on the boards of several arts organizations.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. His recording with guitarist Shane Perlowin, objet a, on tape cassette and for digital download, will be released by Prom Night Records on May 6th, 2014.
April 15, 2014 · Print This Article
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be in conversation with artist-choreographer taisha paggett. Paggett, who splits her time between Chicago and LA, is one of the many Chicago artists to be included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. If you’re in New York this week be sure to check out her performance at the Whitney starting on Weds.
Paggett’s works for the stage, gallery, and public sphere include individual and collaborative investigations into questions of the body, agency, and the phenomenology of race. Here we discuss her interest in dance, performer-audience relationships, and feeling-thinking through performance. More information on her work and practice can be found here.
I thought we’d begin with a few questions around your interest in choreography and the body, focusing in on how both might communicate a certain set of politics and also what I perceive in your work as an interest in how knowledge is produced through the body. How did you arrive at choreography? What does dance do in your work and what are it’s limitations?
my work was initially interested in addressing identity and the scars of alienation from fitting into neither a black community nor a white community, as well as the experience of coming into my sexuality and having to confront another layer of otherness. (an immediate aside: i’m a bit self-conscious using these monolithic, over-generalizing terms but you must understand that where i grew up was insidiously segregated and conservative—there was a white side of town and a black side of town and i lived in and simultaneously belonged fully to neither). it took me some time to see that my story was not a thing to make work about over and over but rather a frame or a perspective from which to ask questions. i do believe that we are reflections of our surroundings—that environment is a living entity which informs us and vice versa, and perhaps its that perspective which makes me as fascinated with space as i am with bodies… human geographies and spatial geographies.
i wasn’t initially interested in making work, i was only interested in opportunities to dance without having to make many decisions. i loved moving, i loved the type of thinking it required and i loved utilizing my body. what propelled me into making work was the accumulation of experiences in which i had to recognized how differently my body and sexuality read on stage in relation to my peers. there was a Black (modern) dance world and a white one and i grew up in the latter (again with the monoliths…) dance is tricky because it’s very collaborative and so much about relationships and interaction. more often than not as a dancer you’re living through or interpreting someone else’s vantage point… over time i started to develop an analysis in class and rehearsal that made it hard to continue moving—as much as i loved it all, i got to a point where i could not overlook the fact that i was participating in a pedagogy and performance of privilege that did not align with and required a disavowal of my own experience of the world. on top of that, i became interested in better understanding this notion of Black dance and how it was being articulated.
i’m going to stop there because i realize that i’m going long on just one aspect of your question but it’s true that those experiences politicized me and propelled me into creating work. my work continues to think through and beyond the conventions and methodologies of dance as a way to approach and create performance structures. for example, training as a type of knowing… dance is a performing art form and bodies are perpetually changing so one must be diligent about training the body. there are certain actions that one repeats to train specific muscles. it makes me think about repetition as a conceptual framework for understanding how knowledge enters the body. we are what we repeat—consciously or not, which means our habits are a type of becoming as well. i’ve created structures based on the repetition of a single set of identifiable actions (for example, Decomposition of a Continuous Whole in which i was blindfolded and drew on a wall with pastels and crayons a set score of movements over the course of several hours). the beauty of repetition is that it’s never completely the same–something in our external or internal environment is always shifting despite our desire to stay consistent and that friction within the repetition is how i believe we come into knowledge.
what dance does in my work these days is give me permission to get elemental and create what to me feels like momentary utopias of people coming together to share an experience. stripping away the excess, stretching out the movement slow as if to slow down time so that we even breath together. i guess it gives me permission to create a contemplative space… i see performance as an offering on both sides: the performer offers an experience and the viewer offers their presence. i’m also interested in creating structures that make the viewer realize that their body is as much a part of the experience as mine is… a momentary togetherness. this is true of my work with Ashley Hunt as well—we’re interested in activating the physical and sensorial body of the “viewer”… that one cannot come to an experience with only their eyes…. that the formation of the political subject requires bringing the conscious body into the equation.
Watching documentation of some of your work I am taken by the way you pay attention to speed and the control with which you execute movements lends your performances a kind of uncanny quality, a sense of mystery that calls attention to the shapes made by the body. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, how you construct movement and compose the works?
i’m not certain how long i’ll be in this slow period but it’s still very fascinating to me. i construct a framework and score first and then live in the experience of fulfilling that score. in most cases i don’t know ahead of time exactly how i’ll respond to the score until i’m in it, and because repetition is often part of the equation, i have to grapple with retracing the previous iteration of the movement (as when the score loops and i start back at the beginning) and living in the experience of doing it again based on mental and muscle memory. my approach to slowness is, on a basic level, definitely about wishing to slow down time—in an era in which everything is accelerated i feel it’s important to have a practice that goes in the opposite direction—but it’s also about wishing to create an experience that i can track and grow through in some manner. tending to the world “out there” but also being able to construct a dialogue with my inner world, my mental fluctuations, the energies that get turned on in the performance experience.. . there’s a kind of martyrdom in dance sometimes where it’s all about the audience and being frontal and impressive and virtuosic and mostly directing energy out out out and i’m interested in other possibilities, other virtuosities… my process toggles between intuition and research. sometimes my structures are informed by a certain set of readings, and sometimes they are informed by a desire to wear a certain set of clothing because they remind me of something that i can’t easily articulate.
I am thinking now about what audiences can do. How they join the work and how, for lack of a better word, they might be manipulated in the process.
i’m not interested in manipulating the audience though i supposed that would be a logical sequence for those artists who wish to take it in that direction (draw the audience in to the work, get them activated, and then twist the scene against them..? it’s a bit predatory and not my mojo—or at least i HOPE the audience doesn’t feel manipulated in my work– but sure, bringing the viewer “in” always has the potential to become manipulative because they come with a certain vulnerability and set of expectations to simply be invisible watchers…) that said, i don’t feel there’s anything particularly radical about folding the audience into a work or seeing them as part of the work. for me it grew out of an interest in paying attention to the larger frames—not just what happens “on stage” but responding to the surrounding structures and systems as well.
American modern dance critic John Martin, writes in American Dancing from 1936, “What, then, is the means of contact between the dancer and the spectator? When we see a human body moving, we see movement which is potentially producible by a human body and therefore by our own; through kinesthetic sympathy we actually reproduce it vicariously in our present muscular experience and awaken such associational connotations as might have been ours if the original movement had been of our own making. The irreducible minimum of equipment demanded of a spectator, therefore, is a kinesthetic sense in working condition.” I believe Martin’s point here is to invite audiences to feel through dancing as opposed to thinking through dancing.
I really like this though i’d add the point that “feeling” ones way through a dance is the same thing as “thinking” ones way through… if dance can do nothing i hope it gets people to understand that ideas, feelings, logic, argument, etc etc etc can and does happen across the body. that’s what makes me so irritated by the popularity of competition dance (a la So You Think You Can bla bla bla franchise, not to mention regional competition dance etc, etc): it reduces all of that intelligence into spectacle and in that realm i don’t think audiences are feeling-thinking through their bodies and experiencing kinesthetic sympathy as much as applauding and salivating over skill and effort. i think it puts forth the idea that the body is something to champion, a lame horse to be disciplined rather than something to listen to and from which to think-feel. sure, this is one perspective and we need multiple perspectives, but this is what’s educating people on dance and that’s really unfortunate, a lost opportunity. i teach in academia and i witness and work with a lot of incoming students who’ve danced for most of their lives and can do a heap of cool technical actions and dance for hours, yet are disconnected from their bodies physically and psychologically. i’d go so far as saying those experiences within my teaching practice have played a great role in shaping what i pay attention to in my own work, my desire to move away from formal notions of virtuosities towards the more contemplative, nuanced, elemental, even murky and i can only hope that an audience is willing to go there with me.
This week: This week, our resident feminist commentator Patricia Maloney sits down with one of her heroes, the Los Angelesâ€“based artist Andrea Bowers to talk about her solo exhibition, Andrea Bowers: #sweetjane, on view through April 13, 2014 at the Pitzer College Art Galleries and Pomona College Museum of Art in Southern California. #sweetjane explores the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case and the social mediaâ€“driven activism that brought the young men responsible to trial in two distinct ways. At Pitzer is a 70-foot long drawing of the text messages sent between the teenagers in the 48 hours following the assault on the young woman who is known in the media and throughout the trial as Jane Doe. At Pomona is a video installation comprised of appropriated media footage and billboard-size photographs of disguised Anonymous protestors at the trial. Taken together, the installations create an incredibly damning document, not only of the events and of the young men, who were depicted sympathetically by the media, but also of the significant tolerance in this country around sexual assault. Bowersâ€™ activities in creating this work reflect the fluidity between art and activism that is a hallmark of her practice, as well as her belief that art can bear witness to the individual gestures and commitments that collectively enact significant social change.
An abridged text version of this conversation will be published by our friends at Art Practical on March 27, 2014.
Andrea Bowers received her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts in 1992. Solo exhibitions include: Secession, Vienna, Austria; REDCAT, Los Angeles, CA; and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Sammlung Goetz, Seedamm Kulturzentrum, Switzerland; Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany; Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst; Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Kunstmuseum Bonn, Bonn, Germany; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL.
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Renzo Martens at his hotel in Little Tokyo while he was in town for his solo exhibition at The BOX Gallery in Downtown LA. We walked to CafÃ© DulcÃ©, in Little Tokyo, for coffee, which happened to be the same place I had gotten coffeeâ€”and a spirulina rollâ€”on my way to meet him. Several tour groups walked past us during our conversation, which lasted about an hour.
Our introductory conversations led me to ask if they have cellphones inâ€¦
JW: Do they have phones?
RM: No. When we went there was no network, so there wasâ€”only the company had a satellite thing, from which one could e-mail, or Skype possibly, sometimes, depending on the weather. But now, recently, some company installed a antenna, so now the phone thing has started. And obviously people want it. It’s really…
JW: Is that good?
RM: The funny thing is that whatever wealth is accumulated in places like that, it’s used to escape, basicallyâ€”whether through talking to the outside or getting to the outside.
JW: But is there anything for people if they stay? Or is that something that IHA is trying to provide?
RM: I read this book recentlyâ€”I have a lot of problems with the book but it certainly makes one point quite clearâ€”this book called Why Do Nations Fail or something. It’s really famous. It’s political theory, but like light, for the masses. But based on research. They’re very prominent scholars. I forget their names. But, so, one big difference between colonization in, let’s say, the US, or Mexico, would have been that, in Mexico you had a highly stratified society, and an enormous population density, and so the Spanish, all they needed to do was control the leaders, and they controlled everybody.
RM: So, you know, they killed the leaders, or co-opted them or what have you, and they could put a highly extractive model on society. You know, everybody has to pay taxes and allegiance to the Spanish guy. And so institutions are meant to extract. Now obviously when the British sent some settlers here, they tried to do the same: get the local people to work. The thing is there weren’t enough local people, and they would just flee, and the land was so big you couldn’t find them anymore, and so you couldn’t have them work for you. So no other option but get these English guys to work for you, but they could flee, too, or you knowâ€”there was no reason why they…So graduallyâ€”or quite quickly over the course over the course of 50 yearsâ€”local settlers demanded more rights than they would ever get in England: we want the right to own property, we want to a have council that is going to decide on problems, rather than some guy from England who does it; so it created inclusive structures, institutions. And now, I do think…and this has had the result that even if we are now probably copied by whomever wants to, we think at least that we are able to have any conversation, pretty much. So it creates an environment in which people can come up with ideas, and that’s like the model of capitalism, right? People have ideas, have incentives, make money off it, and because there’s rule of law, this spurs the economy.
JW: But it also needs a subaltern class to do the all the actual labor.
RM: Yeah. So that’s the funny thing. What the book doesn’t acknowledge in any way is that…yeah, but even you’re a subaltern laborer and you have a really good idea, chances are you’re not going to get to Yale and figure out how to license or set up a business. Edison, or I don’t know whom, was the kid of some normal guy, so many people…maybe it’s more difficult now, but anyway the idea is that this modelâ€”is that institutions are to some degree inclusive. Of course at the same time you have slavery and the Indians were killed, but within a faction of society at least, there was inclusivity. And that would be very different from Mexico, for example, where you still have these extractive institutions. And if you’re at the top of the pyramid, if you have an opponent that wants to challenge you, all you have to do is call your friends and they’ll find a way to block this other guy, far more so than here. Of course what the US does in its foreign policy is making sure that all these other countries on which resources and labor we dependâ€”we make sure there are already these extractive institutions and that we’re on top of them. And so in the Congo in this place like Botekaâ€”and anywhere elseâ€”the institutions are highly extractive. They’re really meant to bleed people. And of course we come with an opposite model, in a way. And so the first thing the company did, as soon as they found out, is make us leave. I don’t know whether you got that story, but they pushed us out at gunpoint. A Canadian company pushed us out at gunpoint.
JW: Really? Wow. I hadn’t heard that.
RM: I haven’t made it public. So…I will, at the right moment. So creativity, however inconsequential it is here, and art, and you know…art is used for other purposes. You know, capital accumulation or gentrification or…
JW: Did they give you a reason for pushing you out?
RM: No. They just said we were illegal.
JW: Were you?
JW: Do you think you’ll go back?
RM: Yeah. I mean, we have kind of an interesting situation, where there’s a place where we really can’t work, and another place where we kind of can. So that’s organically created a research setting that you could otherwise only dream of.
JW: That’s amazing that they found you so threatening. Were they employing all the miners that you were…
RM: They’re palm oil plantation workers.
JW: Oh, ok.
RM: No, and also there was so many better ways of co-opting us. You know, I would say…I mean, I’m interested in co-optation, that’s what I want to research. So they should just have given me $100,000 and said Renzo, any activity you do, we’re happy to sponsor you, and any activity you do, just check with us first. And I would say, yeah, let’s do that, because that’s what I’m all about.
JW: What’s your interest in co-optation? Where did that stem from?
RM: Well, we tend to think that art is this free zone, right? And it is, within the gallery. But the gallery space and whatever art is in it is then in itself very strategically used for other goals, you know? Maybe not if you’re just an artist in your little studio, but as soon as the people in power decide that your work is really good, then it’s used forâ€”to make cities and neighborhoods attractive, for, you know, it’s justâ€”it’s this whole creative class model of Florida, that of course we oppose, too. And yet that’s why biennials and new museums are being financed. That’s how studio spaces move from one area in New York to the other, because, you know, some people in city planning think about these issues. And real estate investors think about these issues. So that’s where you find yourself working on your critical art, in these places. And it’s fine, it’s great, and maybe the content of the critical art has relevance and social or political impactâ€”maybe it doesâ€”but arguably, the impact of your sheer presence, whatever the content of your work, and the atmosphere created by the presence of people like you and I, let’s say, in the galleries, in the cappuccino bars, and the this or the that, and then ten years later in the designer jeans and the boutique hotels, and then the museumsâ€”that’s far more important than any quote un-quote â€œcontentâ€ that we might produce. And so we are really strategicâ€”we are, I mean people are really strategically thinking about where to do it, and so however much we like to dislike Floridaâ€”because he doesn’t attribute any intrinsic value to what art is or what it may do, it’s not a place for dissent or real analysis, it’s just a place for coolness and thereforeâ€”we all hop the centers that are the living proof of his theory. You know, sure, if Thomas Hirschhorn does something in the Bronx, I’ll go to the Bronx, but otherwise I never go to the Bronx. I hang out in the Lower East Side, and the remainders in Chelsea of previous moves of that same thing. And Martha Rosler hangs out in the Lower East Side, you know, and that’s where e-flux magazine has its headquarters, and et cetera, et cetera.
JW: I feel like that makes sense, though, in the history of art. Like beginning in the 50s, with Seth Siegelaub and the conceptual art zone. His thing was selling immaterial artworks by selling an ethos, or an atmosphereâ€”like come to my house, you’ll meet the artist and have a drink with him and see this work, or come to Max’s Kansas City and have a drink with the artistâ€”like, Douglas Huebler did an inert gas pieceâ€”he released some gas out in the desert outside of LAâ€”and Seth Siegelaub made a poster with I think a picture of the desert and some other information, and sent the poster to a very select group of addresses in LA, of collectors and curators and critics and maybe artists, so he’s leveraging, like you say, the coolness of art to create value. Thatâ€™s how the value was created, was from its own coolness. Itâ€™s not in the…
RM: It’s not in the material.
JW: It’s not in the material.
RM: Sure, and that was, at the time, probably it was very often phrased as an anti-capitalist thing, right?
JW: Yeah, but it was totally, completely capitalist. It was perfectly capitalist. Because there doesn’t even need to be a thing.
RM: Well then, yeah, in the inside that’s what we realize. Nothing material is being traded. I mean, sure, yeah, you need a lot of stuff to produce things, maybe more so than before we had these machines [Martens picks up the phone that is recording the conversation], but what drivesâ€”it’s really opinions and emotions. And value attributions based on opinions and emotions. That’s what drives the economy. And so inside many people make the analysis that it was this whole immaterialization of the artwork was perfectly in line with the emergence of capital markets and of speculation of many sorts.
JW: I mean, I feel like advertising andâ€”they were very unabashedly aligned throughout the late 50s and throughout the 60s.
RM: Advertisement and what?
JW: Like, advertising strategies and what Siegelaub was doing. No one was bashful about the interaction there.
RM: Well the cool thing is that you advertise nothingness. And we maybe still would like to do that, you know. I guess many people are still very, very tempted by the irony and theâ€”having a work of art that really means nothing at all. That’s still the ultimate cool: for something to be completely devoid of meaning. It’s really cool.
JW: So, I guess I mention that because in the video of the interview you do with Richard Florida, he’s talking about the three T’sâ€”it’s like something, Talent, and Tolerance…
RM: That’s just what he comes up with, that’s just the main of his, uh…
JW: But yeah, the talent thing is so confusing to me, because I feel like in the art world talent is a completely subjective thing that’s determined by lots of other factors that have nothing to doâ€”like, talent is just coolness, or an ethos, it’s not like…
RM: I think he uses talent in the way of talented people. Your talent is likeâ€”the guys or girls who have talent. Who have talents. That’s your talent. It’s not a quality within people, it’s people with these qualities. One of his issues is that in order to have your talents, you need to be inclusive ofâ€”you need to allow for gays, and Hispanics, because, you know, they have good ideas, too, maybe even better than yours, and so you need to attract these people, make sure they want to stay. So you have to be tolerant to whatever strange habits they have, because that’s automatically, you know, human creativity is such an automaticallyâ€”good sense will come up, and there’s some money for it, and there’s technology, and technology and tolerance, then you know, you’ll have Google or Apple.
RM: And so art is one of the factors that…
JW: Does art attract talent or does art create talent?
RM: I actually don’t know. I actually never read his book.
JW: I’ve read like one article that is like Richard Florida, you’re an asshole, and then one article by Richard Florida that’s like no, I’m actually great, here’s why.
RM: I should read that. No, I read a little bit of that of course. And you know, Martha Rosler, like â€œDon’t Gentrify, Occupy,â€ and it’s great, and it happens on a symbolic level, but on a real material level, it’s just…yeah.
JW: Whatâ€™s the goal of the Institute for Human Activities?
RM: Well, I guess there are three goals, maybe, or four. I’m really interested in the suspending apparatus of art and the material conditions of its production. So in that way I really feel really aligned with 1960s minimalism. I really love that. But I also have a real interest in income inequality and in trickery and deceit, and how it’s used, and the media representations of poverty, which are really part of the trickery and the deceit. So that’s a completely different interest altogether, but somehow I figuredâ€”you know, Unilever isâ€”did you see this long film I made, Episode 3? At the Box?
JW: No…oh, the…
RM: Enjoy Poverty.
RM: Ok. So that’s like an earlier work. It gets really dirtyâ€”I think it’s a good work, but I’ve kind of moved on. I would never make it again. I want things to be much cleaner.
JW: What do you mean by dirty?
RM: It’s very dirty. I mean, I really get my hands in the dirt. And I smear my own face with it, basically. And it’s likeâ€”and also there’s no escape from it, somehow. All the avenues of the sense are kind ofâ€”I show how they are all co-opted, every single one of them. The resistance against it is part of this whole…stage, um, what’s the word? The resistance is part of the carnival. And all the outside forces that could intervene, like stop the bad things happening, they’re all involved already, they’re all part of the carnival, and I really tried to show it as such and show that there’s no outside position to it. I’m part of that charade and my critical art piece is also absolutely part of that charade and, you know, there’s no way out. So ok, that was that.
RM: So I’m interested in these material conditions, and I just found out not too long ago, that these big Unilever plantations in the Congo were a big constituting part of Unilever’s business empire. Unilever’s one of the biggest consumer companies in this world. It’s huge. And on the other hand, it’s funded, for example, the Unilever series at Tate Modern, includingâ€”did you come to my talk? Because I talked about this.
JW: I didn’t come to your talk. But I was reading on your…
RM: Yeah. I think we removed the whole thing about Unilever at this point, or it’s really understated.
JW: Maybe. I mean, you mention that they sponsored a bunch of exhibitions at the Tate, including work by critical artists, whoâ€”I don’t remember the specific people, but…
RM: So that’s great, I mean, why not? It’s fantastic. But it’sâ€”you know, the surplus being spent at Tate has somehow something to do with the $20 a month maximum that people get on the plantations, and then if the art shown at the Tate that’s critical about economic relations, about political power, aboutâ€”some is not, some is sheer poetry, and that’s fine, but some if it is really critical about all these issues, and then somehow these works don’t seem to acknowledge that they are critical, funded by something that is very material, which is people’s labor that goes unpaid. So I don’t want to employ any moral position here, I just want the art world to come to terms with its own material conditions. That’s all.
JW: Is that the way that you were viewing making Enjoy Poverty, too, like not taking a moral position, just…
RM: I tried, I tried, yeah.
JW: …reflecting something back at the art world.
RM: Yeah. I mean, I guess I succeeded to some degree. I mean certainly the person I am in the film doesn’t seem to make choices based on morality.
JW: Well, it’s sort of like a really naive morality at work in that person.
RM: Yeah. And I think the pieceâ€”that pieceâ€”of course by exhibiting all that it’s deeply moral. I guess.
JW: It produces a lot of intenseâ€”like the discussion slashâ€”it was mostly an argument that followed it at the Kadistâ€”was very moralistic.
RM: Oh, you were at the Kadist, right…
JW: Yeah. Does that bother you that it produces almost entirely moralist conversations?
RM: Yeah, it does bother me. I mean, I’m just copy-pasting here, I’m not doing anything other than what’s constantly being done. It just shows that people have no clue, is what I think.
JW: Yeah. I don’t disagree.
RM: People have no clue. And so that’s the problem with I think 99 percent of socially-engaged artists is that they have no clue. They’re trying to make an exception to the status quo and therefore obscure the status quo in their little art space center, and then this is, if they’re really lucky it gets into God knows what network, and then the people who may well be the funders of the systems that are being attacked in the socially-engaged work get to have it both ways: you have the benefits of the extractive system, and you have the beautiful art pieces that somehow counterbalance all of that.
JW: And you have the really pleasing self-knowledge that you acted critically against this…
RM: Yeah, yeah. And I mean it’s funny if you don’t take it seriously, and then it’s fine, but people take it very seriously, and then I think it’s just dumb, basically. And its dumbnessâ€”it’s not that they’re not intelligent â€”it’s dumb based on, in my mind, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own position within this global stratification. I mean, I understand that you start thinking about any and all of these issues because you’re deeply disturbed that people die of hunger just because of some silly misallocation of resourcesâ€”you know, that’s the reason, basicallyâ€”and it’s deeply disturbing, obviously, and so you start making work that wants to, on a symbolic level, address that or break that inequality. But if you don’t go through the phase first, or intermediary of, addressing the structural issues, and your own implication in these structural issues that produce that misallocation of resources, then you end up just making postcards, like postcards ofâ€”like I often equate it to Baroque medieval trompe l’Å“il paintings on church ceilings, you know? It creates this beautiful image of the heavens without addressing any of the multiple tricks and strategies that have been used to put it there, to make it visible for you, very elaborate games with vantage points and scaffolding that was there, I’m sure, all that is taken away, and so this beautiful picture of heaven, it’s never going to be reality, it’s just there to look at, to be mesmerized by. And so maybe that’s good enough, but it belongs to the realm of poetry, it’s not political at all. So if you do something with refugees or immigrants and it’s only about poetry, fine, but if you think it’s political then I think it’s really crucial to somehow acknowledge the material conditions of art production. Which involve, while we have this talk, global inequality and war pays the bills.
JW: Yeah, exactly.
RM: And so, let’s at least integrate that….
JW: Like the materials that are inside this phone were probably mined illegally in the Congo.
RM: Sure, and if they were legally, it’s worse.
RM: Yeah, because if it’s illegal, then at least…what is called “legal” is that people have the right paperwork do the job.
JW: That’s what I was thinking. I heard a radio program about Apple, or some big tech companyâ€”Intel, maybeâ€”that’s like we’re not going to get any more tantalum from mines that don’t have the proper certification, and everyone is like really applauding themselves and being really happy and then I was like, it’s just a piece of paper!
RM: I mean, the idea is maybe good. You have all these illegal mining things, you have local militias controlling them, kids doing the work, et cetera, you know, it’s abhorrent, people get AIDS, they’re drunk all the time, ok, so let’s stop that. All right. So what happens is that the mine is closed up – same happens in diamonds, the Kimberly Process, you had all these blood diamonds, right?
JW: There’s a lot of LA that exists because of them.
RM: Yeah. So now the diamonds or the coltan or what have you needs to be certified, so it means that the people who can’t get the certification going are out of business, so that means anybody who doesn’t have a Yale degree basically, right? If you’re an African guy, you know, you have your mine that happens to be there, you rounded up your friends, you’ll do itâ€”you’re out of the game. So the UN will intervene and say no no, you don’t have the right paperwork, let’s call up Banro Co, or AngloGold Ashanti, and they’ll do the job, and then the people doing the mining, they get into UN programs to start raising rabbits or something. They’re kind of out of the game. And it sounds goodâ€”like let’s regulate this businessâ€”but of course it also means let’s give the business to people who can afford $500 per hour lawyers. That’s what it also means. Or $5000, maybe, I don’t know. There’s no UN push to start up collectives of miners regulating themselves and adhering to really important rules, no! I mean, that would be greatâ€”like let’s collectively mine this stuff that’s in our ground here, and let’s collectively decide that we’ll comply…
JW: …how much we’re going to sell it for, and how we’re going to mine it, and…
RM: Yeah, and let’s stick to the regulations that the Kimberly Process wants for us, why not? If these are the rules of the game then let’s adhere to that. But no no no, that’s not going to happen. So it’s a matter of appropriation, basically.
JW: Is that something that you saw or still see the IHA as helping to…?
RM: So I was talking about the different goals. Maybe they’re twofold, or fourfold even. So one of them is to somehow recalibrate critical artistaâ€™ practiceâ€”and therefore art’s mandateâ€”in a way that the settlement is an opportunity for people to come to termsâ€”to see the material conditions that are an integral part of their art production. It changes the way you’ll have your cappuccino in the morning if you see the guys picking the cocoa, the coffee. It just changes it. That’s a really good starting point to then do something with the rest of your day. Because most of the critical theory is, you know, kind of invented on the planes between those gentrified centers of New York and Berlin and all that. So I think few of those people ever visited a plantation like that. So we’ll have an artist residency, and the goal of the artist residency is for people to, you know…
RM: …see, and therefore rethink what the nature of their critique may be. So that’s one thing. That’s the residency program. We also have a gentrification program. We build an arts center, so that it spurs the local economy, the way it does in New York and Berlin, has cappuccino bars and all that, and then, you know, economic diversification is quite interesting and important because now people have subsistence farming and underpaid plantation labor. And they’ve been offering the proceeds of that stuff for a century now to us, but it never was accompanied by their ideas, or their emotions, or opinions. While that is exactly what may be their biggest contributions to the world â€“ their ideas and emotions. They actually may make money with it. And that would be quite novel, that a critique on Congolose labor conditions would have an actual economic impact in the Congo, in the place where these labor conditions occur.
JW: Would the proceeds go directly to the Congolese?
RM: Yeah. Well, not entirely directly, because nobody ever had a $500 check in their hands. It’s going to create a lot of trouble, unless we make sure there’s a buffer zone in which it has communal advantages and all that.
JW: Is that how you’d fund building things like the cappuccino bar or whatever?
RM: No no. The money goes to them. They can come have a cappuccinoâ€”if they want to open their own cappuccino stores, we’ll gladly help them. The guy gets the money, but rather than just handing them a $500 bill, we’ll say, you know, maybe: “Here’s 100, but let’s think also about these other 400, how you can maybe invest it in a way that’s a little bit more sustainable, and make sure it’s not going to be stolen for you by the police,” for example. So we have to get them all involved. That’s all. But it’s money, I meanâ€”but you need to manage it a bit because otherwise it’s going to create a lot of trouble. People deal with $20, $30 budgets on a monthly basis. That’s kind of…
JW: Yeah, I was just thinking…I was going to make some kind of point about how a lot of the art economy functions on unpaid interns and underpaid gallery workers, but here underpaid is like $12, $15 an hour, which is…
RM: Yeah, that’s what I pay my people.
JW: But it’s like…that’s a month’s work.
RM: Well, I must confess, I think it’s a really crucial issue, the idea that the art worldâ€”not the art world like Gagosian or even Mara [McCarthy, Principal/Curator of the BOX Gallery] or Paul [McCarthy, artist]â€”but the art world, all the kids, are all working for nothing, obviously, and are like a labor pool, almost endless labor pool, and are attracted by the same coolness. You know, what a lifestyle! This is work, somehow. Just talk about your own ideas and somebody else’s ideas that are fun and write about it. So many people talk about precarious labour in the arts, and it’s important I think, but it seems to be blind for 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 they’re all doing. And I think they’re as much part of the material conditions of art production as these gallery interns.
JW: If not more so. They made the shit that everyone is sitting on.
JW: How is the IHA funded? Is it through…
RM: Public and private.
JW: Dutch public?
RM: Dutch, German, hopefully British. Scandinavian, hopefully American. Belgian. This thing is a big idea. You could do it small, actuallyâ€”you probably could do it with $200,000â€”but I think that it could cost $2 million over the next 5 years. So I want that. So I’m going to work on it until I get it. So it’s really stressful, and also…
JW: I feel like there’s a lot of irritating conversations that you have to have in order to do this. Not irritating, but kind of likeâ€”using a lot of buzzwords.
RM: No, it’s not. I mean, most people that want to work with me obviously they see value in the thing, and so it’s not irritating. But still, again, it’s about times and contracts and the more you stack of these the more you have to become accountable to them and respond to them and, you know. And they’ll say, “oh no, this show, we thought we’d do it in 2015, but now we’re not going to do if its 2016,” it’s kind of hard if $200,000 is attached to it. In the end, I’ll do what I need to do, butâ€”you want another coffee?
JW: I’d love another coffee.
RM: What kind is it?
JW: Just an Americano would be fine.
RM: With milk in it?
JW: No, no milk. Thanks.
[Renzo leaves to order more coffee and returns.]
JW: You mentioned that the funders see value in this. Do they see the same value in it that you do?
RM: It depends on the funder. Some funder likes the idea of making creativity, or critical thinking, into a tool to generate economic growth, rather than funding mosquito nets. So some people are interested in that. And other people are interested in the recalibration of art’s critical mandate aspect to it. But they’re really intrinsically linkedâ€”they’re really connected. So I don’t personally see any disparity between the fact that on the one hand we have very real aspirationsâ€”and even targetsâ€”as a social impact thing locally, and on the other hand have very real aspirations in generating knowledge on art’s position in the global economic system. They’re really one and the same. I mean, we can’t do the one endeavor without the other and vice versa. So of course I’ll talk with them, and I’ll explain to them what I’ve explained to you, and I see what they’re interested in, if anything at all. Yeah, so there are no secrets to it. I mean, I think it’s important to stress that we’re really working within capitalism. We are. Again, because I think…
JW: I mean, you are, but then if your goal is to take this group of workers out of this bottom rung of capitalism, somebody else is going to have to fill that hole.
RM: Sure, that’s how it goes.
JW: How do you address that? Do you address that at all?
RM: It’s a good point. I actually have not addressed it. Indeed, some people will turn out to be really talented, so they’ll maybe take their chances and start making art. And then somebody else is going to fill that hole, for example, in the subsistence farming or the plantation labor. Maybe wages will start raising. We’re moving away from the plantation where we work, so it’ll just…
JW: Even though you got forced out at gunpoint?
RM: No, we’ll move to another settlement. Hopefully we’ll stay there for many years. But what I’m pointing at is that we’re notâ€”it’s not like the people who make new opportunities through our presence, they’re not going to move away, they’re going to remain there, because that’s where the market is. We’re an entryway to the market, in a way. So I think people will benefit, even those who stay working on the plantation. Because the guys that I will work with, maybe they’ll open up a taxi serviceâ€”which is a bicycle, right? you sit on the backâ€”or maybe somebody will open a store for flip flops…
JW: Or now that cellphones are going to be there, maybe somebody will open a cellphone charging place or whatever.
RM: Yeah, or maybe we can do something collective also. Maybe we can haveâ€”organize something with just one really good internet connectionâ€”I mean, the cellphones drain so much money out of places like that, it’s sick. So I would be interested in finding another way of doing that, maybe also by finding a way of working with the cellphone company. We’ll see.
JW: Our coffees are ready. Do you want yours to go, or…?
RM: No, I’ll drink it.
[Jacob retrieves the coffees.]
RM: Thank you partner.
JW: There you go. I even got complimented on my sweater.
RM: Oh yeah, and it matches your socks also.
JW: Yeah. I don’t knowâ€”I guess I’m very excited and curious to see what happens next. Because if or when you are convincing people to leave these labor conditions in order to do something else…
RM: I’m not going to convince them.
JW: You’re not going to convince them?
RM: No. We set up shop and we say, “You want to make some drawings? Make some drawings.” And then maybe two persons make really good drawings, and I say oh, would you mind if we show them, like in Frankfurt or something? And they’ll say no, show them in Frankfurt. And we’ll make sure somebody buys them, and we’ll say, hey, we sold your drawings, here’s $500, what shall we do with it? And then, you know, chances are…he’ll have a tiny bit of agency. He can say to his boss, “I would like to get a better job in this company, and I can afford to ask for it because if you don’t give me a better job I’ll just make more drawings.” So it creates a tiny opening. But I really have to stress how non-revolutionary we areâ€”we’re just going to do what art does, which is create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and then see how it goes. And the bigger goal is on the one hand, that has effect locally, but especially it creates a lot of knowledge about what art does and also what it does not doâ€” what we can make it do in the real world.
JW: Do you think that rich people will move to the Congo?
RM: I don’t know, maybe. I mean certainly we should start a hotel. I’m talking about bamboo huts.
JW: Hotel, coffeeshop…bar?
JW: What else exists?
RM: Hotel, coffeshop, bar, restaurant…
JW: A coffeeshop would be good, too, because a lot of coffee grows in the Congo.
RM: Yeah, we just need to teach them how to make cappuccinos in a proper way, get one of these…
JW: It could be local.
RM: Well, they don’tâ€”people don’t drink so much coffee there. And they grind it and they put some other herbs in there, like ginger, so it’s like a medicinal drink, to drug you a bit. I mean, it’s the same, but it’s not covered up by the sweetness or softness of milk, for example. Also there’s hardly any milk, all the milk is imported. People do have goats. Maybe we can try and get goat milk cappuccinos. We’ll figure it out.
JW: How do you find the funding institutions?
JW: How do you isolate the funding institutions? Do they find you or do you seek them out?
RM: I seek them out. It’s a lot of work. But they’re the usual suspects. It’s quite easy. And we’re trying to getâ€”there’s some private money in it. But maybe what I really need is for somebody who can just put on a million, say this a great idea and put on a million. That would save me from a lot of headaches.
JW: I feel like that person exists in LA. But I don’t know who it is.
RM: Yeah, I do think that’s true. And also I have to grow into a position and a presentation, and we need to prove a couple of things in the Congo, and we have to have sold these drawings in Frankfurt, and, you know, our test run needs to be a little bit moreâ€”the knowledge needs to be deepened before somebody will put in a million, I think. Or maybe not, we’ll see.
JW: When you present the Institute, are you presenting it as you, or are you presenting it as a character, like you were describing…
RM: Neither. No, it’s an institute. I happen to be this artistic director, but I’m not the financial director. I’m just the guy that came up with the main ideas in the beginning, and then many of the things I’ve told you have been developed collectively, with other people. We had an opening seminar, in Congo, just to kind of think all these things through, and we’ll have another one soon. I mean, it’s an art project, the whole thing is kind of a big social sculpture, but I’m not the author of it. It’s an institute.
JW: Do you think of it as an artwork and an institute, or just an artwork, or just an institute? An institute that’s an artwork? Because those seem like two different things, maybe.
RM: No, I think the way I got through it is that it’s just searching a higher level of abstraction to create a space in which art can be made thatâ€”create a space that creates an opportunity for art to come to terms with its own existence. So 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? So what I need to do is own the machine. So that’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. So 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. So that’s why we’re a gentrification program.. And you could call that an artwork…
JW: Do you need to call that an artwork?
RM: Not necessarily, but it certainly is an artwork.
JW: The most recent project I did I wasn’t sure whether it was an artwork or not, and also I wasn’t sure if I cared.
RM: Well I care. I care, because I really believe in art. As I said in the beginning, I don’t use moral arguments to do it, or I try to avoid to. And so the arguments I use come from this huge and very complicated tradition in the arts of an art piece, or art, being the one place in culture where the suspending apparatus for image or knowledge production is kind of…made part of the equation. Not just the outcomes, like the trompe l’Å“il thing, but also the suspending apparatus. And so that’s something that’s highly singular about art production is that it does that, or that there is this tradition. And so that’s what I’m dependent on. And that’s why it’s kind of important to pay allegiance to that tradition. It couldn’t have come out of any other realm of life that I know of. Maybe philosophy, but I don’t read enough books for that.
JW: But probably not. I guess there’s an ancient tradition in philosophy of establishing schools, but there’s not really a tradition of things that involve other people. Philosophy seems like a very solitary endeavor. I guess art does, too.
RM: Hmm. Yeah, schools. Yeah, maybe it’s going to be a school, in that way.
JW: An academy.
RM: Hopefully. Come around sometime. Like in a year or something, it’ll be kind of up and running. If we get physical/material stability, then it’s nice to have you out there or something.
JW: Yeah, I’d love to. I’d have to find some resources of my own to get there.
RM: It’s not expensive. The ticket’s going to cost you $1000, and life’s very cheap. If you don’t want to stay in the equivalent of this hotel [gestures towards Hotel Miyako], but you’ll just make do in our hut that I’ll give you. So it doesn’t cost anything really. You eat local food and all that, right?
RM: It’s fun. It’s good. You’ll learn a lot.
JW: Do you see yourself living there?
RM: Yeah. As soon as we can. That’s why I really have to make sure my wife trusts me.
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.