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Where the Work Is: Walker Moving Image Commissions Three Years On

Initiated in 2014, the Walker Moving Image Commissions invited five artists to create a new work to premiere online from June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016. These works respond to the inspirations, inquiry, and influence of key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Mason Leaver-Yap, who produces the series, discusses their work with two […]

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

Initiated in 2014, the Walker Moving Image Commissions invited five artists to create a new work to premiere online from June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016. These works respond to the inspirations, inquiry, and influence of key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Mason Leaver-Yap, who produces the series, discusses their work with two of the artists—Leslie Thornton and James Richards—and the legacy projects that have emerged since.

Over coffee recently, a curator friend described the way in which she repeatedly worked with the same group of artists as a kind of “monogamous” curating. She wanted to point to the idea of sustained contact with artistic dialogue as a curator’s belief in artistic practice as a whole, rather than the far shorter commitments of exhibition-making. What she was suggesting was a time commitment in the extreme: her proposition was a life of working with a slowly expanding constellation of interconnected artists and makers, seeing their practice expand and shift in parallel with the twists and turns of their life and hers.

My friend set her working method in opposition to the oft-institutional desire to work with a different artist each time—one where opportunities are spread across numerous artists so different audiences are exposed to a breadth of work, styles, and forms. While the institution must welcome change, difference, and variety, my friend said she was all too conscious that the “cult of the new” so often verges on fetish. In attempting to describe similarities to monogamous curating, she drew comparisons with some of the artists that I have either written about multiple times or worked with repeatedly and some I’ve since commissioned as part of the Walker Moving Image Commissions: Leslie Thornton and James Richards.

Resistant perhaps to the terms “monogamy” and “curating,” as well as a fear of the appearance over proprietorial claim over specific art practices, I initially balked at her suggestion. But her analysis of what it might mean to intentionally limit one’s working sphere in order to deepen the conversation with an artist’s commitment to art-making in different phases, modes, and periods made me acknowledge the ways in which following specific artists’ practices over an extended period time is a way of staying dialed in to their motivations of making work, and also—I hope—being better placed to support the work when the opportunity to work together rises again.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

While this conversation with my friend was taking place, I was already in dialogue with American artist and filmmaker Leslie Thornton regarding her most recently completed video They Were Just People (2016). I had noticed Thornton’s stereoscopic format of this work—which focused on footage of the La Brea tar pits, doubled to resemble a pair of eyes staring back at the viewer—many years prior. She had used this stereoscope in a 2011 New York exhibition project to depict the bodies and eyes of animals.

I had been following Thornton’s work for some years after being introduced to her videos and early films by another artist I had started working with in 2007—British artist James Richards. Richards’s interest had been that of an ardent Thornton fan. He had begun publicly screening her videos alongside his own, and he encouraged me to do the same. Thornton’s work was dark, complex, and beautiful, so, with Richards’ infectious enthusiasm, we both began including her films in events together. By 2014, with the advent of the Walker Moving Image Commissions, I was keen to invite them both to make individual works for the series.

Thinking through the reappearance of formats, previous techniques, and archival materials for They Were Just People, I asked Thornton about her tactics of reuse, and specifically of her binocular format. She told me it had taken her years to understand what she wanted to achieve with that kind of stereo vision, and that the “deep content axis” she had been seeking from the format had finally fallen into place in They Were Just People. The format had worked not with the depiction of animals, nor with the shooting of new footage, but with her old videos of the sluggish La Brea Tar Pits that she had kept in her personal archive of videos for years. Paired with something else from her archive—the audio of an eyewitness account that describes the moments after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945—the technique’s density of allusions had cohered in an instant. They Were Just People had appeared as a short, sharp shock, all with her preexisting material.

I was struck by this idea of drawing on previous constellations of material, footage, ideas, and how it related to an idea of commitment that my friend had outlined over our coffee—a constellation not just of materials but of affinities between artists. I was highly conscious that Richards was an artist who had produced one of the earliest Walker Moving Image Commissions (Radio At Night, 2015), had introduced me to Thornton’s work some seven years ago, and continued to develop his own work in explicitly in relation to Thornton’s. These factors were central to my mind when inviting Thornton to premiere They Were Just People as part of a contextual screening program in the spring of 2016.

I had wanted to frame the public presentation of Thornton’s new video in a way that was both comprehensible to the influences of the work (one of the starting points for considering the piece had been artist Bruce Conner’s 1976 film CROSSROADS, for example), but also took into account the genesis of that video work in relation to the ideas it encapsulated and the broader practice it was emerging from—wanting to show work alongside They Were Just People by means of creating a conversation between different works and the new commission. Sharing such intentions with both Thornton and Richards, they jointly suggested they make a work together that would follow the cinema screening of They Were Just People.

We initially thought their format could take that of the exquisite corpse—an additive composition derived from the Surrealist parlor games. Yet what Thornton and Richards ended up making was the video Crossing (2016), a video work whose complexity and collaboration far exceeded the basic premise of a call-and-response compilation. Crossing was made from collapsing together the personal archives of both artists’ footage and audio.

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

“We exchanged fragments online, adding chunks of sounds, or additional clips of digital effect, and then passing back for the other to add on more,” said Richards of a process that was, by equal turns, collaborative and self-reflexive. “We built up short ‘phrases’ or ‘sentences’ of previously discrete clips that somehow worked together in interesting ways. It was a process of developing a grammar of existing images. I think there is something cannibalistic about the project; we were re-digesting ourselves in the exchange.”

An intensely worked video, Crossing was finally rendered and completed in the back of a Minneapolis taxi on the way to the Walker Art Center for its cinema premiere. It was an art work that emerged from each artists’ unreasonable commitment to practices other than ones own—something wryly reflected in the alternative title that both artists gave the work: Abyss Film.

In addition to its various titles, Crossing has since taken on new tweaks, edits, and versions since the Walker screening last year. Presented as part of the forthcoming Whitney Biennial (March 17–June 11, 2017) and also Jaguars and Eels at Julia Stoschek Collection Berlin (February 5–26 November, 2017), the video continues to circulate. Of the work, Thornton reflected, “Even if the ‘surplus’ was our own, actively produced and acquired, it was latent in a way, just waiting for something to happen.”

James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015, video. Walker Moving Image Commission

James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015. Walker Moving Image Commission

Concurrently to Crossing, another conversation around “surplus” had spawned between myself and Richards, again in relation to his original Walker Moving Image Commission, Radio At Night. We had been discussing the idea of making a book together, beyond the scope of the Walker, though still in relation to work he was developing for exhibitions that would feature Radio At Night. There was a certain paradox in transposing Richards’s durational practice (one that was primarily composed of moving image work and number of audio installations) into the static format of the printed page. And so, in an effort to embrace this conflict, we probed the possibility of using Radio At Night as a “score” for the book. Rather than represent the work simply in video stills, we would transcribe the movement between images and sound and use the tempo and feel of the video as a structuring principle.

Richards had previously described the beginning of Radio At Night as if it were “pumped out as if from a small bandwidth, personal but distant,” and so we decided that the first section of the proposed book should also follow that same tone. We matched the moments of density and drama in Radio At Night with similar timing and proliferation of images within the structure of the book.

This way of assembling the book as a transposition gave us scaffold on which to hang our other various contents, contributions and collages. It put in motion a certain democracy in relationship to the images we used. Some were found, some were personal images shot on the phone, others were screengrabs, or perhaps they were sent by friends. We wanted to equate the usefulness of off-hand and private images with that of “professional” documentation, largely in an effort to pose the question, “where is the space of the work?”

The world of making art is all encompassing for the artist, so we wanted to find ways of using the book to create an aperture onto that world—something that mirrored that intimate and even claustrophobic relationship to making artwork that would also be a way of speaking about the world one inhabits, wants to reflect, and also to affect. With the cover of the book taking on the guise of a score sheet, James Richards’ Requests and Antisongs, was published in late 2016, as an unlikely descendent of Radio At Night.

Request and Antisongs book 4

Requests and Antisongs (Sternberg, 2016), Eds. Mason Leaver-Yap and James Richards

The Walker Moving Image Commissions began in 2014 with a fairly simple premise: to create artist’s moving image works that would stream online for the same duration as that of an exhibition or a movie—between four and six weeks.

That an art institution might simply appear demonstrate a program of working with an artist once—on a show, a screening, or the commissioning of new work to present online—sometimes obscures the relationships that occur both prior and after that event. Yet the intensity of working towards a single institutional project inevitably finds other ways of replicating itself, deepening engagements and coherences far beyond the scope of a single project. Videos turn into collaborative installations, books, and exhibitions elsewhere. This constellation perhaps does indeed indicate a kind of “monogamistic curating,” as my friend coined it. And yet I find both empathy with and resistance to such a term. I continue to hope that we expand the encounters with artists, less out of fetish for one or more, but of an unruly curiosity that seeks to offer up a stage for ideas beyond one’s own thinking.

Season two of the Moving Image Commissions will launch in summer 2017, presenting new work streaming online from artists Marwa Arsanios, Yto Barrada, Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz, and Renée Green.

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