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Light & Space: Liz Deschenes’s Gallery 7

Since the early 1990s, New York–based artist Liz Deschenes has produced a singular and influential body of work that has done much to advance photography’s material potential and critical scope. Making use of the medium’s most elemental aspects, namely paper, light, and chemicals, she has recently worked without a camera to produce mirrored photograms that […]

Installation view

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Since the early 1990s, New York–based artist Liz Deschenes has produced a singular and influential body of work that has done much to advance photography’s material potential and critical scope. Making use of the medium’s most elemental aspects, namely paper, light, and chemicals, she has recently worked without a camera to produce mirrored photograms that reflect viewers’ movements in time and space. Her carefully calibrated installations of these pieces have probed disparate histories of image production, abstraction, and exhibition-making while also responding to a given site’s unique features.

On November 22, the Walker Art Center opens its newest exhibition, Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, with a gallery talk and reception at 2 pm co-hosted by mnartists.org. For this yearlong installation, Deschenes has transformed the space of the Walker’s seventh-floor gallery with a photographic intervention. Eliminating the room’s temporary architecture to reveal its east-facing windows, she has allowed natural light into the space and installed a series of free-standing rectangular panels. These large-scale abstractions, which occupy the space of the viewer more than the conventional space of the photograph, result from the artist’s distinctive silver-toned photogram process as well as her new experiments in digital pigment printing on acrylic.

Installation view

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Deschenes produces her photograms by exposing sheets of photosensitive paper to the ambient light of night before washing them with silver toner—a process contingent on temperature and humidity. The resulting images offer a foggy, mirrored cast, reflecting the viewers who encounter them as well as the spatial context of their display. Since these materials are prone to oxidation, her photograms “develop” slowly over time, changing color and sheen.

More recently, Deschenes has begun to employ digital pigment printing on acrylic to produce large blue monochromes that can be viewed in the round. Her chosen colors are derived from the printing industry’s Blue Wool Scale, a professional standard used by conservators to gauge the lightfastness of pigments ranging from textile dyes to oil paint. With a surface not unlike the texture of ground glass, these new pieces capture and refract incidental light, suggesting a photographic calibration of the gallery’s space.

Installation view of Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

The temporal and spatial implications of these two imaging processes—one alchemical and reflective, the other digital and absoptive—find a particular context within the history of the Walker and its seventh-floor gallery. Her title for the exhibition, Gallery 7, which is the former name for the current Medtronic Gallery, orients us toward the past. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes’s original designs for the Walker’s 1971 building and curator Lucy Lippard’s 1973 group show c. 7,500, featuring work by an all-women roster of conceptual artists, were important points of departure for Deschenes’s intervention here. Finally, the artist has chosen to fit the space of her installation with a picture-hanging rail system reminiscent of the one used in the Walker’s now demolished 1927 building, further collapsing the institution’s spatial histories of site and display.

Installation view of the exhibition 92 Artists, Walker Art Center, June 1943 (Long & Thorshov, architects, 1927)

Installation view of the exhibition 92 Artists, Walker Art Center, June 1943 (Long & Thorshov, architects, 1927)

Cross-sectional drawing of the Walker Art Center auditorium and galleries, circa 1969 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Cross-sectional drawing of the Walker Art Center auditorium and galleries, circa 1969 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Exterior view, Walker Art Center terraces, circa May 1971 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Exterior view, Walker Art Center terraces, circa May 1971 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Installation view of the exhibition c. 7,500, curated by Lucy Lippard, Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, November 1973

Installation view of the exhibition c. 7,500, curated by Lucy Lippard, Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, November 1973

Installation view

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, November 2014

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Recently described by the New York Times as “one of the quiet giants of post-conceptual photography,” Liz Deschenes has exhibited her work regularly since receiving her BFA in 1988 from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She has recently mounted exhibitions at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; Campoli Presti, London and Paris; Secession, Vienna; and Sutton Lane, Paris and Brussels. Featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, she is most recently the recipient of the 2014 Rappaport Prize awarded by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Her work is represented in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since 2006, she has been a member of the faculty of Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.

Winding Up Toy Frogs with Benjamin Patterson

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Benjamin Patterson to the Twin Cities. Patterson is participating in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art and, at age 80, is the oldest exhibiting artist. Born in Pittsburgh and living and working out of Wiesbaden, Germany, Patterson is a founding member of Fluxus, and his […]

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Benjamin Patterson to the Twin Cities. Patterson is participating in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art and, at age 80, is the oldest exhibiting artist. Born in Pittsburgh and living and working out of Wiesbaden, Germany, Patterson is a founding member of Fluxus, and his practice has incorporated music, visual arts, and performance—challenging traditional art-making modes. His oeuvre has been widely influential for generations of artists, including many in Radical Presence such as Clifford Owens.

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Benjamin Patterson, Pond (1962). Photo: Erin Smith

Throughout his career, Patterson has explored the notion of systems in art, music, and text. Like many of his Fluxus peers such as Robert Filliou, Ben Vautier, and Daniel Spoerri, Patterson has also complicated and enriched the interaction between audience and performer, imposing situations that encourage direct engagement. Included in the exhibition, Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and it invokes game-playing, chance operations, and musical components. The piece consists of an 8-foot grid taped directly on the floor, a score created by the artist, wind-up toy frogs, and eight participants that stand around the grid and make corresponding sounds as the frogs hop from one quadrant to the next. The performance escalates into a cacophony of sound as more and more frogs are released, evoking the “ribbeting” of an active frog pond. Eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) performed the piece twice for an audience of 250 people, engaging in this dynamic Fluxus work and having fun while doing so. Patterson noted that this was the youngest group ever to perform Pond and did so with great success.

The following day, Patterson generously agreed to sit down with the public for a conversation at Theaster Gates’s table within Radical Presence. Gates’s See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court is an installation made up of tables, chairs, and chalkboards salvaged from Crispus Attucks, a now-closed public school on Chicago’s South Side. The classroom setting encourages a democratic, roundtable approach to learning for and by the people assembled around it. The Walker has been hosting a number of programs over the past few months including conversations with artists Ralph Lemon and Coco Fusco, events and tours led by community members such as Andrea Jenkins and Amoke Kubat, and forthcoming discussions with Congressman Keith Ellison and Theaster Gates.

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Holding Court with Benjamin Patterson. Photo: Erin Smith

In his Holding Court talk, Patterson weaved through a number of topics, from his early classical training in double bass to his interest in natural sciences (cleaning alligator cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo) to his years in the army playing internationally in its orchestra. He has a sharp memory and a keen ability to recount stories, so this talk was a truly special moment for those who were present. (For those who weren’t, please find clips from the talk below.) One of the central topics was Patterson’s position as an African American musician in the mid-1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement. Patterson explained that he auditioned over twenty times for orchestras in places such as Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, always being told, “we have a problem,” when conductors faced him in person. Patterson dealt with this racial inequality with aplomb, never compromising his ethics, and finally moving to Canada to play with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, and later spending the majority of his life in Wiesbaden.

Patterson recounted his first meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen, a prominent German composer, and his subsequent encounter with John Cage the following day in Cologne. He explained that Cage invited him (as a wide-eyed 22-year-old) to perform with musicians such as David Tudor, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young the next night. Patterson’s relationship with these artists grew over the next few years, and soon he was living in the Gate Hill Co-op in Stony Brook, NY with the likes of Cage, David Behrman, and Stan VanDerBeek—playing poker and sitting down for weekly suppers together. For Patterson these years were incredibly influential in shaping his thinking and his outlook on life. It was after this that he adopted an intereste in indeterminacy and chance operations in artistic practice, “preparing” his double bass by attaching clothespins and other objects onto the strings, and eventually becoming even more theatrical by turning the instrument upside down.

When he lived in Paris in 1962, Patterson befriended Robert Filliou and Daniel Spoerri, two key figures in the Fluxus movement, who collaborated on various projects such as Filliou’s gallery in a hat. The idea came from Filliou’s exposure to his Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where a gentleman’s hat seemed the perfect venue for an exhibition. Patterson and Filliou created a mobile exhibition in a hat, moving through Paris by foot, subway, and bus for twelve hours, selling each of Patterson’s Puzzle Poems for 5 francs. Patterson claimed it to be his most successful vernissage, having nearly sold out the entire show.

Patterson took part in the first Fluxus festival of new music in Wiesbaden in 1963, during which time George Maciunas (founding father of Fluxus) released his first Fluxus magazine. Patterson revealed that the festival took place there because Maciunas was ducking the debt he accrued at his gallery in New York, and enrolled as a civilian draftsman for the U.S. army in Wiesbaden. For Patterson, Fluxus cannot be conclusively defined; it was more than an art movement—it was a new way of thinking. At the time there were no categories such as performance art, intermedia art, or interdisciplinary art, so he rather cunningly compared Fluxus to a circus. There were many performers with various talents—the lion tamer, the acrobat, the musician, the tightrope walker, and Maciunas as the ringleader cracking a whip—all under one big tent, arriving in town, performing, and packing up and moving on. The group was truly international, with a wide scope of interests and backgrounds: Filliou was an economist and wrote the recovery plan for South Korea after the war (and he was also a Coca Cola salesman), George Brecht was a chemist and invented Tampax, and Robert Watts was an electrical engineer. Patterson has led an inspiring life. He is a generous storyteller, and one of the few Fluxus members still alive today, making this event truly invaluable.

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Benjamin Patterson, A Penny for Your Thoughts (2011). Photo: Erin Smith

Following the talk, Patterson performed his recent piece, A Penny for Your Thoughts (2011), which promotes an exchange of ideas between artist and viewer. Patterson invited participants to care for their minds by getting rid of excess thoughts, writing them down, and selling each for a penny. Through this humorous and interactive Fluxus work in which shredded newspaper is attached to one’s head, Patterson encourages his audience to reframe how they think while investigating the commodification of the transfer of ideas. Patterson is still making work to this day, and is one of the most active artists I know. His travel itinerary includes Seattle, Nanjing, Brno, Siegen, Blois, and Karlsruhe—all before the end of 2014. We are grateful that he took time from his impressive schedule to visit us and share his stories with audiences in Minneapolis.

A History of Revisionism: Contemporary Art and Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day

Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña, image courtesy Walker Archives
Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña, image courtesy Walker Archives

Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Image courtesy Walker Archives

This week marks the City of Minneapolis’ first recognition of Indigenous People’s Day, as decreed last April by City Council “to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of indigenous people on this land, and to celebrate the thriving culture and value that Dakota, Ojibwa and other indigenous nations add to our city.” Although the city still recognizes the federal holiday of Columbus Day for legal purposes, the Twin Cities have one of the largest and most diverse urban American Indian populations and government recognition of Indigenous People’s Day acknowledges both the importance of retelling American history and the need to address the social and political issues that native people face today.

Nationally, the movement to reconsider Columbus Day gained steam in the late 1980s and early 1990s as preparations began for the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. As numerous grandiose events were proposed in conjunction with the quincentennial, including a World’s Fair that never transpired, Native Americans and indigenous rights groups were engaged in an ongoing critique of Columbus’ legacy. They sought ways to educate the public pushed for the amplification of a revisionist history that forced reexamination of colonialism and privileged indigenous rights and marginalized perspectives. New terminology emerged in academic literature to describe Columbus’s expedition, with “encounter” becoming the preferred noun for what was otherwise referred to as “discovery” or “conquest.”Although popular history maintained the image of Christopher Columbus as a European hero who changed the course of history, an increasingly large group sought to critique his legacy and assign 1492 as the beginning of an indigenous genocide.

Contemporary artists have been engaged in many of the conversations around postcolonialism and revisionist history, as evident in the projects described below. Through pointed juxtaposition with images of oppression, corruption, and conquest they recast the notion of the hero, subvert the monumental and mythic, and suggest alternative narratives that grant agency to formerly marginalized peoples.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, 1992

Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco inside the cage

Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco perform inside a gilded cage in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1992. Image courtesy Walker Archives

In 1992 Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco performed Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West as part of the exhibition The Year of the White Bear at the Walker. As a response to widespread commemoration of the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, The Year of the White Bear sought to make visible the legacy of colonialism in the wake of the Columbian encounter, especially in regards to the captivity, exploitation, and abuse of indigenous people. Though conquest and genocide were at the forefront of revisionist histories of Columbus’s encounter, his legacy as it pertains to human display remains often overlooked. In 1493 Columbus returned to Spain and brought back with him several Arawaks, one of whom was left on display at the Spanish court for two years. Like centuries of indigenous people that followed, he was intended to perform both an educational and entertainment function within the court, by providing opportunity for aesthetic contemplation and scientific analysis. Two years after his arrival to Spain he died, purportedly of sadness.

Dissatisfied with the level of public discourse around Columbus’s legacy, Gomez-Peña and Fusco created a performance that recreated and critiqued centuries of human display and objectification under the guise of science and entertainment. Rather than revisit historical records of human exhibitions authored by observers and anthropologists, Fusco and Gomez-Peña sought to create an account of these ethnographic displays from the perspective of the performer. During the performance Gomez-Peña and Fusco presented themselves as members of the fictional Guatinaui tribe, inhabitants of an uncolonized island in the Gulf of Mexico. Wearing leopard print loincloths and artificial feathers while contained in a gilded cage, the artists told stories in a made up language, performed fictionalized ritual dances, and ate bananas fed to them by docents/zookeepers. Despite exaggerated theatrics and outlandish costumes and props, many museum visitors believed the performance to be authentic and reacted accordingly. Over its two-year run in venues ranging from natural history museums to biennials, the performance was largely met with confusion and anger from critics, museums, patrons, and visitors. (The Walker was one of only two venues where the work was contextualized as art.) Within the cage, the artists were subjected to racist taunts, violent attacks, and aggressive heckling, yet never broke character or ended the performance.

Allora & Calzadilla Chalk Monuments

Allora & Calzadilla, Chalk Monuments. Image via Gladstone Gallery

Allora & Calzadilla, Chalk Monuments, 1998

Artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla create socially engaged art that is not constrained to any medium or style. Instead, the Puerto Rico–based artists address themes such as history, science, politics, and economics in subversive, conceptual works that blur distinctions of art and activism. They began to develop Chalk Monuments while working with educators in San Juan in 1988. The small sculptures are made after larger monuments, then miniaturized and recast in chalk. The first iteration of the project included well-known public statues of Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer and first governor of Puerto Rico. Allora and Calzadilla play with monumentality and ephemerality through scale and use of materials, rendering objects that once seemed permanent and behemoth small and fragile. The chalk monuments are intended for classroom use so as to spur conversation with students about the history of Puerto Rico, sociopolitical issues, and colonialism. (Read our 2004 interview with the artists, conducted during their Walker residency.)

James Luna performing Take a Picture With a Real Indian

James Luna poses with an audience member while performing Take a Picture With a Real Indian . Image via willardstnw.files.wordpress.com

James Luna, Take a Picture with a Real Indian

Luiseño artist James Luna performed Take a Picture with a Real Indian on Columbus Day 2010 in Washington, D.C., as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection. Since the 1980s Luna has created performances and installations that present pointed critiques of the representation and objectification of Native American cultures in the United States. Often using his own body in his work, the artist is perhaps best known for the 1985–1987 installation Artifact Piece, wherein he wore a loincloth and lay still inside a glass vitrine beside a label; nearby cases contain personal effects displayed with similar museum conventions. The work sought to critique the tendency of museum exhibitions to portray Native American peoples as frozen in time, if not extinct, rather than as contemporary people navigating modern culture.

In Take a Picture with a Real Indian Luna stands in front of the Columbus Fountain outside of DC’s Union Station. Inspired by tourist vendors who sell photo-ops with cardboard cutouts of the President in front of the White House, the artist announces his presence by stating, “Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here, in Washington, D.C., on this beautiful Monday morning, on this holiday called Columbus Day. America loves to say ‘her Indians.’ America loves to see us dance for them. America likes our arts and crafts. America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here today, on this sunny day here in Washington, D.C.” Passerby are eventually drawn in and pose for photographs, with crowds building upon themselves and mass participation absolving any shyness or anxiety. The artist views his audience as participants in the performance and describes their shared experience as a dual humiliation. After enduring uncomfortable posing, culturally insensitive remarks, and racist insults, the performance concludes when the artist has become too angry or humiliated to continue.

Colón Washes Whiter, Luzinterruptus, Madrid. Gif by Gutavo Sanabria

Luzinterruptus, Colón Washes Whiter

Madrid art collective Luzinterruptus has used Columbus and his effigy as symbols for government corruption. In 2013, the anonymous group, known for using recyclable material in ephemeral installations, staged a public art intervention at the former site of a monument to Christopher Columbus that had been mysteriously moved several blocks away. The piece, titled Colón Washes Whiter, was a tower composed of containers of Colón laundry detergent and made use of the platform where the sculpture had originally stood. (In Spanish, Christopher Columbus is known as Cristóbal Colón.) Although the use of laundry detergent was meant as an allegorical reference to dirty money and the $5.3 million cost of relocating the monument to a more prominent location, its titular reference to the product’s slogan belies the notion of whiter as better, an ideological thread of colonial thought still pervasive in much of Spain and Latin America. The duplicitous message of the work serves to question the intentions of the Spanish government, both for incurring exorbitant costs in the middle of a financial crisis but also for continuing to perpetuate the idolatry of a much maligned figure from the era of the conquistadores.

Low and Warped: A Playlist Inspired by Destroy All Monsters

The RISD Museum in Rhode Island recently asked me to create a playlist as an online compliment to their current exhibition, What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present. My relationship to RISD’s project hinges on my avid appreciation for the proto-punk art collective, Destroy All Monsters, which is included among the exhibition’s […]

Cary Loren, God's Oasis, 1974. Copyright the artist.

Cary Loren, John Reed, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, Basement, God’s Oasis, 1975/2011. Copyright the artist. Collection the artist.

The RISD Museum in Rhode Island recently asked me to create a playlist as an online compliment to their current exhibition, What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present. My relationship to RISD’s project hinges on my avid appreciation for the proto-punk art collective, Destroy All Monsters, which is included among the exhibition’s artists and groups. Founded in 1973 in suburban Detroit, where three of its four members were attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Destroy All Monsters has since taken on many forms. In the beginning, it was a collaboration between Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Cary Loren, and Niagara. Embracing Hollywood trash, amateur noise and sound, theatrical antics borrowed from Dada and the seminal Jack Smith, and the cut-and-paste aesthetic of zine culture, Destroy All Monsters created for themselves their own low and warped gesamtkunstwerk, an inverted utopia that celebrated the morbid and irreverent. After a few years, members cycled in and out, and Destroy All Monsters became more of an official “band,” taking on members of the legendary Detroit bands the MC5 and the Stooges. Beginning in the 1990s, the original line-up came back together, producing new visual pieces for exhibitions, performing at galleries and museums, and releasing their music, videos, and zines—most of which had never been widely available before that time. Below is the playlist commissioned by the RISD Museum, and a very brief introduction to the many characters that populate it.

The part-time punk band, part-time art collective Destroy All Monsters was a collage in and of itself—an odd mix of oddball characters, each of whom brought in unique points of view, aesthetics, and capabilities. Manifesting in what its members felt was a vacuum of culture, Destroy All Monsters momentarily created a burst of weird, erratic, trash-obsessed, monster-movie creativity that took form through audio recordings, bits and scraps of film, zines, and lost performances. Idiosyncratic and in some ways out-of-time with their surroundings, the members of Destroy All Monsters created their own vernacular culture.

The sorts of sound, language, and aesthetic they created are linked to many others—from the noisy drones of 1960s minimal music to the punk rock that would rush into existence in the years after their formation, from the level deadness of New York No Wave music to various other art-rock innovators, past and future. As a compliment to the exhibition What Nerve!, this playlist hovers momentarily amidst this and other analogous clusters of creative energy wherein art crossed over with music, high culture crossed over with low, new crossed over with out-of-date, and things generally got weird.

This playlist starts off, naturally, with a track from Destroy All Monsters—though at the time of this song’s release, group members Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw had been lost to the West Coast. The lyrics of “November 22, 1963,” written by Cary Loren, reflect on the assassination of John F. Kennedy while the music approaches punk rock with a more straightforward song structure than the band’s earlier, noise-based recordings. It then skips around at will to tracks by pioneers like Alan Vega and his band Suicide—the first band to use the word “punk” as a self-imposed descriptor; poet, drummer, and phenom Angus MacLise, who was associated with New York’s avant-garde of the 1960s, participating in the invention of early minimalist music as well as the original lineup of the Velvet Underground; and iconoclast Charlemagne Palestine, equally known for his “sonorities” on piano as for his ritually inspired performance routines, which invariably include Cognac and a host of stuffed animals.

The playlist tracks briefly through the New York No Wave scene, with selections from Lydia Lunch and her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and veers off into the strange, industrial, neo-dada world of Cosey Fanni Tuttie and Genesis P-Orridge with tracks by COUM Transmissions and their later outfit, Throbbing Gristle. Included here are several pieces by the musician, philosopher, and anti-artist Henry Flynt and his friend and sometimes-collaborator, the filmmaker, violinist, and mathematician Tony Conrad. Both of these men occupied a place among the New York avant-garde in the 1960s but left the strictures of Fluxus and musical minimalism behind in favor of other paths. Flynt pursued what he calls “hillbilly” music—a form that he felt was more egalitarian and politically open than the closed-off experiments of Stockhausen, Cage, and other lauded musical innovators of the time; and Conrad (who was also involved in the VU precursor, the Primitives) diverted his energy into filmmaking, though he continues to produce drone-based musical compositions that shed light on the musical innovations of the 1960s. Closing out the set is, again, Destroy All Monsters, whose noisy fusion of anti-music and basement-rock draws these other musical innovators and misfits into their orbit.

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr.

“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This is the guiding proposition of The Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (2008-2013), a seven-part, seminal body of work by New York City-based choreographer Trajal […]

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Photo: Miana Jun

“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This is the guiding proposition of The Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (2008-2013), a seven-part, seminal body of work by New York City-based choreographer Trajal Harrell. The piece is a response to the invisible history of 1960s voguing in Harlem that was overshadowed by the postmodern Judson school. The title, Twenty Looks, refers to both the “looks” of voguing—and its documentation in the revolutionary film Paris is Burning (1990)and the conflation of this history with that of the downtown Judson dance scene.

From September 14 to 20 at The Kitchen, Harrell presented his seven performances in succession for the first time in the U.S. In his introduction to Antigone Sr. (the second longest in the series), Harrell explained that the work was not intended to be a historical fiction or some kind of fusion of voguing and postmodern dance, but rather that the forms of movement tease each other and coexist in this space for this moment, which could not have happened in the past. Twenty Looks imagines an encounter between the Judson experimentalists, who pared down theatricality to emphasize ordinary movement, and Harlem voguers, who suggested, with their exhibitionist balls, that authenticity is itself a theatrical notion.

For Antigone Sr., which I had the good fortune of seeing while in New York last weekend, The Kitchen’s black box theater was outfitted with minimal props and staging that included several intersecting walkways that resembled a runway (and perhaps a Greek procession route), a mattress placed directly on the floor, and three white square stages on which the dancers performed. On these catwalk runways, Harrell and his four male dancers explored the spectrum of motion from frenzied flailing to precise runway striding. The sonic experience ranged from house DJ mixes to singalongs to absolute silence. And dance was equally balanced by narration in the form of theoretical musings, partial recountings of the myth of Antigone, snarky outbursts, and repetitive commands.

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Photo: Paula Court

Antigone Sr. was structured around reinscribing the relationship between audience and performers. The nearly three-hour-long (sans intermission), highly ambitious staging was introduced by the artist, who explained that the performance is “a Greek tragedy… we have to go all the way.” From there the audience was asked to stand and pledge, with hand over heart, to the house anthem of Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time, which was recited as prose by one of Harrell’s four dance collaborators, Thibault Lac, a statuesque and regal dancer. This set the participatory tone for the rest of the evening. We were the imagined spectators of this constructed history; we were creating, adapting, and reassigning new relations between the dancers and ourselves.

Trajal_Harrel4_Photo_ Bengt Gustafsson

Photo: Bengt Gustafsson

Harrell then addressed the crowd, provoking us to define the term “realness.” In a recent interview with The Kitchen’s chief curator, Tim Griffin, Harrell explained that he was exploring authenticity, and how aspects of non-dominant cultures migrate into other more dominant cultural spaces. Reflecting on appropriation across time and art forms (e.g., Jazz into Rock ‘n’ Roll), Harrell shaped his practice around the idea of how to take advantage of and restructure this migration. The shifting of forms, replacement of ideas, and multiplicity of products got him thinking about David Hammons’ iconic Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), in which he sold different-sized snowballs on the streets of New York. This led Harrell to create and name the Twenty Looks series by various sizes: (XS), (S), (M)imosa, (jr) Antigone Jr., (Plus) Antigone Jr. ++, (L) Antigone Sr., and (M2M Made-to-Measure) Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem—each standalone performance successively longer and more elaborate in terms of costuming, choreography, music, and lighting.

Throughout Antigone Sr. Harrell set up a number of diametrics—a key trope in this dualistic performance: comedy and tragedy, excess and minimalism, and authenticity and appropriation. In one scene on the bed, Harrell and Lac were seated next to each other and embodying duality in their monochromatic, draped garb—one in grey and one in black. They took turns stating, in monotone voices: “We are… Beyoncé and Solange. We are… William and Henry. We are… Mary Kate and Ashley.” The performers listed countless pairs and opposites—some funny and others breaking with the binary pattern: “We are… Deleuze and Guattari. We are… unhappy.”

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Photo: Whitney Browne

In another bed scene, we were told the fateful myth (read: soap opera) of Antigone, recounted with immediacy in a first-person narrative. We learned that Antigone was unwittingly born of the incestuous union of Oedipus and his mother. After Oedipus learned of this tragedy, he blinded and exiled himself from Thebes. Both brothers of Antigone quarreled over the rule of the city, and were killed; the younger was condemned a traitor, to be left unburied. Convinced of the injustice of the command, Antigone buried her brother in secret, and for this, was executed.

The details of this myth were not acted out in this performance, but rather, overlapping forms, migration of shape, and the inevitability of death were themes throughout Harrell’s performance. The lyrics and statements, “When I die,” “murder she wrote,” and “I am safe from life, I’m already dead” indicate such preoccupations. As Harrell is singing, Lac crawls through the audience onto our chairs, tying blue thread from Harrell’s hand to those of individuals in the crowd. The thread is better associated with the myth of Ariadne than that of Antigone, but the notions of interconnectedness and impermanence ran strong, and the thread was a stunning yet minimal visual prop.

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Photo: Paula Court

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Photo: Lars Persson

The highlight of the three-hour performance was the fashion show parody, which was separated into two sections: “The King’s Speech” and “Mother of the House.” Each of the dancers strutted out from the back curtain, wearing an absurd combination of clothing—leather jacket as cape, glittering headdresses, 1970s knit blanket as shawl, and pantless ensembles, while Harrell called out the names of the major fashion houses—Comme des Garçons, Yamamoto, and Hermes. Instead of directly quoting the voguers at the infamous Harlem balls with their sharp, competitive, and angular movements (vogue was a form of non-violent gang warfare between drag houses or families), the performers were elegant and sleek. In the second part, the dancers posed as women and Harrell took a seat in the audience, wittily commenting on the archetypes of females that strutted out: avant-garde Asian, African American with full derriere, etc. The voguing tradition is a performance of archetypal social and gender identities through fashion, and movement, practiced primarily by African-American and Latino gays, transvestites, and transsexuals.

The fashion show led to the crescendo of a dance party with performers free-styling, Harrell riling up the crowd, and at one point, plucking an audience member from the front row and, with him, leading a prayer that we release our inhibitions and dance. Perhaps this part was improvised, or Harrell just wanted us to assume so. Just as reluctant New Yorkers were finally brought to their feet and joined the party, the strobe lights slowly dimmed, the blaring music waned, and we were quickly taking our seats. In the final moments of Antigone Sr., the house was brought to complete blinding darkness and except for the barely perceptible movements of the dancers on stage. Antigone Sr. took the audience to extremes and sharply retreated to minimalism; it was exuberant and ethereal, sad and funny, and ultimately an authentic experience. At a vogue ball, a “look” (as in the title, Twenty Looks) is a chance to embody a dream, and that is just what happened—we explored icon-making, ultimately becoming part of a new history.

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Photo: Paula Court

Sacred Spaces: Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis Discuss Scaffold Room

Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which […]

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Scaffold Room installation with Okwui Okpokwasili, scenic designer R. Eric Stone, and Ralph Lemon, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014  Photo: Gene Pittman

Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which contemporary art has started to engage choreographers, drawing dance into the gallery and often asking it to behave more like an object: observing a basic structure that is repeatable and digestible throughout the run of an exhibition.

Lemon has sought to question these conditions, including the very idea that performance, or the performing body for that matter, can be objectified.

Scaffold Room features ticketed performances, an ongoing installation, and also a series of refractions: performative vignettes that explode various gestures and scenes from the ticketed performance, and take place spontaneously throughout the exhibition. Prominent in the space is a confined environment made of scaffolding that serves as both theater and installation object. Here, live performances by Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis are featured alongside video of a rural Mississippi Delta community embodied by 86-year-old Edna Carter and her extended family, with whom the artist shares a long history. The performance weaves popular culture, nature, and science fiction through personal narrative, memory, found texts, and uncanny scenes created by the artist. Lemon’s project includes language and sources from some of the most transgressive American writers of the past decades, among them punk poet and experimental novelist Kathy Acker, whose prose examines power dynamics through a lens of explicit, sometimes violent, sexuality, and science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, whose work embraces futuristic and pornographic themes.

At the time of this writing the artists are in the gallery going through the work, and the institution is preparing for an intense week. What is obvious about this project is that it is going to be brilliant, entertaining, and difficult, and it’s going to ask questions of the Walker, its visitors, and the field more generally. Back in June I met with Lemon, Okpokwasili, and Matthis for lunch in New York. They had recently returned from a residency at EMPAC, where they had been developing the piece. Ralph has long collaborated with Okpokwasili, and their artistic relationship had developed out of dance. Meanwhile, it was his first time working with Matthis, and her background as an actress meant they were developing a different vocabulary. Reading that conversation now in light of how Scaffold Room has developed, I am struck by the many insights it presents on the work in process at a time of creative transition for all involved.

Bartholomew Ryan: Okwui, you’ve worked with Ralph in the past and most recently on How Can You Stay In the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? How does this project feel different in terms of process?

Okwui Okpokwasili: It feels like a continuation. It seems there are a number of experiences from all the past projects now coexisting at once. There’s a cosmology to this universe and we are receiving signals from it. For me, it begins with Come Home Charley Patton. That’s one way Scaffold Room is different. In the other pieces there was also a collective community of people negotiating a dangerous proximity of our bodies and figuring out what that language was together, and now I’m alone. But I carry the memory of their proximity.

Ralph Lemon: It’s really a collapse of time. There’s the past. There’s the present. And there’s this future sense of real time in what we’re working on.

Ryan: In How Can You Stay in the House All Day there’s a really famous moment of you on stage where there’s this incredibly embodied and dedicated and emotional…

Okpokwasili: Just say it! The crying!

Ryan: Can you talk about that piece, because I think the degree of emotional connection is exemplary of what is not normally brought into performance art. Don’t get me wrong, I realize performance art is also about certain forms of extreme endurance or extreme portrayals of self.

Okpokwasili: But even the crying seemed wrong in a theatrical sense. It was just wrong.

Lemon: Very wrong. People were walking out like crazy.

Okpokwasili: In Washington someone stood up and said, “Will somebody do something! You’re in a theater! Will somebody help her?” It was wrong on every level. It didn’t work theatrically, and it wasn’t supposed to work, because there was nothing preparing you for it, and then it began, and nothing preparing you for it to end. We had to work on that. I had to work on how to get there every night; we had a space for me to prepare in.

We developed a crying book, and I would look at it for preparation. It was filled with images and stories of people, in pain, in joy, in ecstasy. I would go to it and find a person or an event to meditate on and then cry for, and I would open and I would be engulfed. I would think of it as a cry for the world. It was an opening up, like heart shock, or a swollen stomach, with everything heaving up like a gusher or geyser.

Lemon: That whole Deleuzian element, another source. His essay, Fiction, from Pure Immanence. What fascinates me is that Okwui’s crying was real and not real. She was really crying, but it was also fiction.

Okpokwasili: No. It was real.

Lemon: But you were on a clock.

Okpokwasili: I totally disagree with you.

Lemon: The delirium of it.

Okpokwasili: The delirium is real. Fact and fiction were bleeding into each other. To delineate one from the other is so complicated, why do it? It is real. It’s all real. It’s all not real.

Lemon: I meant in a theatrical mindset.

Okpokwasili: But it wasn’t theatrical. I mean, yes, Ralph framed it. He’s talking about my experience of it, not your design of it.

Ryan: This tension is interesting.

Okpokwasili: I think it’s an interesting place for an actor to be, for a performer to be: that place where you’re really slipping though and away; you’re completely yourself and transformed. When the audience is present, there is no fourth wall. When I look into the audience looking at you. I’m looking at you. I see you. And you see me see you. There’s no place where any of us are invisible. Perhaps that’s where it can be interesting, to think of the constructing a self in relation to the presence of strangers. It’s an inevitable layer of performance, the subtle shifts that occur when an audience is invited in.

Ryan: In Scaffold Room, my understanding is that there’s a video that shows you preparing for the work.

Lemon: Which is controversial, because it’s private; I shouldn’t have made that public and I did without asking her.

Okpokwasili: I’m over it—but I hated that. I knew it was going to happen, because someone was videotaping it. I was like: OK, it’s inevitable that this may emerge out of the private archives into the very public playing space. Let’s just say I believe that Ralph makes sacred spaces even when they are public, even though I’m not saying “sacred” in the sense that we all bow down and pray. What I mean to say is his process has integrity. And his work is densely layered with exposure. In the actual performance, my back is to the audience the entire time; in the video, I’m finally facing the audience. It was inevitable that he would find it necessary to reveal it. And I trust him to honor the work.

Lemon: And they are painful because they shouldn’t be made public. There seems to be a demand that they become public. It’s like the Giraffe Boys, too. When I watch those, I’m continually very disturbed. But it feels like it has to be made public.

Can I ask, because we never talk about this really: Is there consciousness in what you guys are working on, that includes acknowledgment that you are a black female body?

April Matthis: I feel like you talk to me a lot about that. And you talk too about how Okwui is like your avatar, physically, and how for you I look like a black woman, a black woman’s body in a way that is not like you.

Lemon: I don’t think I said any of that, but it’s great.

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April Matthis in rehearsal, Scaffold Room installation, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014  Photo: Bartholomew Ryan

Matthis: Oh, you totally said it! You said exactly that. (all laugh) Because I thought about it a lot! What is secret in this process? I bring it up because I feel I am very aware of that and the questions I have around that. They have been talked about with the costume and me being associated with the red-goat girl and it being necessary that what I wear is body-conscious. I do feel I’m in conversation with that and how we talk about Beyoncé, or how we talk, or don’t talk, about Adele or Amy Winehouse, or how we see your body, Okwui, when you take off your pants, or when we see you in the video and you’re also wearing body-conscious clothing.

I feel like there’s a question that’s being asked where we have to look at our bodies and draw from that whatever kind of associations you have or don’t have. That’s on the table. We’re reading Kathy Acker, and we’re talking about the body and explicit sexual material; all of that is in the container to be considered. I don’t know how guided it is or how open it is, but it’s definitely there and it’s something that I’m aware of in how we exist in that space together and not together. And then, there are images of Edna Carter and these other women, these nameless, sometimes almost faceless women, undulating in slow motion while we’re talking about Beyoncé or whatever. The black woman body is on display. Men, too! And there are images of innocuous little boys in crazy, giraffe heads against text about—

Lemon: Rape!

Matthis: Children raping children and tiny cocks getting slapped. That’s there. That’s there for the taking. That’s what makes you get uncomfortable, and it’s a tension you keep because it’s interesting. All of that is awful. And then there’s what the Scaffold Room is and whatever white space is.

Okpokwasili: As a brown body, our bodies are not neutral bodies. Not in this society that we’re in. If I’m Ralph’s avatar, I’m also masculinized. Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman”? The whippings, the mutilations, the hangings of black women with children barely off the breast, they do not occupy the space of the feminine.

Matthis: There’s another world, too, of the dancer’s body and what we read as a dancer’s body versus what we read as not-a-dancer’s-body. There’s a certain phenotype of long, lean, this-is-what-we-enjoy-looking-at versus this-is-something-we-have-to-look-at-a-different-way that is also there too. In a way it does neutralize our skin when all things being equal are black. I always wonder, what does this mean here and now?

Ryan: What is the “here” here?

Matthis: Here is the Walker. Here is New York City, Minneapolis, the dance world, and the names of people…. The vocabulary of people who know this world, and how honestly it’s not people in this restaurant that we are in who are going to be seeing this piece. And not the people who are going walking around on the High Line, they’re not coming to see this piece.

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Scaffold Room work-in-progress, EMPAC residency, June 2014. Photo: Ryan Jenkins

Okpokwasili: Many of these small, sophisticated audiences are largely white audiences, and they may not understand, or feel implicated by, the readings that have been compiled over centuries to land on our bodies. But even a black body, like my body, that may be in the phenotype of that long, lean, dancer body, it’s still a brown body. And it’s still in a space where it normally wouldn’t exist outside of a fetishized discourse. It’s a staged incursion from the outside.

Ryan: Given this idea of what is inevitably on display, how are you anticipating this happening in a white cube gallery at the Walker with probably a largely white audience? Is there any worry about how it might come to feel, like you’re under a microscope?

Matthis: I feel there’s no alternative Utopian space where I wish it were. I feel like it’s designed to be exactly that: to be exactly in a white box space at the Walker with a predominately white, Minnesotan audience, and not whatever the opposite would be, like at the bandshell in Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park. I guess that would be the opposite. I feel this is not for one audience or another. I guess, it might be for an audience that is interested in visual art or performance art and is used to that. For me, coming from mostly a theater background, what I appreciated most were the rules and expectations were not the same at all. I hardly ever got the notes that would be the type of notes I would get if this were a solo show in a regional theater. There are so many different decisions to make about arc, and character building, and emotional response that I’m so glad to be free of. Now if these things overlap or intersect coincidentally or intentionally you do get some of that.

What it’s about for me is shifting relationships with the audience, or with my relationship with the text, or just being inside the piece. It changes a thousand ways all the time as we go through it. It doesn’t feel finished, like a little nugget of a piece to sit and watch. It does feel more slippery than that. It feels like dance to me, and it feels durational. I don’t have any expectations of oh, because it’s here it’s going to be objectifying. People can read it that way, and I can have different moments where I feel exposed or vulnerable, but there’s different clockwork going on inside and outside.

Ryan: Can you talk about why it feels more like dance?

Matthis: It’s highly choreographed. It’s specific. It’s about space. It’s about my body in space at a particular time. There’s rhythm. It’s really about expression and movement in a way that you’re meant to look at. Every gesture that I make, or sigh, or whatever, to a certain extent is something I’m conscious of.

Ryan: As you’re improvising?

Matthis: The notes I get are more technical. Or they’ll be like, “that part was good!” or “how you said that was good.” But it’s not like theater where it would be “I’m not really sure what you’re thinking in this moment” or “I don’t believe that you’re really upset by that” or “this should make you angrier.” I never get anything like that. Something I have gotten “this should move you” or “this should move someone else.” It feels like a physical action either with my voice or with a gaze. Not to make it seem technical, but even just a way of thinking, and a mode of performing; sometimes I feel you’re my audience and that’s all this is: a musical concert. And then sometimes I feel like it is a lecture, and sometimes I feel like it’s anecdotal, and sometimes it feels like I’m going off script.

Ryan: Are you going off script at that moment, technically?

Matthis: No. (laughs). Sometimes things I said off script become a part of the script, because Ralph was like, “Oh, that’s great! Keep that in there.”

Ryan: Ralph’s identity as an artist and choreographer is very mutable, but the cliché of the choreographer is that they are totalitarian. April, what is your sense of your own autonomy as a creator within the project?

Matthis: There’s a lot a freedom and a lot of room, and that’s by design. Maybe in contrast to what Okwui’s piece is. There’s specificity in the coordination with the video, for example: timing of certain things, and accidents that must be repeated in the same way. It’s been drawn on my own execution in the room. It doesn’t feel foreign or imposed as much as it feels organic. Maybe that’s because Ralph knows I don’t have the dance vocabulary that most dancers you work with would have, and so it’s been kind of ad hoc or accidental. For instance, Ralph notes that on a break I’m skipping around because we’re in this big, giant space that we have all to ourselves. Then Ralph says, “I like that. Now do that in the piece.” (laughs).

Ryan: I love this idea of you as this ongoing magpie of gesture.

Lemon: It’s also interesting because she sees it as a dance piece, and I so don’t!

Matthis: Maybe because that’s my perception of you.

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Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Bartholomew Ryan

Lemon: No, it’s great! It’s like this whole is constantly being reconstituted.

Ryan: I approach this from a visual arts frame. It seems to me that this piece is holding up a certain inability to belong and a lack of desire to perform a structure that would be legible and comfortable from any one of those frames.

Lemon: Yeah. For me that’s the guiding principle behind making work, or my particular practice. You create these questions, or these problems, and out of them there are certain moments that I call accidents, which are not solutions to the problems but just enrich them. I wouldn’t define it as not belonging. For me, it’s closer to Fred Moten’s idea of the Fugitive. That there is a fleeting towards or away from something.That feels like an inherent quality to this work.

Matthis: And more empowered than asking to belong and falling short.

Lemon: I’m going to this white cube, and that’s thanks to the Walker, because you approached me with something that would be so perverse from the initial mind limitation, no museum space, no theater space. But then you were like, but what if it were an anti-museum space? How about if we had the biggest, whitest space we could find? And, I thought that’s so perverse. Yes. Let’s do it because it’s so problematic. That keeps the tension of it, and I’m not interested in it failing, but I am interested in having a really fraught conversation with the politics of both these worlds. I feel we are doing it in this work.

Ryan: That is bringing up a lot of problems for you in what way?

Lemon: In the not knowing, which is also a part of the fugitive work you don’t know. There’s the element of moving. I don’t know! It doesn’t fit in this. I don’t yet know how to make a work for the Burnet gallery space. I do know how to make a work for a theater and I’m trying not to make that work, and that feels counter-intuitive. But all this feels absolutely right. I don’t know how to direct, and I’m working with an actor—a really good one. What I told April early on, what I like about working with her is that I don’t really know her. I really know Okwui, but I like that contrast. There’s no hierarchy here. They’re both embodying the same space differently.

Matthis: Maybe my experimental theater background lends itself to less strict rules of what a relationship to an audience is or what a piece needs to be. So I’m comfortable with wherever and however we do it. If none of it is heard or if only part of it is observed, it still has its own logic. Your question: do I try to be true to it, or do I try to connect emotionally or connect to a character? What Ralph has written, whether or not that’s technical, I feel like this piece is a thing, and an object. and its own weird shape. As long as I’m making that shape, it doesn’t matter where that shape exists. It’s an object; it doesn’t matter if it’s hanging or if it’s on the floor or if it’s on the pedestal or if you happen upon it on a field, it’s still the object that it is. That’s all I’m working at.

Ryan: An object can be transported here or there.

Matthis: It can be looked at. It can be not looked at.

Ryan: But it changes from place to place too, right?

Matthis: It changes depending on who’s looking at it, when they’re looking at it, how they’re looking at it, how much of it they’re looking at. But, it is itself.

Lemon: And how the environment defines it. I find that very encouraging and comforting. Because April and Okwui are not the problem.

Ryan: (laughing) Right, right.

Lemon: And it’s not like I’m the problem either.

Ryan: What is the problem? Is there a problem?

Lemon: Yeah, the problem is how we inherently frame something in these particular worlds. We are going into a very defined, white, gallery space with which comes a social politic about how something is viewed and looked at. I do feel I am obliged to make sure that I am articulating as best I can that this can be looked at in a different way. It doesn’t have to be that binary argument we keep having of “Why is there a theater space in a white gallery space?”

That would be unfortunate if that’s as far as we got with this. (laughs) Or, on the other end, this is a bad performance art piece, right? (all laugh) I do feel the job, or my part of my work, in parallel is to define this thing for myself, and for April, and Okwui performatively and visually. It’s to make sure I’m creating a space where these questions are forefronted and generative. And yes, for some it’s going to shut them down. It’s going to be this or it’s going to be that. But, I do think that we can help that conversation by making it not so certain.

Ryan: Why is it called Scaffold Room?

Lemon: Because it is a scaffold! It is literal. It’s a frame. But to me, conceptually, frames are there and they’re not. If there is nothing they are framing, what are they framing? At the Walker I’ll have a frame that gets framed again by the white space, which is interesting to me. At EMPAC, where we developed the piece, we were framed in a theater. We tried to put fake white walls in the theater, but it still stayed dark.

Ryan: I like this mise en abyme. Is it theater being put on display, or is the gallery being put on display?

Lemon: Exactly!

Ryan: There’s a show opening at MHKA in Belgium in a few weeks called Don’t You Know Who I AM: Art After Identity Politics. Would you relate this work to projects in the 1990s that would have historically been identified with identity politics?

Lemon: No, and it’s a disturbing question, because I don’t want this piece to be that, but it is, in essence, part of that. I think it is a contemporary take on it. What I’m trying to do is go back to Moten’s idea of blackness: the idea of it not being post-racial, because it’s definitely racial. He’s talking about a space of blackness that he calls capacious, a place and time much more generous because lots of people can be inside that space. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. Yes, I’m using two black, female bodies and not a white, male body and an Asian body. There’s Kathy Acker, and there’s Amy Winehouse, and there’s Adele and, of course, Beyoncé.

Ryan: And there are also other people floating around. You could throw in Amiri Baraka and Genet; you could create a kind of cultural genotype.

Lemon: There’s Henry Miller.

Ryan: Moms Mabley.

Lemon: We are bringing out the fact that Henry Miller was up in Harlem studying and fucking around, I imagine. We’re talking black and beyond black. I feel what we are talking about is an acting-out culture.

Matthis: Black contains all of that. Black is not exclusionary. It’s everything. There’s a part in the text where we say, “White Brits are so white. Whiter than white Americans, so they can hold any color. That’s why they’re black.” (All laugh). But, the same could be said for blackness; it holds all the colors.

Lemon: Which is ridiculous.

Matthis: We’re all black.

Lemon: Yeah.

Matthis: It’s so much more interesting, but it doesn’t take away anything at all. It doesn’t reduce or try to neutralize. It’s vivid and powerful, everything and nothing. I always wonder, what’s the alternative? What would be less ’90s racial politics? What could possibly be less?

Ryan: I just did an exhibition 9 Artists, which was trying to think about this as well. The artists in the show embody and traverse certain identity codes including nationality, ethnicity, etc., they don’t ever truly align themselves with them. They use them when they’re convenient, or will inhabit them when they need collectivity for organization, but they also step away and reject them and create new forms of intimacy and community. Particularly in the context of contemporary art, (which has so blandly historicized this earlier period that we call “identity politics” as if you could historicize it), how does one now engage these questions without bogging oneself down in the inevitable dead ends within which these discourses have been mediated? I don’t know if bringing up that question automatically puts it into a certain kind of space?

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Ralph Lemon and Okwui Okpokwasili, Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Matthis: We talk about black and white, and there are times when we’ve talked about taking out some of that language. I don’t feel this piece is bogging itself down. Now, how it gets talked about and how it gets framed fields a question like that, or starting it off with these questions, leads us down that path. But I don’t think the piece itself is doing that. A big part of that are the projections and the Carter family. They’re so removed for me. My expectation for whatever I’m worrying about, not being or hoping will get translated, will just go out the window. It’s a goat head on a woman with a red dress on and she’s fumbling with her clothes. Its not like: Here we go again, another black woman in a red dress wearing a goat head. It’s just not a recognizable enough image to be something that—

Lemon: Well, they are the future. They are so present and so historical. But here’s the problem, Bart, we are still in the ’90s. We have to keep talking about this as it’s changing. It’s different from twenty years ago. There is still something nagging at being black, or gay, or a woman. We’re still living in a society.

Ryan: It’s still a structurally racist society.

Matthis: How successful can those pieces you describe say they were?

Lemon: We are not at a place and time where we can stop talking about it. It’s just, how do we talk about it now?

Ryan: Yes, but how do you talk about it within the art world that has successfully neutralized the last way it was talked about?

Lemon: Think of all the volumes. That’s the question: who has the megaphone at the moment?

9 Artists: Epilogue

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan has been sharing “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to […]

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan has been sharing “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it was view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is final installment of this 10-part journey.

Epilogue

I tell you what a real VIP is
A face that never was nor will be kissed
-Sinéad O’Connor

In putting together this exhibition, I started with a title and a number of artists whose work I was interested in, and whose approach to art in general I felt was challenging and provocative within the field and more broadly. One of the methodologies has been to present these different approaches in proximity and then see what emerges. Throughout the essay, I rarely make pronouncements about the artists as a group, but I am prepared to do that a little now. When I write of complicity, I understand that I am in a sense talking about power, and how artists relate themselves to it. There is a politics to acknowledging that one is positioned in a world of implication, and this acknowledgment can produce surprising intimacies and routes to understanding. When Yael Bartana folds into her project the proud voice of a man whose defense of Israeli militarism and exceptionalism is manifestly opposed to the positions she has developed in her work, she is creating a kind of threshold. We can listen to him, and understand his positions; even as he has taken a step into her structure, one has a sense of possibility. Some years ago, at an opening in LA, Danh Vo was approached by an old white American man who invited him to visit his home. Vo gladly did so. There he found a trove of materials from the man’s time working for the Rand Corporation in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including many voyeuristic and eroticized photographs of young Vietnamese men. I think there is something significant about this moment in time, where rather than decry the colonial and sexual politics of the man, Vo befriended him. He exhibited the photographs almost as if they were portraits of the youth in Vietnam that he never actually had. He became the subject of this erotic gaze, and also duplicated it, creating a call and response with the author and the subjects of the images, one that acknowledged the implicit power dynamics but also sidestepped the dead-end binaries that attended them.1

I am often surprised within the art world—which is, after all, such an open space—by the degree to which people simplify complex ideas based on ideological assumptions that they do not question. I don’t want to relitigate battles that have been fought over the past thirty to forty years in art, but I do think it significant that there is such a resurgence of interest in art from the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, particularly work associated with identity politics. There was a sense toward the end of that period, which many people associate with the aftermath of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, that people got tired of the subject position battles. There was a backlash as artists, critics, and institutions grew weary of defending their privilege and more or less decided that the whole identity politics thing was over.

Attendant with that has been a simplification of the art of the time, as if somehow it was lacking in formal or material complexity, and was merely artists stating self-essentializing positions as a way to make space for marginalized positions within an art world that had hitherto excluded them. And yet, of course, much of the art of that era continues to inform and enrich the present. While I am not suggesting that the artists in this exhibition represent Identity Politics 2.0 (as if identity politics ever ended, for that matter; it is everywhere, all the time, de facto, and we are all participants), they do represent artists who are unafraid to engage the world in broad and ambitious ways, and who deploy their identity, or at least a conscious acknowledgment of its existence, within the work. What feels different to me is that they all reconsider notions of loyalty to a group away from identification based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and toward some less codified organization of alliances. This happens most overtly in Bartana’s JRMiP (Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland) that welcomes, in effect, anyone who in theorist Julia Kristeva’s famous formulation feels like “strangers to ourselves.” But it’s also there in Hito Steyerl, who pits the organized oasis of the gated community, with its silhouettes aimlessly enjoying a purgatory of leisure time, against the dancing pixels of the wide-open desert who disarm US helicopters and fly away with drones. It’s there with Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who uses a productive animism to commune with the object of the graph, decoupling it from its utilitarian function in the service of the narrow profit-based metrics of ArtFacts, and setting up a subjective model for engagement with the world through selective and strategic over-identifications with the object of one’s oppression. Nástio Mosquito’s “army of the individuals” is about a shifting contextual range of allegiances, a receptivity and openness to alliance, and—dare I say it—a relativistic embrace of community formed around elusive but contagious moments of participation and intimacy. Even Bjarne Melgaard’s gay separatist terrorist group is less about a trenchant ideological position than it is about presenting, through excess, the redundancy of mainstream notions of intimacy, collectivity, and behavior. When Liam Gillick asks the visitor to his exhibition at Venice, “How are you going to behave?” it’s as if he is throwing down the gauntlet, saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about you … if you are willing.” He has in that moment, to my mind at least, laid himself bare, and what you make of it is partially dependent on your capacity for empathy or generosity. The you that he addresses personalizes the interaction, turns the visitor from an identification with a group—here possibly the art world cognoscenti drifting in an opinion-fueled haze from one pavilion to another—to an engagement with their own individual subjectivity and agency. Gillick’s question could be echoed by Mosquito’s “What are you going to do with your education, become part of a structure or build a structure?”

An acknowledgment of one’s complicity and ability to display a self-awareness in relation to the structures one navigates, of course, is not in itself a panacea for forging an optimistic path into the future. But it also can’t be ignored as a position. It certainly proceeds with a greater integrity and sense of possibility than work that assumes that language and culture and the artist, for that matter, are transparent carriers of meaning—imagine, for example, an exhibition that is titled 9 Artists because there are nine artists in it. I like to think that everything is more complicated and then simpler than it initially appears. From the point of view of subjectivity and representation, we are entering an age of ever-increasing surveillance—with chilling effects on individual expression and the nurturing of difference, but also of access to multiple competing and elucidatory sources of information. It’s a moment of opportunity, of increasingly distributed and enigmatically enacted democratic impulses. It feels like a pivot point in global history, where everything is both possible and impossible.

# # #

1 The photographs by anthropologist Joseph M. Carrier were first exhibited in Vo’s exhibition Good Life at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, in 2007. They were accompanied by other items from Carrier’s archive, including a letter, a business card, and a camera (see plate 15 in this catalogue). The photographs and camera were displayed in elegant spot-lit vitrines surrounded by gold flock wallpaper. The press release accompanying the exhibition was written by Carrier and told how he had come to meet Vo in LA: “I immediately felt attracted to him and knew that I wanted to have some kind of close relationship.” And indeed, Vo and Carrier developed a friendship in subsequent years. See Kirsty Bell, “Danh Vo,” Frieze Journal (September 2007), accessed August 1,2013.

In on the Joke: Triple Candie on Donelle Woolford

From time to time the Walker invites outside voices to share perspectives on art and culture. Today, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, who together run Philadelphia-based Triple Candie, share their thoughts on Donelle Woolford, a work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial that featured a fictitious African American artist performing a 1977 Richard Pryor stand-up routine. […]

The Whitney Biennial's page promoting Donelle Woolford

The Whitney Biennial’s page promoting Donelle Woolford

From time to time the Walker invites outside voices to share perspectives on art and culture. Today, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, who together run Philadelphia-based Triple Candie, share their thoughts on Donelle Woolford, a work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial that featured a fictitious African American artist performing a 1977 Richard Pryor stand-up routine. A creation of the white artist Joe Scanlan, Donelle Woolford’s inclusion prompted the YAMS collective to withdraw from the biennial. As guest writers, Bancroft and Nesbett’s opinions do not reflect those of the Walker Art Center.

A lot of ink has been spilled on Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford project. Allow us to spill some more.

We first learned of the project and met Joe in 2006 when he stopped in to our Harlem gallery to see a show we had curated on a fictional artist named Lester Hayes. As it turned out, Joe and his wife lived near us in Harlem, and in time we started socializing. Woolford, at that point, was but a shadow of her later self. Some two years later, we commissioned a short text for art on paper, a magazine we owned, to begin to critically unpack the project. It was the first text written about Woolford in a US magazine. After that, we more or less forgot about her.

Woolford came back into our life this past February when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit informed us that they had booked Woolford’s Dick’s Last Stand routine to coincide with an exhibition we had curated there titled James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death. And in Minneapolis in early July—a month after Woolford performed at Midway Contemporary Art—we heard that Lester Hayes was being cited in conversations about Woolford.

We are critical of Joe’s project, but we aren’t summarily dismissive. Aspects of it bring to the surface essential conditions of the contemporary art experience. These include the scripting of value-producing biographical narratives (e.g. the fetishization of birthplaces, or the pretensions of multi-city residency), the exhuming and critical reevaluation of history, the prop as artwork and the artwork as prop, the exhibition as stage-set, and the combination of all these elements into a performative gesamtkunstwerk that may or may not involve the presence of an actor. Despite the relationship these issues have to our own work, and our appreciation for many of Joe’s other projects, some things just don’t sit right with us here. It is hard to put it in words but we think the problems have to do with context, communication, and commerce.

Let’s start with context. Woolford was conceived in a pedagogical culture (Yale University’s School of Art, where Joe was then teaching) that values aesthetic autonomy over social considerations, as Coco Fusco pointed out in The Brooklyn Rail. Her career was then nurtured by museums and galleries—specifically, Galerie Valentin in Paris, Wallspace in Chelsea—that espouse similar values and promote a certain academic conceptualism that reinforces the aesthetics and cultural values of privilege (a lingering WASP-y penchant for double-speak and understatement?). For this reason alone, the cries of minstrelsy heard from some are likely to haunt this project for years to come. It isn’t simply that this is a white artist ventriloquizing a black-actor-playing-a-black-artist, but rather that this performance is being presented in settings that have, intentionally or not, mostly white audiences. If the project had made its way to the 2014 Whitney Biennial via a different route, the fundamental social and ethical tensions would still be there, but they might have played out differently.

As for the issue of communication: From the start, Joe was cagey with the public about his relationship to Woolford. For her solo debut in Paris, in 2007, the press released noted both that Woolford was “a narrative by Joe Scanlan” and that she had served as his alter-ego for a period of years. But for Woolford’s New York debut the following year, Joe wanted the audience to experience the exhibition without knowing either that she was fictitious or that she was his creation. The press release made no mention of Joe, and when we attended the opening reception he asked that we not shatter the illusion for other attendees. Anyone paying close attention that night would have recognized that something was unusual. For example, as we were chatting with Woolford, trying to break the actor out of character (we couldn’t), she suddenly excused herself and another woman claiming to be Donelle Woolford took her place and continued our conversation. The experience was uncanny, but it wasn’t enough to communicate to a visitor that neither woman was who she said she was, or that they had both been cast by an artist named Joe Scanlan.

Similarly, when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit booked Woolford for her Richard Pryor routine, its curator of public programs did so through a man named Joe Scanlan, who said he was Woolford’s agent. What the curator, who has a background in music and film, learned about Woolford was that she was an artist participating in the Whitney Biennial, that she was born in Detroit, and that she was doing a national performance tour. Joe didn’t tell him that Woolford herself was an act, and the curator didn’t think to ask.

The reason we find this problematic is that it reinforces rather than effectively critiques codes of behavior based on insider knowledge that are used to accumulate or maintain power, for social and economic benefit. In other words, the Woolford project has two audiences: a club of the initiated who know of the fiction and those who experience it naively—those who are in on the joke and those who are its butt. In that sense, the project divides. Divisive projects aren’t in and of themselves bad—we would agree with the art historian Claire Bishop on that—but projects can divide through open provocation or through the revelation of a deceit, and we think that people, even artists, have an ethical responsibility to commit to their position and own their actions. If you chose deceive, don’t ever let anyone know.

Friends of ours have countered this criticism by pointing to the issue of Aprior magazine published in Belgium in 2007 in which Joe talked with Raimundas Malašauskas about Woolford and was photographed with her, or the article we commissioned in art on paper. The argument is that Joe let the cat was out of the bag long ago and that anyone who did a little research could easily learn the back story. That is true, but our response is that these sources of information are consumed by few—let’s face it, the audience for Aprior magazine in the US is a tiny segment of an already small segment of gallery-goers and people who read certain art magazines. Even within the various art worlds of privilege, there is an invisible velvet rope separating those in the know from those not in the know.

This all begs the commerce question: “Is it OK to monetize deceit?” The obvious answer is no, but this case isn’t so obvious. Those who are buying Woolford’s Richard Prince-like paintings are ostensibly in on the joke. As for everyone else—does it matter?

Triple Candie is a Philadelphia-based entity, run by art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, that curates and produces exhibitions about art but devoid of it. In 2005, in their Harlem gallery, they presented an exhibition titled Lester Hayes: Selected Work, 1962–1975. The artist was a deceased, bi-racial, post-minimalist sculptor. The art historians are white. The press release and wall texts noted that he was fictional. The gallery discarded the exhibition’s contents during deinstallation.

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Yael Bartana

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Yael Bartana Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (video still). Photo courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw.

Yael Bartana Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (video still). Photo courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it was on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the ninth installment of this 10-part journey.

VIII. We Will Be Strong in Our Weakness

In 2008 I was assisting on an exhibition in New York City that debuted at Parsons The New School for Design a few weeks before the presidential election. Titled OURS:Democracy in the Age of Branding, it featured a fairly global array of artists, many with activist leanings, and was an attempt to look at the political sphere from the point of view of the manufacturing and manipulation of desire.1

One participant was Israeli artist Yael Bartana, with whom I helped organize a performance in Union Square on a sunny fall afternoon. The piece was based on her video Wild Seeds (2005),2 in which a group of teenagers roll around on a hill overlooking a green scenic valley. They are playing some kind of rough and tumble game—it’s difficult to determine the rules, but they are clumped tightly together, some screaming, some gripping each other while others try to pull them apart. It’s a two-channel video; the second is a black screen with white subtitles that translate the Hebrew cries: “Desert the army, traitors,” “A Jew does not deport another Jew,” “Shift up a bit (girl grunts).” There’s tenderness to the piece; despite the violence, the kids seem involved in a shared secret, an intimacy that transfers itself to the viewer. In a recent publication, the artist describes the origins of the work:

[…] created by a group of young Israeli activists, some of them just before their IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] recruitment, others future objectors. I met the group through my niece, who is now nineteen. She was among the few young people who refused to be recruited by the Israeli army. The video was taken in the Occupied Territories, in the beautiful landscape of the Prat settlement, but the game may be played any place and at any time the group chooses. Named “Evacuation of Gilad’s Colony,” the game was the youngsters’ response to the forced withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Occupied Territories and the resultant violent confrontation between the soldiers and settlers at Gilad’s Farms in 2002.3

If anyone remembers that confrontation, whatever your political position in relation to the Occupied Territories, the withdrawal from Gaza initiated by then prime minister Ariel Sharon was fairly unprecedented. Video footage showed rows of seated settlers with arms entwined challenging the IDF, who pulled them one by one from their ranks to cries of “traitor.” The historical violence accompanying the vision of Jew against Jew was moderated (or perhaps accentuated) in a fascinating way by the obvious respect and tact with which the forces of the state went about their business. Here then were some kids, who in reenacting the whole affair were perhaps mocking it, puncturing the national mythology of unity of intentions and asking new questions about identification. But they were also duplicating by default the conditions of the event—the lines between oppressor and the oppressed became blurred; the ultimate sense being that of people locked within a structure, the rules for which have been ordained, which must play itself out whatever their personal feelings on the matter.

A constructed scenario then, found by the artist, was documented and translated into an artwork and then transferred to a performance on the concrete landing of an idyllic New York urban park, itself associated through the years with various activist movements. Titled Wild Seeds in America, the game commenced at Union Square, about fifteen of us clumped on some dusty blanket. We had been instructed to occasionally throw out sentences such as “No, we won’t move” or “You can’t force us.” I remember starting it fairly nonchalantly, surrounded by a gathering random audience, and thinking that I should be careful not to hit my head (the game was potentially lethal, by the way; I had helped secure the permit, so that was another concern). Two big guys began patiently pulling us out, looking for the weak link, starting on the edges, like friendly wolves.

About fifteen minutes in, it became obvious that this was not a game but an unfurling tragedy: each time someone left the group you could feel the gasp of the crowd, feel a heaviness and loss. The stakes became higher, the imperative to remain together stronger. As the wolves tired, a member of the crowd joined them, gleefully participating in the dismantling. At some point I was extracted, fingers ringing as they were unclasped from someone’s leg. I stood with the crowd, watching as it came down to two women holding each other tightly. They were being pried apart when one of them screamed, “You’re hurting me.” The wolf unclasped her, and she quickly grabbed her comrade again, clamping in tight, laughing. But yeah, it was a pyrrhic victory.

Bartana had a solo exhibition opening at PS1 MoMA that day. Later, a number of us sat in the museum in Queens watching Wild Seeds (the real one) and understanding that there was something epic about these human relations. What, I wondered, had Bartana achieved by her decontextualization? The original piece involved an abstraction of a real event, but this transferral to Union Square was completely displaced from the original sociopolitical context. Why was the structure she set up so enervating? In earlier videos, Bartana made selective documentations of real world events, choosing often-ritualized aspects of Israeli society, and observing them. What perhaps was not so evident then, but what became more obvious from Wild Seeds on, is a key theme in the artist’s work: an investigation and then intervention in the processes by which communities convene, subjects are formed, national mythologies maintained, gendered behaviors enforced.4

All that good stuff that goes into the making of who we are or believe we are as people in distinct places at distinct times. With Wild Seeds in America, the artist had created a very simple social experiment; each participant in the event in the park naturally identified with their role, and despite the looseness of the ideological underpinnings of various positions, felt a desire to unify, to protect, to be part of and to defend a group.

Perhaps this interest in how groups form themselves is partly influenced by the fact that Bartana has spent much of the last decade outside of Israel, first in the Netherlands, then Poland, and now Berlin. In a recent conversation, she spoke of the condition of being an immigrant: “The writer Eva Hoffman said that every immigrant is an amateur anthropologist. You’re always an outsider as an immigrant: you look at society in a different way. The same thing can partially happen when you step outside of your own nation and look back at it.” Bartana became increasingly interested in the inherent conflicts of Israeli society and identity, the Utopian promise of socialized collectivity and unity offered by the state’s formation and Zionist rhetoric, together with the inherent blind spot: the problem of displacement that necessarily attended the formation and maintenance of a state formed around Jewish identity. Where initially these investigations were focused specifically on Israeli identity, they became abstracted to a more general interest in how individuals and groups are socialized.

Yael Bartana’s and Europe will be stunned. Neon. Photo courtesy the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam.

Bartana has taken up this impulse to create scenarios that border on social engineering in subsequent works, but always with an eye toward creating a self-awareness in participants that mitigates any sense of pure (i.e., fascist) manipulation. Such works take on a feeling of reality through the artist’s clever casting of real political and social figures and keen attention to, and reuse of, past documentary conventions. The most celebrated project within this body of work is and Europe will be stunned (2007–2011), which recently entered the Walker’s collection. It is significant in and of itself that the work debuted in a dramatic installation at the 54th Venice Biennale, where the artist represented the Polish Pavilion, the first non-Pole to do so.

At the time of the project’s conception, Bartana had spent time in Warsaw, and noted a nostalgia among the intelligentsia there for the Jewish culture absent since WWII and subsequent pogroms. The works document the rise of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), a real group founded by the artist, but with a fictional history that the videos relate. In Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (2007), a charismatic young man played by Polish activist Sławomir Sierakowski, founder and chief editor of Krytyka Polityczna magazine and a co-author of the speech, stands in the empty and overgrown Olympic Stadium in Warsaw, surrounded by a handful of children dressed up as scouts (or proto-Fascists, depending on your point of view). Standing on a small dais, with a 1940s-style microphone, white shirt, red tie, and a leather coat cast about his shoulders, the speaker makes an impassioned speech that echoes around the stadium. He calls out to “Jews” and declares that Poland is haunted by their absence. He describes an old woman who wakes at night experiencing nightmares provoked by the repressed memory of how the Polish people betrayed their Jewish neighbors. He declaims, “Let the three million Jews that Poland has missed stand by her bed and finally chase away the demons. Return to Poland. To your country. … This is a call, not to the dead, but to the living.” Meanwhile the children use stencils to spell out large chalk letters on the grass, and the camera pulls back to give a sweeping view: “3,300, 000 Jews can change the life of 40, 000, 000 Poles.”6 The speech is a cry for diversity, a statement that challenges both the Polish history of anti-Semitism and its current rising tide of nationalism and raises provocative questions about two key and at times competing visions of Jewish identity: the diasporic versus the Zionist. The aesthetics of the film borrow from Leni Riefenstahl’s legendary Nazi propaganda documentaries of the Nuremberg Rallies, such as Triumph of the Will (1935), full of pulsing crowds, impassioned Aryan youth, and rhetorically savvy Nazis. Yet, rather than duplicate Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the speaker embraces the Jews as crucial to a healthy Polish culture. And rather than address a throng of supporters, here the man receives the attention of a few children. The film ends with the leader and the children marching a motley and disorganized crew around the stadium.

In the second film, Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) (2009), the JRMiP has become an emerging force within Polish society. Inspired by the words of its founder, a group of Jewish immigrants labor to build a kibbutz in downtown Warsaw on the site of the former Jewish ghetto. The film is highly idealized, featuring visual stylizations (close-ups of workers staring optimistically into the distance) and an upbeat soundtrack borrowed from Zionist propaganda films of the 1930s. The effect is of a people determined to build a new life, steadfast in their faith in the possibilities of the future. The enthusiastic laborers design a flag that combines the Star of David with the Polish eagle; they learn Polish, and seemingly embrace their new life. Yet all is not quite as it seems; the kibbutz is surrounded by barbed wire, and it becomes a symbol of communitarian liberty, while also conjuring concentration camps (keeping people in or defense (keeping people out). At the film’s close, elderly Polish citizens stare at the kibbutz warily. Perhaps they are not as ready for the return as one might hope: there are ghosts, after all.

With the final film, Zamach (Assassination) (2011), the movement reaches full maturity and self-awareness. The leader has been assassinated and the film features his funeral and memorial. Here the JRMiP has reached out beyond its Jewish beginnings and mushroomed into a diverse, multicultural, and hopeful community. They demand that identification move beyond ethnic, nationalist, and other forces, making the values of displacement, otherness, and independence the key rules for a revised notion of citizenship. Walking through Warsaw in a mourning parade, they dress in uniforms reminiscent of Fascism, yet the group is too diverse and too individualized to be identified with that movement. Young and old, people with tattoos, nose rings, and yes, even blond hair and blue eyes convene to mourn the loss of their leader. But for the uniforms, it could be a march by Occupy Wall Street; there is a distinct queering of the properties of Fascism, and an almost flatfooted optimism in the possibilities for change. This army of individuals is unified around the manifesto of the JRMiP, which seeks to “revivify the early Zionist Phantasmagoria” by creating a new home in Poland. It insists, “We direct our appeal not only to Jews. We accept into our ranks 195 all those for whom there is no place in their homelands—the expelled and the persecuted. There will be no discrimination in our movement. We shall not ask about your life stories, check your residence cards, or question your refugee status. We shall be strong in our weakness.”7

The formation of the JRMiP becomes allegorical for the formation of a state, attendant with many of the same foundational myths (a call to arms around a specific goal, an early enthusiasm tempered by tragedy and martyrdom, a new unity born from maturity and suffering), yet Bartana injects a strong sense of pragmatism into the work that militates against the utopian rhetoric. Or, to put it another way, she makes clear her own acknowledgment of the proposal’s utopianism, offering space for voices that reject it on its merits. The artist invites three speakers to address the crowd, and gives them carte blanche to make of the JRMiP’s proposals what they will. Two are Israeli nationals who temper the JRMiP’s utopian call with the historical weight of the Holocaust. Alona Frankel, an Israeli writer and illustrator of some note, relates her biography as a Jewish Pole who departed in 1949 during a renewed spate of anti-Semitism. She eloquently demands the return of her Polish citizenship that was violently stolen from her, while making clear she has zero desire to return. Frankel is followed by Israeli journalist Yaron London, who steadfastly mocks the idea of a Jewish return to Europe, calling it a “brainless task.” He continues, “For us, the Jews, this isn’t a hopeful promise, it is a nightmare.” He celebrates the strength of the Israeli army, declares that the Jew will never be defenseless again, and mocks the naiveté of the JRMiP. He concludes, “The Jewish diaspora, ladies and gentlemen, ended in Auschwitz.”8

His speech is compelling, and one can certainly see his point, yet as he talks a woman emerges from the crowd, suitcase in hand, and approaches the stage, standing below him, looking steadfastly into the camera. She is the Polish Rivka, a fictional character that has haunted the films through their three iterations; she is the “ghost of return” that refuses to go away, the embodiment of the Holocaust but also a spirit of renewal. Trapped in the loop of history, she says in an earlier monologue, “I am here to weave the torture of identity from the threads of forgetfulness.” In the context of Bartana’s film, Rivka is the enigmatic ghost who reaches beyond language, who bypasses the rational rhetoric of London. She might represent equally the right of return of the Palestinians, of the Jews, of citizenship, of memory, of a certain kind of hope or justice. Perhaps it is with Rivka that we find Roelstraete’s theology? I hope so. Whatever the case, Bartana has woven from the tortured strands of identity a trilogy that ultimately opposes itself to nationalist posturing, that seeks to suture and expose the wounds of history, that takes language out of the mouths of the eloquent and passes it into a cavernous realm of complexity and possibility.

1The exhibition OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding was hosted and organized by Parsons The New School for Design and curated by Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. It launched the center’s 2008–2009 program cycle titled Branding Democracy. Along with Jakob Schillinger, I served as a curatorial assistant for the exhibition. Accessed June 10, 2013.

2Bartana’s performance Wild Seeds in America (2008) took place in New York’s Union Square on October 19, 2008. It was commissioned for the exhibition by Parsons The New School for Design.

3Yael Bartana, och Europa kommer att häpna = and Europe will be stunned, Moderna Museet Malmö Utställningskatalog Series no. 357 (Malmö and Berlin: Moderna Museet Malmö and Revolver Publishing, 2010), 24.

4In a conversation convened with Bartana and several others in Frieze art journal in 2004 to discuss the relationship between art and documentary, it emerged that they had little in common: some intervened within the fabric of reality to construct their scenarios, others such as Bartana apparently did not. Yet, when artist Anri Sala asked, “Why are we all around this table? Our practices are all very different,” Bartana responded, “But we have one thing in common. We are not documentary filmmakers.” What precisely the artist meant by that was not perhaps so clear at the time, though it certainly seems prophetic now. See Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert, “‘What’s the Difference?’: Discussing the relationship between art and documentary filmmaking with artists Yael Bartana, Annika Eriksson, Anri Sala and Gitte Villesen,” Frieze 84 (June–August 2004), accessed June 10, 2013.

5Yael Bartana, “A Conversation Between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat & Charles Esche,” in och Europa kommer att häpna = and Europe will be stunned, 47.

6See Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), YouTube video, posted by “Yael Bartana” on March 5, 2012.

7See Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), YouTube video, posted by “Yael Bartana” on March 5, 2012.

8The speech, which lasts about five minutes, closes with the following statement: “Voices are heard today saying the Zionist Movement was conceived in sin, that it is outdated and has no future, that it is on its deathbed. The Holocaust, it has been said, indeed took place in Europe, but the reparations for it are at the expense of the Palestinians. Dear members of the movement, for all your good will, you fail to understand the simple, incontestable fact that the state of Israel and its army are the only guarantee against another Holocaust. The Jewish Diaspora, Ladies and Gentlemen, ended in Auschwitz. May you rest in peace, dear innocent Pole.”

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Renzo Martens

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Renzo Martens’s Episode III 2008 (video still). Courtesy the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, between May 9 and July 13, 2014. Here is the eighth installment of this 10-part journey.

VII. Enjoy Please Poverty

Renzo Martens has become known over the last decade for two documentary works in which he plays a central role. In Episode I (2003) he travels to Chechnya, ostensibly to document the fallout of the war between Russian soldiers and Chechen militants. To make the feature-length Episode III, he spent two years in the Congo, one of the world’s most ravaged and impoverished countries, and set out to prove that poverty is in fact the region’s greatest resource. The films each function as Western meditations on Western narcissism, with Martens uncomfortably intervening in the action, making the subject of the film as much himself as any of the material conditions he is investigating.

The press release accompanying Martens’s 45-minute film Episode I began as follows:

Renzo Martens pushes his way into Chechnya—alone, illegal, and carrying an Hi8 camera. He takes the role of the ubiquitous, yet forever undefined, television viewer whose attention everyone is fighting for. Against a background of ruins and bombings, he does not ask refugees, UN employees, and rebels how they feel. Those stories are already known. They already play a role. Instead he asks them how they think he feels.1

Martens spends time with NGO workers, wanders the refugee camps interacting with people, visits the city of Grozny, and surveys the ruins. At a checkpoint a Russian soldier laughs at the impertinence of Martens’s question, “What do you think of me,” responding, “You’re just an idiot looking for adventure.” Clearly an outsider in the situation, the artist exploits his own position as a documentarian to gain access to people, homes, and situations, with the subjects of the film assuming that he is there with a “theme” in mind, an approach that will at the very least raise awareness, create images to join the countless others that reveal the trauma to viewers elsewhere. Used to being hailed as victims, the refugees are both understanding of the mechanisms of aid and the need to be viewed within a regime of humanitarianism, and also tired of it all, suspicious ultimately of the intentions of those who capture them within their pixelated prison and depart satiated.

As indicated in the release, Martens is not presenting a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with its implicit call and response to the subject to narrativize their exploitation and misery for a sympathetic audience in lands far away. His is more personality driven, bordering on the fly-in-the-ointment characteristics of a Michael Moore, Louis Theroux, or even Werner Herzog. Yet, unlike these directors who seek ultimately to use their personalities to drive forward a theme that will prove elucidatory in some way, either revealing a deep universal truth about humankind (Herzog) or raising awareness around a tangible issue (Moore), Martens makes the subject of his films himself. By extension, he is the consumer, because his distracted, narcissistic behavior becomes a correlative for persons who engage with television or film as just one of many incidents throughout their day, for whom the documentation of trauma is conceived as both an address meant to raise awareness but also a form of entertainment, a mode of communication that always constructs the viewer as somehow outside looking in, rather than implicated and somehow always also responsible for that which is being viewed. (more…)

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